More on objectification


As I fear was to be expected, my recent piece The New Objectification has received criticism to the effect that I am wrong in asserting that some (at least) women willingly embrace objectification, and seek to maximise their adherence to misogynistic models of woman.  The criticism is that in saying that a socially excluded group will connive in its own exclusion I am attacking the innocent victims rather than than their vicious oppressors.

That this criticism is fallacious hardly needs be said.  It is an observable fact that many women do embrace objectification.  It is also the case that the willing adoption of the stigmata of exclusion by the excluded is a well-known phenomenon in sociology.  However, it occurred to me that there is yet another argument against this accusation that is based in the development of social groups as driven by Darwinian processes.  That is to say, a completely abstract Darwinian argument can show that it is, in some sense, optimal for members of an excluded group to define themselves in terms of those characteristics that led to their exclusion.  In this essay I present this argument which I believe is rather powerful, because, first, it is entirely value free, so the question of the morality or otherwise of the original exclusion plays no part in it, and second it is a nice demonstration of the power of the Darwinian argument as applied to a system developing without overall control or direction.

Darwinian processes

Before I provide the main argument, it is worth giving a brief overview of the general Darwinian process.  We are accustomed to its use in formulating arguments about biological evolution, but much of its power comes from the fact that it is, in fact, not a statement about biology or evolution, but a statement about change over time in populations of similar but not identical individuals, where there is no overall plan or control directing change.  Once we have realised that then we can apply it to any system having these properties.

At its simplest, say we have a population in a changing environment.  The principle of the Darwinian process is simply in the absence of any ‘grand plan’ or controlling force, individuals will adapt so as to maximise benefit in response to changes in the environment, and these adaptations are passed on through time.  Individuals whose adaptation gives greater benefit are favoured in that those adaptations are more likely to continue, while individuals whose adaptation gives reduced or negative benefit are disfavoured.  Thus in time the whole population will tend towards becoming optimally adapted to its environment.  More succinctly: adaptations that benefit their adopters survive better and eventually dominate the population.

A couple of points are worth noting.  First, it is absolutely important that there be no ‘grand plan’ or collusion between the individuals in the population.  If there was, then individuals might actively choose non-beneficial adaptations because though they may not be beneficial, they are congruent with the ‘bigger picture’.  Second, it is important that the individuals vary, as this is what allows sufficient variation in approach to adapting to the environment to guarantee that an optimum will be achieved.  If they all react in the same way then there is no winnowing process by which different approaches are compared and evaluated.  So if a population consists of individuals constrained only by their environment (over which they have little or no control) but otherwise free to act, then the Darwinian process will favour eventual adoption by the population of an approach that maximises adaptation to living within the environment.

Application to social exclusion

Let us say that in the wider population some one group has been socially excluded, or otherwise set apart.  This is tantamount to saying that the remainder of the population has imposed a particular environment on the excluded group, consisting of expectations as to its place in society, how it should behave, what it should be permitted to do, etc.  Assume also that the exclusion is artificial that is to say it is not based on any real difference, but is purely a result of ideology or prejudice.  This now meets the criteria of a Darwinian process: the environment cannot be controlled by the excluded group, and they form a diverse collection with no real commonalty.  Therefore over time the members of the excluded group will adapt to a maximally beneficial accommodation with the facts of their exclusion.

What form will this adaptation take?  A simple answer is impossible, as contingency can lead to many possible outcomes, but we can say what form it will not take.  Any activity that challenges the basis of the group’s exclusion will be maladaptive, because by challenging the exclusion it involves behaviour that does not make best use of the environment as it is.  This is where the fact that there is no grand plan in place is so important.  If the group could band together and set about following  plan to challenge their exclusion through coordinated action, then they could potentially mount a successful campaign to change the environment.  But so long as they act as uncoordinated individuals, there is nothing they can do to change the environment as defined by the excluders, and so long as the environment is a given, then the only option available is to accomodate to it.  Behaviour that does not accomodate to it, such as by challenging the basis for the exclusion, will, if effected on an individual basis, only result in individuals who challenge the status quo benefiting less than those quietists who comply with it, and so such behaviour will be maladaptive and be strongly selected against.

Therefore, socially excluded groups will, in the absence of concerted action against their excluders, tend to adapt themselves as far as possible to live within the bounds of their exclusion.  Not only does this mean that they will tend to adopt the stigmata of exclusion, but moreover the group will act to penalise individuals who do challenge the status quo.  Any such challenge will be a threat precisely in so far as any challenge must bring with it a non-zero probability of reprisals, and a worsening of the terms of the exclusion.  Thus, in time, the excluded group will actively select for stereotypical behaviour as defined by its oppressors, and against independent behaviour (this is, of course, no more than a special case of the well understood dynamics of group formation).

This brings me back to my original contention.  Out groups, be they women who appear to aspire to the status of a sex-toy, or minority groups who have allowed themselves to become convinced that they cannot succeed in academic studies, will always converge on a majoritarian behaviour which lives out the myths promulgated by the in groups that excluded them.  It is only by means of concerted action that any change can be effected.


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