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Tuesday, 5 February 2013

And Remember, It's Not Sexism: It's Science

I was in Montréal last weekend and one of the local radio stations, 92.5 "The Beat" Montréal, was played an add several times that I thought was worth sharing. Unfortunately, I'm neither able to find the add itself or a transcript of it, and I have tried (unsuccessfully) to get anything helpful from the radio station.

The add is a conversation between a male and a female:

Female: "I should only have two drinks per day"
Male: "And I should only have three drinks per day"
Female: "I should only have ten drinks per week"
Male: "And I should only have fifteen drinks per week"
Together: "It's not sexism; it's science"

I was honestly rather confused in listening to this commercial, or more accurately, this strange public service announcement. It's unclear who sponsored this add, though it's clearly about moderation. While I do agree with the message that people should carefully watch their alcohol consumption (which is certainly a problem) I do not appreciate the message that we can essentialise based on gender.

While it is, in general, true that men can drink more than women, it is a false conclusion that all men can drink more than women can. This is true whether you're talking about sustained daily consumption or one night of excessive consumption. 

In fact, other factors are probably more significant than gender. Age, weight, metabolism, tolerance, food consumption, medication, and many other considerations are all entirely relevant. Gender is obviously a factor, but it's one of many factors, and it is valuable for how it interacts with other factors, not just for its own sake. This might explain, for example, why most women can drink more than I can. It also explains why my ability to consume alcohol has not remained static or constant despite the fact that my sex has. The reality is, as unfortunate as this may seem for most people, that the effects of alcohol on an individual are very idiosyncratic and often unpredictable. For me, it's something like this, though it's certainly not constant.

And this is where science comes in. My claim about my own idiosyncratic and inconsistent drinking realities are, unsurprisingly, unscientific. But I don't claim it to be an objective scientific reality. In fact, science is all about contradictions, anomalies, and unpredictability. As such, claims about difference attributed to science are, at best, just sketchy. At worst, however, they play on our cultural ideas about the differences between men and women. As a result, it's both science and sexism: scientific sexism. This sort of values-driven science is best evidenced in evolutionary psychology, and is very similar to eugenics and scientific racism. Men and women are biologically different or socially different and thus act differently. This public service announcement is nothing different: women and men are just different and thus should behave differently. I intend to talk more about objectivity and science in the near future, so I'll leave it at that for now.

While the whole advertisement is problematic, what's more problematic is that it's a woman saying that it's not sexism. This is effectively co-optation and also the same as incorporating any marginalised person to speak on behalf of that group. It's disconcerting to say the least, giving the impression that sexism can be, and often is, just a harmless reality, not a purposeful product of a patriarchal system.

I have to say that, fundamentally, we should all be concerned about how much we drink. But let's not delude ourselves into thinking that it has to do with our gender: we're smart people and we should understand that it's simply more complicated than that.

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