Yesterday a Facebook friend posted about a horrifying example of sex discrimination to which she was subjected. Parking attendants at a large community festival were assigning parking spaces by gender. When she challenged this policy she was told that “it’s a fact” that men are better at parallel parking than women. This is deeply offensive on many levels and naturally people responded in force commented to show their support. Then it happened.
Absolute vs. relative discrimination
The allocation of social power, resources, favor, or even parking spaces based on any population marker – age, sex, race, disability, religion, ethnicity – is discrimination. It creates a social hierarchy in which some people are seen as intrinsically “better” and others intrinsically “worse” because they fall on one side or the other of this population marker.
Picture a scale where one side is elevated because the other bears a greater burden. The assumption that women can’t parallel park pushes down on the scale, simultaneously reducing the social stature of women and elevating that of men. Ideally, the two sides should be equal, but there are different approaches to making that happen. One is to push down on the high side of the scale. One is to push up on the low side of the scale. One is to remove the scale entirely, merge the two groups and eliminate that metric for allocation of anything.
A “relativist” approach cares more that the two sides are even than how this is achieved. Within this camp are two sub-groups that I think of as Builders and Burners. Burners primarily seek to balance the scale by imposing burdens on those in favor. I think of them as “Burners” because of the scorched earth tactics they often employ. The end of balancing the scale justifies drastic means to achieve it. The more unbalanced the scale, the more force against the other side is justified in restoring balance. For burners, the scale is always a zero-sum game and any change in one side results in an equal and opposite change on the other so they push down hard on the higher side of the scale. Their opponents push down on the low end of the scale. What is left out in all this is that the scale can hold only so much weight before it snaps and breaks.
Builders seek to balance the scale by reducing the burden of those on the low side. I think of them as builders because their focus is mostly inward, seeking self-improvement. Builders also tend to operate on synergistic principles. If it’s possible to elevate the low side of the scale without a corresponding reduction in the opposite side, this is always preferable. The zero-sum game still exists but the goal is to transcend it.
The “absolutist” approach is to eliminate the use of population markers altogether as metrics for judging human worth, and instead deal with people based on their demonstrated individual character. While the different relativist camps are busy fighting over the best way to balance the scale, the absolutists want to eliminate the scale altogether.
Yesterday when my Facebook friend posted her story one of the first comments was “dudes suck so much. :(” The original poster – OP in Internet slang – is an incredibly accomplished woman and someone I took for an Absolutist or a Builder.
When “dudes suck” went unchallenged for an hour I replied that the comment is the flip side of the discrimination that OP was reporting. It’s like saying gender discrimination itself isn’t bad, just that which tips the scale in favor of men.
There may be an element of justice and much satisfaction gained to respond to the post in question with “dudes suck so much” but let’s not kid ourselves that such a response reduces gender discrimination in any way. It’s the classic burner tactic of fighting discrimination by imposing it on the other side. I hoped to find a thoughtful person who might see it for what it is.
No. Not only did the response remain firmly focused on gender, it amped up the gender-based rhetoric.
OK… I’ll say that dudes that suck suck, because that’s true. However, that is what I meant by dudes suck. The fact that this needs explaining is silly. Also… I don’t need sexual discrimination man-splained to me. I think that I understand this concept more than you.
Yup. It’s true that guys who suck suck. It’s also true that women who suck suck. As a general rule, people of poor character suck and specifically including the gender in such a statement is redundant.
I actually like the term “man-splaining” when applied, for example, in the context of the explanation provided by the troglodyte parking attendant. Even if assertion that men park better than women were statistically true that doesn’t justify treating all women as if they are inferior drivers or all men as if they are superior drivers. His explanation is a textbook example of man-splaining.
On the other hand, pointing out that the sentiment “dudes suck so much” expresses sexual discrimination isn’t man-splaining, even if the messenger happens to be a guy. Unfortunately, this and variations on the same technique are often used by Burners to exclude men from any discussion of sexual discrimination, to exclude white people from discussion of race, to exclude neurotypical people from any discussion of autism, and on and on.
That seems to be the case here as the commenter confirms with the claim that she thinks she understands sexual discrimination better then me based not on our individual life experiences but rather solely on our genders. The notion that nobody in the privileged class can possibly have understanding of or empathy for the plight of someone in the disadvantaged class is simply the mirror image of the discrimination that is at issue.
Part of the problem is that we don’t have many models for how to behave better. Consider school bullying as an example. We think in terms of there being bullies and the kids who are bullied. We focus a lot of attention on identifying the bullies and getting them to change their behavior. We spend an unfortunate amount of time and energy victim-blaming and trying to teach bullied kids how not to be targets.
The group we spend almost no time with is everyone else. It is this larger social group who decide who exactly is “Us.” A relativist says the group considers the bully as part of Us and excludes the victim and then tries to turn this around. An absolutist tries to teach a culture in which everyone starts out in the Us group and the bully’s own actions are the criteria for exclusion.
But mostly we do not deal with the overall culture and instead treat the kids at the edges who are inflicting or receiving the bullying. If we do look at the other kids at all, usually it is with relativistic tactics. We teach them to see the scale and tell them to act to balance it out using Builder or Burner relativistic tactics. Rarely do we tell them that the existence – or not – of bullying in their school is a function of their ideas about inclusion and who, exactly constitutes “Us.”
When we use discriminatory relativism to shape the behavior of children, what they learn is that discrimination is discrimination when it affects me, and if it doesn’t affect me then it’s someone else’s problem.
The result is that eventually when it does affect us the only model of behavior we know is the one we do not like. All our attempts to make corrections end up as variations on that model. It doesn’t occur to us to eliminate the scale, merely to level it using the same criteria that were used to tip it.
This is how it is possible when complaining about an incident of sexual discrimination against women to end up with the response that “dudes suck so much” and have that comment seem perfectly normal.
Toward ending discrimination
As an absolutist, I believe the way we end discrimination is to eliminate population markers as the heuristics by which we judge people and instead judge them on their individual character. I want to get rid of the scale and merge the two sides into one Big Us group, and I want to do this by gender, race, ability, age, and any other large population marker you can think of. But how do we get there?
First of all, we need to understand that it is almost impossible to merge any two groups into a Big Us when the scale is grossly out of balance. So the progression is to first bring the scales into a reasonably stable and close balance, then eliminate the scale altogether leaving one Big Us group.
The first of these steps will require some relativistic tactics. The final one requires dismantling any infrastructure or culture that perpetuates the dividing line between the groups.
We can never get rid of the scale, and the evaluation criteria by which we define it, using tactics that require its existence. If we are 100% successful with relativistic tactics, the best we can hope for is to reduce discrimination to the point where the discrimination inherent in our tactics is revealed as the new plateau on which we get stuck.
To proceed further requires a transition plan where we stop focusing on the artificial dividing line and instead erase it. Such a plan would have to include the criteria by which we know when we are ready to transition as well as what that transition looks like.
A practical example
My first job as a computer programmer was at the School Board of Pinellas County, Florida. I worked in the Student Information Systems or “SIS” department writing code to produce reports, perform student scheduling, apply grades to permanent records, and so forth.
One of the things that took up large amounts of my time was called the Student Demographic Report. The report categorized the student population in matrices by sex, race, age, grade, and school. We had a basic report program but we had to customize it on demand for compliance officers, judicial review, public information requests, and legislative requests, all of whom needed some subset of the information tailored to a specific need.
Hundreds of registrars and other school staff were required to ask 96,000 students every year to declare their sex and race for purposes of legislative compliance, on a form that carried what was essentially a Miranda warning. We compelled school age children and their parents, under threat of law, to declare their age, sex and race for the express purpose of proving we weren’t racist. In case the extent and impact of the inherent contradiction in that policy isn’t clear, allow me to explain a bit further.
Our categories for race broke down as White, Black, Hispanic, Native American, Alaskan Native or Pacific Islander, and Other. What does the mixed-race child of a black and white couple check on that form? This was Klan country so even if a kid could pass for white, checking that box on the form risked legal and physical repercussions if they were ever outed. As far as the white majority were concerned, a mixed-race kid was black, end of story.
At the time none of our old, white, wealthy Florida state legislators could ever imagine that the simple act of declaring your race on a registration form could, for some people, lead to emotional or physical harm. Yet we inflicted that harm on a portion of our students as a compulsory requirement to prove we weren’t inflicting harm.
Don’t get me wrong, tracking statistics by sex and race is a helpful metric in charting progress when there is a lot of it yet to be made. It’s just that it gets us only so far. If we were ever so successful that sex and race discrimination ceased to be an issue outside of schools, the infrastructure built to eliminate it in the schools would become the very thing that preserved it there.
At no point in my tenure there, nor in the years later as a customer of the public school system, did I ever hear anyone in the school board or legislature propose the criteria and plan for when and how we would dismantle that infrastructure. If we fail to consider the end game, then conflicts tend to devolve into fights about whether Burner or Builder tactics are going to fix the problem while the actual problem falls by the wayside.
If this sounds familiar, it is because it describes the current state of politics in the US and elsewhere. The kids who were neither bullies nor victims grew up and picked a side, armed only with the tools of victim building and bully punishing. It didn’t work in the school and it’s not working at a national level, but nobody ever told them there’s another option.
Unpacking the bigotry
If we are to make progress we need to let go of some of our own inherent biases. A good candidate is the notion that membership in a discriminated class is a prerequisite to being able to participate in the discussion about it.
One of the things I’m frequently amazed over is that as a well-off white guy I’m assumed to have no clue about discrimination and privilege. I get push-back when I talk about racial discrimination, disability discrimination, class discrimination, and rape and I’m chastised for talking about them by people who know nothing about me as an individual.
As it turns out, I have lots of first-hand experience on the low end of the scale for each of these types of discrimination.
- I was once an epileptic, autistic, obese school kid who was bullied relentlessly. I know a thing or two about disability discrimination.
- I was on free lunch all through school and homeless for a year. I know a thing or two about class discrimination.
- My father once tried to have sex with me at his isolated mountain cabin, then tried to hold me prisoner by slashing the tires to his own car and ripping out the phone line. I know a thing or two about consent and rape.
- I was hunted like prey during high school because of my race, and this escalated to an a severe assault for which I was hospitalized and experience PTSD. I know a thing or two about racial discrimination.
- I built computer systems that measured and reported on sexual, age-related, and racial discrimination in the public schools and got to see first-hand some of the damage these inflicted on the very students they were designed to protect. I know a thing or two about gender and race discrimination.
Every person who judges my qualifications to comment on race, gender, social class, sexual assault, disability, based on my status as a high-income white male rather than on my individual experience and character is wading into the very swamp they claim to want to drain. I may not be as qualified as someone in one or more of the discriminated classes, but to assume that I cannot be qualified at all relies on the same social population markers by which the discrimination is applied.
That’s a shame in part because it’s people with a foot in both worlds who can help bridge the divide. Unfortunately, we don’t train people to see it that way. We push back against discrimination with tactics that inherit from the discrimination we oppose because it’s all we know. We don’t stop to get to know people as individuals, and instead we judge them using the very same discriminatory criteria we claim to be advocating against.
Eyes wide shut
Discrimination hides in the places we don’t examine. We can be so busy fighting someone else’s discrimination that we fail to see our own, even as we use it as an instrument to our own advantage. I don’t claim to have mastered all of this personally. People call me out on my shit all the time but when they do instead of getting defensive, I try to use that to improve.
Recently I posted about Jon Oliver’s Snowden interview saying they tried to place it into a context everyone can understand – does the NSA have pictures of your junk? I was immediately hit with a tweek bearing the #everydaysexism hashtag. I could have taken the “dudes suck” approach and complained about “woman-splaining” but instead I took it for what it was and thought “Holy crap, she’s right. How did I let that slip through?”
I don’t want my world to be one in which accusing women of parallel parking deficiencies is bad but “dudes suck so much” is perfectly OK, so I will continue to cal people out on such things just as my Twitter commenter did for me. Much of the time these incidents lead to conversations that raise the level of compassion in the world another notch because either me or the other person is persuaded to change their behavior. Other times, they degrade into Monty Python-esque arguments, occasionally with someone hitting the unfriend button before its all over.
I’d much rather it be the first of these but really either is OK by me. One way or another the compassion in the world that I personally experience goes up a notch. For me that’s worth taking an unpopular stand. I hope that it is for you too.
In the original Facebook thread I deleted my posts and commented that I’d blog about it instead. OP deleted that final comment but left “Dudes suck so much.” How disappointing. I’m tentatively leaving comments enabled on this post but with the opposite approach to moderation. Ad-hominen attacks and suggestions that entire populations of people actually have greater or lesser worth as human beings are likely to be deleted. Discussion of the issues, even if it gets a bit heated, are welcome. And if you believe that you are better qualified than me to comment on discrimination of any sort, it had better be because of our individual life experiences and not some arbitrary population marker.