Words Still Have Meanings

It’s a bit amusing to sit down to write something, only to realize you’ve said it better before.

But, rolling back to the start….

Sen. Susan Collins on Tuesday blasted coverage of her support for the GOP tax bill as “extremely discouraging” and “unbelievably sexist.” […]

“I believe that the coverage has been unbelievably sexist, and I cannot believe that the press would have treated another senator with 20 years of experience as they have treated me,” she told reporters in the Capitol. “They’ve ignored everything that I’ve gotten and written story after story about how I’m duped. How am I duped when all your amendments get accepted?”

Having dug into the details, there might be a faint glimmer of truth in there.

Collins also singled out a report that she said included a line about how she “didn’t cry” during a recent meeting with protesters, many of whom suffer from grave medical conditions. That line was later removed after Collins complained, but not before the story posted online.

And sure enough, if you read an archived copy of that New York Times article:

As a group of progressive activists and constituents prepared for a 15-minute meeting on Wednesday with Senator Susan Collins, Republican of Maine, they sat in the lobby of her office and developed a last-ditch strategy to persuade her to vote against the $1.5 trillion tax bill barreling through Congress: tears.

“If Senator Collins actually saw you as a human, saw me as a human, then she wouldn’t pass any of this,” said Ady Barkan, a member of the Center for Popular Democracy, who recently learned he had amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or A.L.S., and uses a wheelchair. […]

After her meeting at her office, it did not appear that Ms. Collins was ready to change her vote, or that she had been brought to tears.

This fits into a common sexist stereotype.

One of the most persistent ideas about the differences between men and women is that women are more emotional than men. Research on stereotypes has shown emotionality to be one of the general dimensions of sex stereotypes: women are said to be more expressive, excitable, and easily hurt than men. They are also supposed to be more sensitive to the emotions of others […]. Not surprisingly then, when we think of an emotional person, a woman most quickly comes to our minds […].

The large and uncontested consensus about women’s greater emotionality not only characterizes common sense. The assumption that men and women fundamentally differ in their emotional lives can be found through the history of Western academic thought: whereas maleness stands for reason, femaleness is characterized by another mood of understanding, in which taste, sensibility, practical sense and feeling are more important […]. From the 19th century onwards, rationality and emotionality have largely become associated with the supposedly different natures of men and women, the former fitted for productive labor and the latter for household and emotional labor.

Fischer, Agneta H. “Sex differences in emotionality: Fact or stereotype?.” Feminism & Psychology 3.3 (1993): 303-318.

By using tears as a theme in that article, it was indirectly reinforcing the stereotype that women are driven more by emotion than logic and reason. That is sexist.

Except that’s not all the article said.

Ms. Collins remained respectful and strained to convince the room of about a dozen skeptics that the promises that had been made to her were ironclad. She defended her decision in the face of the group’s challenges that previous Republican promises for the tax bill had been broken, including a commitment to not add to the deficit and to not benefit the rich, and that written agreements are not law.

“I do not believe that I’ve given up leverage,” Ms. Collins said. “I’ve used my leverage to negotiate agreements that are promises to me.” She added, “I’m sorry that you don’t believe in the agreements.”

The deals that Ms. Collins struck that extend beyond the tax bill have been the subject of much speculation and doubt in Washington, because they would require the backing of House Republicans and some Democrats.

Alan Rappeport’s article primarily presents Collins as a rational, autonomous agent. The Senator claims she has negotiated for bipartisan health legislation and against automatic Medicare cuts. It puts that front and centre, focusing on the debate over how secure those pledges to Collins have been, and leaves the call to emotion as a background theme. At the other end, emotion is a strong tool in the activists’ toolkit. Appeals to emotion are not automatically sexist, they only become that way when generalized across a sex. Rappeport’s article was not directly sexist, as it did not explicitly state women are more driven by emotion; at best, it indirectly contributed to existing sexist stereotypes. That’s not a good thing, but that has to be weighed against the large portions where it indirectly challenges those stereotypes as well.

Note as well that the Senator claimed her coverage was “unbelievably sexist.” Yet when pressed, the best example she could give is the indirect, conflicting example above. It’s a pretty safe bet that Collins is conflating “criticizing women” with “sexism,” possibly in an attempt to defend herself from people critiquing the strength of her concessions. She might also legitimately misunderstand what “sexism” means, a terribly common problem.

I was going to transition to talking about how Status Quo Warriors rely on ignorance of terms to support their views, but I realized past-me already did an excellent job on that subject. So please accept this brief meditation on sexism instead, and follow the link for more interesting reading.