Tuesday, January 13, 2015

How Double Standards Work (understanding the unmarked/marked distinction)

This is one in a series of blog posts in which I discuss some of the concepts and terminology that I forward in my writings, including my recent book Excluded: Making Feminist and Queer Movements More Inclusive

In Excluded, I argue that instead of focusing on only one or a few forms of sexism and marginalization, we should acknowledge that there are myriad double standards out there. And given this, it is crucial for us to more generally recognize and challenge double standards whenever and wherever they occur.

To be honest, I think that we as activists tend not to be very good at doing this—it is a main reason why people who are quite familiar with one particular form of marginalization (typically one that they are personally impacted by) will nevertheless continue to single out and invalidate other groups of people, often using the exact same tactics that they abhor when used against members of their own group. In other words, a failure to recognize and understand how double standards function in a general sense is what enables various forms of exclusion to run rampant within our movements. It is also what enables numerous forms of sexism and marginalization to proliferate in society at large.   

I discuss this issue over the course of Excluded, but I address it head on in Chapter 14: “How Double Standards Work”—it is one of the pieces of writing that I am most proud of.

The chapter grew out of a talk I often give to introduce audiences to the concept of cissexism. In it, I draw parallels between cissexism and heterosexism (the latter being a form of marginalization that people tend to be more familiar with). I discuss how both forms of sexism are based on the premise that one group (i.e., people who are trans, or who experience same-sex attraction) are “marked”—that is, singled out for attention and critique—while the dominant majority (i.e., people who are cis or hetero) remain “unmarked”—that is, taken for granted and deemed unquestionable and legitimate.

In both these examples (and I would argue, in double standards more generally), the marked groups are considered to be inherently remarkable and questionable, which is why people have to “come out” as trans or gay or bi, but not as cisgender or heterosexual. It is why trans and queer folks are subjected to all sorts of commentary and debate that our cis and hetero counterparts never have to deal with. It is why we are often mischaracterized as abnormal, artificial and deceptive, and why we are often viewed as alien or exotic. As I put it in Excluded:

Essentially, people who are marked are generally viewed as “having something” that unmarked people do not have. That “something” can therefore be subjected to remarks, questions, debate, praise or critique; the unmarked person escapes such critical analysis by virtue of the fact that they are not seen as having that “something.” [p.178]

For the record, I did not invent the concept of marked versus unmarked. As I say in the Notes section of the book:

The concept of marked versus unmarked originated in the field of linguistics, but has since been applied to semiotics (the study of signs and symbols), sociology, and related fields. See Wayne Brekhus, “A Sociology of the Unmarked,” Sociological Theory 16, no. 1 (1998), 34-51; Linda R. Waugh, “Marked and unmarked: A choice between unequals in semiotic structure,” Semiotica 38 (1982), 299-318. This chapter is my own personal take on the unmarked/marked distinction and how it creates obstacles and double binds for members of marginalized groups. [p.316]

I decided to articulate double standards in terms of the unmarked/marked distinction because it elegantly explains why marginalization can be so effective and pervasive. Basically, when a group is marked, it is as if they become “sticky,” in that all sorts of assumptions, meanings, stereotypes, invalidations, etc., will “stick” to them, but not to the unmarked majority.

Why do we mark some people and not others?

This question came up a lot when I was doing book readings for Excluded. Some people may be looking for a “Back when our ancestors were living on the plains of Africa...” type of answer, but I am not a big fan of such evolutionary psychology-type handwaving. What I can say is that this phenomenon seems to be fueled by certain general perceptual biases that people have. For instance, social psychologists have found that we tend to perceive outgroup members (that is, people who we see as different from us in a fundamental way) more negatively, more extremely, and in a more stereotyped manner than we do members of our ingroup. We also tend to pay more attention to unexpected people or traits, and to view them more negatively, than people or traits that we consider to be expected or mundane. Together, these perceptual biases may lead us to mark people who we view as “other” for whatever reason.

Having said that, it is not simply the case that we are “programmed” to mark unexpected or atypical people. As I point out in the book, even though women constitute a slight majority of the population, we are nevertheless marked relative to men in our culture. And while the number of certified public accountants in the U.S. is roughly similar to the number of trans people (in both cases, roughly 0.2% of the population), trans people are clearly marked in our culture whereas accountants are not. So in other words, we are taught to mark certain types of people or behaviors—to view them as remarkable, unusual, exotic, potentially suspect, etc.—while viewing others as unmarked.

It is also important to recognize that marking people is an active process: When we look upon the world, we are constantly making decisions and determinations about whether the individuals that we see seem remarkable or unremarkable to us. But because this process generally occurs on an unconscious level, we tend not to notice it as an active process on our part, and instead we mistakenly assume that the marked individual is inherently noteworthy. However, the fact that marking occurs at the level of perception or interpretation becomes evident when we consider the fact that who is deemed marked varies from perceiver to perceiver. For instance, many people in our culture mark trans people (while deeming cis people unmarked), whereas I personally don’t consider trans people to be inherently remarkable, unusual, exotic, potentially suspect, etc.—after all, I am trans and many of my friends are trans, so to me trans folks and experiences are an ordinary part of my everyday life.  

Is marking someone the same thing as marginalizing them?

In Excluded, I make the case that unmarked/marked distinction plays a fundamental role in all forms of marginalization. In each case, the marked group is unfairly singled out and plagued by assumptions and stereotypes that the unmarked group does not face. This is why activist movements often work to name the unmarked majority (e.g., those who are heterosexual, cisgender, monosexual, white, able-bodied, etc.) and point out the many privileges they experience (many of which are directly related to them *not* being viewed as inherently remarkable, questionable, abnormal, artificial, deceptive, and/or exotic). To be clear, I am not insinuating that all forms of marginalization are the same—they each have different histories, they are institutionalized in different ways, they employ different assumptions and stereotypes, and so on. But recognizing the parallels between how marked/marginalized groups are viewed is an important tool for us as activists.

It should be pointed out that a person can be marked without being marginalized. Specifically, while some marked groups are stigmatized (as is the case for most marginalized groups), others may be glorified. Examples of the latter may include celebrities or people of considerable wealth or power. Because they are marked, people in these latter categories may be viewed as extraordinary and exotic, attract a lot of attention, garner commentary (in the form of praise and/or critiques), and others may consider it OK to invade their privacy. These are all potentially negative aspects of being marked, although it would be incorrect to say that such individuals are marginalized (as they are marked for supposedly being “better than” the unmarked majority, not “lesser than”).  

How does understanding the unmarked/marked distinction help us to become better activists?
Recognizing the hallmarks of double standards may allow us to more readily appreciate and learn to challenge forms of sexism and marginalization that we are less familiar with. In the talk I previously mentioned, I have found that my describing the parallels between cissexism and heterosexism in terms of the unmarked/marked distinction has been quite productive in getting audiences to recognize and appreciate cissexism. It helps them to see how being marked (for whatever reason) can lead to a predictable set of negative consequences, rather than them having to reimagine cissexism as a completely novel form of marginalization unlike anything that they were previously familiar with.

One of the most useful aspects of understanding the unmarked/marked distinction is that it allows us to become familiar with the numerous double-binds that plague marked/marginalized groups. In the chapter “How Double Standards Work,” I discuss some of the most prevalent of such double binds: invisible/visible, credit/detriment, disavow/identify, accommodating/angry, afflicted/chosen, dupes/fakes, ashamed/shameless, harmless/dangerous, pass/reveal.

To give you an idea of what I mean by double-bind, here is an excerpt from the passage regarding the accommodating/angry double-bind:

When we are marked, other people feel entitled to pay undue attention to, remark about, and call into question that aspect of our being. Such incidents can range from being slightly annoying to downright invalidating. When we are constantly being put into question like this, there are two general types of responses we might take. The first is to accommodate these actions. For instance, if people are staring at us, we just put it out of our minds. If people make remarks about us, we do not object. If people ask us questions, we politely answer them. This approach can be highly disempowering, as it places us on the defensive and perpetuates the idea that others are entitled to constantly call our marked trait into question, and that it’s our job to accommodate them.

The alternative, of course, is to challenge other people when they mark us. So if they stare at us, we tell them that it’s impolite to stare, or stare back at them. If they remark about us, we call them out on their comments. If they ask us questions, we remind them of how invasive it is to be interrogated like that. On the positive side, these are proactive approaches that challenge the double standard. But the problem is, the fact that we’ve been deemed marked means that they feel entitled to call us into question. So in their minds, it is we who are acting inappropriately, and they will likely interpret our righteous responses as an attack on them. Often they will interpret us as acting “angry,” even if we challenge them in a polite manner without ever raising our voice.

Understanding these double-binds allows us to see the futility of many one-size-fits-all approaches to activism that perpetually arise within our movements. For instance, more “liberal” voices within our movements may insist that we should act polite in our dealings with the dominant majority, while more “radical” voices may insist that we should be in their face and not let them trample all over us. But the reality is that neither reaction fundamentally addresses the core problem—i.e., the fact that marginalized individuals are marked and therefore viewed and treated differently. Another example I discuss in the chapter is how some of the approaches taken by both “sex-negative” and “sex-positive” feminists with regard to the virgin/whore double-bind (which I describe as an instance of the more general ashamed/shameless double-bind) do not actually address the core problem: that in our culture, women’s bodies and sexualities are marked relative to men’s.

The take home point is this: Those of us who are marked/marginalized may react differently to the double standards we face. Insisting that we as individuals should all react to instances of marginalization the same way will not address the primary problem—in fact, it will ultimately lead to exclusive movements. So rather than policing how marked/marginalized individuals respond to their particular circumstances, we should instead focus our efforts on challenging the primary act, which is our tendency to mark certain people and view/treat them differently from others. While this can certainly happen at the level of specific marginalized groups (e.g., trans activists challenging how trans people are marked in our society), I believe that it is crucial that we more generally raise awareness about the unmarked/marked distinction and how it creates double standards and double-binds in many people’s lives. I discuss this more general approach to challenging double standards in far greater detail in Excluded.

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  1. I'm curious how you view being marked in relation to being invisible. You say that being marked is the reason that people have to "come out", but what about prior to coming out? If someone hasn't come out (to others or to themselves), it would seem that they have not yet been marked. And yet, it's considered a good thing to come out, to go from unmarked to marked. This seems at odds with the idea that being marked is a fundamental part of marginalization.

    1. So one of the double-binds that marked groups face (and which I discuss more in depth in this chapter of Excluded) is the invisible/visible double-bind. There are both potential advantages & disadvantages to each side of this double-bind.

      So for instance, I am a trans person, and trans people are marked in our society. I am often read as cis by other people - when this happens, I am invisible, which simply means that I am not recognized as a member of a marked group. But I am nevertheless marked. And as soon as I out myself or am discovered to be trans, I will become visible, which means that people will recognize me and treat me as marked.

      The disadvantages of being visible are obvious (e.g., I may face transphobia), but being invisible has disadvantages too (e.g., having to manage other people's expectations that I am cis, and possibly being accused of "deceiving" people if I am found out).

      So being marked is not the same thing as being visible. People are either visibly marked, or their marked status is invisible (yet still there). I hope that makes sense.

  2. People don't have the right to know your "marked" status. If one believes that they might as well announce it publicly and humiliate themselves. It's degrading to believe that you are deceiving people by withholding information they do not have the right to know.

    I would no sooner announce I have cancer, an STD, or I just won the mega millions lottery.

    I present as the gender I am. The only ones that have a right to know what I am genetically are people I am intimate with.