Occasional reflections on Life, the World, and Mathematics

Posts tagged ‘feminism’

16th century rape culture

I was reading Montaigne’s essay “De l’inconstance de nos actions” (On the inconsistency of our actions). As a particularly piquant example of inconsistent behaviour Montaigne tells this tale:

Pendant les débauches de nostre pauvre estat, on me rapporta, qu’une fille de bien pres de là où j’estoy, s’estoit precipitée du haut d’une fenestre, pour éviter la force d’un belitre de soldat son hoste : elle ne s’estoit pas tuée à la cheute, et pour redoubler son entreprise, s’estoit voulu donner d’un cousteau par la gorge, mais on l’en avoit empeschée : toutefois apres s’y estre bien fort blessée, elle mesme confessoit que le soldat ne l’avoit encore pressée que de requestes, sollicitations, et presens, mais qu’elle avoit eu peur, qu’en fin il en vinst à la contrainte : et là dessus les parolles, la contenance, et ce sang tesmoing de sa vertu, à la vraye façon d’une autre Lucrece. Or j’ay sçeu à la verité, qu’avant et depuis ell’ avoit esté garse de non si difficile composition.

During the disorders of our poor country I heard of a young woman very close to where I was staying, who had thrown herself out a window to escape the advances of a piggish soldier who was quartered in her home. Not being killed by the fall, and to complete her task, she tried to cut her own throat with a knife, but was restrained, succeeding only in wounding herself grievously. She admitted that the soldier had imposed himself only by pleas, attentions, and presents, but said she feared he would force her by violence. We see here the words, the demeanour, and the blood all bearing witness to her virtue, a veritable modern-day Lucretia. And yet, I have it on good authority that before and after this event she was a slut who was by no means so difficult.

He goes on to warn his (male) readers not to take any evidence in one circumstance for proof of their mistress’s fidelity in general.

Here we see in pure form the mindset that still exists — perhaps is even still prevalent — and still even pokes out occasionally from judges in rape cases: Chastity is acceptable, even commendable, but it is the only plausible reason for a woman to refuse sex. Once she has given up the claim to refuse all sexual contact, to refuse any particular partner seems like pure tergiversation. Even if it looks like violence it’s not really, since to this way of thinking what looks like violence is really just helping her to overcome an atavistic need to make a public show of chastity. (One is reminded of American officials who claimed that they tortured Muslim prisoners to “help them” fulfill their need to make a show of resistance before they could square talking to the enemy with their religious obligation.)

One hears this often from feminists who lived through the sexual revolution of the 1960s and 1970s: While men experienced the relaxation of public sexual mores as a liberation, women had a much more ambivalent experience. The first step, eliminating the respect for chastity, was experienced by many as a loss of autonomy. Seen from the perspective of the 21st century it looks like a necessary step toward reclaiming women’s right to physical integrity and self-determination, but partly because eliminating hypocritical shield of chastity has forced men and women both to come to terms with what has now come to be called “rape culture”.

Are we living in a David Mamet film?

I just had a frightening thought: Has the entire Trump campaign been scripted by conservative neozealot David Mamet? It’s House of Games, with politics and racism.

Before even being sworn in as president, Donald Trump has assured himself a place as probably the greatest con man of all times. And one of the most important skills of the really masterful con man (one learns from Mamet) is to know how to take advantage of people thinking they’ve seen through your con. A double con. There’s no one more gullible than someone who thinks he’s seen through you. (more…)

Being demographic

People have been saying for a long time that the Republican strategy of ethnic nationalism is running out of room, because of increasing proportions of ethnic minorities. I noted during the 2012 election how odd it was that some groups of people were considered to vote “demographically”, while others (white Protestant men) were assumed to vote on the basis of a broad array of concerns. According to the demographic fallacy, minority groups have special interests that are very important to them, but only of peripheral interest to the majority. Too much pandering can piss off the majority, but targeted appeals can motivate the minority, potentially to very high percentages, but there is no way to motivate the majority en bloc. After the 2012 election there were any number of comments of the sort “To win the presidency, Republicans need to make up their deficit among black and hispanic voters. They are losing them at such a level that (with changing povulation composition) a future Republican candidate would need to win the white vote at implausible levels to win a majority.” Now it appears that this argument is exactly wrong, for three reasons:

  1. As Trump correctly intuited, white people are also susceptible to ethnic appeals. And if you can motivate them as an ethnic group, they’re the biggest, baddest one of all. Meanwhile, the Democrats appeal to ethnic minorities was maxed out. The pervasive undercover racism of the Republican party gave Obama a huge edge among hispanics and blacks; naked racism, religious exclusion, and threats of deportation by Trump couldn’t move it any further, but could pull in vast numbers of white voters who share his racist world view and are relieved to hear it expressed openly. Those of us who move in educated circles should have taken more seriously the assertions early on that “Trump says what everyone really thinks”. Obviously, we didn’t know what people were thinking.
  2. Similarly for women. The model of what I called “demographic thinking” in politics is  I’m not the first to notice that women are not actually a minority. The power relations (yay intersectionality!) nonetheless seem to justify seeing the struggle for women’s rights as analogous to the struggle for rights of ethnic minorities.
    Feminists may have gotten suckered by a figure-ground second-sex fallacy with regard to women voters. If you think of males as the default, and women as the “minority”, then an openly misogynist candidate like Trump would seem to turn out the women to vote against him. But most of those women have been having to compromise with and make excuses for Trump-like figures in their lives — in their families — their whole lives. Some will recoil in horror, but most will continue to make excuses. And the women voters lost may be balanced by just as many men gained.
  3. It’s perfectly possible to maintain a semblance of democracy while entrenching the power of a minority to rule over the majority. Many countries have done this. With the single exception of 2004, the Republicans have not won a plurality in a presidential election since 1988. Democrats received a majority of the votes for representatives in 2012 and (probably) 2016. Nonetheless, the Republicans have attained unrestricted control over nearly the entire federal government, and very little stands in the way of further restricting voting rights to maintain their control and civil rights of minorities, expanding the political influence of the wealthy, to maintain their power indefinitely.

The electoral college was designed to leverage the 3/5 compromise to increase the power of southern slave-holding states in presidential election. Now, under very different circumstances, it is still serving this function.

Stranger than fiction

Over the many decades when a female president had become conceivable but not yet real, fictional representations purveyed all kinds of notions — some silly, some serious, some sexist — of the first female president. (Jokes about the closet space in the White House were, as I recall, a staple.) But I can’t recall that anyone supposed that the first presidential campaign to feature a woman candidate would have her up against an opponent who bragged about grabbing women’s genitals, or that we would have the following exchange between her opponent and the sitting vice president:

Biden said of Trump on Saturday: “The press always asks me, don’t I wish I was debating him? No, I wish we were in high school and I could take him behind the gym. That’s what I wish.”

Casting scorn on Biden’s physical strength, Trump said, “Mr Tough Guy, you know he’s Mr Tough Guy, you know when he’s Mr Tough Guy? When he’s standing behind a microphone by himself.” Trump added: “He wants to bring me to the back of the barn? Oooooooooh. Some things in life you could really love doing.”

A fiction writer would hardly have dared to imagine the campaign to feature such a running parody of male pathology. It would have been ridiculed as insular feminist propaganda.

Maybe it will come out next that Trump has been scrawling Clinton’s telephone number on bathroom walls.

Cervantes on objectification of women

For those inclined to be too optimistic about the pace of progress in recognising the validity of female perspectives — the way an objectifying male perspective has been perniciously treated as a default and inherently valid — I note that Cervantes in Don Quixote made this point more than four centuries ago. In satirising the tradition of courtly pickup artists who stalk their fair damsels remorselessly, Cervantes allows a woman to speak at the funeral of a man whose friends furiously attribute his death to her “cruelty” in rejecting his advances:

Heaven has made me, so you say, beautiful, and so much so that in spite of yourselves my beauty leads you to love me; and for the love you show me you say, and even urge, that I am bound to love you. By that natural understanding which God has given me I know that everything beautiful attracts love, but I cannot see how, by reason of being loved, that which is loved for its beauty is bound to love that which loves it; besides, it may happen that the lover of that which is beautiful may be ugly, and ugliness being detestable, it is very absurd to say, “I love thee because thou art beautiful, thou must love me though I be ugly.” But supposing the beauty equal on both sides, it does not follow that the inclinations must be therefore alike, for it is not every beauty that excites love, some but pleasing the eye without winning the affection; and if every sort of beauty excited love and won the heart, the will would wander vaguely to and fro unable to make choice of any; for as there is an infinity of beautiful objects there must be an infinity of inclinations, and true love, I have heard it said, is indivisible, and must be voluntary and not compelled. If this be so, as I believe it to be, why do you desire me to bend my will by force, for no other reason but that you say you love me? Nay–tell me–had Heaven made me ugly, as it has made me beautiful, could I with justice complain of you for not loving me?

I am reminded of the joke about the holy warrior who is struck down at last after many grim battles. He arrives in the afterlife and is ushered into a room where waits a plain woman who proceeds to abuse him verbally and physically. “Lord,” he shouts out, “I expected, for all my service, that I would be rewarded with a beautiful virgin when I was carried off to heaven.” And the woman says, “Heaven? You’re not in Heaven. I’m in Hell.”

Gender asymmetry…

… and the “pussification of America”. This term came up in an article in Slate about the decision by the American retailer Target to remove the gender attributions from its toys. Since I had children I’ve been amazed at the extent to which children’s clothes and toys have become gender-specific since I was a child in the 1970s. And it amazes me as well how closely identified the colours pink and blue have come to be with girls and boys, despite the fact that it’s an obviously artificial (and quite recent) tradition. (Jo B. Paoletti has written a book on the subject, Pink and Blue: Telling the Boys from the Girls in America.) I have also long been intrigued by the way people seize upon even the most tenuous evidence that “science has proved” the validity of this or that gender stereotype.

Anyway, someone set up a honeytrap fake Target customer service Facebook account to collect the outrage that some people (men and women) were spewing over this issue. As chronicled in AdWeek, there are some biblical arguments, like

God made a difference between male and female as there should be. I would never give a boy a barbie doll. It’s not chauvinistic but the BIBLE says women are the weaker vessel I Peter 3:7 so many people are making their boys the weakest link and making their daughters manly.

(Interesting that “as there should be”. Not that she’s simply going to accept on faith that God got this one right. But she approves.) And many rants against PC

You guys should listen to the people who spend money in your stores, not the liberal, PC Complaint people that don’t have two cents to rub together.

I thought the PC Complaint people were wealthy elitists…

Anyway, I thought this comment was particularly telling:target-troll-12a

This is classic Simone de Beauvoir stuff. This is an American woman, outraged at a refusal to emphasise gender distinctions, because it will feminise America. Because America is a man, and if America can’t get a steady diet of trucks and toy soldiers when he’s a boy, he’ll be “pussified”. She’s not concerned that America will be toughened, or dickified, or whatever the corresponding word for “pussified” would be.

Plus ça change — post-feminist edition

One of the most useful nuggets of compressed wisdom that I absorbed from the humanities portion of my university education was an off-hand remark by a teaching assistant, Paul Leopold, that “each generation rejects its parents and rediscovers its grandparents.” Implicit was that the rediscovery is often unintentional and even unwitting. It’s just that there is very little scope for real novelty, so those who are both eager to be new will turn away from what is familiar, and can then hardly help — particularly if they think they are avoiding influence by remaining ignorant of the past — but recapitulate an earlier generation.

feminism survey

It has commonly been observed that many women who came of age in the late 1980s and 1990s, heirs to all the accomplishments of 1970s feminism, who take for granted that they are free to shape their own careers and relationships, reject the word “feminism”. They associate the word with sins of their mothers (even if not their own literal mothers), and identify with various sorts of vaguely defined “post-feminist” ideologies, if they are the sort of people inclined to care about ideologies rather than just living their lives. A recent survey of American women found that among women aged 30-44, only 32% identify themselves as feminists, barely more than in the oldest (pre-baby Boom) age group. Among women aged 45-64 feminism has 41% support; interestingly (and confirming Leopold’s dictum) support seems to have revived among the youngest women.

My impression, from occasional glances at journalism on the issue, is that women wish to separate themselves from the “feminist” label, which they associate with negative attitudes toward family, men, and sex, and a generally rigid view of life, and denial of femininity. This is supported by research finding that current undergraduates were most likely to associate a random feminist with the following adjectives: man-hating, lesbian, unhygienic, angry, behaves like a man, unattractive.

I was reminded by all this by a remark in the chapter on women’s issues in Dominic Sandbrook’s history of Britain in the early 1970s:

For most of the 1950s and 1960s, feminism was widely supposed to have disappeared… On the left, it was often seen as divisive, distracting, and self-indulgent… Even articulate outspoken young women like Shirlie Williams, the daughter of the pioneering women’s rights campaigner Vera Britain, rejected the “feminist” label, which was thought to belong to the lost age of the suffragists. “it was,” she said, “a matter of generations.”

And the young Sheila Rowbotham, who… later became one of Britain’s best-known feminist writers, thought that feminists were “shadowy figures in long, old-fashioned clothes, who were somehow connected with headmistresses, who said you shouldn’t wear high heels and makeup. It was all very prim and stiff, and mainly concerned with keeping you away from boys.”

So, right before what now appear as the glory days of militant feminism, a post-feminist malaise had already set in, rejecting the word “feminist” and what was perceived as the joyless feminism of an earlier generation. I suppose it’s cause for hope.

Bill and Phil

Having published my comment on William S. Burroughs and his place in the grand tradition of English perversity, I should point my readers to this brilliant précis of the Burroughs corpus by Belle Waring at Crooked Timber:

I think pretty much all the Important Male Novelists of the mid to late 20th-century are such sexist dillweeds that it is actually impossible to enjoy the books. For me. Except William S. Burroughs, and that is because he does not want to sex chicks up. Not even a little bit. He wants us to be able to make clones, and then just go live on another planet with only men and boys and million-year-old crab creatures made of radioactive cadmium and then have gay sex there. It is astringently refreshing to have a novelist not care about having sex with you at all. It’s the best! Goodbye, poorly drawn female characters who exist as trophies for when the protagonists level up after a boss battle with Freudian analysis!

But I should complement this dismissal of the IMNs with this interesting feminist (or, at least, womanist) defence of Philip Roth.

 

The Silver standard

Who speaks for statistics?Silver coins

Ace forensic psephologist Nate Silver has attracted quite a bit of attention lately, with his 4+-year-old blog devoted to his statistical model that is intended to provide a synoptic view of the entire range of public data to produce a single probabilistic prediction of the outcome. Now, there are some clear criticisms that could be made of his approach, and of his results — in particular, the obvious failure of his successive predictions to be martingales, as they would have to be if they were appropriately using all current information — but he has been remarkably clear and open about his procedures and principles, and his reasoning on matters large and small seems generally sound, if not necessarily compelling. It’s funny that his conclusions should arouse any controversy at all, given that they are hardly different (as Silver himself is quick to acknowledge) from the conclusions one would draw from a simplistic combination of poll results. His main contribution is in giving careful answers to the obvious critiques that could be proposed: What’s a reasonable estimate for the difference between state poll results and the actual election result? How correlated are polling errors? What’s the best way to average polls of varying qualities done over multiple days? And so on. In the end, the answer doesn’t differ much from what anyone with number sense would come up with in a few hours, but you don’t know that for sure until you do it. And Silver’s reputation derives from the sense and good care that he takes in posing these questions and resolving them.

(The failure of the martingale property is actually evidence of his honesty in following the model that he set up back in the spring. He clearly would have been capable of recognising the trends that other people can see in the predictions, and introducing an ad hoc correction. He didn’t do that.) (more…)

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