April 30, 2010

The hidden patriarchy

Examining ordinary language use and social expectations reveals patterns of demeaning sexism

With the striking down of the current sexual assault policy, the student body has sent a clear message against institutionalized sexism. We should go further, however. It is easy to criticize the policies of others, but it takes real courage to take responsibility for our own actions. If the majority of the students were offended by the current sexual assault policy, then they should fight hypocrisy by putting an end to the forms of patriarchy at this campus that they themselves create.

When we think about gender inequality, most people immediately think about concrete socio-economic facts. The educated majority at this University understands that there is systematic inequality for gay citizens who are unfairly discriminated against because they defy conventional, yet arbitrary, gender roles. Most of us know that women, on average, get paid less than male counterparts, in addition to being less likely to get promoted—and when they are promoted, many times unfair expectations are placed upon them. Sexual harassment, though usually not reported, is very common in the work place. One-third of women in the military have admitted to being sexually harassed, and many more cases go unreported out of fear of retribution. Few of us know that every year about 50,000 women are brought against their will to the United States for sexual exploitation.

When these facts are mentioned, most people are shocked. These problems, however, are hardly new. They have persisted for decades, which indicates that the problem is much deeper. Anthropologist David Graeber gives us a telling example. He points to a popular trick among high school teachers who assign students to write an essay imagining that they were to switch genders and describe what it would be like to live for one day as a member of the opposite sex. The results are almost always exactly the same: all the girls in class write long and detailed essays demonstrating that they have spent a great deal of time thinking about such questions, while roughly half the boys refuse to write the essay entirely. Almost invariably, they express profound resentment about having to imagine what it might be like to be a woman.

This phenomenon is caused by, and contributes to, the silence of women. Forms of this structural ignorance are developed in our toys, advertisements, and other forms of media (movies, music, television, pornography). These are in turn tied to the economic and political inequality of the genders.

We can see many examples of this ignorance here at the University of Chicago. Why must women waste their time by shaving their legs? While there may be a slight stigma attached to growing a beard, men still have the option of growing one. Women do not have such an option. There is a common notion that as we get older, the majority of women lose their beauty while men become more distinguished. This perception is socially structured by our patriarchy. It is clear that there are higher standards of beauty for women than for men. If common UChicago bedroom practices are similar to that of the rest of the country, we would see that even in the bedroom there is inequality.

The most annoying example of ignorance is with gendered language. Both men and women commonly use phrases like “grow a pair of balls” or “don't be a pussy.” These phrases indicate a sense of weakness. All of them are associated with the female body. The fact that women do not have a similar insult is an indication that patriarchy has infected our very language. By using these words and phrases, we rob women of the ability to define themselves.

The common response is that the people who use such language do not mean such harm, but instead they use these words in a jovial sense. However, in any form of dialogue, you cannot control the interpretation of your controversial words. Someone could get the impression that women are weak (and most studies show that many actually do). It is easy to see that the racist imagery of the early 20th century helped create an environment that allowed the Jim Crow laws to exist.

Another response in favor of gendered language is the argument that all language will offend someone, so why bother being politically correct? This is a misinterpretation of my point. Such gendered language is morally wrong because it creates a negative identity for a group of people who never got to choose their identity. Many people choose certain identities based on an ideology. Ideologies have to be subject to reason. Calling neo-Nazism dumb, which will offend neo-Nazis, is justified. Such an ideology relies on incorrect beliefs that create inhumane results. We may be offending certain conservatives when we occasionally take the Lord’s name in vain, but conservatives still have to prove to us (using reason) the moral virtue of not doing such an action.

The issue is about taking responsibility for our words and expanding our vocabulary beyond an extremely limited scope. Women should also consider creating male equivalents of female-only insults, or attempt to reappropriate patriarchical language in their own terms (in the manner the gay community refashioned the word “queer”). While these words are currently patriarchical, meaning in language is inherently unfixed. This should be seen as a sign of hope. Such language changes will not completely change our modern patriarchy, but it is a free and obvious step in the right direction.

Men are not solely to blame, nor is the solution solely in their hands. Many, if not most, women fall to, and sometimes preach, these unfair norms. This argument should not be construed as urging women to not shave their legs. The point of feminism, despite the propaganda and slander surrounding it, is to give women the real choice of being who they want to be.

The problem lies, ultimately, with modernity, which constructs an artificial division between the public and private spheres. However, as the famous quotation goes, the personal is the political. Seeing that the two are connected problematizes, and ultimately destroys, any simple distinctions between a public and private sphere. Thus, there should be no problem in asking future voters, parents, and leaders to overcome their moral laziness in order to pursue justice in a world that my daughters will one day live in.

—­­Suman Som is a second-year in the College majoring in Anthropology.