Justin Li

Don't Shoot the Symptom


The usual disclaimers about not seeing outside my life experience apply.

This is my last rant on social issues. I find it amusing that I feel compelled to put the warning above, even though it's almost tautological.

I saw the latest James Bond film (Skyfall) several months back, and was afterwards surprised to find that there's some backlash on the blogosphere. Not because the film was badly made - most critics praised the cinematography - but because the women in the film were disposable Specifically (spoiler alert):

Now, these things (especially the first one) are certainly bad things to portray, but I wonder how out of the ordinary they are. That is, because the film is a work of fiction but set in a close-to-real world, these events in themselves may not be misogynistic, although the selection of their portrayal might be.

Let me try to make this idea more clear. The events in a work of fiction, which is set in the real world, could be representative while still being misogynistic. We could, for example, write a fictional book with the vilest, most sexist human trafficker as the protagonist, and have them get away scot-free at the end. The events and characters in such a novel would certainly be misogynistic, but they would also be realistic (as in, such people exist in the world). The question is, is the work as a whole misogynistic?

I think the underlying question - which applies not just to feminism, but also to heteronormativity, stereotypes, and so on - is the act of criticizing people for being realistic. Back to Skyfall, 27% of senior positions in six US intelligence agencies are held by women; 22 of the Fortune 500 companies have female CEOs. That is, if the writers of Skyfall had wanted to determine, at random, whether the new M should be male or female if the statistics of reality were followed, three out of four times the new M would still be male. The other portrayals are less defendable, although again there is a question of whether it was unrealistic.

Moving outside of fiction, complaining about realistic sentiments is actually quite common. I caught myself doing it for a couple weeks, when I noticed how infrequently the asexual perspective is brought up. I was started to get annoyed at this, until I remembered that asexuality represents maybe 1% of the population. Even if this is an underestimate, sexual people are still in the vast majority, and I should not expect to find the two be represented equally frequently.

This asexuality example is not particularly compelling one, but other, less politically-correct examples are everywhere. One such case is the struggle between meritocracy and equality in, for example higher education (this is also an issue for Silicon Valley). In the ideal world, universities would like to select their students purely on the basis of their academic achievements. The problem is that, since education opportunities are not equally given to everyone, those with the most "merit" tend to be Caucasian and, to a lesser extent, Asian. This means that if we attempt to continue with meritocracy, the student population at the most prestigious universities will no longer resemble the demographics of the country at large. Note that this is not due to the universities being actively discriminatory, but that as a result of societal/structure issues, the result is a discriminatory one. For universities, the solution is often to ignore pure meritocracy and instead accept students based on a mix of merit and equality. Silicon Valley, on the other hand, has no pressure to make this change, and as a result has increased the economic inequity in the Bay area.

Here's an even more contentious example. "In 2008, the [homicide] offending rate for blacks (24.7) offenders per 100,000) was 7 times higher than the rate for whites (3.4 per 100,000)." If we take this seriously, that means all else being equal, the black person you just walked pass is seven times more likely to be a murder than the white person you just walked pass. If we were to take precautions against murder based on the estimated likelihood of being the victim of an attempted murder, we should be more cautious when around a black stranger. But this is, of course, entirely inappropriate (and possibly unethical); as with the meritocracy case, the resulting action is discriminatory even if the logic that led to it, and the statistics that the logic is based on, are both sound.

I could continue to list examples, but instead I'll highlight the lesson. The point here is not that we should stop caring about these issues, but that we need to separate the realistic reaction to an undesirable circumstance, from the undesirable circumstance itself. Sometimes these are not separable - the reaction may itself further perpetuate the circumstance (think victim blaming and rape culture) - but often the reaction is merely a symptom of the underlying problem. This is especially important for people who want to fix the undesirable circumstance, as removing the reaction would not solve the problem. For everyone else, separating the symptom from the cause will maybe help quell your frustration.