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A thought on ignoring others’ opinion, gender differentiation, and gender self-policing

July 25, 2015

A twitter conversation with @the_eumelia about the “careless abandon” men display in defying the opinions of others (#notallmen #notallwomen) sparked an epiphany for me about non-obvious ways gender construction can occur. [Please note that what follows applies to something mainstream American and mainstream Israeli cultures have in common; I’d guess there are many cultures, including some European nations, where gender oppression takes quite a different form than discussed in this post.]

Gender is often constructed by differences in standards. Look at the bullshit the great athlete Serena Williams is subjected to for having visible  muscles, something that would never happen to male athletes. Defying public opinion is an example of a more subtle kind of differentiation.

To understand this type of differentiation, requires beginning with commonalities. Willingness to defy public opinion is seen as a virtue in *both* men and women.  Growing up Jewish, I was taught at an early age about virtuous gentiles who risked their lives and defied public opinion to oppose the Holocaust.  As a kid who would read any book he could get his hands on I took all the free surplus Christian kids books a local Christian church gave away. These books mostly contained stories of Christian martyrs defying the beliefs of their time.  (At the time, I did not differentiate between flavors of Christianity. In retrospect, I’m guessing it was a Catholic school.) But it is not just (some) religious literature that teaches the virtues of non-conformity. Much classic children’s literature, including many books featuring girls, teach the same lessons. Off the top of my head, examples include Madeline, Harriet the SpyEloise, Pippi Longstockings and A Wrinkle in Time.

Just because adults teach kids the virtues of defying public opinion in the abstract does not mean adults encourage them to do so in the real world. Kids may be fed an official line that non-conformity is valued, but they are punished for it in practice.  The cruelty of children to anyone even slightly different soon teaches kids who have an impulse to be different to keep their  heads down.  For the rare kid who is socially backward enough to listen to adult preaching over peer practice, adult punishment for crossing certain lines will soon teach the value of conformity #notalladults. As Mark Twain said, “The human race is a race of cowards.”

Drawing lines is not in itself problematic. Any society needs lines to forbid people from harming others and discourage them from harming themselves. However, in the USA and Israel non-conformity is taught in the abstract as a virtue in itself. As I heard someone I’ll let remain anonymous say recently “Do what makes you happy. If other people don’t like it, that’s just a bonus.”  At the same time, actual non-conformity is strongly discouraged. The tension between principle and practice tends to produce a population that is reluctant to defy authority or even friends and family, and also experiences self-loathing for that reluctance.

So far, the contradiction between teaching the theory of non-conformity as a virtue, and punishing it in practice applies to all genders.  However, there is a huge difference in the way men and women are treated in regard to non-conformity.  The lines enforced by children may be approximately the same (with huge exceptions in nature, but not in size), at least in the early years.  But the lines enforced by adults vary widely by gender. While certain social lines, especially lines restricting gender fluidity, are about equally policed for both boys and girls (or even sometimes less policed for girls than for boys),  the social freedom of girls is drastically restricted by adults early on to a much greater extent than that of boys.

When I was very little, the difference was expressed in girls being told something was not “ladylike”. Because this was a time of change, the term “ladylike” was replaced by “nice” when I was five or six. But as a boy, I was NEVER told something was not “nice”, not “gentlemanly”.  I was told something was bad, or wrong, or that I was mule headed. But I was never held to an amorphous standard of “niceness”.

Early on, the borders girls have to stay on the proper side of to avoid social stigma are much nearer and more confining than those boys are held to. Cues from adults get picked up. In older girls this difference develops into a system of peer policing that seems to me much crueler than that boys are subjected to. For much of my childhood and almost into my teens I was beaten up on a more or less daily basis for reasons I won’t go into. Since the schools I attended were mostly  middle class, girls in similar situations were not subject to physical violence. But the shunning and taunting and “teasing” they underwent made me grateful that being beaten up was all I had to put up with.

That difference in narrowness of borders policed and cruelty of the policing, in my opinion produces a difference in behavior. Since girls are allowed less leeway in what is considered non-conformity and are punished more severely, it would be surprising if (on average, and with plenty of exceptions) they weren’t more aware than boys of the risks of non-conformity and more careful in picking their battles. This may not always carry forward when they become adults, but it seems likely that it often does. I will add that women who decide to defy convention tend to do so more with their eyes open than men. Women who take a brave stance, in my opinion, are much less likely to be blindsided by the consequences and back down. [On Edit: It is not that women are less willing to be non-conformists. It is that they have fewer opportunities to pretend to be non-conformist, while still fitting comfortably within social norms.]

I think this difference has  another result; it produces  more overt rude and thoughtless assholes among men than among women on the one hand, and more willingness to defy friends and family in minor but reasonable ways that are more socially acceptable for men than women on the other. I think that is where the “careless abandon” @the_eumelia noticed mostly occurs.

A “careless abandon” in regard to both their own verbal bullying and to the opinion of others friends and family (within limits) is where men can see themselves as non-conformist and still avoid crossing the social boundaries that bring punishment. It is a low-risk means for men, but not women, to claim the virtue of non-conformity in their own eyes, and often in the eyes of others. For verbal bullies, it comes back to “sticks and stones may break my bones but names will  never hurt me”. If someone is bothered by name calling and other forms of verbal bullying, that is all to often considered to be on them not on the name caller – even though the scientific evidence is that  verbal abuse has very real psychological consequences.

It can also let men explore in defiance of friend or family norms and face nothing worse than a boys-will-be-boys sigh where woman risk alienation from people they care about. [On edit: Again, this is not a case of men being more willing to be non-conformists of social norms as a whole, but a willingness to defy the opinions of family and friends, because it is socially acceptable for them to do so. Men have socially acceptable means of pretending to themselves to be “mavericks” or non-conformists. Women have very few options where they can simply perform non-conformity. Other than the very narrow exception of certain consumption choices, they actually have to defy social pressure if they stray outside of narrow boundaries.]

Both of these can be a forms of unconscious gender self-policing.  Because girls and women are policed more severely and more restrictively than men, they are seen as more conformist than men whether it is true or not. (I think it may be true in minor ways, but not in major ones.)  Thus, true (but minor) pretended non-conformity and verbal assholedom alike may be a way men differentiate themselves from women. In many cases, I suspect men who do this may not even be aware that this is a gender performance on their part; it may be an unconscious form of gender self-policing.

I wonder if this is why many assholes complain of  “over-sensitivity”  or “violation of free speech” when called on being assholes.   Assholes are operating on the assumption that “…names will never hurt me” even while getting sick satisfaction from hurting people. So if they are hurt in return by being called on this, they don’t want to admit to themselves that the same level of discourse they engage in is hurtful when it happens to them; they convince themselves that they if *they* are offended, the other person must have done something especially egregious. The asshole is convinced that he is engaged in virile straight talk; the person who bluntly tells him that he is an asshole is not the same kind of straight talker. The person who calls out the asshole is guilty of personal attack, or of threatening the asshole’s free speech.

What I’m seeing is a commonality between genders in a tension between the perception of non-conformity as a virtue and social and peer policing that encourages conformity in practice, producing either denial or self-loathing. I also see gender differentiation in bounded non-conformity [On edit: really a performance of non-conformity rather than real non-conformity]  allowed boys and men to a greater degree than allowed girls and women. In men and boys unconscious gender self-policing can take the form of being rude and even verbally abusive as a way of differentiating themselves from women, who are not allowed the same freedom in that respect – male assholedom. It is also true that men are sometimes allowed to push boundaries in creative ways when pushing the same boundaries is punished in women. allowed to defy family and friends expectations in limited ways that women sometimes are not. [But it is  within limits, socially acceptable, and thus not non-conformity, but a performance of non-conformity.]

I don’t know to what extent this is new, or to what it extent it is something once considered and long since  rejected by feminist theory. And to emphasize once more – these are specific to certain cultures, not universals. And even within such cultures #notallmen #notallwomen.

Lastly, when discussing genders, this post refers only to men and women. That is because it is largely referring to effects of attitudes formed in childhood, during which self-perception as a anything other than a man or a woman is rare.

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