On gender, bubbles, sociology and prejudice

There’s a fine line between prejudice and sociology.

I can’t remember when I first said that, and I can’t remember if someone else said it first. Google can’t help me with that because the thought somehow got in my head so many years ago. I found an interesting piece on the fine line between profiling and stereotyping, but that was obviously written much later.

That’s not to say I don’t respect sociology. It’s not just an easy major for Duke athletes. In grad school, I learned a lot about identity and explored the intersection of sociology and economics.

Sociology and other academic fields are very good at pointing out who lives in a bubble. We learn about white privilege, male privilege, etc.

Here’s the issue:

We are ALL flawed in our perceptions. We ALL have valid but partial experiences to share.

I emerged from grad school with some skepticism about postmodernism. The theme in some of my classes was that academia and the media had, over the generations or even centuries, typically overlooked the voices of people who were not in places of power. And that’s true. But many academics take this noble idea to an extreme, dismissing expertise in favor of experience, even if that experience only covers a small part of the complexities of a given issue.

The right wing, of course, has hijacked this notion. “Don’t listen to those pointy-headed East Coast elitists talking about global warming and citing stats on economics and crime that refute your perceptions. You live in “real America,” so your viewpoint is more important than theirs.” And in the media, we fall for it — fanning out to understand and empathize with Trump voters even when they’re blaming immigrants and supposedly unneeded government regulation for their economic woes.

We all bring unique flaws to the table. Men can’t fully comprehend what it’s like to be a woman, which we realize when we share pictures of ridiculous all-male panels discussing women’s health. We may be too old to understand youth culture. We may be too young to have experience. We may have insecurities that force us to reach for convenient labels to dismiss views that make us uncomfortable.

In short — we all have bubbles.

At the last meeting of one of my grad-school classes, our professor (a sociologist) said she enjoyed teaching our liberal-studies classes more than she enjoyed teaching undergraduate classes because we were more diverse. We weren’t. We were nearly all white NPR listeners. Yes, we had a wider range of ages — some fresh out of undergrad life, some in their 60s — but that’s just one of many metrics.

The perception this professor had was that Duke undergrad students were all ridiculously wealthy, moreso than the people who had spent their own hard-earned money to take these grad-school classes on top of their regular jobs. But I also went to Duke as an undergrad, and that wasn’t my experience.

Duke, being a well-known and often infamous university, spills out into the mainstream at times. New York magazine recently ran something about Duke’s role in the birth of the alt-right. Richard Spencer spent time in grad school there. Stephen Miller had a column at The Chronicle and the good timing to be there when the rape accusations against the lacrosse team turned out to be Exhibit A for identity politics run amok.

That piece included a few comments from Shadee Malaklou, who was also a Chronicle columnist overlapping with Miller’s time. It does not cite Malaklou’s recent piece taking her classmates to task for their letter criticizing Miller as abhorrent to Duke values. Duke shares the blame for Miller, Malaklou argues, because his columns ran in the school newspaper and people didn’t adequately protest against him or controversial statements in the lacrosse case. Those who regularly castigated Miller in the Chronicle’s letters section, or those who remember that Duke punished the lacrosse team so severely that it wound up spending the better part of the last decade in court, may beg to differ.

But this isn’t the first time I’ve seen Malaklou’s perceptions not aligning with mine. I remember her Chronicle columns well. She wrote extensively on Duke’s hookup culture, participating in it but finding it unsatisfying.

As a retired sex kitten, I understand the appeal: The echo of a pounding beat in a dimly lit room, the triumph of a dry hump, the print of rosy lipstick on a frat guy’s cigarette and the sound and fury of college life, a la Old School and Animal House. It’s almost irresistible. until about midway through college.

When it comes to sex, Duke women don’t have much of a choice. It’s either hookup or bust. Duke is not a sexually predatory campus, but in the words of Donna Lisker, director of the Women’s Center, men set Duke’s social rules.

Malaklou’s Duke exists, though I don’t think that many students smoke. But it’s not my Duke. And my Duke also exists, and it shouldn’t be dismissed.

On a larger scale, studies show a big gap in perception and reality when it comes to the hookup culture. Like misinformed voters who think the federal government spends most of its money on foreign aid and PBS, we think everyone else is doing it, but the numbers just don’t back that up.

My Duke, the one Malaklou and my grad-school professor may have missed, included a bunch of people on financial aid with work-study jobs. It included Muslims and Christians whose religious views weren’t compatible with getting drunk and getting laid. It included all the people in my artsy coed dorm (or The Chronicle) who dated each other, in some cases leading to happy marriages.

Today’s Chronicle neatly captures Duke’s diversity. One column is a fond but slightly cynical look at the “secret society” that pops up to do weird things at the end of the school year. Another is written “to the sorority girls I never talked to.”

None of this means Malaklou’s experience is invalid. (And thankfully, she’s a much better writer than most academics.) It’s merely incomplete.

And that brings me to a a long PDF file on “emotional labor,” shared by a wonderful senior at a California college who has the intellect and idealism to make a difference in this world, for which we should all be grateful.

The rough definition, according the first paragraph, is “the work of caring.” But not just caring — it’s also figuring out what to do to make caring work.

The assumption here is that women do this “work” and “figuring out,” while men do not. Ouch. And it depicts a lot of would-be male feminists as the femi-bros in the great SNL sketch with Cecily Strong at the bar.)

The experiences shared, mostly complaints and realizations that women are expected to carry more of the “emotional labor” burden in our society, are valid. But as with everyone else in this discussion (and in the real world), it’s prone to bubble-thought.

I can counter one post with my own experience. A woman says that her husband who always took their daughter to ballet got “pity or adulation from women for doing this stuff.” I can relate to a point — I do most of the pickups at school and other activities. But I didn’t get pity or adulation. For a while, I got a lot of standoff-ish body language, as if I shouldn’t be there. After a couple of years, people got used to me, and I’m generally more accepted. I’m still not pitied, and any adulation I get comes from the fact that I have a reputation as a “dog whisperer.” It’s still not easy for me to start or maintain conversations with women at school pickup — I’m often ignored and frequently interrupted by other women on the assumption that their conversation is going to be more important than whatever I was saying.

I’m the one in our family who keeps up a lot of social contact — and frankly, it’s sometimes awkward. I’ve sometimes felt uncomfortable setting up a playdate with a friend’s mom — not because I’m unwilling to do the emotional labor, but because I sometimes get the sense that the mom is creeped out by this conversation with a heterosexual married man.

And there are a lot of specific examples from which you simply can’t draw a general conclusion. One example: A woman frets that her husband was mad that she wasn’t sending birthday cards to all of his relatives. I’d argue that guy isn’t that way simply because he’s a guy. He’s just a jerk.

My fear in this case is that men — all men — are simply the scapegoat here. She married a bad guy, and she doesn’t want to ponder the possibility that she made a mistake. If she’s able to chalk up her man’s faults as an issue that all men share, then voila, she couldn’t have done better. Men are labeled as the faceless, dehumanized “other.”

Again — this discussion has plenty of valid points, and no, I’m not empathizing here with the whiny “men’s rights” movement. Women are under tremendous pressure to be the workers in the emotional labor force. And it’s a pressure I can never fully appreciate, just as I can’t fully appreciate what it’s like to pulled over for Driving While Black or to struggle with gender and sexual identity issues. Having an identity forced on you seems like a really terrible experience to me, but that’s about the extent of what I can say about it, because I haven’t lived it first-hand. And I have to accept that limitation and just try to empathize as best I can.

But we ALL have to do this. AND we have to recognize that the people with whom we’re empathizing are as error-prone as we are.

Should we listen to people who voted for Trump out of economic fear? Absolutely. Should we accept their scapegoating of immigrants and others? No. It’s not even the empathetic thing to do. They’re actually voting against their own self-interest because they think government programs benefit federal workers and lazy “others,” failing to realize how much those programs do for them and their neighbors.

Should we listen to the sorority girls and fraternity boys? Sure.

Should we listen to the academic left, which is so underrepresented in modern life that we actually consider Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton “liberal”? Yes.

And should we listen to middle-aged white dudes who are laden with all sorts of guilt (I’m Anglican, which gives me some residual Roman Catholic guilt as well as the knowledge that we basically broke away so Henry VIII could marry someone else, and I’m descended from Confederate officers) and would like to contribute to any discussion that makes us more enlightened? I hope so.

Not that everyone deserves a platform. I wouldn’t invite Ann Coulter or Richard Spencer to speak at my campus. I also objected when some Duke students promoted a speech by an African-American man who was a little less than enlightened about Jews.

But when we tally up all the issues in modern society, we rarely find that we’re listening too much. We don’t have to accept everything outside our safe space, but we should at least take a peek.

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