The Second Sexism

Originally published in Daily Maverick

Focusing on one manifestation of an issue can sometimes obscure other manifestations. Or, it could even obscure the fact that what we’re dealing with is a systemic issue or even problem, with multiple manifestations. To (briefly) return to a theme we’re all sick of, treating certain cultural beliefs related to respect as normative in the case of The Spear is one thing, but if someone were to claim that the same cultural norms justified abolishing equal suffrage, we’d be less sympathetic.

Arguments that use some established norm or cultural preference to motivate for a certain conclusion are open to these charges of inconsistency – both in terms of when the arguments are leveled, and in how we respond to them. Political correctness and the expectation that we respect the views of others tend to censor us – at least until the stakes seem high enough that silence is no longer appropriate.

The cultural norm of (for example) patriarchy can be used to justify teaching a child that the father is the head of the household. There’s of course no reason to teach such nonsense, and no reason to think a household needs a designated “head”, and so forth. But this application of a cultural norm would attract far less criticism than a case in which patriarchy was used as the motivation for denying women the vote – men being the more responsible choosers of political leaders (or so the sexist reasoning might go).

What’s obscured by this inconsistent reaction is the fact that appeals to culture are always bad arguments, in that they get the causal direction entirely back-to-front. If a certain set of behaviours or practises are beneficial, we might expect that they become cultural norms – their status, in other words, should depend on their utility. Instead, the argument often seems to be that their status as norms affords them utility.

If we ignore more trivial manifestations of these sorts of bad argument, it seems possible that we encourage their spread. At the very least, we aren’t encouraging critical and careful thought as much as we could do when letting these bad arguments go unchallenged. Making this sort of point is part of what I believe motivated Prof. David Benatar, Head of Philosophy at UCT, to write his new book “The Second Sexism”.

A disclaimer should be made at this point: I’m a graduate of that department, and have known Benatar for something like 15 years. One of the characteristics of Anglophile philosophy departments is an obsession with logical rigour, even if that rigour leads you down paths of argument that some might find disagreeable. The fact that a conclusion might be considered offensive would typically (within these departments) speak more to the hypersensitivity of the audience, or perhaps to some vested interest they had in rejecting the conclusion being proffered.

The conclusions offered in “The Second Sexism” are certainly disagreeable to some – in particular, it seems, to women. But judging from the tone and content of much of what’s been written about the book, misunderstanding of its thesis and motivation seems prevalent – so much so that one wonders whether anyone has read past the contents page.

I’ve just finished reading the book, and in summary, it argues that there are some forms of discrimination disproportionately experienced by males, because of their being male, and that these forms of discrimination need to be combated.

Furthermore, it argues that if we are concerned about gender equality – or equality of whatever sort – it follows that all manifestations of unequal treatment should be combated. In arguing against identity politics, or against the apparently arbitrary tacking on of the word “feminist”, I’ve previously made a similar point: that focusing on only one manifestation of an issue can obscure something more widespread.

What Benatar does not do is claim that males suffer more than females, or that feminists are complaining about a non-existent problem. He does not attempt to trivialise the discrimination experienced by females, but is instead pointing to the fact that sex-based discrimination has this other manifestation – against males – and that those of us who are concerned with combating unfair and unequal treatment should also be concerned with both of these.

The fact that some men’s rights activist groups are using this book as a way to trivialise feminist concerns is not Benatar’s problem, nor is it his doing. The book explicitly disavows men’s rights groups, and also explicitly disavows any sort of affirmative action for males. The only significant criticism of feminist arguments the book offers relates to “partisan” rather than “egalitarian” feminism, where the former appears to care more for advancing the interests of women than for advancing the interests of equality.

You might not think such category of feminism exists, or you might even think it entirely appropriate that a feminist movement is partisan rather than egalitarian. If so, you would be disagreeing with Benatar on how best to achieve equality – but that is nevertheless an entirely separate issue from whether discrimination against males sometimes occurs, and whether we should pay attention to it.

The evidence presented for discrimination against males is extensive and persuasive. At Benatar’s presentation of the book earlier this year, many questions from the audience challenged him on not having read (or at least, referenced) various books purported to be essential in understanding sex-based discrimination. But to pre-judge an argument based on theory (or worse, ideology) from sociology, anthropology or some other field is not obviously better than a simple appeal to culture, in that it assumes a certain theoretical framework must inform our interpretation of the data.

The claim that in some instances, males have been wrongfully disadvantaged on the basis of their sex could be empirically false, although it seems unlikely that a critic would be able to defeat all the examples Benatar uses. But to demonstrate that it’s false would require assessing the evidence presented (and left out) in the book.

Similarly, although it’s probable that the majority of disadvantages experienced by males are in some sense caused by male dominance of culture, this isn’t true for all of them. To assess these claims fairly requires critics to read the book and engage with its arguments.

Instead, the majority of reactions I’ve encountered so far simply assert the falsity of the claims, and also insist that a book like this can only be a product (and expression) of male privilege. And that isn’t an effective rebuttal – no matter how much academic jargon you package it with.

By Jacques Rousseau

Jacques Rousseau teaches critical thinking and ethics at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, and is the founder and director of the Free Society Institute, a non-profit organisation promoting secular humanism and scientific reasoning.