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

Recruitment Genius: Finance Director

£65000 - £80000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Finance Director required to jo...

Recruitment Genius: Medico-Legal Assistant

£15000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a unique opportunity fo...

Ashdown Group: (PHP / Python) - Global Media firm

£50000 per annum + 26 days holiday,pension: Ashdown Group: A highly successful...

The Jenrick Group: Quality Inspector

£27000 per annum + pension + holidays: The Jenrick Group: A Quality Technician...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Kim Jong-un, North Korea’s dictator, and the subject of the spoof Sony film  

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Joan Smith
 

A happy ending for celebrity memoirs

Katy Guest
The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

The 12 ways of Christmas

We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

The male exhibits strange behaviour

A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'
Marian Keyes: The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment

Marian Keyes

The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef creates an Italian-inspired fish feast for Christmas Eve

Bill Granger's Christmas Eve fish feast

Bill's Italian friends introduced him to the Roman Catholic custom of a lavish fish supper on Christmas Eve. Here, he gives the tradition his own spin…
Liverpool vs Arsenal: Brendan Rodgers is fighting for his reputation

Rodgers fights for his reputation

Liverpool manager tries to stay on his feet despite waves of criticism
Amir Khan: 'The Taliban can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'

Amir Khan attacks the Taliban

'They can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'
Michael Calvin: Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick