Lived Experience

March 14, 2007

Lynet‘s point about the difference between different applications of lived experience is strong enough to require me to clarify my general anti-anecdote position. To summarize the original bone of contention, I said just taking women’s (and minorities’) word for it whenever they say something offends them is akin to taking pro-Israeli Jewss whenever they say criticism of Israel is illegitimate. Lynet responds,

You seem to have some concern that anyone could pick a particular word or phrase, claim to be offended by it, and demand that it not be said. One point that needs to be noted is that such a demand is considerably more reasonable when the word or phrase in question is not necessary in order for some particular statement to be able to be said at all. Thus, for example, demanding that no-one criticise Israel for fear of being anti-Semitic stifles an important viewpoint, and should be disallowed. On the other hand, asking that people not refer to women as ‘cunts’ only stifles an important viewpoint if you really do think that the word ‘cunt’, with all its implications, is best way to get your viewpoint across.

I suppose in this case a better analogy of “cunt” is to “apartheid.” It’s not really necessary to invoke the word “apartheid” in reference to the situation in Israel; I manage to criticize the occupation perfectly well without having ever used it, except for one instance in which a South African UN official said so. The term itself is offensive to many people, including many who oppose the occupation, precisely because it has a strongly delegitimizing connotation. Since so much of Zionism is concerned with the very legitimacy of Israel, comparing it to such a pariah state as South Africa under apartheid touches a nerve.

In fact, I don’t use the word “apartheid” for the same reason I don’t use “cunt”: precisely because it’s so emotionally loaded. I strive for factual arguments, which is why I tend to avoid touching people’s nerves. But at the same time, I defend people who use the word “apartheid” against accusations of recklessness or anti-Semitism. Just because a group claims to be oppressed doesn’t give it the right to control anyone else’s vocabulary.

The “claims” part is crucial; although it’s possible to separate oppressed from non-oppressed groups, in practice the left tends to separate the two based primarily on political alliances. In cases of serious oppression, such as legal discrimination or economic and social inequality, there are ways to separate the two without any a priori assumption about who is oppressed and who isn’t.

And that brings me to my main point. Lived experience in such matters as gender and race is very useful as a motivating example. Betty Friedan’s research into the condition of housewives began with an observation about herself and her college class.

But just as motivating examples in mathematics aren’t proofs, so are motivating examples in social policy not evidence. The problem is that people routinely get offended over frivolities, and, in a suitably radicalizing context such as a consciousness raising group or a housegroup, turn them into very deep and utterly wrong theories about the world. Susan Brownmiller’s theory of a rape is a good example of this on a large scale.

Part of this stems from confusion between legal reasoning and scientific reasoning. The law is inherently based on anecdotes, both in its reliance on eyewitness testimony and the common law system’s emphasis on precedents. A sexual harassment lawsuit’s success depends on whether the plaintiff can produce several women independently claiming harassment by the same person or witnesses to a single act of harassment.

But that’s not a good basis for social policy. Social policy should inform the law, not the other way around. Even branches of feminist and antiracist movements that aren’t overtly policy-related are in the realm of social science, which has more statistical standards of evidence.

And that brings me back to claims that the word “cunt” is oppressive based on women’s lived experience. Lived experience is only the first step; it has to be followed with rigorous inquiry into the evidence that underlies it. For example, is there any longlasting psychological trauma associated with “cunt” (or “apartheid”) the way there is with “nigger”? Is there any evidence that in general, gender-neutral language promotes less sexism given that e.g. China is perfectly sexist even though spoken Mandarin is almost entirely non-sexist?

That, ultimately, is what matters. Anecdotes can give powerful indications a trend may hold, just like motivating examples in math can give strong evidence for a theorem that will take a hundred years to prove. But there’s a reason conjectures need to be proven to be considered full-fledged theorems.

Post-Slump Links

March 11, 2007

Since every hour that passes I’m more certain I’m not going to keep blogging, here are a few good links for your perusal:

Stuart Staniford of the Oil Drum explains carefully why the Saudi production decrease is due to peak oil rather than a voluntary reduction. The minutiae of the Saudi production curve are more consistent with a post-peak slump rather than with a voluntary reduction meant to give Saudi Arabia the power to flood the market at any given time.

C. L. Hanson notes that the two basic principles of relationships – that people have the right to say no to sex and that people shouldn’t sleep with anyone but their partners – are incongruous. As such, she talks about how cheating can save relationships.

Stentor rebuts market-based arguments against environmental legislation. He explains specifically that air pollution needs to be curbed collectively since air is naturally a shared resource. This isn’t an especially novel argument – the tragedy of the commons is a recognized market failure – but some libertarians’ hostility to it requires repeating it more than should be necessary.

Melissa Franklin, Harvard’s first tenured female physics professor, speaks at a conference about women in science that has just given her an award. She recounts experiences ranging from students’ crying because they couldn’t finish their problem sets to sexual assault.

Don’t Be Afraid to Challenge Sexism

March 10, 2007

When I hear the words “Political correctness,” I think about pointless exercises in choosing the precise word and mannerisms to use in every situation, elevated above substance. James Dickson’s Michigan Daily article about feminism certainly lowers the bar; to Dickson, political correctness includes saying that when a woman says no to sex she means no and that people shouldn’t excuse sexual assault on the flimsy excuse that boys will be boys. Dickson complains,

In their laudable desire to eliminate rape, campus feminists have created a climate of fear that doesn’t acknowledge that no one supports rape besides rapists. To shift the blame from rapists to some supposed rape culture is an act of magic, not logic.

The climate of fear he talks about isn’t some “Every man is a rapist” trope or even a guilt-based campaign treating men as five-year-olds. The poster he complains about is, by his own admission,

“If you do one or more of the following things:

� use words like ‘pimp’ and ‘player’ to praise sexually exploitative men

� blame women who have experienced sexual assault for indecency, stupidity, for ‘asking for it’

� think ‘no’ means ‘yes’

� excuse sexual violence because ‘men can’t control themselves’


In trying to sound like a serious rape fighter who happens to emphasize its nature as a crime, Dickson manages to miss the mark almost every sentence. He talks about how rapists and sex criminals are reviled; but that holds only in stereotypical cases where it’s impossible to accuse the victim of having consented. In all other cases, “She asked for it” can be used effectively as a defense in criminal trials (see e.g. here).

Dickson further manages to mangle his own anti-rape proposal by calling for installing more street lighting throughout Ann Arbor. It’s not hard to find statistics about where women get sexually assaulted and their relationship to the perpetrator; in the US, the NCVS has fairly thorough data. Averaging the surveys from 2003 through 2005 reveals that 5.1% of sexual assaults in the US occur on the street, compared with 62.7% that occur at or near the victim’s home or the home of an acquaintance of hers.

One of the advantages of campaigns encouraging women to speak out is that causing women to report rape more is likely to help in two ways. First, as far as I can tell, the reporting rate for rape is negatively correlated with the rape rate, probably due to a deterrence effect. And second, the more rapes are known, the more political capital there is for other anti-rape policies.

Dickson’s article is one that makes a lot of sense, if you accept certain premises about rape that, while common among conservatives and plain old sexists, are not true. The premises’ centerfold is the stereotypical rape, which features a victim who’s very clearly more a virgin than a whore and a perpetrator who barely knew her if at all and is not considered a good guy in general. That rape is the easiest to come down against both in the media and in court, but is a fairly rare specimen.

In all other cases, a lot of things that should be too irrelevant to note are considered mitigating circumstances. If the perpetrator knew the victim well, especially if he’s a partner or former partner, people such as Dickson are likely to consider it within his rights to demand sex. If the victim was drunk, they consider the rape her fault. If the victim has a history of consensual sex – or, more precisely, if the defense manages to make such a history public – they consider her a tramp. At the end, they firmly oppose a small minority of rapes and excuse the rest.

That, ultimately, is what is called the rape culture. It’s not so much rape itself as the barrage of ifs and buts coming from people like Dickson, for whom the mildest campus activism is extreme political correctness. Dickson himself manages to avoid saying such phrases as “She asked for it,” but still can’t help deriding a poster attacking that attitudes.

There are two kinds of people who use the words “Extreme rhetoric” to refer to posters attacking attitudes that apologize for rape. One is rank misogynists, who blame working women for every social problem and think rape is bad except when it happens in real life rather than in the media. The other is radical feminists, who would like you to believe the jump from mild anti-rape rhetoric to refusing to have sex with men as a matter of principle is smaller than it actually is. And Dickson doesn’t at all strike me as a radical feminist.

Blog Against Sexism Day: When Objectification Hurts

March 8, 2007

The story about the law student who was denied employment because a forum for pseudonymous sexists objectified her, discussing her sexually without her knowledge and consent, is making its rounds through the blogosphere. The best take comes from Jill, who documents how the forum’s members cyberstalked her to the point that she had to skip classes for fear of being targeted for harassment or worse.

The objectification in question revolves mostly around a contest run on the forum, “Hottest girls at top 14 law schools.” The contest featured photos of the women, taken by the women or by sex-obsessed forum members; Jill reports how forum members openly talked about masturbating to her picture, photographing her with camera phones, and sexually assaulting her. All of this are beyond objectification; they’re actually hurtful, as the law student who was denied employment will attest.

The first ground rule is that if objectification involves cyberstalking, threatening to rape, or any similar form of harassment, it’s sufficiently wrong that there’s grounds to crack down on it (not to mention illegal). But even when it doesn’t, the power relation involved matters. This very blog features anonymous or pseudonymous commenters who say very unsavory things about politicians and political parties they don’t like. So it’s useful to start exploring the disanalogies between entering Jill into an online beauty contest involuntarily and bashing politicians.

A good standard to apply in many cases is libel law. In the US, there are a lot of exceptions to libel, based on a variety of grounds. It’s always acceptable to say anything about public figures, because they’re assumed to have exposed themselves to valid and invalid criticism, and because they have the power to contradict most statements said about them. If I refer to George W. Bush as a dictator, he can choose to inundate the airwaves with “I am not a dictator because ___” messages; Jill can’t do anything of that sort.

And more importantly, if I refer to George Bush as a dictator, or even to Ann Coulter as a male, then s/he will not be really affected even if my points go unaddressed. Ann Coulter is a public figure whose persona is familiar to many people on her own terms. Even in the unlikely case my slander became the top result on Google, she’s sufficiently public not to be affected. As Elizabeth Edwards noted, when Ann Coulter called John Edwards a faggot she was hurting gays more than she was John Edwards.

In contrast, talking about Jill sexually behind her back has an immediate effect on her, because of the different power situation. She will have to answer to potential employers, who will likely Google her name and find the libelous statements written about her on the forum. The forum is big enough that a thread about her that many people will hold against her through no fault of her own is sixth on Google when one searches for “Jill Filipovic.”

The same goes to the idiots who declared publicly they wanted more pictures of Jill, preferably taken without her knowledge, to masturbate to. Masturbating to a scene involving no person in particular of course doesn’t objectify anyone. Masturbating to a person who consents is not problematic; masturbating to porn falls under consent, since porn stars are assumed to know that the photos or films of them will be used for masturbatory purposes. In contrast, masturbating to someone who doesn’t consent is in the same category as masturbating to the picture of a nine-year-old. It’s not in itself illegal, but once you start discussing it, you should expect people to consider you at best a deviant and at worst a criminal.

I don’t wish to condone vicious attacks on Ann Coulter’s looks or shallow fat jokes about Dick Cheney. But they’re merely idiotic, exposing the shrillness and juvenility of those who make them. Starting a non-consensual beauty contest that gives potential employers the impression the women depicted consented to anything of that sort hurts people by severely defaming their character.

The reaction of the forum’s owners is far from encouraging. In response to a Washington Post article exposing the forum’s misdeeds, the owners thought slander was their right.

Another Yale law student learned a month ago that her photographs were posted in an AutoAdmit chat that included her name and graphic discussion about her breasts. She was also featured in a separate contest site — with links posted on AutoAdmit chats — to select the “hottest” female law student at “Top 14” law schools, which nearly crashed because of heavy traffic. Eventually her photos and comments about her and other contestants were posted on more than a dozen chat threads, many of which were accessible through Google searches.

“I felt completely objectified,” that woman said. It was, she said, “as if they’re stealing part of my character from me.” The woman, a Fulbright scholar who graduated summa cum laude, said she now fears going to the gym because people on the site encouraged classmates to take cellphone pictures of her.

Ciolli persuaded the contest site owner to let him shut down the “Top 14” for privacy concerns, Cohen said. “I think we deserve a golden star for what we did,” Cohen said.

I’m not sure whether admin Jarret Cohen (yes, I’m Googlebombing) was serious when he said that. The phrase “Golden star” is used sarcastically lately, to indicate that someone performed a trivial act but is asking for special dispensations for it, as in, “Bush thinks he deserves a golden star for finally submitting to the law.” What kind of idiot not only thinks he deserves a golden star for not letting his own site be a hornet’s nest of hurtful objectification but also mocks himself by using that specific phrase?

That is sexism, plain and simple. I’m not aware that being female lessens one’s right to privacy. Such contests violate that right in ways that the most vicious attacks on public figures can’t. I realize that there are a lot of people who believe rights only apply to men – hence, pro-life politics – but these are best kept as far away as possible from where they might actually cause damage.

Bean’s Blog Against Sexism Day gender equality checklist specifically calls for shutting down the forum in question. But the problem is not the forum specifically; it’s with a general system that accepts, nay, encourages men to go out and objectify women, preferably in the most hurtful ways possible, on pain of being branded effeminate. The forum is just one nasty example of that general principle, just as lynching was one nasty example of segregation.


March 5, 2007

Bean writes about a non-coercive strategy of increasing fertility rates. It appears as if what causes fertility rates to plummet with development is women’s entry into the workforce combined with the realization that working mothers face significant difficulties. Therefore, it’s possible to increase fertility by subsidizing child care, as France and Sweden do.

Although Bean doesn’t mention it, such policies have been mostly successful: France’s fertility rate is now 2.01 up from 1.89 in 2000, higher than every developed country except the US, and higher than even the US once one controls for teen pregnancy. Sweden is at 1.66 up from 1.53 in 2000, the 8th highest in the EU. Meanwhile, Ireland, whose high fertility (1.86, second only to France in the EU) is based on keeping women barefoot and pregnant rather than informed and empowered, is seeing a reduction in fertility.

Significantly, the Norwegian solution of paying women to be mothers is not working so well. In Norway, the government pays women the equivalent of $19,000 a year to stay home and raise children; the fertility rate is 1.78, down from 1.81 in 2000. In Sweden and France, which emphasize daycare, fertility is soaring.

Of course, it’s not all policy. Attitudes matter; the reason Norway is so far high is that it starts from a fairly feminist base (though, to be honest, it doesn’t explain why it’s more fertile than Sweden, widely understood to be the most feminist country in the world). Italy and Spain, which are becoming more Western European and less Catholic in attitude, have seen fertility increases between 2000 and 2006 that are even higher than France’s; but their increased natalism is starting from a base almost at 1.

Bean correctly notes that

there is a long history of using public fertility supports for natalist purposes. But that’s not what’s at issue here. The question here is how to allow women to balance the biological responsibility for childbirth with the need and desire of many women to work outside the home? Some countries, including Sweden, that have been successful in encouraging parenthood through childcare also have much saner work expectations than the U.S. To accomodate motherhod, we *all* need to work less (not just mothers — everyone). Another answer — which the article doesn’t even touch — is to shift societal expectations about childcare. If parents share caregiving responsibilities, men will better understand the demands women have long faced and women will be able to continue to work and to become mothers simultaneously.

The bottom line is that any solution cannot just be about women — it’s got to consider how to shift family structures, societal expectations, and state supports.

Obviously, state supports are the easiest to change. Daycare is expensive for the individual family, but because of the middle class compact, it’s not expensive for the taxpayer. And, of course, it provides the important benefit of covering poor families, which are caught in the impossible situation of having to earn two paychecks while keeping the children at home until free primary education kicks in.

On the other hand, state supports can also help influence societal expectations. Best Buy’s offices have adopted a flex-time policy wherein employees are free to choose their hours, as long as they get all their work done. Not only has this policy increased productivity, but also working mothers are able to maintain a good work-family balance without being branded uncommitted at work. The government can use a variety of mechanisms to encourage such policies, if only because they increase labor productivity.

There’s the environmental argument that low fertility is good because it reduces global population pressure. The problem with that argument is that the people who make it manage to accomplish both being racist/imperialist and ignoring realities in order to avoid being racist/imperialist.

First, in the first world there’s no population pressure. The US can comfortably accommodate many more than 300 million people without any increases in agricultural productivity, it exports so much food. Globally it’s something else, but 100 million extra Americans or Europeans don’t make much of a difference.

Second, stare at a graph of agricultural productivity for a few seconds if you think that the very real problem of supporting a social security system with a fertility rate of 1.5 outweighs the hypothetical problem of a population bomb. The way it looks now, world population is going to converge to 11 billion by the end of the century and stay there. That’s sustainable, from both an economic and an environmental point of view.

And third, immigration isn’t always a feasible solution. The US and Canada can weather any fertility rate with immigration alone. Japan, South Korea, and Russia, all countries with very real negative population bombs, can’t; they’re just not attractive destinations for immigrants. Japan is in an especially problematic position, because its social security system is based on cradle-to-grave corporate responsibility to employees, a principle that is being increasingly undermined by a variety of processes of which only some are avoidable.

Fortunately, subsidizing daycare and encouraging corporate cultures conducive to gender equality are good even independently of their making the difference between a fertility rate of 1.5 and a rate of 2. Forget the morality of equal rights for a second; it’s generally better for a society to have a talent pool of skilled workers consisting of all educated adults rather than just half of them. As I like to say, it’s better for everyone for merit to supplant privilege.

India’s Missing Girls

March 4, 2007

Echidne has a terrific post about India and China’s sex ratios. In both countries, there is rampant sex-selective abortion and infanticide, leading to sex ratios of 882 and 832 girls to 1,000 boys respectively. Echidne uncharacteristically takes the snarky road here, so let me try and be a more policy-oriented wonk.

1. Abortion restrictions don’t work here. China already forbids doctors to tell women the sex of their babies before birth. On the contrary, freer abortion turns this into a legitimate if decidedly sexist choice rather than murder.

2. Conversely, other governmental restrictions on fertility exacerbate the problem. In India, the sex ratio is largely a product of dowries, which make girls a financial burden on poor families. In China there’s no such thing; the problem stems mostly from the one-child policy, since families prefer having at least one boy to continue the lineage. Nor does the relaxation that families are permitted a second child if the first is female help much, since it still creates potentially a 2-to-1 gender ratio.

3. India’s ban on dowries is only helping a little bit. In the villages, a lot of progressive Indian laws are being routinely flouted. Officially, it’s illegal to discriminate on the basis of caste; in practice, the status of low-caste Indian villagers is about the same as this of black Alabamans in 1927.

4. Urbanization won’t help much. In Delhi there are 827 girls per 1,000 boys, despite having an above average level of income. Urbanization has done a lot to help women and low-caste people, but is entirely skipping the practice of sex-selective abortion, which is only getting worse due to increasingly expensive dowries.

5. Enforcing existing laws will help, but can only go so far. India doesn’t have an especially stable government, and in the long run will have an even less stable one as a consequence of the immense surplus of males. Cracking down on dowries is too politically unpalatable.

6. Baby steps like the one that the government is trying to promote, namely encouraging parents to abandon girls in local hospitals instead of abort or kill them, are the most secure. Unfortunately, they’re also the slowest, and problems of an oversupply of men can become very urgent. All hell broke loose in China in the 19th century in precisely those areas with lopsided sex ratios.

7. Exporting people is theoretically possible, but requires Western countries to forego their racism enough as to admit 2 million people every year – the 1 million missing women plus 1 million men to compensate. At a time when Europe is trying to return to its medieval roots and the United States lets in something like 300,000 legal immigrants per year, it’s not realistic for the Indian government to bank on that. It’s the best the West can do, but it’s probably even more politically difficult than to enforce anti-dowry laws in India in the first place.

That Housework Study

March 3, 2007

On Feministing, there’s a very long comment thread about a new study that shows once again that not only do British women do less housework than men, but also women do more housework when they begin cohabiting while men do less. Commenter Soullite suggests a way to doubt the study, but inadvertently reinforces its point.

Second, it’s apparent when you dig into the polls that the difference in housework is negated by the difference in work outside of the house. To argue that men should both work more than women outside of the home and do equal work to women in the home is awfully convenient. This is why the same study found that women had more leisure time despite working more often at home.

Also, despite whehter all families need to do yard work, or shovel snow or service vehicles, these activities should clearly be defined as household upkeep and as such should have been included in any study measuring that or it will skew the numbers no matter how slightly.(…)

It’s finding that men and women do equal “work” even if it’s not equal “housework”.

First, false consciousness arguments are generally too embarrassing to be for public consumption. If a man who changes the oil in his car doesn’t consider that any kind of work – household, maintenance, or whatever – it’s not work.

More importantly, the fact that men and women do equal work is well established. An old study from the 1980s reported in every recent Human Development Report shows that in developed countries, men and women do about the same amount of work, but men spend two thirds of their working hours in market-based activities while women spend only one third. The main problem is that those women not only don’t get paid but typically perform work far below their skill level.

Housework is like any other non-unionized skilled work. Some people clean homes; others work at Wal-Mart. It’s possible to overblow what “housework” exactly means and how it should be remunerated – this study is a good example – but the wage of a maid is a good yardstick that measures the substitution effect. The housework men do is incidentally more expensive on a per hour basis by that measure, not because it’s more skilled but because repairmen tend to be unionized while maids suffer from the effect of depreciation of female labor.

The study says cohabiting women do 15 hours of household labor a week in Britain compared with 5 for men (incidentally, other studies tend to get similar ratios but higher numbers). Assuming a female maid makes minimum wage, i.e. £5.35/hour (PPP$8/hour) and a male who performs all the household activities a man does makes half again as much, we get that the woman’s household labor adds £80/week to the combined income pool, while the man’s adds £40/week. So far, so good.

But in terms of who actually gets to keep the money, this isn’t good at all. Although the woman’s household labor saves the household £80/week, in terms of control of the money, her share is proportional to her market income. Even a housewife who gets to spend the family’s money has no real control of the money, since she is consistently dependent on her husband’s charity, which can be withdrawn at any moment.

In case of separation or divorce, even if she gets part of the money, she won’t have any income of her own. If the couple has children she might see some child support, but child support is set at the levels that support the children, not the whole family.

Reagan wasn’t quite right when he said people who depended on government can’t be free. The government tends to be the least demanding money giver, at least in developed countries other than the US, whose TANF system is designed to humiliate. A husband may temporarily love his wife, but that love can disappear without any prior warning, and with no income of her own, the woman will typically be plunged into poverty.