Tuesday, 18 June 2013

Why not being a sexist is not enough

I've been thinking about sexism.  Now, normally I try to throw in a couple of jokes to liven up posts to this blog, but I don't really have any this time.  It's a serious topic, so today I'm going to be serious.

I'll start off with a confession.  Whilst I don't think I am, or have ever been a sexist, I don't think that I have taken sexism seriously enough thus far in my life.  This, suffice to say, was wrong of me.  I used to be of the opinion that so long as you weren't sexist, that was enough.  So long as you respect than men and women are equal, you could leave it there.  With this in mind, I often found it frustrating when I was confronted with feminism, which in retrospect I think I perceived as a militant voice telling me off for things I hadn't done and nagging me about things I already knew.  I thought "look, I know that women and men are equal, so stop going on about it".  This was an ignorant position.  There are some factors which might help to explain (though not justify) why I held this position, wrong as it was (I include these not as excuses, but more as a spotters guide for anyone out there who may be in a similar position).

1 - Various autobiographical factors: Growing up I really didn't perceive that much gender imbalance.  Most of the authority figures in my early life were women.  Obviously this was a skewed perspective, but I think it left an impression that I didn't really shake until later than I should have.  Also, the early 'feminists' (I use the scare quotes because whilst self describing as feminists, these people were not at all representative of what feminism is really about) were aggressive caricatures who's position was more informed by 'angry feminist' tropes from TV than from any moderate and well thought out set of beliefs.  I reacted negatively and defensively to relative strangers accusing me of being a sexist for no real reason.  Again, this impression lasted, and unfortunately tainted later encounters with people who describe themselves as feminist.

2 - The media:  I know this sounds clich√©, but the media portrayal of feminism and feminists is shocking.  I've recently been reading a lot about these kinds of issues, and I was surprised to find the extent of this negative portrayal, and mightily embarrassed at just how oblivious I was to its extent.  I wouldn't do it justice to describe this kind of bias here, but Google it, there's plenty of insightful discussion on this topic out there.

3 - (and most embarrassingly of all) I just didn't re-evaluate my views on the topic often enough.  I try to confront myself on my beliefs on a regular basis; normally I'm quite good at this.  However, when it comes to sexism I was surprisingly dug in, and reluctant to spare it the time for re-evaluation.  I'm not sure why, but unfortunately it is the case.

Anyway, that is my confession.  I don't think I was a sexist, but I definitely had an ignorant view towards sexism, and that means I was still part of the problem.  There is no excuse, and I'm sorry.  But why is it a problem?  Why isn't it enough to just not be a sexist?  Here are a few reasons:

1 - It's a view that breeds complacency, and makes it harder to spot sexism around you.  If you think that the only important message feminism has to offer is that women and men are equal, then there is little motivation to listen to feminists, or think about sexism.

2 - It creates a hostile atmosphere for the support and exploration of feminist ideas.  Remember that stuff I said about the media?  Exactly.  Like it or not, women are a disadvantaged group, belittling the problems they face, regardless of your intentions, stultifies progress towards equality by making people embarrassed or doubtful when these problems present themselves.

3 - To refuse to think about the problem is often tantamount to denying that there is a problem.  There is a problem.  We should not deny it.  We should think about it.

4 - By simply resolving not to be sexist, you may be setting a good example (to an extent), but you allow the kind of insidious sexism to proliferate.  We must do our part to raise awareness of all the sneaky underhand forms that sexism can take, otherwise we allow it to flourish.  Just because you can spot when someone smacks a colleague on the arse at work, does not mean that you can spot sexually abusive relationships in the work place.  If you can't spot it, you can't do anything about it.

This is by no means an exhaustive list, but I hope I've made my point.  I'm guessing that to many people a lot of this will seem either pretty obvious, or perhaps still pretty naive/ignorant, but hey, I'm trying.

P.S. I still this it's daft to start using 'she' all over the place in academic papers.  Look people, the English language gave us a perfectly good gender neutral pronoun.  It's called 'they', and it's not rubbish, it's great.  Switching to 'she' is just patronising, akin to patting feminists on the head.  And if there is anyone who disagrees with me, then THEY are free to make their case to me (heh, what do you know?  I did manage to get a joke in).

1 comment:

  1. Good stuff. The autobiographical stuff seems very familiar to me, I went through a broadly similar progression of attitudes. And although I don't really mind the practice of using 'she' that you describe, I am very much on board when it comes to the use of pseudo-singular 'they'. It sounds fine to my ear. On which note, and more controversially, how do you feel about the more radical reflexive pronoun 'themself'?