The Biggest Black Mark: a digression

“The biggest black mark against mankind may be its subjugation of womankind.”

On the most practical level, we have squandered half the potential of our species, but that may not be the worst of it. If we are willing to mistreat half of the people we know and love, will we be able to see beyond our own thresholds? If we were to accept women as equals, would we be more able to accept all people as equals?

Slavery and genocide are unimaginable atrocities, except we have no trouble imagining and engaging in them. Maybe we will outgrow them when we enlarge our concept of “us” so there is no “us versus them.”  Then we will learn to share the planet, not divide it. The social progress of our species can be measured by the definition of ‘us’, from me to baby & me to family to village to clan to tribe to city-state to nation (to planet?)

But women are “us” not “them;” they are our mothers, sisters, wives, and daughters. Yet for all but the last few “seconds” of human history, women have effectively been the slaves and legal property of the father, husband, or oldest (not necessarily older) brother, who had more or less complete autonomy to marry off, sell, prostitute, or otherwise dispose of them if the male determined that was in the best interest of the family finances or ‘honor’, or perhaps just his best interest. Females are a very early target for any invading army and a presumed right of all powerful males, whether powerful means physically, militarily, professionally, politically, financially, or socially.

Wilt Chamberlain, years before his early death, claimed 20,000 sexual partners; Dire Straits, in 1985, sang “Money for nothin’ and chicks are free;” Donald Trump brags, “When you’re a star, they let you.” The cartoon strip “Arlo and Janis” a few years ago did a series with the parents of a teenage daughter just starting to date. The father said to the mother, “Remember when we were dating and I told you, ‘Men are not all alike.’ Well, I lied.”

I suspect every Homo sapiens male past puberty has done things he should apologize for. For most of us most of the time, it is failure to object, or speak up, or defend in the face of the stupid, juvenile, misguided humor like, say, Senator Franken (to take one easy example of stupid, juvenile, misguided humor) with no idea of the damaging effects for the women (or girls) involved. Rarely do we descend to the level of a Harvey Weinstein or Roy Morrison (or some other name that might come to mind?).

Generally we mostly avoid behaviors or actions that our male-dominated cultures classify as criminal. However, it takes a lot for us to define it as criminal. The laws are more about protecting the property rights of a man than the human rights of a woman. The guilt, shame, and responsibility are not shared equally; when we speak of the “casting couch” or “sleeping her way to the top,” the intent is to denigrate the woman, not the man nor the system, proof she didn’t have what it takes to succeed legitimately.

For the man, it is a perk of having the big office and a key to the executive men’s room. The nepotism of promoting your mistress to be your travelling secretary regardless of her administrative skills will, at most, be the subject of executive men’s room ‘humor’. And any attractive woman on your staff will be the subject of the same ‘humor’ regardless of her skills or responsibilities.

On the other side of the coin, the man with the big office can make sexual favors a requirement of advancement or employment and be the envy of other men in big and small offices. For the woman, success will require, in addition to all the same  skills and abilities a man needs for the job, either surviving the “humiliation” from acquiescing or the animosity from not acquiescing.

I began this soliloquy with the phrase “The biggest black mark against mankind”. The choice of the word ‘mankind’ was intentional, recognizing it can traditionally include ‘womankind’ but carrying all the baggage of a male-dominated culture; ‘culture’ in this sentence means all of ‘humankind’.

Women’s participation in this culture is not that curious. For most women for most of our history, it was a simple matter of survival, both for the individual and for the species. More recently, it is habit, simply acquiescing to the traditional role from lack of the power, or energy, or time to change it. For some, it is reliance on ancient texts that ignore any form of social or scientific progress in the past 3,000 plus years.

Very recently, increasing numbers of women are succeeding and, through some mixture of hard work and luck (e.g., being in the right place at the right time, having the right talents, skills, mentors, dare I include ‘looks’) are rising to the top (or close to it) in many fields. Unfortunately, women are rarely any more noble than men, and successful people generally attribute their success to their own efforts. Having succeeded under one set of rules, no one, male or female, has any incentive to change the rules of a game that they are winning.

The culture is pervasive, extending into all aspects of our lives. Women-dominated fields pay less and are less respected than man-dominated fields. Women are paid less than men in comparable jobs. Margaret Mead wrote about islands in the South Pacific where harvesting coconuts was men’s work because climbing the trees was too highly skilled to be assigned to women. On neighboring islands less than a day’s paddling away, it was women’s work because the climbing trees was too menial to be assigned to men.

Not the least of the negative aspects of this culture are the forces that have made it difficult, often impossible, for the survivors of sexual assault to report it, to talk about it, or to be taken seriously and not belittled, criticized, or maligned if they do. But things may be changing.

Women are rarely more noble than men. There are undoubtedly instances of false accusations, for personal, political, economic, or social gain. There was one reported case of a political operative going to the New York Times with false accusations against Roy Morrison with the intent of discrediting the Times. They saw through her and nothing came of it. And there is some indication that one of the three Kavanaugh accusers was doing the same. The “victim” of Senator Franken’s humor is now a conservative radio talk show host.

Memory can be a tricky thing and eyewitness testimony is often the least reliable information we have. Here we are not talking about accounts from eyewitnesses; we are talking about reports from victims.  All the research on memory and all the experience gleaned from counselling assault survivors say, “If you are physically assaulted by a person you know, you  Do  Not  forget that person nor do you mistake him for someone else.”

“Innocent until proven guilty” is a legal principle that applies to courts of criminal law, not to courts of public opinion and job interviews. But if you choose to invoke it, it should go both ways. And until someone can show me otherwise, I will believe that most of the reports are substantially true.

She said; he said; we aren’t sure who to believe. So discount her story and put him in the White House for four years or on the Supreme Court for the rest of his life.

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