Troubling me today is an incident that occurred two years ago in a third year social and political philosophy class that I attended as a grad student. My university is situated in an agricultural region and draws some of its student base from the local farming community. In the course of my studies, I’ve heard both professors and students make derogatory remarks about farmers. On this occasion, in front of a class of 50-60 peers, a female student recounted a scene she’d recently witnessed at the local hospital which she took to be an example of misogyny. She’d noted that “an old farmer” refused to receive medical attention from a female doctor, and that he insisted he be attended by a male doctor. The student stated, laughingly, that old farmers are “like that, misogynistic and stubborn.” A number of other classmates and the professor, an older male, laughed along with her, nodding in agreement. Some others, female students, vocalized their assent to their peer’s observation, and in turn expressed moral high dudgeon about the farmer’s misogyny, farmers-cum-old-white-men, and misogyny in general.
The stereotype is one matter. But my worries go beyond. As I noted, this incident occurred in a third year philosophy course, and not in an introductory course where such unreflective banter is expected as students learn to refine their arguments. And students learn to refine their arguments under the mentorship of professors. One would hope.
Let me first state that it’s possible that this particular old farmer refused to be attended by a female physician because he is indeed motivated by misogyny. Granted. But whether all, or even most, old farmers are misogynists is an empirical question neither answered by a hasty generalization nor stereotypes about old famers. What’s more, that the farmer refused to be attended by a female physician does not automatically make him a misogynist. I worked as a Nurse’s Aide. It’s not uncommon for people to ask to be attended by a caregiver of the same sex, particularly when the patient is required to get naked. Some people are simply bashful. The farmer in question mightn’t have wanted to admit in front of a room full of strangers that he is shy to get naked in front of a strange woman. If he’s shy to get naked, he might very well be shy to publicly talk about his shyness of being naked, and so understandably frustrated and embarassed by a staff indiscreetly insistent on his seeing a female physician. In any event, the compassionate caregiver accommodates a patient’s request, as far as possible, as a matter of the patient’s dignity and comfort. For example, when female patients refuse to see Blake Butterworth, a male gynaecologist-obstetrican (OB-Gyn), he says “‘[he doesn’t] get discouraged; [he doesn’t] get offended.” Says he “I gladly hand that patient off.” (Oglin, Alex.)
Beyond bashfulness, some people feel more comfortable discussing male or female related problems with a physician of the same sex simply because they’re more confident that the doctor who shares their particular genitalia and other particular physical characteristics and social experiences will have a better understanding of why a certain problem is a problem. A woman who bleeds through her menstrual pads, staining chairs in public places, might hope that another female will better empathize with the level of embarrassment and discomfort she feels as a result. In fact, to some degree, it’s for these common reasons — bashfulness, empathy, and confidence — that female OB-Gyns dominate the discipline and many OB-Gyn patients, being women, given a choice, want to see a female physician. Third year OB-Gyn resident Dr. Katie Merriam notes that “Most of her friends, and other women she talks to …want female doctors.” (Oglin) Merriam herself “feels a special bond with her patients.” (Oglin) Says she, “‘You just, you can feel what they feel, and understand why they feel certain ways. I do feel a special bond….” (Oglin)
So if some women prefer to see a female physician for the reasons I’ve cited, surely some men prefer to see a male physician for the same sorts of reasons. For example, it might be embarrassing for some men to manifest an erection, an involuntary occurrence, in front of a woman. And some women, even professional caregivers, become visibly offended or uncomfortable when a man manifests an erection in her presence. Hence an already awkward situation can become worse.
And there are further considerations, such as that the dislike of another sex or gender is not the bailiwick of men. It’s probable that some women who would rather be attended by female physicians are misandrists. But from this proposition it doesn’t follow that all women who prefer to see a female physician are misandrists. Neither does it follow that misandrists and misogynists necessarily refuse to be treated by physicians of the opposite sex. It’s entirely possible that women who hate men, or men who hate women, are indifferent to being naked in front of a physician of the opposite sex simply because they don’t care what the physician thinks. Or that the physician’s qualifications and/or the patient’s need might outweigh any negative feelings one has about whether the doctor is a man or a woman, or some non-binary gender. And so on.
Anyway, I didn’t have the opportunity to reply to this incident in class on the day it happened. And so I wrote a reply to present at the beginning of the next class in which I made similar points to those I’ve made here. In response to my comments, the professor grimaced and shrugged. None of the other students responded to my comments. What burns me is the lack of leadership displayed by the professor in his role as a philosopher; i.e. training students to the habits of mind characteristic of a profession defined, in the largest measure, by critical thinking skills. This criticism might sound too harsh for some. Certainly professors are only human, and one ought to be charitable in affording them some missteps and forgiving their human foibles. Agreed. And it should be to their credit, having trained me, that I notice these missteps and foibles and bring them to their attention. But rather I’ve learned that this practice can be a bad career move since doing so is often considered, at the least, churlish. And this resistance, by some, to being corrected by an inferior is worrisome. Particularly when a group of colleagues share the same unreflective habits, such as making derogatory comments about farmers. Here’s why.
A number of students, perhaps some who were sitting quietly in the classroom during the incident I describe, are going to go home to sit at the table with their families on the farm. Perhaps a beloved grandfather and father are seated at one of those tables, eager to hear how the student is doing, having worked so hard to see one of the family make it to university. Perhaps she is the first in the family to do so. How are your classes? they ask. I hate philosophy, she replies. Perhaps, ashamed and defensive, she tells her family about rhetoric she hears in class, and how the professors join in on — even instigate — the mockery. Philosophers are arrogant and out of touch with reality, the members of her family determine. They might even be a little ashamed of how they’ve been portrayed in front of someone they love and hope will view them as her champions, rather than look at them as targets of ridicule or objects of pity. Or, at another table, the family might already have negative stereotypes about academics and incidents such as I’ve described confirm what they already know about those ignorant over-paid university hacks. Of course these are only two of any number of scenarios. A farm-student might even agree with the stereotypes. My point is is that a little self-reflection by some of my colleagues would not go amiss.
Universities are embedded in communities. And students attending universities, usually socially privileged individuals, are embedded in relationships with others in these communities. And those others are in relationships with others still, and so on. What is said in the classroom can be passed along these networks of relationships, perhaps contributing to the very social mistrust some academics criticize yet seldom see their own hands in creating.
Some students sitting in a philosophy class will become physicians and, of those, some might well encounter an old farmer who refuses to see a female physician. With any luck she wasn’t sitting in my class that day, reifying an unchallenged assumption that old famers are misogynists. Perhaps, instead, she will think critically and so respond compassionately. And, if it so happens that this particular farmer is misogynist, or dislikes academics, or both, perhaps her compassion will go some distance to changing his mind, challenging his own stereotypes — just as she challenges hers. As Butterworth notes, “‘I have patients that clearly express disdain to see a guy…Then I develop a rapport with her. And she says, ‘I expected you to be X-Y-Z, and you were better than that.'” (Oglin) These last points are an example of the potential benefits of self-reflection and applied philosophy.
Oglin, Alex. “Male OB-Gyns Are Rare, But Is That A Problem?” shots Health News From NPR. National Public Radio, Inc. April 12, 2018. Morning Edition. In partnership with WFAE 90.7 and Kaiser Health News.