And which physiology would that be, then?

Over at Geek Feminism, they’re discussing resources for allies who want to know what they can do to help create a safer environment for women and others at risk of sexual assault. Mary’s post included this paragraph:

Make it not okay, really not okay around you to say the kinds of things people said to and about [redacted]. You, presumably, believe* that women can attend conferences and go to bars and have fun and have male friends and consensually touch people and have a romantic/sexual history and have photos of themselves online and be a feminist and have the absolute right to refuse consent to intimate social situations, to touching and to sexual activity. You, presumably, also believe people you personally despise, or aren’t your idea of fun, or who hold opinions you disagree with, or who have hurt you in some fashion, have the absolute right to refuse consent in the same way. You presumably believe that sexualised approaches to people, and sexualised interactions with them are harassment unless they are welcome. If you believe those, and you are around people who don’t, don’t let them believe that they are with allies, if and when you have the power for that to be safe.

Followed by this footnote:

* If you do not believe the things in that paragraph we don’t really need to know why not.

The regulars had no problem abiding by this unremarkable request. However, someone appeared who just had to ask his Very Important Question:

This certainly is a useful post. But, there is one, very minor issue I would like to raise.

If you do not believe the things in that paragraph we don’t really need to know why not.

You are right that we probably will probably not get a useful answer from those who are attempting to justify or rationalize their own bad behavior. But, I still think that ‘why’ is a useful question. Why do people act in this manner, even if they consciously accept that their actions are wrong? Why do people who accept what you say in the abstract, but proceed to defend the these very same wrongdoings in a specific case? Answering these questions would improve humanity’s understanding of our culture and our physiology, which may very well make thing better.

A small version fo the EvoPsych Bingo card

Click here for full-size Evolutionary Psychology Bingo card

Note how adroitly he thinks he snuck that “our physiology” in there? Do you think he’s about to discuss female physiology here? Call me a cynical spotter-of-pseudo-evospych-from-a-mile-off, but I don’t.

I admit it, I bit, and I posted a reply, inadvertently publishing just after Mary had added a comment telling him that his suggested questions were not appropriate for that thread and would not be discussed there. I expect my comment to be deleted as a result, and I’m fine with having my contribution to a potential derail there taken out of the equation. But I’m posting an edited-for-clarity version of my comment here to stand on its own:

You are right that we probably will probably not get a useful answer from those who are attempting to justify or rationalize their own bad behavior. But, I still think that ‘why’ is a useful question.

Since the whole history of the world tells us that there is always a persistent and substantial bloc of those who view social rules and laws as simply game boundaries, where they can both despise those who get caught breaking the rules and cast themselves as special snowflakes to whom the rules do not apply, I fail to see the utility of what you propose.

The cultural aspects of these cognitively-dissonant hypocrisies have been well studied for a long time, and seem tied to status/elitism/dominance patterns – people who believe that they can get away with breaking the rules are likely to be dissonant/hypocritical about the rules – what a surprise!

Of course, whenever such rule-discounters see one of their own facing consequences, the howling begins about how it really shouldn’t count against them: because either the accused is one of the good eggs who didn’t mean any harm and thus shouldn’t be punished, or else sie’s a very bad egg indeed, not at all typical, and giving all the others a bad name. The old oligopolies were utterly outraged when anti-trust laws were brought in, for example; I doubt that many NYC landlords were ever fans of the rent-control provisions; dirty industries howled when anti-pollution standards were legislated; why? Because they saw themselves as the extra-special good guys being unfairly curtailed and judged by people who just didn’t understand.

Are dissonant/hypocritical reactions to specific accusations of sexual assault really very different in any important way to this rather common social pattern of behaviour of resenting consequences appearing when one thought one was immune?

I genuinely believe that most people who try and rationalise sexual assaults as an otherwise “good” man just falling helplessly to the irresistible temptation of a woman who happens to be breathing in the same room fall into one of two categories:
(a) the vulnerable who want to believe that so long as they follow all the rules, then they will be safe from assault, so feel a psychological need to identify what rule the victim broke so they can reinforce this belief in their own safety because they would never break that rule; and
(b) those who realise that “seduction” habits they have developed might actually lie uncomfortably close to sexual coercion, and who are worried about future consequences for themselves.

I understand class (a), I really do. We’re given all these rules about how to be the nice decent people that bad things won’t/don’t happen to, and it’s terribly confronting to realise that none of those rules actually keep you safe if you are with somebody who doesn’t respect those rules, and that there are lots of rulebreakers who get away with it time after time after time. Many people simply refuse to believe that our society winks at these things as much as it does.

Class (b) are just another example of people who thought that certain rules don’t really count, at least not for them, or for their mates, because of [insert special snowflake reason here]. Especially if one has been taught that certain others shouldn’t/cannot be taken seriously whenever they disagree with one, it’s easy to rationalise breaking the rules around sexual coercion as something that’s “for your own good” because “you’re just saying that”, “you’re just playing games”, “I know what you want better than you do” and “you’ll enjoy it, really”, because, after all, who’s going to believe “them” anyway?

Their dissonance/hypocrisy, in both classes, has got nothing to do with physiology and everything to do with hierarchies and the policing thereof, and there’s nothing especially clever about ignoring all the study of hierarchical structures that has been done. Simplistic evopsych just-so stories really are terribly tedious.

Categories: ethics & philosophy, gender & feminism, history, violence

Tags: , ,

9 replies

  1. I, for one, think the suggestion that we can advance the state of scientific knowledge by paying more attention to the ranting of anonymous internet commenters deserves some reflection…
    The sport in arguing with someone from Class B is that they often seem to have some incredibly abstract ethical postulates for (1) the rules themselves, but which also oh-so-coincidentally-and-inevitably lead to (2) the subtle difference that makes them immune. You can’t argue with (2) without logically disproving (1) under their postulates, and obviously their postulates are the only ones that reasonably lead to (1), so QED.
    (Or maybe that’s not so common, and I just know people like that. Is it?)

  2. (b) those who realise that “seduction” habits they have developed might actually lie uncomfortably close to sexual coercion, and who are worried about future consequences for themselves.

    I tend to be especially sad about the subclass of people here who I think are defending the coercion they wish they were “brave” enough to carry out.

    • I tend to be especially sad about the subclass of people here who I think are defending the coercion they wish they were “brave” enough to carry out.

      Oh yes *shudder*. Those who are wistful about not being in the group that knows they can get away with it, maybe because they envy that group’s tendency to accumulate other social advantages/maybe specifically envy of their sexual coercion success rate. They’ve fully bought into the mindset that those being victimised don’t matter as much as the rulebreakers they won’t openly admit that they valorise.

  3. Oh, I suspect he would have spoken about masculine “physiology” rather than feminine. You know, the “all men are ravening beasts at the mercy of teh penis, and they can’t help it so all women should just suck it up and deal because it’s been like this forever and ever and ever amen” theory. Thus conflating physiology, cultural influence, psychology and legal theory into one nice neat little bundle explaining why what happened might have been regrettable, but it couldn’t be helped, honest.
    Like so many other feminist commenters and bloggers, I’m rather irritated we’re stuck with the label of “man-hating” simply because we insist both women and men are damaged by such a construction. Saying men are capable of more, and drawing attention to the truth that in the majority of cases they achieve it, points out these rule-breakers as what they are: an anomaly. Given the average rule breaking type tends to believe all people act in the same way they do (as a way of excusing their behaviour) any evidence to the contrary tends to put major dents in their perception of being the same as everyone else.

  4. Hey Tigtog, I like the Bingo card, but “the gender dynamics of our savannah ancesters looked curiously like those of 50s America” I mean eisenhower’s usa? can’t we get a little zing, maybe Dicken’s London that was pretty dirty, or would Olympus circa 1000bc be muscular enough. on second thoughts Artemis, and Actaeon, they might not cope.
    I don’t know a lot about evopsych, i think that it is on the agenda for 1st semester next year, so maybe i’ll have a bit more to say about it then, in the mean time the new Cordelia Fine book is on the agenda over summer, tho i think that i might have to read something more trad to get a proper idea of what it is she is critiquing. what interests me about the physiology question is that it always seems to be discussed as set as a gender thing. I don’t want to discount gender as setting some behaviours, i haven’t really moved far beyond “oohh look what a pretty hormone” and “what is that bit for”? I’m more interested in that element of our physiology that is quite malleable over the life span. one relevant example might be PTSD which seems to me to have physiological and behavioural ramifications at least as strong as most of our easily caricatured gender stereotypes. thanks for the post and the links.

    • Ah, but in Dickens’ London they had many more extended families than nuclear families, dylan argh, and your typical pseudo-evopsych can’t be doing with any model of human behaviour that doesn’t support the nuclear family as absolutely obviously the best possible most natural way to organise human pair-bonding and child-rearing. Puts Ancient Greece out of the running too – the extended family situation was even more extended!
      As for studying evolutionary psychology, one has to distinguish between those who do it properly and those who wave it around to ‘win’ arguments. There’s an awful lot of rubbish claimed as evopsych when it’s actually just an ideological edifice built on the nubbin of a biological fact. This doesn’t make all the insights of evolutionary psychology worthless.
      The great power of Dawkins’ seminal work The Selfish Gene was how he used certain sociobiological observations of animals to reveal how the previously prevailing (rather sentimental and anthropomorphised) view of evolutionary instincts was just one hypothesis, and that he could offer an equally compelling one that allowed for no sentimentality at all. That’s one of the reasons that the pseudo-evopsych crowd are so unintentionally hilarious and utterly unaware of the delicious irony of them constructing just-so narratives that aim to shovel all sorts of sentimentality about the Leave It To Beaver era into what they present as a totally rational hypothesis.

  5. Thanks Tigtog, it seems like they might have a bit in common with Spencer’s Social Darwinism. “This is the pinnacle of human existence, Oh look a convenient biological imperative.”
    speaking of which, it is time to watch “Spooks”.

    • *snorts at shorter Spencer*
      The pseudo-evopsych crowd aren’t even that honest with themselves about their underlying bias, it’s all just shrugged shoulders with innocent-eyes and outspread hands. “You say this current social setup disadvantages somebody not like me? Evolution’s a bitch, isn’t she? Can’t do anything about it, better just make the best of it then. But don’t hate me for not caring.”

  6. Just had another thought about their fondness for 50s America vs other historical manly-men doing manly-things periods – this was when household appliances really took off amongst the middle classes, so they can cast it as an idyllic time for women being liberated from back-breaking housework while they dedicate themselves to SAHM -hood. If they go back to earlier periods they have to acknowledge that work around the home was hard, and if they go back beyond Dickens they have to acknowledge that there wasn’t really a middle-class where wives not-earning was a status symbol.
    The continuing existence of working-class families before and after the 50s who could not afford these labour-saving appliances, and who still needed two incomes to get by (so that kids in these families all grew up with mothers and aunties and grandmothers who went out and earned income for the household), is never acknowledged in their just-so stories about how the gendered division of labour seen in middle-class suburbia just makes total evolutionary sense.

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