Playing Against Type is a Market Niche

by Kieran Healy on March 2, 2008

Via Unfogged comes Charlotte Allen in the WP:

bq. What is it about us women? Why do we always fall for the hysterical, the superficial and the gooily sentimental? … I swear no man watches “Grey’s Anatomy” unless his girlfriend forces him to. No man bakes cookies for his dog. … At least no man I know. Of course, not all women do these things, either — although enough do to make one wonder whether there isn’t some genetic aspect of the female brain, something evolutionarily connected to the fact that we live longer than men or go through childbirth, that turns the pre-frontal cortex into Cream of Wheat. … Depressing as it is, several of the supposed misogynist myths about female inferiority have been proven true. Women really are worse drivers than men, for example. A study published in 1998 by the Johns Hopkins schools of medicine and public health revealed that women clocked 5.7 auto accidents per million miles driven, in contrast to men’s 5.1, even though men drive about 74 percent more miles a year than women. The theory that women are the dumber sex — or at least the sex that gets into more car accidents — is amply supported by neurological and standardized-testing evidence. Men’s and women’s brains not only look different, but men’s brains are bigger than women’s (even adjusting for men’s generally bigger body size). … I am perfectly willing to admit that I myself am a classic case of female mental deficiencies. I can’t add 2 and 2 (well, I can, but then what?). I don’t even know how many pairs of shoes I own.

There are different, and predictable, ways to react to Sunday-supplement piffle like this. Get angry; point-by-point rebuttal; roll your eyes; wonder whether it’s a put on; or, of course, pipe up and say how great it is that someone finally has had the courage to confirm the conventional wisdom of thirty years ago. Well done that gel. It’s certainly a well-executed example of the genre: the flipping back and forth between anecdote and gestures to the science; the carefully-placed qualifiers; the breezy non sequiturs.

I tend toward an ecological interpretation. If there is a niche in the market it tends to get filled, even — perhaps especially — if it seems like an unlikely niche. Because there’s lots of misogyny in the world, there is a demand for misogynist writing. There’s plenty such writing by men, but that’s by now boring and there’s probably too much supply. If a woman is doing it, though, there are bigger and better returns to it. Occupying a niche of this sort also gives you certain rhetorical advantages in generating controversy and responding to it. (See, a woman admits the truth! Or, how can I be anti-woman if I am one? And if you misjudge the reaction, you can claim the whole thing was a joke.) In short, being able to occupy a niche like this makes you a better troll. Hence, Charlotte Allen, etc.

The point generalizes to most other writing and broadcasting about classes of people by classes of people: if there are stereotypical beliefs about some social category, eventually you’ll see someone from within that category make a career by playing to type. Being able to embody different categories at once makes you distinctive, gives you some leverage. When your categorical identity runs against the grain of received opinion, you will probably be treated as a curiosity, an object of derision, or a freak. Here the benefits, if any, are associated with strong in-group solidarity and accompanied by active efforts to de-stigmatize the identity. When it confirms received opinion — but from an interesting or unexpected position — there are greater opportunities for being rewarded. Typically people who fit here are not at any particular risk of suffering from any downside following the public embrace of being stereotypically dumb, or lazy, or whatever. (Allen, for instance, can say she “breezed through academia” on a good memory, but she also went to Harvard and Stanford. Women who have full-time writing careers telling other women to stay at home with the kids are in a similar position.) When associations with some classification are strongly polarized, there’ll be more anger and fighting, but also more incentive to play against type. And of course these processes take place within nested contexts, which complicates the dynamic. But the bottom line is that cross-cutting social categories will be filled with people happy to bear the intersection as an identity, and probably also to spend most of their time talking about it: hence black conservatives, marxist economists, Log-Cabin Republicans, ex-gay fundamentalists, pacifist Marines, libertarian environmentalists, pro-life Democrats, or what have you.

A lot or a little, part 2

by John Q on March 2, 2008

Daniel’s post on Stiglitz and the cost of the Iraq war reminded me to get going on one I’ve had planned for some time, as a follow-up to this one where I pointed out that the $50 billion in aid given to Africa over the past fifty years or so is not, as is usually implied, a very large sum, but rather a pitifully small one, when considered in relation to the number of people involved, and the time over which the aggregate is taken.

What are the sums of money worth paying attention to in terms of economic magnitude. I’d say the relevant order of magnitude is around 1 per cent of national income[1], say from 0.5 per cent to 5 per cent. Smaller amounts are important if you’re directly concerned with the issue at hand, but are impossible detect amid the general background noise of fluctuations in income and expenditure. Anything larger than 5 per cent will force itself on our attention, whether we will it or not.

To get an idea of the amounts we’re talking about, US national income is currently about 12 trillion a year, so 1 per cent is $120 billion a year. A permanent flow of $120 billion a year can service around $6 trillion in debt at an interest rate of 4 per cent, so a permanent 1 per cent loss in income is equivalent to a reduction in wealth by $6 trillion.

For the world as a whole, income is around $50 trillion, so the corresponding figures are $500 billion and $25 trillion.

What kinds of policies and events fit into this scale?

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