Sexism, Ageism, and Racism — Just Manifestations of Human Placeism?

The past half-year’s round of presidential political primary contests in the United States has raised cries of sexism, racism, and even ageism, hardly surprising when the three leading candidates are, respectively, a woman, a black man, and the oldest man ever to seek the presidency for a first term. My wife and I were discussing this when she made the observation that all three “isms” are really just different forms of “placeism.”

By that, she meant that sexism against women is really just a manifestation of the idea that a woman’s place is, variously, in the home, raising children, or even just plain barefoot and pregnant… and that a woman who aspires to be president, or a corporate CEO, or a noted surgeon is, heaven forbid, leaving her culture-required or God-decreed “place.”

Likewise, a black man who aspires to be president is also out of place, because, for many people, whether they will admit it or not, a black’s place is one of subservience to Caucasians. And, of course, an older man’s place is in a rocking chair, on a golf course, or doing some sort of volunteer good works.

Such “places,” while certainly tacitly accepted and reinforced to some degree in most cultures across the globe, don’t have a basis in fact, but in custom. For generations, if not centuries, bias against people “of color” [and this also refers to Asian prejudices against Caucasians, Bantu prejudices against Bushmen, Chinese biases against all outsiders, as well as Caucasian prejudices against blacks or American Indians] has been based on the assumption that whoever was defined as being “of color” was genetically “inferior.” Now that the human genome has been largely sequenced, it’s more than clear that, not only is there no overriding genetic difference in terms of “race,” but the variations between people of similar “races” are often greater than the differences between those of one skin color and another.

The same argument applies to age. Senator McCain is far younger than a great number of world leaders who accomplished significant deeds at ages far older than the senator presently is. But in our youth-oriented society, someone who is old is regarded as out-of-place, with values and views at variance with popular culture, as well they may be, for with age can come a perspective lacking in the young. And, yes, with age for some people comes infirmity, but that infirmity is based on individual factors and not on a physical absolute that, at a “pre-set” age, one is automatically old and unable to function. As with all the other “place-isms,” ageism is effectively an attempt to dismiss someone who is older as out of place with the unspoken implication that the oldster is somehow unsuitable because he or she refuses to accept the “customary” place.

All such placeisms are rooted in prejudicial customs and flower into full distastefulness and unfairness when people hide behind the unspoken prejudice of tradition, religion, or custom and remain either unwilling or unable to judge people as individuals.

The results of a study published in the May 31st issue of The Economist also shed a new light on “placeism” with regard to women. The study surveyed the tested abilities of older male and female students in mathematical and verbal skills across a range of countries and cultures. The researchers concluded that, in those cultures where women had the greatest level of social, economic, and political equality, women’s test scores in math were equal to those of men, and their verbal skills were far greater — even greater than the current gap in countries such as the United States, where women already outshine men. In short, if men and women are treated as true equals with regard to rights and opportunity, on average the women will outperform the men in all mental areas. Could it just be that men understand that, and that instinctive understanding is why in most cultures men want to keep women “in their place?”

Heavens no! It couldn’t be that, could it? It must be that women are just so much better suited to the home or, if in the public arena, supporting men, just as black are far better in athletic endeavors because their genes make them better in sports and less able in politics and business, and just as all old people have lost all judgment the moment they’re eligible to join AARP or collect Social Security checks.

That’s right, isn’t it? After all, there’s a place for everything, and everyone has his — or her — place, and we know just where that should be, don’t we?