Saturday, 27 February 2010

Don't Dumb Down: A Clarification

Here's an extra post today because I think we have all hit on a very delicate topic. This topic is so very delicate because it is right at the nasty, zig-zag tear between men and women in the battle of the sexes.

I hate the battle of the sexes myself, and although I will joke about pompous men and rail against men who use women, I try not to participate in general man-bashing. It can be difficult because when women are badly hurt by men, we talk about those men with other women. When we hurt men, we don't tend to talk about it quite so much. I was 35 before I was convinced that some women (and not just prostitutes) really do date guys for their money. It sounded like a myth, and I'd never ever heard a woman admit she ever did any such thing.

The Canadian writer Margaret Atwood apparently asked a group of men what they feared about women. The men said, "We're afraid they'll laugh at us." Then she asked a group of women what they feared about men. The women said, "We're afraid they'll kill us."

When the power differential is that wide, it's hard not to take sides. But I don't really want there to be sides. I want us just to be sons and daughters of God, loving and helping each other. I don't want see women making men blush, and I don't want to hear men sneering at women.

Femininity has always been devalued, and it is not exactly valued today. (Does the hard stare of the woman in the photo look feminine to you? And does she look at all valued?) Meanwhile, men have always been challenged by other men to prove how masculine they are. Some men thrive on this competition--they don't seem to mind all the mindless wrestling they do as boys--whereas some men hate it. They feel constantly outclassed.

Now, being nice to people, especially the shy, and listening to people are often considered feminine attributes. And, in general, women are better than men at sympathetic listening. But if we were brought up to believe that this feminine talent of listening is shameful and that Real Women speak their minds at all times, like men, then women are going to do just that.* And since men try to one-up men all the time, why shouldn't women try to one-up men, too?

The fact is that men don't like one-upping, at least, they don't like it all the time. In fact, men frequently tire of all-male one-upping company and just want to relax. If they don't see a woman as just more competition in the great One-Upping that appears to be life, they like to be around her. But if a woman always seems ready for a scrap, no matter how good-humoured and "intellectual", the men may very well flee.

I don't like one-upping myself. Arguing theological points with the boys in the office is fine, but I don't like it during nice social events. Put it this way: I have enough confidence in my own intelligence not to have to take it out and show it to everybody everywhere all the time. It's appropriate to argue for Lonergan's cognitional theory in a classroom or public discussion group; it's not appropriate to argue for Lonergan's cognitional theory at a dinner party when everyone else would rather talk about hunting. This rule, incidentally, holds as true for men as it does for women.**

If challenged directly, I admit, I am happy to knock a chap's socks off with an answer. I was challenged, the other day, to give a definition of the soul. My interlocutor obviously thought he had me stumped. So I told him that Thomas Aquinas defined the soul as the form of the body. He sat there and thought about it. And I left it at that.

Leaving it at that, I think, is key. You make your point, and you move on. You do not triumph over your vanquished conversational foe. You do not act like you are some kind of superwoman because you managed to get a flush hit on an actual, real live man. Who cares? If we really thought the feminine was as valuable as the masculine, we wouldn't care. Why is taking a man down a peg so much more of a glorious victory than taking a woman down a peg? Or more glorious than turning a charged encounter into a peaceful one?

Anyway, I write all day long. I don't even bother telling my friends about myself anymore because I assume they've read it already. Instead, I ask them questions. How are they feeling? What have they been up to? What do they think? What can they advise? How do they do the very talented things that they do? I really want to know. And it is really wanting to know about another person that renders you charming in their eyes. And asking people intelligent questions, instead of giving intelligent answers they didn't ask for in the first place, is not in any way a "dumbing down".

*This is once again a case of "knowing yourself". If you tend to be too quiet in company, it pays to make an effort to speak. If you tend to dominate conversation, it pays to make an effort to listen.

**If the general conversation is indeed about something you honestly know a lot about, certainly contribute. Don't dominate the conversation, get overly excited, slap down the competition or bore for Britain, but shine on, you crazy diamond.

And, yes, that woman really went to Boston College. Go, Eagles.


Kate P said...

I think the "dumbing down" discussion also circles back to our discussion about disclosing what one does for a living, that possible intimidation factor--or just general appeal. The woman in the picture says, "I'm a model," and the general response is, "That's awesome!" Er. . . well, maybe not around here.

Seraphic said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Dominic Mary said...

I spent this afternoon in a morass in The Regent's Park in London, watching the Godzdogz team (the Dominican Students from Blackfriars, Oxford) being somewhat beaten by the University of London Newman Society team in what was (fairly loosely) defined as a football match.

(I say 'fairly loosely' because the mud was so bad that any pretence at technical ability or playing style was a lost cause from the starting whistle onwards !)

The reason this is relevant to this post, though, is that the Newman Society team had an excellent winger who just happened to be a young lady . . .

But what struck me was that the men weren't trying to show off to her, nor was she trying to make a statement to them - she just enjoyed playing football (and did it a great deal better than I ever could have done), and so went and played . . . and her performance was much appreciated by all concerned; but not one person said she was good 'for a woman'; because it wasn't a good performance 'for a woman'; it was just a good performance, full stop.

I'm not quite sure exactly how that fits in with your post, Seraphic,but it does seem at least slightly relevant - perhaps only in the sense that when women (and men) stop trying to 'score points', and just get on with life, everything is so much happier for everyone.

Sheila said...

Your point is backed up by two of the best books about being good company I've ever read: "How to Win Friends and Influence People," by Dale Carnegie, and "How to Talk to Practically Anybody About Practically Anything," by Barbara Walters. Both writers testify that the best way to be known as a sparkling conversationalist is to ask the other people around what *they* are interested in. A person who only talks about their *own* interests is usually called a dullard (or, in worse cases, a pompous ass). Turning a conversation into a scrap is impolite both for men and for women, unless it's in a context where all agree to it.

It's no wonder that men are attracted by women who listen and who draw them out. Everyone is attracted by people who draw them out. I know I am! I developed the worst crushes in my old days on guys who would actually listen to me and ask me questions. Guys who wanted to scrap were opponents, not love interests.

theobromophile said...

Why is taking a man down a peg so much more of a glorious victory than taking a woman down a peg?

Oh, it depends, Seraphic! Women are probably just more willing to own up to wanting to take men down a peg, or will be more direct about it. Unfortunately, a lot of bad women revel in taking women down - all the while being all sweetness to anything male in the room.

Treating other women as opponents to be climbed over undermines the feminine, too; it just does it in a different manner. Also, treating men like prizes does not do much for the masculine, either.

some guy on the street said...

Kate P, I'm right behind your last trailing-off, and I shan't comment further on the not-suitable-for-wherever picture...

For the record let it be known that, should God bless me with young'uns, I thoroughly expect their mother to assist in teaching them using all the intelligence at her disposal.

Seraphic said...

Sorry, some guy! I've had that horrible photo in my computer for over two years, and this was my first opportunity to use it. Not only does it express how a woman can "dumb down", it expresses how a Catholic university can "dumb down" its faith, too. (B.C. is better known now for its sports teams than for its Catholic character.)