Sunday, April 30, 2006

Is that all they could come up with, or: Fisking a so-called Fisking

Kate Sutton's speech during AUSA's Womensfest caused quite a stir over at Red Confectionery, attracting a substantial amount of comments from those who took issue with the modernist feminist undertones. Unsurprisingly, there wasn't a great deal of effort that went into truly analysing what was in the speech, but rather attacking the messenger herself...

I don't understand this. I honestly don't see how grown men can feel so viscerally threatened by this speech, or more tellingly, the person who delivered it. It is unfortunate that Mr Graham Watson, who so often rails like Moses to the Israelites from the moral high ground about the folly of ad hominem attacks (remember, it's two words), is so quick to use them, as the comment below illustrates:

"What an idiot to have to use hyperbole to attemt[sic] to create sensation out of nothing. The same woman who [sic] I am told there now exists documentary[sic] testimony of her making false rape claims against people. I am also told court papers are being prepared by her victim, to call her to account for her vivid imagination, so well expressed here again in her speech.

Honestly, Graham. Ian Wishart himself couldn't have pulled off these kinds of faux conspiratorial undertones. Rather than calling to account the actual problems that Mr Watson has with Kate's points, he spends bandwidth attempting to mar Kate's character with hints and innuendo about hypothetical future legal action against her. If there truly are such allegations, they should be argued in court, not brought into a discussion about feminist issues by a man who is obviously having difficulty elucidating the problems he has with Kate's speech. The arguments just come across as hysterical and irrelevant.

As usual, questioning gender inequality leads some to conclude that it's just a fact, a biological fact of life, that men do the work and women stay at home looking after the kids. Rick attempted to explain this with the term 'sexual dimorphism', a common biological term used to describe biological differences between sexes. Of course, this contains two implicit and flawed assumptions about the relationship between sex (which goolies you have), gender identity (whether you identify as male or female, both or neither, both and neither) and gender roles (what males and females are supposed to do within their respective societies). Those assumptions are that Sex = Gender Identity = Gender Roles, that is that the constructs are somehow interchangeable, and that Sex/Gender Identity/Gender Roles are somehow blindly biologically determined - that those who are born with vaginas must identify as females and further that the traits they exhibit, their 'femininity' and all that that entails, is somehow an immutable biological artefact.

Gender Theory is a complex one, and there isn't space to go into a great deal here, but suffice to say that, while there is substantial evidence that gender identity has a strong biological correlation with sex, it is not an absolute relationship. Otherwise, we wouldn't have transgendered individuals. Even more dubious, and central to the discussion of gender equality, is the supposed relationship between sex and gender roles, or even gender identity and gender roles. While the tragic experiments of John Money/David Reimer have shown us that biology is a powerful force in these processes, we need to remember that societal norms, cultural mores and the need of those in power (whomever they may be) to justify, perpetuate and protect the status quo, has played and continues to play a significant role in defining what people will do and how people will act.

Unsurprisingly, those wishing to justify the poor participation rates of women leading in the private and indeed public sector, trot out the pseudo-scientific arguments of 'hormones', or as one commenter amusingly put it 'hormonal flux'. Of course! Elevated levels of progesterone and oestrogen means that women are incapable of interpreting statutes (judges), undertaking peer review (professors) or co-ordinating aquisitions (Chief Executives), while testosterone means that men can't use dictaphones (secretaries), or change nappies (child care).

This is a laughable fallacy. There is simply no empirical evidence to suggest that the subtle behavioural effects of sex-hormones is the reason that men are 'better' in leadership roles, while women are 'better' in support and administrative roles. Some evolutionary psychologists have attempted to explain (justify?) these disparitiess through reference to our evolutionary history and the division of labour among males and females in early hominid groups. However, like much of what evolutionary psychologists propose, there are very few data to support it. It's almost as if the proponents see a correlation that (a) women are in lower paid jobs (b) women have eostrogen and therefore that (a) and (b) somehow have some causative link. Utter. Bollocks.

As well as being a logical and empirical fallacy, these arguments are incredibly dishonest. By claiming 'hormones', proponents of this point of view have no responsibility to justify what is essentially their own prejudice:

"Hey! Don't look at me; it's not my fault that women are stuck in hormonal flux. I'm all for equality, but you know, biology means that women just can't cut it in the corporate world. They don't have the constitution. It's not their fault, it's just the hormones. We shouldn't set them up to fail."

But I digress! What I really wanted to do was have a look at a so-called fisking produced by Rick Giles. I like a good fisking, almost as much as I like a good frisking, and much more than I like a good fisting. Needless to say, I was a little underwhelmed by what transpired on Rick's blog. Rather than a good fisking, Rick's piece was short on substance, and devoid of any good refutation. It was, in fact, a nasty piece of work. Since I'm feeling cheated of a good fisking, I thought I would have a look at what Rick said; hey it's a veritable menage a trois a la fisk (Kate in Blue, Rick in Red, My own thoughts in black):

"I shall now quickly fisk Kate Sutton's Womensfest speech to The Quad at AU a few days ago.

Of course it would have been better to be there, because it was a speech and not a piece of literature. These are just speech notes released on Red Confectionery. The hook, the catch, and the swearing make more sense as a speech. However, the non-facts can be shot down here on equal terms weather
[sic] they be spoken or penned. So,-"

"I was invited to speak because I am a successful woman. I must say that this is very flattering, as I do not yet feel successful."

"You're not a successful woman. Success is reward for dealing in values but political power is a reward for penalising, for dealing in fear. You are a successful paracite,
[sic] if successful at all, but not a successful woman."

What kind of argument is that? Barely into the first paragraph, and already Rick starts the name calling complete with novel approach to spelling. How could Rick possibly judge whether Kate is a successful woman or not? I would consider a 24 year old, first time election to a community board, highest majority in the ward for those elections, now chair of that board to be at least to some extent successful. Call me crazy, but hey, just maybe. "Political power is a reward for penalising, for dealing in fear". What on earth is that supposed to mean, and how is it relevant to the discussion at hand? Would Rick then claim that Abraham Lincoln and Gandhi gained political power as a reward for penalising, dealing in fear? Very Odd.

Ad hominem, inconsistent and irrelevant.

"When told this I started to think about what success is – Sure I do many things. I am a former president of this student union, a current University of Auckland councillor, I am the chairperson of the Tamaki community board and I am a project manager for a charitable trust in South Auckland as well as sitting on about 4/5 other boards and committees."

"I rest my case."

Again: ad hominem, and irrelevant.

"I wanted to speak about women overseas and their plight – the feminisation of poverty and how vital it is for us to understand what is happening overseas,"

"Note the abstract reference to women outside New Zealand and some kind of plight. What women? Where? What's their boggle? If it's vital for us to understand why is it left to the imagination? Are you talking about Australian woman? Who? What? Where?"

I was disappointed that Kate didn't talk further on this, as we've had many personal discussions about it, and it something that I am keenly interested in. However, for Rick's benefit, let us look at the very real plight of women overseas. In Kenya, male legislators vote against rape laws, because in their culture, when a woman means no, she actually means yes. In the Dafur region, pro-government militias systematically use rape to control and intimidate non-Arab Sudanese communities. In India, 10 million female foetuses and babies have been killed over the last 20 years, because boys are better. Not to mention Pakistan (and India), where women are routinely murdered by family members for bringing dishonour to their families by being raped.

"the HIV/AIDS epidemic which affects mainly heterosexual females and their children."

"So do hickups! So does getting hair in your soup and forgetting where you put your shoes! Some vast patriarchal conspiracy, Kate? No. It's just that most members of every population are hetrosexual[sic] females and their children. Think about it, you're talking crap."

What Rick fails to understand from Kate's point is that heterosexual women are mainly affected by HIV/AIDS, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa, because they do not have the ability or the power to prevent it. In these areas, women do not control any aspect of the sexuality: it's easy for us to say that women should just say no, but many, indeed most, simply can't, despite the fact that their communities demand that they remain virgins until marriage. Not only are most women in these African communities forced to surrender control of their sexuality to males, but they are traditionally blamed as the root of sexual evil, promiscuity and 'looseness', despite the fact that, particularly in South Africa, the spread of HIV is predominatly the result of a highly mobile, sexually careless mobile labour (male) workforce; it is these men who then return to their villages, and infect their wives. It is women who co-ordinate the care for HIV positive AIDS Orphans. It is HIV positive women that are shunned from their villages and communities, and HIV positive women who experience barriers to receiving retroviral drugs, even to condoms. And it is these women who are taking the power back. It is these sisterhoods that will help stem the spread of HIV among Africa's poorest and most disempowered.

"it is not an equal or fair world for women overseas in our poorer countries who are raped, mutilated, tortured and without homes – they are victims not perpetrators."

"Ohhhh, they're victims not perpetrators? Thanks for the correction, as if we needed to be corrected for thinking your poor abstract mutilated mystery women you haven't identified were guilty for being homeless and tortured. Shame on us. You really got us good with that one, Kate."

I don't understand what Rick is trying to prove with this point. Yes, they are the victims. The majority of discrimination, rape and mutilation is directed towards women by men. That is something that we should be concerned about; we're supposed to believe in equality, which means in an equality in the right not to live in fear. The mutilated Woman is not an abstraction, Rick: she's very real.

"ask most women if they are discriminated against and most pakeha women will say no. The problem is that the statistics tell a different story 24.2% of judges, 19.2% of newspaper editors, 17.2% of legal partnerships, 18.9% of mayors are women."

"What is this fascination with making men and woman homogenous in all industries?

People find their own place in the world without some Stalin conforming every pocket of society into a microcosmic duplicate of the national statistics. If 50% of New Zealanders are woman does it really follow that 50% of magazine editors need to be men? Does the number of percentage points by which we fall short of this really measure sexist discrimination as Kate suggests?"

If women are being barred from entry into those industries on the basis of their gender, then yes. It's quite simple. And here we witness the massive inconsistency in Rick's argument. Rick comes from a libertarian background that says we shouldn't discriminate on the basis of gender: every individual is equal, and should be judged on their merits. If that were so, then that null hypothesis should lead us to a prediction: The probability of finding a person of a certain gender in specific job, given that the null hypothesis of gender equality is correct, should be close 50%. However, we see that this prediction simply doesn't play out. Ergo Individuals are not equal for some reason on the basis of gender. Rick attempts to justify this by saying that there are innate gender role differences between men and women which are manifested in these differences: that across the board, men are found in leadership roles because they prefer them and women don't AND that men are innately better suited (hormonally, of course), to leadership roles while women are innatelybetter suited to support roles. He illustrates this with his response to Kate below:

"Why is it that 17% of professors and associate professors are women? But it that over 50% of general staff are women – its because there is still a hierarchy of jobs and there is a still a system where women have choices to move ahead - the boys network still exists in this university."

"Sexual dimorphism exists, celebrate it Sutton! Maybe "most pakeha women" don't wish they were judges, newspaper editors, and politicians? Men and woman have different abilities and tastes that don't happen to conform to what your numerical model demands they should be.

You just want to change the world into one giant game of Sutton Says."

So, the hypothesis proposed by Rick is that women would innately prefer to be lawyers, not judges; that women innately prefer to be teachers, not prinicipals; that women innately prefer to be general staff and not academics. This hypothesis presents a prediction: If we were to go out and survey University of Auckland students, female law students would probably on average indicate more than male ones that they would want to be a low-level lawyer than a Partner, or a Judge, or similar predictions in Medicine, or similar predictions in Education. It hasn't been done, but I doubt that in a controlled study these predictions would hold up. Anecdotally at least, evidence suggests that women are just as keen, on average, about taking up senior or leadership roles as men. Given that we've had to reject that hypothesis, what are we left with as an explanatory model for these gender disparities that we observe? There is only one alternative, as unpalatable as it may sound: systemic discrimination against women in leadership roles (incorporating also the possible propensity of many women to accept the social norms and gender roles that have been prescribed to and imposed on them)

"I am passionate about good governance and directorship and I am trying to break the mold of these statistics and bring my sisters with me, but it’s a long slow battle."

"I always ask people who produce this bullshit if they would also like to apply their golden median to the crime statistics. Is it also a problem for you, Kate, that insufficient violent offenders are females? Not enough drink drivers? Not enough white collar crime comming
[sic] from skirts? Should we try to equalise those statistics too for the same reason you have for equalising it in the legal workforce? A television campaign or schools programme to get more little girls to go crooked? Well why not? Or could it be that there are other considerations to the desirability of this kind of equality you have neglected to include in your stupid inferences? Hmmm."

That's just silly. Who would in their right mind, propose attempting to increase the number of female inmates? Kate's point referred to the lack of women in senior or leadership roles in the public and private sectors. That doesn't ipso facto imply that males are never discriminated against: it is perfectly reasonable to suspect that our current education system is not providing the educational quality to groups of boys that it does to some girls, or to consider that our health system is not geared towards the prevention of sex-specific cancers in men (prostate, testicular) as it is in women (breast, cervical, uterine, etc). Or that our Family Court may be biased towards mothers. Or that men are overrepresented in crime statistics. But that doesn't mean that there isn't discrimination towards women that needs addressing.

"Date rape, gang rape, sexual violence are all a norm here – it’s a joke because men make it so and they are the blokes, the boys club and they are putting us down and taking our jobs."

"Well you've got us there. But for a man to get to the bins where Craccum is kept you have to sometimes push girls out of the way, and down a flight of stairs. And as for gang rape, what else is there to do while waiting in those huge queues at the cafe? It's the norm, what can I say?

But, hey. I say again- they're not *your* jobs, Stalinette.

So the stats look bad, the story is still bad - what do we do?

Cut cafe queue times and hand out Craccum magazine to those who are kept waiting. Then I wont have any excuse for all this normalised raping I've been doing all the time and you wont have to think twice before going to luch."

Why is it that the vast majority of rapes, sexual assaults, batteries and violations directed by men towards women? Of course men get raped by women, and such cases are deserving of equally punitive measures. But if we were all equal, if there was no discrimination, if the power dynamic was balanced, then you would expect that there were equal numbers of people being raped of either gender. This is not the case; women are predominantly, though not exclusively, the victims of rape. We must all ask the question: WHY? Kate is not saying that all men are rapists. What Kate is showing is that the culture of rape goes deeper than just the actual act; it goes to the paradigm of unequal power relationships; rape is not about sexual desire, rape is about power, and the use of sex and physical force, predominantly by men, to exercise that power. Women need to take the power back, and men must be willing to share it. The question is whether or not either gender is playing their part in doing that. When you hear this joke:

Q: What's Black and Blue and doesn't like sex?
A: A rape victim

Spoken by men, and not challenged by either men or women, you have to think that we've both got a long way to go.

I am not a rapist, but as a man I do benefit from rape, as much as I don't wish to: I can walk down the street at night and feel completely safe, without the fear that I will be raped by a woman. A woman doesn't have that ability, but she has that right. It goes further than just saying that rape is unacceptable, which we all do, or even that joking about rape is not acceptable, which I suspect that the majority of us also do. It means looking at the power structures that exist that result in the majority of sexual assaults and rapes being directed at women. Looking at the power structures that allow the majority of rape victims to be women.

"We must encourage a culture of diversity and this starts with accepting women as equal in our society by providing them with equitable opportunity"

"Well they're not equal, unless you mean politically equal but you do not. "Equitable oppertunity"
[sic] means whatever you want it to mean, which is clearly that girl% is supposed to go up and boy% down so we're all nice and symmetrical like."

Well, yes, women should be equal, in every sense of the word: sexually, socially, politically, educationally. How could one justify otherwise? Because an individual has lactiferous mammaries, or a uterus, they are somehow not equals? By equals we don't mean identical, we don't mean homogenous, as feminists we mean equal to mean not having any rights, opportunities or potential hindered because of either genitalia or gender identity.

"You all have an obligation to wake the fuck up and realise how every thing that you have now, all the rights to be free to earn money to marry when you want, to gain an education, to control your sexuality and bear children when you want – all of these rights have been fought for by women and they can be taken away"

"Well that's it right there, isn't it Kate? You think you're Kate Sheppard and it's the 1800s, or that you're Betty Friedan and it's the 1960s. These were times for a'changin', for pushing the system the way you're still pushing now. But guess what Kate? It worked.

You are living in the past, still pushing. You still think the right to work, to learn, to invidivual sexuality, to mating and marriage choice are in immanent danger of being snuffed out. But they are not in any such danger, because we fought and won that battle together before you and I were even born.

And why did we fight for those thing? Wasn't it so we could enjoy them? Take your place in the world, woman. Stop squarking. Nobody is trying to make you have babies and steal your jobs, okay? Relax babe. You live in New Zealand in 2006. There are people who love you and could use your help and offer you theirs and share a community with you but if you can tell such people by the shape of their gender you're a better person than I am."

Well, that's a nice ending isn't it? All warm and fuzzy. A compassionate ending, it would seem. We aren't quite there yet, Rick. People assumed that the right to vote, the right to go to work and the right to marry as one pleases meant the end of gender discrimination. The power structures that exist, and their manifestations in earning statistics, statistics relating to sexual violence, to domestic violence, mean that women and men are not equal partners: the opportunities and rights, despite the ideals and the theory, are not equally available. The fact of the matter is, in many communities, people are trying to change that, and we should all embrace it, men and women. Kate's speech called on men to play an active role in trying to deconstruct and reform those power structures so that gender is not a determinant of what you are able to do, or what people are able to do to you. What on earth have we got to be afraid of?