Why do we teach girls that it’s cute to be scared?

I just came across this fantastic op-ed while listening to the author being interviewed.

The author points out that our culture teaches girls to be afraid. Girls are warned to be careful at the playground while boys are expected… to be boys. Over time we’re left with a huge plurality of our population hobbled.

It’s clear that this is a costly feature of our culture. So why do we teach girls to be scared? Is there an alternative? This cultural meme may have made sense long ago, but society wouldn’t collapse if it were to disappear.

Culture is a way of passing knowledge from generation to generation. It’s not as precise as science (another way of passing on knowledge), but it’s indispensable. Over time a cultural repertoire changes and develops in response to the conditions of the people in that group. Routines, including attitudes, that help the group succeed and that are incentive-compatible with those people will persist. When groups are competing for resources, these routines may turn out to be very important.

It’s plausible that in early societies tribes had to worry about neighboring tribes stealing their women. For the tribe to persist, there needs to be enough people, and there needs to be fertile women and men. The narrower window for women’s productivity mean that men are more replaceable in such a setting. So tribes that are protective of women (and particularly young women and girls) would have an cultural-evolutionary advantage. Maybe Brandon can tell us something about the archaeological record to shed some light on this particular hypothesis.

But culture will be slower to get rid of wasteful routines, once they catch on. For this story to work, people can’t be on the razor’s edge of survival; they have to be wealthy enough that they can afford to waste small amounts of resources on the off-chance that it actually helped. Without the ability to run randomized control trials (with many permutations of the variables at hand) we can never be truly sure which routines are productive and which aren’t. The best we can do is to try bundles of them all together and try to figure out which ones are especially good or bad.

So culture, an inherently persistent thing, will pick up all sorts of good and bad habits, but it will gradually plod on, adapting to an ever-changing, ever evolving ecosystem of competing and cooperating cultures.

So should we still teach our girls to be scared? I’d argue no.* Economics tells us that being awesome is great, but in a free society** it’s also great when other people are awesome. Those awesome people cure diseases and make art. They give you life and make life worth living.

Bringing women and minorities into the workplace has been a boon for productivity and therefore wealth (not without problems, but that’s how it goes). Empowering women in particular, will be a boon for the frontiers of economic, scientific, technical, and cultural evolution to the extent women are able to share new view points and different ways of thinking.

And therein lies the rub… treating girls like boys empowers them, but also changes them. So how do we navigate this tension? The only tool the universe has given us to explore a range of possibilities we cannot comprehend in its entirety: trial and error.

We can’t run controlled experiments, so we need to run uncontrolled experiments. And we need to try many things quickly. How quickly depends on a lot of things and few trials will be done “right.” But with a broader context of freedom and a culture of inquiry, our knowledge can grow while our culture is enriched. I think it’s worth making the bet that brave women will make that reality better.


* But also, besides what I think, if I told parents how to act… if I made all of them follow my sensible advice, I’d be denying diversity of thought to future generations. That diversity is an essential ingredient, both because it allows greater differences in comparative advantage, but also because it allows more novel combinations of ideas for greater potential innovation in the future.

** And here’s the real big question: “What does it mean for a society to be free?” In the case of culture it’s pretty easy to say we want free speech, but it runs up against boundaries when you start exploring the issue. And with billions of people and hundreds (hopefully thousands) of years we’re looking at a thousand-monkey’s scenario on steroids… and that pill from Flowers for Algernon.

There’s copyright which makes it harder to stand on the shoulders of giants, but might be justified if it helps make free speech an economically sustainable reality. There’s the issue of yelling “Fire!” in a crowded theater, and the question of how far that restriction can be stretched before political dissent is being restricted. We might not know where the line should be drawn, but given enough time we know that someone will cross it.

And the issue goes into due process and business regulation, and any area of governance at all. We can’t be free to harm others, but some harms are weird and counter-intuitive. If businesses can’t harm one another through competition then our economy would have a hard time growing at all. Efficiency would grow only slowly tying up resources and preventing innovation. Just as there’s an inherent tension in the idea of freedom between permissiveness and protection, there’s a similar tension in the interdependence of cooperation and competition for any but the very smallest groups.

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