language

It All Makes Sense!

In my last Snort, I admitted to consternation in trying to understand a tweet attributed to one Pax Dickinson:

“Women’s suffrage and individual freedom are incompatible. How’s that for an unpopular truth?”

What puzzled me was that this bit of blather was attributed to a man with an important position in the world of technology, and therefore someone with a knowledge of logic and a reasonable amount of education.  But the assumption that women’s suffrage was incompatible with “individual freedom,” while (by omission) universal male suffrage was not, seemed to me completely illogical and unreasonable. While I realize that the ground rules of the tweet do not encourage thorough argumentation, I still wondered about what could be going on in the mind of the tweeter.

( I have to confess to some intellectual snobbery: I could perfectly well imagine a yokel from the backwoods of, say, Mississippi, with a third-grade education, making a statement like this. But as an educator for all of my working life, I was loath to admit that Pax Dickinson’s education could produce reasoning of this quality. IThat was too close to admitting that, just maybe, education might not accomplish what it was intended for: to produce intelligent people capable of running a competent democracy.)

But as I kept chewing over the conundrum, I began to understand how his conclusion might seem, to someone like Dickinson, to have logical validity. First,  beneath the macho swagger, men like him live in fear, and fear is a great instigator of unreasonableness. They fear that they are losing their grip on the goodies that this society has to mete out – that they are no longer automatically entitled, by virtue of their white manhood, to everything – just a big chunk of it. But that’s not enough. No fair!

We can think of this as the breakdown of an ancient understanding: call it the Whole Pie Rule. Under the WPR, those members of a society who are identified as deserving (in Western societies, normally wealthy white Christian males) could expect to get just about everything their culture had at its disposal: wealth, respect, freedom, pleasure, deference, and much more. It was right that they had it: their sacred Scripture told them so. Once a group had the Whole Pie, they could properly expect to have it forever – any attempt to appropriate a slice was insufferable, unjustifiable, and worthy of severe punishment. So demands or requests by Others could not on principle be reasonable. The loss of slice rights deprived the individuals in these privileged groups of their “individual freedom.”

In the centuries since the Enlightenment, this cozy sense of entitlement has been eroding at many points: universal manhood suffrage deprived the privileged of a few slices based on color and social class, and the granting to Jews of full citizens in many European countries and the U.S. removed another. On this interpretation of recent world history, women’s suffrage is the final indignity, the ultimate outrage: that most other of Others is permitted access to man’s greatest symbolic achievement: the vote. If you see things this way (I admit you have to squint), you can appreciate if not sympathize with Dickinson’s logic. To let women have a slice of the pie is to be deprived of what is properly one’s own.

And although other males than rich white Christians participate in this disenfranchisement, someone like Dickinson might not perceive their violations of the WPR as being nearly as threatening to his “individual freedom” as women’s usurpation of a slice or two. Women are, after all, the final, eternal, quintessential Other. To bring women to a position of symbolic equivalence to men lessens all men and lessens even the Pie itself, since unworthy persons now have access to it. Women voting! What’s next – giraffes? (Women are not, of course, really human, so this argument would seem perfectly logical.)

This argument itself turns on two fallacies. First is the idea that men really do have the right to the Whole Pie – that is, that their possession of it for millennia was not the result of an ancient illegitimate power-grab, but the way that it was supposed to be. Just read the Bible.

Secondly, the argument gains apparent legitimacy from the old legal concept of coverture. Under this doctrine, first formulated in the eighteenth century, “the husband and his wife are one, and that one is the husband.” So a woman is “covered” by her husband, that is, nullified out of existence. She cannot own property, hold a paying job, travel without his consent, receive custody of the children in case of divorce, or anything else only persons can do. (By the late nineteenth century, corporations were persons but women were not.) And by this doctrine, it is illogical for women to have the vote. For women to have the vote would mean that a married man had two votes, a bachelor but one. That would directly violate the “one man, one vote” basis of democracy itself, and therefore, would make the vote meaningless. If the ability to vote meaningfully is (and I think it is) one of the linchpins of our modern notion of individual freedom, then indeed Dickinson is right, assuming we accept everything upon which his argument is based.

But we cannot, because those beliefs no longer make sense, if in fact they ever did. The WPR has been discredited. And coverture, while some aspects of it remained in the American legal system until the 1970s, has been overturned on the same reasoning as that by which the “separate but equal” argument of Plessy v. Ferguson was superseded by Brown v. Board of Education. As long as we agree that women, like people of color, are human beings, we cannot force them to accept lower standards than men (or white people) have a right to expect.

To exist in the twenty-first century as modern persons, we must from time to time reexamine what seemed ineluctably true and logical in the past. Eternal truths may not be, upon inspection, all that eternal. For example, those who would live by the assumption that every word in the Bible represents literal truth that must be obeyed must be careful not to dollop sour cream on the baked potato they eat with their steaks. (See Deuteronomy and Leviticus for this and much, much more.)  The WPR legitimizes, and is in turn legitimized by, coverture. But since modern reevaluation of both makes both untenable, both are over. That’s just logic.

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