Factual and Normative Statements

Lynet, who’s just started blogging at Elliptica, talks about the distinction between personal and political feminism. She also makes the incisive observation about standards of masculinity and femininity,

[Link] On some level, I want to be feminine. That is to say, I want to identify as a woman, want to count as a genuine member of my sex. It’s a matter of identity. I think most people feel this way about their gender. As a result, statements of the form “Men are usually…” or “It is feminine to…” are almost never able to be nothing more than statements about the way men or women are. Inevitably, they end up containing some idea that this is the way men or women ought to be.

This means that when people make entirely scientific statements about women, on average, scoring less than men on maths tests (or having a smaller sexual appetite, or whatever) I find it hard to believe that someone, somewhere, is not taking that as a normative statement; a statement about what they should do to fit in with their treasured identity. I’m not saying that people shouldn’t do these studies, or report what they find, but I think it’s important that people consider what they are playing with when they make gender statements. They are not to be made lightly or without basis.

First, let me get the personal identity stuff out of the way: I think identities are for other people. Other people are free to box me as 18, male, atheist, Israeli-born, white, and so on. My own behavior has nothing to do with those, except for the trivial things (I pee standing up, don’t go to any house of worship, etc.).

More to the point, Lynet is entirely right. Statements about gender essentialism are almost never meant as “is” statements, and infrequently meant as “seems” statements. Relationships books that try emphasizing that men and women are from different planets tend to boil down to, “In mainstream culture, men and women are encouraged to act in different but equally irrational ways, and it’s perfectly fine.”

Worse, “Men are…” statements always carry a very strong “and should be” flavor. Any male who doesn’t conform to those statements is automatically branded not a real man, with all the accompanying stereotypes.

It’s somewhat more complicated for females and “Women are…” statements, but Lynet’s basic point about wanting to be feminine holds. Women who choose not to be feminine are immediately thrown into one of several very limiting boxes: the whore, the tomboy, the hyper-aggressive corporate executive, the Lucy Liu character.

Psychologically, these statements are very damaging. They’ve gotten to the point that merely asking female testtakers to fill in an oval for gender before a math test will hamper their performance. An individual woman may escape that stereotype threat, just like an individual may choose to receive a non-mandatory vaccination; but from the perspectives of public education and public health, both stereotype threats and voluntary vaccinations are disasters.

There’s an entirely different class of essentialist statements, that of normative statements that pretend to be factual. The entire notion that women are worse than men at math boils down to shoddy research nobody would’ve taken seriously but for a burning desire to tell women to stick to cooking.

There aren’t that many factual statements about gender differences that aren’t trivial (“very few men can lactate”). Cognitively, males’ better spatial perception appears to have no consequences outside tests that ask people to mentally rotate shapes. Females’ better verbal perception has serious consequences concerning language change, but unless you’re a sociolinguist or a feminist activist concerned with control of language, you don’t need to ever know that.

And even so, people don’t usually make those statements without some social justification in mind. I’ve yet to see a single person who thinks females are underrepresented in science for biological reasons say that by the same token, women should be 80% of the average linguistics department.

31 Responses to Factual and Normative Statements

  1. SLC says:

    Re Levy

    In describing his identity, Mr. Levy neglected to add “German.”

  2. muppt says:

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  3. muppt says:

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  4. Linguistics and math kind of have a lot in common..
    I agree with what you’re saying, though. Do you think the idea of wanting to be feminine might be part of the reaon women may seem to be underrepresented in the sciences? That maybe it’s not “feminine” to study math? I know, it’s kind of a stretch..

  5. Alon Levy says:

    Probably. It’s getting better lately – my cohort has 6 guys and 6 girls – but it could be an anomaly. A lot of girls are taught that they shouldn’t care about math and science because that’s just for boys. I mean, humanities professors are just as sexist as science professors, and yet women are better represented in the humanities than in the sciences.

  6. True.

    It also seems like a lot of majors are lumped into “Humanties” when they shouldn’t be.. like physiological psychology or linguistics. I mean, I’m studying propositional calculus in my semantics class right now… I feel that it’s much more science than humanities…

  7. Alon Levy says:

    Well, the sciences that have to do with the mind usually have a leg in the sciences and another in the humanities: psychology, linguistics, cognitive science, even anthropology (which, granted, has little to do with the mind, but still).

  8. Lynet says:

    I agree about it being kind of a stretch to think that a girl would consciously choose not to study maths because it’s not ‘feminine’. The notion of femininity is strongest these days insofar as it affects sexual relationships with men, I’d say. Part of the method of communication can sometimes involve shared assuptions about how a woman who feels attracted to a man will react.

    It might perhaps be more ‘normal’-seeming for a girl to be disinterested in maths; I think ‘normality’ plays a bigger role than ‘femininity’ here. Both notions are of course gender-dependent.

  9. Alon Levy says:

    Oh, it’s definitely not conscious. But you’re perfectly right about normality, and I want to explore this point more, so expect a post about it sometime soon. It’s hard for people to move from their default state of normality to what suits them best, and even when they do, they often still go into a recognized subculture with its own notion of normality (geeky guys, promiscuous girls, etc.).

  10. [...] In a brief exchange I had with Lynet a few days ago, she raised the question of normality. Writing about how culturally [...]

  11. [...] a brief exchange I had with Lynet a few days ago, she raised the question of normality. Writing about how culturally [...]

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