One of the offshoots of this conversation has been whether it’s appropriate for men to relate their impression of it with the women in their lives. As some Republicans have backed away from Trump, they’ve cited that they were horrified because of their wives and daughters. This lead to a degree of backlash about how women are people apart from their relationship with men.
I can understand the frustration. Society has often juxtaposed women in relation to the nearest man. Formal letters are often addressed to Mr and Mrs John Smith, for example. Books about women are often titled about their relation to men (Preacher’s Wife, Coal-Miner’s Daughter). And beyond that, there is perhaps something infantizing about it and how it’s deployed.
That being said, the objections in cases like this tend to be misguided.
I don’t consider myself especially sexist or misogynistic. I’ve always believed that women should get equal pay for equal work. I entered into a marriage of non-traditional arrangement with a female breadwinner and a stay-at-home dad, and felt no special compunction about doing so. And of course, rape is bad and sexual harassment is bad and have always been bad.
Even so, it’s one thing to believe things abstractly and another to have a specific reference. While I did believe that sexism in the workplace existed, things changed entirely when my livelihood depended on my wife being treated fairly in the workplace. That was when I started seeing unfairness everywhere. Not just as it pertained to her, but I started seeing it more around me generally. Things I had before found other explanations for became “Well, Other Explanation maybe, but I suspect there is sexism involved as well.”
If we so choose, we can attribute this to Trumwill’s Failure of Creative Empathy. It is not to my credit that I was as dismissive as I was before my own welfare was on the line, for sure. But even if we grant this, my wife became a conduit through which I saw – and saw the importance of – sexism more than I had before. Likewise, having a daughter has made me more keenly aware of the importance of female strength and independence. Strength and independence from the need of a man. This may not be ideal, but it is what it is.
All of which is to say, encouraging men to look at issues of sexism with the women and girls in their lives as a conduit is a good thing. Because it’s likely to be effective. The tangible always trumps the abstract. And this does apply both ways.
I've decided I'm going to start all of my comments if things happen to men with "As the sister of two brothers, I am outraged by this."
— Elise Foley (@elisefoley) October 9, 2016
Toe above tweet is supposed to illustrate the absurdity of this, but it really doesn’t. The key here is whether the bad thing that happens is male-centric or not. If it’s something that is as likely or not to happen to anyone regardless of gender, then it is silly. But that’s not really what we’re talking about when we’re talking about sexual harassment or assault. We’re talking about something I am very unlikely to ever have to deal with, or if I do it’s in a trivial or infrequent manner (like when I was a substitute teacher and rather uncomfortable with a bunch of women talking about the hotness of the CSI detectives). So it becomes easy for me to disagree with the likelihood or severity of the imposition.
Men may generally have less creative empathy than women, but it’s certainly something I’ve seen with issues that they are rarely likely to be on the wrong side of. False paternity is a historic example. Perhaps the most contemporary example of a male-centric problem is due process for college students accused of sexual assaults come to mind. I want women thinking about their brothers and sons when it comes to giving men adequate room to defend themselves against a change. When we talk about kids getting kicked out of college, I think they are less likely to think of it as “no big deal” if they’re thinking of their sons. And sure enough, women who talk about this (from a pro-process perspective) do talk about their sons.
Notably, they almost all have sons.
I am going to keep an eye on things, and if these arguments do really offend women (outside opinion-on-everything Twitter and the like) then I will stop using it. I may lack the creative empathy to see why exactly its effectiveness is insufficient to undermine its offensiveness. It would be a shame if that were the case.
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