Enforced Reconstruction

I’d like to say a bit more about the notion of enforced reconstruction.  Note that this is an exposition of Sally Haslanger’s analysis of the subject.

Recall that Catharine MacKinnon’s concept of objectification (as understood by Sally Haslanger) is: “[O]ne objectifies something just in case one views it and treats it as an object that has by nature properties which one desires in it and, further, one has the power to make it have those properties.”  And that enforced reconstruction is my term for the epistemic component of this type of objectification.

The problem of objectification starts with the view or belief of the objectifier that the objectified has by nature certain properties that are desired by the objectifier. The treatment as an object follows on this belief, but it starts with a belief.  So when men objectify women, they do so, in part, because they actually have a belief about the nature of women.

What are the relevant properties that men believe women have by nature?  Well, there are a lot of them, but the basic list is the typical patriarchal picture of women: Women are by nature submissive, more emotional, disposed to want to please men, etc. In general, women are, by nature, subordinate to men.

Full stop.  I believe it is false that women by nature have these properties.

But the very commonly held belief that women have these properties by nature is (at least for MacKinnon and Haslanger) part of what it means to objectify women and is one of the root reasons that men treat women in an objectifying way.  Incidentally, many women, unfortunately, share this belief.

Consider the state of affairs in the world today.  There is a tremendous amount of empirical evidence that, at first glance, would seem to support the notion that women are naturally subordinate to men. There are undeniably huge disparities in economic, political and social power between men and women. It is a straightforward empirical fact that, with very few exceptions (egalitarian tribes and the like), you see women subordinated to men pretty much everywhere you care to look.

Typically, when we see these sorts of patterns, we form beliefs about natural properties. Every time I have ever seen water, it has exhibited certain behaviors, so I have formed a belief that these behaviors reflect the nature of water. The formation of these kinds of beliefs is inevitable, and it happens before we are conscious that we are doing it. It is also difficult to unlearn them once they’ve set in our minds.

So men (and women) grow up in a society in which women are systematically subordinated to men, and they form beliefs about the nature of women based on their experiences – just like they form beliefs about the nature of everything else.

Full Stop. I believe that these beliefs about women are false.

The mistake that is made when these beliefs are formed is easy to specify. Briefly: What men (and women) miss when they form the belief that women have properties by nature that make them subordinate to men is the fact that there is a power differential between most men and most women. Our society is patriarchal, and men, as a group, occupy the dominant and empowered social position. So when we look around and see how women are, what we’re really seeing is how women are when they are in a systematically dis-empowered social position.  But since we fail to take into account the patriarchal system when we interpret these observations, we think that what we’ve seen represents how women actually are by nature.

So to summarize: Men form beliefs about the nature of women because in their experience most women are submissive when compared to men, etc. But men (and women) miss the fact that that men’s power influences the way that women act. We fail to take into account the fact that when women fail to defer to men, women are punished in a variety of ways by men (and to a certain extent by other women) for transgressing gender rules.  So men (and women) form a false belief about the nature of women. The reason that this happens is that our belief-forming inferences are flawed.

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1 Comment

Filed under Feminism, Objectification, Sexism

One response to “Enforced Reconstruction

  1. Pingback: “The Nature” (of Women) | By The Pin

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