Terence Blacker: Relieve you of that critique, madam?

 

Share
Related Topics

Several times this week I have been on the receiving end of benevolent prejudice. A male shop assistant addressed me as "young man", a clear and unashamed reference to the fact that I am not young. A woman referred to a group of men of which I was part as "the boys". Serving me in the local shop, Linda – something of a serial offender in this regard – has quite shamelessly called me "darling", "babe" and "lovey", when I am clearly none of these things to her.

According to a new academic study, the remarks made to me represent a sort of prejudice – or, as the paper's authors, Julia Becker and Janet Swim, would put it, they "comprise subjectively positive but condescending beliefs ... which reinforce gender roles and power relations".

Admittedly, Becker and Swim did not have me in mind when they wrote "Seeing the Unseen: Attention to Daily Encounters with Sexism as a Way to Reduce Sexist Beliefs" for the Psychology of Women Quarterly – indeed, I would almost certainly be a target of their critique.

There is such a thing as benevolent sexism, they argue. Every day, women suffer acts of "micro-aggression" in the form of compliments from men, offers of help and expressions of concern. The benevolent sexist will pick up the tab for dinner on a first date, help a woman whose car has broken down, or offer his seat on a crowded train, assuming his own superiority.

There is a worthwhile point being made here but, boy, do these feminist academics make it tough to take them seriously. Their clotted, ungrammatical prose reads as if it has been spewed out by a computer translating from a foreign language with a faulty program. Their view of gender is confrontational, bordering on the paranoiac.

When few men in their study accept the concept of benevolent sexism, they conclude smugly, "We expect this outcome because of men's higher status in society and the corresponding great interest in maintaining this status."

Strictly speaking, though, they are right. Paying for a first-date dinner does establish a power relationship: he is showing her that he will decide who will pay for what. Helping women with a car or a computer or heavy bags does assume a weakness on their part.

All the same, it is an odd and cynical perspective which sees benevolence as a tool of repression. In a world where women suffer from real violence and exploitation, where salary levels remain at a significantly lower level for female employees than male, where the effects of unemployment are also serious skewed by gender, it seems perverse and counter-productive to conduct solemn research into behaviour which is essentially propelled by that most underrated virtue, kindness.

As Jan Morris, who probably knows more about sexism and prejudice than most, said in a recent interview with John Walsh in this paper, "Kindness is the ultimate path, the one thing that can stand up against all the shit, the ghastliness," she said. "It is the ultimate human quality."

For all their earnest talk of empathy, Becker and Swim have lost sight of that quality while studying new paths of sexism. It is by behaving decently, thoughtfully and with humour towards one another that humans make everyday life bearable. Sometimes they get it wrong, revealing outdated attitudes as they open a door, give up a seat, or offer to carry something. Acts of generosity are misunderstood, compliments backfire, and jokes flop. But because the general direction is towards kindness, these things are rarely lethal.

A world in which men are forever checking their attitudes and women are scrutinising the smallest gesture made towards them in case it contains a covert insult would be a cold and humourless place. A few micro-aggressions are a price worth paying.

terblacker@aol.com



React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Guru Careers: Software Developer / C# Developer

£40-50K: Guru Careers: We are seeking an experienced Software / C# Developer w...

Guru Careers: Software Developer

£35 - 40k + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Software Developer (JavaS...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant / Resourcer

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Commission: SThree: As a Trainee Recruitment Consu...

Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, HTML, CSS, JavaScript, AngularJS)

£25000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, JavaScript, HTML...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Supporters in favour of same-sex marriage pose for a photograph as thousands gather in Dublin Castle  

The lessons we can learn from Ireland's gay marriage referendum

Stefano Hatfield
Immigration enforcement officers lead a Romanian national who has been arrested on immigration offences from a house in Southall in London  

Don’t blame migrants – the West helped to create their plight

Yasmin Alibhai Brown
Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

Sun, sex and an anthropological study

One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

Songs from the bell jar

Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

One man's day in high heels

...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

End of the Aussie brain drain

More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

Can meditation be bad for you?

Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine
Letterman's final Late Show: Laughter, but no tears, as David takes his bow after 33 years

Laughter, but no tears, as Letterman takes his bow after 33 years

Veteran talkshow host steps down to plaudits from four presidents
Ivor Novello Awards 2015: Hozier wins with anti-Catholic song 'Take Me To Church' as John Whittingdale leads praise for Black Sabbath

Hozier's 'blasphemous' song takes Novello award

Singer joins Ed Sheeran and Clean Bandit in celebration of the best in British and Irish music
Tequila gold rush: The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product

Join the tequila gold rush

The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product
12 best statement wallpapers

12 best statement wallpapers

Make an impact and transform a room with a conversation-starting pattern
Paul Scholes column: Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?

Paul Scholes column

Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?