Earlier this month, researchers from Northeastern University published a study about "benevolent sexism," or expressions of sexism that women just can't resist. For example, did you know that when a man smiles at you, that's sexism? If he is patient with you, praises you, or opens a car door for you, don't you know that's sexism too? These are all obviously just expressions of "paternalistic affection" meant to send you the subliminal message that you, woman, are inferior.
Helpfully, a writer at Acculturated humorously points out that "benevolent sexism" can be abbreviated "B.S." How perfect.
Here is an excerpt from the study:
For instance, opening a car door for a woman may reflect simple politeness that would be extended to anyone; however, it could also reflect benevolent sexist attitudes if the man does it because of his assumption that men are more competent than women and that women should be pampered or protected by men, and his action may, in his subjective opinion, be positive and not at all sexist in the traditional sense…
After all, benevolent sexist men hold women in high regards and are willing to sacrifice themselves to protect and save women. This may subsequently lead women to be more complacent with the status quo of gender inequality as it is presented in a manner that will not incite defiance. However, benevolent sexist men perceive women as the weaker gender at the same time. By incentivizing women with benevolence and affection, men can assert their power in society without too much resistance.
How backward is that? How can a man who holds women in high regard — even to the point of meriting self-sacrifice — be considered sexist? It seems to me that the only sexism in the paragraphs above is the authors' suggestion that women aren't smart enough to understand the difference between politeness and condescension.
I suspect that some feminists don't appreciate any behaviors or attitudes that categorize women as different than men, because they simply reject any notion of gender-based differences in nature. But surely we can co-exist and show mutual respect and politeness even in light of the reality that there are differences between the two sexes.
And how do the authors of the study know what the motives of men are? They concede that benevolent acts may be simple politeness, and not sexism.
I have often ridden a crowded metro car and wondered sadly at the reluctance of some men (young, able-bodied men) to offer their seats to women (pregnant women, older women, women with young children in tow). If I had a seat, I'd gladly offer it, not because I see myself as superior to anyone else, but just because it's the polite thing to do. This kind of behavior has less to do with sex and gender, and more to do with basic courtesy and showing respect for others.
Conservatives, like me, often bemoan the disappearance of etiquette because guidelines for social interaction are meant to help us navigate life together, not to make interactions more difficult. When each person knows what's expected of him or her, we know better what to do or say, and we can avoid confusion and awkwardness. Being polite should be encouraged, not discouraged.
Of course, our society is imperfect, and I'm sure there are people who hold sexist attitudes toward women. We should not turn a blind eye to individual acts of sexism, but we should rightfully shame anyone who truly discriminates. But on the other end of the spectrum, there's a tendancy to insert sexism into any interaction between men and women, to overlabel "microaggressions," or to imply that women need special protection against supposedly ubiquitous sexism. This is a harmful position as well, because it pits all men as oppressors and all women as incapable of standing up for ourselves.
Unfortunately, when we deride so-called "benevolent sexism," we may be discouraging men from showing basic common courtesies to women. This would go too far. Men should strive to be kind, respectful people, just as women should. Otherwise, we will defile our society to the kind of rude and ugly "go it alone" society that conservatives and libertarians are often (wrongly) accused of supporting. To the contrary, a strong civil society where people can interact with each other kindly (and without being accused of having bad motives) is necessary to ensure the maximum human flourishing for men and women alike.