“Boys will be boys”. Much has been written about this one, but times have not changed enough. Often deployed as a defense against poor male behavior, what a shame that we still hear it as a defense against harassment (as in the case of Schwarzenegger) or even alleged violent rape (as in the case of former IMF head Strauss Kahn). So it becomes clear how dangerous this one is for women. After all, if this is just the behavior driven by biology, how can we expect any more? The result? Girls and women at risk.
Yet we also shouldn’t over look the damage this one does to men and boys (most of whom do in fact typically get through their day without raping or hitting someone). Call it, in the former President’s words, the soft bigotry of low expectations. Biology, as the classic feminist insight goes, is not destiny. It’s not destiny for women; it’s not destiny for men either. The problem is not that so many men commit these crimes, it’s that we have a culture of excuses and impunity for the ones who do (who of course go on to continue).
“Men can’t change.” This one is obviously closely related to the one above. I’ve heard it used by friends (more women than men oddly) and associates to justify all sorts of things—cheating, “date rape”, street harassment, not taking half the responsibility for the housework. There are of course plenty of problems with this. First, it burdens women with having to do all of the accommodation. In this respect it is a poorly disguised argument for a male-centered culture and maintaining the status quo. Second, it condescends to men. If I were a man, I think I’d find it incredibly offensive, in fact. To change (learn, grow) is to be human. It’s as essential as breathing as we go through the stages of our lives.
“Get a job.” The more heated the debates about the U.S.’s economic direction becomes, and the longer the unemployment rate hangs around 6 or 7%, the more we’re going to hear this one. Dig beneath this weed, and you’ll find the roots of a cultural belief that those who are poor are so because they have failed to be productive enough, smart enough, fast enough, strong enough. Yet given unemployment claims that rise, working poor with two or three jobs, foreclosures that have occurred as a result of unemployment and calls for job (re)training, it’s clear that the trouble isn’t that people don’t want to work. The trouble is systemic—a failure of both the public and private sectors to create jobs, effectively regulate the financial and housing sectors and to help students into job training programs.
“Kids these days!” Here we have another argument, conservative to its core, whose job is to maintain the status quo. It’s a social change and social movement truism that youth are progressive. Whether it’s Sean Hannity fretting about Spring Break shenanigans, or Susan Patton admonishing women to marry young (while you still have some hope!), this culturally violent cliché works to prevent young people from finding their voice and being agents of change.
“Sticks and stones” remains the oldest defense of bullying in the book. It willfully ignores the power of language to shape, not just describe, reality. It also defines the victim of the bullying as weak and therefore possibly to blame, since this way of thinking often reasons that weakness will invite being treated as a target. Notice how we misplace responsibility here. It’s not on the victim to “not be a victim”; it’s on the bully not to be a bully any longer. The old “sticks and stones” illusion also overlooks the role of language in dehumanizing, and legitimizing violence against, target groups.