Friday, May 31, 2013

Sexism and Sacredness [Part 1]

I just finished reading Haidt's The Righteous Mind. It was an excellent book and I intend to do a series of posts drawing on the book to explore moral issues. I found myself agreeing with on a great many points. In particular I liked his emphasis on mankind's groupishness, something that I have always thought was fundamentally obvious but that too often seems ignored in our culture.

However, while I don't disagree that the moral foundations can lead to the formation and strengthening of groups I had a nagging feeling throughout the book that he was paying insufficient attention to how sacralizing the wrong things can tear groups apart and limit the groupishness that he claims loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion, and sanctity/degradation all serve to promote.

While I had planned to take up this subject much later, Erick Erickson happened to say something stupid on TV and then dig himself into an incredibly deep pit by trying to extricate himself with a lengthy paean to sexism.

Erickson's "contribution" perfectly illustrates why I'm sceptical that the current political ideology of the right does in fact contribute to the groupishness that Haidt claims the moral foundations of Conservatives generally contributes to. This is not to argue that the strand of Conservative thought advocated for by Burke does not achieve this, only that the current incarnation in the United States fails to do so.

Erickson's argument basically boils down to men should be off contributing to society while women should be in the home raising children that can later contribute to society.  He seems to believe that he needs little proof that this is the natural order aside from common prejudice and his own anecdotal life experiences. By acknowledging that women can in fact work outside the home, when they have to, he also engages in the annoying habit of trying to signal he's not sexist and unreasonable because he uses soft, reasonable language while condemning their choices as less than ideal. Lets dig into the details.

First, the title. The Truth May Hurt but is Not Mean. This is a loathsome attitude I see all the time on the right. It appears to tap into Haidt's authority foundation, because I'm telling you something tough to hear I'm like a parent telling their kids to eat their vegetables. My beliefs are good for you because they're tough to follow, don't question further or subvert my authority by calling me mean.

 Next we move on to a sanctity argument:

Ladies, if you want to work that’s fine. If your position in life makes it advantageous for you to be the primary bread winner, that’s fine. But your individual circumstances and mine should not hide the fact that there is an ideal and optimal family arrangement whether we in our own lives can meet it.
So, this is basically saying that women should always choose to marry someone that is more financially successful than themselves. While a woman's individual position may make it advantageous for them to be the breadwinner for their household this can never conform to the ideal and optimal family arrangement which is with the male as primary breadwinner. This is either incoherent or it reveals the very sexist belief that some man, some where, is always more successful at being a breadwinner than any individual woman. I don't think Erickson would admit to this belief if pressed but this statement is obviously incoherent without this belief since otherwise some woman, some where would have an ideal and optimal family arrangement different from Erickson's favored arrangement. Of course, as a sacred belief there is no need for it to be coherent but we are forced to acknowledge that for Erickson sexism is a sacred issue and one that trumps actually forming stable, secure families.

We should also, as a society, recognize that many single moms are in that position because the men in their lives abandoned their obligations. We should work on all those fronts to put the pieces of the nuclear family back together.
Ugh, more sanctity, with authority thrown in. I hate this particular formulation since it makes the man the protagonist and not the woman. It's the man abandoning his obligations, not the woman kicking his broke ass out of the house. The word "many" does a lot of work here since this is doubtlessly the position of "many" women, but he fails to mention many others that simply can't find men worth marrying.

I also noted that the left, which tells us all the time we’re just another animal in the animal kingdom, is rather anti-science when it comes to this. In many, many animal species, the male and female of the species play complementary roles, with the male dominant in strength and protection and the female dominant in nurture. It’s the female who tames the male beast. One notable exception is the lion, where the male lion looks flashy but behaves mostly like a lazy beta-male MSNBC producer.
An appeal to authority in the form of science, and plain old groupish tribalism as well. Only it's wrong. I'll let Will Wilkinson at the Economist take out the trash on this.

This does not mean the two-parent, heterosexual nuclear household will always work out for the best. But it does mean children in that environment will more often than not be more successful than children of single parents or gay parents.
Feminists and politicians on both sides of the aisle view these statements as insulting to single moms and antithetical to their support for gay marriage. What should be insulting to single moms is for society to tell them they can do it all and, in fact, will subsidize their doing it all.
More sanctity here, as well as an unnecessary appeal to fairness/cheating at the end. I don't know of anyone that argues that a single parent family is ideal, but I'm also unaware of any strong reason to believe that the nuclear family is ideal. The nuclear family is of fairly recent vintage and is a somewhat uncomfortable compromise of the needs of the family with the needs of capitalism. The ideal environment is probably some variant of an extended family, with some combination of kin and non-kin help in raising the children. This way both parents can work at economically productive tasks during the prime of their life while the elderly or young adults who have not yet fully developed economically critical skills can contribute to child rearing. The breadwinner-homemaker model, while superior to the single parent model, is probably inferior both in child outcomes as well as social productivity to the extended family model by making too much use of the parent's potential labor in their life's prime on child-rearing while using too little labor from those not yet or past their prime. Since we do care about child outcomes, it probably is beneficial that we subsidize single mothers so that they have at least some ability to tap badly needed outside assistance for child-rearing. And what gay parents have to do with anything I don't know, more sanctity without even a modest effort at explaining why a gay couple can't be complementary in every way that matters for child-rearing.

As a society, once we moved past that basic recognition, we’ve been on a downward trajectory of more and more broken homes and maladjusted youth. Pro-science liberals seem to think basic nature and biology do not apply to Homo sapiens. Men can behave like women, women can behave like men, they can raise their kids, if they have them, in any way they see fit, and everything will turn out fine in the liberal fantasy world.
More sanctity. But objectively men can behave like women (I was going to link a video of transvestites here, but a brief search of youtube informed me it was all far too sexualized for this post). To be blunt, there's no evidence that children of gay parents turn out worse. While the children of single parents do tend to have worse outcomes, it is unclear that there would be better outcomes if the particular women married the particular men that fathered their children.* Even the dimmest knowledge of other cultures and times will tell us that gender roles are highly malleable, there is no objective ways in which men and women should act; this isn't even getting into the heterogeneity of the population as a whole. To the extent there is any constant it is that women tend to work in the home more, though they often work for market wages and even in agriculture. With the increase in people that work at home, like Eric Erickson, it is unclear why even traditional gender roles favor the father as breadwinner.

To sum up Erickson's article relies heavily on Haidt's moral foundations. He uses these to conceal a rather deep theme of sexism and justifies this with appeals to natural law. He asserts negative consequences, without being able to show any, and appeals to prejudice, authority, and public opinion to back up his assertions.

If this was the cost of maintaining strong relationships in society it might be worth it. However, in part two I'm going to investigate whether all of this moralizing does so. If society was really getting worse as this trend continued, if teenage pregnancy were increasing, divorce sky-rocketing, children failing, and crime rising this sexism might be the cost of a just society. However, the data points to the opposite. Where the right wing holds strongest sway with these moral arguments divorce is higher, children have worse outcomes, crime is higher, teenage pregnancy is higher, etc. All of this moralizing doesn't appear to be doing anything to promote the groupishness that Haidt claims are the province of Conservative moral beliefs. Instead, these beliefs seem to be impeding the formation of new groups that work with the modern world while doing nothing to protect the cohesion of the groups that dominated decades past.

* Since divorce and single-motherhood have become more acceptable women are becoming less likely to marry men that would make poor fathers. This would result in outcomes diverging further as couples that stay married are the best environment for children, while the abusive households that now disintegrate no longer drive overall married outcomes down. A better comparison group would be single parents against abusive or otherwise dysfunctional households rather than against all married families, I am not aware if this comparison has been done. It also needs to be noted that for cultural reasons men are less likely to take children from poor mothers than women are to take children from poor fathers skewing results against single-mothers.

1 comment:

  1. Why should Mr Erickson care that other cultures demonstrate that gender roles are extremely variable among human beings? After all, if they do not conform to his personal vision of appropriate gender roles, obviously they are not ideal. And if the entire culture fails to follow his vision, then the culture is not ideal. Q.E.D.

    No, I was not being sarcastic. Honest! I suspect that this is exactly the position he would take on the subject if asked.