Feminism, yes. Culture of fear, no thanks. 4


There are a few loopholes around feminism, multiculturalism and the striving towards social inclusion and multiplicity that few people seem to be aware of, but many people certainly should. These insights are especially important for organizers of process oriented parties, i.e. the budding metamodern political movements you can find in places like Sweden and Denmark. Basically, there are some paradoxes around trying to be inclusive that can and will stifle any intelligent and productive development of the organization unless people recognize them and learn to consciously steer clear of them. If anybody can pull the “exclusion” card at any time, scoring moral points and handing out heaps of vaguely formulated blame, this can and will foster a culture of fear. Let’s go through it.

“Groups with more women have higher ‘collective intelligence’.”

Why so many guys in new, experimental organizations?

There is research that suggests that women on average have a somewhat higher social and emotional intelligence than men, and that groups or organizations where many key positions are held by women are somewhat more functional, i.e. they have higher “collective intelligence” than groups with fewer women (according to the MIT Center for Collective Intelligence).

It is thus in the long-term interest of groups to have pretty much as many women as possible, not only as leaders, but also as members—not least if it’s an organization that deals with complex social and emotional issues.

And yet, there are often more men at the top in many organizations. The usual way of explaining this is prejudice and patriarchy, but there may well be other selection pressures. For instance, you may argue that people at the very top of competitive organizations must make tremendous sacrifices in order to remain in place, and that women less often choose to do so in the long run, as they are less wired to chase prestige and more wired for social and emotional bonds. This is what Canadian psychologist Jordan Peterson argues in this clip.

When it comes to new and experimental organizations and new political parties, it should not surprise us that we will tend to find a greater number of men there than women. Across the world, all cultures, you find significant differences in personality traits between men and women: men are more risk prone (going for new extraction projects and unproven organizations), are more keen on advancing in the social hierarchies, have lower “agreeableness” (as in the personality trait studied by the psychologists) and so are more prone to rock the boat and compete and being somewhat less concerned with being likable, and are more assertive and dominant in their demeanor. These differences aren’t always very strong, but they hold across all cultures. Men are often over-represented in newly formed organizations but women are often better at creating new branches of existing social structures.

The reason for these differences probably lie in a number of Darwinian selection pressures that have molded our behavioral biology—basically, much fewer men have gotten to mate than women, so it has been advantageous (in a mechanical, Darwinian sense) to take greater risks in order to advance to the top of the dominance hierarchy. Once there, a male could mate with several females, choosing from the most attractive ones (which in turn creates an embellishment selection pressure in female behavior, contrary to those in most birds where males display nice colors etc.). Males who didn’t take risks have been selected against.

“Males who didn’t take risks have been selected against.”

Given these personality differences in humans, we are left with a dual predicament: Men are much more likely to thrive emotionally in new, experimental organizations with no fixed social boundaries and hierarchies—but this can get us stuck in a situation where the organization permanently has much more men than women, which is counterproductive to the long-term success of the organization.

Blame “the structures”?

For women and others who enter these newly formed organizational structures it is natural to feel subtly uncomfortable as the social environment is permeated by a general “masculine vibe”. There is not only a sense of conquest and adventure, but also—even in cute, progressive circles, let’s be honest—an underlying competition for prestige and positions in the forming social hierarchy.

Even if such hierarchies are consciously designed to be democratic, fair, transparent and flexible, people need to display good merits in order to gain the respect and admiration of others. Men generally feel a little more comfortable in such environments than women, and they are more energized and emotionally rewarded for diving head-on into them with fresh and blind commitment.

In lack of a deeper, systemic understanding of what’s going on, it can be tempting for women to rely upon theories of patriarchy and blame “the dusty, moldy structures” in these situations, as a means of countering what is felt to be an unfair male privilege. This is true especially in societies like Sweden and Denmark, where gender equality is a strongly held social and moral value.

I’m not saying that there are no male privileges or that patriarchy doesn’t exist—it’s just not an exhaustive theory and it doesn’t lead down a very productive path for the organization as a whole. Here’s why.

If people start blaming “the structures” they are making vague and unspecified claims for blame (and corresponding moral claims for victimhood) that are difficult to assess and to give a specific, concrete address in the real situations and interactions. In other words, you are letting a rather nasty genie out of its bottle: somebody, somewhere did or said something sexist or acted to unfairly exclude someone else—but we’re not telling you exactly who, or when they did it, or how. Somebody is being sexist and upholding immoral, outdated “structures”, but it is unclear if it might be you, or that guy, or this one.

“Somebody is being sexist and upholding immoral, outdated “structures”, but it is unclear if it might be you, or that guy, or this one.”

So a pretty strong accusation is there, of a pretty grave moral wrong-doing, but you never know if this accusation is going to hit you, or if people are thinking nasty thoughts about you or might be saying things behind your back.

This, my friends, inadvertently breeds a culture of fear. Nobody wants a culture of fear, but it can show up as an accidental and unfortunate side-effect of imprudent uses of structural arguments about feminism.

Understanding the culture of fear

The culture of fear is very detrimental to the long-term success of an organization for several reasons.

First of all, it lowers collective intelligence as people become more afraid of speaking their minds and just generally “being themselves”. As the collective intelligence of a group depends upon equally and fairly distributed speech, and such communication must build upon the honest and relaxed expression of thoughts, ideas and values, this puts a lid on people’s ability to partake in earnest. Anything you say or do can be taken as a sign that you are the one who “upholds those nasty structures” and so you have to watch your every step, lest it be used against you.

This, in turn, skews the incentives for all participants in the organization. Rewards are reaped to a lesser extent for coming up with the best ideas and putting in the most work (in a functional do-ocracy, which is based on the meritocratic evaluation of effort, skill and competence) and to a greater extent for winning the moral struggles for victimhood and blame. This shifts people’s attention and efforts away from serving the overall purpose of the organization and towards the games for victimhood and blame that flow from arguments of inclusion and feminism. Instead of making sure that your political party has the best possible policies and chances of winning, you need to spend time and effort making sure that you are not painted as a sexist or upholder of unjust social structures. And you end up spending more time trying not to seem power-hungry or dominant or exclusionary, than you do working with real suggestions. It’s a treadmill for moral purity that can, in effect, never be achieved. And it takes up a large quantity of resources in terms of time and attention.

“It’s a treadmill for moral purity that can, in effect, never be achieved.”

And this, of course, means that people will become less experimental, innovative and risk-prone, all of which are necessary for a vibrant and powerful organization. It stifles initiative and innovation. So you get a less efficient organization.

And as people feel stuck in games for moral worth and that they must avoid subtle forms of blame and moral accusations, many react with bitterness and resentment. This of course is a breeding ground for underlying conflicts that begin to permeate the organization, and this will in turn lead to more people struggling to be defined as victims and as the ones who have been unfairly treated and discriminated against. And anyone who is unfairly treated or gets excluded on other grounds than gender, ethnicity or class—for instance, that you are socially awkward, nerdy or have too different ideas, or whatever—naturally feels resentment towards the fact that they cannot muster a corresponding moral victimhood as those belonging to the socially accepted categories of the oppressed. And they start playing games to redefine victimhood and blame, much like the regressive parts of the men’s movement.

Which brings us to the last point about the culture of fear. Since anybody can make vague and unspecified claims of gender discrimination, racism, etc., and these claims are more or less impossible to counter, they lead down a slippery slope. Whenever somebody doesn’t like your idea, or doesn’t think you’re the right candidate, or just doesn’t agree with you, you can comfortably push the feminism or “power structure” button, and you’re off the hook. Now it’s all those people who didn’t give you your due respect and attention who are bad, and you don’t need to reevaluate your stance. This of course corrupts the process of fair and rational democratic deliberation and supplements good arguments for cheap moral scores.

All of this leads to a timid, weak and cowardly organizational culture. A culture of fear. Or at least one of guilt, shame and envy.

So sloppy uses of feminist and inclusionary arguments can and will breed a culture of fear, and this can and will harm the organization as a whole. It is directly detrimental to the organization’s deeper purpose. I can’t overstate how venomous this kind of organizational development is; even if it is very understandable and is not caused by anyone’s ill will. In fact it is paradoxically caused only by people’s earnest struggle for inclusion and recognition.

Logically impossible forms of inclusion

Beyond the feminist argument for inclusion of women, people often make it a moral trademark to want full inclusion of all dimensions of society: gender, class, ethnicity, educational and vocational background, personality types and so forth. The argument goes that the “natural order” of things is that every aspect of society (usually seen as the national society within which the organization resides) is represented in a miniature version, a mirror image of society as a whole. Any deviation from such a representation is seen as being caused by those nasty power structures, in effect excluding significant groups.

While this idea is understandable and compelling, it is really not very feasible, for several reasons.
The main reason is that people tend to cluster around projects due to their values, personalities and areas of interest. If you look, for instance, at the Feminist Party of Sweden, you find that it is almost entirely made up of people with higher-than-average cultural capital, alternative and liberal lifestyles and who have a stake in challenging the cultural status quo. So you will find very few traditional Christians and Muslims, and very few Nationalists or just people with more conservative personalities among its activists and voters. You will find that people here have higher “openness”, “agreeableness” and creativity than the average population, and you will find more women than men, and more gays. In the tech startup scene you will find high risk takers, entrepreneurial types, tech nerds, liberals and creatives. In the banking sector you will find the opposite composition. In academia you will find folks who like thick books.

In other words, society is stratified not only due to power structures but also—and often more pertinently—due to cluster effects and pressures of self-selection. If you work too strongly against such pressures of self-selection, you are also working against people’s own choices and preferences, which is after all not a very nice or democratic thing to do.

But even if you do manage to gain a representation of all of society, there is still the simple fact that most of society is not very open or inclusive. Even strong liberals who don’t mind ethnic minorities tend to have a strong preference for the like-minded and to look at more conservative types with disdain, as recent research has established.

So, to put it bluntly, a highly inclusionary and representative mirror of the population, wouldn’t be very open and inclusive, because the average of the population is not very open and inclusive. In other words, in order to create a super-inclusive environment, you have to select from the small segment group of the population that are most open, tolerant, inclusive and democratic. And these groups are generally found only within certain strata of the population: they are postmaterialist, generally privileged, highly educated, well connected, creative and experimental, and they can be found within limited clusters of the overall population.

So “full inclusion” is a logical paradox, and must therefore be and remain a chimera. Unfortunately, because people cling on too eagerly to sociological theories of power structures and exclusion, they are lead to believe that any homogeneity of a newly formed organization is caused only by the tendency of powerful groups to exclude others. Such explanations may play a part, but they are not exhaustive.

And once you cling to an impossible ideal, and your only explanation for why it does not materialize is to blame the power structures (subtly blaming other people), you feel justified in making vague, sweeping arguments about discrimination and exclusion. And so you feed the culture of fear, which debilitates the vibrancy of your organization as explained above. The leadership naturally becomes less audacious and energized.

Solution 1: Internal discrimination court

Yikes, so this lands us in a few rather venomous paradoxes when it comes to feminism and inclusion for organizational development. On the one hand, there are strong mechanisms that lead to more men taking the lead, which is bad news for the collective intelligence of the organization and makes women feel excluded; on the other hand, if people start crying wolf and pulling the feminism card in vague and general terms, this inadvertently leads to a culture of fear.

But there are solutions to this problem, and they should be instituted on both and organizational and cultural level.

First of all, there must be an internal “court” within the organization to which complaints about discrimination and unfair exclusion can be filed. Such complaints must be specific in nature: Who is being excluded, by whom, on what grounds, and through which mechanisms, and by means of which actions (or non-actions)? You can file complaints not only for gender discrimination, but for any kind of unfair treatment or exclusion.

Such a court must have the mandate to:

a) invite all the concerned parties to a private mediating discussion (no record kept, no outside interference and no prestige in front of the rest of the organization);
b) decide upon disciplinary sanctions against the ones who are deemed to have unfairly discriminated against a person, for instance by relieving them of responsibilities for a period of time;
c) re-open decision processes that have been thwarted and curtailed due to unfair discrimination or exclusion, either of nominations for positions or for policy decisions; and
d) offer official statements concerning occurring forms of discrimination, expressing the feelings and concerns of those who feel that they have been denied their due recognition.

In other words, the organization should take it upon itself to combat all forms of discrimination and offer a viable alternative to the free-for-all calls about structural discrimination. This makes certain that complaints are only made in a specific, targeted form, and that they lead to productive results. The mission of such a court should be to guard the collective intelligence of the organization and to defend all members from feeling excluded and discriminated against, as well as defending all members from undue or unwarranted accusations of discrimination.

Solution 2: Strong cultural norms against general and sweeping accusations

If such an internal court system is in place, there should be less reason to make general and sweeping accusations about the “structural” issues of discrimination. And indeed, there should be an agreement among members that such generalized arguments should not be made at all.

This may feel disempowering to some, as many of us have grown fond of using such arguments. But the arguments can still be made—it’s just that they are made in specific and situated manners with real, organizational consequences. If you are prepared to accuse others of being sexist or exclusionary, you should also be able to say who was, how, and how it harmed you.

“If you are prepared to accuse others of being sexist or exclusionary, you should also be able to say who was, how, and how it harmed you.”

These are norms of adulthood and social responsibility. There should be no room for norms of blame and unspecified victimhood or unspecified accusations. If all members are treated as responsible adults who can fend for their own interests, they should be given the means to do so effectively and productively. Even if you are the victim of unfair discrimination, you must still have the guts and responsibility to stand up for yourself. It is a matter of balancing rights with their corresponding responsibilities.

Because who else will take responsibility for your accusations? Just calling wolf and leaving elephants in the room is not good enough. You have to stand up for yourself and be faced with the real possibility that the court, or other members of the organization, will not necessarily see things the same way as you do. If you are to level such severe accusations at others, you should at least be certain enough of your case that you would be able to explain the specifics to a mediating court. This will foster stronger and more empowered members of the organization at all levels.

These norms should be an open agreement among the members of the organization: that all matters of discrimination are handled through the court, and never through vague charges about structures.

Solution 3: Flexible quota systems

When a position or mandate is to be filled by person by means of election, it may be a good idea to premium women and minorities as a means of countering the natural tendency of men from the dominant ethnicity to fill the positions.

But rather than having “fixed” quota systems (50% women, etc.) it would make more sense to put into place softer, cultural norms that steer this development. A simple solution might be this one:

When someone is to be elected for a position, the round first goes to women with immigrant background. If there are any such persons available, and they accept the nomination, there is a consent round to see if all members of the assembly consent to this person’s election.

If no such person is presents herself, or if consent is not given due to specific and relevant arguments of behalf of some members, the second round looks for a “white” woman. The third round goes to men with immigrant background. The fourth round goes to people with disabilities. Only in the fifth round can “white” men be elected.

In early stages of an organization, this will still mean that most positions are filled with white men. But at least these can be certain that they have not actively or passively excluded other groups. As the organization grows, more and more positions will be filled with women—which is actually beneficial for collective intelligence up to a number of 100%, according to the MIT Center for Collective Intelligence.

Wouldn’t this lead to the active discrimination of white men? No. There are going to be so many eager white men around, that this group will easily find representation either way. And in some cases there will be committees and bodies with only white men, and that will also be okay.

“It’s a ‘soft’ quota system, one that doesn’t stare blindly at specific numbers or percentages, but simply makes damn sure that people weren’t excluded on unfair grounds.”

It’s a “soft” quota system, one that doesn’t stare blindly at specific numbers or percentages, but simply makes damn sure that people of some select categories weren’t excluded on unfair grounds. And self-selection pressures will manifest themselves all the same. A new, progressive political party will be filled with creative, open-minded progressive people who are deemed competent by their peers.

Nobody gets in on a quota, but only on merit, as everybody has to consent on rational grounds. There are just some mechanisms in place to counter the unfortunate mechanisms of self-selection. This creates a culture in which women and other minorities feel more welcome and less inclined to want to press charges of discrimination.

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Last words: inclusion is important. But not for its own sake. Not as a gimmick. There is no multi-color raincoat god of multiplicity out there who loves us more if we have more varying genitals and skin colors. Multiplicity is a virtue only in so far as it serves collective intelligence, common understanding and productive cooperation.

Feminism is important, not only as a social value, but also as a marker of organizational quality and efficiency. But in its simpler and more antagonistic forms it can breed unproductive struggles for victimhood and let invisible elephants of blame sneak into the room.

Let us counter these tendencies with proactive and consciously designed organizational innovations. Let us work for a deeper feminism that tackles the core of the problem. This requires that social rights are counter-balanced with social responsibilities.

So—feminism, yes. Culture of fear, no thanks.

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Hanzi Freinacht is a political philosopher, historian and sociologist, author of the upcoming books ‘The Listening Society’, ‘Nordic Ideology’ and ‘The 6 Hidden Patterns of World History’. Much of his time is spent alone in the Swiss Alps. You can follow Hanzi on his facebook profile here.


4 thoughts on “Feminism, yes. Culture of fear, no thanks.

  • Frank

    Just read the MIT study and I’m not sure the contrived experiments necessarily translate well into real-world performance. The groups of participants, as far as I can tell, were loose collections of individuals without any kind of formal hierarchy amongst them. Even in an idealistic organisation that eschews hierarchy in favour of consensus, informal social hierarchies will form – and from what you’ve written here you seem to accept this idea. A group that has been formed specifically to test group dynamics, and which has not been given any formal structure or had time to develop organic hierarchies, would have quite a different dynamic to a real-world organisation, be it a business or a political party.

    The metrics used to measure “group intelligence” in the MIT study were also things like playing games or solving contrived creative problems. The most realistic scenario tracked student grades achieved in group projects over a few months, but even a university group project won’t have the same kind of dynamics or performance metrics as a real-world organisation.

    In real life, businesses are measured by their profits and political parties by their vote share. While group intelligence may enhance the performance of groups of strangers playing games or solving contrived creative problems, it remains to be seen if this makes any difference in the real world: for example, who cares if Fred, Sally, Lequisha and Pete can produce a top quality brainstorm about an architectural problem if Bill the company’s CEO decided it would be better to instead contract that task out to Bjorn – an experienced architect – and tell the other four to do something more useful? Who cares if Pete and Sally are empathising and communicating effectively if Sally their manager is coordinating their activities and telling them exactly what tasks to perform when? In organisations people have specific roles and rarely does the entire company come together to solve an esoteric problem.

    I do recall other studies of actual tech companies in silicon valley that suggest that companies with more women tend to make more money. But these kinds of analyses usually put the cart before the horse: in an economy where diversity is badge of pride for any company, demand for staff with minority status will artificially inflate the price of these individuals. It is only the big players like Google who are already well established and can afford to pay some of their staff artificially high salaries who will end up winning this scarce resource. Start-ups on the other hand, whose profits will initially be somewhere between negative and zero, will not be able to afford to make these sorts of hires and will end up risk-taker/male dominated. You could take these statistics and declare that having more women leads to higher profits, but unless Google had the same proportion of women employees when they were a struggling start-up, such assertions are unfounded.

    In either case, there’s not much reason to believe that women and diversity are essential for an organisation’s performance. Unless that organisation has no hierarchy and is playing a collaborative game of checkers.

    • Hanzi Freinacht Post author

      You may be right in taking this reference with a grain of salt. The point is that rather – and should perhaps be more carefully stated than in my above article – that there are good indications that it may be counterproductive to inadvertently create a too male-centric environment.

  • Montgomery

    I do agree with the above comment regarding the MIT Study. There are many factors coming into play and the research is too arbitrary, or rather its methodology is lacking. When measuring the intelligence it did not happen to test all 14 areas. It is known through several studies that women are better at verbal communcation and interaction having as you have said higher Social and Emotional Intelligence. However men have a higher Spacial intelligence on average.

    What I am trying to say is. Men and Women have their brainstructures largerly formed by nurture rather than nature. As such the fact that women raise “collective intelligence”on average does not mean men cannot do the same in the right circumstances. Not to mention the data sample is far too small to make a judgement on half of humans on the planet.

    Furthermore there is an issue I have with your 3 proposed solution of “soft” quotas. That is simply unmeritocratic. Why should I lose an election simply due to my skin colour? These things should be kept arbitratry and irrelevant to the skill of an individual. As you have said Hanzi “Multiplicity is a virtue only in so far as it serves collective intelligence, common understanding and productive cooperation.” and there is a contradiction between that and the quota solution. Under such system a more able candidate will be turned down simply because of factors they cannot control. The fact that we humans divide ourselves into groups in the first place leads to this social justice tribalism in the first place. As such I ask you that you reconsider your 3d solution.

    • Hanzi Freinacht Post author

      Agreed. It’s just to point out that there may be indications that including women is good for the organization.

      The solution I propose is unlikely to be good in most settings. In the particular cultural climate of such new organizations as the budding metamodern political movements, it may be beneficial in order to lay the “culture of blame” to rest so that greater focus can be put on the tasks at hand.

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