Denying responsibility for sexism [Women and Violence, Part 2]

[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.

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This entry was posted in Abuse, rape, and domestic violence, Feminism, Women and Violence. Bookmark the permalink.

13 Responses to Denying responsibility for sexism [Women and Violence, Part 2]

  1. tekanji says:

    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.

    Many of the regular commenters on Hugo’s blog are a prime example of this. They spend most of their time on his threads engaging with his arguments in order to bemoan how evil women are, and how feminists are the worst of the lot because 10 to 20 years ago they were the victim of violence from a woman and/or were not taken seriously by feminists.

    Every single time they have countless feminists countering their “this is why feminists hate men” examples with examples of how feminists treat the issues brought up as valid and worthy of consideration, they have countless examples of feminists doing and saying the exact opposite to the feminists in the stories they tell, and yet they cannot, and perhaps are unwilling to, let go of this Phantom Feminist who they can dust off and prop up every time they want to rationalize their sexist behaviour and ideas.

  2. Sara says:

    I love it when stuff read in class actually has real-world application. :)

  3. Luke says:

    “But look at how sexist they are in China!”

    Reminds me of how up until a week or so ago, the most popular Yahoo! photos had a steady stream (it must’ve been up there for a good 2 weeks) of footbinding photos..

    Which then reminds me of Intro to WS where the prof who will remain nameless “real quickly” went through sexism across the world and of course, had the sole example of footbinding when talking about Asia…

  4. tekanji: Yup. Funny, I can’t seem to remember any feminists I know engaging in the opposite tactic, of constantly recycling the same old story of one man being mean to them – and this includes women who have endured incredible violence and abuse at the hands of men. I don’t consider individual women complaining about individual men to be automatically feminist; they have to set out to engage in feminist analysis, and to do so that means making connections to patterns of behavior and overarching structures of power.

    Sara: This is one of the things that I enjoy more about my Women Studies major than my English major. :)

    Luke: Seriously? *rolls eyes* There ought to be some sort of rule against pointing fingers at other cultures’ sexism until you’ve made a decent effort at addressing your own.

    (Dare I ask the professor’s name? I can’t think of who would be that incompetent; hopefully that person no longer teaches here.)

  5. pk says:

    Thank you for this post. When I get into arguments of this sort, I often get tangled up in the details. Knowing how to deconstruct these diversionary tactics (and thus identify them as such) is very helpful.

  6. Andy says:

    Sigel: You’re right there should be a rule against it. Pointing our another’s flaws to mitigate your own and yours seem “okay” by comparison is an old, yet dirty argument.
    I’m not Christian, but one of my favorite bits of advice is from the Gospels (I forget which one): Before you point out the speck in another’s eye, take care of the plank of wood in your own.
    Even if someone else has committed a graver error than oneself that doesn’t make one’s own actions forgivable.
    And if anyone ever brings up sexism in China again, you can remind them China had an empress well over 1000 years ago and the United States has to have a female president (although that may change in the next 2 years).

  7. pk: I’m glad you found this useful.

    Andy: The empress example, while helpful, is also an isolated case. I would prefer to bring up something like the history of feminist activism in China, to show how, despite the fact that some dominant social practices in China are sexist, there are people within the culture attempting to change that. This kind of example would have the added benefit of showing the similarities between the situations in China and the U.S.

  8. Mickle says:

    I don’t know if this will be helpful for your assignment, but the heading “But Feminists kicked my puppy!” made me laugh.

    A lot.

    Yup. Funny, I can’t seem to remember any feminists I know engaging in the opposite tactic, of constantly recycling the same old story of one man being mean to them – and this includes women who have endured incredible violence and abuse at the hands of men.

    Great point. I have, of course, seen women do this, I’m sure most of us have. But I can’t think of any that were feminists. A few “I’m not a feminist, but…” perhaps, but no feminists. I could be wrong, but it seems fairly rare. At the very least, I would think that such self-described feminists would not play well with other feminists, for obvious reasons.

    I also think this speaks to why the common accusation that feminists hate men is so false. In order to believe that the world can change, we have to believe that men are capable of goodness. If we use a single event or person to condemn the entire gender, how does that not contradict the fundamentals of feminism?

  9. Mickle: I totally accept praise for my wittiness as well as my intellect. Because I’m shameless like that. ;D

    Good point. Feminism requires a certain amount of hope that’s missing from outright misandry. Even if abuse from men is a catalyst for a woman’s eventual feminist awakening, a woman who is in this stage probably isn’t ready for feminism yet.

  10. Johanna says:

    “In order to believe that the world can change, we have to believe that men are capable of goodness. If we use a single event or person to condemn the entire gender, how does that not contradict the fundamentals of feminism?”

    I hope you can see that your first sentence is not logical.

    Believing in someone’s innate goodness is not a prerequisite to demand that person cease hurting others. Someone need not possess inherent goodness to quit harmful actions; they need only an appropiate level of restriction or fear of consequences.

    “Feminism requires a certain amount of hope that’s missing from outright misandry.”

    I would agree with you. Men have made too many excuses for too long; and yet the vast majority continue to do so regardless of how many research studies and feminist deconstructions are shoved under their noses. They’ve been doing this for 6000 years, kids. Think about that, and then think about it again.

    I too used to make excuses for them. After all, only two hundred years ago or so people were so ignorant that they would assume a cow was cursed if the milk spoiled. The eye opener for me came when I realized that it takes absolutely no education or brain-cells whatsoever to recognize pain in a woman’s eye.

    Of course it made sense to divide up duties according to who could perform them best. Breastfeeding pregger woman stays in the hut, he-man cowboy traps dinner. Sure. But nothing in that scenario precluded her from having legal autonomy – nothing! Every single damn day every single man would justify to himself his continued suppression of her rights as a human being. For how many years again?

    How much control-freakiness does that take?

    But thank you Mickle and Sigel, you brought me a little understanding. Been wondering why so many feminists keep professing such respect and other positivity garbage for men. They do not believe they have any other choice if men are to stop being morons. Also, I can appreciate from my marketing-manipulation perspective that the easiest way to get a moron to do something is to pretend that they are a worthwhile human being.

    Mind you, not all men are worthless, just the vast majority. Thanks again, and good night. I think I can be done with certain aspects now.

  11. Johanna: Mickle can answer this however zie wants, but since you are addressing both of us I’ll respond as well.

    I hope you can see that your first sentence is not logical.

    Believing in someone’s innate goodness is not a prerequisite to demand that person cease hurting others. Someone need not possess inherent goodness to quit harmful actions; they need only an appropiate level of restriction or fear of consequences.

    I find Mickle’s sentence quite logical. While it’s true that we can demand a cessation of behavior with the threat of punishment, that doesn’t amount to men actually changing and owning up to their privilege. We have punishment for a few forms of sexism, such as imprisonment for (a limited number of) rape cases – but those hardly result in widespread change regarding male privilege.

    For myself, I have to believe that men can change in order to believe that change is possible at all, and I don’t buy into any biological deterministic arguments about men’s vs. women’s capacity for learning. I’ve seen people of any gender grow and learn about sexism, just as I’ve seen people of any race grow and learn about racism. Not every man or white person can, to be sure. But some do.

    As for the rest of your comment, it is not my place to tell you whether you can or cannot dismiss men, or the women who continue to believe in men’s capacity for change. But that position is untenable for many woman who have to deal with other forms of oppression in their life. For example, for many feminists of color, men of color are their allies against racism (and often sexism as well). You can dismiss the women who negotiate these systems of oppression simply for respecting the men who can help them, but you’d be losing ties to a lot of powerful feminist women in the process.

    Also, check your condescension. Talking down to women about their “positivity garbage” is unnecessarily belittling. You’re welcome to comment here, but you must abide by the discussion rules.

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