Monday, October 20, 2008

2. The Planet Of The Guys. Oh, With Gals, Too, Naturally.

This is the second post in my series about the very simple and basic reasons why I became a feminist and why I still see lots of work for feminism. You can read the first post here. There will be more posts and they are not in any particular ranking by value of importance.

This series differs from my usual writing style. I'm trying to let the immediate response come through and to use other parts of my mind and memory more than the analytical machine I mostly employ. I'm trying to view this planet from the outside, to ask questions about the taste of the water we drink and the color of the air we breathe. This is hard to do, because each and everyone of us is immersed in the systems in which we live and we don't see them as systems. Please remember that, especially if you start feeling that I'm accusing individual men or women of what I discuss here.

Let us begin by looking at two photographs of powerful people from the Western world:

Never mind that the top picture shows George Bush signing an anti-abortion bill and never mind that I could have found pictures with powerful women included. Instead, ask yourself how you would view pictures like this if every single person in them was female?

You would view them as pictures of women. But unless you are forewarned (as you are in this post) you might very easily regard the above pictures as just pictures of human beings (well, as almost-all-white, middle-aged powerful people). Being male is the default value for the category "human."

Now consider the following two pictures. These are fairly iconic ones and we all know what they are intended to convey:

Great moments in the history of man, right? Now do this thought experiment: Change the sex of the people in the pictures and ask yourself if you still see them as reflecting all humankind.

Didn't we do this crap once before, some of you might ask. We now carefully write "he or she" (though hardly ever "she or he") and the conservatives whine about how the Second Wave feminists broke the language and took away their freedoms to insult, too. Isn't all this an old topic not worthy of attention?

I once thought that all that identifying "man" with "man" was over, but my years on the Internet have taken away that illusion. This planet is still very much the planet of the guys (though not the planet of ALL the guys or guys of all races) in the sense that we might very well imagine an alien from outer space writing home about the "citizens of Earth and their wives," especially if that alien had spent too much time reading evolutionary psychology or following the 2008 U.S. presidential election campaigns.

Here is my artistic summary of the way we view human beings. The top picture is how we DON'T view human beings. The bottom picture is how we DO view human beings:

Neat, huh? The artwork, I mean. The rest is not so great. Try a few thought experiments, though, and you will see that I got the picture right. This explains why "gender" seems to be something only women have (just check the bottom graph) and why all gender-related problems appear to be women's problems. The other things which are correlated with gender but not necessarily to women's disadvantage (such as violence) are seen as human problems.

The graph also explains why I have had such difficulty debating certain issues during the Democratic primaries. I was using the top graph as the frame in my mind while the person I was debating was using the bottom graph. In that graph men's issues are always human issues, whereas women's issues are not. Bringing up an issue that applies to women is seen as asking for special rights and special considerations which other people don't get.

An alien from outer space might not observe all this but such an alien would certainly observe the predominance of men in our cultural discourse. The alien might also notice that it's not gender alone which defines who is seen as the "default human being" (race has lots to do with it, too) and had that same alien visited this planet earlier it might be quite surprised with the amount of progress we have made in gender equality.

On the other hand, women still are the numerical majority in this world. That those most numerous are not the default for human beings is worth thinking about.