Tuesday, October 18, 2016

The Invisible Hand of Normative Culture

Below is an email response to a friend about the role of sexism in this particular campaign, which I expanded to address racism and homophobia as well. In the exchange, my friend wrote: "If I didn't know you better, Jeff, it would be easy to assume that your entire political philosophy revolves around marginalizing white males." Rather than rewrite this as a more general post, I'm leaving it as it is--so please forgive the moments when I allude to that discussion.  I don't think they're too hard to follow.


I have no idea why any individual dislikes Hillary, and there are a nearly infinite number of reasons to dislike her that don't have to do with sexism. This obviously has nothing to do with sexism--people generally hate politicians. But in the aggregate, Hillary is subjected to an absolute shit ton of sexism and misogyny. I'd refer you to that podcast with Rebecca Traister I sent out earlier for an incredibly trenchant discussion of the particulars for the best case I've heard made on the subject.

Speaking more generally, I'd say you're fairly close to the mark when you say "your entire political philosophy revolves around marginalizing white males." The distinction is that it's not actually marginalizing white males, it's trying to create an environment in which the white male perspective is not normative. The distinction is sort of like Truman's quote, "I never did give anybody hell. I just told the truth and they thought it was hell." When the normative white male world is fractured, it feels like marginalization to white males.

Culture is built on normative behavior. It's invisible to those who exist within and are reflected by cultural norms. Little boys who see depictions of men driving trucks, men playing sports, men serving as president are unaware of the cultural bias here. Little girls who want to be president will see it immediately. (Same can be said for members of different races, sexuality, and religions.) Any time a culture changes, it causes enormous pain for those who once saw it as a culture-free, "normal" situation. Some white men will naturally feel attacked when they don't see their world reflected back--when they see depictions of black or female or gay presidents or whatever.

Since that's all vague and general, I'll give you an example. Patrick and I just posted a podcast we did with women in the beer industry, and it was fascinating to hear their stories. One example from a female brewer was how she gets shit about the names she gives her beer. Male colleagues warn her that some sound "too girly." This gendered critique is something none of them have ever experienced. To say, "that beer name sounds too manly" seems absurd because we take two things as normative: 1) that a non-girly beer name is "normal," and 2) that masculine names, because they are normative, will not raise any hackles among customers the way "girly" beer names might, and 3) that it is okay to considering men who would be offended by girly names, but never consider women who might be offended by manly (or sexist) names. Those are overt and subtle examples of the way sexism plays out.

To go back to your original "marginalization" comment, the way I'd reframe this discussion is to say that I'd like to see a politics in which the default position of the white man's viewpoint as "normal" was transcended for one in which the views of women, nonwhites, nonstraights, non-Christians, etc had become normative themselves.

This has happened many times in the past. Each wave of new immigrants, from the Irish to Italians to Poles, were all considered "other"--and in many cases, shockingly, not considered "white." Eventually the protestant English culture expanded to include these new groups into what we considered "normal." Recall that it was only 56 years ago that a Catholic candidate had to declare he didn't take marching orders from the Pope to be considered legitimate as a presidential candidate. Now we have no Protestants on the Supreme Court--only Catholic and Jewish justices. This would have been unthinkable fifty years ago, and now it's normative. We've made some wonderful strides on the race and gender fronts, thanks to people like Barack and Hillary who have begun that "normalization" process, but there's obviously miles yet to go.

And it's why when, given the choice of being led by a white, heterosexual man or someone who has any other life experience, I favor the latter. We will not get to this new place if we keep relying on white men to get us there. I know many people see this as an attack on "meritocracy," or the sense that somehow men have to take a back seat. They don't. But they now feel entitled to the front seat, and being told that their status as a male makes them less desirable is an unforgivable slight.

Of course, that's exactly the slight every nonwhite nonmale lives with every day--the presumption of being less desirable. And indeed, people who feel that the meritocracy is threatened by the inclusion of nonwhite nonmales reveal their total commitment to that normative world they don't realize even exists. Because to suggest that someone who is nonwhite or nonmale couldn't possibly warrant inclusion on merit alone is the definition of bigotry. (As if this group really represents our best and brightest.)

There's a ton to be said about power, access, education, and money, and how they affect the stations of nonwhite nonmen but these are fundamentally different and less challenging questions. They let us off the hook. They say there's a reason beyond cultural norms to explain why some people are poorer or have worse jobs or less education. The possibility that it's because the culture keeps them down because they're nonwhite and nonmale is so ugly we don't want to entertain it. But that's the main driver, and has been for centuries, and the way to fix it is to put power in the hands of the very people who can begin to transform society, not leaving it in the hands of the men who once excluded nonwhite nonmen from even participating in the democracy.

So yeah, white men need to sit down and let someone else run the show for awhile. Our voices have been well represented in the halls of power and I see no danger of them falling out of proportion with our actual population any time soon.

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