Friday, November 27, 2015

Short women should be pretty mad at this pro-Clinton argument

Freud's theory of the unconscious may be his greatest and most enduring contribution to our understanding of psychology, but it's also one of the most easily abused. Simple reason: by definition, the unconscious operates in ways that aren't easily amendable to observation and verification. That makes it the perfect explanatory move for people who want to make extraordinary claims but don't want to fuss with evidence, which is why psychotherapist John Welwood writes that
The unconscious has become a catchall concept that appears to explain phenomena for which there is no other explanation, while often not explaining much at all, since its exact experiential meaning remains obscure.
Case in point, Sady Doyle, who has grasped a great truth about Clinton's critics: their "refusal to admit that gender bias can be unconscious."

It's a clever enough accusation, since it preempts any scrutiny by insisting that the crime in question is one that we aren't even conscious of. Hilariously -- even on those generous terms -- Sady is still wrong; I for one will readily admit that my opposition to Clinton could be motivated by biases that I don't know about. And this is really a fairly common concession: for instance, here, Matt Bruenig openly speculates that "we might find that I discount Hillary because I am a sexist man."

Still, the substantive question remains: is the left-critique of Clinton significantly implicated in unconscious bias? Ordinarily we would have to remain agnostic about such a claim, since the appeal to the unconscious makes it hard to empirically investigate. In this instance, however, Sady has made the crucial mistake of trying to buttress her claim with actual evidence. And when we look at her evidence, we see just how tenuous her position actually is, and how Sady herself is implicated in some pretty significant bigotry. Here's her specific argument:
One thing about Hillary Clinton is that people literally and routinely see her as bigger than she actually is...for Hillary, the perception of bigger size is somehow negative...traits we subconsciously associate with height — authority, physical strength, intelligence, dominance — are also traits that we see as masculine. Therefore, they are commendable in men (just like tallness) but they are inappropriate and even freakish qualities for a woman to possess...The ancient caveman part of my brain that decides whether someone is an authority figure based on how big and strong they are looked at a short woman, and a tall man, and decided — purely because the woman seemed authoritative — that they were about the same size.
This is all easily addressed. In brief:
  • There is no significant evidence that anyone - much less a noteworthy number of people - sees Clinton as taller than she actually is. Sady doesn't even understand her own anecdotal evidence here; for instance, Klein calls Clinton "the big girl" because that is what "members of her inner circle called Hillary Rodham Clinton." Dowd, meanwhile, has called Clinton all kinds of crazy things, but no one believes that she literally thinks of Clinton as a cartoon or a pop singer. Most of Sady's argument seems to be cribbed from a fluff Washington Post piece which attributes misreported height figures to "the hive mind of the greater Internet," but this is a basic misunderstanding of how Google's knowledge graph works. Answers provided by Google do not even reflect popular opinion among internet users, much less among the broader population.
  • There is zero evidence about the role of such biases in our perception of height in others. While there is considerable evidence that height can influence our perception of things like personality, Sady has made a basic error in reasoning by simply assuming that things like personality can therefore influence our perception of height. One recent study does suggest that "there is a relationship between feelings of power and our perception of our own height," but even this falls short of establishing Sady's speculation (presented as fact) that authority dictates our perception of height in others. There is as far as I know no evidence of this attested anywhere, and since Sady supplies none of her own we can easily dismiss it as so much conjecture.
  • It is untrue that gender reverses the effects of heightism, increasing bias against women with height. This is the most telling claim, because it isn't merely unsubstantiated - it's directly at odds with the evidence. The literature is quite categorical in observing among men and women "the automatic attribution of positive personality characteristics to them because of their height" (read: tallness); for instance, "controlling for gender, height continues to affect wages" (Rosenburg).
That last point tells us a lot about the role of the unconscious in Sady's argument.

The public may very well be guilty of some kind of unconscious bigotry against Clinton, but we can be certain that it is nothing like what Sady says it is. She's evidently completely unacquainted with the basic research on heightism and its interplay with gender. Moreover, she seems to think that she can simply conjecture her way towards a clinical understanding of the inner psychology of her critics based on little more than half-baked evolutionary psychology and wishful thinking. Had she simply cried "unconcious bias," we would have no way of knowing any of this, and would probably have to entertain her position out of an overabundance of caution. It is only because this time she tried to actually elaborate on and defend her position that we had the opportunity to give it any scrutiny at all.

And Sady's argument isn't just unfair to Clinton's critics -- even worse, it's also unfair against women, and short women in particular. In order to argue that Clinton is the victim of bigotry, Sady has to radically misrepresent the plight of women and pretend that they are worse off the taller they are. In fact, the evidence is clear that "because women average 4 to 5 inches shorter than men, [heightism] affects [women] more" (Miller). By arguing that Clinton's problem is the perception that she is too tall, Sady is making it that much harder for the public to appreciate the actual challenges women face.

A recurring line of criticism against Clinton's apologists is that they're advancing factually incorrect arguments that are not only biased against women, but that would in specifically drive down their wages. There may be something to this!