Monday, February 21, 2011

What's Wrong With Articles Like "Why You're Not Married"

I recently read Tracy McMillan's article "Why You're Not Married," in which McMillan purports to know the reasons that you, the (female) reader, are not married. The article doesn't say anything new, but it does rehash a lot of stereotypes about unmarried women.

Because I hear a lot of people defend this and similar articles, I thought it would be useful to break down the basics of why some of these arguments are fallacious. I didn't have the space to analyze every bad argument, so I picked out what I thought to be the main problems.

Faulty Argument #1: Hasty Generalizations

A hasty generalization occurs when a person draws a general conclusion from a pool of evidence too small to accurately represent a population at large.

Examples:
"The problem is not men, it's you."

"You're a liar."
"Most men just want to marry someone who is nice to them...female anger terrifies men."


The logic behind McMillan's statements is that since she has known a number of women to be "the problem" (whatever that means) in their relationships, she can safely say that the same is true for her female reader, whoever she may be. This is a faulty argument because McMillan does not have the data necessary to determine whether her personal experience is true on a greater scale.

Faulty Argument #2: General Stereotyping/ Sexism
Stereotypes are a subset of hasty generalizations, but this seemed like an easy way to organize the post.

Stereotypes, the basis of all of the -isms, are in some ways tricky to deal with. To a certain extent, you have to be familiar with specific ones in order to recognize them when they occur. It's easy to recognize a stereotype when someone makes a broad statement like, "all Irish people are drunks." But not all stereotypical statements are phrased this obviously.

If you're trying to determine whether a given statement employs a stereotype, here's a fairly easy three-step process to go by:

Step 1: Ask yourself, "what was, or would have been, said about [this group of people] 100 years ago, that we generally find ridiculous today?" Example: "women shouldn't vote."

Step 2: Try to boil this old-timey racism/ sexism/ etc. down to its essence. Ask yourself, "why did people think this?" Example: People thought women shouldn't vote because they thought women should be demure, that a woman's place was in the home, that households would fall apart if women participated in politics, etc.

Step 3: Ask yourself if you could argue that any of that sentiment is present in the statement at hand. If you could, you're probably dealing a stereotype.

Remember that stereotypes usually stick around for long periods of time. They change form and become more subtle, but they don't die quickly.

Example: "You're angry...and it's scaring men off. Most men just want to marry someone who is nice to them. ..female anger terrifies men."

You could reasonably make the case that this statement touches on the same sentiment that our anti-suffrage example did. How does it do so? By implying that female anger is not acceptable. If women should not act angry, we can infer that some of the ways they should act are: poised, calm, composed, and a host of other words that mean the same thing as "demure." These traits have been associated with femininity since long before the days of women's suffrage.

What about men?
Sexism cuts both ways! McMillan's statement plays into the stereotype that men are moronic simpletons who need a woman's touch in order to be function. Often, the corollary to a sexist statement about women is an equally sexist statement about men. If men can't handle occasionally seeing a woman angry, what does that say about them? It makes them sound like they have the mental faculties of a three-year-old.

McMillan also states that living with her 13-year-old son is "like living with the single-cell protozoa version of a husband." I would ask, "why?" Once again, there is no reason to believe that her son, who only wants out of life "macaroni and cheese, a video game, and Kim Kardashian," is representative of any population of present or future husbands. In other words, just because her son has X,Y or Z quality doesn't mean that anyone else does.

Additionally, even if McMillan could make a solid case that "female anger terrifies men," it is unreasonable to assert that women should accept this fact and adjust their behavior accordingly. "I never want to see my partner angry" would be an unreasonable demand. McMillan thinks that you should give into your hypothetical male partner's wants simply because they are his wants. But a person's wants are not reasonable by default. If they inflict significant discomfort (however you define that) onto the other person, they are not reasonable demands. I would argue that telling your partner to sit on her emotions would cause her significant discomfort.

Some general guidelines to critically reading articles like this:
-Keep in mind established stereotypes that you already know. Google around to find out stereotypes about various groups of people.

-Keep in mind a few common fallacies. There are as many fallacies as there are people who can communicate them, so don't set out to try and memorize all of them (which I know you were dying to do). The first 9 fallacies listed in the above link are generally taught in Critical Thinking 100 classes, which I figure seems like a good jumping off point.

-Keep in mind who qualifies as oppressed or minority groups. If you're unsure, a good rule of thumb is to ask yourself, "would it be a big deal if a person in this group were to become President of the U.S.?" If the answer is "yes," you're talking about a group that has been historically thought of as less-than.

-Specifically for articles about women: when an article makes sweeping statements about women, and they don't sound sexist to you off the cuff, try this trick: replace the word "women" with a racial or ethnic minority, then see if the sentence sounds racist. (McMillan's article is written in the second person, but her use of the word "you" is the equivalent of the word "women.")

Example:
"The problem is not men, it's you." --->"The problem is not men, it's Mexicans."

Whoa! That sounds awful. If your newly created sentence makes you cringe--like the one above does (I hope)--- then the original statement is also not okay.

-Default to diversity. This is an annoying alliterative soundbite that I just made up, but I can't think of another way to phrase it. If nothing else, remember that there is a massive amount of variety among people in general, and that broad statements usually can't capture that.

That about wraps it up. If you have other suggestions, please let me know! I hope you've found this post educational/ mildly entertaining/ vaguely valuable in some way.