Equality, Gender Roles, and Freedom

Equality, Gender Roles, and Freedom February 23, 2019

Back in January, when Johno and I did our talk, we were talking about findings that suggested that once freed up to do so (by being in freer societies), women tend to adopt gender-normative roles, which seems to make a mockery of the liberal push to get to freedom, and away from misogyny around gender roles. I’d like to make a few points on this to start a discussion in the comments.

There are numerous studies that have found (or interpret their findings as showing) that, once a person (or a society) has the means by which to fulfill basic needs (Physiological, Safety), that they tend to look for ways to express other needs – so far, so Maslow – and that, per Maslow, those needs would be increasingly more individualistic. As such, once free to do so, individuals should look for Love and Belonging, (Self-) Esteem, and Self-Actualization. An example of such a study, is this one, by Falk and Hermle (2018), in Science (but see also the discussion of that article, here).

Image from ‘BunnyGotBlog.com’, however, image no longer visible on the blog.

When these findings arise, it’s not uncommon for people who believe more strongly in the importance of traditional gender roles to point to the results, and say, “See? Gender roles are what people naturally gravitate to once they are free to do so.” I don’t think that this is correct, as it misunderstands what liberals are attempting to achieve and why, the influence of nurture over nature, and the recursive and interconnected nature of the human brain and thus, finally, it actually makes a stronger argument to reduce the enforcement of gender roles.

1) Liberals, equality, and freedom

The idea that people naturally gravitate to traditional gender roles and as such that liberals should stop trying to move away from such traditions misunderstands what liberals are trying to do with regard to a freer and more equal society (though, of course, the conservatives and libertarians will say that is what they are trying to achieve – more on that later). Even if it were true that, once free, people reverted to more traditional gender roles, it would only be somewhat true. There would still be women who want to be footballers and engineers, and men who want to be nurses and teachers. (Right, Johno? ;) In a free society they can be, without fear of judgment (which is not to say without judgment, just the fear of it). In an un-free society, one that imposes gender norms, those people would not be free, and those people, whilst not a majority (maybe) are not inconsiderable in number, making society less free.

2) Nature vs. Nurture

Regarding nature and nurture, I mentioned in my piece about African-Americans and intelligence, there is a need for several generations of well-fed, well-educated African-Americans to be genuinely (somewhat) free from the effects of slavery (including the ongoing influence of the KKK on GOP voting patterns), Jim Crow (including the ongoing influence of Confederate monuments), Red Lining (including unequal access to financeand the blame put on minorities for the banking crisis). Likewise, there is a need for generations of equality to have elapsed in order to move away from traditional gender norms to personally “selected” behaviour. By “selected” I mean, both genetically/hormonally (and thus not a matter of personal choice, per sé) and personally selected, in the more common sense of the word. Then again, there is a third sense of “selected” which is a combination of the two, and which is, in some ways, the most germane here. What is it to be female (because, of course, I do not know), and to have a choice between a gender-normative (and thus culturally prescribed) behaviour and that which feels most right to you as an individual?

It’s likely that traditional gender norms started out as descriptive before becoming prescriptive, but what requiring those norms to continue ignores is that those behaviours were in response to a particular social context that traditional norms perpetuate, even whilst failing to fully perpetuate the context, and as such, the norms are increasingly maladaptive.

3) Recursive brains and interconnected brain regions

On the matter of the recursive and interconnected human brain, the environment in which we learn becomes embedded as our understanding of normal (even when we disagree with the socially constructed elements of it), but that doesn’t stop us from (mostly unconsciously) perpetuating those things. Has any parent of teenagers ever not recognised their own behaviour, as parents, being like that which they despised in their own parents? Couple that back to the epigenetics of parental environment having a forward-reaching effect, and you have a strong reinforcement of both nature and nurture, each affecting the other, and certainly no ability to undo any damage in the space of one generation.

4) Thus…

If more equal societies end up reinforcing the very norms that conservatives would want to see be the case (that prescriptive gender norms are, in fact, still descriptive), then liberals are actually right to move towards greater equality, because that gives rise to greater freedom (which should placate the libertarians), and that freedom allows women to be women (which should placate the conservatives), and that gives rise to a self-perpetuating society, rather than one that requires strenuous reinforcement.

However…

It seems likely that, as per my second point (and the point made in the aforementioned analysis of the Falk and Hermle, 2018, article, here), the freedom inherent in more equal societies will eventually lead to more (and more different) deviations away from those prescriptive norms, which would placate the libertarians and annoy the conservatives. That having been said, I think it likely that, on average, society would broadly still fall into those gender norms (thus bringing the conservatives back in to the fold). However, in a freer, more equal society, those that deviate from those norms would not be persecuted for deviating, and conservatives would just have to learn to live with that.


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