Friday, 26 September 2008

Benevolently sexist.

So, I've been meaning to write a post on feminism for ages, but it's just too big a topic. I've had a few conversations about it with various people over the years, and I still don't know exactly where I stand. Internet-based discussions of the issues run the full gamut from "lively" to "warlike", and the situations being discussed are important enough to those involved to cause massive emotional outbursts if approached in the wrong way. Hence, rather than trying to do one big post trying to explain all of the various thoughts I have on the subject, I'll try and do occasional posts approaching smaller related topics. This, I hasten to add, is the first of those.

I read a blog post at work today (during my lunch hour, I assure you...) describing a woman's reaction to being asked whether she needed help carrying a saxophone case outside her apartment. On the one hand, the author makes a good point - if the guy who asked her if she needed help would not have asked a man in the same situation, then he was probably exhibiting sexist behaviour. On the other hand, I also disagree with a couple of the points she makes.

Firstly, she assumes the guy wouldn't have offered help to a man in her situation. It's splitting hairs, maybe, since I agree with her that the prevailing social attitude would support offering a woman help but not a man in the situation, but ultimately she doesn't know what the guy would have done if it were a man carrying the sax. The only reason I mention this is that the comments discuss more active responses the author could have attempted, all focusing on chastising the man to a greater or lesser extent for being so patronising. It seems to me, that unless you know that he would have done something different if it were a man standing there, to essentially accuse him of double standards is unfair. Again, I agree that in general, were they to make this accusation they would probably be correct to one degree or another, but they couldn't know it, and were judging the man's actions based on percieved motivations based on his gender. And I'm not entirely sure I agree with that.

The author then moves on to talk about the differences between this situation, and one in which she offers to help a woman struggling to get bottles off a high shelf in a supermarket. She says that the distinction between the two scenarios is that while the man offered her help when she was perfectly comfortable, she offered help to someone who was "obviously struggling". She then advises "I want to be clear that I’m not saying that people shouldn’t help each other out. I’m saying, don’t assume people need help when they’re not really looking like they need it."

The problem with this is that she's leaving the judgement to the observer. If I'm not sure whether someone needs help or not, should I help them? According to her, unless they are "obviously" in need of assistance, I shouldn't ask if they need a hand. The inaccuracy present in the subjective interpretation of "obviously" combined with the intrinsic inaccuracy in trying to determine need from an external observation of a stranger, leaves us in a situation where we are encouraged not to offer help, for fear of causing offence. We are encouraged to wait until we are asked to help, ignoring the potential for people who need help to be nervous about asking a total stranger for assistance.

Personally, I will try to continue to offer help if I think it might be appreciated, and apologise if it is taken as patronising. To do anything else, would seem to me to be assuming too much sociological and analytical ability on my part.

In any case, having read this article, I was very careful for the rest of the day to ensure that I didn't offer any help to a woman that I wouldn't offer to a man in the same situation. Evening came, and I was walking through Victoria with a friend. As we were waiting for the lights to change at a crossing, we noticed a woman maybe 20 feet away to our left being shouted at fairly aggressively by a man standing right next to her. She didn't seem to be responding, and seemed to be mostly ignoring him, and with the distance and traffic noise, we couldn't tell what he was saying. As the lights changed, and we started to cross the road, he walked off, still shouting, and she disappeared, separately, into the crowds of pedestrians.

So, what should we have done? Was she "obviously struggling" with the situation? Should we have tried to intervene? Or would to intervene have patronisingly assumed that she couldn't handle an argument with an aggressive looking man much larger than her?

As it was, it was over too quickly for us to really make anything other than a gut decision (to stay out of it), and as we walked on, we discussed it and realised that both of us had internally decided to go over only if he became physically abusive. Were we right in that decision, or is verbal abuse enough to warrant intervention? I can imagine people expressing displeasure at strangers intervening if it was a personal dispute, and with someone looking as agitated and angry as the man did, we were both unconsciously worried that such displeasure might be expressed in a physical manner. In other words, we didn't want to make the situation worse.

It also reminded me of a time a year or so ago, when I was sitting on a tube opposite a couple having a fairly heated and very one-sided argument in a foreign language. The woman would occasionally try to speak, but the man would cut in quite aggressively, interrupting her, and going into a long tirade, accompanied by fairly violent hand movements. I didn't think it would be appropriate at all to intervene in an argument I had no way of following or understanding, but there were a couple of moments when I thought the man was going to hit the woman. I was wrong as it turned out, but it certainly felt in my mind as though the threat was there. Different situation, same question - would intervening have been acceptable? How about if he had hit her? Should one assume that in both situations the woman is perfectly capable of dealing with the situation? At what point does it become "obvious" that she is not?

How would I have reacted if it was a man verbally abusing another man on the street? Who knows - I don't believe you can predict your reactions to a hypothetical situation particularly accurately. In any case, I feel like often real life situations cannot be boiled down to easy rhetoric, and sometimes arguments and discussions online can rely too much on the abstract and the simplistic.

Apologies if some of that is garbled or rushed. I'm pretty tired, and didn't want to spend too much time this evening writing and rewriting it. In any case, I'm sure no one's ever regretted not choosing their words carefully when disagreeing with a feminist online.


heartoffalsehood said...

Hey TheTelf, thanks for this discussion about and the link-back to my post. I have thought about that post a lot since I wrote it, and I agree that the line between intervening and not is nearly invisible. It's always difficult to tell what people want, which is why I ended the post with a call for individuals to consider their actions in light of my experience: "Fight your internalized, unconscious sexism by thinking about and examining how you decide whether someone needs help. Do you only help women? Do you help them when they don’t obviously need it? Do you help them without asking? (The same goes for ageism or ableism: Do you only help old/disAbled people? Do you help them when they don’t obviously need it? Do you help them without asking?)" I don't want to demand that all men stop helping women, regardless of context; I want people to think beyond their stereotypes of others when they consider helping them.

About a month ago, I was helping my grandfather out of a doctor's office, and after he'd gotten out of his wheelchair into the car, I pushed it around to the trunk to put in there. As I went to fold it up and haul it in, a middle-aged man appeared, asking me if I'd like some help. He explained that he has to put his mom's wheelchair in the trunk all the time too, and he knows how much of a hassle it is. I agreed and allowed him to put it in the trunk for me, and I thanked him as he walked away. I struggled with this afterward: was I being a hypocrite by accepting this person's help? or was I more open to his help because he wasn't assuming that I couldn't handle a wheelchair just because I'm a girl? I feel like it was the latter, but I suppose it's up for debate. I think -- and, yes, it's difficult to say what one would do in hypothetical situations -- that I would have been more open to saxophone dude's help if he had treated me as a person rather than just a female body in need of assistance from a male body. If saxophone dude had, perhaps, explained that he, too, carries around a giant bass trombone or a sousaphone and knows what it's like to have to haul that shit around and would like to help others out, I might have been more willing to consider his assistance. As it stood, he simply asked if I needed help, completely out of the blue and for no apparent reason than, I assume, that I have the appearance of a woman.

I have to say that I think the situations you found yourself and your companion in after reading my post aren't quite comparable. I would also struggle -- and have struggled -- to decide whether I would intervene in heated discussions between a man and a woman in public. In those cases, I think it's more apparent that there's a situation that might need some intervention. In my case, I was, seriously, standing at the mailbox with my horn sitting on the ground. There was absolutely no evidence that I would need help other than my ponytail and the big ol' sax case next to me, which is why I made the judgment that his offer was made based on my gender identity.

I think the situations you encountered certainly raise important questions about when it is appropriate to step in, though. As a woman, I would feel uncomfortable stepping into a confrontation between a man (who is more than likely physically bigger than me) and a woman -- but I would feel more comfortable listening in, maybe making eye contact with the woman to get an idea of her feeling about the situation, and possibly looking for or calling the cops if the confrontation became more heated or turned violent.

Woo! Sorry for such a lengthy comment. If you choose not to publish it, that's fine with me: I've saved it so I can respond to your post in my blog if you'd rather continue this discussion that way. I think you bring up a lot of good points and questions here, I'm just not sure that all of them are relevant to the situation I experienced. Again, thanks for the analysis and link-back, and I look forward to reading more of your blog.


TheTelf said...

Wow, thanks for the great and prompt reply.

I totally agree with the point you make about examining motivations, but I do worry that someone who is unsure about whether help is needed might be dissuaded from offering it if they fear that they might be branded a sexist. If this ends up happening, someone who did in fact need help might not get an offer of assistance simply because of their gender.

Out of interest, if the gentleman who offered to help you with the wheelchair had not had a story to go with it, would you have refused his assistance? If he had thought to himself "well, that looks like an annoying task to do - I'd sure appreciate some help if that was me", would offering assistance be a sexist offer? And how would you be able to tell?

In terms of your encounter while transporting your saxophone, clearly I can't provide any kind of useful comment, since I know nothing about the situation, whereas you were there, but is there anything he could have said (assuming he had no experience with a similar situation) to offer help with what he thought might be a potentially awkward piece of equipment, without it being sexist? Or is the fact that it is a man offering to help a woman always going to make the offer suspicious in that regard?

Thanks again for the reply,
Telf :)

heartoffalsehood said...

Out of interest, if the gentleman who offered to help you with the wheelchair had not had a story to go with it, would you have refused his assistance? If he had thought to himself "well, that looks like an annoying task to do - I'd sure appreciate some help if that was me", would offering assistance be a sexist offer? And how would you be able to tell?

If he simply appeared and asked if I wanted help, I probably would have declined. I do take care of the wheelchair all the time, just like I take care of my horn all the time, and I'd probably feel annoyed that this random dude would just assume that I needed or wanted his help. I don't know if it'd be sexist, as I wouldn't be able to tell for sure what he was thinking, but I'd probably think it had something to do with my appearance as a gal.

is there anything he could have said (assuming he had no experience with a similar situation) to offer help with what he thought might be a potentially awkward piece of equipment, without it being sexist? Or is the fact that it is a man offering to help a woman always going to make the offer suspicious in that regard?

I think the word "suspicious" is exactly right for this situation. I think if I had the exact same situation with the guy coming up from behind me while I stood next to my sax case, but he said something else like, "That looks heavy, need a hand?", I still would have been suspicious of his offer. If he had asked what it was and maybe started a conversation with me about it, rather than simply seeing the big case and thinking (probably) "That looks heavy, she might need a hand", I might have been more inclined to let him carry it and less inclined to see the conversation through a gendered lens. Even if there are still assumptions about my ability based on my gender prompting this conversation, I think I'd feel more like I was being treated as a whole person, as I said, instead of as a female body.

As for your concern that some people will take my advice too far and refuse to offer help to someone else based on gender, I think that's kind of a stretch. People are capable of asking for help when they need it. I know that not all people do, but even I, the woman who looks for ways not to have to ask people for help, know that if I had really needed help from one of my neighbors to carry my horn, I would have turned around to the staircase, made eye contact, and asked for what I needed. I never even made eye contact with this guy and there was nothing in my body language that made me look like I needed help.

I have faith that people can tell when others actually need help. I think sometimes, our gender (and other) stereotypes cause us to intellectually think that others need offers of help less or more often than they actually do. Specifically, I think that there are many guys in the world who assume that women need help doing physical labor; conversely, a lot of women (and men) believe that men don't need help with physical labor or, perhaps, emotional work. Part of my purpose in writing that post was to ask people to attempt to throw off the gender-stereotype glasses and think in a different way about offering help to people they don't know.