Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Deborah Cameron: "Men are from Earth, Women are from Earth" (2003)

The annual Feminist Lecture at Leeds University was delivered by Deborah Cameron. It is a very nice piece of intellectual history which brings together many of the themes she has been writing about elsewhere.

I does not refer explicitly to Foucault (ever, I think) but reading her lecture in parallel with The History of Sexuality makes very good sense. Her acute sensitivity to the subtle changes of valorization in the quasi-scientific literature on gender differences is exactly the kind of archaeology of knowledge that Foucault was engaged in, and just as good.

The Caveman Model

The topic of the lecture is the change in background values that writings about gender and language have underwent between the 1970s and the 1990s. According to Cameron, who has been both an observer and participant of these discussions throughout the period, our culture has changed from seeing "female" speech strategies as deficient to seeing "male" speech strategies as such.

Specifically, while the different speech styles associated with the genders in the 1970s would be attributed to the subdued and unassertive nature of women, in the 1990s, the difference is attributed to the emotional and social ineptitude of men. An example:
In a 1993 Ofsted report called Boys and English, the authors include the following description of the differences they observed in the behaviour of boys and girls during group discussion sessions. '[Boys] were more likely to interrupt one another, to argue openly and to voice strong opinions. They were also less likely to listen carefully to and build upon one another's contributions.' (p. 135)
What is striking about this example, if you have followed debates about education and gender over a longer period of time, is that the actual descriptions of boys' behaviour could just as easily have been published in the 1970s. The behaviour itself is completely unchanged. But the evaluation of it has changed significantly: the boys' ways of conducting a discussion are represented here as an obstacle to their educational progress. In the 1970s or even the mid-1980s, the same observations would probably have been framed within a feminist 'domincance' model focusing on girls' lack of assertiveness as an obstacle to success. Rather than praising girls for their sympathetic listening, such a report might have noted, regretfully, that 'girls were more likely to listen than to speak. They were also less likely to disagree with others or show a strong commitment to their own opinions.' Our hypothetical 1970s author would undoubtedly have presented girls as victims rather than villains, but her phrasing would have made clear she saw their unassertive linguistic strategies as a problem. Yet today these same strategies are held up as the ideal for boys to emulate. (p. 136)
Cameron goes on to state that this ideal for communication "can be traced pretty directly to the clinical practice of psychotherapy" (p. 139). Thus:
In my own view, then, the current belief in female verbal superiority does not reflect the cultural ascendance of feminism so much as the cultural pervasiveness and influence of therapy, whose definition of good communication happens to include some key features of what is widely perceived a typically female speech style. (p. 140)
In a less convincing section, she proposes a quite speculative explanation of the emergence of this therapeutic ideal, citing globalization and related socio-economic changes (pp. 140–42).

Subtexts and Ideals

What is more important than the material causes of the change is its effects. As she says about the valorization of "female" speech strategies,
this change has little to do with feminism, and does little or nothing to advance the interests of women. On the contrary, what looks on the surface like anti-male discourse […] is more fundamentally an anti-feminist discourse. (p. 134)
The reason for this is, as always, that praising the delicate sensibilities of women can be a pretext for keeping them in place. In her words,
the slogan 'different but equal' is always a lie: when difference becomes naturalized, inequality becomes institutionalized. (p. 144)
This comment is itself the conclusion of a short discussion of Simon Baron-Cohen's book The Essential Difference (2003), which claims that men are evolutionarily selected to be "systematizers," while women have evolved to be "empathizers."

Although Baron-Cohen is careful to disavow any overt political commitment behind this idea, he still eventually "gives the game away" (in Cameron's words, p. 144) when he draws the political conclusion from his evolutionary claims:
People with the female brain make the most wonderful counsellors, primary school teachers, nurses, carers, therapists, social workers, mediators, group facilitators or personnel staff […] People with the male brain make the most wonderful scientists, engineers, mechanics, technicians, musicians, architects, electricians, plumbers, taxonomists, catalogists, bankers, toolmakers, programmers or even lawyers. (Cohen 2003, p. 287)
So many things could be said about this list, but Cameron says it nicely:
If this is really the cutting edge of twenty-first-century science, 1970s school careers advisers were clearly ahead of their time. Creative professions like music and architecture are off-limits to those who possess a female brain; so is anything to do with science, numbers or classification (though mysteriously a lot of librarians seem to be women); and so too are the high-paying craft occupations like plumbing. Female brains are better suited to occupations like nursing and primary school teaching, which apparently do not involve any systematizing, but only the ability to empathize – and of course, to live on a much smaller salary than a plumber or an engineer. (p. 144)

No comments :

Post a Comment