Tag Archives: sexism

Ad Baculum, Racism & Sexism

Opposition poster for the 1866 election. Geary...

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I was asked to write a post about the ad baculum in the context of sexism and racism. To start things off, an ad baculum is a common fallacy that, like most common fallacies, goes by a variety of names. This particular fallacy is also known as appeal to fear, appeal to force and scare tactics. The basic idea is quite straightforward and the fallacy has a simple form:

Premise: Y is presented (a claim that is intended to produce fear).

Conclusion:  Therefore claim X is true (a claim that is generally, but need not be, related to Y in some manner).

 

This line of “reasoning” is fallacious because creating fear in people (or threatening them) does not constitute evidence that a claim is true. This tactic can be rather effective as a persuasive device since fear can be an effective motivator for belief. But, there is a distinction between a logical reason to accept a claim as true and a motivating reason to believe that a claim is true.

Like all fallacies, ad baculums will serve any master, so they can be employed as a device in “support” of any claim. In the days when racism and sexism were rather more overt in America, ad baculums were commonly employed in the hopes of motivating people to accept (or at least not oppose) racism and sexism. Naturally, the less subtle means of direct threats and physical violence (up to and including murder) were deployed as well.

In the United States of 2014, overt racism and sexism are regarded as unacceptable and those who make racist or sexist claims sometimes find themselves the object of public disapproval. In some cases, making such claims can cost a person his job.

In some cases, it will be claimed that the claims were not actually racist or sexist. In other cases, the racism or sexism will not be denied, but an appeal will be made to freedom of expression and concerns will be raised that a person is being denied his rights when he is subject to a backlash for remarks that some might regard as racist or sexist.

Given that people are sometimes subject to negative consequences for making claims that are seen by some as racist or sexist, it is not unreasonable to consider that ad baculums are sometimes deployed to limit free expression. That is, that the threat of some sort of retaliation is used to persuade people to accept certain claims. Or, at the very least, used in an attempt to silence people.

It is rather important to be clear about an important distinction between an appeal to fear (using fear to get people to believe) and there being negative consequences for a person’s actions. For example, if someone says “you know, young professor, that we carefully consider a person’s view on race and sex before granting tenure…so I certainly hope that you are with us in your beliefs and actions”, then that is an appeal to fear: the young professor is supposed to agree with her colleagues and believe that claims are true because she has been threatened. But, if a young professor realizes that she will fired for yelling things like “go back to England, white devil honkey crackers male-pigs” at her white male students and elects not to do so, she is not a victim of an appeal to fear. To use another example, if I refrain from shouting obscenities at the Dean because I would rather not be fired, I am not a victim of ad baculum. As a final example, if I decide not to say horrible things about my friends because I know that they would reconsider their relationship to me, then I am not a victim of an ad baculum. As such, an ad baculum is not that a person faces potential negative consequences for saying things, it is that a person is supposed to accept a claim as true on the basis of “evidence” that is merely a threat or something intended to create fear. As such, the fact that making claims that could be taken as sexist or racist could result in negative consequences does not entail that anyone is a victim of ad baculum in this context.

What some people seem to be worried about is the possibility of a culture of coercion (typically regarded as leftist) that aims at making people conform to a specific view about sex and race. If there were such a culture or system of coercion that aimed at making people accept claims about race and gender using threats as “evidence”, then there would certainly be ad baculums being deployed.

I certainly will not deny that there are some people who do use ad baculums to try to persuade people to believe claims about sex and race. However, there is the reasonable question of how much this actually impacts discussions of race and gender. There is, of course, the notion that the left has powerful machinery in place to silence dissent and suppress discussions of race and sex that deviate from their agenda. There is also the notion that this view is a straw man of the reality of the situation.

One point of reasonable concern is considering the distinction between views that can be legitimately regarded as warranting negative consequences (that is, a person gets what she deserves for saying such things) and views that should be seen as legitimate points of view, free of negative consequences. For example, if I say that you are an inferior being who is worthy only of being my servant and unworthy of the rights of a true human, then I should certainly expect negative consequences and would certainly deserve some of them.

Since I buy into freedom of expression, I do hold that people should be free to express views that would be regarded as sexist and racist. However, like J.S. Mill, I also hold that people are subject to the consequences of their actions. So, a person is free to tell us one more thing he knows about the Negro, but he should not expect that doing so will be free of consequences.

There is also the way in which such views are considered. For example, if I were to put forth a hypothesis about gender role for scientific consideration and was willing to accept the evidence for or against my hypothesis, then this would be rather different than just insisting that women are only fit for making babies and sandwiches. Since I believe in freedom of inquiry, I accept that even hypotheses that might be regarded as racist or sexist should be given due consideration if they are properly presented and tested according to rigorous standards. For example, some claim that women are more empathetic and even more ethical than men. While that might seem like a sexist view, it is a legitimate point of inquiry and one that can be tested and thus confirmed or disconfirmed. Likewise, the claim that men are better suited for leadership might seem like a sexist view, it is also a legitimate point of inquiry and one that can presumably be investigated. As a final example, inquiring whether or not men are being pushed out of higher education is also a matter of legitimate inquiry—and one I have pursued.

If someone is merely spewing hate and nonsense, I am not very concerned if he gets himself into trouble. After all, actions have consequences. However, I am concerned about the possibility that scare tactics might be used to limit freedom of expression in the context of discussions about race and sex. The challenge here is sorting between cases of legitimate discussion/inquiry and mere racism or sexism.

As noted above, I have written about the possibility of sexism against men in current academics—but I have never been threatened and no attempt has been made to silence me. This might well be because my work never caught the right (or wrong) eyes or it might be because my claims are made as a matter of inquiry and rationally argued. Because of my commitment to these values, I am quite willing to consider examples of cases where sensible and ethical people have attempted to engage in rational and reasonable discussion or inquiry in regards to race or sex and have been subject to attempts to silence them. I am sure there are examples and welcome their inclusion in the comments section.

 

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Booth Babes

 

English: Booth Babes from Eidos Stand at E3 2000

While the various technology trade shows and video game expos are supposed to be about the technology and the games, considerable attention is paid to booth babes. For those not familiar with the way of the booth babe, a booth babe is an attractive woman (the “babe” part) who works at such an event (typical in or near a company’s booth) in order to attract the attention of the predominantly male attendees and lure them, like sirens of old, to the booth.

The job of a booth babe is typically not extremely demanding: they tend to work in two or eight hour stints (depending on whether it is a product unveiling or a full show). Wages vary, but are generally decent. For example, a booth babe working at Computex in Taiwan might make $100-170 for an eight hour shift of smiling and being leered at by hordes of nerdy men. The pay can, of course, be worse at less prestigious events and better at bigger events.

While booth babes might be considered an odd subject for a philosophical look, they do raise some interesting philosophical issues. For those who are wondering, philosophy events do not, as a rule, have booth babes. Mainly just elderly professors in tweed jackets.

One obvious point of concern for any job is whether or not the pay is just for the work being done. As might be imagined, most booth babes would prefer to be paid more. However, given the extent of the babe’s duties, the pay does not seem entirely unreasonable. What is of greater philosophical interest are the treatment of booth babes and the question of whether or not there should be both babes.

As might be imagined, the sort of technology and game events that feature both babes tend to be male dominated. Also, to fall into some stereotypes, many of the men who attend these events are not accustomed to being close to attractive women. There are also, unfortunately, some strong elements of misogyny and sexism in these areas. As such, it is is hardly surprising that booth babes get leered at. They have also been the subject of what seem to be sexist tweets, such as the infamous Asus tweet regarding the “nice rear” of a booth babe. Booth babes also get plastered all over the net in videos and photos, put on display just like the products they are selling.

On the one hand, it seems wrong to treat the booth babes as objects and to employ them to lure men to the events and the booths. This seems to involve demeaning both the booth babes and the males. The babes are demeaned by being presented as sex objects to lure in males and the males are demeaned because it is assumed that they need booth babes to draw them in (and that they want to see the babes).  This seems to be morally wrong. After all, this is treating people as mere sexual objects used to sell products. Both Kant and the feminists would agree that this sort of objectification is wrong. While this view is very appealing (and almost certainly correct), there are some points well worth considering.

On the other hand, if the booth babes were not sexy and if males were not attracted to this, then there would be no jobs for the booth babes. Put another way, what seems to make the booth babe practice wrong also seems to be exactly what gives it a reason to exist at all. Obviously, if  average looking women (and guys) were hired to stand around the booths in comfortable clothing, then they would not attract people to the booths. If guys were such that they did not have an interest in seeing booth babes, then there would be no reason to have booth babes. As such, the profession rests on the fact that males are lured in by a chance to stare at hot women in person. From this, one might argue that the sexism and leering that people complain about is an intrinsic part of the practice. Complaining about it would be on par with complaining that people ask Starbucks employees to make coffee for them: that is, obviously enough, what they are there for.

There are two obvious replies to this. The first is that perhaps the booth babe profession should be eliminated. After all, the mere fact that the job seems to be inherently exploitative and sexist hardly justifies its existence. To use an analogy, being an assassin requires killing people, but that hardly justifies the practice. Of course, getting rid of booth babes need not entail a ban on attractive women. This leads to the second reply: attractive women (or men) could still be hired to work booths without the strong exploitative or sexist elements. The Pax gaming events, for example, do not allow traditional booth babes.Of course, some might complain that any use of attractiveness is morally suspect-but it does not seem any worse than, for example, using talented, friendly or witty people to attract attention.

A final point of concern is that while such events are male dominated, there are still females who attend, often as industry professionals. No doubt most of them do not find the booth babes appealing and some of them probably find the practice offensive and insulting. After all, the booth babes make these events seem like a boys’ club rather than a professional event.  There are also no doubt males who find this practice offensive as well. As such, the use of booth babes might have a negative impact, which is opposite of what the companies want.

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Of Limbaugh & Maher

English: Rush Limbaugh at CPAC in February 2009.

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When American radio personality Rush Limbaugh accused Sandra Fluke of being a slut and a prostitute, it created quite a stir. Folks on the left were suitably outraged and responded with both condemnations and attempts to exploit the situation to raise funds for political purposes. Some folks on the right also condemned Limbaugh’s behavior (or at least his semantics) and others pointed out that the left often seems to give a free pass to the apparently misogynist statements made by liberal celebrities, such as comedian Bill Maher.

I have seen Maher’s TV show and listened to Limbaugh’s radio program. While they certainly appeal to a specific audience, I found both of them to be fairly uninteresting and somewhat less than entertaining. Both men do, however, excel at being nasty to their opponents and both seem adept in expressions of misogyny. After all, while Limbaugh called Fluke a slut and a prostitute, Maher called Sarah Palin a “dumb twat.”Given that Maher and Limbaugh can be seen as two peas in a pod (although one is the left pea and the other the right pea), it is hardly shocking that Maher has come to Limbaugh’s defense as criticism mounts and sponsors have begun to dump Limbaugh. While there are many issues to address here, my main concern is with the ethical matters in regards to the claim that liberals like Maher often get a free pass while Limbaugh is being savaged.

It is, of course, worth considering the possibility that although the two men are being treated differently, the difference is fair. Making this claim stick would require showing a morally relevant difference between the two.

One approach that has been taken by some folks is to point out that Maher has gone  after the likes of Palin and Bachmann with his seemingly misogynistic comments while Limbaugh went after a young law school student. This approach does have some merit. After all, Palin is a public political figure and such attacks are part of the political game. In contrast, Fluke is just a young law student and hence attacking her is a different matter. To use an analogy, Palin is like an armed combatant who is a legitimate target and Fluke is like a civilian who happened to enter the combat zone. As such, attacking Palin is acceptable while going after Fluke is not.

One obvious reply is that if being in the public arena justifies such attacks, then Fluke made herself into a combatant. Metaphorically speaking, she took up arms and charged into battle-thus making her a legitimate target. However, there still seems something dubious about accepting that women who enter the public arena are thus fair game for being called “sluts” or “twats.” This takes me to the second reply.

Another obvious reply is that even though Palin is a public figure and hence fair game for harsh criticism, this hardly justifies calling her a twat. Going back to the war analogy, the mere fact that someone is a legitimate target does not entail that anything can be done to them without it being wrong. Intuitively, using misogynistic terms like “twat” and “slut” to attack women seems to be wrong. As such, if Limbaugh is in the wrong here, so are folks like Maher.

A second approach is to claim that liberals cannot be sexists using the same sort of logic that people use when they say that minorities cannot be racists or women cannot be sexists.

On the one hand, it could be argued that this is true. After all, someone who really is a liberal would seem to hold liberal views regarding women and sexism is hardly liberal.

On the other hand, this could be seen as being a bit like saying that a person cannot be a liar because they are honest. But, of course, the person might not be honest. Likewise, although liberals like Maher claim to be liberals, perhaps they are not.  After all, calling women “twats” hardly seems like enlightened liberalism. There is also the possibility that just as when we say someone is honest we do not mean that they never lie when we say that someone is liberal we do not mean that they are liberal about everything. As such, someone like Maher could be liberal in some areas and not so much in others (such as when it comes to saying hateful things about women he dislikes).

As a final point on the liberal matter, there is also the tradition of folks who love humanity but who are not so keen about actual humans. As such, a person who holds to liberal ideas in theory might not apply them to specific individuals. So, a person might profess to the liberal values of equality and be opposed, in theory, to sexism and yet not practice those values. As such, it seems quite possible for alleged liberals to be sexist. Thus, trying to defend Maher and his ilk by appealing to their liberalism does not work. In fact, this sort of appeal makes them seem worse-they appear to be failing to live up to ideals that they are supposed to hold as good liberals.

A third approach is to argue that while both men said seemingly misogynistic things about specific women, Limbaugh’s attack can be seen as a general attack on women while Maher was expressing his dislike of particular women. In the case of Limbaugh’s remarks, the implication seems to clearly be that any woman who argues for having health insurance cover contraception is a slut and a prostitute. In the case of Maher, he seems to simply be using misogynistic terms like “twat” to express his dislike of particular women. He does not, however, present a general attack that claims all women are dumb twats-just, for example, Sarah Palin.

Thus, Limbaugh could be seen as presenting what might be regarded as a misogynist position while Maher is only using misogynistic language. While this might seem like a rather fine distinction, it does have the potential to be a morally relevant difference in that Mahers might be less bad than Limbaugh in terms of what they say about women. That is, Maher is being mean to specific women he dislikes and using hateful language whereas Limbaugh is not only attacking a specific woman but also engaging in a much broader attack on women (or at least a large subset of woman). That said, some might see Maher as also attacking a subset of women, namely conservative women that Maher’s dislikes.

While I do see something of a distinction here, this does not seem to warrant giving Maher a free pass while Limbaugh is being attacked. After all, Maher is still in the wrong for using such terms.

A final approach, and one that seems to have the most merit, is to argue that there is a relevant distinction between the two men in regards to their role. While Limbaugh and Maher are both media personalities, Maher presents himself as a comedian while Limbaugh presents himself as a commentator. As such, it could be contended that the role of a comedian differs from that of a commentator in ways that warrant the difference in treatment.

On the face of it, this does have some appeal. After all, when comedic shows such as South Park include insulting material, they are often given a pass on the grounds that this sort of thing is a legitimate part of comedy. To use another example, when stand up comedians include sexist and racist remarks as part of their acts, this is typically just considered part of comedy (with some notable exceptions, of course) and not taken as racism or sexism.

One reason for this, obviously enough, is that the comedians often employ racist and sexist language to lampoon racism and sexism. That is, they are laughing at/parodying  these things rather than being racist or sexist.  In the case of Maher calling Sarah Palin a “dumb twat” it does not seem that he is using comedy to criticize sexism against women. Rather, he seems to simply be calling her a “dumb twat.” As such, another reason is needed.

Comedy, as the saying goes, is not pretty. Aristotle, in his Poetics, regards the ludicrous as a subdivision of the ugly. As he saw it, comedy  involves “an imitation of characters of a lower type” and “consists in some defect or ugliness.” Given this view of comedy, it could be argued that comics can thus be excused for ugliness and acting as “characters of a lower type.” Thus, since Maher is acting as a comedian, then he can be excused for such behavior-he is just acting within the legitimate parameters of comedy. In contrast. Limbaugh is not acting as a comedian and hence subject to criticism that Maher legitimately avoids.

That said, there seem to be some points worth considering. The first is that  while Maher is a comedian, this does not give him a free pass across the board-only in the limited context of comedy. As such, if he is acting as a commentator (like Limbaugh) then his comic cloak does not protect him.

The second point is that the comic pass is not all encompassing. Aristotle notes that while the comic character is of the lower, it is ” not in the full sense of the word bad.” He also adds that the ugliness of comedy “is not painful or destructive. ” As such, a comedian can thus exceed the bounds of comedy (as has happened in other cases, such as Michael Richard’s infamous rant) and cross over into evil. While this can be a matter that involves some degree of subjectivity, it seems quite reasonable to regard calling Sarah Palin a “dumb twat” as going beyond comedy and into what is painful or destructive. As such, Maher cannot cloak himself in comedy to avoid the criticism he is due.

A third point is that Limbaugh can also claim to be a comedian-a very good case could be made that he is playing a role and is a parody of what he professes to be. Of course, this would almost certainly not get him that free pass, for the same reason Maher’s remarks are not covered by his comedic cloak.

In light of the above discussion it seems clear that if Limbaugh should be taken to task for his “slut” comments, Maher should also be criticized on moral grounds for his misogynistic remarks. The fact that Maher has largely enjoyed a free pass shows a problem well worth considering: the wink and laugh all to often given to misogyny coming from the left.

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The Sexist Imperative

 

English: Arcade fighting games

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Being a long time gamer, I am very familiar with the vile mucous pits of sexism and racism that constitute much of the gaming habitats. Although I am not a member of any of the preferred target groups of the spewers of hate, their casual vomiting of hate causes me considerable dismay. While I have made the occasional futile attempt to correct such behavior, my usual recourse is avoidance (or the mute option).

Interestingly enough, there are those who actively defend this element of the gaming community and some of the top players are counted among this body. Most recently Aris Bakhtanians presented the sort of quality defense one would expect to given for sexism:

The sexual harassment is part of the culture. If you remove that from the fighting game community, it’s not the fighting game community… it doesn’t make sense to have that attitude. These things have been established for years.

One problem with this “defense” is that Bakhtanians is committing the classic fallacy of appeal to tradition. After all, the mere fact that something has been “established” for years is no evidence that it is good, correct or even sensible. For example, people have been committing murder and rape for years, yet no one would consider these practices justified by their longstanding existence.

Another way to see the problem with this “defense” is by considering the following modification of his argument:

Slavery is part of the culture. If you remove that from the slave plantation community, it’s not the slave plantation community… it doesn’t make sense to have that attitude. These things have been established for years.

While the racism and sexism he is defending are clearly not as wicked as slavery, his reasoning does parallel the sort of “reasoning” that is regularly used to defend immoral practices. As such, his reasoning should be rejected on the grounds of its absurdity. My criticism is, of course, based on using parity of reasoning and a reductio ad absurdum.

Interestingly enough Bakhtanians seems to believe that any attempt to criticize the fighting game folks because of their  behavior would be  “ethically wrong.”

Like  Ben Kuchera at Penny Arcade, I think that this is perhaps the first time an “argument” has been given that it would be unjust to reduce sexism and racism in the gaming world (or at least the fighting game community).

On the face of it, it seems absurd to think that it would be wrong to reduce or at least criticize behavior that is itself morally wrong.  Of course, Bakhtanians does attempt to defend this sort of behavior but his defense hardly seems to be intellectually compelling. As such, he does not seem to have much of a case. On the positive side, having a high profile gamer say such things does serve to draw attention to the vile attitudes that taint the gaming community (of which I am a member) and the need to clean up these mucous pits.

He even attempts to defend this behavior by claiming that this attitude of hateful exclusion is the “beauty” and “essence” of the fighting game community:

The beauty of the fighting game community, and you should know this – it’s based around not being welcome. That’s the beauty of it. That’s the key essence of it.  When you walk into an arcade for the first time, nobody likes you.

This sort of attitude hardly seems beautiful. It might be the “essence” of the existing community, perhaps in the same way that racism is the essence of white supremacist groups. However, this sort of essence seems to be undesirable. After all, the general idea of a community that is based on an activity like gaming should be founded on inclusion rather than exclusion. After all, this is a community of video game players and not the KKK.  In any case, the burden of proof seems to be on him to show that such sexism and racism are both morally desirable and essential to this community.

It is at this point that someone might wish to bring up the matter of free speech. I am, of course, a well-established defender of free speech. However, freedom of speech does not extend to the freedom to say things that do unwarranted harm to people. This includes intentionally creating an environment that is brutally hostile to people based simply on their gender or race and this seems to be the sort of thing that he is defending. While he thinks that being told that this is wrong is wrong, his moral compass seems to be pointing in the wrong direction.

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The Antinomies of Privilege

There’s a tired old argument that seems to have gained a new lease of life in these less exacting times (bad internet!), which holds that privilege functions as an epistemological barrier when it comes to understanding sexism, racism, inequality, etc; and, conversely, that being part of a group that is in various ways marginalized, oppressed or subordinated confers a sort of epistemological privilege when it comes to understanding the nature and reality of that situation.

Obviously, there is a kernel of truth to this argument, but it is also highly problematic (especially for people committed to the importance of reason, evidence, etc., as mechanisms for assessing truth-claims). Here are some of the things you need to get straight about if you’re tempted to deploy this argument.

1. If you think that one’s lived experience has systematic and predictable epistemic consequences, then you have to accept that this might flow in the opposite direction to the one suggested by the argument above. In other words, it is entirely possible that structural privilege confers epistemological privilege even when it comes to understanding the nature and reality of the situations of the subordinated, marginalized, etc. This is not a particularly counterintuitive thought (indeed, one could argue that it underpins most of our ideas about education). It’s easy enough to find examples of precisely this sort of argument from amongst even those who champion the cause of the underprivileged. So, for example, you’ll find that Marxists bang on about false class consciousness, ideological state apparatuses, hegemonic projects, etc., to explain how the marginalization and powerlessness of the proletariat messes with its head so it can’t see the reality of its true situation.

2. Yes, yes, I know, it’s one thing to know something in principle, but that’s not the same as experiencing it – there’s a sort of knowledge that comes with experience (some might claim). Well, there’s certainly a sort of something that comes with experience, but whether it is knowledge, and what sort of knowledge, is a difficult issue to sort out. Consider, for example: (a) that people disagree about the nature of their experience as members of purportedly marginalized groups (and some get called “gender traitors” for their trouble); (b) that there’s a wealth of data that suggests we’re actually pretty bad at correctly understanding the situations we inhabit (and indeed, even our thoughts about these situations); and (c) that people do not necessarily experience what most us would take to be marginalized situations as being problematic (check out, for example, some of the literature on FGM; or ask yourself whether slaves in the ancient world would have accepted the legitimacy of the institution of slavery).

3. The annoying tendency of (some of) the marginalized and subordinated not to see or experience their own marginalization and subordination in quite the same terms as those of us who are less marginalized and subordinated would have it is a problem of individual differences (i.e., the fact that individuals cannot be reduced to group characteristics). This comes up in a different guise in a row that played out between socialist and radical feminists in the 1970s, and which is still relevant today. In essence, the problem is that it is… implausible to suppose that there is enough that unites all women, or the working class, for example, so that it makes sense to think mere “membership” of these groups means a common identity or interests. So, for example, the idea that the Queen of England has more in common with a working-class woman than does a working-class man, and is consequently better qualified to talk about their shared lived experience as women is… well, problematic, to say the least. (Similarly, one might consider how working-class politics in the UK in the 1970s and 1980s was characterized by endless rows over pay differentials).

4. There’s an epistemological problem with the argument to epistemological privilege. Specifically, it’s not easy to see that it is possible to substantiate the claim that epistemological privilege necessarily flows from certain kinds of marginalized experience without falling into contradiction. This is because the moment you appeal to evidence, argument, etc., you are operating precisely on the terrain of epistemic equality. The trouble is if you deny that this evidence is generally accessible – if you really are committed to the view that there are certain privileged ways of knowing (and that you can’t know this to be the case unless you’re in a position of privilege) – then your position is simply an article of faith (in fact, it’s disconcertingly similar to the proof of god from religious experience).

5. Finally, there’s a rather subtle point about how you can know that some particular belief you have about your experience as a marginalized person is genuinely flowing from your epistemological privilege, rather than just being a possibly flawed everyday sort of belief. Or, to put this crudely, if you’re committed to the idea of epistemological privilege, it’s hard to see that you can ever be sure you’ve got it. Basically, the problem here is that if epistemological privilege (about certain sorts of things) belongs uniquely to the marginalized, then it seems to be required that the beliefs that are acquired via this privilege are valid even if they do not stand up to scrutiny in the court of universal reason (because if they do have to pass this test, then it seems there’s nothing in principle privileged about the epistemological situation of being marginalized – albeit de facto it might still be true that it’ll be easier to come by particular beliefs that turn out to be true if one is marginalized). However, if the court of universal reason has no jurisdiction here, it’s not clear you can subject your own beliefs to any sort of test. This is because it seems to be the case that even the most minimal of tests – for example, determining whether your beliefs are in accord with your experiences – requires that one makes use of the normal rules of rationality, evidential warrant, etc., all of which would also be available to the court of universal reason.

Okay, that’ll do for now. If you can sort that lot out, then good luck to you, you should carry on using the privilege argument. But the really cool thing here is that if you can’t sort any of it out, no problem, you can just tell yourself that these arguments are themselves a function of privilege. How lovely it must be to have recourse to a hermetically sealed argument that means you get to be right even if you have no idea why you’re right.

Is Ladies’ Night Sexist?

Ladies Night

Image by infinitewhite via Flickr

A segment on Den Hollander, a lawyer who become moderately famous for his crusade against ladies’s night drink pricing, appeared recently on the Colbert Report. This mocking segment got me thinking about this topic and the philosophical issues involved with the matter.

For those who are unfamiliar with the concept of ladies’ night, this is a practice followed by many bars and nightclubs that involves free (or reduced prices on) drinks and admission for women. The objective is, of course, to lure in women with the special pricing and use the women to lure in men (who will be paying full price).

On the face of it, the claim that ladies’ night is sexist seems laughable. After all, it is simply a marketing device used to increase business and hardly a device of cruel oppression. To claim that this practice would be on par with claiming that deals limited to children (such as reduced movie prices) or the elderly (such as reduced admission prices to some parks) are cases of ageism. Since such a claim would be absurd, it would follow that the attack on ladies’ night is absurd as well.

It could also be argued that ladies night is not sexist on the basis that men are not actually being harmed by the practice. After all, while men do have to pay more than women on ladies’ night, men typically go to ladies’ night to meet women who have been knocking back the free (or cheap) drinks. As such, far from oppressing men, ladies’ night is actually advantageous to men in two ways: 1) there will be more women present and 2) their judgment will probably be impaired by alcohol.

However, it is certainly possible to argue that ladies night is sexist. After all, what the customer is being charged is based on the customer’s sex and this not does seem to provide a relevant difference that would justify a difference in pricing. As such, this would seem to be a clear case of sexism.

In regards to the analogy to special pricing for seniors and children, there are various replies that could be made. The first is that the analogy breaks down because everyone gets to be a kid (and hence can have access to the children’s specials) and everyone has a shot at being a senior (and hence can get access to those specials). In the case of sex based pricing, men do not get to become women without expensive medical procedures, and hence men will not have access to that pricing. The second is that many of the discounts are situations that involve relevant differences. For example, children’s meals are often less because they are smaller than adult portions. As such, the analogy seems to fail.

It can also be argued that age based specials are, in fact, cases of ageism. After all, in those cases in which there are no relevant differences (such as portion size), then a difference in treatment would seem to be ageist in nature. Likewise for ladies’ night.

Another approach to arguing that ladies night is sexist is to consider whether or not the following would be a case of racism. Imagine, if you will, a night club that offers (in addition to ladies’ night) a whites’ night. On white night, whites get free admission and free drinks , while non-whites have to pay the normal prices. No one is excluded based on race, it is just that whites get special pricing for that night. I am inclined to believe that whites’ night would be regarded as a sexist event. However, it seems no more racist than ladies’ night is sexist.

It might, of course, be argued that whites’ night would be racist and ladies night would not be sexist because there is an established history of racism against non-whites and there is not an established history of sexism against men.

While this is a point worth considering, accepting this sort of reasoning would seem to involve accepting that without an established history of sexism or racism against people of type X, then an action cannot be sexist or racist against people of type X. This would mean, obviously enough, that racism and sexism could never occur. After all, there could be no racist or sexist acts prior to racism and sexism and there could be no racism and sexism prior to racist acts.

It might be replied that ladies’ night is not really sexism or at least not a big deal because it is such a small thing. After all, allowing women to have free drinks while men must pay hardly seems like a big deal. It is not like men are being denied the right to vote or being denied access to scholarships that are only for women. There is no systematic or wide scale oppression; just a difference in drink prices.

That reply does have some appeal. After all, it actually is a little thing and people generally find it laughable that anyone would be concerned about something so silly. However, the fact that something is a little thing does not mean that it is not sexist.

In light of the above arguments, it seems reasonable to believe that ladies’ night is actually sexist. As compensation for years of cruel oppression, I only ask that the ladies buy me a drink now and then.

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Yes, But…

In the 1890s when gender role reversals could ...

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I have been a consistent supporter of the idea that women should be regarded as the moral, legal, and political equals of men. In general, I have based this support on the principle of relevant difference: people can (morally) be treated differently only the the basis of a (morally) relevant difference between them. So, while it would be acceptable to pay someone who has more education more than another person, it would not be acceptable to pay someone less simply because she happens to be a woman (or he happens to be a man). I first learned of this principle as an undergraduate during a class on feminism. This class had a lasting impact on me, including an interest in gender issues that persists to this day.

As time marched on from my undergraduate days, I was pleased to see various unjust aspects of American society change. Women had ever increasing opportunities in business, education, sports and in many other areas as well. This trend continued, with the occasional specific set back, until some feminists went so far as to claim that feminism had grown stale or even that there was no longer a need for feminism in America.

While I was pleased with the trend towards equality, another trend that has stood out is what could be called the “yes, but…” trend. I first noticed this when I was doing research for some essays on men, women, and higher education (which appeared in my book). I found that the although the majority of undergraduates were women, there seemed to be almost no concern about this new gender inequality. This initially struck me as odd. After all, feminists and their allies had always been very quick to point out gender disparities that were not in favor of women and endeavored to rectify such imbalances. When I would bring up my concerns about the male decline in higher education, I would most often by the phrase “yes, but…” where the “but” would be followed by some area where men still exceeded women, such as in  physics or the highest levels of the corporate world. Watching the occasional news report that mentioned gender issues, I noticed a similar pattern: it would be pointed out that women exceeded men in some area, but this would be followed by pointing out some area (like income) where women were said to lag behind men.

I most recently noticed this in a Newsweek article, “Born Again Feminism“, by Kathleen Parker. She writes:

As a group, we are worse at some things, but better at others—the very “others,” it also turns out, that happen to be driving today’s economy and that of the future.

Consequently, in the U.S. today, women hold a majority of the jobs, and dominate in colleges and professional schools. They also hold a majority of managerial and professional positions, and about half of all accounting, banking, and insurance jobs.

These socioeconomic facts don’t mean that women have achieved perfect parity with men, who still dominate at the highest levels of business.

As a side point before getting back to the main issue, it is interesting to note that Parker also makes use of a common device in today’s discussion of gender issues: men and women are different, but women are better than men in terms of what is needed today. This, in many ways, is a distorted echo what might be called the old sexism in which men and women were seen as different, but men were regarded as being better than women in the ways that mattered economically, politically and so on. Given this similarity, this sort of thing should be a point of concern among those who are worried about sexism.

Getting back to the main point, this nicely illustrates the “yes, but…”approach. Parker notes that women hold the majority of American jobs, classrooms, managerial positions and have parity in accounting, banking and insurance. But, they have not “achieved perfect parity with men.”

One obvious response is that she is quite right. In America, women have not achieved perfect parity because they are the majority in the areas she mentioned. Perfect parity would require that no gender dominates in any area-even if the dominate gender is female.

I always find it interesting how quickly certain people can transition from saying how women dominate in so many areas to criticizing the fact that there are still areas dominated by men. What is most interesting about this is that the arguments used to argue for equality in the areas still dominated by men would certainly seem to apply to the areas that are now dominated by women. As such, it would seem that the concern about the remaining male dominated areas should also apply to those areas where women now dominate. After all, if gender inequality is unjust when it favors men over women, it would seem to be unjust when it favors women over men. However, this concern often seems to be lacking and it might be suspected that there is a certain moral inconsistency at play in some cases.

This is not to say that there are not areas where the inequality does not unjustly favor men nor is it to say that there are no longer any valid problems left in the area of women’s rights. When people use the “yes, but…” approach they often do point out legitimate problems that need to be addressed. However, they all too often seem to miss the legitimate concerns in regards to areas in which women dominate.

Naturally, I am open to the idea that cases of gender inequality need not be cases of injustice. For example, in my book I consider that the gender disparities in higher education might be due to free choices on the part of men and women and not the result of any form of sexism. However, I am also careful to consider (as I learned from the feminists) that gender disparities could be the result of injustice. Those who use the “yes, but…” approach should be careful to apply a consistent set of principles to both sorts of situations, those in which men dominate and those in which women dominate. After all, we surely do not want to trade one form of sexism for another.

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Being a Man IV: Fatherhood

Petri dish
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One plausible area to look for a role unique to men is that of fatherhood. There is, obviously enough, an intuitive appeal to the idea that only men can be fathers.  Of course, it is quite possible to raise questions about this.

One of the first things that needs to be sorted out is the distinction between being a biological father and a father. While most fathers are biological fathers, not all of them are. For example, the father of an adopted child would still seem to qualify as a father, even if he never impregnated a woman. Defining what it is to be a biological father seems rather easy: that is the male who provide the sperm that fertilized the egg.

Of course, a little science can make this a bit messy. For example, imagine sperm engineered and grown in a petri dish. This sperm could be used to fertilize an egg, but it would seem odd to classify the sperm as the father. Perhaps the creator of the sperm would be the father, even if the scientist was a woman or a team. However, let this matter be laid aside, perhaps to be discussed more in comments.

Turning back to looking at the role of father (apart from the biological role), it could be seen as a man’s role because a father is supposed to provide a manly role model and teach the manly virtues to his sons (and presumably teach his daughters that many men lack these virtues).

Of course, this account runs into a bit of a problem. If a father is one who provides the manly role model and teaches the manly virtues, there is a clear need to define what it is to be a manly role model and which virtues are manly. In short, looking at the role of being a father does not seem to help define what it is to be  a man. Rather, this seems to be a bit of a backwards approach. Instead, what is needed is an account of what it is to be a man and the nature of the manly virtues. Once those are established, then it would be possible to provide an account of what it is to be a father.

There is the possibility that there are no special manly virtues or manly roles that are unique to males. Thus, non-males could occupy those roles and have those virtues. If so, it would be possible that a woman could be a father (in this sense) or even a machine (such as an intelligent robot).  Not to be sexist here, it could also be possible that a male could be a mother (non-biological).

Then again, perhaps there are such roles and virtues. So, as an exercise to the reader, what might these roles and virtues be? Also, which ones would be essential (or at least important) to being a father?

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Palin, Hillary & Sexism

John McCain recently selected Sarah Palin as his running mate. This move, as many have suggested, seems to be calculated to win over the Hillary Clinton supporters who are not pleased with Obama being the Democrats’ candidate.This situation is both politcally and philosophically interesting.

This morning CNN featured a segment on woman voters, Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin. In the course of the segment there was an interesting discussion about the reasons why some former Hillary Clinton supporters are now supporting Palin (and hence McCain).

One of the main reasons given was the assertion that the Democrats are sexist and acted in a sexist manner. Presumably, the claim is that Obama  (as Geraldine Ferraro asserted) won simply because he is a man and Hillary lost simply because she is a woman.

If this claim is true, then the Democrats would have acted in a sexist manner. After all, to accept or reject someone as a political candidate solely on the basis of sex would be a sexist act. In this case, turning against the Democrats in response to their sexism would be the right thing to do-assuming, of course, that sexism is wrong and that misdeeds should be punished. Thus, the former Hillary Clinton supporters who are opposed to sexism would presumably be right to turn their support to McCain.

This, naturally enough, assumes that McCain chose Palin not just because she is a woman, but because of her qualifications. Picking her just because she is a woman would, of course, be a sexist act. While it would be an act of positive sexism (benefiting rather than harming the target) it would still be sexism.

If it can be shown that the Democrats acted in a sexist manner and McCain acted in a non-sexist manner, then it would be reasonable for those opposed to sexism to back McCain-at least on this point.  There is, if course, also the matter of whether Obama should be held accounatable for the alleged sexism of the Democrats who voted for him, but this raises a matter beyond the scope of this essay.

However, if the Democrats did not act in a sexist manner or McCain acted in a sexist manner, then it would not be reasonable for those opposed to sexism to select McCain over Obama on this point.

I do not think that the majority of Democrats made their choice on the basis of sexism. While it is true that the man was chosen over the woman, to assume that this must be sexism would itself be a prejudiced judgment. What would be needed would be clear evidence that the main factor in Hillary Clinton’s defeat and Obama’s victory was sex. This evidence simply seems to be lacking for this claim. However, should such evidence be made available, I would change my view.

A second reason for former Hillary Clinton supporters to now back Palin is that she is a woman. It certainly cannot be that the former Hillary Clinton supporters are drawn to Palin because of her political views. This is because Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin hold opposing political views. Hillary Clinton is well known for being a pro-choice and anti-gun liberal. Sarah Palin is know well known for being a pro-life and pro-gun conservative. Oversimplifying things, Hillary Clinton exemplifies the American left and Sarah Palin exemplifies the American right (at least in mainstream politics). Hence, it would be wildly implausible to claim that Palin is attracting former Hillary Clinton supporters because she has similar views.

Those who decide to support Palin simply because she is a woman would, obviously enough, be acting in a sexist manner (more or less by definition). It would be rather ironic if those who claim the Democrats are sexist supported Palin because she is woman. They would be replying to sexism with more sexism, which hardly seems to be the right thing to do.

Of course, those who have switched to Palin could argue that they are serving a greater social good. By supporting McCain because he selected a woman as his running mate they could claim that they are helping women in some manner. They might argue that if a woman became Vice President, then the social conditions would improve for American women and this would be a good thing. Thus, they must vote in (seemingly) sexist manner in order to destroy sexism.

Of course, people who support Obama can make a similar sort of argument about race, thus creating a bit of a moral quandry for those who oppose both sexism and racism. No doubt some Democrats are now wishing it was an Obama-Clinton ticket rather that an Obama-Biden ticket.