Male privilege is an ugly cultural trope

So I am talking with a friend, whom I know to be intelligent and fair-minded about Mr. Kavanaugh and Dr. Ford, and I am caught by surprise.  He says first that Dr. Ford has been too inconsistent in her testimony about who was in the room when she was assaulted (she hasn’t), so that he cannot believe her. Then he says the incident is not big deal because he as a teenager tried to “cop a feel” many times, thereby equating perhaps overly aggressive making out with forceful isolation and capture while trying to strip the lady (I heard this too many times when I worked with sexually aggressive youth).  Finally he says the #Metoo movement has gone too far because simply accusing a man ruins his reputation.  Geesh!  If he had ever expressed concern over the centuries old culture of men abusing women with impunity I could give him a break on this one, but he has not. We talked a good deal about his views mostly to no purpose and I have since wondered about the lacuna in his moral outlook and how it is that what we call ‘male privilege’ is inculcated mentally and then so strongly affects perception, action, and judgment and the male seems unaware of the effects.

One analogy here is our accent when speaking. We learn early on to speak with a regional and familial accent; we can recognize speakers from Boston, the Midwest, and different parts of the South.  Our accents can change incidentally when we move to a new region or on purpose as when some train their voices for media work.  Further, we make judgments about people based on their accent.  I lived all over the USA and graduated high school in Japan.  My accent was a conglomerate of family and different regions. Some years after high school and having lived in North Carolina for 12 years, I ran into an old girlfriend.  We had been talking for a while when she said that she knew I was smart but that I sounded so dumb with my southern accent. Who knew?  And after long holidays in Ireland and Scotland I find, and friends remark on it, that my accent has picked up a little of their lovely lilt.

Accents different from our own can be hard to understand and put people off. My mother grew up in south central Virginia.  She left there in the mid-1940s with my father who joined the Air Force.  In 1960 we moved to North Dakota.  In those days you went through an operator to make a long distance call.  When my mother tried to call home, i.e., Petersburg VA, the operator could not understand her and she could not understand the operator, who spoke and listened with the Norwegian rooted accent native to that area.  My sister stepped in to translate.  When we visited family the next summer, her sisters said my mother sounded strange to them and talked like a ‘Yankee’.  Oh, my.

I use this analogy only to highlight the incidental, mostly unconscious learning of specific cultural facets.  A deeper and broader facet would be sex/gender roles, e.g., boys don’t cry, girls do and that’s ok except that it indicates their lack of rationality. “Boys will be boys” and so much misbehavior, some of it quite serious in its violation of another person, is excused, and aren’t all men really boys at heart so give all of them a break, please. I have posted several times before about gender bias and sexual harassment/assault.  As a clinical psychologist I worked with many young males who had been sexually aggressive.  They wondered what the problem was or thought their actions were completely ok and justified.  The complexity of full consent was unknown to them as it is to many males in many cultures. Why?  Because full consent, in the view of many males, does not apply to them—this is the rotten core at the heart of male privilege.

We go from being young children with instincts for empathy, intimacy, fair play, helping others, & revulsion at seeing others hurt to (especially men now) feeling entitled to catcall and comment on a woman’s appearance, privileged to touch her without either explicit permission or, more commonly, mutually established trust and intimacy, and holding opinions that women do not want powerful and responsible positions because they are too fragile or just prefer someone else to do the heavy lifting.  And opining that the questions raised about a man’s behavior when a women alleges that he has been inappropriate are being handled unfairly, while showing little concern about the incredible numbers of women who endure sexualized mistreatment silently because they are only too aware that speaking out will compound their mistreatment by those who loudly carry forward male privilege.

When we consider how our brains are acculturated in this way, how we inculcate assumptions in our habitus about the rules of social behavior, and how our Empathy Central or EC (that’s ToM or Theory of Mind to most of you) operates with the moral lacunae of male privilege, when we consider such phenomena, our lack of knowledge about this neuropsychology is plainly seen.  But we do know some things; go back a couple of posts and read about Decety’s model of empathy (see post 9/9/18) and Iacoboni’s ideas about existential neuroscience (see post 9/16/18). The latter discusses the centrality of mirroring and mentalizing about others in social behaviors.  Male privilege can be seen as both a defective mirror that distorts the resonance with another (females are so different from us, huh, guys?) and inaccurate algorithms that provide errant empathetic suppositions about the other (she can’t rationally object to what I the man think).  Decety’s model includes the failure to mirror and resonate accurately and fully and he also adds 3 other systemic difficulties [from that post]:

  • Confusion as to the agent of thoughts and feelings. They think their own thoughts and feelings are also the other’s and they may fail to process accurately social feedback when the other tries to disagree or otherwise present their own perspective (familiar, ladies?).
  • This leads to problems with perspective taking. They may assume that their perspective is shared by everyone [males assume females share theirs]
  • Poorly developed emotional regulation presents difficulties for staying on mental task and intent as well as for responding with empathic concern for the other—instead they act upon their own egoistic anxiety and fail to engage socially in an adequate manner

Male privilege is a cultural trope that has maintained its bias through many iterations for a long, long time.  Such bias is inculcated while young in various ways with different forms according to one’s sex/gender, family traditions, social class, and educational level.  Like a linguistic accent, our social behaviors and attitudes have a ‘privileged’ accent.  Many operate with this accent, i.e., bias, without any cognizance that something is different, indeed that something is wrong.  Some do learn to operate socially and morally with a different accent, i.e., they reflect consciously on their attitudes, evaluating their accuracy and fairness, and change the bias acquired earlier in life.

As I posted in January about Oprah’s wonderful speech at the Golden Globes: “Oprah’s promising vision of a world where girls and women meet respect and justice is one beautiful flower of this moment in time and cultural egress leaving a stultified domain of male privilege and entering one refreshed by the inclusion of females in a new and refreshing view of their humanity, the acknowledgment of their personhood and the refusal by everyone to abide by any violation of this inalienable right.” The change needed to fulfill this vision is, given the long history of cultural biases, enormous.  Indeed, it is in a way utopian, but it is also already evident in the cultural path of our civilization.  We are not alone in refusing to go forward with male privilege. That’s a good thing because the heavy lifting necessary for progress has gotten a bit heavier this past week or so. Travel on.

Existential neuroscience and autonoesis

I read a remarkable article by Marco Iacoboni in Social Neuroscience entitled “The Quiet Revolution in Existential Neuroscience”.  Instead of ‘quiet’ I wish it would be quite loud.  It makes for some dense reading but worth every nerve impulse to do so.  His main argument seems to be that instead of doing neuroscience based on the assumptions that the subjective and objective worlds are clearly delineated and that the subjective world is based upon representations which have been constructed through the accretion of analyzed elements (some pragmatic truth in that), our neuroscience should be based upon “the view of a human brain that needs a body to exist in a world of shared social norms in which meaning originates from being-in-the-world”.  What is important to our minds is not so much the analytic synthesis but the embodied context of experience.  Hey now, I can get behind that one.

Iacoboni marshals evidence for this view from a variety of research, especially studies into the frontoparietal mirror system.  (The frontal lobe has motoric functions that light up when we see someone doing something and the parietal lobe has perceptual and body schema functions that contribute to this mirroring).  Some studies show that mirroring emotions both incidentally and intentionally invokes not just the mirrored expressive actions but also the emotional processes themselves in the limbic system.  We mirror each other automatically on an almost continuous basis and that this leads to (I really like this next part) “a process according to which a certain intimacy is achieved . . . . . What is this intimacy if not the interdependence of both parties”.  What is emphasized here is not our separateness but our communal feelings. Mirroring helps us identify with and understand the other’s intention and emotional state.  This plays, of course, an important role in ‘mentalizing’ about others, what I call EC for Empathy Central and others label it ToM for Theory of Mind.

There is a lot more about this to be said but I want to explore another remarkable idea.  Iacoboni sees our minds interpreting much of our experience in context.  The same actions occur in many situations, so that to understand the other’s acts requires the inclusion of context in our deliberations.  (Be still, O my heart).  If I read him correctly, one major feature of any context is the degree of personal relevance; some situations are impersonal, i.e., without emotional engagement or involvement (think of doing things as a matter of course), and some are more personal, i.e., their emotional involvement leads to episodic memories (the experience is important enough to remember as an autobiographical episode of your life).  Experiences that are important to the self are autonoetic, as was discussed in my recent post 8/22/18, and autonoesis has many implications.


DMPFC=dorsomedial prefrontal cortex MPC=medial parietal cortex. Illustration provided by Georg Northoff – Georg Northoff  Brain and self – a neurophilosophical account Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and Mental Health 2013, 7:28.

Most amazingly, Iacoboni identifies two structures relevant to the mirroring system, the dorsomedial prefrontal cortex and the medial parietal cortex, that light up when the experience is autonoetic (my interpretation).  For example, these two areas are silent during artificial laboratory tasks that have little ecological validity but they become more active when the task is social in a meaningful way.  Iacoboni says our ‘default state’ is to think socially and these two areas help in the ongoing social thinking needed to relate in a authentic, i.e., not rote or cant, manner.  To refer back to his earlier notion, these areas light up more when the situation’s import is based upon intimacy, i.e., engagement with the other, than when the situation is socially sterile.

Now, if you have followed my blog somewhat closely for more than a few months, you may already have a sense of how my dorsomedial prefrontal and medial parietal cortices are fired up.  Consider one of Iacoboni’s preliminary research finding that these areas light up when political aficionados discuss politics and grow dark when politically naïve or disinterested people do so.  I take this to mean that some of us feel politics is relevant to our lives and some do not.  Some do because they are cognitively engaged in issues and some do only because of the chameleon effect, i.e., they are responding by fitting in through social imitation and emotional contagion.  If you have done any phone canvassing for a candidate you might recall conversations based on positions, conversations based upon an emotional identification, and some when the person could care less.

Now consider a study posted about here on 4/18/18 that demonstrated that the closer you are, i.e., developing intimacy, with colleagues and friends, the more your neural responses to watching a movie are congruent with each other.  Also consider (and it may help to re-read my 8/22/18 post) the role of autonoesis in art. My empirical question is when someone ‘gets into’ a work of art, e.g., reading a novel that is hard to put down or seeing a movie that you love, do these areas indicative of autonoesis or personal engagement, i.e., dorsomedial prefrontal medial parietal cortices, light up? If you used an instrument to assess one’s aesthetic response such as the AESTHEMOS (see post 10/31/17), would this correlate with activity in these areas?  A very interesting study there wants to be done—oh to be a younger man in a research setting.  But go one step further with me.

Aristotle in talking about drama but it applies, I think, in some way to art forms in general, says that since we know the art is not ‘factual’, i.e., couldn’t be relevant to our ‘real’ life, to engage emotionally (and aesthetically, I would say) we must have a willing suspension of disbelief.  So I wonder if such a suspension allows what I am calling these autonoetic areas to fire up, and if we find art uninvolving, e.g., we could care less about the characters or the plot of a stupid movie, do these areas remain dark?  Oh my, that is seeking the deep aesthetic in life and mind.  Travel on.