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Thinking beyond gender equality etiquette


Report cover 'Australian Attitudes to Violence Against Women'

Amidst disturbing reports of misogynistic views among a minority of the Australian population, the recent VicHealth survey on violence against women found that 'attitudes to gender equality are the strongest influence on understanding of violence and the second strongest influence on attitudes to violence.' 

The message is clear. Changing attitudes to gender equality will have the biggest impact on attitudes to violence against women. But what about those of us who already have positive attitudes to gender equality? 

Like many Australians, I’ve been fortunate to grow up with little exposure to negative attitudes towards gender equality. It wasn’t until I was a teenager that I first met people who had inherited from their parents (or at least from their fathers) a segregated view of humanity in which women were evidently an inferior subset of the human species. It was strange and alarming to realise that in the minds of these peers ‘women’ were equal-parts desirable yet frustratingly deficient creatures, against whom we must take precautionary measures to manage their more challenging behaviours. It was as if finding a woman was like buying a car: you want one that looks good on the outside, but you better make sure it’s not a lemon.

I have to credit my parents and, in particular, my father, for raising me with a view of the world that did not contain a distinct set of ‘rules’ and generalisations for dealing with women. Perhaps it was also due in part to growing up with the influence of two older sisters, and a highly-educated mother who worked in a professional capacity from when I was young.

Our family performed well in regard to key gender equality concepts described in the report, such as: power-sharing and decision-making within relationships, whilst avoiding stereotypical ideas of gender roles, ‘benevolent sexism’, hostility towards women and gender equality, and narrow ideals of masculinity and femininity, including objectification of women. Yet the concept of gender or of gender equality was never explicitly invoked. Instead it was simply common sense that we ought to treat people as individuals and have concern for their individual well-being. Like racism, sexism and gender inequality are confounding and intellectually invalid generalisations often served with disturbingly hostile undertones.

Indeed, while my childhood environment might have put me on the right side of the gender equality scale, as an adult, and especially as a philosopher, I can’t help but think that the ‘correct’ attitude to gender equality really ought to be just an outcome of intellectual integrity and general virtue.

As a PhD student looking at Chinese philosophy, I am reminded of the following passage from the canonical Daoist text the Laozi or DaoDeJing:

A person of superior virtue is not virtuous, and this is why he has virtue. A person of inferior virtue never loses virtue and this is why he lacks virtue. (R.J. Lynn translation)

The meaning of this admittedly enigmatic statement is that virtue is not itself the source of virtue. Clinging to the outer form of virtue is not a sustainable path; as the Laozi continues: one will soon descend from virtue to ‘benevolence’, from there to ‘righteousness’, and from righteousness to ‘propriety’, which verges on legal sanction and the use of force. At each stage the ostensive quality or goal is not achieved, instead our efforts degrade into something lesser. Thus it would be insufficient to just tell people that violence against women is wrong, without also developing an understanding of the full range, extent, and harms of such violence. Likewise, it would be a missed opportunity to teach people to understand violence without linking the issue of violence into the underlying problem of gender equality.

In terms of gender equality, the question is whether we focus solely on outcomes, tending toward legal penalties and enforcement or, if we are able to also consider what comes before gender equality, that is: an appreciation for individual worth and the capacity for intellectually robust critiques of societal norms and cultural conditioning.  

Unlike the Daoists, we can probably do both: the pragmatic focus on countering gender inequality as well as the cultivation of a deeper approach to individual worth. But we are timid when it comes to proposing a deeper intellectual direction for our society, preferring instead to focus on key outcomes and reactive measures that can garner the support of a healthy majority. 

Nonetheless, for those of us who already subscribe to the general principles of gender equality but would like to do more, the Daoist approach has real merit. ‘Gender equality’ will only take us so far, it’s more inspired to think critically about the meaning of gender in the first place, and what bearing it really ought to have on how we treat individuals. Better still, such an approach will prevent us from falling into a situation in which a set of ‘gender equality’ rules are unthinkingly promoted as just another model of propriety which, the Laozi reminds us 'consists of the superficial aspects of loyalty and trust and is thus the beginning of disorder.'

Zac Alstin headshot

Zac Alstin is a freelance writer and PhD student in Philosophy of Religion who lives in Adelaide. He blogs at zacalstin.com

Topic tags: Zac Alstin, women, misogyny, gender equality, philosophy, Daoism



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Existing comments

Perhaps it should also be pointed out that Zac is or was a regular contributor to to the website Mercator which is run by the deeply misogynist ultra-patriarchal Opus Dei organization. Not much gender equality to be found there.

Sue | 25 September 2014  

When I think of gender inequality two words seem pertinent to me: power and powerlessness. Violence is the acting out of a power imbalance. The WHO claims that 40% of all women endure violence, and in many countries this rises to 70%. Alarming statistics. Zac, like many others, has been fortunate to grow up in a family with a highly-educated mother who worked in a professional capacity. Yet with the number of women university graduates on an equal, or greater, footing with male graduates, women make up only a small percentage (9.2%) of executive positions in top companies. Many reasons can be put forward for this discrepancy but progress remains slow and painful for the majority of women. I think that Zac makes a number of important points but the reality for many women is that entrenched negative attitudes towards female equality still exist and men and women alike need to challenge this at many levels.

Pam | 26 September 2014  

Zac, I really like this piece, especially the Laozi reference. I was born in 1940's and there were clear gender roles. But, while my parents were not professionals my father was highly respectful of my mother and women in general. This passed on to us. I went to all girls' schools and it wasn't until I left school did I, like you, discover sexism. I had two older brothers and one became very sexist and quite angry about the changing roles for women. My eldest brother remained respectful and became highly supportive of his wife and two daughters. Methinks a lot depends on the individual's baggage as they face life's changes. Some people like the sexism. It gives them power ... We need to look below the surface of violence against women - what other factors are involved eg alcohol ...? Thank you for this great piece and I will be sharing it with my friends who've, like me, traversed the rough seas of gender issues. It's great to hear a young man speaking out in the way you have. All the best.

clara | 26 September 2014  

Sue, Does it increase or diminish the force of Zac's argument to enumerate the places where he publishes? Would Germaine Greer's arguments be discredited if she published in Playboy, or is Philip Adams less to be read because he writes for The Australian? Guilt by association does seem to be a lazy kind of dismissal, does it not?

Dan McGonnigal | 26 September 2014  

Sue: your comment does not reflect my experiences with MercatorNet. Nonetheless, contributors to websites and magazines are not typically expected to subscribe to the beliefs (religious or otherwise) of the editorial team, nor to affirm the content of every article published, and
hence I would hope that readers judge my work on the basis of...well, my work.
Unfortunately I know next-to-nothing about Opus Dei, but have enough experience of strongly-worded characterisations of religious groups to be immediately suspicious of the accuracy of your statement.

Zac | 26 September 2014  

Thank you Clara!
I think you are right about the 'baggage' aspect too. Like racism, sexism seems to give some people a sense of power or to add to their identity. The VicHealth full report went into some detail on this, and it accords with your experiences. Men with a negative attitude to gender equality tend to use violence when they feel personally disempowered in life, and when changing gender roles unsettle their sense of how the world ought to be.
Thanks for your encouragement.

Zac | 26 September 2014  

I agree Pam. Unfortunately the attitudes behind violence against women are complex and multifaceted. For those of us lucky enough to grow up 'outside' of it, I have to admit the actual content is surprising and unexpected. Eg. as the executive summary of the VicHealth report noted:
"This survey finds that only a small proportion of Australians (up to 6% depending on the scenario) endorse
attitudes that justify violence. However, substantial minorities are prepared to excuse violence, including more than one in five agreeing that partner violence can be excused if the person is genuinely regretful afterward, or if they get so angry they lose control, and two in five agreeing that sexual assault occurs because men are unable to control their sexual urges."
If I hadn't read such views in the report, I would never have thought of them. The last in particular is very disturbing and sounds like some kind of folk superstition.

Zac | 26 September 2014  

It's obvious that violence towards anyone is just thuggery and something most of us just can't fathom, but I've witnessed more "creative" types of violence that (usually) men use against woman - and that's subtle mind games and put downs that are not easy to measure, do surveys on. I know these types of men personally - and they also use their tactics on men - but it doesn't have the same devastation as it does on their wife/partner who has to put up with it day in and day out. (I'm talking about my brother in law who I'm glad my sister has recently separated from).

AURELIUS | 29 September 2014  

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