Category Archives: feminism

Regarding Affirmative Action: On the Specious Idea of a “Most Qualified” Candidate

[For reasons of expediency, I’ve concentrated my examples on Affirmative Action in the workplace as opposed to school admissions. However, all of the basic points apply to both.]

[P.S. Sorry I’ve been away so long.]

Opponents of any kind of Affirmative Action (AA) preference for minorities often appeal to the idea that we must assess candidates by their “qualifications” as opposed to their race or gender. (And, it goes, focusing on race or gender risks overlooking the best or “most qualified” candidates, who may not always be among the minorities.)

(a) Race and gender as qualifications

Of course this begs the question that race or gender could not itself be a “qualification.” But why not? The idea is probably that qualifications must be merits—things achieved, or worked for, or chosen by the candidate. The candidate is personally responsible for them.

And one is clearly not responsible for one’s race or gender. But the same could be said of many other features normally accepted as qualifications. My talents, and those dispositions of attitude and behavior that led or permitted me to cultivate those talents, or to craft a decent work ethic, are not things about myself which I “choose” in any meaningful sense. Further, the features I do choose can be shown to rest in turn upon other features or circumstances I don’t. If nothing else, possessing a “qualification” today means having sidestepped—by sheer dumb luck—a virtually infinite number of potential obstacles in the past. Had a candidate been lent a different kind of native home life, or health, or been struck by a car the previous year, any number of qualifications (including the “achievements”) might have been stunted or snuffed out.

In this way, the things a person can help about himself and the things he can’t are inextricably “mixed together” in the biography. The burden of proof rests with AA opponents to state why race per se could not be a qualification, while other “un-chosen” features of a person could be.

Even if we accept that some qualifications are entirely the product of the candidate himself, with no credit to accidental circumstance, it would be impossible to tell which ones are and which aren’t. There is simply no immediate way to tell how much work (or sacrifice, or anything else a person can “help”) went into a candidate’s previous performance. You cannot just look at the performance to “deduce” how much hard work (for example) accounts for it. This is because hard work and performance do not correlate in a standardized way. For instance, my own grade of ‘C’ might come at much harder effort than an ‘A’ for a more natural student.

What’s more, if the point is just to choose the “most qualified,” there isn’t any reason why we should care who worked hard or sacrificed. The best are simply the best, no matter what factors conspired to make them so. Indeed, such factors are never evaluated in hiring or school admissions. (No college admissions department has the resources to evaluate it, and no private company cares to.)1

(b) A job is more than the work, so one must be qualified for more than the work

By its nature, a “qualification” always takes an object. That is, one is always qualified for something, some specific role or task. This much is obvious. But AA opponents set about investigating what kind of feature counts as a qualification without first arguing just what kind of thing a candidate is actually qualifying for. Their assumption is always that what a candidate is qualifying-for is limited to the parameters of that job—that the actual mechanics of the work is all that need to be assessed in asking what counts as being qualified.

We might respond: Yes, the qualification is for the job itself, obviously; but surely the job is in turn a part of something bigger than itself—namely, a society encompassing many different such jobs. And we might just as well ask whether a person is “qualified” for his role within that. That is, how a worker contributes, for instance, to the racial or gender distribution across the broader work economy is one of his roles as surely as how he contributes to profit-making or productivity or morale at the company of hire; and just as we ask whether he is qualified to enhance profit or productivity or morale, we can ask whether he is qualified to assist in the desired racial or gender balance at large. And he will be so on the basis of his race or gender.

My point here is that whenever one takes a job, one does, in actual fact, assume a role within and toward securing some specific racial and gender balance in the economy. He performs this role whether or not we hired him to do so and whether or not he thinks of himself as doing it. (Just as a custodian performs a customer service role whenever he, uniformed, greets a customer in the hallway, whether or not we hired him for this and whether or not he thinks he’s doing it.) And if this role is—like customer service—an important one, we must ask whether candidates are “qualified” for it; whether they can be expected to perform the role in a desirable way. And if they are, it is precisely their race or gender which makes them so.

(Now, you can argue that the role the worker performs in maintaining the actual balance is not an important one—by arguing that any particular racial or gender balance is, unlike customer service, itself undesirable or unimportant (or perhaps unachievable). But this must indeed be argued, not merely assumed at the outset.)

(c) Why do we care about getting “the best” candidate when we don’t care about “the best” anything else?

It is odd that we should take concern to secure “the most qualified” candidate in an industry or academia when we don’t ever look for the most qualified—that is, “the best”—of anything else in everyday life. Rather, we look for something that is adequate, satisfactory for present purposes.

Consider: If I’m receiving adequate service, why do I care that somewhere, out there, there is a “best” service provider? How does the existence of this distant provider affect the one in front of me? How can her service determine how good or bad this service is?

Of the millions of entities that confront us, very few could be said to be the “best” of their types. (And even the best are not at their best at every single moment.) Do we lament a zoo trip that didn’t offer “the best” elephant? How often would we dine out if we felt compelled to patronize “the best” restaurant within distance? Do we seek “the best” hammer before driving a—the “best”—nail? (Are we distressed when our airline pilot is not “the best” there is, but automatically relieved when we find that his betters have died off or retired over the weekend, leaving him to be the best after all? The logic here gets very silly quickly.)

If we were truly distressed at the thought that our, say, airline pilot were not the “the best” or “most qualified” among the applicants for his job, why shouldn’t we take it further?: For surely, even if our pilot were the best of these candidates, he is almost certainly not be “the best” pilot in the world, probably not even at the airport or in his smaller circle of peer pilots. Indeed, the whole spectrum of “qualification”—ranging from the least to most qualified—represented by the applicants for a single open position at a single moment in time pales unspeakably to the spectrum represented by an entire industry of workers. If we can live with the idea that a given worker who services us is almost certainly not “the best” in the world, how much easier to accept that he might not be “the best” among the much tinier group of persons who applied for his job.

To paraphrase the great American philosopher Charles S. Peirce: “Let us not pretend to care about, in discussions of Affirmative Action, what we do care about in our hearts.” Nobody gives a damn about finding “the best” anything. And this is perfectly rational: The simple fact that other people, somewhere, are worse at something (“less qualified”) has no power to make me more or less adequate to the task at hand.2

(d) The beneficiaries of Affirmative Action match or outperform white, male counterparts

Opponents of AA object that when race or gender is considered in hiring or college admissions, it will yield a dangerous preponderance of candidates entering positions for which they are unqualified, and in which they are destined to underperform. (This is also supposed to hurt their self-esteem.) However, there are no less than 200 studies that refute this claim: The American Economics Association analyzed these and determined that beneficiaries of AA programs perform equal to or better than their white, male, “meriting” counterparts. (This is partly because they expect the “free rider” stigma from the start and feel they must work all the harder to shake it.) And in education, when economic background is controlled for—comparing black students with white students of the same wealth and income bracket—these groups are a statistical match in grades and rates of graduation.

On their side, AA opponents have the feeling that AA should select for bad candidates, but zero evidence to confirm it ever actually happens. (That they don’t feel the need to provide any evidence reflects the clinical abstractness of their arguments in general, and that of the neoclassical economic prejudices that underlay them.)

* * *

Bonus Video

Tim Wise debates AA on a panel discussion. I’ve linked the parts he appears in but you can link to the other sections from there: Tim’s opening statement. Q & A Part 1. Q & A Part 3. Q & A Part 4. Q & Q Part 5. Tim’s closing remarks.


1 This discussion points to another anti-AA confusion. On the one hand, talk of qualifying or “meriting” a job over other candidates suggests that a job is a kind of reward for something. It is earned, thus in some way owed to the candidate. This is why opponents speak of AA as unfair to non-minority candidates who are passed over by lesser qualified ones. This is a kind of moral argument against AA. On the other hand, there is the more pragmatic argument that we must promote the best candidates, for the sake of economic efficiency or consumer quality control, for example. But again, why should these two standards yield the same outcomes? Only if we can assume that “the best” will always match “those who worked the hardest or otherwise did something on purpose to merit being the best” does it make sense to collapse these two standards into one. But again, these things won’t correspond. AA opponents need to decide: If they want to allocate positions to “the best,” then so be it. If they want to allocate them according to who earns them, they should articulate extensive methods of researching how much hard work, etc. has gone into each candidate’s resume.

2 As the next section shows, this is not to suggest that black or female beneficiaries of AA are underqualified in any way, that they are less likely than anyone else to be “the best.” Only that when it comes to AA, the way we talk about being qualified is so out of line with our regular speech as to be almost certainly not what we mean to say.


An ironic kind of mandate: Why the loss of Chavez’ constitutional reforms means full-speed forward for the Revolution

[A grown-folks analysis. Better late than never.]


Initial Considerations

So the constitutional reforms proposed by President Chavez and the Venezuelan National Assembly failed to pass by referendum on Dec. 2. It is widely understood that the outcome was secured by widespread abstention by those who voted for Chavez in the last referendum. About as many detractors, for intents and purposes, voted “No” this time around, while Chavez supporters dropped out by nearly a few million.

This being said, nobody seriously denies that Chavez retains the basic support of a basic majority of Venezuelans, even beyond the abstaining contingent—or that a “No” vote means anything to the contrary. Presidential approval percentages far outstrip the razorslim margin of “Yes” over “No” voters. On the probabilistic assumption that the pro and anti-reformers will draw roughly equal percentages of their supporters to rallies, the Chavista base is many times greater than that of the opposition. Indeed, the CIA’s “Hayden memo”—more on this below—shows that the opposition assumed the reforms would pass and concentrated their efforts on post-vote destabilization, to discredit these and prime the ground for their reversal. (To minimize the “Yes” vote, they actually tagged their literature with the slogan, “Chavez, Yes, Reform, No!,” pretending to endorse the president they had ousted by coup, and the original constitution they suspended, back in 2002.) The same memo cites polls taken by US intelligence which indicate high majorities favoring the reforms.

In this light, the failure of the reforms is puzzling on its face. It is not what was expected by anyone. Thus, it stands as in need of special explanation as any other puzzling phenomenon. And like all hypotheses invoked to explain puzzling phenomena, the explanation is to a degree speculative.

The reform items have been at least hinted at by Chavez for many years, and are, arguably, logically continuous with those features of the Bolivarian revolution already enacted. They don’t represent some sharp, unpredictable character turn in “Chavismo,” nor is there evidence of wide disenchantment with the elements Chavismo has already yielded—quite the contrary. Pre-vote polling suggest the abstainers would have voted “No” had they been, say, forced to choose.

A Template for Analysis

But if (a) Venezuelans are mostly Chavistas, and (b) the ballot represents no serious break with (this) Chavismo, then: The respective “links” between these elements and the outcome they would be prima facie expected to yield have, in a sense, “artificially” broken down. That is, either the basic support of the majority failed to register “through” the forms of bourgeois procedural democratic forms, or the understanding by this “basic majority” of the balloted items—that is, of their own real, if implicit, support of these—failed to so register. (Or possibly both.) We can explore these aspects in turn.

(a) Limitations of the Electoral Form

It is possible that the extent to which Chavez “overplayed his hand” politically with the vote reflects his opting for the referendum format rather than any specific measures on it. Had the reform measures been left to the National Assembly—which is, in a real sense, forced to show up while “the people” aren’t; and which has, again, voted for measures of a spirit with those on the referendum; and which has itself been voted in by the same “contingent” to decide upon just such measures—they would pass nearly unanimously, and we would hear no howls of opposition to this outcome apart from the Americans and the domestic ruling-class mass media (who is always howling anyway).

Having voted Chavez in on a particular platform, and his having enacted prior reforms through avenues other than popular referendum, it is plausible voters were confused or unconvinced as to why they had to vote again for the balloted measures. In 2000, Chavez was extended “rule by decree” powers through an enabling act of the National Assembly; this he used to enact significant reforms. He still very much controls this body and could use it so again. Thus, it is plausible that voters were unclear as to why they had to vote again for the same sort of thing.

Relatedly, it may be that a significant number of Chavistas are not especially driven to turn out for votes in which Chavez’ presidential position is not immediately in question. By analogy, I might be very pressed to vote to continue my marriage, if the alternative is its dissolution, yet not so pressed to vote in favor of any particular action affecting our lives together—if the alternative is just that my wife and I will proceed to act upon the matter later, in some (possibly that same particular) way. I would trust we would decide the matter in a way consonant with the values “embodied” in the initial decision to marry; the condition of being married in the first place preempts the need to “pin down” the decision formally, in advance, along a timetable imposed from outside. Likewise, Chavistas may just expect Chavez to act in a way consonant with values already “embodied” in his election and past record. (Indeed, low voter turnout is historically the norm for all Venezuelan elections except for those deciding the president.)

I dare say it is easier to accept that these considerations were decisive than that millions of Venezuelans are happy with Chavist reforms but don’t want any more of them. But as yet, it remains (very) speculative and in any case insufficient to explain all of the abstention numbers.

(b) Referendum? What Referendum?

Exploring the second “link”—between the voters and their comprehension of the specific reforms—a fuller picture is yielded:

It is unclear, to paraphrase Chomsky in the wake of Bush’s reelection, that Chavez lost the referendum because it is not clear that any referendum actually took place—that is, if by “referendum“ is meant a forum in which people choose between options they grasp clearly, in concert with their own interests and values.¹

This was made possible by the sheer number of reforms on the ballot—33 at first, quickly ballooning to 69—and the typical dense legalese in which they were drafted. Voters had only a short time—a month—to digest and debate these. This was especially problematic as certain items were complicated and unfamiliar. For example, the “new geometry of power” named a plan to redistrict municipalities to decentralize power. These would have various, new and interrelated functions, including the right to create, by vote, still other various, new political entities—councils, communes, unions—and the right to join these with others of the same and different type. These reforms can be quite in the interests of the voting majority without being intuitively or readily apparent as such. Finally, the presentation of the reforms in two large “up or down” blocks meant that one had only to disagree with any single item to reject the whole thing.

Beyond its brevity, limitations in the “Yes” campaign compounded matters. The reform side—perhaps overconfident in light of their twelve straight electoral wins since 1998—failed to adequately articulate the content of the reforms to social layers beyond its Chavista core. To a degree this was unavoidable: A key role was naturally delegated to the PSUV, the new merger party formed out of all the old Bolivarian groups. The party is young and its organizational network, disunified and underdeveloped. The job of education and the inspirational “whip” fell largely to the president himself—who was either abroad or distracted with matters (such as the abortive negotiations for FARC hostages) not directly related to the vote.

Effectiveness in this arena was needed to counteract the disinformation campaign by the reform opposition. Virtually every private mass media organ set its considerable resources to this project, around the clock. Normally for-purchase airtime was made free to the opposition. It was widely “reported” that the reforms would allow the state to seize virtually anything as its own property—small businesses, houses, cars, animals, clock radios. A twin-page spread in Ultimas Noticias, contender for the biggest newspaper in Venezuela, added children to the list, charging the state would remove these from the home at two years of age to be raised in state boarding schools. As in the States, the proposal to remove term limits from the presidency—bringing Venezuela in line with most of the world’s formal democracies—was presented as a vote to crown Chavez “president for life.” Major newspapers ran falsified copies of the proposed reforms. The state neither received nor—for good or ill—demanded, “equal time” in these venues.

Unsurprisingly, the same US agencies that helped organize the failed presidential coup in 2002—the CIA, USAID, and the American embassy in Venezuela—had hand in all of this. (NED is not mentioned in the memo but has been funneling money to opposition groups throughout Chavez’ administration and remains in the mix.) Nor was this role limited to “information.” The aforementioned memo was addressed to CIA Director Michael Hayden by embassy leader Michael Steele. It describes a multi-faceted anti-reform campaign implicating these groups. Tactics range in varying levels from the deceitful to the illegal and—though mostly “outsourced”—violent. The memo comes in the middle of the plan’s implementation and recommends its final phase, called “Operation Pincer” (or “Pliers”). The program allots millions of American tax dollars to fund false reporting, attack ads and bogus polls to discredit the reforms and notably, the credibility of the election process itself. It cites success in organizing affluent and ultraleft-sectarian college students to physically attack government offices, election officials and pro-Chavez demonstrators—actions which in fact led to the deaths of a handful of reform supporters. “Pliers” culminates in plans for a second coup against Chavez, originating in the National Guard; this is presented as a contingency for “Yes” vote they were sure would (still) come, but remains on the table.

Note also the role of Fifth Column sabotage: The “new geometry” shifted various powers from regional ministers, mayors and governors, to unprofessional communal groups; this has inspired some of the former to defect, not wanted to cede or share authority. Likewise, sections of the “Chavist” federal bureaucracy, seeing their interests as tied to a “stable” state, have no interest in supporting anything perceived as too radical and resisted organizing.

(c) Economic Concerns: Decisive, As Always

Of course, the outcome we would “prima facie expect” in light of what we know of our voters’ politics, and the soundness of electoral forms to translate this into policy, is not the whole story. It is possible that the limitations described by (a) and (b) were “overwhelmed” by considerations entirely beside those matters.

Venezuelans in Chavez’ “natural base”—wage workers and peasants—are plagued by a serious shortage of staple foods, including milk and meat, and other commonplace consumer goods. They also suffer under high inflation, nearly 18% in so many months. This didn’t come from nowhere, but as a result of rising earnings for all classes of Venezuelans, which increased effective demand—in itself a key gain of previous Bolivarian reforms which could have stayed that way. While the state attempted to tame this dynamic with price controls, the response of large sections of the capitalist state—partly to lessen the impact of decreased profits, partly as a protest against the controls—has been to restrict supply: Producers of scarce goods tamped down on production while large retailers hoarded the stocks they already held. Venezuelan finance capitalists withheld investment or relocated it to foreign enterprises, or turned to “nonproductive” enterprises altogether like real estate or bond speculation. Large distributors—wholesale “middlemen” and direct retailers—bypassed the price controls by funneling to the burgeoning black market. (Chavez has thought that flooding the country with imports would help also—but imports, it appears, can be hoarded and funneled underground just as well as domestics.)

These strategies were not just the initiatives of individual capitalists but a very open, deliberate and key plank in the reform opposition strategy as organized by (among others) FEDECAMARAS, the Venezuelan Chamber(s) of Commerce. (This is essentially a union for big capitalists, and fiercely anti-Chavez—their own then-president replaced him as interim president during the ‘02 coup.) This has succeeded in demoralizing the populace—the goal of the opposition leaders who called for it—even while growing consumption levels maintain: It is not that so many Chavez sympathizers have grown hostile to Bolivarian reforms, but rather tend toward apathy and disillusionment as very real, admitted gains are (subsequently) neutralized by higher prices and scarcity. This is precisely the mood, historically speaking, that engenders electoral abstention rather than the outright rebellion of voting-against or -out.


Were economic considerations decisive to the vote? Certainly, all “sides” in the reform issue—Chavistas, the opposition, and the abstainers—credit it as such, whether they agree on (or admit) the root causes of the economic troubles. In brief, we have only to assume that this discontent has cut into the numbers of less “fired up” Chavistas in the miniscule proportion needed to account for “No’s” over “Yes’s”—a reasonable (if strictly unprovable) assumption. (The reforms missed because just 1.4% more voters negated than affirmed.)

To the extent that economic factors were decisive, the idea that the reforms failed because Chavez politically “overreached” or “moved too fast” in a revolutionary direction is backward. It is precisely because the expropriations [of capitalist land and factories] have been so halting and partial, and that Chavez has been content—or felt forced—to trust the good will of the capitalist class to maintain supply, that the shortage-inflation dynamic has been permitted. The ballot failure should not be interpreted as a call for braking, or deferring, the revolution, but for pressing it much further—immediately. This entails, minimally, large-scale expropriation in local agribusiness, as well as heavy state investment therein, to ensure supply, as well as state administration of food distribution to prevent hoarding, enforce price controls and close back-doors to the black market (which would itself probably require expropriations).

There is nothing here that hasn’t been done before under worse circumstances, and nothing which can’t be ultimately placed under popular oversight and direction. But it has to be done quickly, for all of the reasons, by analogy, that you cannot “skin a tiger paw by paw”: You have to “totalize” the project to overwhelm the possibility of a counter-productive reaction. Finally, it is in the sense that such a programme can be said to logically “fulfill” the reforms—or their “spirit,” as it were—that one can call the latest failure of partial reforms an ironic mandate for the same—or much, much more.


¹ I’m assuming here that the reforms were “in concert with the interests and values of the voting majority, or at least addressed their major stated concerns.” That universal free education, expansion of social security benefits, and reduction of the workweek to 36 hours (for same pay), are not a good bet makes sense only on neoclassical economic theories that no regular Venezuelans buy into, or the view that the other items on the ballot are such a bad bet that their negative prospects outweigh the benefits of the others. Again, this isn’t the main point, but an argument of the second type would probably cite the right of the executive to suspend elements of the constitution in times of national emergency. In brief, if the former reforms—or any other significant achievement—are worth making, they are worth defending, and such “national emergencies” have occurred in recent history and are brewing now, as the opposition runs calls for a new coup on national TV and sends cash to Colombian death squads to kidnap and murder union leaders.

“Lady” athletes redux: a racial analogue

Adding to the previous post: Singling out certain university players as “Lady” athletes is akin to calling a really good professional soccer player who happens to be a person of color “the Black Beckham.” We would understand a black athlete’s frustration at working hard to achieve skill and notoriety in his own right, just to be seen as a secondary version of someone else. As noted, the terminology connotes that his role as a soccer player is merely derivative of somebody else’s, someone whose own more genuine or authentic performance provides a ‘model’ to which his own performance can merely aspire. If we can see this, we should be able to see the issue with Lady Raiders: A “lady” version of the real thing should strike us as as great a slight as a “black” version of the real thing.

Again, if the use of “lady” in college sports is just an innocent, benign way to distinguish between two teams (or even a compliment—as some suggest), it is incredibly odd that it never occurs to anyone to “benignly” distinguish or “compliment” male players in this way. Instead, we have a broad cultural practice that always qualifies the women by sex and no(!) examples of the reverse. What in the world could account for this strange disparity? Similarly, if “the Black Beckham” is told that the nickname equating him with this other good player is just innocent or a compliment, he would be smart to ask why not one person is calling Beckham the white version of him.

The reason, again, could only be that his identity as a player is considered derivative of Beckham’s, and not the other way around. The two players aren’t considered equivalent in value at all, and the fact that it never occurs to anybody to reverse the nickname proves this. Likewise, if “ladies’” and men’s teams were considered equivalent in value, we’d expect there to be roughly equal chances that men would be singled out by gender (the “Male” or “Gentleman Raiders” (as at MTSU)) with women as just the “Raiders,” as that the women would be singled out with the men not. But this isn’t the case at all. There is no 50/50 “wash.” So there must be something deeper at work than a random, innocent means of demarcating two things.

I admit that the above analogy is not perfect. Perhaps “the Black Beckham” is young and indeed looks up to Beckham as a kind of hero, a model to which he aspires. In this case the designation may be more appropriate. But of course, women’s teams don’t consider themselves idol-worshippers of their male counterparts, and it would be insulting to think of them as eager imitators. If this is what “Lady” in fact connotes, the problem is actually worse than I have been suggesting.

(Oh, yeah: Here is some of that bad press I mentioned on our “Lady” athletes panel discussion—a sneery Fox News blurb (scroll down) titled “Ya’ Just Can’t Make This Stuff Up”; also the MTSU student paper coverage, which sucks but inspired some hilarious comments below it. P.S. In the picture I look like a guy who lives in his grandmother’s basement and “never seemed like the type to do it.”)

If “lady doctor” is sexist-passé, why are “lady” athletes OK?

I have long borne, as the evangelicals say, a “burden” for communicating leftism to non-leftists. This mood has driven the bulk of the public speaking I have done. One instance, transcripted below, was part of a panel discussion sponsored by a branch of the socialist group Solidarity. We were challenging the use of “Lady” to designate the female athletes at Middle Tennessee State University and at colleges in general. Of course, the intention was to use the main topic to highlight more basic social points. Given negative critical press leading up to the event, I tried in my lecture to build an argument “from the ground up” without presupposing a feminist orientation in my audience. Thanks, as always, for reading. (Note: The MTSU teams are collectively the “Raiders” or “Blue Raiders,” the females Lady Raiders.)

* * *

I want to evaluate the claim that: the University’s use of the term “Lady Raiders” is an instance of sexist language; that it is anti-woman in some way—that it degrades or devalues women as a group relative to men as a group.

Now, the most obvious way in which the term might do this is in the way it is used to separate certain female athletes—on the basis of being female—from the male athletes. Of course, you can certainly separate things into groups without implying that one group is better than the other—but again, it is not the separation but the way in which it is made that is suspect.

On the one hand, since MTSU has both a women’s and men’s program for certain sports, there is sense in which there is a whole community of athletes who are all a part of the group we call “Blue Raiders.” For example, we know when we click to the website “,” it is going to link to all the teams we have, female and male alike. All are part of the collective “Raider” group.

When you take this group and proceed to divide it into two smaller groups (in this case, according to gender), that in itself may not pose a problem. But when you allow the first group to keep the basic name “Raiders,” while the second has to be set apart as some special kind of Raider (in this case a “Lady Raider”) within this larger group of athletes, I think a question is then raised. Now, perhaps the question can be answered in a way that deflects a charge of sexism, but it is nonetheless questionable.

To put the point another way: Even though they’re all “Raiders,” or members of that group, we’ve seen fit for whatever reason to qualify the membership of the women within that group, while there doesn’t strike us as being any need to do this for the men. The men get a name that suggests an identification with the whole group—they are ‘just Raiders’, and again, everyone in the program is some kind of “Raider”—but only in the special case of the women is there ever seen any need to specify what little subdivision of Raider they actually are.

Of course, many are going to respond that this is just a harmless, benign way of classifying the two teams—that it isn’t trying to suggest anything negative beyond this. But in co-ed programs across the country, it is always this particular benign, harmless way of distinguishing the two teams, and never the reverse. It is always the men who end up as “just ‘Team Name-x’,” and the women always get to be the lady version of it.

So MTSU is just one instance of a broad cultural practice. And while it may not strike us right away as an offensive practice, it should strike us as a quite peculiar one. For instance (to steal a thought experiment motif from Noam Chomsky), if we were Martian anthropologists, looking down on this cultural pattern for the first time, we would be puzzled by it—and we would demand some special explanation for the thing. We wouldn’t dismiss it as meaning nothing, in other words. We would suspect that something deeper— for good or for bad—is at work behind it.

My view is that there is something deeper at work behind names like “The Lady Raiders” and that we have reason to suspect that this ‘something’ is a negative thing.

Part of my reasoning for this is that very often when we use words (like “Lady”) to qualify the membership of somebody within a bigger group, we do it to say something negative about the thing we are qualifying.

For an extended example of this: I was once in a conversation with a very politically conservative man who was applauding the fact that (according to him) “everyone” in Texas is a political conservative. So in response, I pointed out a man we both know of who is very left-wing, very radical politically, who lives in Texas; and I said, “Well, what about that guy?” And the guy replied, “Well, he doesn’t count: He’s an Austin-Texan.” (Austin being a liberal hornet’s nest, supposedly, surrounded by a sea of conservative belief.)

So clearly, the conservative guy added this little qualification of “Austin” to suggest that the other guy wasn’t a ‘real’ Texan—a full and proper or authentic member of the broader group of Texans. The conservative guy wasn’t just trying to distinguish between two sub-groups of Texans for benign classification purposes; he was suggesting that one group is more valuable or important or desirable than the other.

He was saying, in other words, that the other guy’s membership in the bigger group of Texans is a limited membership: He’s sort of a Texan, but a kind of outsider at the same time.

And finally, the terminology here suggests that whatever membership an Austin-Texan has in the bigger group is just derivative of somebody else’s membership. Because clearly, you can’t have an Austin-Texan without having Texans; the Austin-Texan needs the bigger group to have his own identity as a “partial” Texan. But you can have Texans whether or not you have any Austin-Texans.

You see the same thing with the concept of “Lady Raiders”: If you dropped the Lady Raiders from the school, the other Raiders could go on like they always have—without much confusion to be expected; but if you dropped the men’s team from the school, there would be nothing left for the “Ladies” to be Ladies of. So there is a sense that the identity of the women’s team is just derived from the men’s identity, that it is conceptually “piggybacking” on the men.

So the point of this illustration is to suggest that a “Lady Raider” might be something like an “Austin-Texan”—and if it isn’t the same, we should be able to say why it isn’t, if we’re so sure.

Another good example is that of a “lady doctor.” Most people are clear that this phrase has negative or offensive connotations. Rare would be the doctor who, when asked if she is a “lady doctor,” would not be tempted to snap, “No, I’m just a doctor”; and rarer would be the observer who would be fail to find this response intelligible.

But I think its important to understand why it holds these negative connotations for us. My own feeling is that the phrase “lady doctor” probably means the same thing as “lady version of a doctor.” (I can’t prove that this is what it means—but I’m pretty sure that if you didn’t have a problem using the phrase “lady doctor,” you wouldn’t have a problem if “lady version of a doctor” were substituted for it—and that should tell us something.)

Clearly, “lady version of a doctor” means “lady version of a male doctor.” (If it didn’t, we wouldn’t need to add the “lady” in the first place; for what else are lady doctors being distinguished from if not the male ones?) But if “lady version of a doctor” means “lady version of a male doctor,” it follows that the component phrase “a doctor” is equated with “a male doctor.” Once more, males in the group rate a term of description that suggests identification with the entire group; male doctors get to be simply “doctors,” while females warrant the designation only in some special sense. The males’ status as doctor is allowed to speak for itself, while the females’ must be accompanied by a kind of explanation.

Finally, when you suggest that somebody is a “lady version of a doctor” you are suggesting that the woman is merely aspiring to the role—a role that a man is more “at home” within. So again, like the “Austin-Texan,” the woman is kind of a member of the group (of doctors), but her membership is a qualified, limited, conditional one.

I would add something to this: I would argue that a team name like “Lady Raiders” is actually more questionable than “lady doctor.” Think of it this way: Whereas doctors are scattered across various institutions, all of the Raider athletes are members of the same institution—MTSU, or the athletic program, the local community—however you want to skew it. In a sense, then, each one of them is working toward the same project—they are contributing something to the same athletic program. So when you add “lady” to the name in this case, then, in addition to implying that the women are not full members of the “Raider” group, it suggests that they make a lesser contribution to something, than the ‘fuller members’ can make. The contribution, then, becomes qualified, limited, and conditional. And if this is the case, then the most the “ladies” can hope to put into their role as “Raider” is to “help out” with what the other, “fuller members” are doing. The women are cast as helpmates or auxiliaries of the men when you use this kind of language.

(As a sidenote: I don’t believe many people consciously believe that the women contribute less. That isn’t the point. We have all heard heard very nasty, overt, intentionally malicious ways of insulting women (or any people) as a group. So if “Lady Raiders” is an instance of sexist language, it won’t be this kind of sexist language. However: If it is possible to insult somebody in very obvious and overt ways, then it is possible to insult them in more subtle ways also. And you can certainly insult somebody inadvertently. So it isn’t some crazy idea to think that there could be an instance of sexist language that doesn’t jump right out and grab everybody who sees it as sexist.)

So this does beg the question of: Just how do we decide whether something is sexist language or not? Is there some kind of “litmus test” for the subtler cases such as this?

Well, again, how we don’t do it is by just examining the intentions of the person who makes the statement. Very often, people want to defend offensive-sounding language by saying the speaker doesn’t intend it to be offensive—“they don’t mean it that way.” But since it is possible to insult someone without meaning to do it, we might have to look beyond the feelings of the speaker to figure out the real meaning (or implications) of what he or she is saying.

I suggested earlier that it is a very odd thing that you find female athletes singled out as “ladies” and never the reverse case, with the males singled out by name. So, one way to test whether the name “Lady Raiders” is a subtle instance of sexism is to imagine how we would react if the situation were reversed:

For instance, someone could open up a college, set up two basketball teams, call the women’s team simply the “Raiders” and the men’s team the “Male Raiders.” (It has been suggested that “Gentleman Raiders” is more obvious, but I don’t think it’s perfectly analogous—so we’ll say the “Male Raiders,” for lack of anything better.) If a representative of this school were to describe this program to us, as prospective students on a tour, and leave it at that, we would not just take this information in stride. Again, we would feel that some kind of explanation were in order.

We might ask the representative some questions for clarification: “Are you trying to highlight the women’s program for some reason?; Or, historically was this perhaps an all-women’s school that only got a men’s team much later?”

“Well, no,” the rep says. “This is just a benign distinction between two groups. What’s the problem with that?”

Unsatisfied by this answer, we might keep pressing the point: “Well, then, perhaps the program was set up by a private donor—who stipulated that the names had to be done in this way?”

“No. We’re just classifying two teams. People do it everywhere.”

In desperation we might ask: “Are you a socially progressive school?—Maybe you’ve been to a Solidarity teach-in and you have reversed the traditional way of naming teams in an effort to make up for a history of discrimination against women?”

(And so on and soforth….)

In short, if a school gave the women’s team the mascot name, pure and simple, and set the men apart by name as the designated male counterpart to this—it would blow people’s minds. Everyone would have the sense that there must be more to the story: The representative is either ill-informed about his own program, or he’s pretending not to notice the oddness of the thing for Public Relations purposes.

But while we would question why somebody would think to distinguish between the groups in this way— virtually nobody questions it when we set the women’s teams apart from the rest.

And so the point is that, I think, we have some explaining to do: If we feel it is more fitting and natural that men get to be Raiders and women get to be a special sub-species of Raider, while it would not seem as fitting to us that women could be the Raiders and men the special case—then Why? Again, this inconsistency doesn’t automatically mean that sexism is at work here—and I don’t think that the subtle sexisms are the kind of thing you can get an absolute proof for, the way you could with the very nasty, overt examples—But it increases the degree to which the “Lady Raiders” name becomes, again, questionable.

The final point I would like to suggest is the following: If there is such a thing as sexism in the world—that is, if there is a very widespread feeling in the culture that women are less valuable, or capable, or worthy of being taken seriously, than men—then, to the extent that this is the case, it becomes even harder to dismiss (what I have called) those “questionable” pieces of ‘gendered’ language—such as the “Lady Raiders”—than it would be if we lived in world in which there was no such thing as sexism.

Well, I believe that sexist, anti-woman, ideas and attitudes are well-rooted in this culture, but it would be hard to argue the point convincingly in a short span of time. But it’s somewhat simpler to show that women are an example of an “oppressed group.” That is, aside from what kind of ideas we have about women, it’s just a fact that as a group they do more poorly than men as a group, in terms of social welfare. We see this as soon as we divide men and women into groups, and look for patterns between them: By virtually any measure of wealth, power and status we could come up with, we would find that the women fell far behind the men. (For just two examples, 95% of corporate executives are male while almost 70% of poor people are female.) And as society turns over, as it reproduces or “re-peoples” itself over time, the imbalance in the relationships maintains itself. So either this is the Mother of All Coincidences or we have a social system which is someway biased against the women, relative to men. In a sense, it is the system which undervalues themeven apart from what the individuals within the system think about each other. And to put the point very (too) briefly, anytime we have a dominant social group and a subordinate group in this way, there emerge ideas about the oppressed group which suggest that they are less valuable than the rest. So it would be very odd if gender were some kind of exception; a preponderance of sexist, anti-woman ideas and attitudes is just what we would expect from a social system that looks like ours.

So in conclusion, again, I’m not “proving” anything here, but I hope this is suggestive:

We can safely assume that sexism is alive in our culture. And part of this is the idea that women are better at helping with things than at actually doing things. Because this is so, when we are confronted with a piece of language—like “the Lady Raiders”—which seems to suggest a derivative or auxiliary role for women (if you buy into what I’ve said)—We should pause before dismissing this piece of language as having nothing interesting to say about the culture that came up with it. Again, it requires an explanation. And a tradition of sexism is simply the most handy, available hypothesis we have. It is far easier to believe that the “Ladyfication” of women’s teams is just one more in a long, tradition of representations that devalue women. And if sexism is behind the name, then keeping the name validates that sexism and helps in its way to keep it going. And we should change it for that reason.