Entry from June 26, 2015

In physics, so they tell me, the great white intellectual whale which has so far eluded even the brightest minds is what they call the "unified field theory" which would account for discrete descriptions of physical phenomena — such as general relativity and quantum theory — relations between which remain largely undiscovered. If there are laws of ratiocination analogous to those of physics, one of them must be that this urge to intellectual simplification and unification is a constant of human thought. It’s a theory, anyway. It occurred to me on reading an article in The Washington Post which I took to be a progressive attempt to develop a sort of unified field theory of those demon –isms: sexism and racism — with colonialism thrown in for good measure.

It was written by one Lisa Wade, an assistant professor of sociology at President Obama’s alma mater — though it’s probably sexist to call it that — Occidental College. In it, Assistant Professor Wade purports to explain, in the words of the headline, "How ‘benevolent sexism’ drove Dylann Roof’s racist massacre."

Sociologists use the term "benevolent sexism" (she writes) to describe the attribution of positive traits to women that, nonetheless, justify their subordination to men. For example, women may be described as good with people, but this is believed to make them perform poorly in competitive arenas like work, sports or politics. Better that they leave that to the men.

That seems to me a pretty poor example, as there is no obvious reason why being "good with people" should disqualify anyone from being equally good at work, sports or politics. Rather the reverse, I would have thought. But, clearly, Ms Wade has a strong interest in making the position she is arguing against look as irrational as possible, even if nobody actually holds it.

It is interesting to me that she avoids the locus classicus of "benevolent sexism," which is chivalry. Because women as compared to men are by nature relatively vulnerable and, in particular, vulnerable to sexually motivated violence by men, there once was a cultural movement which conferred a special honor on men who not only refrained from such violence themselves but who undertook to protect women in general or particular women from violence on the part of other men. Naturally, this cultural phenomenon depended absolutely on a prior cultural recognition of the differences between men and women — differences which feminism depends, equally absolutely, on pretending do not exist. Chivalry, therefore, in the feminist nomenclature must take its place, however paradoxically, alongside rape, as an example of "sexism" — albeit with the qualification of "benevolent."

Got that? Now it seems that, along with other flotsam and jetsam of Western culture bobbing about in young Mr Roof’s addled brain, there might have been some odd rags and patches of chivalry. It’s hard to be sure, since his reported if quite unfounded accusation against his victims that "you rape our women" appears to be a good deal more indignant about the imagined "our" than the imagined "rape" — as you might expect from someone in the process of committing what was clearly a racially motivated crime. But the important point, surely, is that both are imaginary. Let’s say that "benevolent sexism" formed as much a part of the killer’s thinking, such as it was, as racism did. Are not both of these –isms founded, in his case if no other, in sheer fantasy? How can you blame the actions of a deluded person not on his delusions — and his willingness to act upon them — but on the things he is deluded about?

The answer, I think, lies in the fact that, because feminism proceeds from a theory — that what it chooses to call "gender" is merely "socially constructed" — feminists tend to assume that those who disagree with them must have a theory of their own, a theory which the feminists then helpfully construct for their opponents only, subsequently, to demolish it. Such an intellectual exercise is obviously divorced from any reality that it may purport to describe, but it is how you end up casting a pimply, delusional hobbledehoy in the role of the Chevalier de Bayard, sans peur et sans reproche — in effect, taking him at his own valuation and therefore denying that he is delusional at all. Not that Ms Wade says any of this, of course, but that’s the point. To say so would make the preposterousness of Mr Roof’s identification as a "benevolent sexist" too obvious.

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