Thursday, December 06, 2007

Cowardly, Untrustworthy Women....

Kingsley Browne has added to his list of reasons why women shouldn't serve in combat-related military roles. Men don't trust women, and women are cowards. The first post reminds me of two things - the incompetent analysis William Saletan attempted to pass off as "evolutionary biology" to support the thesis that black people (as a "race") are less intelligent than whites or Asians, and of why we used to have a racially segregated military. Browne could have written this forty years ago, as a protest against troop integration, and he wouldn't have to change much of what he says.

Browne doesn't require much support for his thesis - any grain of sand will do, provided it arguably weighs against women:
A study of male and female support troops in the Gulf War, none of whom had seen combat, found that women reported significantly more psychological stress than men, especially stress in anticipation of combat.

Empathy also has negative effects, as it not only engenders a reluctance to kill but is also associated with greater guilt for having killed. Some reports coming back from Iraq suggest that women are suffering higher levels, and a more severe form, of PTSD than men are.
For the first argument, that could mean that women are more in touch with their feelings than men - not that they felt more fear, but that they were more aware of their fear. We could extrapolate from that, Browne-style, that perhaps it should be interpreted to support the role of women in combat, because they're more conscious of their fear and thus able to discount its effects when making decisions. I'm not saying the evidence supports that - I'm just demonstrating how Browne's style of speculative argument cuts both ways.

As for "some reports" suggesting that women suffer from higher levels or more severe forms of PTSD, it seems implicit within Browne's description that the evidence is not yet in - but if it weighs against women, he reports it anyway. And again we have something that cuts both ways - is the problem that women suffer greater incidence of PTSD, or is the problem that men underreport their psychological symptoms (particularly "manly men" of the personality type that Browne has described - masculine leaders, physically aggressive, strong, fearless, highly tolerant of pain....) I'm willing to accept that the evidence is not yet in. In contrast, Browne doesn't seem to care.

As for manly men seeking out social opportunities with many men, well, great. As for “masculinity” and “leadership” being "the two most important traits of soldiers who were judged to be effective fighters", that's great also, but overlooks the fact that it is implicit that not all soldiers were deemed "effective", let to be especially "masculine" or to be "leaders". While it seems reasonable to accept that women, definitionally, are less masculine than men, women are capable of leadership. And less "masculine" men can and do serve in combat. Also, to Browne, trust isn't built over time (all that effort the military puts into building unit cohesion, apparently, is wasted) - it's a gut reaction based on manliness:
In making gut-level decisions, the human mind tends to be attentive to the kinds of information available to us in our ancestral environment. So, good grades at a military academy or high scores on a personality test would be unlikely to engender trust even if they were in fact correlated with combat performance, in the same way that a woman’s appearance will be more important to the strength of a man’s sexual attraction to her than a certificate of fertility from a medical specialist. Intuitive judgments are not easy to change with reasoned argument.

Thus, there is reason to believe that some impediments to effective sexual integration are, in a sense, “hard-wired” into us. If so, the resistance of combat troops to sexual integration is not something that they are going to “grow out of.”
The common name given to those "impediments" being... sexism? "Sorry, ladies, men are sexist by nature and you need to just put up with it." And this thesis is built upon what? A foundation of assumption. (I wonder if his mention of sexual attraction is foreshadowing - as I indicated yesterday, I think it's just a matter of time before he unveils the "you can't put women among those horny guys" argument.)
Some respond to this line of argument by contending that a tendency of men not to trust women is “men’s problem,” not women’s. The issue is not, however, whose “fault” it is (and it is not clear that the concept of fault is even relevant here). Instead, the point is that this lack of trust – whatever its source – poses a risk to the effectiveness of military units. Thus, the lack of trust is a problem for both men and women, as well as for the military (and the nation) as a whole.
If there is a lack of trust, and if it cannot be overcome, that's a potential issue, sure. But as of yet, Professor Browne has not demonstrated that the lack of trust exists, let alone that it is "hard wired", and has not demonstrated that it is a problem. While he keeps telling us what he thinks of women, he's doing an astonishingly poor job of supporting his various assumptions and prejudices.
Aristotle wrote that “a man would be thought a coward if he had no more courage than a courageous woman.” That may seem a gratuitously chauvinistic comment, but it captures an important truth. How often does one even hear of a woman referred to as a coward? The dictionary defines “cowardice” as “disgraceful fear or timidity.” We do not decline to label women cowards because women do not display fear or timidity. Instead, we do so because we do not find women’s fear or timidity disgraceful in settings in which we would see disgrace in men.
It sounds like a gratuitously chauvinistic comment because it is a gratuitously chauvinistic comment. It may be that women are not often characterized as cowardly, but it is fatuous to assume that this means that women cannot be brave.
We should never forget that the average soldier would really like to run away from the fighting. The group prevents him from doing this. If group morality allows for an “honourable” means of flight, it will be accepted gratefully.

Exactly this dynamic may have been in play in 2004 when a mixed-sex platoon of reservists refused a direct order to drive a fuel convoy, although the Army’s reticence about the incident compels one to rely on (perhaps unfair) speculation. The reservists argued that it was a “suicide mission” because their trucks were not armored. News reports did not indicate who the ringleaders of the mutiny were, although it came to light when a female specialist left a message on her mother’s voice mail asking her to “raise pure hell.”
It "may have been in play"? Or it may not. But it doesn't matter to Professor Browne because, as with his EP-3E example, he apparently isn't one to let the facts get in the way of his argument.

Whether as a result of contagion or under the guise of "protecting" fearful women, this idea that being around women turns men into quivering cowards is interesting, but where's the actual support for that? Even in Browne's cartoonish version of "evolutionary psychology", shouldn't we be expecting that the manly men of the military will be puffing out their chests and engaging in acts of bravado in order to impress the ladies? The question becomes, why does Browne see women as a population of emasculating Delilahs?

Update: Prof. Browne's "latest responses to comments" are partially responsive to points I have made here. For example, with regard to race,
The fact is that race and sex are different as categories. Although both of them have underlying biological bases, racial segregation in the military had nothing to do with the biology of race and everything to do with the social meaning placed upon race. Despite arguments to the contrary, however, sex is not just a social construct, and sex differences relevant to military service exist irrespective of what we think about them.
That, of course, is not responsive to the analogy. The comparison was not premised upon gender being "real" and race being a "social construct". The analogy was drawn on the basis that sexism and racism are both real, and that Browne's sexist positions do not appear any more valid than the racist justifications for past military segregation. There were, and are, people who will happily argue that race is "real" and that the intellectual and social differences between races cannot be overcome. Browne rejects their version of "evolutionary psychology", but he has presented no genuine foundation for his own.

As for his failure to cite to authority,
When I started writing my entries, I had to make a judgment about whether to cite to the relevant literature. I decided, for better or worse, not to, for a variety of reasons. First, assuming that I did not provide authority for every assertion, there was the difficulty in drawing the line between assertions for which I would provide authority and those for which I would not. Second, not all (or perhaps even most) readers of blogs expect or want to read heavily sourced, academic style writings, and I assumed that people seriously interested in the underlying research would go to my book (and, of course, I hoped that they would buy it for themselves, as well as for everyone on their Christmas card list).

Perhaps the most fundamental reason for not citing to the relevant literature is that a one-sentence assertion in a blog post might be summarizing several pages of my book, which in turn might be citing numerous authorities. To give one example, in my post on cohesion and trust I stated: “Formation of, and functioning in, large cohesive groups is easier for men than for women, and men are more accepting of hierarchy than women are.” I was criticized for “bald assertion” in making this point, and, of course, the assertion was “bald,” if that means that I cited no authority for it. However, that one sentence summarized about five pages from my book that contained nineteen footnotes that cited to over twenty separate sources, most from the psychological literature. That does not mean that my inferences and conclusions are correct, of course, but it does mean that I didn’t make them up out of whole cloth.
That's a cop-out. First, whatever his initial impression about blogging, it would have been clear to him pretty much from the outset that he was expected to do more than make "bald assertions". Second, complaining, "citing to authority is hard", is not a compelling reason to leave your arguments unsupported. If he really has to cite to five pages of explanatory text and fifteen footnotes to support a single sentence, he leaves the impression not that he has engaged in careful research, but that he is hiding behind a maze of overlapping sources which may or may not actually support his blanket thesis. And if we are to accept that this is typical of his work....

To look at it another way, the study of small group dynamics is a bona fide field of study, and not a new one. There are decades of research into group formation, function and cohesion, many of which consider gender. If Browne cannot find among the body of peer reviewed studies on this subject even one which supports his sentence, such that he must draw his conclusion based upon a mishmash of fifteen or more sources, it is more likely that the body of work upon which he relies does not adequately support his thesis than that he correctly gleaned an insight from the works of dozens of social scientists, for whom this is their primary field of study, that everybody else somehow missed.


  1. I support women fighting in wars, but with some prerequisites:

    1 women's squad will be composed only by women and not get any help from male platoons.

    2 The call will be mandatory and not just some GI Janes wanting to play soldier.

    It's time for egalitarian women shed her precious blood on the battlefield and die in wars.

    1. No aid from other platoons? Seriously? And a draft "just for women"?

      Fortunately, you won't be the one defining those terms.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.