Friday, December 26, 2014

Another insult to females cloaked in praise

My mind was immersed in something I was reading when I became aware that a woman was asking me, “So what are your thoughts about him telling the girls that they are as smart as any boy?” After getting the question repeated I responded, “That was inappropriate. Who the hell still says things like that?” To which this woman replied it was Joe Biden.

Apparently Joe Biden was participating in a technology event taking place at the White House when, as quoted by CBS News, he told a group of girls at a table, "You guys do understand, by the way, you're as smart as any boy in the world. You know that, right?"

Since this was brought to my attention I wanted to write about it but also not give an immediate knee-jerk reaction. I have asked numerous women for their thoughts on that statement. The response has been nearly universal. Most felt insulted explaining that Biden set the bar of success as that which boys or men are capable of and that girls should seek to meet that. That was my initial response. Biden is saying that males are the accomplished gender and that females should use that as a measure of their degree of success. Ironically, these words were spoken by someone who apparently touts himself as an advocate for women’s issues.

Some women have responded from the perspective that people are oversensitive and that there is already too much “offending” going on in the world for it to be a bother to them. I absolutely concur on that perspective. Being offended can only be from the cognitive basis of the listener. A speaker can NEVER be offensive. The speaker’s utterances can be interpreted as offensive. Although I feel no offense I do acknowledge and defend against efforts to offend me or treat me in a diminutive capacity.

For disclosure I have never liked Biden. The first time I saw him speak I was hit by that creepy feeling and that he was disingenuous. I am not partisan. The last person I liked who was elected to the White House was Jimmy Carter.

I think what Biden said was wrong and clearly he should not have said it. It implants in the minds of girls that all boys are successful and you can be as good as them. The question becomes what should he have said.

The first that comes to mind for me that he could have instead said is -- “These skills are not determined by gender.” He could have used gender neutral terms such as “people”, “students” or “children” but instead he chose to make it a gender issue and in doing so perpetuated a stereotype. Stereotypes are rarely without a basis in reality be it innate or attributed to self-fulfilling prophecy. In this instance males may be more inclined to enjoy or possess the mental facilities for technology applications. That in no way means that females are incapable but they simply may need to expend a greater effort to achieve the same results.

I similarly reside in the camp of those of the opinion that as a society we oft unjustly express offense at the utterances of others. I will not be offended by Biden’s statement although, as a male, it did denigrate us all. In stating that a random group of girls were “as smart as any boy in the world” he elevated their intellectual capacities beyond that which is justified. In using the singular “any boy” he has stated that these girls meet or exceed the smarts of any randomly selected boy in the world, including the smartest boy in the world. Thus, every boy is less intelligent than a random group of girls which may have included the least intelligent girl. This ambiguity in Biden’s statement conveys a stereotype that boys are smarter than girls in the hard science disciplines while simultaneously proposing that no boy is smarter than any girl. It depends on your priming and the lens through which you see the world as to how you interpreted that comment. I intentionally primed you with the title of this post. Some people see the wine goblet while other see two faces.

Words are important. They do convey feelings. Speakers should select their words and delivery carefully, especially when presented to children as they are impressionable and have not fully developed their abstract reasoning.

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