“The Future is Female” is a slogan coined by radical lesbian separatists in the 1970s. It reappeared in 2015, widely shared on social media and emblazoned on T-shirts, in advance of what everyone assumed would be the election of America’s first female president, Hillary Clinton.
A friend of mine, a staunch Hillary Clinton supporter, recently described to me the distress his 11-year old son felt seeing many of his female peers and teachers wearing the shirt. His mother works at a demanding executive job in tech land while his father is a stay-at-home dad, (a common enough configuration in the class of which his family is a part), and he attends a progressive West Coast private school where all the visible authority figures are women. Feminist empowerment is both principle and practice at that school, pervading the curriculum and the social world. My friend’s son wondered aloud at the message of the shirt to one of his female peers. The message, he was informed, was one of female equality. “Isn’t it the opposite?” he asked.
The message is, of course, also a deliberate provocation and not—for the most part—a real statement of intent. The primacy of women is not a genuine possibility in today’s America. The slogan knowingly invokes its own irony and pathos: that of a defiant assertion of hope for a group comprising half of humanity that remains everywhere caught within the grip of patriarchal oppression in institutions not of their own making.
Moreover, feminism is about the liberation of humanity from dominance hierarchies and zero-sum competition for resources in the world of scarcity and struggle that men have created. A feminist world—which both men and women should reasonably welcome—would free men from the cruel burdens and violent imperatives of an increasingly outmoded and fragile masculinity that finds itself ever more at odds with the times, in which “toxic” masculinity is in need of policing in the form of cultural campaigns against “manspreading,” “mansplaining,” “all-male panels,” and the like, which seek to impose a check on the overbearing presence of men in public life. Feminism is not—as a literal reading of this slogan would imply—a crude assertion of an inverted hierarchy in which men are subordinated to women. No, it is a means to encourage men and women alike to embrace other, better ways of being in the world.
But an 11-year-old boy, even one raised in a feminist setting, can’t quite be expected to intuit all this on his own. On the other hand, the literal reading and straightforward application of logic, the outrage at hypocrisy and double standards of the 11-year-old mind, can sometimes serve as a useful corrective. It can remind us of the full implications of the messages we are sending to them, and to ourselves.
Here are some of the visible and nontrivial statistical effects of some of what decades of policies intended to empower girls have meant: 70 percent of valedictorians are girls. Colleges can only maintain a functional gender balance, which is necessary for their secondary appeal as places where one might meet a future life partner, by discriminating in favor of boys. Half of all professional-managerial jobs are held by women, and women under 30—i.e. before most educated women now choose to have children, a choice that, rightly or wrongly, has measurable impacts on their career choices and earnings—outearn their male peers. Women pursuing postgraduate education outnumber by their male counterparts by a ratio of 135 to 100. The gap between girls and boys in a range of measurable “noncognitive” skills, such as perseverance and the ability to sit still, is larger than that between blacks and whites, with enduring consequences for the fortunes of girls and boys on the job market, and for their chances of winding up in prison.
These and other statistics served as the basis of two books released within months of each other back in 2008—The End of Men by Hanna Rosin and The Richer Sex by Liza Mundy, referring to the gender that on average earned more per capita than the other: women. Both books pushed their conceits a bit harder than the data would support and relied at times on cutesy framing of the facts that bordered on tendentious. Both books wound up excoriated by feminists whose claim to authority depends on a narrative of perpetual victimization. Neither book proved the deliberately sensational claims of their titles. But both books assembled an overpowering corpus of facts documenting dramatic changes in the expectations of women that have had far less effect on the approved ways of thinking and talking about gender than they should have.
The repeated mantra of the feminist and wider movement is equality. But does equality really mean … equality? As with all things in our postmodern age, it depends entirely on how you define the word. Even to ask this question will make the asker seem slightly suspect to the progressive mind. Increasingly, the “level playing field”—an abstraction that has always been something of a fiction—has come to be seen as not just insufficient for the attainment of “true equality,” but itself an instrument of inequality. So what is the actual desired end-state envisioned by such doctrines?
Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg issued one of the canonical formulations of this half-facetious doctrine when she declared “there will be enough women on the Supreme Court when there are nine.” The Notorious RBG, as she has come to be known, was engaged in a bit of the willful provocation whose purpose is to underscore a serious point through exaggerated claims known as trolling. After all, the court was exclusively male until 1981. Why shouldn’t we equalize the cumulative numbers of Supreme Court justices throughout history through a policy of overt discrimination against men?
Why not indeed? And what’s the harm of posing the possibility as a thought experiment, since, of course, we’d never actually do it? The answer is twofold: Firstly, women weren’t allowed entry into the elite law schools that feed into the Supreme Court at all until 1950. Today, they comprise a bare majority of all law school graduates, so no selection process that excludes half of the eligible candidates on the basis of their sex can possibly be said to yield the best candidates; secondly, because a liberal society under the rule of law recognizes that each of us has only one life to live, and therefore no individual may be sacrificed to the presumed interest of the collective, however compelling that call may (or may not) seem. But to answer this question in earnest is to miss the point, of course. It’s a joke.
Yet what would happen if slogans of this kind ceased to be funny provocations and became both normative prescriptions and policy goals?
Increasingly, we’ve begun to see the open avowal, and the actual practice, of concepts of “compensatory” and/or retributive justice emerging throughout the culture. We’ve already discussed the “progressive stack” in this column, which holds that dominant groups must cede precedence in activist spaces to bearers of “marginalized” and “racialized” identities by moving to the back of a crowd or allowing disabled people to speak before able-bodied people, black people to speak before whites, women to speak before men, and so forth.
In practice, this can prove confusing, as the calculus of who is most marginalized and thus deserving of relative deference is not always clear. The concept of intersectionality governing such spaces holds that each individual is situated at the intersection of overlapping forms of oppression that exacerbate or mitigate one another. This can make the derivation of a simple rank order of precedence quite complicated. Conservatives used to make tedious and cruel jokes about the black transgender paraplegic Muslim who would trump all others in the “Oppression Olympics.” But as with all thought experiments meant to serve as reductio ad absurdum of progressive dogmas, whatever was proposed in jest a few years, or months, ago has a strange way of winding up avowed in earnest, and put into practice. And what happens in those spaces increasingly has come to impinge on what happens beyond them.
There’s been a subtle bending of the meaning of terms like fairness and equality and justice. Where once they referred to a disinterested assessment of the merits, today they’ve come to mean something closer to “punching up,” with “up” defined by which identity category you feel yourself to belong or are assigned to by some bureaucratic body. At every step along the hierarchy, those who are situated above others on the ladder of privilege must be held to account for the relative privilege they exercise over those above them. Therefore, “white feminism” has become a term of scornful opprobrium; Asian-Americans are seen as the beneficiaries of “stereotype promise” (doing better on tests because people regard them as doing better on tests, in large part because they do better on tests); and straight black males were recently denounced as “the white people of black people.” While each of these groups must defer to groups lower on the hierarchy of oppression than themselves, all are subject to the domination of the one group born atop the hierarchy, and all are encouraged to resolve their internal differences through collective punching up at the ultimate oppressor, whom I won’t even name here, lest I call down the terrible wrath of that group upon my own poor head.
The instinct for most people exposed to such thinking, endemic to left-wing spaces at every scale—from the Soviet empire to the Park Slope Food Co-Op—is to take a benignly contemptuous view of its excesses while crediting those who push those ideas with high ideals. Except, the plain intention of those who promulgate such concepts is to use them to redistribute real resources and opportunities. And as they go on to become the leading writers, editors, artists, activists, lawyers, administrators, HR directors, educators, and government officials of their generation, we are likely to see their ideas translated more often into practice. As that happens, we are likely to see that these ideas are exceptionally dangerous not just in what they do, but in what they summon up in response.
While a robust majority of Americans may be inclined to mock both the “snowflakes” who spread them and the reactionary hysterics who issue dire warnings about them, they will soon enough discover the workings of a tendency endemic to human societies and neatly summarized by the writer Nassim Nicholas Taleb in his forthcoming book Skin in the Game: Hidden Asymmetries in Daily Life. The chapter titled “The Most Intolerant Wins: The Dictatorship of the Small Minority” explains why it “suffices for an intransigent minority … to reach a minutely small level, say three or four percent of the total population, for the entire population to have to submit to their preferences.”
The dynamic stems from an asymmetry in the intensity with which a belief is held, which explains, for example, why those who keep kosher are less than three-tenths of a percent of the U.S. population, yet nearly all beverages for sale at your local supermarket are kosher. A kosher person cannot drink non-kosher drinks, but a non-kosher person can drink a kosher drink. The costs of labeling certain drinks as kosher are smaller than the costs of making it all kosher. So everyone now must drink kosher lemonade.
Social media has created a collective digital nervous system that allows any intransigent individual or group to broadcast their demands to the world. It doesn’t take much to summon up a mob of “followers” and to deploy it in pursuit of one’s goals. The reflexive deference that major institutions have shown toward these displays, often by groups and individuals who may yell the loudest but are unrepresentative of the more nuanced identity categories on whose entire behalf they purport to speak, is a cardinal instance of this dynamic at work. Since it exploits a quirk of our evolved neurology, there seems little we can do to prevent a cascade whereby practices that would have been unthinkable three years ago become pervasive.
And so it comes that in 2017, the National Book Foundation named its “five under 35” young novelists. They were all women. As with all such heavily disproportionate outcomes, there were a few different ways of interpreting it. The announcement might, in effect, be a troll. Probably five separate judges made their own individual determinations, none wanted to be the one daring enough to name a man, not this year, anyway, and so we ended up with five women. Who, after all, would be harmed by such a decision? No one has a right to a prize, particularly not men, who have won all kinds of prizes for decades—no, centuries—thanks to overt discrimination and pervasive anti-female attitudes.
It might also be a principled and earnest endorsement of Justice Ginsburg’s half-facetious logic: Let’s equalize the cumulative numbers of award recipients over the decades, which would require that we give them all out to women for the foreseeable future. Or it might be an assertion of power by those who had captured an institution and meant to make everyone else understand who was now in charge.
Whatever it was, we now know that it wasn’t a fluke, as the PEN Open Book Award, slated for first-time novelists, were also recently announced: five women. Of course, these are rather minor prizes administered by a small coterie immersed in the ephemeral moral fashions and vanities of the time. And yet it’s through these minor incursions, each too small to merit a response, that we train ourselves to grow inured to the hollowing out of our prior understandings of fairness and equality, leading to more consequential interventions further down the line. These meager aggressions foreshadow what is likely to sweep through every institution in the world.
In 2017, for instance, Oxford University extended by 15 minutes the time allotted to complete Math and Computer examinations in deference to the likelihood that, as the dons put it, “female candidates might be more likely to be adversely affected by time pressure.” Of course, no one spoke to denounce the novel prize committees, as a storm of such voices surely would have if the recipients had been five men. And few spoke out about the troubling implications of granting additional time to Oxford women. The rules of the game are not hard for any grown-up to follow. Only someone as literal and naive as an 11-year-old boy would think it possible to take the word “equality” at face value.
The most interesting of all possibilities is that those 10 novelists were the best available, chosen strictly on merit. In a given year such a heavily disproportionate outcome is entirely possible. Indeed, given the strong preponderance of women studying the humanities, and the consistent gaps in verbal achievement that have always favored women over men, it would be surprising that an unbiased assessment would not start to yield outcomes skewed toward the gender that buys and reads—and increasingly writes and reviews—most works of fictions. There are reasons other than favoritism, corruption, trolling, or ideological zeal for disparate outcomes of this sort. To the extent that the choices were honestly arrived at, and not an assertion of power, they should not be questioned. Were they or weren’t they? If they were arrived at honestly and are to be defended in those terms, one has committed oneself to the principle that other such disparities, innocent of corruption of favoritism, are also possible, indeed inevitable. When you say that math scores should be equalized through measures intended to benefit women, while also insisting it’s fair to shut men out entirely from a different area strictly on the basis of merit, you put yourself into a contradiction that can only be resolved honestly by stipulating that all that matters is identity. If they were not arrived at honestly and were instead mere trollish retribution against the sons for the sins of their fathers, be conscious of the full implications of adopting the view that only power matters and that fairness is merely a mystification serving the interest of the stronger. You may soon enough discover that fairness is not only the just but the only prudent policy when others begin to take you at your word.
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Wesley Yang is the author of The Souls of Yellow Folk.