Question: What is sexism?

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Question: What is sexism?

Introduction to Question

It has become increasingly common from feminist critics of the Church to assert that many things about its practice, belief, and history are sexist. In order to adequately respond to this criticism, it will be necessary to define sexism so that we can all be sharp moral thinkers about important issues. Having something called sexist is a serious accusation to face and Latter-day Saints should be prepared to respond intelligently but also sensitvely to those that have faced sexism and perceive it in the Church.

In the October 2017 General Conference of the Church, Elder M. Russell Ballard taught that "[w]e need to embrace God’s children compassionately and eliminate any prejudice, including racism, sexism, and nationalism. Let it be said that we truly believe the blessings of the restored gospel of Jesus Christ are for every child of God."[1]

The Book of Mormon boldly declares that God "inviteth them all to come unto him and partake of his goodness; and he denieth none that come unto him, black and white, bond and free, male and female; and he remembereth the heathen; and all are alike unto God, both Jew and Gentile."[2]

Sexism is condemned by the Lord.

With that in mind, let's explore the definition of sexism philosophically. Doing so may help ameliorate some concerns that women and men have regarding the Church and the perceived sexism within it.

Those who believe that they have substantive philosophical or scriptural objections to the argument presented in this article are free to make them to FAIR editors at this link.

Response to Question

DS1

The first very obvious definition of sexism has to do with the belief of the inherent increase or decrease between the two genders in terms of moral worth: men being inherently superior to women or women being inherently superior to men. When we say "moral worth" we mean that, for instance, if we had two men and two women are tied to two strands of a train track and we get to decide who lives and dies by pulling or not pulling a lever, we would prefer to save the two men over the two women because they are more valuable to long term successes of a particular population. This inherent moral worth is supposedly recognized in either men or women because of things like intelligence. If you believe that any man is going to be inherently more intelligent than a woman, you may want to only allow men to be your leaders and do everything you can to save men from danger like the trolley problem just described. You'll assign more inherent moral worth to men because of their greater intelligence. Thus, moral worth decides the kinds of opportunities that we afford to men or women depending upon how much inherent moral worth we recognize in them and that moral worth is given because of characteristics like strength, intelligence, etc. All can agree that this is sexism. We can call this DS1 (definition of sexism #1): Belief in the inherent increase or decrease of moral worth between the sexes.

DS2

We need to add to our definition something about misogyny and misandry in connection to sexism. Misogyny is defined simply as the hatred of a woman because she's a woman. Misandry is defined as the hatred of a man because he is a man. When you hate a man or woman because they are a man or woman, it is necessarily the case that you have a hatred of all men or all women or both. If you have a hatred of all men or women, you are a misogynist or misandrist. If you have a hatred of a particular person because they are a man or woman, you're are a misandrist or misogynist. If you have misogyny or misandry in your heart as an attitude towards women or men, you will, by definition, also believe yourself as superior to women or men which is sexism. You will also likely (but not necessarily) deny them opportunities on the basis of their gender. You will be slightly more likely to commit acts of violence against them or verbally hurt them. There are times when people can have misogyny or misandry in their heart that we can empathize with even though that misogyny or misandry is still wrong. For example, some man may have some misogyny in his heart because he has been hurt too many times by women who he has dated. He can exclaim loudly his disdain or hatred of women. His hatred will come with a reason that he's conjured in his mind. "I hate women!" "Why do you hate women?" "They're liars and cheaters!" We have a categorical statement from the man. All women are liars and cheaters.

Now, the vast majority of people who are in this type of situation quickly recognize that they've made a passionate and obviously wrong claim as they talk through their frustrations with someone. However, it still remains a fact that this man made a claim about women that comments on their inherent moral worth as human beings and gives a reason for that perceived lesser worth. Misandry or misogyny is necessarily connected to sexism. These people's hatred of women or men and the necessarily sexist beliefs they'll adopt because of that hatred are of course still wrong, but we can empathize with that misogyny/misandry and sexism to an appropriate degree and seek, with love and by the Spirit, to heal their hearts of the pain they've felt that is causing the very generalized, disdainful attitude of and belief about men or women.

Another example of misogyny or misandry would be seen if, for instance, if two children, one a boy and the other a girl, can come to a person's door on Halloween and that person can intend to give both children candy but deny giving candy to one of the children when they see that that child is a girl. In this example, I don't have any reason to deny the candy to the girl other than an irrational hatred of all women. In DS1, I'm valuing men, for instance, for a very particular characteristic they supposedly all have inherently over all women. In DS2, we hate either men or women and thus don't want to provide them certain things or opportunities for things. DS1 might be called rational sexism and misogyny/misandry might be called irrational sexism. Misogyny/Misandry differ themselves from DS1 because they're passionate and irrational. They have a necessary connection to sexism though.

Thus, we get DS2: Belief in the inherent increase or decrease of moral worth between the sexes because of a particular characteristic, misogyny, or misandry.

One can now see the tight association between sexism and misandry/misogyny. They're not the same, but closely related. One is a belief about the sexes, the other is an attitude toward the sexes. Both can define the types of opportunities that we want to afford to them.

DS3

The major deficit of DS2 is that it does not give us what might be a more insightful lens for knowing when someone is acting with rational sexism or irrational sexism even when they don't declare it.

Say that a man is being interviewed for a job and he is declined that job. The job is given to a woman. The man can ask his would-be employer why. The employer can say that it was because the man didn't have as high educational attainments as the woman did. Assume for the sake of argument that the man was able to find out the educational attainments of the woman and found that he actually had better accolades than her. It instantly became more likely that the man didn't get the job because of rational sexism or misandry. What are the other keys that we have to know whether or not we or someone we love is the victim of rational sexism or misogyny/misandry? To understand that, we have to talk about justice and how we define it.

We most often think about justice in terms of stuff or opportunities to get stuff. If I deny stuff or opportunities for stuff to someone on the basis of sex, I'm necessarily carrying a belief in sexism. For instance, going back to our candy example, if two children, one a boy and the other a girl, can come to a person's door on Halloween and that person can intend to give both children candy but deny giving candy to one of the children when they see that that child is a girl. This would be an example of injustice and misogyny. Similarly, we can deny one of the genders the opportunity of playing sports and competing for awards. Thus we can discriminate with stuff or opportunities to get stuff. But there are other conditions that need to be met in order to us to make a valid accusation of sexism or misogyny/misandry.

Let's consider things like scrunchies, bras, or panties for women. We typically provide all those things for women but not for men. Why? Because men typically don't want those things. Returning to the candy example, say that all that we have as candy for the children are Heath bars. What if the girl simply doesn't want a Heath bar and refuses us giving it to her? Have we done something sexist by not giving her the Heath bar? Of course not! Thus, stuff or opportunities must be wanted in order to infer that someone has done something sexist.

Sometimes things are needed to preserve our health or life. Say there are two people, one male and the other female, that are stranded in the desert in need of water to survive. They stumble upon me and I have water to give to them. I give water only to the female but not the male. Clearly something we would consider an example of sexism. Thus, sometimes stuff or opportunities for stuff must be needed.

There are certain times when stuff or opportunities for stuff must be merited such as in competitive sporting events, scholarships for school, and many jobs. Denying someone an award or medal when they haven't earned it can't be unjust. Denying someone an aware or medal when they have earned it is unjust.

These are among the conditions that must be met in order to know when someone is denying us an opportunity based in either sexism or misandry/misogyny: want, need, and merit. This gives us DS3: Belief in the inherent increase or decrease of moral worth between the sexes because of a particular characteristic, misogyny or misandry, and/or denying someone stuff or opportunity for stuff on the basis of sex when that stuff or opportunity for stuff is wanted, needed, or, when appropriate, merited.

DS3 is the definition of sexism that most people operate under. Virtually everyone can agree that this is a coherent and defensible definition of sexism. But it is still not sufficient to capture everything about sexism. There is one more condition that must be met in order to make a valid accusation of sexism.

DS4

Let's consider this deeper and go back to our candy example. Say that the two children come to the door and the person simply doesn't have enough candy to give to both of them. They have one piece for one child and no more for the other. They don't have time to go to the store and get more because their wife suddenly went into labor and they need to get her to the hospital. Would we say that the person has done something sexist to the little girl? It would be patent nonsense to try and argue that. Of course, it does suck for the little girl; but we wouldn't hold that person morally accountable for not giving that child candy. They didn't have any other option. The author is sure that we wouldn't say that that person has done something unjust or sexist.

Thus we must expand our definition of sexism to DS4: Belief in the inherent increase or decrease of moral worth between the sexes because of a particular characteristic, misogyny or misandry, and/or denying someone stuff or opportunity for stuff on the basis of sex when that stuff or opportunity for stuff when it is possible to be given, and it is wanted, needed, or, when appropriate, merited.

This definition of sexism is almost guaranteed to help many in their continued efforts to have faith in the Church and to be sharp moral thinkers about sexism. It may become more clear as people read articles that have been or will be written about this topic in relation to the Church.

One can now survey all of the requirements that must be met in order to a valid accusation of sexism to be made. If stuff or an opportunity for stuff is denied and it was possible to be given, needed, wanted, or merited, then it must necessarily be the case that that thing or opportunity is being denied on the basis of something fundamentally unjust such as your gender, religion, sexuality, race, nationality, or other things. Knowing the conditions which must be met for stuff or an opportunity to be given helps us to detect prejudicial and unjustified discrimination.

The Connections Between the Belief, the Attitude, and the Action

We have this separation now between a belief (of an increase or decrease in inherent moral worth), an attitude (misogyny or misandry), and a particular kind of action (denying stuff or opportunities for stuff) given certain circumstances. Here are the logical connections to keep in mind about them.

  1. The attitude necessarily entails that someone holds the belief.
  2. The attitude will likely carry someone to the action but not necessarily. They may refrain from the action but still carry the attitude.
  3. The belief does not necessarily entail that someone has the attitude of misogyny nor will take the action given circumstances.
  4. The particular action given circumstances necessarily entails that someone has the belief and suggests that someone may have the attitude but does not necessarily entail that someone has the attitude.

Review

To review:

  1. DS1: Belief in the inherent increase or decrease of moral worth between the sexes because of a particular characteristic
  2. DS2: Belief in the inherent increase or decrease of moral worth between the sexes because of a particular characteristic, misogyny, or misandry.
  3. DS3: Belief in the inherent increase or decrease of moral worth between the sexes because of a particular characteristic, misogyny or misandry, and/or denying someone stuff or opportunity for stuff on the basis of sex when that stuff or opportunity for stuff is wanted, needed, or, when appropriate, merited.
  4. DS4: Belief in the inherent increase or decrease of moral worth between the sexes because of a particular characteristic, misogyny or misandry, and/or denying someone stuff or opportunity for stuff on the basis of sex when that stuff or opportunity for stuff when it is possible to be given, and it is wanted, needed, or, when appropriate, merited.

Deriving Other Definitions from This Analysis

What's interesting is that one can substitute the word "races" for the word "sexes", "hatred of a particular race" for "misandry or misogyny", and "race" for "sex" and have a very coherent, very defensible definition of racism.

One can substitute "people of a homosexual sexual orientation" for "sexes", "hatred of a person or group of people on the basis of homosexual sexual orientation" for "misandry or misogyny", and "homosexual sexual orientation" for "sex" and have a very coherent, very defensible definition of homophobia.

One can do similar substitutions for nationality, religion, etc. and come up with very coherent definitions of xenophobia, islamophobia, mormophobia, anti-semitism, etc.

Conclusion

It's the authors belief that many of the concerns that men and women have about perceived sexism in the Church will be helped by recognizing that certain opportunities may be denied them because of higher moral goods that supersede either their wants, needs, or merits. FAIR will likely author future articles under this definition of sexism as it seems to make sense of many accusations of sexism against the Church. Hopefully, this argument will continue to hold philosophically and this definition of sexism will help us to become sharper moral thinkers and be more intelligent as well as sensitive defenders of the Church.

Notes

  1. M. Russell Ballard, "The Trek Continues!" Ensign 47, no. 11 (November 2017): 106.
  2. 2 Nephi 26:33