Wednesday, July 6, 2016

The Soft Privileges of Low Expectations

There is a school of thought that says that is a form of privilege, status, or what have you, to be blocked from doing certain dirty or dangerous jobs. Whether it's due to the expendability of men, or the placement of women on a pedestal, being prevented by society from entering professions such as logger, garbage collector, roofer, coal miner, infantry soldier can be viewed, I have been told, as a form of protection that society affords women, but not men. And, to be sure, that doesn't strike me as an illogical proposition. When you look at lists of the dirtiest and most dangerous jobs, they're all vocations that are anywhere from male-dominated to effectively exclusively male. And this isn't new. The debate about the wage gap between men and women has been going on for as long as I can recall, and one of the counter-arguments to the idea that women are openly discriminated against was that jobs that carried a high risk of injury or death tended to pay well - and that some 95% of on-the-job fatalities were men.

I'm going to admit to a certain skepticism of the idea, myself. And this has in large part to do with the fact that I'm black, and I've heard such arguments before. In 2012, Mitt Romney's run for the presidency placed Mormonism into the spotlight, and the question of the long ban on Black people attaining the priesthood (which in many ways is closer to simply adulthood) came up. And in an article in the Washington Post, Brigham Young University theologian Randy Bott said that before 1978, when the ban was finally lifted black people simply weren't ready for the priesthood, and were being done a service by being barred from a position that they would have abused. “You couldn’t fall off the top of the ladder, because you weren’t on the top of the ladder,” Botts said. “So, in reality the blacks not having the priesthood was the greatest blessing God could give them.” There are other scenarios too, such as the Army keeping Black soldiers away from the front lines, mostly, and doing menial, and sometimes very dangerous work.

And it's in that, however, that I credit the idea that society has it for men. Throughout American history, being given the dirty and dangerous jobs - and being punished for being dubious about performing them - was the lot of those people that mainstream America didn't like - whether that was Black people, the Native Americans or the Chinese. White people spared themselves from hazardous, back-breaking and/or low status work by pawning off on to whatever non-whites could be rounded up. If you see that tradition carrying on into today when such blatant racial segregation is no longer socially tolerable, and believe that either through greater safety measures, automation, better training or openness to women, that the death (and health) toll among men could be lessened, it's not far-fetched to presume that society simply doesn't consider men to be as valuable as women and, like many other prejudices, simply doesn't fess up to it. After all, old habits die hard.

If you're in a small community, women can easily become more valuable, on a social scale, than men. In hunter-gather societies, while men do the prestigious (and dangerous) hunting, women provide most of the available calories through gathering. And if you have to deal with a gender imbalance one way or the other, a group with more women can grow more rapidly than one with more men.

And I'm reminded of something else that theologian Botts said. He defined discrimination as keeping something from someone that is a benefit to them. The unreadiness of Blacks for the Mormon priesthood prior to 1978 meant that is wasn't a benefit to them, and therefore the ban wasn't discriminatory. And so you can pose the question: Is access to the dirty and dangerous jobs that are now the domain of men a benefit to women? What would they gain from greater access to the fishing industry, which is about as dangerous as being a young Black man in the United States today? And it's not like dairy farmhands are just raking it in.

Is there really a benefit that derives just from being considered "just as capable" of jobs that most people consider not worth doing? I don't know. But I think that few people look down on women for not being well-represented in the ranks of electrical power-line installers.

This topic came up in the context of yesterday's post about the box of masculinity, and how doing work, especially unpaid housework, associated with women, or being seen as somehow incapable was, in some circles, seen as being a failure of a man, and how that concept stood in the way of gender equality. There is a counter-argument, and one that's not entirely without merit, that says that women aren't seen as equal to men (for worse or for better) because they don't do dirty, dangerous or even life-threatening jobs at the same rate that men do. And, you can make the point that there is also a constituency for the idea that a woman who managed to work her way into the ranks of hazardous material removers is a "woman fail," who doesn't deserve to be called a female.

In the end, I think, given the fact that we live in a nation with more than 300 million people, there is room for both ideas. I tend to gravitate towards the idea that men are locked into a higher-status state because that's the world that I've tended to live in - throughout my life, I've watched boys and men be punished for behaving in ways that people felt were reserved for girls - and not because they were considered to be reaching above their station in life. But this other facet of life, the idea that if men were really valued, we wouldn't be so quick to throw them away, has some currency, too.

The idea that somewhere lurking behind it all is the idea that women are less capable is always there for me. It's why I settled on the title that I did, riffing on President George W. Bush's speech to the NAACP; the words of speechwriter Michael Gerson. But that's my own viewpoint speaking. I've become accustomed to other people's low expectations, and the occasional expectation that I consider them to be doing me a favor by holding them. But something that walks like a duck and swims like a duck can still be a coot, and so I understand that it's unjust of me to paint the entire world using the brush of my own upbringing.

Will I be more likely to mention this idea when I write going forward? Unlikely. It's not a natural fit for me, and I write (or complain) about the world as I tend to see it. So there will be times in the future when people will have reason to find fault with me for blowing the idea off. But it's the ideas that you add to your worldview that sharpen your vision, even if you harbor some doubts about them, and this idea has found an unused place to settle in, and I'm content to allow it to stay there until such time as it's conclusively falsified.

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