Category: Feminism and Gender

“In much wisdom there is much grief . . .”

Conservative pundit Arthur C. Brooks has been discussing his book Gross National Happiness in a number of venues, including the NYT Freakonomics blog. Having criticized the progressive Robert H. Frank for using such data to support egalitarianism, I’ll now question Brooks’s subjectivism (which has led him in exactly the opposite direction as Frank on the inequality question).

Brooks is happy to report that his political allies are “winning the happiness game hands down.” He gives several hypotheses for conservative joy; stronger religiosity, more time with family, a preference for “simplicity” over “complexity,” and less likelihood to see oneself as a victim. Brooks occasionally concedes Mill’s argument that it is “better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a pig satisfied.” But he appears most amenable to the view that liberals are likely to be whiny, complaining, resentful people, while conservatives resolutely consider themselves in control of their fate and satisfied with their lives.

Brooks’s research raises a number of interesting policy questions. First of all, what’s his root concern–happiness or virtue? We might map the classic tension between freedom and virtue to the present case: is it good action or the subjective feeling (Brooks alleges) it creates the desideratum here? If the latter, why not just provide people with soma? If the former, it’s a bit odd to introduce the “happiness evidence” as a reason for being, say, conservative, or good. Who’s Brooks’s audience? Exhausted hedonists just on the brink of giving up their Don Juan days to find more lasting pleasure at anti-tax rallies?

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Department of Self-Fulfilling Prophecies, Women in Science Edition

Recently Ben Barres, a professor of neurobiology, gave a fascinating talk at Harvard titled “Some Reflections on the Dearth of Women in Science.” His talk was based on his Nature article “Does Gender Matter” (to achievement in the sciences). I found the talk an extraordinary confirmation of my earlier worries about self-fulfilling prophecies and bias in the blogosphere.

Barres was responding to Steven Pinker’s book The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature, which, according to Barres, argues that men are innately “more aggressive and ambitious” and women innately “feel emotions more strongly” and “prefer to take care of children.” Barres explored how Rosalyn Barnett and Carolyn Rivers’ book Same Difference: How Gender Myths are Hurting our Relationships, Our Children, and Our Jobs extensively undermined such ideas, exploring the numerous “nurture” based rationales for differences Pinker saw as innate. Barres recited several studies evidencing “gender prejudice” that influences choices from the very earliest stages of child development. His slide show (available here) also raised serious questions about Pinker’s neo-Darwinian agenda, tracing bias in it all the way back to Darwin’s 1871 Descent of Man, which argued that “The chief distinction in the intellectual powers of the two sexes is shown by man’s attaining to a higher eminence, in whatever he takes up, than can woman.” (In 1985, Richard Lewontin responded that “biological determinists have never found any credible concrete basis for such differences.”).

After punching various holes in Pinker’s scientific program, Barres concluded that “When faculty tell their students that they are innately inferior based on race or gender they are crossing a line that should not be crossed –the line that divides responsible free speech from verbal violence.” His comments bring to mind a struggle for the soul of academia–whether the university is defined by either a) a libertarian willingness to entertain *any* idea or b) a communitarian belief that academics are part of a larger process of social inquiry designed to improve the world. The former idea is a tempting for many, but when we try to recognize the range of research programs that are actually worthwhile to accomplish, we quickly see that such rules of recognition are themselves parasitic on situated concepts of what is important to us and what aspects of our tradition are most worth promoting. Barres points out that the mere act of setting an agenda of inquiry can itself not merely manifest, but also promote, the very biases the inquirer claims merely to be exploring.

Consider, for instance, an academic department set up to explore Pinker’s hypothesis that “Religion is a desperate measure that people resort to when the stakes are high and they have exhausted the usual techniques for the causation of success.” Or the question of whether academics should study the propriety of torture in the service of national security. We may all want to pat ourselves on the back for being brave enough to consider such inquires. (In the same manner as, say, Pinker appears to be proud to consider dangerous ideas.) Yet as Raimond Gaita has argued, sometimes an “open mind” can also be a (morally) empty one. Gaita argues that “Society is in fact defined by what is undiscussable.”

Encouraging Vanity and Misogyny

plasticsurgerybook.jpgJust in time for Mother’s Day, the book My Beautiful Mommy offers to explain for kids how “mom is getting a flatter tummy and a ‘prettier’ nose” via a trip to the plastic surgeon. Meanwhile, the new reality TV show Bulging Brides encourages participants to lose weight with the slogan “The perfect day is just pounds away.” Ann Friedman of Feministing calls the show “size-shaming meets the bridal-industrial complex.”

The mass media has dropped the ball in its coverage of both shows, generally focusing on the best “techniques” of accommodating women and their children to plastic surgery, or the spectacle and tastelessness of the bridal show. Some outlets have given feminist critics of plastic surgery a bit of time to put their case to the public, but by and large are drawn in by the slickness of each effort.

Media coverage of the children’s book and the show reveal once again the bankruptcy of old concepts of “objectivity” in journalism. At this point, there are at least three “narratives” of plastic surgery that are coherent (on their own terms): 1) a libertarian narrative that values increasingly instant and cheaper gratification of desires (and safety only secondarily), 2) a moral narrative that questions the vanity at the heart of the plastic surgery boom, and 3) a feminist narrative that critically examines the types of economic and cultural pressures that make women particularly susceptible to the appeals of cosmetic surgeons. It’s very hard to work all three narratives into a given story. Instead, we’re treated to inarticulate exclamations of “how cute and fun” or “how repugnant”–one more symptom of MacIntyre’s famed characterization of modern thought as a “moral Babel.” This superficial “balance,” unmoored from any larger understanding of what makes for a good (or at least unoppressed) human life, ends up promoting the very phenomena it claims merely to be covering.


One train may hide another

Readers interested in criminal procedure, or constitutional law, or law and sexuality, or just a good read with some fascinating historical details, might enjoy David Sklansky’s “One Train May Hide Another”: Katz, Stonewall, and the Secret Subtext of Criminal Procedure. Without rejecting the commonplace claim that the development of constitutional criminal procedure was a matter of racial justice, driven largely by the civil rights movement and efforts to end mistreatment of black defendants, Sklansky suggests that this area of law was also shaped by concerns about “the long, sordid history of the policing of sexuality”–and the policing of homosexuality in particular. Of particular interest, given Larry Craig’s arrest last year, is the discussion of spying in public toilet stalls. Apparently, this practice was a standard police tactic used to detect homosexual conduct and arrest those who engaged in it. Katz v. United States focuses on the public phone booth, but the “secret subtext” may have been a concern about privacy in the public toilet stall.

And, one train may hide another. For me, the appeal of this article is not just the substantive argument, but an introduction to Kenneth Koch’s poem from which Sklansky takes the title phrase. Koch was traveling in Kenya and saw a sign at a railroad crossing: “One train may hide another.” The line inspired him, and here’s how his poem of that title begins:

In a poem, one line may hide another line,

As at a crossing, one train may hide another train.

That is, if you are waiting to cross

The tracks, wait to do it for one moment at

Least after the first train is gone. And so when you read

Wait until you have read the next line–

Then it is safe to go on reading.

In a family one sister may conceal another,

So, when you are courting, it’s best to have them all in view

Otherwise in coming to find one you may love another.

The whole poem is here. And thanks to Melissa Murray, who recommended Sklansky’s article to me.

Division of Inappropriate Analogies: Surgery as Haircut

The NYT’s Natasha Singer reports that breast augmentation has become “the country’s most popular cosmetic operation.” Carol Ciancutti-Leyva (director of the documentary “Absolutely Safe”) warns women that they may be in for more than they bargained for:

Your implants may last less than 10 years or more than 10 years, but when you start having problems with them, your health insurance is unlikely to cover the M.R.I. tests or the reoperations. It can be a very expensive proposition, especially if you are young.

I wonder if company wellness programs will soon be asking women to reveal if they’ve had implants? But they shouldn’t worry about “maintenance” in general, says a past president of the American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery, offering one of the more bizarre analogies I’ve seen:

Women are used to having their hair or nails done on a regular basis to maintain their appearance. Ultimately, breast implants may also be a matter of maintenance.

More on what this maintenance can entail after the break.

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Nussbaum on Extremism

Reports from Pakistan suggest that militant extremists were responsible for the tragic death of Benazir Bhutto. Anil Kalhan and Barbara Crossette provide insightful commentaries. I also found a great deal of insight on the situation in a lecture at Yale Law School by Martha Nussbaum. Though it was given three weeks ago, it sheds light on very recent events by describing the psychologically manipulative tactics extremists use to recruit impressionable young people to their cause. (The lecture video is here; it’s also on iTunes University, Yale Law division).

Though Nussbaum focuses on the Hindu far right in India, her nuanced theory may be useful generally. Her lecture brings together themes from her recent book on religious violence in India (Clashes Within) and prior books on education (Cultivating Humanity) and the role of emotions in human life (Hiding from Humanity and Upheavals of Thought). Nussbaum seeks to understand why “right-wing Hindu extremists . . . condone and in some cases actively support violence against minorities, especially the Muslim minority.” Her somewhat surprising answer focuses on the role of “humiliated masculinity” and European fascism in fueling a right-wing movement paradoxically premised both on avenging the wrongs done by invaders and imitating those invaders’ violent impositions.

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Disparate Impact in the Blogosphere

Danielle Citron gave a compelling presentation at the recent Yale Symposium on Reputation in Cyberspace exploring how group dynamics can deter women from participating online. The Yale Pocket Part has done a symposium on online harassment. Citron moved the discussion forward by analyzing social psychological dynamics in online life and describing how much more likely women are to be threatened by the worst type of comments:

Threats, lies, and the disclosure of private facts discourage women from blogging in their own names. Women lose opportunities to establish online identities that would enhance their careers and attract clients.

Destructive online groups prevent the Web from becoming an inclusive environment. Disappointingly, this phenomenon throws us back to the nineteenth century, when women wrote under gender-neutral pseudonyms to avoid discrimination.

Web 2.0 technologies provide all of the accelerants of mob behavior but very few of its inhibitors. . . . Individuals who feel anonymous do and say things online that they would never seriously entertain doing and saying offline because they sense that their conduct will have no consequences. A site operator’s decision to keep up damaging posts encourages destructive group behavior. Online mobs also have little reason to fear that their victims will retaliate against them.

The AutoAdmit lawsuit is a first step toward addressing the last concern. Making internet intermediaries more responsible may be another.

Given that the Yale conference had been criticized for failing to adequately include women’s voices, Citron’s presentation was especially important. While cyberspace may be liberating for many, the same prejudices that permeate real life can infect the online world. And as more of our life gets conducted online, combating these prejudices is going to need to become not merely a legal, but a cultural project. That issue has a long history, and has sparked many valuable discussions. Citron has already done very important work on making computer systems more accountable, and I look forward to reading her contributions in this area.

Administering Family Values

Following some excellent reporting on the failures of the CPSC, the NYT gives a big picture forecast of rapid rulemaking in the remainder of the Bush administration:

Hoping to lock in policies backed by a pro-business administration . . . [b]usinesses are lobbying the Bush administration to roll back rules that let employees take time off for family needs and medical problems.


The National Association of Manufacturers [NAM] said the law had been widely abused and had caused “a staggering loss of work hours” as employees took unscheduled, intermittent time off for health conditions that could not be verified. The use of such leave time tends to rise sharply before holiday weekends, on the day after Super Bowl Sunday and on the first day of the local hunting season, employers said.

The NAM should watch out–they might provoke a hunter-FMLA alliance as durable as the hunter-environmentalist one. They could also generate more lawsuits in the future by putting complex limits on FMLA leave.

But I’m sure NAM has its eye on not just legal but cultural change. Perhaps the endgame is to force more and more workers to be like this one, quoted in Jill Andresky Fraser’s White Collar Sweatshop (p. 23):

[A worker from Intel said] “If you make the choice to have a home life, you will be ranked and rated at the bottom. I was willing to work the endless hours, come in on weekends, travel to the ends of the earth. I had no hobbies, no outside interests. If I wasn’t involved in the company, I wasn’t anything.”

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Advising Female Graduates

Hello to everyone and thanks to Dan for inviting me to post this month.

I wanted to begin by noting an article that appeared in today’s New York Times. In it, Lisa Belkin surveys the flood of research on how women in the workplace are viewed differently than men. Belkin’s article cites many studies, all of which will sound familiar—probably because if you haven’t heard of the study she is discussing, you’ve heard of one that had similar results. These studies all boil down to the same conclusion: women are perceived to lack whatever qualities are most valued in the workplace, at least when compared to men who are behaving the same way as their female counterparts.

As Belkin explains, women are advised:

Don’t get angry. But do take charge. Be nice. But not too nice. Speak up. But don’t seem like you talk too much.

She continues:

These are academic and professional studies, not whimsical online polls, and each time I read one I feel deflated. What are women supposed to do with this information? Transform overnight? And if so, into what? How are we supposed to be assertive, but not, at the same time?

Belkin’s article has made me consider what I say to graduating female law students. My gender-specific advice always involves the thorny issue of balancing a legal career and children. I don’t say anything about the situation that all female graduates will find themselves in: that is, being a woman in a legal workplace.

I’m wondering what advice others give on this topic, or what valuable counsel others have received. If you have anything useful, please pass it along.

Eugenics Problems, Left and Right

Michael Gerson has an interesting editorial in the Washington Post on the Eugenics Temptation–of the left. He quotes the following statement of James Watson on embryo selection:

“If you could find the gene which determines sexuality and a woman decides she doesn’t want a homosexual child, well, let her.” In the same interview, [Watson] said, “We already accept that most couples don’t want a Down child. You would have to be crazy to say you wanted one, because that child has no future.”

Gerson then quotes Yuval Levin on a tension within liberalism that I’ve noted on this blog–between egalitarianism and libertarianism:

Science looks at human beings in their animal aspects. As animals, we are not always equal. It is precisely in the ways we are not simply animals that we are equal. So science, left to itself, poses a serious challenge to egalitarianism. The left . . . .finds itself increasingly disarmed against this challenge, as it grows increasingly uncomfortable with the necessarily transcendent basis of human equality. Part of the case for egalitarianism relies on the assertion of something beyond our animal nature crudely understood, and of a standard science alone will not provide. Defending equality requires tools the left used to possess but seems to have less and less of.

Gerson, whom David Frum “ranks among the most brilliant and most influential presidential speechwriters in decades,” has put his finger on what is probably the most dangerous tension in “left” ideology today. Positional arms races for designer babies dovetail with an ethos that says that choice in reproductive matters must be absolute. As I stated five years ago in an article, egalitarian principles should check this tide.

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