Invisible Inequality

John Stuart Mill’s 1869 essay, On the Subjection of Women, is an argument for equality between the sexes — occupationally, politically, and socially. Mill proposes that one of the biggest obstacles to equality is the entrenchment of the status quo. One of the reasons that women are not treated the same as men, says Mill, is because the entire apparatus of society — from social customs to personal expectations — conditions us to think of the sexes as unequal. Thus, we are products of a vicious cycle: the status quo shapes our opinions and therefore we uphold the status quo. For example, if you believe women should not be allowed to vote, you affirm your support for status quo — but it was the status quo itself that framed your opinion in the first place. This feedback loop fortifies itself in our collective psychology: we only know how men and women are ‘supposed’ to act because of how we have already seen them act. ‘Right,’ ‘good,’ ‘appropriate,’ and ‘proper’ are benchmarks set by beliefs that are so deeply embedded that we are virtually blind to them.

Standing on the ground of common sense and the constitution of the human mind, I deny that anyone knows, or can know, the nature of the two sexes, as long as they have only been seen in their present relation to one another. (Mill 1869:I)

The problem is that, “men usually see only what they already had in their own minds,” and what they have in their minds is an idea based on what they have already seen (Mill 1869:I). Around and around it goes. It becomes impossible to simply argue, ‘Women should be equal to men’ when another simply rebuts, ‘No! Just look around: see how unequal women are!’ At every point in the debate, this problem of status quo raises its ugly head: someone will argue that because women are intellectually inferior to men, they should not be admitted to universities, but it is precisely because they do not have equal access to education that they are deemed as intellectually inferior in the first place. The status quo has one mission: to self-referentially justify its own established norms.

Mill points out that our “instinct” presents the things we believe, “for which we cannot trace any rational foundation” (1869). It is a wholly irrational proposition to say that women should not be equal to men because women are not equal to men. That is obviously circular nonsense, but it is evidently the grounds upon which inequality is rooted and thrives. Therefore the most vexing problem is not that we are blatantly irrational, but that we are permanently blind to our irrationality.

History is full of such examples of this blindness. Mill asks us to consider how the slavery practices of the ancient Greeks and early Americans failed to gel, “with their notion of themselves as a free people” (1869). I would contend the same kind of blindness exists today within cultures who fail to give a rational, systemic account for the disproportionate rates of incarceration and poverty among specific ethnic populations. The stereotypes of the ‘criminal negro’ or the ‘lazy indian’ are no less irrational than the stereotype of the naturally ‘subservient woman’.

Stereotypes are self perpetuating for as long as we are blind to their causes. Inequality is systemic. Those who sustain and enforce it are those who are either unable to perceive it or who nonchalantly suppose that the structural subjection of others is a result of their “natural” disposition.

Therefore, inequality is not only systemic, it is myopic: it takes root in my uncritical willingness to accept the world as it appears without exerting the effort to investigate any structural causes.

Bigots are intellectually lazy… How’s that for a stereotype?

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