Paul Graham is hoping to teach nerds (who have the advantage of being iconoclasts and thus ripe for the message) that moral ideas have fashions, and that it’s worth questioning them. He writes that:
We’re looking for things we can’t say that are true, or at least have enough chance of being true that the question should remain open.
He explicitly mentions sexism, but doesn’t himself decide on what question it is that the sexism taboos are forcing us to hide. OK, that one’s got some fire in it. But I couldn’t help myself. What is it? What is it that we’re worried might be true about women, or men that we don’t want people to say?
Interestingly I can’t come up with a single question that calling a statement “sexist” hides from us. Perhaps there are many:
- Is gender so important that it is sensible to generalise about someone’s economic worth based on their gender?
- Is gender so important that it is sensible to generalise about someone’s social worth based on their gender?
- Is gender so important that it is sensible to generalise about someone’s moral worth based on their gender?
- Is gender so important that it is sensible to generalise about someone’s intellectual worth based on their gender?
Maybe there’s something in this one:
- Is it inherently better to be a man than it is to be a woman?
Your questions are all inherently value-judgements, which beg for some kind of quantitative measure, which (even if there were some kind of validity to the questions) I think is impossible to quantify.
Interestingly, Taoist writings all reject your last question as absurd, and they were written at a time when this was a very pressing question (infant girls were still being killed by their parents with astonishing regularity, because they wanted to save their money for having a boy). They use a lot of absurd comparisons of utilities like “What use is a room without a door?” “How can one eat if one has nothing but gold?” but are often interpreted to be talking about gender relations.
However, I believe many of the same writings would still be considered sexist today, at least by feminists, because they pose another question instead. This question, the one that the label of “sexist” often precludes asking, which is certainly interesting to me:
How is it different to be a man, than it is to be a woman?
It implies other questions:
Are we really “designed” for different purposes?
If so, to what extent?
If we are, does it matter, morally, socially, ethically, intellectually?
Does it prevent children from reaching their full potential to treat boys and girls differently?
What if we treat them the same?
Posted by Glyph Lefkowitz on October 5, 2004 10:54 AM
Is “full potential” really not quantatative? It certainly depends on qualifying “full potential”: if you think the purpose men and women are ‘designed’ for is a particular X and Y, and you accept X and Y, then “full potential” is then a complete X and Y.
In any case, “how is it different?” gets answered a lot, but people tend to accept a subset of the differences, depending on whether they’re feminists and which feminist body of thought they like.
I prefer “How should it be different to be a man than to be a woman?” actually, and probably also the same question with ‘man’ and ‘woman’ transposed.
Posted by Mary on October 5, 2004 04:57 PM