Wednesday, January 29, 2014

A too convenient distraction

I was reading this opinion piece about female nudity the other day. The author made a good case that the rules, norms, laws, and memes associated with the exposed female nipple, for instance, reflect a baseline misogyny derived from our male-dominated cultural hierarchy. The underlying (and, in places, explicit) assumption is that the hierarchy needs to be adjusted so that men and women have entirely equal access to resources.

While I agree that equal access is indeed a laudable goal, I disagree that it can be accomplished by “adjustments” to the dominant hierarchy. The existence of hierarchy itself presumes unequal access—no, stronger, hierarchy is unequal access. Hierarchy is the very means by which unequal access is legitimized. It might be theoretically possible to “adjust” the hierarchy such that unequal access is not an automatic feature of gender, or race, or any other demographic variable not under an individual’s control (and this would be a good thing!), but in the end we would still have hierarchy. No amount of adjustment can “fix” the basic reality that civilization depends for its very existence on the intentional asymmetric distribution of resources. In order for global industrial society to function, enormous numbers of individuals need to be kept desperate enough to sell themselves for labor. Treating women and men equally does nothing to change this basic fact.

Imagine a scene in the antebellum south in which slaves in the cane fields are unhappy because it seems obvious to them that the slaves sweating in the kitchen have things a whole lot better. Meanwhile the plantation owner’s wife sips her lemonade on the veranda.

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