Feb 16, 2018

As A Father of a Daughter

For several years, I've been observing an interesting dynamic take place when matters of gender discrimination, sexual harassment, and other matters involving wrongs being done to women are discussed.  Many men weigh in, making clear that they are against all of that, but then they say or write the fateful phrase.

As a father of a daughter, I don't want to see her suffer. . . 

Those words - and others like them - have crystalized into something like a moral kidney stone, a source of considerable pain and aggravation.  Writing them by way of support of women inevitably draws irritated, offended, and occasionally mocking responses.  These responses don't come from the quarters one would expect - from people who claim, for example, that harassing women in the workplace is just fine, or that what others construe as "harassment" isn't actually such, or that offenders ought to get a pass - those sorts of positions. 

Instead the criticisms of these men come primarily from women who would presumably welcome allies supporting their struggles for equality, for recognition, for justice, but who instead view that identification - the father of a daughter - as evidencing the wrong sort of motivation for men lining up alongside women.



We don't generally see similar dynamics occurring in other cases where a person expresses support for a position or group, and states that their motive (at least in part) has to do with their relationship with another person.  If I declare myself for marriage equality or gay rights more broadly, and I mention that I have gay friends, family, or co-workers, and I don't want to see them discriminated against, that's taken to be a perfectly good reason. If I am "for the cure", and I say that my aunt surviving breast cancer gave me insight I never had before about what cancer patients went through, then that's viewed as moral progress.

This specific "as a father of a daughter" dynamic stands out.  It could use some analysis, and I do have also  broad argument to make on the matter.  I don't intend to provide a lot of that here in this post - I plan to write a longer post in Policy of Truth - but I would like to set the stage a bit here in this short post.

Adding Another Wrinkle To The Issue

Having been involved in a few of these online arguments in the past - and seen them to generally result in little but time wasted, feelings hurt, and positions unchanged - I generally stay out of these tiffs about expressing support for women by referencing one's daughter.  That's a pragmatic rather than principled stance on my part.  But I did get in there recently, and briefly mix it up with a former colleague about the matter in a short Twitter exchange.

Here's part of that back and forth:


I should point out that, if you look at the original post, there were a number of other people who took Devin Duke to task over the "as a man with a daughter of my own" line.  What nearly all of those criticisms have in common is making the assumption that somehow what he wrote means that the only reason he criticizes President Trump's sexism is because he has a daughter.

If he didn't have a daughter, they presume (and in some cases, declare), Duke would not have taken a stand against sexism in general, and against Trump's many instances of it in particular.  Before reading through his recent posts on Twitter - so just going by the tweet itself - there's no reason to make or assume such a strong claim about his motivation for calling out sexist behavior.  After looking through his Twitter stream, there's good reason to think that Duke's having a daughter is not the sole reason for asserting that President Trump's behavior is sexist, and - for that reason - wrong.

In this case, I jumped in because the conversation had shifted in an interesting new way.  Instead of just going after Duke for being on the right side for the wrong (particular, rather than universal) reason, Michael DeValve did something rather clever, from a rhetorical perspective.  He brought up the fact the he himself was the father of a daughter, and grounded - at least in the first response, and at least rhetorically - his own response on that fact.

My own response followed suit.  I took a stance on DeValve's criticism, also as "a man with a daughter of his own".  This was not to support or endorse Duke as such, but rather to point out where DeValve's criticism seems off-base.  And, by extension, where other similar criticisms are off-base as well.  

Notice that the stance that DeValve adopts at the start ends up self-negating.  If he's entitled to stake out his position precisely because he is the "father of a daughter", then so is Duke (and, presumably, so am I).  Each of us involved in the conversation share the view that sexism is wrong - we're in total agreement about that.  The only issues of contention here seem to be two.  

One is whether a man is entitled to mention his being a "father of a daughter" in affirming that position or whether he is not so entitled.  The other is whether having that motivation for taking the stance that sexism is wrong somehow vitiates that stance or not. 

If it's somehow relevant that DeValve is a "father of a daughter", and it's all right for him to stress that in staking out his own criticism, it's hard to understand how that doesn't then imply it's equally all right for Duke to have invoked his own "father of a daughter" status in the original tweet.  If it's not relevant in some way, it's strange for DeValve to have articulated his original response by invoking his own fatherly bonafides.

Several Issues Involved In This Matter

As I note above, I plan to write a longer, more fully argued piece examining this dynamic and the assumptions built into it in detail elsewhere.  This is a matter I have been thinking about and discussing with a few interlocutors from time to time over recent years.  So at this point, I have a few reflections - not entirely thought through, to be sure - that I'll share at this point, with the understanding that I'll be developing these more fully in the follow-up piece.

Here's one to start with.  Let's say - contrary to fact - that every single man who takes a position that sexism is wrong does so because he has a daughter who he loves and cares about, who he does not want to suffer the effects of sexism.  Better yet, let's just restrict this to all fathers who have daughters.  They have no other motivation whatsoever for thinking sexism is wrong.  In fact, if those men did not have a daughter, they would all be misogynist, chauvinist, macho asses.  In that case, doesn't having that motivation make them, if not good people, or reliable allies, at least not bad people in that respect?  Why criticize that motivation for not engaging in something bad (sexism) - and indeed opposing something bad - as if that motive was itself something bad?

One could of course respond that having such a motivation is not only a reflection of the very sexism that it superficially opposes, but that it somehow even furthers and perpetuates sexism, patriarchy, and traditional gender roles (e.g. father as protector of the daughter as potential victim).  There's doubtless an argument to be made there, and like all arguments, it then has to be examined.  So that's a second issue worth exploring.

A third issue that I think has to be addressed is why such a sweeping assumption so routinely gets made about the motivations of those men who do take a stance against sexism, but who also mention their "father of a daughter" status.  Why is the go-to interpretation for so many the view that this motivation would be the only one these fathers could or world have?  Why make that assumption?  What motivates that assumption on the part of those who thereby push aside their would-be-allies?  What does anyone engaged in that dynamic get out of that?

I've mentioned above a fourth and very important further issue to explore.  When it comes to other moral matters about which considerable disagreement exists, it seems perfectly all right to say "as a person who knows and cares about some other person affected by this. . . "  In fact, it's not merely permissible in many cases, but even seems to grant the person making that statement a greater legitimacy to be part of the conversation.  It grants a kind of moral status, and in some cases, is even viewed as a sign of good character.  So, why such a big difference here?  (Maybe this leads back to the second issue?)

A fifth issue, which also turns on an interesting, generally unquestioned assumption, bears upon the interplay between particular and universal.  Let's say - and I do think this is the case myself - that sexism is wrong.  One doesn't have to be a woman, or be involved in any ways with any women, to assert or to believe this to be the case - that's quite true.  But does having a more particular concern about one's own daughter somehow - in the head or the heart of the father involved - somehow rule out that more universal belief and commitment?  That seems to be the assumption, but there's no reason I can see why one ought to make such an assumption.

Lastly (for now) - and playing off of the fourth issue - I think we probably should acknowledge that for many people - of whatever gender, or more broadly speaking, with whatever traits, qualities, background, etc. - it really is the case that being connected to, and caring about people who are different from them does turn out to play some role in that person developing and adopting moral commitments.  Developing compassion for others, condemning injustices that they have to face, criticizing those who would excuse or impose such injustices - that's something good.  I think, in the case of many men, having a daughter would make them more attuned to problems women still face.  Why would we not construe that as a sign of moral progress, rather than as something that ought not be mentioned?