Graeme Archer is a statistician and a former winner of the Orwell Prize for Political Blogging.
It’s not often I get to say “I told you so”, still less often is the basis for such an assertion a journal with the word “psychology” in its title, but that’s the slightly pleasant situation I find myself to be in this week.
In 2008 I wrote a piece called Only Connect, in which I argued with the bizarre heterosexual practice of elevating any observed differences between samples of males and samples of females into a Law of the Genders. Men are from Mars…; Women! You can’t live with ‘em… etc etc.
Watching you people over the years I’ve often wondered what the statistical basis could be for the series of claims by which the noisier members of both sub-species seek to define themselves. We now learn, thanks to a meta-analysis in American Psychology, that basis to be “very little.” Men and women are much more similar than they are distinct.
Men are not rubbish at multi-tasking (which doesn’t exist, anyway); women do not have greater empathy; men do not struggle to talk about their feelings; women are not poorer at maths. Oh my God. You’re all just people.
I find this…comforting (well I would, wouldn’t I?) But if we were to drop the pseudo-difference myths, and confront the (perhaps less narratively exciting) reality – that men and women differ by a single chromosome, and evolved thus in order to propagate the species, not to struggle/succeed with loading washing machines/navigating maps – who would suffer? Why does the myth have such power?
Writers of romantic fiction? I don’t think they need to worry. You don’t need all the map-reading versus empathy drivel to write a story about love. “You and me baby we ain’t nothing but mammals, so let’s do it like they do on the Discovery Channel, ” is everything required to be said on this topic. Subject to subplots involving farcical misunderstandings, and (we must insist on this) the availability of Mr Jamie Dornan (with beard): romantic fiction should continue unimpeded.
But not everything can carry on as before. Here is a list of those whose careers are now set for termination.
1. Producers of television commercials. Since men and women are more similar than distinct, the continued use of the “stupid male” trope must be outlawed (since it is now demonstrably “discrimination” – is Harriet Harman on the case?) That means no fatuous dads making a mess with sandwiches, fatuous male children failing to load washing machines, etc etc.
2. The Minister for Women. Er, why? There are indeed countries where vicious patriarchies subjugate women. There are practices of this sort in modern Britain: but those practices are upheld by religious traditions, not driven by the gender of half the country’s population. I suppose it’s easier to pretend it’s all about (random) gender, than to say out loud what is being done to whom, and why.
3. Divorce lawyers who simultaneously insist on gender equality when dividing up the assets, yet who also treat women as precious ornaments which can never be expected to work (and the default child-carer.) The law may be catching up with sociology of course, thanks to the most popular outcome of any appeal court hearing in Earth history.
4. The lobbyists who insist that different average career trajectories are a function of an overt effort by one gender at the expense of the other; that such averages act as a block on any individual of either gender who chooses the life of a high-flier (with all the sacrifices that such entails); that it is not up to a couple to determine for themselves which will step back for a period, in order to raise their children.
Were we to drop the male-this/female-that stuff, in other words, we’d have to spend more time listening to what each of us is saying about our ambitions, our hopes, our love; we’d lose the short-hand that stereotypes provide. “I don’t need to listen to you, in order to know what you’re saying.”
But such listening is the point of being human. There is such a small difference between each of us, the miracle is that we can see past that homogeneity and find beauty in the space left over. Those spaces are much smaller, and more varied, than gender-based stereotyping permits. The more we look at the labels, the less likely we are to find anything real. And what is not real is not worth loving.
You know the cliché, right? “From a distance, there is blah blah blah.” But I don’t live at a distance from my lover. I want to know every pore of his skin, to count the ways in which we really differ, for it’s in those tiny-but-real differences that the love lives. Our gender, in terms of the magnitude of love (and what else is the point of existence?), is of no importance whatsoever. And without being quite so intimate with the rest of the world, I’d like to know more about it than gender-based stereotyping permits.
Did you object to my authorial “you”, by the way? The reduction of heterosexual love into a line from a pop song about animals mating? (The “you people” bit made me wince as I typed.) Did you object to having a stranger discuss your sex life, its genetic basis, as though you were a specimen?
I hope so. Especially if you’re reading this in Northern Ireland, busy considering another law to insist that gays are from Mars, and the religious from Venus. That’s just what human beings need right now, more laws about who can say what to whom about the business of living with one another, more laws that insist on stereotype, and labels, and fake dichotomies and unnecessary distance. You people. We people. Us.