The mother of all Big Lies
It is that time of year in Canada when the "violence against women" rhetoric reaches its peak. A prominent element is the allegation that this society is characterised by hostility toward—or, at least, less concern for the wellbeing of—the female half of the human race. Alternatively, the claim is that men in general have such feelings toward women in general.
We all know the "Big Lie" thesis: that it is easier (sometimes) to get away with an extreme falsehood than with a minor distortion. There is no better contemporary example than this one. Yes, the traditional dominance of men over women is an evil which must continue to be expunged. But in this culture, at least, that dominance has long been accompanied by a special protectiveness for women. The claim of lesser societal solicitousness toward women is not only false; the very opposite is true.
For virtually any kind of harm you can name, both sexes feel greater distress when a woman suffers it than when a man suffers it to the same degree. Not everyone has read the mass of scientific and opinion-survey evidence of this attitude difference, but everyone sees it in action. When terrorists seize hostages, they typically free the women and children and then bargain with the lives of the men. When dangerous medical experiments are carried out or dangerous tasks assigned, it is typically on or to men. No one ever heard it cried, "Save the men and children first!"
Indeed, the very fact that so much is said against "violence against women", and virtually nothing specifically about violence toward men—even though men suffer appreciably more of the serious violence in society, overall—reflects the same differential concern.
There most certainly are men who carry feelings of less caring or even hatred toward women, and some act their feelings out. Generally, these passions stem from personal experiences: from being abused--or falsely seeing themselves as abused--by particular women in their lives. But these bigots are NOT taught such attitudes by society. Even those dregs of humanity, violent men in prisons, have special ways of dealing with inmates believed to have abused women or children.
The actual evidence does not influence those who make this claim of sex bias. When O. J. Simpson was acquitted, many of them trumpeted the case as proof of lesser caring about women’s lives in this society—ignoring the painfully obvious fact that the bias was racial, not gender-based. And, most revealingly, ignoring the fact that Simpson was acquitted of murdering both a woman and a man; whatever lack of concern for the victims may or may not have existed, it was not based on gender.
In Canada, the standard icon for the false charge is Marc Lepine’s murderous rampage of ten years ago. That his twisted act stemmed, in part, from a traditionalist attitude about "women’s proper place" in employment was perfectly clear; the claim that it also grew from traditional contempt for women’s wellbeing is grotesque. Its proponents have gone so far as to re-write history, changing Lepine’s own words from ‘feminists have always ruined my life’ to ‘women have always ruined my life’. And they have used his victims to promote the Big Lie about society as a whole.
Some members of both sexes promote this falsehood. Michael Kaufman, whose White Ribbon campaign runs at this time of year in Canada, has offered as reason the claim that in the past, violence against women received less concern than that against men. In its most extreme form, this twisted falsehood says that Marc Lepine’s murderous attitude was merely "at one end of the continuum" of the attitudes of men in general toward women in general. All men are Marc Lepine, merely in lesser degree—and all men (but no women) are urged by these campaigns to renounce their evil feelings.
Those who do not blame all men promote at least the corollary absurdity that in general, acts of violence which have women as victims are motivated by hatred of women. Discussions of certain currently proposed legislation often include this latter claim; chillingly, some would automatically punish any crime against a woman as a hate-crime. And Canada’s Parliament endorsed its document "The War Against Women" almost unanimously.
How can such an obvious and outrageous falsehood possibly be preached, by anyone? And how on earth can it be gotten away with? The answer to each of these questions involves the politics of belief.
The answer to the first includes—to begin on a cynical note—some pure calculation: victimhood is powerful. It can get you all sorts of things you want. After Anita Hill was raised to martyrhood over a few dirty words and date requests which never hurt her career, the conservative U.S. President swiftly backed off from his earlier strong opposition to a bill involving affirmative-action hiring for women. If a tactic works, use it.
But often, Big Lies are told "sincerely", by people who have deceived themselves. Both self-interest and ideology have massive power to distort perception of the facts. As to the latter, everyone has an ideology; but some people ("ideologues") are utterly dominated by it. Why did those commentators think the O.J. Simpson verdict stemmed from unconcern toward women’s lives? Because they were themselves unconcerned about men’s lives—so they didn’t even notice that a man was also murdered.
The fact that society’s concern for the two sexes is exactly opposite to what is claimed, then, is only one of the ironies associated with the claim—another is the fact that those who level the charge are themselves simply far more caring toward their "own kind" than they are toward the other half of the human race. They are the real sexist bigots.
As to why others allow the Big Lie to be gotten away with, further psychological influences are at work. There is generic groupthink: the story of the Emperor’s New Clothes is not such an extreme exaggeration. And then there is the very fact that society does feel such great solicitousness toward women: few dare to oppose even a falsehood uttered to promote women’s wellbeing. Especially one uttered by women: it isn’t socially acceptable to call a woman a liar. Or to call a woman a bigot.
Here, then, is yet a further irony: the fact that the societal attitude which actually exists helps to prevent opposition to the false claim about society’s attitude.
But the barriers to such opposition are much worse. Those with the temerity to point out the truth are attacked with a vengeance by the ideologues. They are labelled right-wing misogynists, their words distorted viciously. And others stand silently by, saying to themselves, "Who needs it?"
Some months ago, political scientist Adam Jones published an article in the Globe and Mail detailing terminal discrimination against men around the world, notably the mass executions of unarmed noncombatant men in Bosnia. The backlash included an outraged e-mail note to him from a Globe editor, Joan Danard, who labelled his writing "sexist nonsense" and "antiwomen hate stuff". Had she sent analogous comments to a scholar who was appealing for greater compassion toward the lives of Jews or Native people, consider whether Ms. Danard would still have her job.
In spite of all this, the Big Lie must be opposed. Ten years of it is enough.
MERGE Ideas Series #10 Movement to Establish Real Gender Equality Phone: 488-4593 Fax: 482-6648