Everyday sexism of the subtler kind

How does sexism and suchlike become invisibly ingrained in our society? Answer: whenever said sexism is promoted as ‘progressive thinking’…

To many people, the term ‘sexism’ applies only to gender-imbalance that directly affects women: yet a few moments thought should make it clear that that assertion is in itself a form of sexism – the kind of ‘term-hijack‘ that can make it very difficult to work our way through the resultant mess of wicked-problems in the respective context. The reality is that sexism occurs whenever any gender-imbalance is embedded in everyday thinking, sensemaking and decision-making – and it’s a tendency that we need to challenge in all of its forms if we’re to have any chance of creating a sane and sustainable society.

Unfortunately, even supposed ‘progressive thinkers’ often fail to think that far. One apparent example of this came up in a Tweet yesterday from Bert van Lamoen (@transarchitect):

  • transarchitect: Feminine values are the operating system of the 21st century.

Okay, fair enough, it’s the kind of bland universalism that comes up all too often on Bert’s Twitterstream. But as one who’s had way too much experience not only of dysfunctional ‘masculine values’, but dysfunctional ‘feminine values’ too, I kinda winced – and said so when I reTweeted Bert’s note:

  • tetradian: RT @transarchitect: Feminine values are the operating system of the 21st century. >oh dear, more politically-correct sexism…

To which Bert came back with a Tweet that I can only describe as bizarre:

  • transarchitect: @tetradian far from, my dear…eternal laws in action…

Okay, I’ll admit the hackles raised at the “my dear…” – ‘insultingly patronising’ would be a mild way to describe how it felt – but I wrote it off at first as just one of those all-too-common errors of cultural-translation. But “eternal laws in action”? – no way… Even allowing for the limitations of Twitter, that’s ‘newage’ of the worst order – the kind of self-congratulatory spiritual-imperialism that runs rampant throughout so much of the self-styled ‘New Age’. Hence, again, I said so, loudly:

  • tetradian: @transarchitect “eternal laws in action” – _what_ ‘eternal laws’? – or just an overdose of wishful-thinking? #NotAmused…

To which Bert came back with an even more bizarre response:

The link points to a book by Marja de Vries, ‘The Whole Elephant Revealed: Insights into the existence and operation of Universal Laws and the Golden Ratio‘, whose blurb suggests it’s the kind of, uh, nice pretty ‘spiritual’ guff that, as a gawky, confused late-teenager, I used to devour in good old Watkins Bookshop, just off the Charing Cross Road in central London, nigh on half a century ago. Ever so sweet, wildly optimistic, the usual careless blurring of disciplines that’s so characteristic of the would-be ‘New Age’: in other words, pretty, enlivening, maybe even enlightening at times, but almost useless – sometimes worse than useless – in real-world practice.

What worries me more, though, is that Bert knows that I work in a space far wider than mainstream EA: he’s commented on such posts in this blog before now. In which case, the notion that I should be rebuked that this “goes far beyond entarch” to me makes no sense whatsoever – because he must surely know by now that everything I do is as much about relations across the whole human enterprise as it is about between low-level IT-services and everything in between. Hence I kinda lost my rag at that point:

  • tetradian: @transarchitect “goes way beyond entarch” – do you think I don’t know that??? – this is getting beyond bizarre, best I blog on this for you

And, hence, this blog-post.

[Before I go any further, I ought to emphasise that Bert is by no means the only one of my regular Twitter-correspondents who seems to have fallen for this trap. Amongst just the men, I can think of at least two others who’ve done so: one of them now does acknowledge the risks, but unfortunately the conversation with one of them became so acrimonious when I challenged him on it that I had to break off all contact. Oh well. I’d prefer to prevent the latter from happening here too, yet the societal dangers of this type of sexism are so high that I’ll have to take that risk.]

Sexism, in whatever form it may take, is a huge problem for every society: such prejudice harms not just its more obvious targets and victims, but ultimately everyone throughout that respective culture. In short, it’s something that we need to challenge wherever we see it – perhaps most in ourselves…

I’ve been actively in gender-issues for almost half a century now. Right from the start, I knew I didn’t fit in with any of the standard gender-stereotypes for ‘maleness’, or for much of anything else, for that matter. Wherever I’ve lived, however I’ve lived, my social experience is pretty much that I’ve only ever really known myself to be a largely-unwanted Outsider: ‘unwanted’ because I seem inadvertently – often just by my very existence – to challenge almost everyone’s otherwise-comfortable preconceptions. Which is not a comfortable place to be.

Hence when I talk about gender-issues and the like, it’s not a trivial matter to me: everything I say about it comes from a lot of deep study, a lot of deep observation, and often a lot of deeply-painful personal experience. Which is also why I don’t take it lightly when someone actively promotes some form of sexism or suchlike as ‘a good idea’…

For the first couple of decades of that exploration, I’d followed pretty much the standard ‘feminist’ line: “men are the problem, women are the solution”. Which meant I first had to accept defining myself as ‘the problem’ – which kinda reinforced my existing rather-too-strong tendencies towards self-blame and self-doubt, and which kinda made any kind of social-relations even harder than they already were.

It wasn’t until I got well into my forties, along with a quieter somewhat-acceptance that I was quintessentially unsuited for any kind of social-relationship other than that of the Outsider, that I finally realised that the real problem wasn’t ‘men’ at all: it was the dishonesty and self-dishonesty of Other-blame, in whatever form it might take. And hence that the so-called ‘pro-feminist’ or ‘anti-sexist’ line that I too had supported all of those years was in fact just another form of sexism – but a more pernicious form of sexism because it had seemed to be supportive of others’ needs.

At that point I belatedly started to do some rather more careful self-examination, and realised that, for most of my life, I too had been a target for almost all of the forms of abuse that were purported to be applied solely to women – and the same was true for many if not most of the men I knew. I also belatedly realised that much if not most of that abuse had come from women, not men. In other words, both men and women were ‘the problem’, and both women and men would therefore need to be ‘the solution’. The notion that “men are the problem, women are the solution” was itself by definition not merely inherently sexist, but inherently violent – and often intensely violent at that, in both its action and intent. Ouch…

Somewhen around that time I was asked to review the Duluth model on domestic-violence. (In part this was on behalf of two of my lesbian friends, who’d ended their relationship in a knife-fight – fortunately without doing significant damage to each other – but had had no help at all from the official Domestic Violence Helpline, solely because there was no man that they could blame…)

That study of Duluth turned out to be a real eye-opener. The model starts off by defining all violence as inherently and exclusively ‘male’: it gives no reason for doing so, it just asserts that this is some kind of ‘universal truth’, and continues on from there. The Duluth Wheel then lists various forms of violence, exclusively using male-pronouns for the nominal perpetrator, and female-pronouns for the nominal-victim: ‘gender-equality’ is defined as existing when the woman – and, we might note, only the woman – “feels safe and comfortable expressing herself and doing things”.

Yet this exclusive use of gender-pronouns suggested a very simple thought-experiment: swap the gender-pronouns over and see if it makes sense this other way round. It did: in fact so much so that in many cases it made more sense – and with much more social-context evidence – than the ‘official’ way round. In which case, domestic-violence could not be portrayed as something that was inherently gendered: and the attempt to do so in Duluth, was, by its own terms, “minimising, denying and blaming” of men for what was actually women’s violence. Which meant that, in practice, other than for a very small subset of cases, Duluth was not only doomed to fail, but actually designed to fail – but fail in such a way that could then be used to blame men alone for the failure. Hence, far from reducing the social problem of domestic-violence, Duluth’s design is capable only of making things worse, for everyone. Not exactly a good idea…

The more I’ve studied current gender-issues in current ‘Western’-style cultures, the more that the inherently-dysfunctional design of Duluth has turned out to be typical rather than the exception. Which, again, is not exactly a good idea.

And that’s why I kinda lost my rag at Bert’s garbage about ‘feminine values’ – because almost invariably such over-simplistic garbage indicates a serious lack of thought or awareness about the real complexities behind a lot of seriously nasty societal wicked-problems. That kind of shallow (and, all too often, inanely sexist) non-thinking will keep on applying the same muddled-headed assumptions to contexts where they just don’t fit, repeatedly failing to understand or acknowledge that its ‘solutions’ not only don’t work but can’t work, in fact can only keep on making things worse, and worse, and worse – and guarantees overall outcomes that are going to be seriously non-fun for just about everyone involved. Which, yet again, is not exactly a good idea.

[Note, though, that we see exactly the same kind of obsessive misapplication of ill-thought-through non-‘solutions’ in many other areas, such as IT-centric EA, or in the ongoing disaster-area of ‘managerialisation’ that keeps on trying to force-fit arbitrary ‘sameness’-based assumptions into high-uniqueness contexts such as the NHS. In that sense, there’s nothing really different here: but there’s a lot we can learn from properly tackling sexism that we can apply in other contexts too.]

So let’s strip this right back to its core essence: keep it strictly to observed fact and systematic symmetry, and build outward from there.

Item #1: yes, men and women are different – no surprises there. But actually everyone is similar to and different from everyone else – sex and gender are just specific strands within that overall ‘same and different’. If we over-focus on any one strand, or make arbitrary assumptions based on just one strand, we’re likely to miss out a lot of other strands that may actually be more relevant in the context.

Item #2: yes, much of this is problem of power. More specifically, it’s a problem about perceptions of power:

  • physics definition: “power is the ability to do work” (aka ‘functional power’)
  • common social definition: “power is the ability to avoid work” (aka ‘dysfunctional delusion of power’)

The reason why the latter definition is a delusion is that no work is actually done. Sometimes – such as in a slave-culture, or in our culture’s increasing dependence on a somewhat slave-like usage of machines – the work seems to be done by others, as a result of this kind of abuse, but often with hidden costs, or opportunity-costs, such as loss of skills-development in doing the work. But where the work can only be done by the self – particularly relational-work or spiritual-work, creating “a sense of meaning a purpose, a sense of self and of relationship with that which is greater than self” – then that definition of power as “the ability to avoid work” leads inevitably to a spiralling addiction to Other-blame and Other-abuse, because the needed work still repeatedly demands to be done, yet cannot be done by some Other, no matter how much they might try to do so.

(Over the years I’ve done a lot of work on how these themes play out in various real-world contexts, and what we can do to mitigate and resolve them in real-world practice. For example, take a look at my non-gendered rewrite of Duluth, or – for a somewhat less ‘political’ context, but using essentially the same principles – see the ‘manifesto‘ on tackling implicit abuse and violence in the workplace, from my book ‘Power and response-ability: the human side of systems‘.)

Item #3: there are various traits that are often described as ‘masculine’ or ‘feminine’. Yet Item #1 applies: between individuals, there are differences amongst the supposed samenesses, and samenesses amongst the supposed differences. And Item #2 applies: we need to be careful to ensure that none of these traits are misused to ‘justify’ power-problems and power-abuses, especially in a broader social-context. In so much as those traits are physiologically-determined – i.e. sex-differences, such as the ability to bear a child – there’s not much that we can do about them, other than to acknowledge them and respect them. (Note, though, that even the notion that there are just two sexes is often questionable: as I remember, some of the Plains Indian cultures traditionally recognise at least a dozen distinct sexes, whereas current genetics and current medical evidence would take it a lot further than that.) Yet where those purported traits are derived more from gender, or from an arbitrary blurring of sex and gender – in other words, culturally-determined as much or more than biologically-determined – then we need to be much more careful about how we work with them, because there are distinct and important choices in there.

Let’s take two very similar supposed ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ traits: the willingness to sacrifice Self for Other. The ‘feminine’ version – seen so often in mothers, but in fathers too – focusses its sacrifice on behalf of related Others, such as children or siblings or spouse. By contrast, the ‘masculine’ version – which we see embodied in groups such as emergency-workers, or individual rescuers, which these days may well include women as well as men – focusses its sacrifice on behalf of unrelated Others. One is familial, the other is social: and from the broader perspective of species-survival, both of these are very important and even necessary traits. Yet according to Bert’s bland assertion that “Feminine values are the operating system of the 21st century”, only the ‘feminine’ trait should be considered valid; the ‘masculine’ trait – willingness to risk life on behalf of a stranger, a previously-unknown Other – is to be consigned to the scrapheap of history. Is that actually a good idea? Hmm…

Let’s take two very different and often supposedly-gendered traits: competition, and cooperation. According to feminist writers such as Starhawk (Miriam Simos), competition is exclusively ‘masculine’, and always dysfunctional, whereas cooperation is exclusively ‘feminine’, and always functional and desirable. In The Spiral Dance, and even more in Dreaming the Dark, it’s notable the extent to which Simos relies on circular-reasoning to ‘prove’ the validity of these assertions… In practice, as only a few moments of real-world observation and reflection should indicate, it’s all too evident that men can and do collaborate, often in highly functional ways – such as in that same kind ‘masculine sacrifice’ in emergency-rescue scenarios; whereas women most definitely do compete with each other, often in extremely-destructive ways. (See, for example, the film Mean Girls, a kind of fictionalisation of behaviours researched and described in the book Queen Bees and Wannabes.) Hence it should be obvious that we should not conflate those themes together.

A more useful ‘bundling’ would cross-link these traits to Item #2: the key concern is not whether it’s competition or cooperation, but whether it’s based on working ‘with’ or ‘against’ others: ‘competition-with’ and ‘cooperation-with’, versus ‘competition-against’ and ‘cooperation-against’. The more whatever-the-activity-is is ‘with’ someone or something, the more likely is to be functional; the more it’s ‘against’ someone or something, the more likely it is to be addictively dysfunctional. For example, ‘competition-with’ is a often a key and necessary component in skills-development, even if the ‘competition-with’ is only with the Self-as-Other; whereas perhaps the two most classic examples of ‘cooperation-against’ are war, and the obsessive Other-blame of almost all current feminist theory and practice. Oops…

To put it into a personal context, in my work as a contractor and consultant, I’ve worked for and with some very competent people, and some seriously dysfunctional ones. The key point here is that there was a fairly even mix of men and women in both of those categories. Graeme Burnett and Helen Mills, for example, each managed a brilliant combination of competition and collaboration in their respective business contexts. Of the other kind, I won’t name any of the disaster-areas I had the misfortune to have to work with: we’ve all suffered them in our own ways – some of those ways documented with painful accuracy by Bob Sutton in his book The No Asshole Rule. In all of that mess, the nearest I’ve seen to anything resembling a gender-tendency was that the dysfunctional ‘male-dominated’ environments tended to be in commercial businesses, whereas the dysfunctional ‘female-dominated’ environments tended to be in government-departments: but that’s only my experience, and others would note it differently – such as the first-hand experience reframed into fictional form by Lauren Weisberger in her novel The Devil Wears Prada.

Anyway, despite all of the real-world evidence, ‘competition’ is still often described as a ‘masculine’ trait, and ‘cooperation’ a ‘feminine’. Hence, according to Bert’s assertion, all forms of competition should be expunged from “the operating system of the 21st century”. Which, in effect, argues for an ‘operating system’ that has no means for skills-development, and no means whatsoever to deal with dysfunctional ‘cooperation-against’. Perhaps not such a good idea? Hmm…

That is the real effect of the shallow thinking embedded in such bland assertions as “Feminine values are the operating system of the 21st century”: they are a lot more dangerous than they might at first seem. Especially so if people are foolish enough to believe them – which, regrettably, they often are. Oh well.

There’s one more lens that might be useful here, though itself often much-misused: Spiral Dynamics. The set of colour-coded ‘value-memes’ in the Spiral model alternate between ‘individual’ – usually characterised as ‘masculine’ – and ‘collective’ – usually characterised as ‘feminine’. The common (mis)perception of Spiral is that it’s a linear-progression, with unfortunate overtones of classic US concepts of ‘manifest destiny’, or Marxist-style notions of ‘historical determinacy’. We’ll come back to the problems around that in a moment, but for now, that linear-progression would imply a cultural clash between the Orange value-meme – masculine, competitive – and the Green value-meme – feminine, cooperative. In other words, the same garbled-conflation we’ve already tackled above. The popular notion amongst the newage-folks is that we’re moving out of an Orange age into a Green one – hence the sexist guff such as in Bert’s ‘Feminine values’ Tweet.

What such people don’t seem to notice, or know, is that whilst Orange can be seriously-dysfunctional, one of the core characteristics of Green is that it needs some Other to blame, in order to cover up and avoid facing up to the consequences of its own inherent dysfunctionalities. In that sense, yes, very much dysfunctional-feminine… Yet at the global scale, and given the kind of planetary-scale challenges we have to face up to Real Soon Now, the one thing we cannot afford – to be blunt – is yet another fundamentally-dysfunctional model of reality, this time based not on Orange-mode delusions of individual ‘rights’, but on Green-mode ‘rights’ of Other-blame. True, the current Orange-dominant culture does need to be superseded: but replacing it with a Green-dominant would be no real improvement at all – in fact, probably a lot worse, in many ways, because we no longer have the luxury of time or energy to waste in pandering to its delusions.

What we need – what we urgently need – is a transition to a true systemic view of reality: one that, for example, fully acknowledges that blame is itself a form of violence, and that there is never an excuse for any form of violence or abuse, from anyone to any Other, including to Self-as-Other. (Understanding of such behaviours, yes, and respect about where they come from and why, yes; but excuse, no, not at all, not ever. That distinction may seem a bit cryptic and confusing at times, but is utterly crucial – and increasingly, crucial to our very survival…)

In Spiral terms, that shift to a systemic view is represented by a transition to a Yellow value-meme, or ‘above’ (Turquoise, or Coral). In the usual interpretations of the Spiral model, that kind of two-step transition is impossible: it’s a linear progression, so our only possible options from Orange are to ‘go Green’, or collapse back to a theocratic or other rigid rule-based Blue that certainly won’t be able to  cope with the kind of complexities and chaos that we now know are coming our way. Yet that assumes that the linear-progression model is correct – which I don’t think it is. As I understand it, we can re-interpret Clare Graves’ core research not as a spiral but as a set of dimensions: societies do not evolve in the simple linear-progression of some ‘spiritual-imperialist’s wet-dream, but as moving around and exploring and acting within different regions in a value-oriented phase-space.

One of those dimensions is, as per mainstream Spiral, the ‘individual/collective’ axis – so often (mis)interpreted as a ‘masculine/feminine’ axis. But a more crucial dimension, for this present purpose, is a non-systemic/systemic axis: everything Green and ‘below’ is non-systemic, and, crucially, does not or cannot grasp the idea and experience that there is no separation between Self and Other. Everything is connected: there is no ‘Us’ versus ‘Them’, there is only ‘all of Us’. And to again be blunt, it’s only if we learn to understand that fundamental, crucial point – and learn it fast, and apply it in every single action – that we are likely to have any chance at all of coming with what’s coming up. Green may be desirable – especially its so-convenient, so-comforting ‘right’ to blame – but it just won’t cut it. Not for the messes we’re facing now – let alone the ones we’ll face soon. Sorry.

And that’s why I get angry at that kind of guff that Bert put out in that Tweet and, frankly, far too many other Tweets before it – just like so many other people put out there, too. Yes, it’s annoyingly sexist: that’s a problem in itself, as I hope should be clear by now from the above. But the reality is that that kind of shallow-thinking is not merely sexist, it actually puts everyone’s survival at risk: and that’s not clever – not clever at all.

That why I take it seriously: very seriously – and I hope you would too. Which is why I’d hope you’d join me in challenging it – every suchlike form of shallow-thinking, whatever form it may take.

But that’s up to you, of course: your choice?

Anyway, over to you, if you wish.

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