Debate: Inescapable Inequality? A response

A response to Paula Mendez Keil by Kate Donald

I understand Paula’s concern regarding the excesses of utopian thinking, and appreciate her desire to analyse the world as it actually is. However, as a fully paid-up member of the social constructionist club, I find her analysis to be flawed (not to mention defeatist) rather than realistic.

Sex, gender and social construction 
Paula clearly does not deny that gender is socially constructed, but her argument questions social constructionist views about biological sex in favour of an acknowledgement of nature. However, one can argue that the value/attributes/categories we assign to biological sex are social constructions, without claiming that sex itself is a social construction. For example, the decision of most societies to only allow for two biological sexes on passports/identity forms etc. is undoubtedly socially constructed.

Moreover, biological sex differences may exist, but they are not so striking or so uniform to be truly relevant. Overall, men may be physically stronger than women; but there are many individual women who are stronger than individual men. Most importantly, no biological sex characteristic is at once so general and so significant that it merits exclusion or subjugation.

Paula questions whether it is possible to argue that egalitarian societies ever existed. A number of feminist historians argue (albeit unconvincingly, in my opinion) that pre-historical societies were egalitarian. James Woodburn wrote a famous article about egalitarian hunter-gatherer societies. However, I would argue that even if we have no proof of the existence of egalitarian societies, this does not mean that gender hierarchy is ‘natural’, inevitable or intrinsic. One thing that is certain is that cultures across space and time have displayed significant variety in how they construct and regulate gender.

Structures, order, control, hierarchy
I think the main flaw in Paula’s argument is in assuming that structure or organisation necessarily means control, dominance or hierarchy. This is not so. ‘Order’, ‘nature’, ‘hierarchy’, ‘structure’, ‘organisation’, ‘stratification’: these are all very nebulous words which can mean a number of things depending on viewpoint and context. An egalitarian society would also have forms of social organisation, indeed, existing communities such as co-ops, kibbutzim etc. often feature organisation without traditional hierarchies – each person contributes their skills and time according to their capability. [Indeed, the capabilities approach is interesting to examine in this context.]

The claim that “Even in the basic, most fundamental structure of the family, one can always find stratification either between men and women or elderly and young” is very difficult to back up. Of course all families have their particular dynamics, but this varies family to family and over time, even within families.

Additionally, Paula argues that order is naturally generated through maximising function, but order is not necessarily functional – it can be ideological, or profoundly dysfunctional.

How do we know that ‘nature’ deters descent into ‘chaos’? Many humans would claim that other species (and even other groups of humans) do live in a state of chaos: conflict, competition for food, resources and mates, ‘law of the jungle’, ‘survival of the fittest’, etc. Paula argues that faced with breakdown, “nature adjusts and re-organizes, adapting to new environmental pressures and circumstances.” But does it? Species and civilizations become extinct, ecosystems fail. Look at the effects of climate change – can it really be said that ‘nature’ is happily adjusting and adapting to this man-made phenomenon? Furthermore, there is no inevitability about attributing the resilience of nature to its “systematic organization and methodical structure”. In fact, one could just as easily attribute the ‘resilience of nature’ (although I’m not even sure I believe in such a thing; of course ‘nature’ goes on existing, but nature is a very broad and vague category!) to its chaos and variety.

One last point: I would be interested to see evidence about hierarchy and stratification among different animal species. I doubt that nature is as uniform as Paula suggests! And indeed, it shouldn’t be surprising that ‘even’ among primates we observe power relations; primates are, after all, our closest relatives in the animal kingdom.

According to Paula’s argument, we cannot break from our systems of hierarchy unless “we are prepared to exist in a state of pure anarchy”. This is purely counter-factual. It is easy to argue that many recent and existing human societies in certain contexts have descended into ‘anarchy’, despite or perhaps even because of very rigid hierarchical systems. The Rwanda genocide springs to mind.

Is the world of our making or not?
I think Paula’s position on nature, construction and human agency is somewhat confused. Although her main argument is that inequality and hierarchy are ‘natural’, at other times she refers to ‘this world of our making’. If the world is of our making, we can unmake it or remake it.

Regarding sexual stratification, she argues that “constructions are reproduced and maintained through cultural understandings of gender roles that thrive on control, which is intrinsic to structure and order.” I am confused about the chain of causality here. Constructions and cultural understandings imply the promotion and ascription of certain stratifications and gender roles by human beings. Is the argument that this human behaviour is unavoidable because of our ‘natural’ desire for control, structure and order? So effectively gender is socially constructed, but social construction itself is natural?

Paula argues that “to empower one group, inevitably disempowers another... one tips the scale at the expense of the other.” Not necessarily: a successful balancing act can succeed in balancing the scales in the middle. It is however true to say that this cannot be a win-win situation for everyone on all counts. Tackling inequality does not mean that everyone rises to the level of the most privileged. We can’t expect nor desire, for example, that all people come to earn bankers’ salaries and bonuses. Rather, the extremes at both the top and bottom have to be tempered. In terms of gender equality, rebalancing the scales would not only mean equal pay and opportunities in the workplace, but also involve men taking on a larger share of the burden of unpaid, household and childcare work, as well as such work coming to be more valued (in all senses) by society as a whole.

Of course there is no such thing as universally equal rights in practice at the current moment. A universally equal society is probably impossible, yes. However, we can certainly achieve a vastly more equal society than we live in today (I mean at the global and national levels) without a descent into anarchy being necessary. Will it be easy? Of course not. Is it feasible? With enough will, determination and imagination, of course. One thing is for sure: posing questions of patriarchy and sexism in pseudo-scientific terms will not help.

For more on different concepts of equality, see here or here.

About the Author:

 Kate Donald is Research Fellow at the International Council on Human Rights Policy.

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