Hypocritical Expectations or None at All?

With each semester here at Duke, I notice that my classes start becoming more and more related to one another. I guess I’m finally starting to specialize in regards to my education, and my future plans in general. This connection was especially clear to me today in our class discussion.

We watched a short clip relating to social change, globalization, and online networking. While entertaining and thought provoking, I noticed a general assumption that had been made throughout: the idea that “west is best.”

We are discussing this concept in my global economy sociology class. Sociologists have been making this assumption for centuries, beginning with colonization, and continuing (at a lesser extent, perhaps) into the development decades and even into globalization. We look at other societies and their culture, declare them less-civilized and backwards, and try to impose our ways on them.

The clip today mentioned the theory that the online network would spread democracy by making people in other parts of the world want to be more like us, joking that they would “want more stuff.”

In sociology, I read these articles and naturally thought that it seems righteous to impose our western ways on other cultures. But after today in our discussion, I am now considering it from a feminist/human right’s perspective. While we should be open-minded when it comes to other cultures and their values, where do we draw the line? When certain cultures oppress women and minorities and deny them their basic human rights, it can’t possibly be okay to accept this as their “culture.”

Then I looked in the mirror. While we may be further along than many countries out there, we are in no way perfect. Maybe this is the problem. We become righteous and hypocritical when we impose these ideals on others, and operate in a system that does not complement them back home. How can we demand that others do how we do, yet expect more from them than we do of ourselves?

I now disagree with what my sociology professor has been preaching. Being a good global citizen does not mean accepting other societies and their traditions and values. Cultural norms that violate basic human rights cannot be dismissed for the sake of tradition. We should instead aim for a world where we can consistently hold people to a standard that respects basic human rights, regardless of their position in the world.

We can’t do this by instituting our current system in foreign countries. This would be setting another country up for failure. We can see that our current setup isn’t working by the societal problems that we can’t seem to fix within our system. So rather than hope that technology leads to other parts of the world adopting our western framework, we should take a look at ourselves and try to find an answer to this problem. Maybe that way, developing countries can learn from our mistakes, and hope for better outcomes.

The Perpetuated Myth of Gendered (Dis)ability

Once biases are in place, can a mind ever change?

I feel as if I should be used to this by now, but it still surprises me whenever I witness the effects of our patriarchal society.

It happened again just last night. I was at my recently acquired job, working with someone I had just met. The shop wasn’t busy, so I was catching up on some of my readings for class. I was reading about the policies and practices of Title IX, more specifically about its successes and shortcomings. My co-worker asked what I was reading, so I gave her a brief synopsis. I expected her to act politely interested for a couple minutes, and then the two of us would move on to more commonplace small-talk. But she was genuinely interested.

However, her interest was far from encouraging. She was highly critical of what I had to say. I’m not saying everyone should agree with me. What worried me was that her beliefs were so consistent with the gender stereotypes perpetuated in our society. She didn’t understand why so much effort was spent on encouraging women to go into the natural sciences. She’s an engineer, and she told me she knew from personal experience that men were naturally better at math and science than women. She also explained that she grew up in China, and as a child grew up with the impression that being a scientist was one of the best things you could be, but a woman just wouldn’t be as great of one as a man would be. Her disbelief in her ability and the ability of women everywhere was almost frightening.

I went on to explain how that’s what we’ve been told all our lives, but is it because it’s the truth (doubtful) or because it’s a perpetuated myth? She countered by telling me that men have been the head of the household for so long, and that there must be a natural reason for this. Nothing I said could convince her otherwise. She was so sure that men were naturally at an advantage in so many things- meaningful things, more often than not.

The only encouraging outcome of this conversation was the fact that despite her strong opinions regarding gender stereotypes, she is still learning to be an engineer. While I sat there reading about gender and women’s issues, she worked on her physics homework. It really helped me understand why the Title IX coordinator in the reading believed it would take so long for the effects of Title IX to truly have a meaningful impact: it’s going to take generations to rid these gender myths from the minds of men and women alike, and only then will we have significant and sustaining change. It’s just disheartening to see women like this have such an outlook on the world. If she had more faith, would this affect her work ethic today or her success level in the future? I believe it would. There’s just no easy way to make her see this when the myths are so deeply ingrained in her mentality.

The Ugly Truth

If you could receive a pay raise worth hundreds of thousands of dollars by declaring yourself “ugly,” would you do it?

Some people would. Maybe they should; that is, maybe their looks really are costing them job opportunities, promotions, sales, trials, or a better deal on their mortgage (see this New York Times op-ed to read more). Studies over the past twenty years demonstrate that the attractively challenged have a valid argument.

Daniel S. Hamermesh is a professor of economics at the University of Texas, Austin and author of “Beauty Pays.” He suggests this form of prejudice deserves compensation like any other “disability.” But why is monetary compensation our reaction to hearing this information? We’re told that “ugly” people are being disadvantaged solely due to their lack of attractiveness, and our response is to say “we’re sorry, how much can we pay you to make up for it?”

We seem to have very little faith in ourselves. We’re better than this. Monetary compensation shows that we don’t think this behavior can be changed. And by behavior, I mean that of the prejudicial perpetrators of “ugly.” bias– which, according to these studies, is everyone (whether we realize it or not). Compensating attraction bias would normalize the behavior that we should be attempting to eradicate. The focus should be on acknowledging and confronting this bias, rather than ignoring it or accepting it by trying to pay it off. Kenan’s Ruth W. Grant communicates the effects of incentives and their ethical implications in her book Strings Attached: Untangling the Ethics of Incentives.

The strategy of compensating for bad behavior happens more often than not. Rather than fix the system, we go the easy route and try alleviating the symptoms of the systemic flaw.  Over the summer, I worked at a nonprofit that deals with gender bias and sexual assault. What I learned is that we tend to put all of our attention on the victim: how did they end up in this situation? But what we should really be focusing on is the root of sexual violence itself. Only when we address gender norms and their implications will we begin to see significant and sustaining change.

While bias in the workplace may seem trivial when compared to rape, similarities can be found when we look at how we approach these two issues. We need to stop excusing the behavior by attempting to lighten the burden of the victim, and instead work on addressing why these prejudices (physical appearance and sexism, respectively) exist in the first place. I refuse to dismiss the behavior by accepting that our biological make-up is inherently prejudiced. We are not animals. That would be no different than blaming the rape victim for showing too much cleavage and then claiming she was asking for it because men simply “can’t help themselves.” As humans, our behavior is not purely instinctual.

There’s no easy answer to combatting this prejudice, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. Let’s set the bar higher, and start asking more of ourselves as a society.

When the problem hits home

I spent my summer working with the National Judicial Education Program at Legal Momentum, a program that addresses gender bias and sexual assault in the courts. Every day, I would read about women who suffered through awful marriages and even worse court rulings, due to the existence of this bias in the courts. But my internship experience was largely hands-off. I never met these women. I did not know them. I did not know their abusers. It didn’t even occur to me that I could know someone who could be that horrible.

Then I got a call from a friend back home. She had gone to a party the night before, and after a couple hours of drinking, wound up in a room with two guys that we both considered our friends. She has hooked up with both of them in the past. They preemptively decided that this meant they should be able to hook up with her at the same time. My friend had too much to drink that night, and is unsure what happened exactly. No one really knows.

After she told me this, I was in shock. How could two guys that I thought were friends of mine be the type of guys that take advantage of an intoxicated girl, someone who was clearly not in the state of mind to make a rational decision? More importantly, how could they disrespect someone that they considered a friend? If they were okay with treating her this way, what’s to say they wouldn’t treat me this way, too?

I wasn’t there, yet I feel compelled to never speak to these guys again. I feel that it would be hypocritical of me to do so. I spent eight weeks working for a department that deals with sexual assault, and one week into the semester a friend of mine is a victim at the hands of two other friends of mine.

The hardest part is that I feel like I’m the only one who feels this way. This happened back in Florida, yet I’m taking a stand from two states away while my friends back home have already moved on. My girlfriend who called me the next day is leaning towards forgiving both of these guys.

It’s come to a point where I have lost trust in all of my guy friends. There weren’t any signs that these two would ever take advantage of a girl. None at all. Are all my guy friends equally capable, including those here at Duke?

Before this summer, it was a lot easier avoiding the discussion of feminism and politics in my everyday life, mainly because I was oblivious to the social problems around me that stem from sexism. Now I see them everywhere, whether it’s a stupid comment made by a friend or something as extreme as what my friend experienced. I am just unsure how to deal with them in a way that won’t outcast me from my friends, and more importantly how to talk about these things with those who weren’t fortunate enough to go through the Moxie experience. The last thing I want is another one of my friends to go through a similar situation. I also don’t want to lose the ability to relate to others who may not agree with me on certain social issues. I used to think these things should remain private, but now that just seems wrong. These issues are too important to me.

Looking back and moving forward

Avery is a rising sophomore and interned at Legal Momentum this summer.
This summer has had a pretty big impact on my life. It’s challenged me, inspired me, irritated me, matured me, and (most importantly) made me question how I look at the world, and what my role in it should be. I feel like this is a natural experience for anyone spending their first extended period of time in a big city, and working full time. But I believe the Moxie Project maximized this effect. Not only did it temporarily throw me out into the real world, but it required me to reflect on my experiences (whether they be related to work, politics, relationships, or life in general) on a regular basis. I think reflection is seriously underrated these days. We’re so focused on what’s next, that we rarely take the time to look back and truly get meaning and value from what we’ve done.

Not only did I reflect on my personal experiences, but I was able to discuss them with the others in the cohort, and hear their experiences as well. I heard an insight from six different feminist organizations, and was able to connect them to the women’s movement as a whole. Independently, they are all generally well-run nonprofits with the best of intentions. But I think we need to take it a step further. We need to get these programs talking to each other, working together, because in the long-run, we all want the same thing. To me, the fact that these programs are not collaborating with one another represents the biggest problem with the feminist movement. We are working hard at our specific goals, but the division is taking away from the greatness that could be achieved as a collective. I believe the work that Lynn and Tracy are doing at the National Judicial Education Program to be extremely necessary. It’s a short term solution to the currently existing gender-bias in our nation’s judicial system. But this can’t be the final answer, because it’s never-ending. The root of the problem is not being addressed.

Meanwhile, there are other organizations out there addressing systemic problems, looking at the long-term effects on our society. I think feminist organizations need to communicate more, because it gives hope to our efforts, and strength to the movement. I was able to work at Legal Momentum with this awareness because I learned and spoke with a group of varying feminist organizations, and was therefore not saddened by the thought of a never-ending approach to a deep-rooted problem. If the entire feminist movement was organized like one giant Moxie Project, maybe this hope could be shared at a greater level, and more importantly, we could advance gender equity at a quicker pace.

But my summer was about more than just the women’s movement. I learned a lot about myself, and about human interaction in general. I credit this to the readings we were assigned and the discussions we had at work. I think the most important lesson I learned was about implicit bias. I had never really given it much thought before, I’ve always been such a logical person. Our brains are designed to categorize our observations and the information we take in, which leads to natural stereotyping and discrimination. This is why I believe so many kids grow up with the gender biases that exist in our society. They’ve been observing it since they were young, and naturally it stays with them until they address the problem at its core, which is exactly what we did at the Moxie Project.

However, requiring every student to go through the Moxie Project is a bit unrealistic. In the short term, I think we should require students to take a general psychology course in elementary or middle school. It’s so important to have a basic understanding of how the mind works, yet we don’t stress this importance in our education system. In the long term, I think we need to alter the way our society is set up, which would in turn prevent future generations from observing a patriarchal structure and formulating gender biases. Again, I bring up addressing the root of the problem. Until we figure out a way to do this, the feminist movement will continue to be like Hercules and the Hydra. Cutting off the heads, or abating the symptoms of gender biases, is an endless and tiresome struggle. They will just continue to grow back. We need to see all these symptoms as a whole, and rather than running around and putting out a thousand different small fires, find a way to stop them from starting in the first place.

A Madame President would advance more than just politics

Avery is a rising sophomore who is interning at Legal Momentum this summer.

I believe we need a female president because I think it is one of the best ways to change perceptions of gender norms. If future generations grow up hearing adults refer to the leader of our country as “she,” this would have a significant impact on what they grow up believing women are capable of. When we learn about our country’s history as kids, and see that it is made up almost entirely of men (in regards to leadership positions in government), this naturally affects how we see what is commonly expected of men, and therefore what isn’t commonly expected of women.

I think that the structure of government, businesses, families, and organizations in general affect our perception of gender more than we realize. We observe so much as kids, and these observations shape our view of the world. The majority of the time, we view white men making laws and minority men being arrested on the news, while we see mostly women doing shopping in the grocery store. No one explicitly tells us that white men typically have more power, minority men and women are typically subjected to poverty and end up in the dangerous neighborhoods, or that women typically cook and run the household. This is just what we see every day, and our minds are trained to categorize and therefore discriminate amongst the information we take in.

While education does a good job of highlighting a lot of the prejudices, it will never rid the mind entirely of discrimination. My supervisor at Legal Momentum, Lynn Schrafran, told us about an article she read about this mental process, and described how most of the time it’s a good thing. It enables us to learn, make connections, and even protect ourselves. But this “survival of the fittest”-type encoding leads to discrimination and stereotypes about the people around us, too. We deal with this a lot at the National Judicial Education Program. The majority of people discriminate everyday, but are not aware they are doing so. We aim to educate judges of these implicit biases, so they can better address them and also avoid making biased decisions in court.

This isn’t the final solution. This work is obviously valuable to our country’s judicial process, but it’s just another way of treating the symptom, rather than curing the disease. If we continue doing this and nothing else, we will forever being doing this work. Every new generation of judges will need to be taught again and again.

If we want permanent and lasting change, we need to stop a lot of these prejudices from forming in the first place. If we get more women into visible leadership roles, more minority men and women out of poverty, and more men helping out in the home, demographics will change, and new generations will begin making very different observations than the ones we made growing up. I can’t think of a leadership role more visible than that of President of the United States. Maybe the Pope, but that I really can’t see happening any time soon.

However, this doesn’t mean I plan on readily supporting any female willing to run for office. I would go so far as to say that if given the option of two poor candidates, I would support the male over the female, just because he is a man. The first female president needs to be great. If she’s not, there will be people out there ignorant enough to blame it on the fact that she is a woman. Even those people who aren’t ignorant will have their opinions of female leadership tainted if the first female president does an awful job. My idea of the perfect female candidate is someone who is confident of herself, articulate about where she stands on issues, but at the same time is compassionate and cooperative- traits commonly assigned to women. We need someone who is more than a woman who can act as a man; we need a woman who isn’t afraid to lead as a woman.

“Despite everything, I [want to] believe that people are really good at heart”

Avery is working this summer at Legal Momentum, the nation’s oldest legal defense and education fund dedicated to advancing the rights of all women and girls.

I would say that my gender socialization up until this summer has been the perfect example of what Jessica Taft, author of the book Rebel Girls, is opposed to: I was raised to be an “empowered” girl as opposed to an activist.  My family has always been about the “individual,” whether it’s about education, politics, or responsibilities. Even the things they encouraged me to pursue were for my own personal benefit, like when my dad pushed me to run for class president, or when my mom decided I wouldn’t be a cheerleader but would try out for the co-ed basketball team instead. This type of gender socialization was pro-feminist I believe; it defied what you would typically classify as boy’s and girl’s after-school activities. However, this feminist choice stopped when it reached me. I acted in ways that defied gender norms, but never participated in a larger movement. Not that I blame my parents for this. I don’t think they ever considered their influence as “feminist.” They just wanted what was best for their daughter. I’ve never seen it as a negative thing, until I looked at it from Jessica Taft’s perspective. Now I’m questioning how I was raised, how I view the world, and whether these two things have led me to be a pessimistic (and slightly selfish) “individual.”

I was brought up to believe that the world was not a perfect place, and that evil would always exist in it. Coming from a Catholic background, this isn’t an unusual way to look at life. The answer is to go about your business, be kind to others, and give to those in need. Basically, treat the symptoms of the world, but don’t try and cure the disease because that’s just not possible. Evil will always exist. I’m not saying that I now see that it is possible; to be honest, I’m still having a hard time thinking that the social problems in our society can be cured. This outlook assumes that everyone is inherently good, and that poverty and hate exist because our patriarchal and capitalistic system pushed those on the bottom down. I’m not saying this isn’t true. I just have a hard time believing that if we switched to a different system, people would stop pushing others down. I find people to be too self-motivated and ambitious. It took me until now to realize that my opposition to progressive ideals was rooted in the fact that I don’t believe humanity is inherently good. This realization is extremely unsettling.

I’ve always felt that if society was set up in a way in which people had to fight for themselves, the ending result would be optimum. It’s a survival of the fittest, every man for himself sort of outlook. I was fed the typical stories that supported this theory. My favorite was the one about the girl who went to college, and her professor decided that grades would be averaged out and shared evenly. Despite how hard the A students worked, and despite how little the F students worked, everyone wound up with a C. This little metaphor was supposed to represent how socialism failed in the end. I saw some truths in it. It reminded me of group projects in class, when an entire group would get the same grade, even though some group members did nothing while others carried the workload. I favored individual projects, because I believed them to be more efficient.

What I’m trying to say is I think that Taft’s and Sadie Nash’s ideas about collaboration and the effectiveness of a group over the individual is a little idealistic in my eyes. I keep thinking about the kids that don’t care, or don’t want to work. If everyone was equally motivated, collective activism would obviously be preferred to individual empowerment. I’ve just never found this to be the case.

I don’t want to go through life with this pessimistic outlook, thinking that we shouldn’t try to change the way things are done because most people suck. But sadly, I do believe that most people are inherently selfish and self-motivated. Do I want to continue to believe this, and never try to work for a better world? That doesn’t seem right. I’m just not sure that changing the system will necessarily change the behavior of the individuals within it.

Keeping the Movement Alive

Avery is a rising sophomore working at Legal Momentum with the National Judicial Education Program, which trains judges and court personnel to ensure that victims of violence have access to an informed and impartial judicial system.

Saturday afternoon was a bit of a struggle for my friend Brooke and me, due to our getting lost in the darkness commonly known as the New York City subway system for about an hour and a half, and then narrowly managing to make it to the rally with only half an hour left. Coming from the suburbs of Denver and Tampa, we run into this problem daily in New York City. But at least we got a glimpse of the event.

It wasn’t what I thought it would be like. I’m not really sure why, but I was expecting a more radical scene. Maybe it was because I had just recently read an article about the Stonewall incident of 1969, so the imagery of that particularly event was still fresh in my mind. What I actually saw was a group of people just having fun. Brooke and I weren’t even sure if we had found the place when we first arrived. It took reading the banner above the stage that said something along the lines of “Celebrating Pride” in relatively small font to confirm it. When I really started to look around, I noticed same-sex pairs in the crowd. But other than the fact that there were more homosexual matches than you would typically see in a public area, it seemed like just another concert to me: a group of people coming together to enjoy a performance, but the performer just so happened to be singing inspiringly peaceful yet passionate lyrics.

Would this be considered activism? I guess that depends on how you define the term. I see it as any act that is done with the purpose of pushing a movement forward. In the sense of that definition, I would consider this activism. It may not have explicitly changed anything in regards to civil rights policy, but I believe it had an effect on the people that attended. Social movements are about more than changing laws; they’re about changing attitudes too. When like-minded people get together, you can feel the sense of hope and support from those around you. That’s how I felt at the rally. And I would think that someone who was gay would feel that to an even greater extent. There truly is strength in numbers.

My supervisor at Legal Momentum, Lynn Schafran, pointed this out the other week. She’s been a part of the Feminist movement longer than the rest of us in the National Judicial Education Program, and has had success over the years. Yet she knows and makes a point to share that social change takes a long time, and can be an exhausting effort to be a part of. But she says the environment at Legal Momentum gives her hope. Coming to work every morning to join a group of people that you know are on your side can make the effort worthwhile, and keep you from giving up in the long run. I see the Pride rally as a similar setting. Not everyone can work at an organization whose sole purpose of existence is to make social change. Most people work alongside people who may not necessarily agree with their beliefs. That’s why I see events like the rally as necessary to keep the movement alive. It reminds those who may have doubt that they’re not alone.  Saturday’s event may not have legalized gay marriage, or changed anything concrete for that matter, but its importance should not be understated.