I’m struck by how regularly I come across reporting in the media that contains obvious and unquestioned prejudice. My mental test to detect this kind of prejudice is to switch the named group to see if we would find the same phrasing acceptable if it were applied to another group. Since the truth of the claim is usually irrelevant to the prohibition of certain phrasings as offensive, the test is not whether the claim is true for another group but whether it would be unacceptable regardless of its truth.
I thought of this recently when the CBS Sunday Morning show had a segment on how boys were doing significantly worse in school. Kenyon College’s Dean Jennifer Delahunty was asked to help explain this phenomenon and here is what she said: “There’s a kind of anti-intellectualism of young men that really bothers me, that it’s not cool to be smart. That it’s not cool to be engaged. That it’s not cool to do your homework. That bothers me.”
Sociologist Michael Kimmel offered this: “Boys think that academic disengagement is a sign of masculinity. The less you can do in school, the less connected you are, the less interested you are, the more manly you are.”
For all I know these are true explanations and boys really are suffering academically because of a cultural mindset that associates masculinity with anti-intellectualism and opposition to academic effort or engagement.
But let’s apply my little test to see if we might find this phrasing acceptable if it were applied to explaining why girls do worse on some academic outcome. Let’s just switch the words so that the experts said: “There’s a kind of anti-intellectualism of young women that really bothers me that it’s not cool to be smart. That it’s not cool to be engaged. That it’s not cool to do your homework. That bothers me.” or “Girls think that academic disengagement is a sign of femininity. The less you can do in school, the less connected you are, the less interested you are, the more feminine you are.”
A CBS reporter would never quote experts saying this as a plausible explanation for why girls were doing worse academically. That would have to be explained by discrimination — factors outside of the control of girls. But for boys saying that the problem is their masculinity is perfectly fine.
Obviously, there are acceptable prejudices in our society. The problem is not the existence of those prejudices, since some may in fact be supported by evidence, but that there is a wide-spread dogma about which prejudices are acceptable based on nothing having to do with evidence. I guess I would say that there is a kind of anti-intellectualism among reporters that really bothers me, that it’s not cool to think critically about their prejudices.