Come to the dark side

13 03 2007

Consider this scenario.

A door. Two people come up at the same time. One person steps back to let the other person pass, saying, “After you!”

Now this one.

A door. Two people come up at the same time. The man steps back to let the woman pass, saying, “Ladies first!”

Yes, we’re back here again. I was going to talk about this for International Women’s Day, but life intervened, so better late than never, right? This was sparked by Boff, or more specifically the comments thread. I started to write a response (always one to rise to the bait, even though I try not to be, I just can’t let bloody well alone, can I? No. I can’t) but it got too long, so here it is.

The first thing to establish is that I’m not after some sort of militant uprising against men who let women go first/lift heavy things for them/other “chivalrous” actions, or even for you, reading this, to stop doing or receiving those actions. Social mores are hardly the sort of thing you brush off like so much rice flour. I get it. It’s polite. No, it really is. In general Australian society today, it is a polite action.

Why is it polite? When you are polite to someone, you are saying you understand the expectations of your shared culture, and in conforming to those expectations you are recognising them as part of that culture and showing them respect within it. Politeness, manners, etiquette, call it what you will, is basically societal lubricant. Off-topic but this is part of the reason cross-cultural communication can be so tricky – the majority of people aren’t socialised to be rude to other people, but we can come away from interactions with people from a different culture thinking they were rude. Because the reference points are different. My polite is not your polite.

If we take the idea of politeness being a norm of social or cultural behaviour to show respect, and apply it to our “chivalry” scenario, what do we get? Something like: we have a societal expectation that to be polite, men should be chivalrous, and women should accept those actions graciously. And of course, the converse holds: people operating outside those expectations are being impolite.

What’s the problem? Surely politeness and respect are good things. In fact, it’s downright rude of me to suggest that by being polite, you are doing something wrong. So much so that you are probably feeling a tad defensive, and I’m feeling a bit lonely up on my soapbox. But it all comes good in the end, so stick with me.

The problem is that it’s an expectation, or an action made on the basis of gender. It’s saying that men should act in a particular way, and that women should act in another. Which means that it’s sexism. It’s banal, or reflexive/occulted, but it’s there. Politeness can be about being polite, respecting the other person, without recourse to discrimination.

Let’s look at a different scenario.

There’s a heavy box. One person is about to lift it. Another person comes along and says, “I’m much stronger than you. Let me do that for you.”

Compared to this.

There’s a heavy box. A woman is about to lift it. A man comes along and says, “Women shouldn’t lift heavy boxes! Let me do that for you.”

The first is polite. The second is sexism. There’s respect there, but it’s founded on an expectation of women as weak, incapable and in need of rescuing.

So what are you supposed to do about it? Are you supposed to be able to tell the difference between polite and sexist all the time? What if there’s an equal portion of both? As a man, do you try to overcome every chivalrous impulse that’s been drilled into you since birth, and run the risk of people thinking you’re a rude bastard? As a woman, do you view every act of politeness with suspicion and screech “chauvinist pig” at every man who gives way?

Of course not. If you’ve made it this far through the post, you’ll already be doing what I wanted this post to achieve. You’ll be aware. You’ll recognise certain behaviours of your own, or of others, as gender-motivated. It’s called banal sexism because these things are so everyday, such a part of the normal culture, that we don’t even see them. And in not seeing them, we don’t realise they’re a problem. A big sign that says XY CHROMOSOMES ONLY? That’s easy to see, and to combat. A vague submerged idea that women are incapable and require protection? A bit trickier to address.

This sounds like part of a wider conspiracy to hunt down all forms of human politeness and force men into subjectivity -why do we even need to address this, or see it as an issue? Because you can be polite without it being gender-based. Shouldn’t showing respect for people be, well, people-based? And I would rather be labelled a soapboxing feminazi ranting about imaginary issues than to find myself progressing through my career, working as hard as the men in the same position, yet receiving only 70% of the salary, for no real reason that I can identify.

More radical change? Consider that less than 200 years ago, it was legal to own another human being. Less than 100 years ago, women couldn’t vote. They feel pretty set to us, in the moment, but social mores change, with time, and awareness. And I believe that banal -isms generally fade in the light of some reflection on attitudes and culture.

After you.

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13 responses

13 03 2007
lan

yay sherd I couldn’t agree more far mor considered than I have time to be.The thing that I find really frustrating about the whole thing is that if I don’t want to play along for whatever reason (because I like lifting boxes, or I’m concerned about what’s inside it, or I have specific ideas about where it should go/how it should get there) I become the unreasonable, ungracious feminazi, rather than someone who just wants to get on with their day without interference.

13 03 2007
Anonymous

W/out being too critical I was under the impression that sexism was being against or treating poorly/unfairly someone based soley on their sex.Now, if I can obviously lift a box much easier than a woman (and thereby increase occupational health and safety) wouldnt it behove me to do so? It’s not to say that a woman cant lift the box but is in fact safer for me (a bloke) to do so.Also on a completely sexist note. It never hurts to earn brownie points for those days when we blokes inevitably put our foot in it. Whatever “it” is.

13 03 2007
MadameBoffin

hmmmm. You have made me think Sherd. I can absolutely see the point you make. I think your politeness with respect to person rather than gender makes sense but… it strikes me as very PC? “spokesperson” rather than “spokesman”/”spokeswoman”? I think the problem I have with feminism is that it often feels like women trying to be men rather than women celebrating their femalehood. So, in a way, politeness with respect to person rather than gender strikes me rather as a denial of the fact that I’m a woman and implies that being a woman is bad because someone doing a certain way just because I’m a woman is bad. You say that it’s sexist for women to act one way and for men to act another. But our brains are biologically different – we think differently. That’s been scientifically proven, so wouldn’t it stand to reason that we do act differently? Why is that a problem? But if it is a problem then, of course, the course of action is to act the same, like you say, but then what’s the basis for this sameness? Male behaviour. You’ll find that, if we act the same, then it’s women acting the same as men, not men acting the same as women or men and women both agreeing to act different but in the same way. How can feminists advocate that? In the end though, I think that men are equal to women – we’re the same species. We have the same potential. The same intelligence. The same capabilities. But, for all that, I still like the doors being opened for me, etc. Why? I don’t know. I just do. What I find frustrating is that, for this, I feel like a betrayer of my own gender – that I’m ignorant of latent sexism or don’t know any better. Anyway, that’s my 2c. And I think your opinion is a good one 🙂

13 03 2007
Sherd

Hey lan, that sounds familiar. Do you think we should be friends and perhaps raise our children on a commune together?Anon, first, I can tell it’s you from your writing style, Spartacus. In answer to your questions/statements:- yes, sexism is about decisions made based on gender. Poorly/unfairly? That’s pretty subjective territory. I think a lot of things are unfair that you don’t, and vice versa, and we’ve argued many times about this. So maybe we should aim to not make decisions based only on gender?- Sure, if you are stronger than a person of either gender, it would be better for you to lift the box. Just don’t assume, as you are doing, a) that a woman wants or needs your manly assistance or b) that you are always stronger than the woman (lan, in the comment above yours… well, I’ve seen your weights and I’ve seen her weights and just quietly, it’d be a damn close match). – completely sexist? I thought the point above was…*sigh*we can continue this at the next bbq if you like.

13 03 2007
Sherd

Boff, you raise some good points. To clarify, I don’t have a problem with acting differently to a man, and I’m not saying that women and men should be the “same”. My issue is with the societal expectations of gender and what’s involved in conforming to them. This banal sexism thing isn’t me saying that I want to lift heavy boxes, or that I don’t like it when someone opens a door for me. Neither of those things are true. I love it when people are polite to me and I try very hard to be polite to people in return. I hold open doors, I smile at everyone, I say please and thank you, because those are the things that I have been taught show respect to other people and their part in this society. What I don’t like is the assumption that because I am a woman, I have to act in a certain way to be seen as feminine. Or, because I am a woman, I should accept a general cultural view that compared to people with a Y chromosome where I have an X, I am a little less capable, a little weaker, a little more prone to giddiness or hysteria or bad at maths or science or more suited to bringing up children and staying at home than having a career. Because none of those things are me. And all of those things are implied in decisions based solely on gender. I should also mention here that it’s not just about women. I’m talking about sexism, and as a woman, obviously I’m going be looking at it from my point of view. But this is an issue about the societal expectations on men as well. Gender could be the basis for some decisions, sure. Like, which toilet to go into at the pub. But in terms of judging the actions and capabilities of yourself and others, gender shouldn’t really get a look in. Feminism, as I see it, and there are as many interpretations of feminism as there are people in the world, is not about making everyone the same. It’s about recognising that gender is no way to judge a person’s ability. It just happens that in the history of our culture, it’s the abilities of women that have traditionally been downplayed, and that’s why it’s “feminism”. If it were the opposite way around, it would be called “masculism” I suppose. Finally, enjoying doors being opened for you etc isn’t a betrayal of the sisterhood or whatever. As I said, social conditioning is not something to be taken lightly, to be quickly changed, or to feel somehow guilty about. It’s not like I’ve lived my whole life flatly refusing to have doors opened for me. And you’re right, it feels nice. Because it’s a societal message that shows respect. Who doesn’t like a bit of respect? The secret is to show that there are other reasons people can respect you apart from your biological features. I, for one, just about fucking burst into song when someone tells me I thought of a clever solution to a problem, or made a delicious dinner. Not as a woman, but as a person.And yes, that is all very PC. But in the sense of inclusive speech, rather than repression of free speech. /rant

13 03 2007
Sherd

One other thing – I really mean it about the social conditioning/ stereotyping thing. I do it. We all do it. All the time. It’s what makes us able to process the world. But if you reflect on it, you can see where the preconceived notion is, and whether it’s something you’re comfortable basing a judgement on.

14 03 2007
Nabla

Wow, sherd. I take this is something you’re passionate about. I really don’t have the time or the energy after a relaxing (cough) three days in 43 degree Charleville to think too much, but I thought I’d say g’day, given I haven’t commented on here yet.Apart from thinking you have spent a lot of time thinking about this, why does it bother you so much? I am at a loss. What has this banal sexism done to you that is so bad? Do you make less than your male counterparts (answer honestly)?Or do you want to create a conflict where none really exists? You say you like it when people open the door for you, but not if the intent is off.Precious, perhaps?At the heart is that you don’t like the assumption that because you are a woman you are less capable.And that’s the real issue, isn’t it. In the same way as Australian cultural cringe makes us assume the world sees us as yokels, the problem is one you have, not anyone else.Sure, there are plenty of older and younger males around who persist with these attitudes, and most women I know realise this and get on with it.Your assumption about an entire group of people based on a very narrow and somewhat outdated interpretation of their actions does you no credit and, ultimately, just makes you cranky in the lift.

14 03 2007
Sherd

Dude, I’m tired, and Spicks and Specks is nearly on, so I’ll keep this short. Also, you’re such a contrary fucker, I’m pretty sure you’re arguing with me just to piss me off. Yes, I hate the assumption that being a woman makes me less capable. I hate the assumption that being a woman makes me anything apart from female. No, I don’t think it’s precious to demand equality, and I do think that there is a gender gap that widens the higher you go up the payscale. My workplace is not as bad as the private sector, but don’t think it’s all good news there. A quick look at the departmental execs – 25 men vs 8 women. Yep. That’s what I call equal representation. If it helps you understand where I’m coming from, make a parallel with racism. Banal racism is more real, arguably, than banal sexism, especially with the actions of the dessicated coconut and his buddies over the past decade. Is that ok? Is that something we should avoid addressing because it might make people uncomfortable, because their social compass gets thrown a bit out of whack and they realise they maybe aren’t as enlightened as they thought? Should the towel-heads ‘realise this and get on with it’? Or do we, as people who talk about equality and social justice, try to confront it?

14 03 2007
Nabla

Now you pissed me off.Because you’re arguing like a right winger. You deliberately missed the point I was making and you continue to assert your point of view with arrogance and condescension.I completely agree with you getting pissed off with the assumption you are weaker and less capable because you are female.I just do not think that assumption is being made by most men. It’s in your head. You are stuck in a neo 70s time warp of militant feminism. I have never met anyone else with the same attitude, and I know plenty of people with a very deep understanding of the feminist cause .As for racism, there is a need there rail against banal racism because the root of it causes bad things to happen. It causes people to invade other countries without justification, it causes leaders to pander to a dangerous minority. Banal sexism, such as it is, is merely the last vestiges of a male dominated society, reflexively breathing its last as slowly (and I know it’s far too slow) a balance emerges.So there exists a gender gap in the higher echelons of the workplace – is quibbling over misplaced politeness going to address that? Replace “sexism” with “terrorism” in your rant and you sound a lot like a neo con.Sorry.Had a big weekend.Seratonin is still on holidays.

15 03 2007
Sherd

To avoid the impending flame war, I think I’ll ignore your baiting and say that I think you’ve missed one of my points, or maybe I didn’t make it clearly. I’m not saying that men act in a particular way because they are sexist. I think this is what’s annoying you. You are saying that I believe that every man who gives way to a woman is doing it because he believes that women are inferior, is that right?That’s not quite what I mean. What I am saying is that there is a societal expectation, codified in our etiquette, that has at its base gender based demarcations of behaviour. Or, that we can do things with a conscious intention, without realising the social tapestry behind it. And that if people reflect on that and similar forms of what we usually term ‘politeness’ they might see that some ways of showing respect to other people are based on gender, and some aren’t. In other words, there are things that we, as people in a society, do every day that on the face of it seem to be unremarkable and in some cases are considered good manners. But some of these things are reinforcing an attitude that we don’t really, as a society, think is appropriate any more. And the best way to address that is to take a look at those things and see what is motivating them. As for the effect on society, it’s probably one of the minor things, but I think you’d be surprised at the effectiveness of tweaking. It’s NOT something I am particularly passionate about in and of itself, but it IS part of something that fascinates me – how the group mind works, and how you effect change on it. To keep things a little bit warm, I really don’t give a flying fuck how many people you know with a deep understanding of the feminist cause. This is my understanding of it, and as this is my blog, I get to pretty much do what I want.

15 03 2007
Nabla

To quote you “What I don’t like is the assumption that because I am a woman, I have to act in a certain way to be seen as feminine.”Don’t just change your argument when you start to see holes in it. And try to at least listen to what other people have to say, even if you’re smarter than them.Incidentally, you misused the word codified.And that is all. In order that you don’t stab me in the eye, I am going to go read a Piers Akerman post and abuse the rednecks.Love.me

16 03 2007
lan

In response to the argument that this is all some crazy feminist over reaction (after all what has this banal sexism done to Sherd that’s so bad –surely we should stop this pointless nit picking and complaining and just get on with it) I have three points: 1. It does impact on our lives. Let’s not pretend chivalry doesn’t come with a quid pro quo. The most obvious examples I can think of are:· I (and the other women in my office) am somehow responsible for making morning teas – because we understand those things, what with being female and all.· I am condemned to never being allowed to help light fires if there is a male near by. It doesn’t matter that for about 15 years of my life I lit fires every day throughout winter, or whether the relevant male has any clue how to light a fire. He always seems to be more qualified.· And while I currently work in a well-paid job, and for the most part people around me respect my work and my opinions, throughout my professional life my opinion has been dismissed because (in the words of a particularly stupid boss) it was based on my soft, female attitude. Don’t kid yourself that because you see successful women around you there are no longer barriers to women becoming successful in their careers. Admittedly these aren’t really big deals – but they’re annoying, they make my life a little bit less pleasant, and I’m not convinced that I should be forced to put up with them in an effort to allow everyone else not to think about their own actions. 2. Just because I’m not being kept barefoot and pregnant in a kitchen and beaten every time I try to leave, it doesn’t mean that other women throughout the world and throughout Australia aren’t. I’d really like to, but haven’t, find all the stats about this – but just generally: Women do much more unpaid work then men at all stages of life – but this increases dramatically after marriage (I think to somewhere around twice as much); Something like 1 in 3 women are sexually assaulted during their lifetimes; Women are significantly more likely than men to be murdered by a spouse, and domestic violence stats are scary; And women do get paid less then men, currently around 80% of what men get paid, and are less represented by men in a range of public and powerful roles. And also I want to be clear a binary concept of men as strong and women as weak or soft isn’t just a system that has negative impacts for women. It has negative impacts for men too. It’s what makes it hard for men to ask for flexibility at work because they want to spend time with their families. It’s arguably part of why depression and suicide are such significant problems for men. It’s probably related to the fact that far more men than women die from physically risky behaviour (speeding, dangerous sports etc).Do I think that men who hold doors open for women also think it’s ok to beat them? Of course not. But does the fact that politeness applies differently to women than to men help re-enforce the idea that women and men are different and should be treated differently (or more specifically that all women are the same and should be treated the same, in a way that is different from the way that we treat all men). Yes. Does that idea help justify the men in my office when they say they really don’t understand how to put on a morning tea, or buy a present. Yes. Does that attitude help other people justify the idea that women shouldn’t do particular jobs with physical elements. Yes. Does that attitude help people justify the idea that women shouldn’t hold jobs that will divert them away from things that they are ‘naturally’ good at like child care and home maintenance. Yes. And does a concept of gender, with women as weak and men as strong, make it explainable, if not excusable that the “reality” is that men have violent responses. I think it does. There is a spectrum of sexism. I think very few of us have completely non-sexist attitudes. But I also think it’s naive to think that systematic sexism, even at low levels (like politeness) don’t foster an environment where incrementally higher levels of sexism seem more reasonable, understandable, or acceptable. I don’t see why I’m supposed to think this is ok just because the most severe forms of sexism don’t affect me directly. I don’t think racism in any form is ok, even though on the whole I’m probably not particularly likely to suffer from it directly. 3. On the subject of “just getting on with it” (apparently the appropriate feminist response to life’s difficulties). It’s not like we’re just sitting at home wringing our hands muttering that life is all just to hard and we can’t cope. We clearly are getting on with it. The thing is that, for anyone who thinks that the world is less than perfect, life is a constant set of compromises between being effective in the reality of the world we live in, and trying to change that reality. Sometimes you chose one, sometimes you chose the other and sometimes find a way a way to do both. Often the decision requires some level of compromise either of your ideals, or of your personal welfare, or both and because of that there’s no clear right decision. For me yelling at everyone who does anything out of chivalry would involve too great a sacrifice of my personal welfare and effectiveness, but in some situations calmly explaining my concerns doesn’t. I don’t think that asking people to reflect on the broader implications of their actions or attitudes is really unreasonable or an overreaction in this context.

16 03 2007
sherd

nabla, I was going to say that I don’t see where I changed my argument because it always went:Some forms of politeness are gender-based.Gender-based things are fundamentally sexist because they expect women to behave one way and men to behave another. As a woman I don’t like any assumption that being a woman means anything apart from that I am a woman. …but lan pretty much out-eloquented me.

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