Science < Ideology

PinkBlueGenderThe last few weeks have provided a veritable cornucopia of off-base commentary and unsophisticated political thought.  From David Dow’s call to impeach Antonin Scalia, to today’s suggestion by the NRA of armed guards in every school, to myriad pundits who have a fundamental misunderstanding of why gun control does or does not work, a wide range of topics have been handled with little grace or acumen.

A story from the New York Times that I first read this evening happens to be the one that finally riled me enough to commit to writing about it.  Part of that is due to timing, and part of it is due to the ease of the target.  I’m certainly not looking to do any heavy lifting this close to Christmas.

So, I’d like to take a look at a few choice quotes from the article, rebutting as I go.  Let’s begin.

The piece was an opinion article by Elizabeth Sweet lamenting the fact that gender-based toy marketing “still” exists in 2012.  The first paragraph did its job, as the opener is what reeled me in to caring about this absurdity.  To wit:

Imagine walking into the toy department and noticing several distinct aisles. In one, you find toys packaged in dark brown and black, which include the “Inner-City Street Corner” building set and a “Little Rapper” dress-up kit. In the next aisle, the toys are all in shades of brown and include farm-worker-themed play sets and a “Hotel Housekeeper” dress.

If toys were marketed solely according to racial and ethnic stereotypes, customers would be outraged, and rightfully so. Yet every day, people encounter toy departments that are rigidly segregated — not by race, but by gender. There are pink aisles, where toys revolve around beauty and domesticity, and blue aisles filled with toys related to building, action and aggression.

We begin with an early call for outrage and a recitation of the fallacious argument that race is analogous to gender.  I’ll elaborate on that in a moment, but, for now, note that there’s an implicit denial of actual difference between the sexes (taken as a fait accompli among much of academia) to the point of reductio ad absurdum.  Namely, it is as silly to claim that there is such a thing as gender-based interest as it would be to claim that there is such a thing as raced-based interest.

Furthermore, the author automatically adds a connotation of inferiority to gender-based marketing, analogous to race-based toys that would reference menial, low-paying occupations.  That dovetails with the next point:

Gender has always played a role in the world of toys. What’s surprising is that over the last generation, the gender segregation and stereotyping of toys have grown to unprecedented levels. We’ve made great strides toward gender equity over the past 50 years, but the world of toys looks a lot more like 1952 than 2012.

One objection I have to this school of thought is the notion that, in order for the sexes to be equal, then they must be the same.  One must consider “domesticity” inferior to “building” and “aggression” in order for this to be some kind of an attack against a particular gender.  My suspicion is that the author would deny this, saying that, while there is no shame in either set of traits, we shouldn’t assume or presume that a male or a female will be drawn to one or the other, and, therefore, the child shouldn’t be pushed in that direction.

This proceeds from the false assumption that there is no natural difference between the sexes as a result of biology (specifically, brain chemistry), and, therefore, any difference in outcome must be the result of an oppressive society.

There are several reasons gender-based marketing has become so prevalent. On a practical level, toy makers know that by segmenting the market into narrow demographic groups, they can sell more versions of the same toy. And nostalgia often drives parents and grandparents to give toys they remember from their own childhood.

How dare they try to make money!  Don’t these evil capitalists know that there are more important societal values at stake, like the erasing of distinctions between genders?!?  I am shocked—SHOCKED—toy companies would put their own economic interests ahead of the pursuit of a particular ideology.

Moreover, expert opinion — including research by developmental and evolutionary psychologists — has fueled the development and marketing of gender-based toys. Over the past 20 years, there has been a growth of “brain science” research, which uses neuroimaging technology to try to explain how biological sex differences cause social phenomena like gendered toy preference.

That’s ridiculous, of course: it’s impossible to neatly disentangle the biological from the social, given that children are born into a culture laden with gender messages. But that hasn’t deterred marketers from embracing such research and even mimicking it with their own well-funded studies.

When left-leaning friends point out (correctly) that conservatives sometimes ignore science when research doesn’t conform to their view of the world, whether it be evolution, climate change, or something else, I am quick to respond that this isn’t a unique quality of the right.  A quintessential example is the mountain of medical and sociological research indicating that the male and female brain are quite different.  In fact, whatever tiny differences may exist from one ethnicity to another, they are dwarfed by the fundamental, structural distinctions between typical male brains and typical female brains.

Yet, much of this research has been collected and verified during the last three decades.  In other words, many of the ideological positions that chalk gender up to being a purely social construct pre-date the lion’s share of these discoveries.  Like the right, the left is all-too-happy to dismiss subsequent information that runs counter to its established orthodoxy.  For someone like Sweet, of course, even the mere attempt to ascertain how such differences might lead to gender-based social phenomena is “ridiculous.”

Of course it’s ridiculous.  Because it goes a long way toward refuting the notion that gender is merely a figment of the patriarchy’s collective imagination.  Moving on:

For example, last year the Lego Group, after two decades of marketing almost exclusively to boys, introduced the new “Friends” line for girls after extensive market research convinced the company that boys and girls have distinctive, sex-differentiated play needs.

Critics pointed out that the girls’ sets are more about beauty, domesticity and nurturing than building — undermining the creative, constructive value that parents and children alike place in the toys. Nevertheless, Lego has claimed victory, stating that the line has been twice as successful as the company anticipated.

Ok, so . . . the research suggests that Lego is correct, and the after-the-fact sales numbers bore out the conclusion of the research.  Where does that leave us?

To me, it reflects a basic truth that, no matter how much we pretend otherwise, there are innate differences in the typical boy and the typical girl that will drive them to different kinds of toys, activities, and interests.  Shrugging this data off and chalking everything up to oppressive gender “stereotypes” borders on being obtuse.

Put another way: Consider a person who believes strongly that gender-based traits and interests are purely a social construct.  Under what set of facts would that person accept the premise that the sexes are drawn to gender-specific interests?  Is there any evidence with which such a person could be presented that would persuade them?  Or do they more resemble a fundamentalist Christian who sticks to his guns about the world being a few thousand years old after being shown fossil- and carbon-dating records?

Note that the same camp that rejects with great offense the idea that sexual attraction is anything other than hard-wired into people is only too quick to embrace the position that other kinds of preferences are a reflection of societal pressures.

The article concludes thusly:

The ideas about gender roles embedded in toys and marketing reflect how little our beliefs have changed over time, even though they contradict modern reality: over 70 percent of mothers are in the labor force, and in most families domestic responsibilities are shared more equitably than ever before. In an era of increasingly diverse family structures, these ideas push us back toward a more unequal past.

By “more unequal,” she means a past in which gender roles were more strongly defined.  Forget even about marriage rates for a moment—the rate of single-parent households has more than doubled in the last half-century.  To some, perhaps including the author, this is progress.  I disagree.

My common-sense appeal is: Isn’t there room for some middle ground?  Are the only two choices (1) women at home, barefoot, pregnant, and silent OR (2) no recognition of gender as even being a real thing?  To people like myself who are neither far-left liberals nor super-right-wingers, both positions seem abhorrent.

Likewise, why does an acknowledgement of the positive effects of the traditional family unit somehow equate to an attack on non-traditional family units in the minds of many on the left?  This mentality exists despite (again) overwhelming evidence that the chances of problems increase markedly in single-parent homes.

Unfortunately, many cannot accept that as anything other than saying, “Single mothers should be ashamed (and shamed)!”  To sane people, this sounds ridiculous, but, unfortunately, sane people often don’t control the dialogue.

I sometimes talk about a “great pendulum.”  What normally happens in our society is that the pendulum begins to swing in one direction after we agree it has gone too far in the other.  It’s a given that I  fully support the idea that women who are so inclined should pursue whatever occupation they desire.  There was a time when that wasn’t possible, and, rightfully so, the pendulum began to swing.

Yet, the thing about the pendulum is, once it gets going, its momentum is hard to stop.  It doesn’t screech to a halt, and it can’t turn on a dime.  We have gone from a position too far in one direction (“Women can’t work”), past what I believe to be the correct position, and have landed at a spot where many in progressive academia (which is to say, “academia”) see something wrong with any difference between male and female outcomes.  Too many men in a given field?  Sexism.  Too high of a stay-at-home-mom vs. stay-at-home-dad ratio?  Lingering gender stereotypes.

As usual, I go with the science.  I think differences in men and women go beyond the physical—and should be celebrated, not dismissed.  As a result of these differences, men and women interacting with the world in varying ways is to be expected, beginning with childhood interests.

I bristle at the notion of altering reality to try to retrofit the world to our own ideology.  Even something as seemingly trivial as toy advertising fits under that umbrella in its own small way.  Gender is real, and a society that works best is one that accepts that fact, rather than suppressing it for the sake of ideology.

Let little boys and girls do what comes naturally, whether that’s playing with trucks or playing with dolls.  Just don’t be shocked or offended when, more times than not, that means boys gravitating toward the trucks and girls picking up the dolls.

And there’s absolutely nothing offensive, troubling, or otherwise wrong with that.

This entry was posted in Commentary, General Culture and News, Politics, Science and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Science < Ideology

  1. Pingback: Best of 2012 | The Axis of Ego

  2. Matt says:

    I have always enjoyed the selective use of science by political types. An equally disturbing trend is scientists who have taken sides in political issues and are actively out to prove their side, instead of just finding facts.

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