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Inherited Discrimination

Recently I Facebooked this post from Bunnika discussing the relative vs. actual progress for women’s rights, and the rhetorical strategies of men’s rights advocates. She demonstrates how men’s rights rebuttals often depend upon the vary ideologies and stereotypes that enforce gender inequality. Almost immediately, I got a comment from a gentleman calling out the “poison” and “inequality” of the post. If you read Bunnika’s blog, you’ll know this is hardly the most “fightin’ words” of her repertoire. The commentator argued that society is full of institutions like feminism, and because feminism is now so ingrained, it’s difficult for men to fight it when their rights are being infringed upon. He urged me to consider both sides rather than hiding from discussions like most feminists he’s encountered. Well, I have, and even talked with him, and he’s the one who didn’t respond. The truth is, movements like feminism and MRA are both in response to perceived inequality. Our learned definition of our gender identities inform every sex-based argument we have.

That said, there is clear sex discrimination against women in the workforce, in the legislatures, and in culture. I’m not going to post statistics because as my commentator pointed out, fighting statistic against statistic is time-consuming and ultimately pointless. As a theatre techie, a gamer, a writer, a (former) retail worker, a student, a political activist, and a sexual partner, I have in every one of those vocations been demeaned, ignored, ridiculed, or undermined based on my sex. Do I perceive myself to be underprivileged? Yes, in the sense that I must remain aware of the challenges, of the odds against me. I learned that I could rarely grab a screw gun or pick up a large package without some man rushing up to me with concern. This “helpfulness” is based upon an assumption that women should not be strained, physically or otherwise. Every election season we have politicians expressing concern over whether or not a female politician can balance her career with her family. And when even sex symbol Beyonce calls out the gender pay gap, we realize that even women in power can feel relatively lesser. MRA may argue that men are increasingly diminished in American society, but are they reacting to ideological shifts in gender perceptions or to practical shifts in, say, Congressional seats? As an anthropologist, I cannot declare which side is “right,” but I can ask how both movements are impacted by their culturally-learned assumptions, and how the hegemonic ideologies inherited by both inform the agency of social actors.

It’s not just sexism and sex-related movements that are driven by these psychosocial processes.  Rep. Walter Jones (R-NC) recently

criticized the grant money that will soon be coming to eastern North Carolina for one reason: it will be used to buy books about Muslim culture. […] Jones protested that the money was unfairly benefiting Muslims and harming Christians, as he explained in a local TV interview. […] Jones told WITN he wrote a letter in response to the grant to a local Christian organization, asking for them to provide an equal number of Judeo-Christian items to offset the new Muslim culture books in the library’s collection.

This equation of inclusion with promotion is a part of white Western ethos that seriously impacts institutional equality. By the same token, feminists’ ideology of inclusion has led many men to criticize feminism for its promotion of women. As I once tried in vain to explain to a conservative ex-boyfriend, if the scales are uneven, one must add a little more weight to the lesser side, and that was the goal of political feminism. Unfortunately, no amount of logic can sway some men who grew up with a historically learned idea of male superiority.

In a similar case, a documentary I just watched about the battle in Tucson, AZ over Raza classes in Tucson High showed that the program’s opponents were horrified that students were engaged in “non-white” learning. The Hispanic students and teachers in the program were accused of communism, sedition, racism, and anarchism, among other things. The program, which had increased the graduation rate of Hispanic students, was ultimately dismanted by Gov. Jan Brewer, under recommending of the state school board’s findings that the classes “indoctrinated” Hispanic students into “non-American” ways. The teachers’ lesson plans? Mexican history and culture, the Spanish language, and discussion of Hispanic culture in the United States. That a non-white approach was included in the public schools was a cause for outrage among conservative white Arizonans.

As was the case with the civil rights movement, and as we see with continued work for gender, racial, LGBT, and ethnic equality, social movements are ultimately won by the force of the actors’ argument and their manipulation of prevailing ideologies to their benefit. As a certain dialectic must occur for change to do so, we can hardly condemn any movement for their explicit intent, but only their methods.

See also:

Male Jurors More Likely to Find Fat Female Defendents Guilty

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“Us vs. Them”: How the Media Can Breed Hate and Inequality…or Love and Social Change

As most anthropologists know, the roles that people inhabit and are assigned in society are neither inherent nor permanent. Categories and classes of people are historically built, and change occurs in both membership and definition upon economic changes, new ideologies, or technological development. However, these psychocultural systems and biases are perpetuated through both language and praxis. The labeling hypothesis, developed largely by Erving Goffman, maintains that the connotations, expectations, and implications of a label form the scope of the role inhabited by a person with that label. Moreover, class, racial, sexual, and other distinctions are drawn in part by opposing labels.

The construction of “us vs. them” is accomplished in myriad ways and in almost every social venue. It is done in workplaces, schools, families, and in the public sphere. It is used by politicians and pundits to draw lines between the audience and the party’s opposition. It is used by religious leaders to explain why followers are privileged over the non-believers and the wrong-believers. It is even used by reality show hosts and teen romance writers to divide the audience into two camps who can compete and thus increase viewer- or readership. I would like to briefly review some recent news items to demonstrate how “us” is divided from “them” via the media.

According to Megan Reback of the Women’s Media Center:

More than a decade has passed, yet the deep hatred in the United States of those who practice Islam has not subsided. In fact, the radical right – which has increasingly become part of the GOP’s status quo – has held onto these beliefs both proudly and shamelessly.

Some weeks ago, I confronted startling evidence of this mindset as I disembarked from a Metro North train at the end of my weekday commute to and from New York City. Amid the familiar army of black and navy blue suits eager to join families for dinner, I noticed a stark, black advertisement with red, white, and blue type: “*19,250 DEADLY ISLAMIC ATTACKS SINCE 9/11/01 *AND COUNTING. IT’S NOT ISLAMOPHOBIA, IT’S ISLAMOREALISM.”

According to Mother Jones magazine, the ad and others targeting New York and San Francisco commuters are sponsored by the anti-Muslim blogger Pamela Geller. She made headlines last year when she backed other ads castigating a proposed Islamic community center near ground zero, calling it a “mega mosque” and a “victory mosque” that celebrated 9/11. … By mid-2010, Geller became a fixture on Fox News, commenting on U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East and the threat of Muslims and Shariah law in the United States. The Southern Poverty Law Center considers Geller’s organization, Stop Islamization of America, a hate group.

The anti-Islam ads, however, are not random outliers or radical statements. Instead, they represent a fear and hatred of Muslims and Islam that has been particularly rife of late.

Reback recaps some anti-Islam statements by GOP members and the attack on the Sikh temple in Wisconsin, and concludes by characterizing the ad described above as unproblematic except in its reflection and perpetuation of hate by a major political party. Which is a pretty big problem, to say the least. The ad’s language is hard to deny, as well. Even a person ignorant of the details but who still gets nauseous thinking of 9/11 would see that statistic, consider its impact, and be more inclined to think of Muslims as dangerous, violent people. The pejoration is done very simply, over repeated exposure to these blanket statements that play on the emotions. This is the entire purpose of rhetoric.

Here’s a more mundane example:
[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3iuG1OpnHP8?rel=0]

Women don’t enjoy this military action movie because it is “our” movie. And this is “our” drink. The us-them division couldn’t be more clear. This ad plays on stereotypes of movie and drink preferences to (over)compensate for the suggestion—already socially constructed—that a low-calorie drink is feminine. The ad ends by proudly exclaiming that women could keep their “romantic comedies and lady drinks,” because Dr. Pepper Ten is a low-calorie drink that’s appropriate for men.

Of course, these ads are very plain in their intent. The anti-Islam ad was clearly intended to incite anger towards a group of people deemed “other,” in an attempt to curry favor for a particular group of organizations. The Dr. Pepper Ten was clearly intended to be ridiculous enough to sell a product. However, its affirmation of gender stereotypes is distressing in an era where women are earning more and more yet comprise 17% of Congress, are vastly underrepresented in Hollywood, and are at risk for domestic violence, which encompasses a range of crimes that number, in reported cases in Florida alone, in the thousands.

We also cannot ignore the rhetorical power of non-advertising visual media. Stories are excellent vehicles for ideology and both tools and venues for social construction as the audience absorbs, reacts with, and retells the story. In 1998, “Will & Grace” popularized the first flamboyant gay characters on television. Unfortunately, the gay comic relief became somewhat of a trope, repeated endlessly on various sitcoms or on dramedies such as “Sex and the City.” A new class of “homosexual person” had been formed, and while the likable characters, their unrealism stood in stark contrast to news reports of various violent or pedophilic acts by gay men, encouraged by and conflated with anti-gay campaigns by conservative and/or religious outfits.

Eventually non-flamboyant gay characters featured on longer-form shows that allowed for character development, including “Glee” and “Modern Family.” Now, as though to trumpet the progress of positive gay representation in entertainment television, NBC’s “The New Normal” has hit the small screen, and follows the lives of a gay male couple exploring their options for children. Unfortunately, the rhetorical intent of the production, however important, may not be as salient as the symbolic content, which involves a certain exoticization (“them!”), explains Frank Bua of The Huffington Post:

[M]any of the show’s generalizations are likely more damaging than entertaining: Gays are wealthy, materialistic effetes with crazy disposable income. Gay men randomly wake up and decide that they want a child as the latest must-have accessory. Prospective parents look through a catalog of egg donors like they are recruiting for the HJ. A gay couple? One part effeminate man-boy, the other part a football-watching handsome dude

While Bua bemoans the show’s shortcomings, it is nonetheless clear that social change is happening, more visibly and perhaps more quickly, thanks to mass and entertainment media. Furthermore, each of these examples should demonstrate why studying the media is so revelatory of the process of construction; the understanding of these processes allows us to deconstruct enough to put the spare bits towards change. If we want it.