We need to end the patriarchy and the discrimination of women now!
Are you kidding me? Feminism has gone too far, it’s men who are discriminated against now, men are the victims!
Men are the victims?! What complete nonsense! It’s women who are being harmed!
How many such ‘discussions’ have you heard? Do they ever go anywhere?
You can defuse them and turn them into something productive once you see that ‘being discriminated against’ is not a simple property but a three-place relation. That’s some logic-speak for you. Let’s unpack it with a neutral example.
Properties and relations
Let’s say you want to buy a house. To make it more realistic for my fellow millennials, let’s say it’s in a rough neighbourhood because that’s the only way you could afford it.
Still, it’s not too bad: it might stand between a noisy pub and a busy grocery, but it’s a solid brick structure, it’s spacious, cosy, and painted red all over. You like the red. You’re cool that way.
These are all features of the house, but they are not all the same. ‘Being red’ and ‘being of solid brick’ are what we call properties. Properties take one individual variable only: x is red. In our case, x is the house.
It’s easy to spot properties — you can say: ‘The house is red,’ end with a dot, and feel you said something that makes sense. Further, there is only one question you can sensibly ask here: what is red? The house is red.
Compare with: ‘The house is located in’ or ‘The house stands in between.’ You can’t end the sentence there, right? It just doesn’t make sense. That’s because these are relations which need multiple variables.
Being located in is a two-place relation, because you have two places to fill: what is located? (x, the house) and: where is it located? (in y, a rough neighbourhood).
‘Standing in between’ is a three-place relation: x (the house) stands in between y (a pub) and z (a grocery). EZ.
Now, here is the catch
Our daily language only goes that far in helping us spot relations. You can say ‘The house is spacious’ or ‘The house is cosy’ and feel like you make sense, but that’s an illusion.
If you’re moving in with your partner, it’s spacious. If you have two kids and a dog, maybe not so much. Other potential buyers might not think it’s cosy at all — to them it’s just cluttered.
Thus, these seeming properties are in fact two-place relations: what (x, the house) is spacious for whom (y, two people)?
So, how is any of that important?
When you make decisions such as buying a house, you should care about what stands in each place of the relations.
You wouldn’t read an offer that says: ‘The house stands in between,’ and think: sure, that’s enough information about the location. And when you read: ‘The house is spacious’, hopefully, you decide to go and see if it is in fact spacious enough for your family.
Enough about houses
You can probably see where I’m going with this.
‘Being discriminated against’ or ‘being a victim’ are like ‘being spacious’ — they seem like simple properties, but they’re not. In fact, they are three-place relations.
- Who is discriminated against?
The first place is the one we have no problem filling: You. Me. Men. Women.
- By whom?
We usually fill this place, but we’re rarely careful about it. By men. By women. All women? Maybe by men in power? By women on dating apps? By people who adhere to social norms and pressures they were unreflectively brought up with?
The third place gets equally patchy attention. When your employer discriminates against you, it’s in some specific ways: perhaps it’s an unfair salary or a biased promotion system. It’s probably not about unevenly split childcare or a greater chance you’ll die at war.
Each variable in the relation matters
It matters massively, but all too often we overlook it.
When women (who?) talk about being discriminated against, they are quick to fill the second place of the relation. By whom? The patriarchy! Men!
But although they have no shortage of ways to fill the third place (how? By limiting access to top jobs, passing discriminatory legislation, perpetuating rape culture), it often seems like those are just examples. In many discussions, they imply that, actually, it’s every way (that matters).
This, in turn, makes men rebel, because they feel that there are many ways in which they are discriminated against, too. Their lives are treated as more disposable, their skills are devalued in the job market, they are more likely to get in trouble at school, they experience more sexual frustration, etc.
But men tend to forget about the second place of the relation — by whom? Yes, their lives are treated as more disposable, but is it women who make them go to war, join gangs or take on risky jobs? Did women create service capitalism which has little use for traditionally male skills?
Meanwhile, many women approach an average Joe as if he personally was the one by whom they are discriminated against in every way. As if he singlehandedly held the reigns of the patriarchy and decided to limit their access to jobs, erode bodily autonomy, and create the rape culture.
Some variables are not what they seem
When you really inquire by whom we feel discriminated against, you’ll sometimes find that what stands in this place are not even real people. It’s our imaginations and fears.
Men feel pushed to take on the worst jobs and spend their lives providing for the family because that’s what women expect of them (or worse: trick them into!). Except, at least in advanced economies, virtually no real women actually do. It’s some imaginary women who need all this providing.
Likewise, many women feel pressured by men and the patriarchy to live up to unrealistic beauty standards. But most of the time, real men care about this significantly less than the imaginary men created by the advertising industry.
Thus, often it only seems we’re discriminated against by men or women. Actually, the sources of our misery are different: for example, an economic system which offers crap jobs for crap pay, just to produce crap we don’t need but feel crap without.
Yet nine times out of ten we’re fooled. We don’t fight against our common enemies. We fight against each other.
Is the argument real?
And thus we argue, never forgetting who is discriminated against — Me! Us! — but paying only patchy attention to the other two places: by whom? how?
Since we all look at the world through our own eyes, we tend to put more weight on the ways we are discriminated against. We see them as more important because they hurt us. And we all love to treat those by whom we feel hurt as a homogenous mass of evil villains, don’t we?
I am discriminated against by some (possibly imagined) wo/men in some specific ways
I am discriminated against by all wo/men in all the ways that matter
I am discriminated against.
And then the typical spat I started with begins.
In most cases, there is no real substance to such disagreements. Once you fill in the unspoken blanks, it turns out that both sides feel discriminated against by different people in different ways.
The fact that women are discriminated against by the patriarchal norms and men who expect them to do more housework, doesn’t negate the fact that men are often discriminated against by the dating culture and women who expect them to take on much more responsibility and rejection.
Neither does the fact that men are discriminated against by a culture which expects them to take more lethal risks, mean that women cannot be discriminated against by the same culture which fails to prevent rape.
When the variables are unspoken or unclear, it seems like we’re disagreeing. It seems like it’s an either-or question: either you discriminate against me, or I against you.
Once we state our variables, the argument disappears. Surely, we can hold more than one thought in our heads at the same time:
men are discriminated against by X in a way A
women are discriminated against by Y in a way B.
We can accept that both are real problems and work on solving them simultaneously.
Preventing discrimination is not a zero-sum game
Naturally, anyone who wants to engage in some one-up(wo)manship and start listing all the ways men and women are discriminated against, will quickly find that there are still many more examples where women have gotten the short end of the stick.
I know we don’t like it, guys, but let’s be honest, you and me. It sure seems like we’re discriminated against a lot. Of course, it does — we look at the world through our eyes, not their eyes. No wonder we see our pain better than theirs!
But quite objectively, although the world is much more equal now, men will still run out of plausible ways in which they are discriminated against long before women do. That is true in liberal democracies and it is even more true in many other parts of the world.
But it’s not just the number — it’s the severity as well. If the way one person is discriminated against involves rape, physical assault or risk of death, it would be highly inappropriate for the other to start talking about being made uncomfortable at work or shouted down on Twitter.
It just doesn’t compare. And here also, often women have it worse. Men do get raped, beaten or killed by their partners, but nowhere near as often as women do. That’s just a fact — and facts, I hear, don’t care about our feelings.
Moreover, if you ask by whom? women are discriminated against, you’ll pretty reliably find that it’s by men or social and cultural structures developed by men. Meanwhile, ask by whom? men are discriminated against and… more often than not you’ll also find it’s by (other) men or social and cultural structures developed by men.
But this doesn’t mean that men’s problems don’t matter.
We can and we should treat the ways both men and women are discriminated against seriously and work on doing something about them.
The good news is that doing something about them is not a zero-sum game. We can solve more than one problem simultaneously and solving one doesn’t mean we need to make another worse. In fact, solving one will likely help us solve others.
For example, if men stop making women feel sexually threatened, judged and shamed, women will likely not have the need to make men feel so distrusted, invisible and rejected.
Likewise, if women stop making men feel like idiots for asking often honest questions, men will be more likely to really listen to what women have to say.
Argument defusal toolkit
We all get into stupid discussions where we talk past each other. If we took all the energy we spend on fighting over misunderstandings and used it towards actually solving our problems, well, we’d be that much closer to solving our problems, right?
You now have a new tool in your argument defusal toolkit. When you see a heated disagreement over who is discriminated against, just check if all the variables in that discussion are salient.
If not, bring them up, examine them closely and check:
- Are those people actually disagreeing or are they just talking about different things?
- Are the variables what they seem?
- Are they actually discriminated against by each other or by someone completely different?
- Are the ways they feel discriminated against comparable or is one much more serious?
Try to get them to admit that the fact that they are discriminated against by someone in some way doesn’t invalidate the fact that the other is discriminated against by someone else in some other way.
Then perhaps politely suggest that the time they waste on arguing and fighting each other might be better spent on appreciating each other’s points and working to address them both.
This way, maybe we can finally stop arguing about discrimination and start getting rid of it.