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Jaime B's Blog

Some thoughts related to a recent thread on unpopular opinions

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Some words on the sexism issue, which seems to have arisen in connection with this originally light-hearted thread:

"Reverse" racism, sexism, etc., doesn't make sense in terms of the basis of this social dialogue because the conversation is about a power dynamic within our society. Men are in a much more powerful position from which to discriminate against women than women are to discriminate against men. White folks are in a much more powerful position from which to discriminate against African American, Latino, Asian, or Native American people than the reverse. These two assertions may break down in particular situations, but as generalizations about our society, they are still true.

With regard to the specific issue about men wearing or not wearing scents associated with women or perceived as feminine:

In general, men who behave as women might behave in our society are often perceived to lose a privileged status by doing so. For this very good reason, men often prefer not to be perceived as acting as women might, even in relatively minor details. Women who imitate men, on the other hand, either gain status, or (far more often) are not taken notice of at all, because in many situations involving power dynamics, what women do still isn't taken into consideration as especially consequential.

If you don't believe me, consider this: Many labor market studies show that men who work in professions where women are the majority of the workers are paid less and have less social status than men who work in majority-male professions. On the other hand, women who work in majority-male professions have to be extraordinarily effective in their jobs to approach the salary and status of even moderately effective men in the same profession.

Finally, I would point out that some of these matters are changing to some degree in our society. Even so, because attitudes and assumptions are anchored in our cultural system, they are often unconscious (or perhaps it would be better to say opaque) to us. The reason for the opacity of cultural constructs is that the very purpose of culture is to save us the trouble of reinventing the wheel. Culture is deliberately made to be confused with and simplify, even shrink, reality. By their very nature, therefore, our cultural constructs often result in limiting options for at least some of our people. More importantly, because of the opacity of attitudes, assumptions, and expectations, cultural and social attitudes almost always lag behind real social change. Happily, however, that is why much social change comes about as a result of raising these matters to consciousness.

Finally, let me say that I regret to feel obliged to take on a controversial matter on this board; yet it seems to me it is useful for people to understand the real (if perhaps a bit complex) issues in the discussion, and above all, to be able to understand the point of view of people with whom they may be inclined to differ. I hope in some small way to shed light rather than heat on the matter.


  1. ECaruthers's Avatar
    Thanks for light in a hot place, Jaime. I find the situation very complex because scarce resources are involved and the choices (affirmative or negative) always affect individuals. It's a real person who didn't get admitted, hired or promoted.

    I'm old enough to remember what "everyone knew" about race and sex in the 60s. Whether it's social engineering or our evolving enlightenment, US society is much better off now than then. I wish I were wise enough to know whether continuing, modifying or ending affirmative action would give the fastest future progress.
  2. Sugandaraja's Avatar
    Thanks for writing this, both here and on the thread itself. It's something I was having difficulty putting into words, because I think that so much sexism, racism, etc, is largely unthinking, unconscious, and always has been. Even in far more oppressive times I'm quite sure the vast majority of men were not aware of their own sexism - it was just "how things are", and goes unanalyzed.

    I was always uncomfortable with the idea of being perceived as feminine until I thought about just why it was an "insult" to be called female. Now, this doesn't mean that confusion about gender-identity need be based in sexism at all, but all too often the "insult" and "degradation" of being called or thought of as female or gay or what have you is a reflection of society's attitudes about such groups rather than a genuine confusion about a person's gender or sexual identity. Or, to use a blunt analogy, if someone calls you the "N-word", it tells you a lot more about their attitudes towards race relations than it does about your summer tan.
  3. Redneck Perfumisto's Avatar
    Very interesting read, Jaime, and something to think about. I'm especially fascinated by your next to last paragraph, pointing out that dual effects of simplification and limitation (almost contraction) which cultural assumptions have. I want to think long and hard about that one.

    Please don't regret making this post. We need more such thoughtful discussion of these things. In fact, I may very well go ahead and pull together some thoughts I was having on the fragrance gender issue.
  4. hirch_duckfinder's Avatar
    From reading what you have written, I think we are in a similar place with this. Just for clarity though, are you in favour of or opposed to "positive discrimination"?- (This is a term for the favouring of minority groups in situations where all other things are equal. i.e. if two people are equally suitable for a job, the one from the minority would be chosen).

    I think you are correct to raise the issues of culture, the problem with the laissez-faire, "competeing on merit" view is that inequalities become entrenched and "carried" by culture. Disempowered people inevitably focus largely on short term and immediate meeting of needs, and we all know that acheivement and advancement requires long term thinking. Their children grow up with this type of thinking. Just go into a school in a deprived area to see it. The kids do not know how to delay gratification, they have not learned how to do it. Sure it is occasionally possible for an individual to be tapped off from this through a "social mobility" valve but this does not justify the huge mass of wasted human talent which lurks underneath. The ghettos can be physical (as racial ones often are) or social (gay people, women, etc).

    In my world view, the overriding dynamic is social class and power. Access to position of influence are also limited by birth and lack of access to education, healthcare, decent housing, good food etc. The separation of disempowred minorities into different groups is just a part of divide and rule. The key to creating real change is to unite groups with common goals so that their voices can be heard loud and clear.
  5. JaimeB's Avatar
    In reply to hirch_duckfinder's comment:

    I've never heard the term "positive discrimination" used in my circles. Going by your description of it, I would say I haven't come up against a case of two job candidates being exactly equally matched. I have served several times on hiring committees at my school, and we use a fairly rigorous scoring system based on factors enumerated in the job announcement. Our practice during each phase of application screening is to eliminate duplicate scores by having the entire committee re-assess both candidates to break the tie score through a detailed discussion of how each member of the committee ranked each candidate on each criterion. Our HR department, for the sake of being able to justify hiring decisions, requires a gap in scores of at least five percent between the lowest-scoring candidate recommended for hire and the highest-scoring one not recommended. Our college has an affirmative action policy. It consists mostly of distributing our job announcements among schools known to have a good number of "minority" graduates.

    On the issue of culture: I remember hearing a cultural anthropologist lecture once comparing culture to an iceberg. He said that like an iceberg, culture is only 10% visible and 90% below the surface. The part below the surface (in my original blog post, I called it the opaque part) consists of things like expectations, assumptions, and attitudes. We only notice these things when the norms for them in our culture are contradicted or violated.

    I agree with you about the lack of depth and patience in our contemporary culture. We all grow up surrounded by advertising which creates a certain expectation, an image of what constitutes a good life in strictly material terms. This includes a sense of entitlement and an expectation of instant gratification. The trouble is that most people's economic reality doesn't reach far enough to attain these things, while the underlying assumption is that a good life is unattainable without them — a kind of Catch-22 for the less prosperous among us. The ghettos you mention, geographic or social, are inhabited by individuals labeled as deviant under the social norms of expectation. Deviance labeling can be conscious among the makers of opinion in our culture, but for most, it is taken in unconsciously with the cultural "air" we breathe. We are all socialized to regard powerful white males as "normal" (even though they are in reality a small minority in number, though not in economic power and purchased political power). Others are defined as less than — less privileged, less respectable; therefore less deserving of respect, and ultimately, less human. We don't consciously think this way, but we reflexively behave this way through cultural conditioning, unless we raise our consciousness and consider the consequences in terms of human suffering.

    You mention that unity among the less-thans is the key to change. I agree. The problem here is that mass communications and their control by vested interests makes political organization much more difficult for those who don't have the money to buy airtime. People talk about the Internet as being a counter-trend phenomenon in mass communications. That may be true to some extent, but the poorest don't have computer training or access to the same degree as others; they don't have the language skills, the training in writing clearly or critical thinking either.

    Social change has only come about in American culture when the middle class has ardently desired it and fought for it enough to make clear to the ruling classes that business-as-usual (i. e., the economic life of the country) can no longer continue without it.

    Yesterday, at a faculty conference, a colleague of mine suggested a way for us to overcome the severe budget cuts imposed by Governor Schwartzenegger to arrive at a budget for California: All public employees should go on strike. Great theory! The last time something like that happened was the General Strike of 1938, over seventy years ago, and the cops and the courts broke a lot of skulls and broke the strike.

    To conclude, my favorite quote on poverty and justice, translated from the original French of the writer Anatole France:

    "The law in its great concern for equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and
    to steal bread."

    "La loi dans un grand souci d'égalité, interdit aux riches comme aux pauvres de coucher sous les ponts, de mendier dans les rues et de voler du pain."
    Updated 15th August 2009 at 06:51 AM by JaimeB
  6. ECaruthers's Avatar
    Jaime, Hirch, et al.,

    The good news is, cultures and economies do change over time. The bad news is, they may not go the direction we want.

    I started high school in 1961 and graduated from college in 1969. The culture and the economy of the 60s were far more oriented toward production and long term growth - e.g., the space program and the interstate highway system. Good students were encouraged to learn science and engineering. Yes, people expected to live better than their parents, but they expected to do so by getting more education, working at better jobs and accumulating wealth.

    Today our economy depends on consumption to an amazing degree. An investment book, Ahead of the Curve, argues that whenever the rate of increase in US consumer spending slows, the stock market falls. That is, it's not enough that consumer spending be higher this year than last. If consumer spending increased 3% last year it has to increase more than 3% this year.

    I would like to believe that society will change, that not only the disempowered will learn to think long term, to defer immediate gratification and to achieve real growth. But everyone predicts that the current crisis (every crisis!) must lead to the changes they want. This strikes me as wishful thinking & the prevalence of wishful thinking is a large part of our problem. Right now the best generator of social change I can think of would be some way to teach adults not to base their decisions on wishful thinking. Any ideas?
  7. JaimeB's Avatar
    I think that culture is prior to economics, i. e., that a particular culture's economics derives from the culture's attitudes, assumptions, and values about prosperity, both material and interior, and by interior, I mean what prospers individuals to become all they can be (pace the Army recruiting ad slogan). In our culture, I see that there has been a tendency to throw away individuals who do not produce wealth to the level of certain economic expectations.

    As for our economy depending on consumption: It has long been recognized in economic theory that pure capitalism can only survive by constant expansion, because the debt incurred in establishing new enterprises must always be repaid with interest. Expansion is the life blood of capitalism; without it, capitalism dies. How sustainable is that model? Why is Europe's planned economy brand of capitalism more robust than our neo-liberal (laissez-faire, free-market, no-regulation-please) American version?

    Finally, about the likelihood of change: Change will come, and someone will always fear it, because all change gores someone's ox, as the saying goes. Remember Cicero's praise of the consul Lucius Cassius, whose constant question in every decision was "Cui bono?" "To whose benefit?" In the current debate on health care reform, for instance, who stands to benefit from derailing reform? Who stands to benefit from expanding coverage through a reform of current policy and private decentralized insurance? Does anyone stand to benefit from the ever-larger share of GDP that health care consumes? Someone must, or it would not continue. Doctors? Health care consumers? Drug manufacturers? Shareholders in health insurance companies?

    I may be hopelessly idealistic or overly Christian, but I believe the ultimate judgment of a society is how well it looks after its poor and powerless citizens. Yes, they are citizens, although rarely treated as generously as those who don't need generous treatment.

    The phrase used, "the disempowered will learn to think long term, to defer immediate gratification," rings a little strange to me. Remember Abraham Maslow's hierarchy of needs? (That pyramid is in Wikipedia.) Food, shelter, basic health care, and clothing always come before any other, higher concerns. If I didn't have enough of these things, as many of the poor don't, I don't think I would consider deferring immediate gratification of those needs; and especially not when I saw others impatient to buy a new car every year, or a wide-screen HDTV, or any of the other things that the middle class typically buy on credit. Are they deferring gratification? What our society defers is paying for the things we consume until some indefinite future date. I surely don't pay for all those bottles of scent in cold, hard cash! No, I carry a balance on my credit card so I don't have to defer gratification. We consume and don't count the cost. Our market prices don't include the cost of repaying the environment for the natural resources we consume, but you can bet that a profit margin and a sales tax will be included — and that the tax money will be used to stimulate the economy — to create jobs or increase profits? Cui bono?

    It's not so easy to break the addiction to consumption, even while the economy falters and infrastructure investment lags. You're definitely right that consumer spending drives the economy, not capital goods or social goods.

    It's not so easy to see a solution, especially when the answer to that Cui bono? is so hard to discover...
    Updated 16th August 2009 at 07:36 AM by JaimeB
  8. Hillaire's Avatar
    Regarding: "Positive Discrimination" (formerly termed "affirmative action"), I'll be leery of it once an African American woman as simple as George Bush Jr. is awarded a Law degree from Yale.


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