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Tuesday, March 27, 2012

The Strange Phenomenon of Woman-Blindness: A Long Story with a Hypothesis Informed By Several Thoughts From a Book

Background Story (Personal)

About fifteen years ago I met a customer in my bookstore. The books he was looking for were of a kind that interested me, also, and so he subsequently became, for a while, an apparently good friend. We enjoyed each other’s company and conversation. David’s acquaintance with the man I’ll call John Q. was friendly but not particularly important—to David. Later, looking back, I saw clues I missed early on, clues that would have told me that John Q. did not consider me his equal; at the time, however, the question failed to trouble me.

Here was one such clue: I had an idea for a health care service facility built on the successful food co-op model, care to be provided to members who would pay their way either by making financial contributions or by providing hours of labor in their work specialties or by some combination of work and money. I was very excited about my idea and shared it with J. Q. Well, you know how some people can’t wait to listen to your whole idea before they start finding fault with it? I’m sure everyone has had that experience at one time or another. What I should have noticed was the particular way in which J. Q. dissed the concept that was so exciting to me: He said it would be demeaning if I, for example, had to work for my health care by weeding gardens. Huh?

I must explain here that at the time I was working part-time for a friend who had a business in garden design, installation, and maintenance. The other facts of my life—that I had a Ph.D. in philosophy, that I had taught college-level philosophy classes, that I owned and operated my own independent bookstore, and that the entire idea I proposed was originally mine (why wouldn’t he, for example, imagine me as the lead P.R. person for the co-op?)—did not seem to occur to J.Q. at all. And was there something demeaning about the gardening work I did with my friend? Not in my eyes. It was honest labor, well done. I was stunned and fell silent about my "big idea." We could still talk about other things....

Time passed, and J.Q. and I saw less and less of each other, for various reasons, but then one day he appeared in the door of my bookstore. It was (briefly!) an agreeable surprise, and I greeted him with a big, spontaneous, happy smile. “John! It’s so good to see you!” He did not return the greeting but said merely, as he continued to stand in the door rather than come any further in, “Is David around?” I directed him to David’s gallery, feeling confused, disappointed, and slighted.

There were a few more encounters of the same nature, each one hurtful, and there’s no point in recounting each little offense, but the last straw was memorable. David and I were in Horizon Books in downtown Traverse City and ran into J.Q., who joined us for tea in the Shine Cafe. The three of us visited, and then David excused himself to go to the men’s room. On the way back, he ran into other friends and saw no need to hurry back, as J.Q. and I would be, he thought, deep in conversation. And we were. John had an idea for a book. I thought it was a wonderful idea and encouraged him to pursue it, asking all kinds of questions to draw him out on the subject. We must have talked for at least 20 minutes, just the two of us. It was good. It felt like I “had my friend back.”

The next time we met, I asked J.Q. how he was coming along with his book. “Oh, did you hear about that?” he asked, surprised. “I had a long talk about it with David one day at Horizon.”

J.Q. and I had been tête-à-tête discussing his book project, but he didn’t remember that I had been there at all—instead, he remembered the person who had shown such interest and given such encouragement as David. And David hadn’t even been near the table.

What the hell was going on? What happened?

Mind Blindness

In his book Social Intelligence: Beyond IQ, Beyond Emotional Intelligence, Daniel Coleman addresses a well-known philosophical problem, “the problem of other minds,” which may be playful skepticism for philosophers (How do I know other people aren’t just robots?) but is a serious social difficulty for people with autism.
Mindsight amounts to peering into the mind of a person to sense their feelings and deduce their thoughts—the fundamental ability of empathic accuracy. While we can’t actually read another person’s mind, we do pick up enough clues from their face, voice, and eyes—reading between the lines of what they say and do—to make remarkably accurate inferences. If we lack this simple sense, we are at a loss in loving, caring, cooperating—not to mention competing or negotiating—and awkward in even the least taxing social encounter. Without mindsight our relationships would be hollow; we would relate to other people as though they were objects, without feelings or thoughts of their own—the predicament of people with Asperger’s syndrome or autism. We would be “mindblind.” -      Daniel Coleman, Social Intelligence: Beyond IQ, Beyond Emotional Intelligence (Bantam, 2006)
Mind blindness is, above all, a failure of empathy. Coleman also notes that four times as many boys as girls are autistic and that boys and men are ten times as likely to be diagnosed with Asperger’s. Hold those thoughts, please. We’re coming to a sharp curve, and I’ll have to change gears a couple times.

Selective Blindness

In a chapter called “The Dark Triad,” Coleman addresses the worlds of the narcissist and the psychopath (or sociopath), and he distinguishes between healthy and unhealthy narcissism on the basis of empathy. Unhealthy narcissists, according to Coleman, “empathize selectively, turning a blind eye to those who do not feed their striving for glory.”

Here I have to make two very important points. (1) I do not think John Q. is autistic, nor do I consider him a narcissist in any sense of the term. (2) Neither do I consider autism a moral failing.

Coleman often cites the work of Temple Grandin, who has learned to overcome many of the difficulties of autism by becoming aware of her own limitations and developing strategies to get around them, but I really want to put autism and sociopathology completely aside at this point to focus for the moment on a much more “normal” kind of selective mind blindness that I’m calling woman-blindness.

Woman Blindness

A man who is “woman-blind” sees women, of course, with his eyes. He often desires them, can describe them in detail, and he’ll converse with them, sometimes wittily and engagingly. What Coleman calls a “failure of empathy” is, in this phenomenon, more a “failure of recognition.” It isn’t that a woman-blind man wouldn’t feel empathetic pain for a suffering woman or that he would use a woman like an object, without the least compunction. It’s more that he cannot recognize a woman as his intellectual or conversational equal. He will smile and kid around with a woman, and he realizes that she has a mind, but serious thoughts he will share only with other men. And if a woman tries to share a serious thought with him, he either won’t hear it or will assume it came from someone else.

The more shocking realization—and I can remember the first time this one hit me—is that some women are woman-blind, too. At least five in my experience come immediately to mind. I will not play Freud and speculate on why this should be so. Thank heaven such women are in the minority! (Such men are in the minority, also, but their minority is bigger!) I will say that it is, if anything, a crueler shock for a woman to realize that she is “invisible” to a “sister,” by virtue of her sex. 

Friendship. That's where my story began. As an older woman, I am familiar with the experience of invisibility in many situations. But from people who call me a friend? As one of the female characters in the movie "Tootsie" said, "I don't take this shit from friends!

Here's an irony that is also part of my story with John Q. At the height of our friendship, we had a frank discussion about male-female friendships. I observed that for most men, their friendships with other men took precedence over their friendships with women, when push came to shove. "I'm not like that," J.Q. assured me. 

Sometimes Warm, Sometimes Cold

Coleman writes of stress as a social phenomenon. Studies show that the most stressful relationships are not those marked by uniform cruelty or constantly demeaning behavior but those about whom we feel ambivalent.
We try to steer clear of people we find unpleasant, but many unavoidable people in our lives fall into this “mixed” category: sometimes they make us feel good, and other times terrible. Ambivalent relationships put an emotional demand on us; each interaction is unpredictable, perhaps potentially explosive, and so requires a heightened vigilance and effort.
There is usually nothing hostile or in any other way intentional about the hurts inflicted by the woman-blind, and that is what makes it such a difficult phenomenon to get past. Those afflicted are unaware of their blindness, and attempting to point it out will not convince them. I find it very sad. As is the case with John Q., there are woman-blind individuals whose intelligence, knowledge, and other abilities I can admire. The trouble is that they cannot see what I have to offer in conversation or friendship. They can’t see me, and they can’t hear me. For them, I don’t exist. Not fully. Not in any interesting sense.

My comfort is that women-blind individuals, male or female, are in the minority. Most of us, women or men, can enter into conversation with minds and eyes and ears open to one another, and that is a basis for true friendship.


Michael J. Sheehan said...

I have known three classic narcissists in my lifetime, and all were men. They were incapable of empathy, as far as I could tell, coasting on imitative emotion instead. The Hollow Men.

I loved your piece. Once a philosopher, always a philosopher!

dmarks said...

"Here was one such clue: I had an idea for a health care service facility built on the successful food co-op model..."

Sounds a lot better than single payer for sure, and better than sneaky for-profit insurance, and better than the so-called non-profit insurance (Blue Cross Blue Shield, which a lot of people get very rich off despite it being non-profit)

P. J. Grath said...

Hi, Michael. Nice to see you here! Coleman has a discussion about "male" and "female" minds, and while he makes it very clear that most men and women fall in a mid-range and a few from each sex fall onto the opposite ends from where you'd expect to see them, empathy is generally stronger in women and systematic thinking stronger in men, explaining why there are more female than male nurses and more male than female philosophers. BUT statistics are one aspect of reality, and individuals are another, ALWAYS.

dmarks, thanks for your vote of confidence in my health care plan. When I was burning with enthusiasm for it, I did talk to one of the members of Munson's board--and I still think it's a good idea--but I have about enough energy for home, bookstore, and garden without taking on the American health care system. Would love to see a group better placed than I in terms of influence and finances to get a prototype off the ground somewhere.

Gerry said...

Things keep going the way they are and we'll form the Dog Ears Health Co-op over here on our side of the Bay. It would very likely keep us healthier longer, though I doubt it would help us to see each other any more accurately.

Selective blindness of all kinds is awfully destructive. I hadn't thought of it as lack of empathy before, but that seems plausible. Interesting.

P. J. Grath said...

Way back not all that long ago, Northport had its own little community hospital, build with local donations. As more people went to Traverse City for medical care and more of the long-term care residents were Medicare patients, the hospital fell on hard times. It was during this transition period that I began thinking of a health co-op. What happened instead was that Munson bought the hospital and not long afterward closed it and sold the facility. It is now the Highlands, offering independent living, assisted living, and memory care residential units. Not, however, health care. Even residents have to go to Munson in Traverse City or Tender Care in Suttons Bay in a health emergency. Sic transit....

P. J. Grath said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
P. J. Grath said...

(In case anyone wonders, I thought my comment hadn't posted and ended up posting it twice, so I deleted the second occurrence.)

Kathy said...

Pamela, thanks for nudging me over for a read. Selective blindness...yes. Lack of empathy...yes. It's interesting that I was convinced that the mean commenter was a man this morning--that only a man would have been unable to see with depth. That a woman would have been able to perhaps see weaknesses AND strengths and not cruelly reject. But perhaps I am labeling wrongly. I tend to label people way too positively and rarely imagine that they have issues going on--such as selective blindness. But then, aren't we all, to some degree, selectively blind? Feeling somewhat better this evening, but still a bit emotional. Such an outpouring of love though! Thank you for being you. And I want to scowl ferociously at your so-called friend. (I am woman, hear me scowl...)

Dawn said...

As I was reading I was thinking...'but I know WOMEN that can't see women' and then you said that...and I kept reading and I agreed totally with the part about stressful relationships being not wholly bad or cruel or demeaning, just unexpectedly and unpredictably that way. And I thought about a particular long term friendship that I have apparently lost that in retrospect was all one sided (mine) and I felt sad. But at the end you give a glimmer of hope...that most people ARE able to establish true friendships, to see people for all that they are, to appreciate talents and thoughts and inspiration.

Thanks for sharing these thoughts. Mr. JQ is a foolish man, thankfully in the minority.

P. J. Grath said...

Kathy, when I read your post about the mean commenter, I too was tempted to assume it was a man, but my second thoughts made me less sure and that's not really what's important, is it? (Except that we all should resist gender stereotypes that get in the way of seeing individuals for who they are.) Thank you for your womanly scowl! The solidarity of friends is a happy thing.

The rest of you--Kathy is over on the blog called "Lake Superior Spirit" and posted the other day about a mean-spirited comment she had received that hurt her feelings.

Dawn, I don't know if it's a sad thing or a hopeful thing that we sometimes try SO HARD to salvage relationships because we have labeled them "friendships," not realizing that they are harmful to our spirits. I do think we learn to judge better and more quickly of these things as we grow in age and experience. True friends are the sun and the rain, nurturing our life and our growth! "Oh, who would inhabit this bleak world alone?"

To all friends who have commented here, thank you for being you!