Thursday, August 2, 2018

Genderless Thoughts in a Gendered Age

My understanding of the dynamics of social interaction in small groups was formed many decades ago by the work of Robert F. Bales.  He observed, among other things, that each of those present had to work out a rough idea of the role they intended to play, how much control or influence they wanted to have, how their personal needs related to the issues at hand, and how much acceptance or intimacy they wanted from others.  I believe it’s still a valid observation, but with some dramatic changes.

In those days there were men’s groups, women’s groups, and mixed groups.  Men ran theirs according to a range of predictable male rules.  All business groups, civic groups, and most political groups were run by men.  Women ran their groups by their own rules.  In mixed groups, men were dominant, women subordinate.  All the rules existed within the context of white middle classes that defined the American way of doing things.  All others were marginalized, no offense intended, they just didn’t count.

Times have changed in many ways, and this short essay’s focus is on gender as one of the most significant changes.  The work place, civic organizations, and social gatherings are no longer the province of male domination.  Women arrived a long time ago, but until recently some men seem not to have noticed.  The #Metoo movement has been a bucket of ice water waking them to the startling revelation of, “Oh! We had no idea.”  From business meetings through casual conversations, women are no longer willing to be ignored, diminished, neglected, exploited or rejected.  Their voices will be heard, with the expectation that they will be respected.  But changing cultural patterns takes time, and it comes with side effects.  One of them is the temptation to assign gender to the way thoughts are given voice, indeed to assign gender to the thoughts themselves.  The frequent accusation of “mansplaining” is but one example. 

Small group conversations can elicit strongly held opinions often expressed with equally strong emotions.  Where men and women gather to converse about matters great and small there can be wariness that entrenched patterns of male dominance have not been left behind, or that new patterns of female assertiveness have derailed the agenda.  Add to the mix anxieties about political correctness (whatever that is), and the occasional presence of a “just kidding” jackass, and gender issues can boil over.

It leads to a problem.  In the heat of debate it’s not uncommon to make assumptions that the other is speaking from the perspective of their gender, on behalf of their gender, and what they have to say is so gender loaded that whatever other value it may have cannot be heard.  It’s the natural outcome of recognition that women’s voices have been ignored or denigrated as a matter of course for the last few thousand years, and they are unwilling to let it continue.  If women’s voices are to be heard, then men’s voices have to make room for them.  It raises two questions.  If a woman speaks, is she speaking as a woman on behalf of women?  If a man speaks, is he speaking as a man on behalf of men?  What it they’re each just speaking, expressing thoughts worthy of being entered into the conversation?

If that was all, we might be able to work it out, but gender isn’t limited to male and female.  We have the whole LGBTQ community to consider, which creates complicated subsets of male and female voices.  Is what they have to say always about LGBTQishness, or might they simply be saying something about the weather, state of the economy, or a new way to sell toothpaste?  For that matter, I’m an old, upper middle class white man.  Should that automatically paint whatever I have to say with an old white man brush?

What about the expression of genderless thoughts?  Let the expression of a thought stand on its own merits without leaping to gender assignment.  Starting with the assumption that one’s contribution to the conversation is made in good faith will open the door to a more free exchange of useful information to be debated with vigor.  Stupid, silly, ignorant, and prejudiced thoughts will still make themselves known, as will those who cannot be relied on to act in good faith.  Dealing with them in appropriate ways may be tough and decisive, but it doesn’t have to include gender bashing generalizations.  

Here's to the expression of genderless thoughts. May they flow in abundance.





No comments: