Saturday, 11 September 2010

The Myth of Mars and Venus, Deborah Cameron

The Myth of Mars and Venus, Deborah Cameron
OUP: £7.99

Sexism is on the rise. Awareness of equality issues in our society has never been higher and anti-discrimination legislation has never been stronger, but since the 1990s there has been a pronounced and worrying trend running in the opposite direction. Attitudes and beliefs that would have been regarded as benighted and offensive in my childhood in the 1980s have re-entered the mainstream, in the form of what Deborah Cameron, a professor of linguistics, calls "the myth of Mars and Venus".

This has happened both through the medium of pop psychology books like John Gray's Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus and through middlebrow popular science works like The Blank Slate by Steven Pinker and The Essential Difference by Simon Baron-Cohen (Sasha's much less amusing cousin). Aware that they are challenging widespread progressive beliefs, such authors often portray themselves as courageous Galileos taking on a stultifying feminist orthodoxy. In fact, they are doing little more than providing intellectual cover for half-baked prejudices that can be heard from any pub bore.

Cameron is right to draw attention to a highly important meta-analysis of research into gender differences which shows that most such differences, as measured in the academic literature, are statistically small and few are pronounced. She might also have noted that some differences revealed by research are directly contradictory to the Mars and Venus stereotypes. Other authors who have examined the scientific evidence in this area and questioned the tendentious conclusions of Pinker et al. include Natasha Walters in her important book Living Dolls and the leading geneticist Prof. Steve Jones.  Jones has criticised those who would "concentrate on dressing up vague differences between the mental wiring of men and women so that they seem real, significant and important", and highlights the enormous importance of culture: men in general tend to be more violent than women, but a woman in the crime-ridden United States has a greater chance of committing a murder than a man in low-crime Japan.

Cameron's own area of focus is the field of communication. It is said that women are keener on communication than men and more skilful at it. They use language in a way that is interpersonal, relational and co-operative rather than instrumental and competitive. This received wisdom, however, should not blind us to the fact that "beliefs on this subject are not timeless and universal". For example, in some societies (including British society in previous centuries) women are seen as having cruder and more vulgar modes of speech, while men are supposed to talk with elegance and sophistication. Marjorie Harness Goodwin's extensively documented study The Hidden Life of Girls revealed that her subjects "habitually did all the things which [the Mars and Venus myth] says girls do not do. They gave direct orders, challenged one another directly... and boasted about their athletic skills, possessions and family status."

In the context of heterosexual relationships, the myth of Mars and Venus holds that men and women typically misunderstand each other, leading to tension and conflict. Some writers have framed this supposed communication conflict as being analogous to cross-cultural communication difficulties. On this view, a woman talking to a man can expect to encounter the same sort of problems as an American trying to do business in Japan. Cameron rightly has no time for this - though she does point out that such ideas are remarkably convenient for men who don't want to understand what their partners are saying. She even makes a foray into the sensitive area of sexual violence: she suggests that much modern advice to women on this subject (just say No, directly and clearly) is based on the flawed premise that "men who persist in making unwanted sexual advances are genuinely confused, and will be happy to have their confusion dispelled by a simple, firm 'no'. It does not allow for the possibility that men who behave in this way are not so much confused about women's wishes as indifferent to them."  An emphatic rejection might simply inflame an already dangerous situation, she suggests.

Cameron also takes on the frivolous just-so stories favoured by Mars and Venus writers which seek to explain supposed gender differences on the basis that evolution favoured different forms of behaviour in Stone Age men and women. It is sometimes said, for example, that men were the strong, silent hunters while women were the garrulous gatherers - except that in modern-day traditional societies both sexes spend most of their time gathering, women do some hunting too, and in any case hunting provides ready opportunities for male bonding through speech. Other writers have claimed that particular forms of communication served to give men a competitive advantage in securing partners while women correspondingly evolved to be good listeners - but this directly contradicts the notion that men are the linguistically less skilled sex. I could go on, but it should be clear that we are well into the realms of pseudoscience here.

If the myth of Mars and Venus has no merit, why has it gained such popularity in recent years? Indeed, even if gender differences were biologically predetermined, that would not be sufficient in itself to explain the myth's hold. After all, there are inherent differences between left- and right-handed people, but "[w]e don't conceive of them as different species from different planets; we don't seem them as locked in an eternal 'battle of the hands'".

The answer lies in the fact that the myth has important psychological functions. Cameron notes that "[n]o group of men and women in history have ever been less different, or less at the mercy of their biology, than those living in western societies today".  The myth of Mars and Venus seems to be a by-product of our anxiety about, and in some cases opposition to, social and cultural changes affecting the roles and lifestyles of men and women. Moreover, much of the potential for conflict within heterosexual relationships today is a medium-term side-effect of these same structural changes, not an inevitable consequence of the way that the sexes evolved in the upper palaeolithic. The myth is not value-neutral either. It tends to imply that women rather than men should take on most of the responsibility for ensuring effective communication, while conversely the allegedly objective fact that women talk more than men is suspiciously close to the nakedly sexist value judgement that women talk too much.

In all, this is a short but excellent book, and a much-needed antidote for the nonsense that is regularly talked on this subject. To adopt words that Cameron herself uses, Men are from Earth, Women are from Earth - deal with it.