Saturday, 5 March 2011

The (non-)paradox of agency and oppression

This isn't really a paradox, but it's very easy to get drawn into lines of reasoning where it looks like one if you're not careful. Stated simply:

If it's okay for any individual to do X, why is it a problem if most individuals do X?

Or in inverse:

If it's a problem that most people do X, why shouldn't individuals who do X be criticised?

So, the apparent paradox is that it's okay for any individual to do X, but when most people do X, it's considered a problem. For a topical example, there have been a few reports recently about the domination of the press by men1. One of the common responses to the suggestion that this might be a problem is the suggestion that "maybe women just don't choose to be journalists".

That probably is a significant factor. So - if it's a problem that women don't become journalists, especially senior journalists (and it is, because of the effect on what gets considered news and how it gets reported) - isn't that a criticism of women who didn't choose journalism as a career? Aren't you just wanting to force society to conform to some gender-equal state regardless of the wishes of its members?

Or, for an example that works from the other direction, that I've criticised before, "if the female beauty standard is a problem, isn't it wrong for women to wear makeup?"

Two apparently-opposed statements

In a bit more detail: one of the major principles of social justice activism is that less-privileged people have as much agency as more-privileged people, and so should be assumed (as with a default person) to have the capability to make autonomous decisions about their own life. Criticising those decisions is almost always a really bad idea because you don't know why they made them, and the idea that you could guess better than them what the correct decision was is extremely arrogant and completely erases their capacity to make their own decisions. Just the way that pro-default society likes it.

Another principle is that there are real widely-held stereotypes of behaviour, differences in treatment, and so on, that lead to some people being privileged over others, and that this privilege is a bad thing and should be dismantled. Such dismantling is likely to be resisted, of course, by the people who benefit from that privilege.

The conflict then comes in a flawed chain of reasoning something like the following:

  • Upholding privilege is bad
  • Actions which accept the path of privilege tend to uphold it
  • Therefore actions which privilege wants you to take are bad

Or perhaps from the other side

  • All of this is a consequence of the sum of individual decisions
  • Individual decisions shouldn't be criticised
  • Therefore the sum effect shouldn't be criticised

This gets used either as an excuse to uphold the status quo, or an excuse to attack non-privileged people who are not seen to be doing enough to dismantle it.

Neither is a good situation.

The really obvious flaw in the logic

I'm not claiming this is the only flaw or even the most major one. But it's the stand-out neon letters one, for me.

People's choices are constrained

No-one ever gets a completely free choice about what they do. For instance, when I was last job-hunting, I had two broad options:

  1. Restrict my search roughly to County Durham. This reduced the chances of finding a suitable job, but meant that I could stay in a part of the country where I knew several good friends.
  2. Search nationally, increasing the chances of finding a job, but also increasing the chances of having to move to a place where I knew no-one.

I'm not going to say which I chose, but for me, both were viable options.

For someone with a partner who already had a job in County Durham, the first option becomes much more preferable, if at all possible.

For someone who was shorter on cash at the start of their search than I was, the second option might have to be taken.

For someone who was more widely-travelled than me, and had plenty of spare cash, they might have plenty of friends in London already, and have the third option of moving there and then looking for work. That option wasn't even on my list.

The options that any individual has in a particular situation depend on their more general circumstances, their privilege, and many other externally-imposed factors.

Those factors, of course, include other people's decisions. In the case of employment, for instance, if you have a Muslim-sounding name, you might choose to apply for a job at an airport, but that doesn't mean anyone will treat the application fairly.


That, of course, makes the resolution of the apparent paradox entirely straightforward. It's absolutely legitimate to look at what factors are influencing whether people apply for careers in journalism, and why those factors are different for different genders.

It's also legitimate to see if there's anything that can be done to change those factors if the overall effect appears to be harmful.

It's possible that, after changing those factors, some people will make a choice that they otherwise wouldn't have made. This isn't interfering with people's choices, or restricting them - it's giving them extra options2 in addition to those they already had.

Similarly, one can criticise and try to dismantle the beauty standards while not criticising any individual for their own choices over their appearance3. (The people who are ready to criticise women for wearing make-up rarely seem willing to equally criticise men for not doing so, as eastsidekate points out, though surely both "reinforce" the same gendered beauty standards)

The distinction between external factors affecting people's choices, and those choices themselves, should be very obvious. In general, it only serves the interests of the hierarchical status quo to hide that distinction.


1 While it's not mentioned in the preview of this survey, one could find much the same result for white people, rich people, non-disabled people, and most other axes of privilege. It also suggests that of the 3,700ish people surveyed, only two genders were represented at all (which is either evidence of a far more significant bias in journalism, or evidence of bad data gathering at some stage - the full report isn't out yet, so I don't know which)

2 Which works both ways, of course - if people who aren't men are more likely to choose journalism as a career, that would be one way to adjust the balance. But likewise, if men are made less likely to choose journalism as a career, by making it a more viable choice for some of them to enter other (currently mostly female) careers, that would also have the same effect.

3 Some choices like blackface need criticism, of course, but that sort of choice is obviously not what I'm talking about here. I'm discussing choices for which there is no problem with any individual making that choice, but there may be a problem when most individuals feel they have to make that choice.