[This is part of my series on Women and Violence, which I am writing as a project for a Women Studies course I'm taking. For an explanation and information on my intentions with this series, please see the introduction.]
One of the first readings assigned for this class has been Albert Bandura’s “Selective Activation and Disengagement of Moral Control,” published in volume 46, number 1 of Journal of Social Issues. The purpose of the article is to examine how, in normal and everyday circumstances, people can commit actions that they typically consider immoral. Most of the time, barring deviant individuals, we keep ourselves in check. We decide not to commit immoral actions according to what we understand as ‘moral,’ without needing other people to force us to do so.
According to Bandura, we regulate ourselves through the use of “self-sanctions.” I guess it’s like the superego, but without dealing with issues of the unconscious. For a psychological layperson like me, it’s useful just to think of it as a conscience. Basically it means that we watch and judge ourselves, and that is what determines our behavior. So if those judgments are somehow deactivated, then we can engage in behavior that we would normally consider wrong, but without making ourselves feel shame.
This is a pretty useful concept for a class on gendered violence, because it helps explain why something normally heinous (violence, particularly sexual violence) has become so common against women. I also find it useful for wider discussions about sexism in general – why something as awful-sounding as discriminating against people based on their sex is nonetheless such a widespread part of our societies. Not by a few of the absolute worst people. Not by the people who mean to do it. But by everybody.
That’s what Bandura’s article is about – how normal, good people do bad things. For the purposes of a feminist discussion, the article explains how Nice Guys can engage in sexism. Because there aren’t enough horribly evil and sadistic and devious men out there to be responsible for all of patriarchy. The bulk of the responsibility lies in the collective, relatively minor abuses of regular guys – guys who are usually nice, but sometimes deactivate their self-sanctions in ways that let them justify sexism.
“But look at how sexist they are in China!”
Whenever events occur or are presented contiguously, the first one colors how the second one is perceived and judged. By exploiting the contrast principle, moral judgments of conduct can be influenced by expedient structuring of the comparison. Thus, self-deplored acts can be made righteous by contrasting them with flagrant inhumanities. The more outrageous the contrasted actions, the more likely it is that one’s own destructive conduct will appear trifling or even benevolent. (Bandura 32-3)
Everyone knows this one, right? The one where someone interrupts a feminist conversation by raising a comparison to some Other: if we’re discussing the United States, we’ll get comparisons to places like China or the Middle East; if we’re discussing states in the Northwest or New England, we’ll get comparisons to places like the South; if we’re discussing the behavior of predominantly white populations, we’ll get comparisons to people of color. Hell, it can even come down to comparisons between the speaker and another person in the conversation, that other guy who’s “so much more sexist than me.”
Not only is this behavior problematic because of its tendency toward racism – or really, any bias that makes some group into the Other, and therefore a potential scapegoat – it also lowers the speaker’s opposition to sexism that hits closer to home. If a guy is spending all of his time bemoaning how sexist they are over there, it lets him pretend that he’s really a good guy who gets outraged about sexism. He can believe that he’s a good guy, or even a feminist guy. But he isn’t helping our cause over here by calling it (relatively) unimportant – and he sure as hell isn’t helping the Other when he demonizes them like that. All he’s doing is giving himself a pat on the back for not being the worst sexist around, which means that he’s far less likely to examine his own male privilege.
“I don’t have enough power to be an oppressor!”
Self-sanctions are activated most strongly when personal agency for detrimental effects is unambiguous. Another set of disengagement practices operates by obscuring or distorting the relationship between actions and the effects they cause. [...] Under conditions of displaced responsibility, people view their actions as springing from the dictates of authorities rather than from their own personal responsibility. Since they feel they are not the actual agent of their actions, they are spared self-prohibiting reactions. (Bandura 34)
The pseudo-nice guy who uses this strategy isn’t the one who’s responsible for patriarchy – he just plays along with (and benefits from) it, all the while denying that his inaction translates into implicit consent to the status quo, which then supports its continued existence. In an extreme form, this can be the guy who watches but doesn’t stop a gang rape; on a more common basis, it’s the guy who lets other guys use sexist epithets, and perhaps uses them himself. He’ll deny that he’s doing anything wrong – after all, he isn’t the one who instigated the behavior – so how can he be to blame?
This is a strategic adoption of powerlessness that is used to make a person seem less culpable. The man who uses this strategy minimizes the impact of his actions, so that they couldn’t possibly be blamed for the eventual negative results on women. He’ll deny his own power and pass the buck on to others – large structures such as the government, individual men with economic or political power, or the peer pressure of his social group – to excuse his own sexist behaviors. Or he’ll insist that his lack of social power elsewhere, as a poor man or a man of color, means that his own actions are ineffectual. They made me or I can’t stop this is the general sentiment. That way, he doesn’t have to feel bad about his lack of courage or reliability.
Of course, regardless of who’s ultimately responsible for a sexist action, that action still has the same sexist effects. When a million different guys talk like this, and a million different guys thus fail to speak up against misogynistic behavior, sexism gets that many more passive supporters. And female feminists – who do appreciate all the true allies they can get – are left with that many more Nice Guys who fail to step up when they’re really needed.
“But feminists kicked my puppy!”
Imputing blame to one’s antagonists or to environmental circumstances is still another expedient that can serve self-exonerative purposes. In this process, people view themselves as faultless victims and see their detrimental conduct as compelled by forcible provocation. Detrimental interactions usually involve a series of reciprocally escalating actions, in which the antagonists are rarely faultless. One can always select from the chain of events an instance of the adversary’s defensive behavior and consider it as the original instigation. One’s own injurious conduct thus becomes a justifiable defensive reaction to belligerent provocations. Those who are victimized are not entirely faultless because, by their own behavior, they usually contribute at least partly to their own plight. Victims can therefore be blamed for bringing suffering on themselves [...] By blaming others or circumstances, not only are one’s own actions made excusable, but one can even feel self-righteous in the process. (41)
I like to call this the Feminists Kicked My Puppy approach because men who engage in it portray themselves as the hapless victims of feminist cruelty. They assert that they can’t/don’t want to be feminists because some feminist, somewhere in the past, was mean to them – and, well, they can’t be expected to help people who are rude to them, right? The man himself becomes the target of victimization, rather than the women whom he’s abandoning through his self-pity.
This behavior isn’t always enacted by the poor, sad victim type. The same justification is behind the wannabe rebels who think being anti-feminist is cool and edgy, who think they’re fighting back against “those castrating bitches” who just have so much power over men – usually because they’ve seen a handful of instances in which a woman was in a position to exert authority over a man (without taking into account intersecting hierarchies of race, gender, or sexuality), and took that to be the defining model of gender power relations.
Of course feminists are not all perfectly kind and discerning people who never wrongfully judge men or abuse their authority. No doubt there have been feminists who have actually been, y’know, mean to a dude. Yet note how a single feminist (or a few feminists) is taken to represent all feminists, anywhere; and how individual instances of rudeness are portrayed as equal to or greater than women’s suffering under patriarchy.
“You’re being rude to me? Fine, you deserve to suffer under sexism!” If that’s not an example of male privilege, I don’t know what is.
This is only a handful of the various justifications used to make men feel better about being sexist. The common thread among these behaviors is the attitude that being not-the-worst somehow excuses any sexist actions. As long as there’s some sexism, somewhere, that’s worse than you, that makes what you’re doing okay. All the censure is deflected onto someone else, and the Nice Guys avoid having to face up to the consequences of their behaviors.