Terence Blacker: Relieve you of that critique, madam?


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.


React Now

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

Sustainability Manager

Competitive: The Green Recruitment Company: Job Title: Scheme Manager (BREEAM)...

Graduate Sustainability Professional

Flexible, depending on experience: The Green Recruitment Company: Job Title: T...

Programme Director - Conduct Risk - London

£850 - £950 per day: Orgtel: Programme Director - Conduct Risk - Banking - £85...

Project Coordinator/Order Entry, SC Clear

£100 - £110 per day: Orgtel: Project Coordinator/Order Entry Hampshire

Day In a Page

Read Next
Former N-Dubz singer Tulisa Contostavlos gives a statement outside Southwark Crown Court after her trial  

It would be wrong to compare brave Tulisa’s ordeal with phone hacking. It’s much worse than that

Matthew Norman
The Big Society Network was assessed as  

What became of Cameron's Big Society Network?

Oliver Wright
Noel Fielding's 'Luxury Comedy': A land of the outright bizarre

Noel Fielding's 'Luxury Comedy'

A land of the outright bizarre
What are the worst 'Word Crimes'?

What are the worst 'Word Crimes'?

‘Weird Al’ Yankovic's latest video is an ode to good grammar. But what do The Independent’s experts think he’s missed out?
Can Secret Cinema sell 80,000 'Back to the Future' tickets?

The worst kept secret in cinema

A cult movie event aims to immerse audiences of 80,000 in ‘Back to the Future’. But has it lost its magic?
Facebook: The new hatched, matched and dispatched

The new hatched, matched and dispatched

Family events used to be marked in the personal columns. But now Facebook has usurped the ‘Births, Deaths and Marriages’ announcements
Why do we have blood types?

Are you my type?

All of us have one but probably never wondered why. Yet even now, a century after blood types were discovered, it’s a matter of debate what they’re for
Honesty box hotels: You decide how much you pay

Honesty box hotels

Five hotels in Paris now allow guests to pay only what they think their stay was worth. It seems fraught with financial risk, but the honesty policy has its benefit
Some are reformed drug addicts. Some are single mums. All are on benefits. But now these so-called 'scroungers’ are fighting back

The 'scroungers’ fight back

The welfare claimants battling to alter stereotypes
Amazing video shows Nasa 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action

Fireballs in space

Amazing video shows Nasa's 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action
A Bible for billionaires

A Bible for billionaires

Find out why America's richest men are reading John Brookes
Paranoid parenting is on the rise - and our children are suffering because of it

Paranoid parenting is on the rise

And our children are suffering because of it
For sale: Island where the Magna Carta was sealed

Magna Carta Island goes on sale

Yours for a cool £4m
Phone hacking scandal special report: The slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

The hacker's tale: the slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

Glenn Mulcaire was jailed for six months for intercepting phone messages. James Hanning tells his story in a new book. This is an extract
We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

Child abusers are not all the same, yet the idea of treating them differently in relation to the severity of their crimes has somehow become controversial
The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

For instance, did Isis kill the Israeli teenagers to trigger a war, asks Patrick Cockburn
Alistair Carmichael: 'The UK as a whole is greater than the sum of its parts'

Alistair Carmichael: 'The UK as a whole is greater than the sum of its parts'

Meet the man who doesn't want to go down in history as the country's last Scottish Secretary