The Modern Survival Guide #62
This is the Modern Survival Guide, a guidebook I’m writing for things I think people need to know about living in the modern world. The views expressed here are mine, and mine alone. And I’m a man. So for the record, I have male points of view, but I do feel very strongly that one of those points of view must be that sexism is bad and has no particular place in modern society. And I think that I have good reasons why.
Let’s start with a definition:
Sexism: prejudice, stereotyping, or discrimination, typically against women, on the basis of gender.
Cool, now we know what we’re talking about. The core point I’ll be making is that sexism is a stupid, anachronistic artifact of a particular social structure that no longer exists, and one which has damaging effects. I don’t know if sexism was the deliberate product of that structure, but it was and is high on the list of unintended consequences. And it needs to stop, for five very good reasons:
- Patriarchy is an outdated concept
- Sexism creates violence and repression
- Sexism damages our relationships
- Sexism harms our ability to trust
- Sexism hurts our economy
I’ll go through these one by one, but just recognize going into this that I think any of these stands on its own as a sufficient reason to say that sexism is bad, and the sum of these points indicate that sexism is a modern social evil. That makes it a modern survival issue, because, well, some of us are different genders from the others. We shouldn’t be sexist, and here’s why.
Patriarchy: An Outdated Concept
A lot of sexism rests on the concept of patriarchy (i.e., men being in charge as the natural order of things). Patriarchy is one of the basic social modes of organization, but it’s highly outdated and it’s time we got over it.
So — once upon a time human beings settled down into a variety of cultures and social strategies, all of which evolved over the centuries into forms that we would recognize as near-modern. And the thing about evolution is that it’s focused on survival; evolution is about not failing so hard that you die, as opposed to actually designing things well. And evolution happens in societies much like it does in organisms. In a lot of cases this resulted in patriarchal systems.
For the past couple of thousand years, at least, and up to just a few decades ago, most Western societies functioned on the tradition that men worked and women kept the house. Depending on what the definition of “the house” was in different cases, and depending on the degree to which this division was enforced, this gave women more or less power. But the power balance was usually with the men.¹ And for a given value of “not failed,” this appears to have not failed as a strategy. The species is still around.
But the concept of patriarchy isn’t particularly logical, and never really had anything recommending it as a social strategy other than the fact that it did not lead to the extinction of the species.
In the modern world patriarchy simply doesn’t make sense. We’ve evolved past the point where violence is the preferred method of problem-solving, so the whole “male protector” thing is mostly out.² We’re in an economic system where your physical labor really doesn’t matter that much, in the sense that machines are used to do heavy work — what’s left isn’t really gender-dependent in most cases, so the whole “men are stronger” thing is mostly out. And we have laws against various kinds of spousal abuse, so the whole “might makes right” argument is also out.
And in terms of limiting factors that might have contributed to patriarchy, we have enough birth control that we can (if we are educated, careful, and reasonably lucky) choose when to have children. So it’s no longer the case that women will be in a state of semi-permanent pregnancy during their productive years. And economically, the most valuable commodity most of us can offer is our mind… and being smart is not a gender-dependent trait.
Whatever reasons we might have had to adopt a patriarchal system, they no longer exist. Women can do all the jobs men can do, including the political ones. Women are as smart as men, a fact that should come as no surprise to anyone. And if we’ve proven anything in the last few years, it’s that women are no more or less compromised by emotion than men.
So guys, listen, we need to give up on this residual idea that men are better at (insert whatever thing here). Most of that is just social conditioning or training, and the rest is historical inertia. Those things could all change tomorrow, if we put our minds to it. And patriarchy is actively contributing to sexist crap, because it’s perpetuating the myth that men are inherently better, and whenever people think they’re superior, they turn into assholes. I don’t even think they mean it, it just happens.
So down with the patriarchy! All it’s doing is holding us back.
Sexism Creates Violence and Repression
To reiterate, when people think they’re superior, they turn into assholes. In particular they turn into assholes towards whoever they think is inferior. One of the primary ways in which this manifests is through violence and repression.
Around the world, with regard to sexism we see examples of this every day. Men beating their wives and girlfriends, fathers controlling their adult daughters, and nations passing laws that restrict women from basic activities are all regular features in the news.
And let’s be honest — a lot of this comes from men’s feelings of superiority and entitlement, particularly where sexual gratification is concerned.
None of this is good. Terrorizing and subjugating half the human species is not a recipe for a modern, fully realized, happy, cooperative or supportive society. It’s not taking full advantage of the human potential. It’s certainly not making anyone’s home situation happier. And remember that hurting people just because you can is evil.
Sexism Damages Our Relationships
I’m going to put this as simply as I can: if you’re a sexist ass, you’re probably going to end up getting divorced or otherwise breaking up with your wife or girlfriend. In the modern world, sexism and personal relationships are simply not very compatible, because how would you like it if you knew your partner thought you were inherently not as competent or intelligent, and acted to demonstrate that belief? Love does not conquer all, and one of the things it doesn’t conquer is contempt.
You know how the divorce rate abruptly spiked in the 1970s, after the passage of “no-fault” divorce legislation? This is one reason why.
Quite apart from romantic relationships, sexism is death on friendships across genders. It’s really difficult to make or stay friends if your friend knows you think they’re not as competent, intelligent, etc. And that’s kind of cutting off your nose to spite your face, because we need friends in this life — preferably friends with as many different viewpoints and experiences as possible, if only to cover our own blind spots. Excluding half the members of humanity from your friend group is just stupid.
Sexism Harms Our Ability to Trust
If I’m prejudiced against you, I’m going to have trouble trusting you. I’m not going to want to trust you, because I think you’re inferior. That’s just how it is. And if you know I’m prejudiced against you, you’re going to have trouble trusting me. You’re not going to want to trust me, because you’re probably not going to like me very much if you have any self-respect at all.
That’s a problem. Trust is pretty much the bedrock of human social interaction. Without it most of our social interactions fall apart, and we’re left watching our backs all the time. That’s no way to live. It’s harder to come to agreements, harder to make assumptions, harder to believe others. That sounds like a stressful, annoying experience to me. Degrading trust just because someone is a different gender is just stupid.
Sexism Hurts Our Economy
One of the main thrusts of sexism is to keep women out of the workplace. “Barefoot in the kitchen” is the standard line we use to describe this attitude, and that simply does not work in the modern world, for a number of reasons.
To start with, American wages have not actually increased, if you allow for inflation, since the 1970s. There are a lot of reasons for that, which we won’t get into here, but the outcome is that most households need both partners to work. Not want. Need. Because otherwise you can’t make ends meet with a family — kids, apparently, are expensive.
Relegating families to poverty just because you don’t agree with women working is the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard. Next you’ll tell me you don’t want bomb-sniffing dogs in airports because you don’t like seeing pets in public. Preferences do not get to dictate reality, or at least they damn well shouldn't.
Which leads to the next problem, which is that women typically make less than men, for the same work. This is true across almost all disciplines and industries, and it’s a serious issue, because in an economy that requires all partners of a household to contribute in order to attain a good standard of living, cutting one of those partners off at the economic knees represents a bottleneck.
Imagine what consumer spending would look like if women made as much as men. Now consider what that would actually mean. Women already influence 83% of consumer spending in the US, because they tend to hold the place of household accountants (remember our earlier point about traditional divisions of power). Increasing their wages would be a very good thing indeed for most economies because the more money moves in an economy, the better that economy does.
And finally, remember that modern economies are primarily concerned with innovation — and innovation isn’t a gender-specific sport. Modern economies need brains, not more brawn. Excluding women from your business simply means cutting yourself off from 50% of the potential brainpower of the species, in an era where smart, competent people are absolutely necessary for success. That’s got to be one of the dumbest decisions I see on a daily basis.
How to Not Be Sexist
Sexism rests on a foundation of assumptions, for the most part.³ Some of these are traditional, some are cultural. Most people are a little sexist simply because of socially programmed assumptions — “women aren’t as good at math,” for example, is an idea that has no bearing in reality but was simply repeated until people assumed it was true.
So these days, getting over sexism is mostly an exercise in controlling our assumptions. We’re past the point where we use the term “hysterical” in a scientific setting, but we’re still at the point where a lot of people assume women are more “emotional.”⁴
And that takes us to the elephant in the room: men and women are different. There’s no getting around this. We have different hormonal balances, different physiology, different drives at different points in our lives. It would be an evolutionary impossibility for this to not create differences in our worldviews, goals, and characteristics.
But the point we have to internalize, the bit that’s important, is that these differences do not imply superiority or inferiority in any kind of general terms. They’re just… differences. On the balance it’s kind of a wash. I can grow more muscle mass, but I can’t give birth to a child. That kind of thing. It doesn’t make me a better or worse person, a better or worse intellectual, a more or less emotionally stable individual. It just makes me male.
Avoiding sexism is all about not letting differences determine attitudes, expectations, and assumptions. A LOT of sexist attitudes and cultural mores stem from the menstrual cycle, for example. Women were considered “unclean,” with all the connotations that implies, in many ancient cultures because they bled once a month. In the past, before we had knowledge of biology, that might have made sense (ignorance begets erroneous assumption). In the present, it just sounds stupid — but we still have to deal with thousands of years of distilled cultural prejudice before we can accept that it is stupid.
As with most cases where assumptions might otherwise dominate our life, our best friend is that old emotion, DOUBT. Ask “why?” when you run up on an assumption in your life (which I typically define as any situation where you believe something bone-deep, without thinking about it). If you think you have an answer to that “why,” do some research and see if there are any counterarguments out there. This is a basic scientific mindset, it’s not hard, and you can check just about any assumption on your phone in less than thirty minutes.
And avoid making new assumptions as much as possible. Treat people as individuals, not as groups. Just because one man is violent does not mean all men are violent. Just because one woman is extremely emotional does not mean all women are hysterical. Never, ever, apply broad generalizations without a very good reason. This is advice not just for sexism, but for a lot of other things that end in -ism or -phobia.
So one more time, and say it with me: don’t be sexist.
Don’t support other people who are sexist. Don’t perpetuate sexist ideals. And the world will be better, because denigrating or demonizing people based on what equipment they have is one of the dumbest ideas we’ve ever come up with. It takes two to tango, and if the species didn’t require and profit from both genders we’d have all died out a long time ago.
¹My personal guess on how this came about (because nobody really knows how this happened) can be summed up in one word: childbirth. Because in a society without birth control, but with people in it with sexual urges, and with very high child mortality rates, women had a lot of kids. And therefore couldn’t work in demanding occupations for huge portions of their lives. And with the origin of agriculture and, later, light industry a lot of occupations required long, physical labor. And therefore it seems to follow that men, as the main source of permanent trained labor and production, established the social connections and bargaining power that, over time, shifted the power dynamic in society. Add in physical strength and a lack of laws against spousal abuse, and, well…
²And in any case, our best methods of dispensing violence are gender-agnostic. A gun doesn’t care which gender pulls the trigger.
³As with most of these sorts of things, there’s a bit of pseudoscience in the mix too. It’s my personal opinion that attitudes are more important than pseudoscience in debunking sexism, though, because on this subject real science seems to have categorically driven most of the pseudoscience out of the popular arena.
⁴Research seems to show that it’s not really a case that one gender is more emotional than the other, but more that the genders express different emotions at different levels.