Individual Difference

From the Dean

A regular article written by Phillip Jensen in his role as Dean of Sydney at St Andrew's Cathedral.

Originally Published:
21st September 2006

Tagged: gender women

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My left-handed daughter calls the world “handist”. From early years she struggled with scissors and writing - hockey was out of the question. As a child she had heard the words “racist”, “chauvinist”, “feminist”. So she decided the world was “handist”. As far as we know “handist” was her invention.

She was fortunate to have been born in the time and the nation she was. In other times in Australia great effort was put into turning all lefties into right-handers. In other cultures being left-handed was even considered evil: “sinister” as some would have it.

Society discriminates against left-handers by providing everything with a bias to the right and not allowing for the existence of the alternative. This is the typical prejudice of stereotypical thinking.

“Stereotype” is a printing term. It comes from the plate that is made of composed type. It is a fixed unchangeable mould that cannot be altered. So it has come to be used metaphorically of a set form, or a fixed convention that allows no individual difference. A stereotype is an oversimplified idea that people have about others.

Generalisations are not the same as stereotypes. Generalisations are statements about all or most of the members of a class or group of people. Sometimes they are absolute referring to every member of a group. Sometimes they are relative referring to most members. That elephants are bigger than mice is an absolute generalisation for it is universally true - all elephants are bigger than mice. That kangaroos are bigger than wallabies is a relative generalisation - that some wallabies are bigger than some kangaroos does not negate the truth of the generalisation.

Stereotypes and prejudice see people through generalisations without paying sufficient attention to the individual differences or the possibility of change.

So in racial terms some people think that the other race may be lazy or deceitful or sneaky. They then treat people on the basis of such ideas. This prejudice leads to great injustices, as people are not judged for who they really are or what they have done, but by some imagined character of their race.

In our rejection of stereotypes, we run the risk of rejecting all generalisations as well.

Confusion about generalisations and fear of stereotypical prejudice has made the discussion of gender issues very difficult in this post-feminist age. Are men and women the same in everything and so to be treated equally in all things, or are men and women different in some things and so to treat them equally will mean treating them differently? And what of raising boys and girls? Are we to treat them and expect them to be the same or different?

There is a range of generalisations that can and should be made about the differences between the sexes. Some like delivering babies and breast-feeding, are of the absolute kind. Others like being taller or balder are relative. There are many women taller than many men, and some are balder than men. Yet it is still true that in general men are taller and balder than women.

Christian morality is not based purely on these observations and generalisations. Our actions and ethics are derived from understanding God’s purpose in creation and redemption.

So 1 Peter 3 tells us that men and women are joint heirs of eternal life. Our differences have no bearing on our inheritance. Yet it also tells us that husbands must understand their wives as weaker vessels. It is important that husbands understand the vulnerability of their wives. Some women are not very vulnerable at all, and resent being called the weaker vessel. Yet in general, especially in a fallen world where sinful chauvinistic men take advantage of women’s vulnerability, it is the women who suffer most injustice and hardship. It is the duty of men to see that the process of reproduction and nurture - which takes so long in the human species - does not unfairly disadvantage women.

Our society does not understand this. They want men and women treated as if they are the same. They then notice that amongst the poorest people in society are the many mothers who are raising children alone, often because of the irresponsibility of men. But we are doing little or nothing to train boys and then men to understand the needs of wives and mothers and the responsibilities of true masculinity.

A “handist” society may be prejudiced against left-handers. A “samist” society will be prejudiced against women.