Thursday, July 21, 2011

More tiresome gender hypersensitivity

People who focus on "gender" issues invariably start to view the entire world through a gender lens, and too often they start to see "gender" where they shouldn't, and they become hypersensitive to innocuous conduct. This is unhealthy for a multitude of reasons.

And, yes, at times we are guilty of such hypersensitivity here.  We resolve to try not to be.

When gender hypersensitivity happens with politicians, as in the story below, it distracts focus from real issues. And here we go again.

Cong. Allen West sent an angry missive to DNC Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz about a medicare debate, telling her, among other things, that she was not "a lady." So, of course, a petition was started to protest West's "outrageous" and "despicable" and, of course, "sexist" behavior, claiming that his comments were evidence of "the Republican war on women."  See here:

Oh, my, oh, my. When will this end?

When former Democratic Senator Arlen Specter told Republican Rep. Michele Bachmann to "act like a lady," he was widely chastised for his "sexist" remark and was forced to apologize.

When hecklers told Hillary Clinton to "iron my shirt," it was grossly sexist, and everyone agreed that it was. But not every attack or criticism on a female politician is sexist. Just as not every criticism of President Obama is indicative of racism.  By turning the West-Wasserman Schultz encounter into a gender issue, the far more important debate over Medicare is being obscured.

And when people conclude that accusing West of misogyny is a silly overreaction -- and they will -- they will be more likely to accept West's policy position than examine it on its own merits.

Sexism is unacceptable, every sane person agrees. By the same token, it is silly to pretend that politicians are genderless. If a politician behaves in an offensive manner, it is not sexist to accuse him or her of not acting like a "gentleman" or a "lady" depending on his or her gender.  But a politician's gender should never be used as a sword to hold her or him to standards not applicable to the other gender (e.g., "iron my shirt").

I think we're all agreed on that. So let's take this a step further: a woman has no more right to dictate that a male politician live up to her notions of masculinity than a man has the right to dictate that a female politician live up to his notions of femininity.

Makes sense? Of course. Then why does the mainstream media allow women to hold men to gender standards, while it condemns men who do the same to women?

During the last senatorial campaign, Sharron Angle, Robin Carnhan, Christine O'Donnell and Jane Norton -- all women -- verbally attacked their male opponents by telling them to "man up."  See here.  Sarah Palin has also used the term "man up" and has questioned the president's “cojones.” I saw no one attack that as sexism.

Holding male candidates to some invisible standard of masculinity is nothing new. Can you say "Edmund Muskie"? In 1972, Senator Muskie was the Democratic front runner for president until the Manchester Union-Leader attacked his wife, Jane. When Senator Muskie defended his wife in an emotional speech, he appeared to cry. That was the end of his campaign, and his chance to ever be president.  Muskie, you see, had violated an almost universal standard of manhood.

Do we really think much has changed since Muskie's implosion? 

And, of course, female candidates are not routinely attacked for legally avoiding military service as male candidates are. I doubt this will change in the next 25 years, if ever. Not serving is considered at least a minor violation of some standard of manhood.

Let's say this: I "get" why sexism is potentially more damaging to female than male candidates. Women are still breaking into a man's game, and any hint that women are inferior because of their gender should not be tolerated.

But that's not the point. The point is that it's absurd and a harmful distraction to imagine sexism where it doesn't exist, as in the West-Wasserman Schultz debate. 

And beyond that, the point is that it's an inappropriate double-standard to allow a female politician to attack a male politician for not living up to an invisible standard of masculinity, while it's wholly unacceptable to hold female candidates to any gender standard. 

When we tell our kids that it's fair to hold men to some gender standard or other, they won't understand that it's not fair to do the same to women.  Because, you see, kids don't understand these fine-line distinctions adults invent to rationalize bad behavior.

If every attack on a female politician is going to be transmogrified into "sexism," then I'd say this nation isn't ready for a female president (I'm ready for one, the rest of the nation isn't).  That's because we need a president we're allowed to criticize. Even those of us with penises.