Ramblings on Social Norms and Gender

Expressing one’s opinion about life, politics, religion etc… is widely accepted in today’s culture. That is, unless your view is critical of or dissents against the dogma presented in the corporate world, media, and entertainment.  I can speak from personal experience (as well as present statistical evidence HEREHERE, and HERE) that there is an extreme bias towards the left in almost every facet of American life.  So much so, that organizations, schools, and individuals must posture to present themselves as “progressive” in order to fit in and not be shamed or worse.  It is amazing to me that, even though this institutional bias is so pervasive, there are still people who can resist it.

If you have not heard about the Google Senior Software Engineer who was fired for his opinions on this very subject, I suggest reading his 10 page manifesto called “Google’s Ideological Echo Chamber”.  It is worth the read as it represents what seems to be an authentic call of desperation from someone who considers himself a classical liberal.  His purpose is to point out some inconsistencies which are toxic to his organization and to society which are being propagated by a leftist ideology that permeates his industry. Before any of this came out, I had been thinking a lot about how social norms effect how we view gender.  What follows are some preliminary thoughts on the matter.

The ongoing feminist revolution

Feminists have attempted to destabilize traditional gender roles and norms in order to gain equality.  There has been value in some of the outcomes of the feminist revolution. But those positive outcomes have come at the expense of collateral damage effecting social cohesion. It has been recognized that the radical feminist attempts to divorce identity from sex has put in motion a rolling revolution in marriage and family life whose latest turn is toward transgender rights.  This moral revolution seems to have no end in sight as the revolutionaries are demanding that society fully recognize and endorse the subjective desires and identities of all people so that individuals can have dignity as whole human beings. This demand seems to equate societal endorsement with a person having dignity which is a debatable proposition.

There is an intriguing line of reasoning expounded upon in an essay by Wilfred M. McClay called The Strange Persistence of Guilt which claims that the current social tendencies to identify with victim groups (think political intersectionality) is a mechanism for our secular age used by individuals to achieve redemption without the need of a Savior.  The idea being that, in order to be free of guilt, we need to either be a victim, who is the recipient of unjust behavior or at least identify with victims so that we can be said to satisfy the ever-present demand for justice.  Regardless of the personal or subconscious desires of individual feminists, one of the main premises which seems to fuel the feminist movement is the underlying assumption that says- because society imposes norms and decides our values and duties, the current norms we have are bad since they were developed in a historically misogynistic milieu.  This assertion, however, should be examined.  If it is true, a lot more is at stake than the wage gap or compulsory paid maternity leave.

If it is true that we should not trust ideas or truth claims from specific historical contexts, then what is to stop us from denying more than just explicitly misogynistic claims?  More basically, is there truth that transcends time and culture or is truth simply something that is relative to individuals and societies? (see more on truth and relativism- HereHereHere, and Here)

Are values simply imposed and unavoidable? 

I think this view takes for granted that values are imposed by society.  For example, society’s misogynistic tendencies somehow seem to not affect the feminist social scientists who are at the forefront of creating the new utopia where equality reigns.  I suppose these social scientists and thought leaders for the feminist movement would say that they are still effected by society’s male leanings but that they are just aware of that fact and therefore can resist it.  However, most people are not aware and are therefore easily MANipulated to going along with what will ultimately benefit males and subjugate females.  However, the fact that feminists can resist what they claim is so pervasive in society, only lends evidence to the idea that social norms may not be as influential as many think. Of course, social scientists could never admit to something that would destroy the way they make a living.  Beyond this, there are pockets and subcultures of varying size and shape that all pull on individuals for attention. It is too simplistic to believe that there is only one source of social norm creation and that it effects all the same way.

But even if we grant that somehow social norms are compulsory and people passively obey them- are these norms therefore bad? This seems to be a question that I never see explicitly addressed.  Norms cannot be necessarily bad (per se) if feminists are planning to use them to change society to make it a better place.  By making society “better” they are implying some sort of standard by which to measure good vs. bad or better vs. worse.  Most academics in the social sciences tend to assume an essentially naturalistic view of ethics which views human behavior as purely the result of environment and biology. However, the obvious implication of this naturalistic view is the fact that objective (independent of opinion) values and duties do not exist and therefore there is no such standard by which to measure! This is a side note but a rather important one!

We are not prepared to say that all values we learn from society are wrong and should be changed merely because of how we came to know them. This would be what logicians call a genetic fallacy.  We are taught things by the environment we were raised in but that does not immediately de-legitimize our thoughts and opinions that we come to hold.  No- we must measure the things we learn on their merits not on how we came to know them. Although it is sometimes hard, one beautiful aspect of living in a pluralistic and free society, is the ability to disagree but be open to influence from alternative viewpoints (it is too bad Google doesn’t feel the same way)

How do we evaluate social norms?

So, before we throw the baby out with the bath water, we should ask ourselves questions to evaluate the social norms that seem to be out of fashion with “progress”.  What is the reason or purpose for a specific gender norm or role? Is there a reason or purpose for it? Is the norm good for ultimate human flourishing? or bad? Maybe some aspects are bad and some good. Are seemingly pointless norms able to be tossed out or will tossing them out serve to further destabilize other established (and good) norms which reinforce others? An example of a norm that, on the surface may seem arbitrary, is the idea of men purchasing the engagement ring or proposing to female instead of opposite happening.  Does this norm contribute to something that stabilizes or de-stabilizes society? Is it something that promotes human flourishing or is it bad for females in some way? These are important questions to address.

I spoke with a male I/O Psychologist recently who said that, in order to be consistent with the feminist movement, women should not only demand professional equality in the workplace, but they should also demand equality in every other facet of life.  In other words, they cannot have their cake and eat it too when it comes to being the same as their male counterparts in the professional world but then expecting to be treated as different from men in marriage, family, society, etc… If the traditional notion of a male executive leader is now replicated with women working as many hours as men in the same industries and levels, then women should start asserting their equality in the social context as well by doing things traditionally thought of as “male only” like proposing and keeping last name when married etc…

I think this individual was pointing to an inconsistency in the feminist movement in order to encourage its proliferation where I would point to the inconsistency as an indictment on the entire movement as it presents itself today. The idea of expunging all gender differences in society and implementing completely androgynous norms is an absurdity that would never work in the real world because it ultimately stands on the lie that says sex and gender are malleable and inconsequential. Beyond this, I also believe that western society typically does and should heighten the focus on the intrinsic value of individuals over the idea of a segmented society of the oppressors (white, cis-gendered, heterosexual males) vs. the oppressed (everyone else in further segmented categories).  This does not mean that we have to deny injustices where they exist but it does mean that we will focus on what matters instead of inventing problems where they do not exist. Also, saying that every individual has intrinsic and infinite value as a human being, does not mean that they are not different than other unique individuals or that there is no purpose in recognizing differences between groups of people who share common characteristics.

The more fundamental questions

I think that there are foundational questions that should be addressed before jumping into debates about the benefits of certain norms. For example- Are certain societal norms a recognition of naturally good things that arise when society sees its value? Or is it simply an imposition by a power hungry group? Maybe it’s a combination of both?  Many people want to find answers to these questions so that they can further spur the progress of equality. However, equality does not mean the same thing to every person. For example, does equality mean exact equivalence in every facet? If that’s the case nothing is equal. Does it mean equality of status before the law? Or does it mean equality in dignity and intrinsic value as a human being? What exactly do the feminists want when they say equal rights? Are they referring to rights as traditionally understood- freedom from government coercion? or maybe they mean equality in the receipt of benefits from the government. Who has the authority to give them this right? Defining terms and understanding our own biases and leanings is a good place to start when addressing such a divisive topic.

How “Unconscious Bias” is used to shame people

One thing that has baffled me as of late is the idea of unconscious bias and how its promoters tend to use it.  Since people never admit that they are biased against someone, social scientists (specifically feminists) have used the idea of unconscious bias to incriminate people who don’t agree with the feminist movement on the grounds that those people are simply driven by arational (and unknown to themselves) tendencies that they cannot control.  However, claiming that certain groups of people (or everyone) has this unconscious bias proves nothing.  The content of a person’s unconscious bias is what matters as well as how it relates to their specific behaviors.  Feminists have decided to define this particularly elusive type of bias with a specific objective in mind.   It is used most frequently as a way to point out how society has an unconscious bias against women doing well in the workforce.  This is why there is a glass ceiling and less women are in top executive levels in fortune 500 companies (I have written about this in my Response to Recent Study: “Unlocking the Full Potential of Women at Work”).

However, if unconscious bias effects everyone and feminist social scientists are included in “everyone”, then why don’t they say that they have an unconscious bias against conservative and complementarian views of male and female roles? They might just admit to having a “conscious bias” against conservative values.  However, they seem to be picking the winners and losers in the “unconscious bias” wars while arbitrarily leaving their own bias out of the question.

Conclusion

There is good reason to believe that women and men can be different and equally and intrinsically valuable as individuals without throwing all traditional gender norms out the window.  Women are not part of a monolithic unity of voices who all share the same opinions on this subject (see HERE and HERE). This is not a fight between men and women as if being a member of a specific gender implies you agree with all others in that same gender.  Females with alternative viewpoints can and should be able to speak their minds and express their opinions without fear of being denied status as a “true woman”.  Also, men should have a voice at the table as we can see how these conversations effect all of us- not just women.

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