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?

5 thoughts on “A Tricky Tactical Issue for Feminists

  1. First of all, the stereotypes don’t fit a lot of men and a lot of women: some women are from Mars and some men are from Venus. Second, the stereotypes listed above have their negative side: men are not only more assertive, but also more aggressive and violent. Finally, the stereotypes
    seem to imply that being half of a whole human being is ok.
    Why can’t people be both independent and warm, independent when the situation justifies independence, warm when the situation justifies warmth?

  2. I worry about this too. An only somewhat related worry is that reading about feminism/feminist philosophy only makes me more likely to be subject to certain biases, situations and remarks that may be oppressive or not in my favour; if I had not so been aware of these issues, particular remarks, for example, just would have bypassed me as sexist and might not have affected me. This means they still may affect others, but now I am also aware of them and since a lot of identity issues are self-fulfilling I think this may be setting me back rather than forward.
    So, yes I think to a degree talking about all these issues can have as a partial effect that particular associations become MORE ingrained. But then feminism overall has probably had many good effects, so maybe the goods outweigh the bads.

  3. System justification theory is oft described by faculty, but I have not had the useful term. Our brains can’t quit learning and (no name in my repetoire for this, either) memory does not discriminate between real and perception of reality. Imagine the layers of “belief”/stereotype in “‘older’ woman English teacher.” Since the beliefs may be reinforced if directly addressed, an instructor is caught in the Catch 22 of identity generalizations held within the constructs of benevolent sexism, ageism, irrelevance and incongruence of standard written English. (It seems illogical/incongruent if what I “hear” “everyone” say is incorrect usage.)

  4. It is very difficult to study the effects of sustained, long term, careful examination of a view on a person, so it is mostly not studied. However, it seems unlikely that the effects of short-term exposure to a view are exactly the same as effects of long-term examination, so while I think the sort of studies you mention shouldn’t be ignored, it’s not clear what relevance they have to the sort of thing we philosophers engage in (though I hasten to add that by “it’s not clear” I mean exactly that; I don’t mean it as an oblique way of saying that there’s no relevance at all).

  5. I think it is important to keep feminist literature contextualized. Much of the thinking about the gendered self initially arose, it seems to me, out of identity development studies, or moral development studies, which were done at a particular juncture in history in relation to a particular socio-cultural and economic group. Within that group, at that point in history, gender roles were firmly regulated in a way they are most likely not any more. Further, there were less single-parent households, and more single-breadwinner two-parent homes. Put those together, and you get the traditional roles for men and women. Their respective roles, it seems, would necessitate that the development of certain attentional patterns diverge according to gender, which of course would have an affect on the types of skills and identities developed. If we present the literature out of context, it may indeed add to the suggestion prevailant throughout our society that woman are somehow inherently a certain way and men are inherently another way. In addition, we know, in any case, that the question of nurture vs. nature is not an easy one to pin down in relation to any one characteristic or set of characteristics.

    The primary issue here, then, seems to me the typical problem we have with falling into the fallacy of appeal to the crowd. That is, lacking time or reason (or perhaps social power) to begin to scrutinize and influence the prevailent views on a topic, we may tend to just go along with what the most people seem to think is generally the case. We get our ideas of what most people tend to think through sometimes seemingly innocuous sources or activities–i.e. proofreading–but this activity is done within a wider context of advertisements, television shows, church sermons, school lectures, interactions with peers and so on, which will affirm them or not, depending on the message.

    This actually reminds me of Sandra Bartky’s work on the phenomenology of oppression, which is exceptional in its portrayal of this process (I forget the title of the book–can someone help me out here?).

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