Sunday morning musing: is sexism an addiction?
I’ve been reading articles about cultures of sexism at Harvard Business School and in philosophy, both articles published in the New York Times this past week. The two of them have gotten me to speculate about the different ways that men and women experience sexist behavior.
Namely, very differently. Women, being the targets of sexist remarks and behavior, are sensitive to its barbaric nature and status-oriented putdowns – they are aware of it because it so obviously stings. Men – some men, not all – consistently seem baffled by all the fuss, and if they acknowledge the behavior, it is, in their opinion, more like having fun than being mean.
“Why would people want me to stop having fun?” they ask.
It makes me wonder if sexism is addictive. Let me explain my Sunday morning theory.
Assume that, when men perform an act of sexism, they get rewarded in their pleasure center similar to when someone takes a street drug or has sex.
So for example, say some male Harvard Business School (HBS) student encounters a female HBS colleague who is a potential competitor. To establish his dominance, he puts her down publicly on the basis of her looks. As mentioned in the article, the HBS population is obsessed with status, and this is a standard way of keeping her status low and simultaneously making her anxious and distracted.
My question is, what happens inside that man’s brain when he does that? For that matter, what happens to the brains of the other men in that group who witness that? My theory is that they all experience a kind of pleasure center stimulation, whereby their entire group is nudged up in rank over some “other,” which happens to be that woman. In some sense it’s kind of irrelevant who they put down in order to be rewarded, though, which is why they don’t think of what they did as a bad thing, just something that they vaguely enjoyed.
Go back to how differently the men and women describe their experiences after the fact of sexist environments. Men consistently don’t remember it as a negative event. From the article about sexism in philosophy:
I’m always hearing from stressed-out men, worrying aloud what “all this fuss” about sexual harassment means for them. I’ve heard it at training sessions on university sexual harassment policy: “Does this mean I can’t even tell a woman that she looks nice?” I’ve heard it in coffee lounges: “Make sure you keep your door open when you’re talking to a woman student — you never know what she might say later.” And I’ve had it confided to me, with a sigh of regret, at conference happy hours: “I’m afraid now to form any relationships with female students — they might take it the wrong way.”
I don’t think men are lying. I think they actually experience sexist events as positive and benign.
It also makes sense how men react when sexism is addressed by the higher authorities in the form of sensitivity training. When men are forced into a room to talk about sexism and norms of appropriate behavior, they’re super uncomfortable and don’t seem to know why they’re there (again, not all men). They for whatever reason don’t think discussions about sexism apply to them, like it’s a women’s issue.
On the other hand, as we saw in the HBS article, forcing men to talk about it at length does seem to actually help, in spite of their protests. The article focuses on women’s behavior, I think overly much, but it’s just as much about men as it is about women. True, women undermine themselves by competing with each other to be perfect and sexy and brilliant (but not too brilliant), etc., but really it’s about getting them men to stop with their nonsense, right?
And what might be happening is that, along with the positive feedback which stimulates the pleasure center, through this training they might also be developing a second, negative feedback around sexist comments, which would mean that eventually, if that second feedback grew strong enough, it would no longer feel so good to be sexist.
I mean, how do you break someone of their addictive habits? I guess you could destroy the pleasure center altogether, but that seems extreme except for the really most annoying HBS folks. Probably what you’d want to do is counteract the effect with an opposing effect. Thus sensitivity training.
Of course, this theory applies equally well to other forms of discrimination. And it’s not obvious how to address it even if it’s true. But at least, if we thought about it this way, it would throw light on the baffling disconnect whereby such problems are glaringly obvious to some while remaining utterly invisible to others.