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

Savvy Media Ltd: Media Sales executive - Crawley

£25k + commission + benefits: Savvy Media Ltd: Find a job you love and never h...

Austen Lloyd: Corporate Solicitor NQ+ Oxford

Excellent Salary: Austen Lloyd: CORPORATE - Corporate Solicitor NQ+ An excelle...

Reach Volunteering: Financial Trustee and Company Secretary

Voluntary Only - Expenses Reimbursed: Reach Volunteering: A trustee (company d...

Recruitment Genius: Senior Project Manager

£45000 - £65000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Muslim men pray at the East London Mosque  

Sadly, it needs to be said again: being a Muslim is not a crime

Yasmin Alibhai Brown
In a world of Saudi bullying, right-wing Israeli ministers and the twilight of Obama, Iran is looking like a possible policeman of the Gulf

Iran is shifting from pariah to possible future policeman of the Gulf

Robert Fisk on our crisis with Iran
The young are the new poor: A third of young people pushed into poverty

The young are the new poor

Sharp increase in the number of under-25s living in poverty
Greens on the march: ‘We could be on the edge of something very big’

Greens on the march

‘We could be on the edge of something very big’
Revealed: the case against Bill Cosby - through the stories of his accusers

Revealed: the case against Bill Cosby

Through the stories of his accusers
Why are words like 'mongol' and 'mongoloid' still bandied about as insults?

The Meaning of Mongol

Why are the words 'mongol' and 'mongoloid' still bandied about as insults?
Mau Mau uprising: Kenyans still waiting for justice join class action over Britain's role in the emergency

Kenyans still waiting for justice over Mau Mau uprising

Thousands join class action over Britain's role in the emergency
Isis in Iraq: The trauma of the last six months has overwhelmed the remaining Christians in the country

The last Christians in Iraq

After 2,000 years, a community will try anything – including pretending to convert to Islam – to avoid losing everything, says Patrick Cockburn
Black Friday: Helpful discounts for Christmas shoppers, or cynical marketing by desperate retailers?

Helpful discounts for Christmas shoppers, or cynical marketing by desperate retailers?

Britain braced for Black Friday
Bill Cosby's persona goes from America's dad to date-rape drugs

From America's dad to date-rape drugs

Stories of Bill Cosby's alleged sexual assaults may have circulated widely in Hollywood, but they came as a shock to fans, says Rupert Cornwell
Clare Balding: 'Women's sport is kicking off at last'

Clare Balding: 'Women's sport is kicking off at last'

As fans flock to see England women's Wembley debut against Germany, the TV presenter on an exciting 'sea change'
Oh come, all ye multi-faithful: The Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?

Oh come, all ye multi-faithful

The Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?
Dr Charles Heatley: The GP off to do battle in the war against Ebola

The GP off to do battle in the war against Ebola

Dr Charles Heatley on joining the NHS volunteers' team bound for Sierra Leone
Flogging vlogging: First video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books

Flogging vlogging

First video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
Saturday Night Live vs The Daily Show: US channels wage comedy star wars

Saturday Night Live vs The Daily Show

US channels wage comedy star wars
When is a wine made in Piedmont not a Piemonte wine? When EU rules make Italian vineyards invisible

When is a wine made in Piedmont not a Piemonte wine?

When EU rules make Italian vineyards invisible