Decision Time

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I want you to consider this hypothetical.

Let’s say I’m 5’9 and weigh 205 lbs. I’m built like a brick shithouse. I am walking through a hotel with another man when we start to argue. He slaps me in the face and I don’t respond. Then he pushes me in the chest and I throw a sloppy right hook that somehow knocks him against a wall and renders him unconscious.

Am I evil? Probably not. I don’t appear to have been trying to kill the guy or even seriously hurt him. And regardless, as an adult willingly participating in a physical confrontation, the guy who ended up unconscious on the floor knew what he was getting into. To excessively pity my victim is to insult him, to say he wasn’t really man enough to handle the situation he got into. It is, in a very really sense, to emasculate him.

Now, let’s try a second hypothetical. I’m still a musclebound bowling ball of a man, I’m still walking through the hotel and I’m still with another person, but this time the other person is 12 years old boy. The preteen slaps me in the face and I don’t respond. Then he pushes me in the chest and I nail him with a sloppy right hook that knocks the kid against a wall and renders him unconscious.

What am I now? A fucking monster is the correct answer. Even if I’m not throwing punches with murderous intent, I need to recognize the fact I’m vastly more powerful than any 12 year old kid. It is also completely inexcusable that I didn’t consider this child’s lesser cognitive abilities, his inability to make mature decisions in the same way I can. It is ridiculous I held this child responsible for his decisions in the same way I would hold that adult man responsible for his. I should go to jail for a very long time and if the police want to rough me up on the ride to jail, not many people are going to care.

So, from the sense of our basic assumptions, what is the difference between hypothetical one and two? In the first case, we fully recognize the ability of the other man to make decisions. We recognize his responsibility for his half of the fight and we also respect his strength enough to consider it a fair fight. In other words, we award my first victim the recognition of full human agency but deny him the protection we’d afford a mentally handicapped person or child.

In the second case, we focus on the fact my victim is too young to be responsible for his actions. We do not recognize responsibility on his part because he is not cognitively developed enough to know what he’s doing. He is also weak, no match for me. To engage a 12 year old as an equal is unfair, unsporting, vile to all taste and propriety. In the case of hypothetical number two, we do not award the victim recognition of full human agency but we do afford him the protection of a mentally handicapped person or a child, which he is.

This, of course, leads to a third hypothetical. What happens if I’m walking with a woman when we start to argue?

***

There is a difference between equality and sameness. I’m writing this article largely because, while I view women as equal to men, I do not think they are the same, nor do I think a rational society deploys men and women in identical manners. This seems obvious, but it also brings me into conflict with a large contingent of second wave feminism. When second wave feminists argue for near absolute sameness between men and women – psychological, sexual, physical – they run headlong into a simple yet distressing question. What is a woman?

In the 19th century, mainstream western society answered that question by calling women soft, silly, vain, domestic, weak, dependent and naively virtuous. In other words, the 19th century considered women the ethical equivalent of a child or mentally handicapped person.  In such a moral environment, a man knocking his wife unconscious is wrong for the same reasons my hitting a child today is wrong – the woman is too physically and mentally weak to qualify for full humanity and thus deserves protection from her betters. By our standards this is an extreme ethics, but it illustrates a fundamental trade off between deserving special protection – ceding power – and dealing with adult, healthy men as equals.

Perhaps because of the inherent ickiness of that trade off, we in the 21st century mainstream western society want to call women essentially the same as men, but can’t commit. Amanda Hess, writer for Slate.com’s XX blog, writes thus in reference to domestic abuser and NFL linebacker James Harrison. “And stating that Harrison’s ‘lady’ has grown with Harrison on [the issue of domestic violence] is a huge red flag that at least one NFL coach still believes victims are complicit in their abuse.”

According to Hess, the victim, the woman, is not complicit in abuse and, in fact, cannot be complicit. These female victims of domestic abuse are no more responsible for their actions or situations than my hypothetical 12 year-old or those 19th century Victorian ladies, always feinting in their whalebone corsets. What Hess writes may be true, but it also assumes a deep inequality in the physical and mental strength of men and women. If I were a woman, it would piss me off when Amanda Hess portrays me as fundamentally weak, fundamentally without agency. I would bristle at this belief that, when confronted by a violent man, I’m the ethical equivalent of a 12 year old boy. I would also, though, be forfeiting a piece of my social safety blanket, I would be taking the responsibility for my well being out of the hands of the police (mostly men), the courts (mostly men) and the community and putting it on myself. I would no longer be blameless when 5’9, 205 pound Ray Rice slugs me in the face. I would be standing in front of my neighbors and saying “it is no longer acceptable for a woman to be weak.”

***

The question of what women are – weak and deserving of protection or equal and to be treated like men – is not just a problem for second wave feminists. NFL wide receiver Steve Smith provides a different angle on the same problem.

“You know its not that hard get!!!! Keep your damn hands off women!!!! God made women for you to Lean on them Not beat on them.”

God evidently doesn’t have the same thoughts on Janoris Jenkins.

The assumptions, from both feminist thinkers like Hess and traditionalists like Smith, are the same. A woman does not have the mental or physical strength to oppose a man. It is thus an outrage when a strong person – as are all men according to the assumptions – attacks a weak person – ie, all women. These assumptions allow us to vent the sense of horror we feel upon watching the Ray Rice video and protect our women folk, but they also come with consequences. They also allow us to get really steamed about this but not care so much about this.

And I reject the theory that, in practical terms, the different reactions to male on female violence and male on male violence are based on physical strength. I really am about Ray Rice’s size. I have a history wrestling, weightlifting and playing football. I’m pretty scary in a fist fight. If a 5’2, 110 pound man slaps me and pushes me in the chest, I’m not going to get in trouble for punching him in the face. If a member of the women’s Olympic weightlifting team does the same and I punch her, there’s a court date in my future.

If you find that unsuitably abstract, allow me to share an anecdote. I recently visited a Reno night club where, during a karaoke session, a very small man shoved a very large woman. I, along with everyone else in the club, came to the woman’s aid and, if I had to go back, I’d do the same thing again. The double standard, however justified, is based on gender and not physical prowess.

We’ve reached a fork in the road of gender relations. To the right we find the woman’s state of safety. We wrap them in cotton and protect them from the big, mean men against whom they have no hope of independent resistance. We recognize that these delicate flower-women are never complicit in abuse, have no responsibility to leave or fight back when a man hits them. There is, of course, no reason for a man to take such a woman seriously, but that is the price for a life of unending childhood.

To the left we find the path of absolute sameness. Here is the road where Ray Rice knocks his fiance unconscious in an elevator and we say “she shouldn’t have slapped him if she didn’t want to fight.” This is the road where we are just as outraged (or indifferent) at Steve Smith’s actions to Janoris Jenkins as we are to James Harrison’s actions to his wife. Of course, we have to take these women seriously because they do everything men do, they suffer in the same ways.

I doubt I’ll be alone when I say neither path is particularly appealing.

***

I don’t think it’s hard to paint the preceding dichotomy as unnecessarily harsh and, indeed, it is not difficult to concoct a scenario that blends the helpless dolls of antiquity and the punching bags of total sameness. However, making these compromises moves feminism into far more dangerous, subtle and unpredictable waters than it currently inhabits. It almost begs for a “separate but equal” treatment, which is why I think so many second wave feminists (and people of good conscience generally) want to avoid it. That said, we can only run so far in our attempts to escape unpleasant truths.

By embracing the stance of total sameness, the modern feminist makes herself a hypocrite whenever the subject of male on female violence arises. Granted, this is a useful hypocrisy since a man raping or beating a woman is much worse than a woman raping or beating a man. It is also useful in the sense that treating women like dolls robs society of half its intellectuals, half of its managers and half of its virtue. But it is still hypocrisy and, like all hypocrisies, turns rancid before long.

If we have the courage and wisdom, I suggest a different path. If we can recognize a short list of truths – women are often physically weaker than men of the same age, women do have higher investments in reproduction and are thus far more vulnerable to sexual harm, an individual woman is more important than an individual man for the survival of our species – then we can construct a dual tracked approach to gender relations. We will be risking an apartheid, of course, but I’m not sure we have a choice.

Once we throw away the fiction of exact equality in favor of values derived from actual gendered strengths and weaknesses, we enter the only territory in which rational gender relations can exist. What would this look like? If we accept a man’s lesser investment in reproduction and lower value to society – ie, the fact that women are more vulnerable physically and sexually – we could carry on treating male on female rape as an outrage while minimizing the opposite. We could cease pretending, to the extent we ever did, that a dead man is as sad as a dead woman. We could still hate Ray Rice and chuckle at Steve Smith’s quasi-crazed folk wisdom. But here there is a consequence, as well. When we look at the woman’s greater reproductive investment – and absolute control over abortion, I might add – we might have to grant a corresponding expectation that the average woman might continue being more invested in the child after birth as well. This is not to say men should not be invested in their children, but it is to say we might expect the average bell curves of male and female child rearing to skew female. Is this worth the price? I don’t know.

If we then draw a line and call women the intellectual equals of men – and science certainly supports this contention – we can justify equal pay for WASP women and education for Afghan girls. Men can report to their female bosses without shame, without feeling they’re being supervised by glorified children. We could even, perhaps, start holding women responsible when they fail to remove or, worse, return children to the homes of known abusers. If I were a woman, the current sheltering and acceptance of women who continually return to their abusers, the belief that the abused woman completely lacks human agency, would constitute a deeply shameful and pernicious attack on my dignity.

Of course, even with the recognition of intellectual equality, it would be reasonable to expect a salary penalty for women who elect to have children along with a relative lack of women in the fields their sexual and physical vulnerability make less accessible. I wouldn’t expect, in a rational world, to see women wield equal power in the military, police or professional sports worlds. The positive effect is that we could still reasonably expect men to die first.

The alternative to this hard and fraught work is to preserve the hypocrisy as long as possible. Being equal when it comes time to job seek but horribly violated when a man hits you remains, I suspect, a very tempting prospect. In any case, it’s decision time.

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