The Balance Myth

In PeaceAble on July 31, 2014 at 3:22 pm

Today I saw a Facebook meme that contained the following quote: “Every girl deserves a guy that can make her heart forget that it was ever broken.” The site it was linked to had added this comment: “And every man deserves a woman who accepts him for who he is and respects him for his character and not his net worth. Let’s keep it balanced.”
Now, quite apart from whether you agree with either quote, the posting illustrates a persistent problem in our contemporary media culture – the idea that if I say something supportive of one idea or belief or position on an issue or group, then I must immediately make a balancing statement about the opposite side, or I am somehow not being fair. This suggests two things with which I take issue.
First, it suggests that everything is bipolar, with rigid placements for good and bad, right and wrong, positive and negative. If I say something positive about women, I must also mean to say something negative about men. If I say something positive about my personal belief in god, I must mean to simultaneously say something bad about other beliefs. If I say something critical of Israel in its actions in Gaza, then I am required to say something critical about Hamas as well or I will be accused of hating Israel and being an apologist for its enemies.
These are, however, false dichotomies. It is possible for both sides of an issue to be right about some things and wrong about others; and to point out something good or bad about one side is not necessarily related to what is good or bad about the other. It can be simultaneously true that women as a group need something from men as a group and that men as a group need something from women as a group; but stating one without stating the other doesn’t change that. The two things aren’t even necessarily related. In the comment above, for instance, the male response doesn’t even address the issue raised by the original statement; unless we make the assumption that a man can’t be sensitive to a woman’s emotional needs unless she “respects his character.” I’m also not sure what that means. Do women not also need to be accepted for who they are and respected for their character? Are we still living with the idea that women want men for their money? Even if you believe in this idea of balance, the response doesn’t balance the original because it doesn’t address the issue raised. It’s as if I said I really like chocolate cream pie and you responded with, “yes, and lemon meringue deserves to be served, also.”
It also suggests that balance is nothing more than making sure we make equivalent statements. But some things don’t need to be said because they are generally understood as part of our cultural norm. This is the invisible privilege of the norm, and the fallacy of “reverse discrimination.” If, for example, we say that it is well past time for the election of a woman as President, do we really need to “balance” that by declaring that there are also a lot of men who are qualified? If we point out that Eric Cantor, who just lost his primary bid for re-election, is the only Jewish Republican in the Congress, do we need really need to point out that Ralph Hall, a Christian Republican, also lost his primary? In fact, was Hall’s religion even a footnote in most stories about his defeat? The most commonly mentioned of Hall’s traits was his age (91). Having mentioned that should I point out that younger men also lost primary votes? If I wish to make a statement about Black History Month, does “balance” require that I also say that white people have a history, too? There are some things which are so much a part of the norm that we have no need to bring them into the discussion. And talking about achievements outside the norm, therefore, is already providing balance.
Reverse Discrimination is the idea that, as historically disadvantaged groups gain greater power, acceptance and influence, anything they do to achieve those things is discriminatory against the historically advantaged norm. The problem with this is that discrimination – in its meaning as actions which create a disadvantage for others on the basis of their membership in a disadvantaged group – cannot be applied to the advantaged group because nothing the disadvantaged group is doing actually changes the advantaged and privileged status of the norm. One example of this can be seen in the recent #NotAllMen meme, which was a reaction to increasing awareness of the incidence of male perpetrated rape against women that gave rise to the #YesAllWomen hashtag. But even if it is true that not all men are rapists, or that some men are also raped (though more often by other men than by women), or that there are other problems men face that women do not; those things are simply irrelevant to the fact that virtually every woman has suffered some form of sexual harassment or violence, that 1 in 6 women have been attacked by a rapist, and that 9 out of 10 rape victims are female. And pointing out those facts does not discriminate against men.
Cultures generally change more slowly than the day-to-day reality of life within those cultures, and those who represent the norms in a changing culture become fearful of changes that might mean giving up some of the privileges, both visible and invisible, that they have come to see as their right. A male-dominant culture will resist changes that give women more power. A heterosexual culture will resist changes that give homosexuals greater status. A white-dominant culture will see advances by other races as threatening. A culture which defines itself by the tenets of a dominant religion will see the growth of other religions or of secularism as both unnatural and immoral. But the change comes anyway. A lot more can be accomplished in valuing every human being, in meeting the real challenges facing us, and in coping with change if we reject the idea that every statement about an issue must be qualified by some reference to an opposing idea, no matter how irrelevant or discredited.

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