If you were the opposite gender, would your thoughts on society change?
I was once asked, “If everyone in the United States right now pondered how their life would be different if they were born the opposite gender, inequity would not exist. Because being born a gender is chance so I imagine insane feminists being born men instead or sexist males born female instead. How would they feel about what they do if they imagined things in a different world? Would your switched gender approve of what you are doing? If everyone asked themselves that question....”
The argument seems quite sound under the valid assumption that empathy leads naturally to awareness and understanding. In fact, I am nearly certain that if a “sexist male” had to live as a female for a period of time, his opinion and attitude would change. On the other hand, it is a bit of a jump to say that inequity would not exist if we managed to understand how every single person different from us felt.
The glaring fact is that men and women are different just as individual humans are different from one another. Granted, we are all humans, but our bodies are biologically different, whether shorter or taller, brunette or blonde, and our brains are different. This is not to say that one has a superior mental intelligence than the other but rather is to emphasize that men and women often respond to certain scenarios differently and possess a different spectrum of emotions that they frequently tap into. While it is impossible to discern which are molded by society and which come from biological differences, it is undeniable: men and women are different.
So where does the justification that women deserve equal pay and treatment come from? The idea that we are all human? The idea that every human is born with natural rights and no human is inherently superior to another? The justification does not stem from prettily worded philosophy; it stems from tangible evidence that people such as Queen Elizabeth and Angela Merkel have proven that women have the ability of exceeding or equal the capabilities of men.
One counterexample to a long held stereotype is enough to destroy its basis.
So if a sexist man were to ponder living as a woman who could not rise in a well-known tech company despite possessing the adequate credentials, he would probably feel a great need to act after feeling the injustice himself. But once he changes back into a man via some magical body-switching way, he’d likely revert back to his original standpoint. Therein lies two problems.
One issue lies in the phrasing of the question,“If everyone in the United States right now pondered how their life would be different…” Pondering is far from enough to change a person’s mind. I have pondered how the kidnapped girls in Nigeria have felt and was still able to fade it out of my mind in favor of some show I was watching. What would it be like to be male? Female? Black? Asian? White? Rich? Poor? It is a type of question that is daydreamed, fantasized about for a while, and then discarded. Pondering in itself is no different from putting oneself in a fictional protagonist’s shoes and vicariously experiencing adventure and excitement while rendering any pain and harm irrelevant.
The second problem is that the majority of humans are not, in fact activists. They are bystanders who may follow the activist route if that is what the “herd” is doing. While I do not mean to undermine the significance of gaining perspective and understanding of other human beings, empathy is a start, but it is not enough. Scrolling through a facebook newsfeed to find that a woman was fired due to her gender and feeling a wave of injustice setting in one’s stomach are acts of convenience and social convention. You are supposed to feel bad for the woman and it is easy to do so.
Returning to the question at the beginning of the article, I am not against empathy through understanding a person “until you consider things from his point of view... Until you climb into his skin and walk around in it” (to quote Atticus Finch). But that understanding and change do not and cannot come easily—most definitely not through simply asking oneself the questions posed. They require tragedy, pain, and a kind of harrowing experience that very few are willing to face.
Lucy is a freshman at Duke University.