A Tricky Tactical Issue for Feminists

System justification theory examines the mechanisms by which people tend to justify the status quo, even when it is detrimental to them. One key system-justifying belief is that “the system as a whole is fair, balanced, and legitimate.” (Jost and Kay 499) A recent study (Jost and Kay) began from the thought that the belief
“that every group in society possesses some advantages and some disadvantages” (Jost and Kay 499) could help to support this idea, and therefore acceptance of the status quo. Complementary or “benevolent” sexist stereotypes fit nicely with this. There’s been a lot of work on these stereotypes in psychology, but they’ll be familiar to all feminist scholars (this is also Jost and Kay 499):

Men are generally stereotyped as competent, assertive, independent, and achievement oriented—and women are not, whereas women are generally stereotyped as warm, sociable, interdependent, and relationship oriented—and men are not (Deaux & Lewis, 1984; Eagly & Steffen, 1984; Langford & MacKinnon, 2000; Williams & Best, 1982). Masculine and feminine stereotypes are complementary in the sense that each gender group is seen as possessing a set of strengths that balances out its own weaknesses and supplements the assumed strengths of the other group (see also Kay & Jost, 2003).

What the study found is remarkable, and troubling: Mere exposure to these ‘benevolent sexist’ stereotypes– even in the form of proof-reading sentences expressing them– increased acceptance of the status quo as just and fair.

Why do I find this so troubling? Well, because the feminist literature often contains sentences that fit very nicely with the “benevolent sexist” stereotypes– think of much of the ethics of care literature, or think of discussions of the maleness of philosophy which involve claims that women may be uncomfortable with the aggressiveness of the field. If merely being exposed to these ideas means that one will tend to endorse the status quo as just and fair, this gives feminist philosophers a reason to be very careful what views they discuss. But that would seem like a huge mistake as far as intellectual integrity goes– surely we should discuss all views that seem worth discussing.

What do you think?