Saturday, February 19, 2005

Lawrence Summers and the Difference Between Observation and Stereotyping

One good thing that comes out of these periodic controversies is the opportunity they provide to hash out ideas and opinions. On that score, people are having a field day with Lawrence Summers and his suggestion that perhaps innate biological differences account for the relative parsity of women in the sciences.

Suppose I were to say, "Women are much more likely than men to sacrifice comfort for appearance." Suppose further that you are Nancy Hopkins and my statement causes you great anxiety bordering on a heart attack. On second thought, scratch that last sentence. Suppose you are the typical open-minded yet somewhat skeptical American, and you respond "Prove it." I might then point to the popularity of high-heeled shoes and other footwear women routinely torture themselves by wearing. You could then respond, "That's because society forces them into this role of seductress," and I could then say, "No, it would be one thing if high-heeled shoes were all this patriarchal society sold, but there are plenty of comfortable shoes on the market that men and women think look just fine," and so on.

This is called spirited debate. Surely it has a place, not just in academia, but in general society. Now suppose I am Ward Churchill, and I say, "I don't care one bit about spousal abuse in this country - all those little Eichmanns have it coming to them, for being such teases." That is an animal of a different sort altogether, and I think 98% of reasonable adults can see the difference.

The blogs on the right have recently been accused of being mean-spirited morons incapable of seeing subtlety, and behaving like a bloodthirsty mob in general. The shoe probably fits in some cases, but not in most. Harvard University and Lawrence Summers are surely not the darlings of the conservative set; the fact that the rights of Summers have been vigorously defended by the right, while Ward Churchill has been roundly condemned (but, strangely(?), not so much by the left), shows me we are a lot more 'nuanced' than we are given credit for. Lawrence Summers should never have apologized; in doing so, he gave up the moral high ground without much of a fight. Still, he has every reason to sit tight and wait out the storm. 'Witchhunt' is a word thrown out all too routinely, but in this case, it's the mot juste.

1 comment:

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