In 2014, Barack Obama used his State of the Union address to perpetuate one of the most socially divisive lies of the modern era: the gender wage gap.
The lie, as told by Obama and a great many people, is that in modern Western democracies women earn around 3/4 as much as men and that this is specifically ‘for the exact same work’. If true, this would be shameful. Fortunately, it is not. The apparent gap is a broad statistic that omits all the factors which explain why men and women, on average, earn different amounts, but it is the addition of those five little words that alters the claim from a misleading, and therefore unhelpful, factoid to an outright lie. Such dishonesty should cost the speaker any credibility they ever had on the subject, or may wish to have in the future. Yet, prominent voices repeat the claim with monotonous regularity to the point where many believe it, and seek to alter society as a result.
I am continually bewildered by those in power who spread misinformation damaging to their own. Why would a man disingenuously encourage a culture war that, if successful, would result in the lawful and socially accepted discrimination against his fellow man?
On the face of it, Obama’s behaviour makes little sense. It is easily dismissed as pandering to his base, or the female vote, but what if there is more to it?
The following may or may not be true, but it is a frightening possibility that shares the same outcomes, with or without the intent of the powers that be.
Imagine for a second that you are ‘the establishment’. Stereotypically, and statistically, this makes you a straight white male. Obama misses one criterion but the exact demography of any particular actor is not important. As you will see, the argument remains the same.
In this hypothetical, you have the power and you seek to keep it. What would be your best strategy?
Overt abuse of that power would be politically damaging and more likely to incite the ire of those you seek to control, leading to an oppressed state and, eventually, revolution.
Paradoxically, your best approach is to attack yourself. It is an ingenious solution.
You are already made; you have wealth, you have contacts, you have power and influence, and that position can extend privilege down the generations. It effectively comes at no cost to yourself or those you care about. In fact, it earns you support from the emotion-led masses because they feel, correctly, that certain claims would be outrageous if true, and that ‘truth’ is being assured by an apparently self-critical authority with ‘nothing to gain’.
The lie immediately boosts your reputation and support, but there is still more to be gained.
At the risk of exhausting what is now a cliché, Orwell’s dystopian vision has proved alarmingly accurate. Society endures an endless war so that those in power may maintain the hierarchy. But in our case, it is not on an international scale. In our world, those wars are real. They are waged over resources and for genuine ideological, social, political and financial reasons. No, our war is internal. We are encouraged to fight amongst ourselves and we comply. We fight over circumstance or personal experience as though it were our universal fate determined from on high. We fight over trivialities or wildly inaccurate simplifications. We fight over completely imaginary problems. We fight when we agree. We fight when we want the same outcome. Those fights not only keep us occupied and distract us from the real enemy.
“The smart way to keep people passive and obedient is to strictly limit the spectrum of acceptable opinion, but allow very lively debate within that spectrum.”
― Noam Chomsky,
But not only do those fights not only keep us occupied and distracted, but they result in a further exacerbation the problem.
In a near exclusively heterosexual society, a predominantly white society, and a society where most women choose not to participate at the pinnacle of business and politics, the establishment’s greatest threat and therefore primary enemy is the straight white man. The enemy is you, or one who superficially resembles yourself, but is more progressive and disapproves of your abuse of power. If vilified, and subsequently held back by a prejudiced system, competition is minimised. In order to combat perceived inequalities, underqualified people are promoted ahead of merit (and sometimes even their own will) to fill quotas, be they legislated or merely the result of social pressure.
This is the world in which we find ourselves.
Politics, for example, endures a well known problem of female under-representation. It’s well known, but like most well established narratives, it is false.
It is a statistical fact that women only fill around a third of positions in western democracies, but this statistic is not all it seems.
The vital information continually overlooked is that females often occupy a lower ratio of names on ballot papers than they do seats in parliament. Or in other words, any apparent gender bias in the eyes of the electorate is actually pro-female! I have been unable to obtain data at levels prior to the ballot paper (political parties are notoriously secretive regarding backroom dealings) but it would be astonishing if women were not similarly promoted at ratios higher than that at which they apply. Given the public preference, parties not doing so would only be damaging themselves, especially conservatives who already face a perception problem on gender issues.
On closer inspection, the current disparity appears little more than a lack of supply.
Achieving parity in political representation seems a noble goal, but when female candidates are outnumbered two to one, parity requires that selection must be similarly biased at a ratio of two to one in the opposite direction. It is the explicit rejection of equal opportunity to ensure that one gender has twice the likelihood of attaining the same position as the other. Enforced discrimination is not only the antithesis of equality, but also an extremely unreliable method for selecting the best and most qualified candidate. Our good intentions only lower our standards.
Allegedly, to reuse Obama’s wage gap example with our Australian figures, a woman earns 82c on the dollar compared to a man. This is a gross oversimplification that should instantly discredit anyone who promotes it as proof of discrimination. The true wage gap includes many intangibles behind the statistics that only increase over time, ensuring that even the most comprehensive analysis will never be entirely accurate. Errors in analysis are best minimised by considering people in as similar circumstances as possible. One way to do this is to consider only new graduates. This eliminates variables such as education, age, experience; and the figure drops dramatically. In many fields the gap favours women, but overall the discrepancy is currently 4%. This figure of 4% is corroborated by another similar measure, lifetime earnings of childless men and women – the presence of children, and subsequent change in lifestyle priorities, being the greatest determining factor in the perceived wage gap. There remains many unaccounted factors in this figure and deeper analysis would undoubtedly reduce it to near negligible levels but, for the sake of argument, I’m willing to grant a figure of 4%.
Is earning 96c on the dollar an outrage compared to the possibility of earning 1.6c on the dollar? Think about that.
It is generally accepted that a CEO should earn more than their underlings: they take the risk, they face the pressures, and therefore they should reap the rewards. Surveys suggest that people believe a ratio of around 10:1 (or you earning 10c to their dollar) is fair and reasonable, and for the most part that is an overestimate. Overall the ratio is below 3:1. The culture war is not even against your boss. The true discrepancy lies with the elites – where money, and subsequently power, congregate. For the top 100 CEO’s, the figure is currently 63:1, or the equivalent of you earning 1.6c on their dollar. In America the ratio increases to almost 400:1, or the people earning 0.25c on the dollar. Not 25 cents, one quarter of a single cent per dollar, or a 99.75c pay gap.
Meanwhile, we are reassured by the beneficiaries of this imbalance, via their puppets in parliament and the media, that inconsequential matters like the gender gap are significant and we end up squabbling between ourselves over a negligible discrepancy in disposable income: a sum equivalent to that wasted on your morning latte over the course of a year, or squandered upgrading to the latest mobile phone that is practically identical to its predecessor. Your neighbour isn’t limiting or controlling your life with such a sum. They wield no power over you. They are not your enemy.
When you oppose the establishment – and you should, whether you lean left or right – don’t give it a face. Don’t give it a race, a gender, a sexual orientation. Don’t oversimplify societies ills and inequities to a matter of our so-called ‘hetero-normative, white-supremacist, capitalist patriarchy’.
Many of the world’s richest people are middle eastern. It is their wealth that society values, and said wealth allows the leaders of Saudi Arabia to literally get away with murder, and worse, then be welcomed into the White House by both sides of politics.
Women obtain positions of power and wealth all around the world; they are queens, presidents, chancellors and prime ministers; they run companies and chair boards. Australia’s richest person in much of recent history has been a woman, until she forfeited top spot, to another woman (recent fluctuations in the market have seen a man overtake both women, but the point is made). Women lack no legal rights or personal freedoms.
Homosexuality is now nearly universally accepted, even celebrated, in the community. In some sectors not being straight is almost a social requirement. Gay marriage will be legal in much of the West within an election cycle or two. And let’s not overlook that the CEO of the world richest and most loved corporation is gay.
And of course we have Obama, the freely elected black leader of an allegedly white-supremacist country, and world.
None of these people are inherently victims, and conversely not being part of a minority or supposedly oppressed group doesn’t make one your enemy. It is time to stop the infighting. The establishment benefits from our disunity. We squabble amongst ourselves, trying to prevent someone from gaining an unfair advantage, never realising that it has already happened.
The horse has bolted, and it closed the gate as it left. That made its escape easier as nobody noticed it missing. And now our fight against the establishment is misapplied to their likeness as we rush to lock the gates and seal ourselves into the depleted paddock they left us. Improving our pastures necessitates looking beyond appearances – beyond the identity politics and culture wars, beyond the minor differences with your peers – to challenge the true powers.
My draft concluded at the previous paragraph, and a colleague’s review posited ‘yes, but how do we achieve it?’ and also suggested I was a little all over the place, before reuniting the various talking points towards the end. I considered a dramatic overhaul before deciding it was a great metaphor to answer the question. We, of course, need to come together. Which is easier said than done, but here are a few tips:
Above all else: engage. The cornerstone of social progress is engagement. One cannot advance their understanding if they never hear or consider anything new or different. If you are unwilling, or unable, to defend your positions whilst dismissing all opposition without consideration, then you are the problem. If you use the block button over mere disagreement, you are the problem. You must engage. If your world view has to change as a result, that is a good thing, it’s called learning.
Be honest, accurate and measured. A dishonest predisposition only makes engagement more difficult. If, to reuse the oversimplified wage gap example, your lead argument on an issue is utter nonsense, it only damages yourself, the more complex nuances of the argument which may have merit, and possibly even your entire movement.
Retain a sense of humour. Not everything in life requires moral outrage. If, for example, you can’t read Ricky Gervais’s twitter feed without losing your mind, again, you are the problem. Humour is allowed to bend the previous rule. Save the outrage for dishonesty and prejudice emanating from purportedly serious sources; when it comes from government, when it comes from academia, when it comes from corporations, when it come from professional activist groups.
Use labels with caution. The facts never align themselves with a single group, nor will that group accurately encompass all of your values. Your true worth is as an individual, not some arbitrary physical or historical characteristic or one specific value. If you must adopt a label, choose those which promote unity rather than division. ie. Use ‘egalitarian’ rather than ‘feminist’, assuming true equality is your goal. A simple test is to insert ‘radical’ before the label. If it makes sense and conjures a negative image the term will undoubtedly encourage some to become that extreme, whilst its mainstream use will provide these extremists with shelter from necessary criticism. If you are emotionally unable to disassociate yourself from divisive labels, you must become your own group’s harshest critic. The in-group must hold its own to account.
Be civil. Labels are too quickly dispensed, and often without cause. Don’t use inflammatory language unless you are absolutely certain you can prosecute the case. ie. Everybody ‘knows’ Trump is a racist. But if pressed, almost nobody who would publicly make such a claim can actually articulate why it is so, and for those who would try it’s usually their own subjective interpretation, not a fact. The importance of this rules only grows with exposure. Public figures who dispense terms like ‘racist’, ‘misogynist’, ‘homophobe’ and ‘Islamophobe’ like confetti ought be treated with the utmost caution and scepticism. Bigotry likely emanates from the source, not the target.
Readers are invited to offer their own suggestions in the comments…