The Difference that Makes a Difference

The world as we know it is in imbalance. While there are many factors at play, it is a telling fact that women still have to fight for their place, their rights and their agency in the world. While this would not have been the choice for our first dharmapolitan exploration, the recent political mood and debates make it imperative that we talk about it. Violence against women has been in the news in India because of a spate of crimes against women coming to light and more recently a documentary showcasing one the more violent crimes in the recent past. At the same time, we read about the incidence of campus rapes being branded the ‘new social panic’ in the American media. There is a common thread between these disparate incidents. By discussing what a woman’s status ought to be in a dharmapolitan world, we may be able to understand the violence that occurs when women are not accorded that station.

That patriarchy and our age old practices have relegated women to a less than human status is sadly true. Gender based violence is symptomatic of a slew of problems in our society today.The inequalities begin with existence, as female foetuses are aborted, and continue throughout their lives and manifest with lack of social support and most brutally with violence.

As Dharmapolitans, we are sensitive to similarities as well as differences that have moral consequences. We are used to similarity being the basis for moral responsibility. Our obligations are often couched in the language of similarity; for example, we might say “all human beings are created equal,” where the equal is to be understood in two related but distinct ways:

  1. Equal in their organic nature, i.e., having similar capacities for thinking, feeling and suffering.
  2. Equal in the eyes of the law, i.e.,deserving similar treatment from the state and other relevant parties.

Of course, equality and similarity are always asserted in the backdrop of difference. There’s no need to state the obvious in a world where everyone’s actually treated alike. It’s the fact that they’re treated differently that makes equality worth iterating. At the very least, we start with the realization that people should be treated equally, but they are treated unequally. The reality of difference is in contrast with the ideal of similarity. The study of difference precedes the study of equality.

Differences that are salient qua difference (henceforth DMD) are particularly important. Consider the opposite, a coin toss or a roll of dice. Imagine a game of dice where the larger throw wins. If two gamblers roll a pair of dice and one gets a total of 11 and the other gets a total of 7, the first one wins. However, there’s nothing but chance associated with the win. Assuming a fair game, the results could have been different. The difference between 7 and 11 isn’t a difference that makes a difference, i.e., a DMD.

In contrast, the game of life is rigged from the start. Caste, Race, Gender and Species dictate outcomes even as we claim equality. Gender is particularly pernicious since it conflates biology and socialization into one monolithic DMD. To argue that men and women are equal is (often) to miss the point. There are millions of studies showing that men and women have the same mental and emotional skills. Innumerable theses have argued that educating and empowering women is the best way for a society to develop and flourish. Meanwhile women continue to be discriminated not because they are smarter or weaker, but simply because they’re women. Gender is a DMD. At Dharmapolis, we find DMDs interesting and at the core of moral reimagination. We are particularly interested in seemingly intractable differences as are often claimed to exist between men and women or between humans and other species. Our first dharmapolitan exploration, spanning all of May 2015, is devoted to gender.

Once a category reaches DMD status, it only needs to be invoked once in order to prompt a slew of stereotypes and biases. In recent times, the category “Muslim” has reached that status across the globe. Gender has had DMD status for a very long time, so that one only needs to mention that an individual is a woman for her to be subjected to a range of judgments. We aren’t saying that gender differences are absolute; far from it. We are all aware of women who have taken leadership positions even in the most male dominated environments but it’s clear that they are the exception rather than the rule.

The entrenched nature of DMDs makes it hard for us to set aside our judgments even when we are legally obliged to do so. The moral philosopher John Rawls created a thought experiment that he called the veil of ignorance. It was set in an imagined world in which we make moral decisions without knowing anything about the person about whom the decision is being made, as if wearing a veil that masks knowledge of the identity of the person on the other side. Gender (and other DMDs) pierce the veil, because try as we might, we can’t mask the gender of the person on the other side. That’s why we can’t pretend as if we are constructing a society without difference and working our way backward from that goal.

It’s true that in India and elsewhere there’s greater sensitivity to the systematic discrimination against women and policy changes as well as ongoing social transformations point in a positive direction. However, that shouldn’t blind us to the origins of gender discrimination, which doesn’t flow from perceived differences in capability, but from the very fact of women being women. Nevertheless, we can hope that large scale social transformation and policy changes will loosen the entrenched biases that make gender into a DMD. The achievement of parity starts with it’s invisibility; the day when we no longer have to talk about the presence of women in currently masculine spaces is a sign that a new normal has been achieved. Until then gender is a persistent cognitive and social category, a way of organizing our thoughts and the social world around us.

Written in association with smitha


Originally published at www.dharmapolis.com.

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