I’ve heard it said that the root of all religious and secular morality is contained in the Christian dictum: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. It’s a seductive and simple message, and will get you through day to day interactions better than the average Facebook meme aphorism, but it is not a solution to social injustice. The belief that the route to social justice is to treat everyone equally is dangerously flawed.
First, a rather violent metaphor. Imagine you have two Roman gladiators squaring up in the Coliseum. One is dressed in full body armour and helmet and armed with a slingshot. The other is barehanded and wearing a loin cloth. Under those circumstances a rule to say that the two combatants could only fight by throwing stones at each other would make anything but a fair fight.
In socioeconomic terms, the fallacy is best illustrated by Anatole France’s brilliant observation. “In its majestic equality, the law forbids rich and poor alike to sleep under bridges, beg in the streets, and steal loaves of bread.” To treat rich and poor alike is to treat them entirely differently.
The fallacy appears often in gender debates. It crops up in discussions of sexual harassment and even sexual abuse, where hard-of-thinking members of my gender often splutter “But I’d love it if someone sexually harassed / sexually abused me!”
In recent weeks I have seen it applied often to the debate around misogynistic abuse on Twitter, where the ‘do unto others’ dictum has been viciously inverted. “I wouldn’t give a shit if someone threatened to rape me, wouldn’t bother me in the slightest, so you have no grounds to complain if I do it to you.”
At the heart of the fallacy is an obliviousness to both individual and collective differences. No two individuals will react identically to a threat of violence, but since we are socialised into gendered phenomenology and face different real world risks, stresses and pressures, the impact on the typical man and the typical woman will be different. This is not to say a threat of physical or sexual violence against a man is acceptable or even that it is less unacceptable. It is to say that the difference is not quantitative, it is qualitative.
As you may have noticed, last week I wrote about penises in the Guardian. I took a fair bit of grief in the comments, and even from some valued friends on this blog, because I didn’t write the piece that most readers (at least most of the male readers) wanted me to write. They wanted a storming rebuttal of Suzanne Moore’s rules for managing you penis or a turning of the tables – a man to write the equivalent rules for managing your vaginas. I had tried to satirise both that demand and Moore’s article in a quick, snarky blog-post on this site, but I had no wish to take that particular point any further.
Critics were quite right to say that the Guardian would never publish the same article written by a man about women. However this misses the point that it would be impossible for a man to write the same article about women. Even if the genders (and genitals) were reversed while leaving the rest of the words in place, it would still be a very different article because of the surrounding cultural and political culture. With hindsight, my Guardian piece didn’t explain this very well, but this is what I was trying to say when I pointed out:
Our culture, media and politics have, for thousands of years, positively bubbled with men telling women what to do with their reproductive organs, whether it is instructing against using them too often or too rarely, using them too young, leaving them until they are too old, or medically intervening in their natural and/or God-given functions. Pertinently, many of those voices have been backed by the machineries of state, politics and religion.
I don’t think the Guardian should have published Moore’s article, because it was patronising, needlessly insulting, divisive and, above all, just a very poor article by her standards. It was self-contradictory, muddled and switching awkwardly between irony and sincerity. (Whatever political and ideological differences I have with her, I do believe Suzanne is one of the most brilliant polemicists in the British media. I’ll often accuse her of having a bad argument, rarely of writing a bad article). However that is not the same as arguing that an organisation such as the Guardian should only ever write about men in the same way they (or we, if you like) write about women and vice versa. Equal treatments do not have equal impacts and effects.
What is the alternative to ‘Do unto others…”? I’m not being entirely mischievous when I suggest that it is contained in a very different kind of dogmatic canon: “From each according to their abilities, to each according to their needs.”
That was intended as an economic principle, of course, but I think it very much applies to social policy and even interpersonal communications. “To each according to their needs” is a good working definition of respect at both individual and policy levels. I also believe it applies strongly to those issues where men face gender-specific issues and disadvantages. Do male victims of violence or abuse need the same interventions, services and framework of understanding that female victims do? No, often they don’t. Their situation is likely to be different in key respects, and so too should be the response – to each according to his needs.
One of the points raised repeatedly by campaigners for men’s physical and mental health is that services are built on assumptions of patients’ needs, which in practice often mean women’s needs. One explanation proffered for boys’ underachievement in school is that the education system has in recent decades shifted from treating every pupil equally as if they were male towards treating every pupil equally as if they were female. Neither option is truly fair. It seems to me that men’s activists too often routinely demand whatever they perceive women to be getting (not least victimhood) and too rarely analysing and demanding what it is that men actually need.
The logical endpoint of the Equal Treatment Fallacy is the belief that if we treat everyone equally, then everyone will become equal. The truth is that in an unequal system, if we treat everyone equally we maintain the unequal status quo. That’s why you’ll never get me to agree to follow the modern trend to claim to be an equalist, rather than a feminist. I’m neither.
None of this is to excuse or justify rudeness, hypocrisy or negative stereotyping. Arguing that misandry is not the mirror image of misogyny does not mean that misandry is OK or politically constructive. It just means it is qualitatively different and should be understood differently. I don’t blame the 2000+ commenters on Suzanne Moore’s piece for reacting angrily to her trolling. I’ve reacted similarly to other provocations plenty of times. She was being insulting and I don’t blame anyone for feeling insulted. I would caution against using the saga as an argument for false notions of equal treatment. There is really no such thing.