Saturday, January 07, 2012

Turning The Tables. Still Digging In The Sewers.

You may have noticed that I like using reversals to make a point about sexism. Here's a comment from the Telegraph thread:
Once I told an elderly woman who had been a flaming women's libber, sort of half jokingly, that given a choice I'd prefer to be in airplane piloted by a man instead of a woman who just might be suffering from hormone induced mood swings, stomach cramps and hot flushes.  I was quite surprised when she agreed with me.

Just a silly sexist comment on one level, just a joke really! But even a flaming women's libber agreed!

It's an attempt to persuade by subterfuge, I guess.

This is where reversals are very useful because they show the sexist underpinnings more clearly. So let's play the reversal game here.

Why would you not want to be in an airplane piloted by a man?

The justifications must be like those above but in reverse, i.e., you need to base your argument on some general gender stereotype or some difference in gender averages.

The original comment argues that menstrual cycles and menopause make women too unreliable as pilots. How about arguing that men show higher rates of aggression than women, and, at least in the US and the UK are more likely to commit suicide than women? An airplane can be used to commit suicide. You could add to this the evo-psycho argument that men take more risks than women.

A reversal of this kind is quite nasty and stupid and ill-informed, right? But so is the original comment.

Why write about this? Perhaps because the conversation following the kind of studies I discussed below is not about gender but ultimately about what is wrong with women and how that wrongness justifies traditional gender roles and patriarchal arrangements. We should be aware of this and avoid getting drawn into a debate about women's worth with misogynists.

The second, and related, reason for writing about this is that doing the reversals in your head, if nothing else, clarifies what is really being said.

This is good for the reader's mental health! It also tends to show when an argument is based on the worst possible gender stereotypes about women (or men) and the best possible gender stereotypes about men (or women). This is a common trick, by the way. It is also applied to racial and ethnic stereotypes with the same intentions: To prove the superiority of one group over another group.

Reversals are not the only useful trick in these kinds of debates. Another one is simply asking some penetrating questions, such as "compared to what?"

I think it was Gloria Steinem who wrote about this in the context of the possible dysfunctional impact of divorce on children. What is it that we compare the children of divorced families to? To the children of perfectly happy married partners? Or to the children of unhappy married partners? The answer to that question matters greatly, because happy couples do not divorce.

The penetrating question about that mood-swing comment is to ask: If women can't be pilots because of their mood swings and stomach cramps, what can they do without worrying this particular commentator?

My guess is that his answer would be something about staying at home and taking care of babies and children. The most vulnerable and helpless of all human beings!

But of course the extent of the potential damage in that case is limited to just the children in one family, so perhaps the commentator is worried about the greater scope of harm piloting allows: A woman steering a passenger airplane could kill hundreds!

Hmm. Mass killings are not exactly something women have specialized in.