Guest post: A form of obedience/submissiveness to the authority of the perceived majority

Originally a comment by Bjarte Foshaug on The rot at the core.

To borrow another useful distinction from Margaret Heffernan it’s not just about authority, but also conformity. Unlike obedience/submissiveness to authority conformity feels voluntary (or “voluntary”) and doesn’t presuppose any imbalance in formal rank or status (hence the expression “peer pressure”), only the normal fear of conflict, embarrassment, or social isolation. And even female bosses are not immune to the influence of their male peers as well as patriarchal society at large.

On a deeper level I guess conformity can be understood as a form of obedience/submissiveness to the authority of the perceived majority. I say “perceived” because the people “setting the standard” don’t even have to be in a real majority. One of the concepts I remember from my old bachelor’s degree in media studies is the Spiral of Silence in which people who, whether or not it’s true, feel like they’re in a minority tend to self-censor, thus making their own views seem even more marginalized and on the fringe, when they may not actually be fringe at all. All it takes [1] is for a few loud and assertive people (and as we all know the male sex has more than its fair share of those) to make their opinions known at an early stage without being contradicted, and everyone else tends to just accept their views as representative of the group as a whole.

There’s also a lot of slippery slope-type dynamics going on: On the spectrum from sexist jokes to all-out sexual assault we never cross an obvious “boundary” where things abruptly and instantaneously change from “definitely OK” to “definitely not OK”. If you have already accepted steps a,b,c as normal and acceptable it’s very difficult to make a consistent argument that steps d,e,f are “crossing the line”. By the same logic once you have accepted steps d,e,f as normal and acceptable it’s very difficult to make a consistent argument that steps g,h,i etc… etc… This is why there is no “safe level” of sexism. The “jokes”, the “banter”, and the “locker room talk” are all part of the enabling apparatus allowing the Trumps and Weinsteins of the world to go all the way to x,y,z.

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1. Actually it doesn’t even take that much. All it takes is the (perfectly reasonable) assumption that the group in question isn’t radically different from the rest of society.

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