Enlightenment, inequality and bias (written on Feb. 19th, 2013)

I think one of the most important traits we can have is humility.  It is a good thing to be humble.  It’s sometimes easy to forget as I grow older, smarter, and hopefully wiser.   Things that seem to help me remain humble are to keep learning and to not be afraid to step outside my comfort zone.

A number of years ago I went to hear a talk by the Guerilla Girls (http://www.guerrillagirls.com/).  They talk about the gender inequality in art and film.  I remember being a little dubious about this before the talk.  Because through school and growing up it was always the girls who were more encouraged to creative things like art and drama.  Being into those things as a boy often meant a lot of typical jeers from other males about the fact that you might be too effeminate.  Sure enough though there is not only gender inequality, but massive gender inequality in art and film.  It took only a mention about Kathryn Bigelow being the first female director to win best director, and all of a sudden all these things that I thought I knew suddenly appeared in a different light.  I couldn’t recall any females getting up on stage to collect director, writer, screenplay type awards.  I already knew that female actresses often didn’t get to play very strong or dynamic roles, but now all of sudden the reason why was perhaps clear.  Few of those roles were written by women, and women are extremely scarce in most creative aspects of popular films.  Art museums turn out to be much the same way in the percentage of female artists that they display.

On Valentine’s day my wife and I went to the Darwin Day talk at Duquesne university.  The speaker was Marlene Zuk who is a biologist (I believe entomology is her specialty) and feminist.  Her talk was illuminating in much the same way as the Guerilla Girls.  The talk was about the bias that exists in biology that is male and human oriented.  Males are considered the norm when studying animals.  This is revealed in how biological research has historically been done (for instance the fact that male lab animals are chosen preferentially over female ones for experiments), it is revealed in illustrations and photos of animals (the male is most commonly depicted, and even in pop culture.  For instance think of how many animal movies you can think of (animated ones too) where a female is the main character and protagonist.  Dr. Zuk was particularly annoyed by the animated movies featuring insect leads, because the males actually don’t do any work at all in bee and ant species and yet they are being featured in popular animated movies.  She brought out examples of what people would draw if they were asked to draw a scientist (always male), she showed us examples of studies where people were asked to describe a healthy human, a healthy male, and a healthy female.  The description of a healthy human always was close to the description of a healthy male.  A healthy female description seems to not match a healthy human at all.  I sat there and once again realized that all these things in my brain were still there but had a new light cast upon them.  And I wondered how much my thinking had been modified by these biases without my knowledge.  It’s not one of those things I think you can know in an instant, but at least now I can pause a little bit and think more when a situation comes up that might be impacted by this societal bias.  Just as I did after seeing the Guerrilla Girls talk.  A couple months after their talk I went to the Alberta art gallery in Edmonton on a trip back home, and in fact counted the number of female vs. male artists and made a comment to an employee there afterwards (it was at about 15% female, 85% male).

The movement towards gender equality is working.  Things are changing.  Some places more slowly than others, but it is a wonderful thing.  I think in our society we have made enough progress that we are starting to notice the more subtle and deeper seeds of gender discrimination.  And I think we should take some pride in this.  I think when inequality is so surface based, it’s the thing that is easily noticed and the most immediate thing that action should be taken on before we can even find other seeds of inequality.  Talks like the ones I describe above are good reminders of how far we still have to go.  And the more subtle things run deep in society and are in some ways more dangerous because we don’t notice them as easily, they seem more ingrained, and perhaps are even harder to change.  These ingrained biases affect both men and women alike.

Although this is a little off topic of gender equality I wanted to write about the other interesting part of Marlene Zuk’s talk, which was the bias towards human supremacy in biology.  Dr. Zuk is a big proponent of detaching ourselves from human conceit when we study other species.  We often rate other animals on their similarity to us; giving more sympathy to life that shares more of our genetics, physiology, and behavior.  We have built evolutionary ladders from the time of Aristotle that place man at the top and everything else below.  As I was listening to her I was reminded of a statement from Jared Diamond’s book Guns, Germs, and Steel where he was talking about microbes and said “The microbe has just as much right to life as we do.”  It was a humbling statement to read and Dr. Zuk’s talk was an important reminder that not only was evolution not trying to produce us, but that all life survives in its own way, in its own environment and that there are many things that animals can do that we can’t.  Of what value is all our intelligence if we do things like destroy the planet, rape, murder, sexually abuse children?  It may be natural that life consumes life to survive, but all life should be respected.  After the talk, one woman asked her if she felt that we should be doing more to protect more intelligent animals and I really liked Dr. Zuk’s response: “Evidence of suffering is part of our bias to favor animals more like us.”  She gave the example that new evidence shows lobsters may also experience pain.  Why should they be any more or less favored over chimpanzees (the woman who asked the question used a chimpanzee as an example of cruelty to animals)?  The woman seemed quite upset that anybody would consider a lobster equal to a chimpanzee.  I completely understand why we would have more sympathy to animals more similar to us.  Our natural empathy to others suffering is clear.  But when you turn off your empathy chip for a moment and look at life, it’s all marvelous and it all has value.

The lesson here to me is that, no matter how enlightened you think you are, there is always some more enlightening still left to go!  Keep learning everyone.

8 thoughts on “Enlightenment, inequality and bias (written on Feb. 19th, 2013)

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  3. Swarn,

    Now I see your POV – we came together in the middle of a chaotic yet poignant subject, which faces our entire globe; today, here and now, front and center.
    We no longer allow the bigotry of separation. It does not matter what gender, for gender ~ even the word gender, most will think of women.
    Not so. We are a society of humans, mammals, vegetation, aquatic, and more…….
    While we humans do categorize all living and non living species, then why do we separate further into less or lesser than?
    When the feminist movement started and I would say it is at the veneer surface to rise up, higher degrees than before – it was not sexually oriented, but it came to be in individuals minds. For that is how we thought, the way we were brought up.
    Being a Military child, the hierarchy is monolithic and being brought up a republican in a certain class added to such beliefs.
    Aaah the word *belief* is the under toe here!!
    If we have, as humans sought out equality, then why do many of us feel lesser than and not equal to Warren Buffet or Nelson Mandela?
    The only difference I see, is they used their opportunities, savvy and what life brought them and made a difference for themselves, which had an extending arm reaching into the mass culture of society on this planet.
    As you know, I can write and much of this is to be shared on my blog. I am honored you joined me in discussion and appreciation of looking at our *humanity* and stretching our minds into future positive achievements, resulting in the 100th monkey – change for the betterment of the planet and all that lives upon it.
    Thank you MicheleElys.wordpress.com


    1. Once again thank you for your kind words, and I appreciate the perspective you can give on the feminist movement. We are all a product of our experiences and it’s nice when you can meet someone who can talk about those experiences with depth of feeling. It always makes me feel like I’m growing and learn. Are you as compelling of a public speaker as you are a writer? 🙂


      1. Yes I am, even more so for my entire body engages the audience. Most likely it was the strong influences of my father and Grandmama and the red hair does not allow most to look away.
        Albeit I have a rather soft voice it is commanding. It will be more delightful when I have more, many more appearances and venues to speak in and get people charged up LOLOL

        Thank you for the compliment.
        As my tag line reads, “A Tame Woman Never Makes History” LOL

        Swarn, you are also a delight and I look forward to each conversation for it is rare that one does not take a defensive position, rather seeks to see more sides of life. I call this being voracious about life.
        Thank you so very much – I do hope I find more like you, it is an honor!!


        1. Thank you so much for your kind words. I am sure I am as capable as anyone of getting defensive about things. We all have deeply held beliefs and intensely personal views that sometimes we desperately try to hang on to and get emotional when we perceive them as being attacked. It gets better as I get older, especially because as I keep learning I am always having my beliefs challenged. After you realize you’ve been wrong enough times it humbles you and it’s easier to be calm about these things. 🙂

          Yeah, I know many people who have that sort of commanding presence when they have a father who had a career in the military. And it definitely doesn’t take much convincing to get me to pay attention to a woman with fiery red hair. 😉


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