City Rats and Sexism

There are rats in New York City.  That probably doesn’t surprise anyone.  In fact, there are lots and lots of rats.  Estimates range from 2-10 million rats.  Even on the low end, 2 million rats is a lot of rats.  There are also people in New York City.  This, again, probably doesn’t surprise anyone.  In fact, there are lots and lots of people.  The current estimate is about 8.5 million people living there and roughly 50 million annual visitors.  The truly surprising thing is the sheer number of those people, especially those visitors, who have never seen a rat in New York City.

New York City is roughly 470 square miles.  That means there are (again using the low end of the estimate) 4255 rats per square mile.  It seems like with that many rats running around, most people would just bump into one every once in a while.  I know that the rats aren’t evenly distributed, but they go where the food is and the food is around people.  I know that rats are mostly nocturnal, but New York is the “City That Never Sleeps”.  I also know that the rats don’t want to be seen, but they are quite brazen about taking any food they can find and everyone who has been to New York has seen litter in New York.

I think I was in college the first time I saw a rat in New York City.  I grew up in Connecticut, so I had been to New York a bunch of times before college, but I never saw a rat.  I’m pretty sure I had walked right past them without seeing them.  I think that’s common.  The first one I saw was at Grand Central Station.  I was early for my train, but broke, so I was just sitting there waiting for the train.  I saw something move on the tracks.  I couldn’t figure out what it was at first.  I thought it was someone’s small dog that had gotten loose.  It was when it squeezed through a hole that I couldn’t even see that it clicked, that was a rat.

Since seeing that first rat, I don’t think I’ve taken a trip to New York City without seeing at least one rat.  I’ve seen them on the street, in alleys, under food stands, in trash cans and in the parks.  They really are everywhere.  I find it hard to believe I went the first 20ish years of my life without seeing one.  But, from talking to others, it seems that my story is fairly common.

There is sexism in the world.  That probably doesn’t surprise anyone.  In fact, there is lots and lots of sexism.  The statistics are everywhere.  Women only earn 79% of what men earn Only 4.4% of Fortune 500 CEOs are women1 in 3 women are victims of domestic violence.  I could go on and on, but even if this were all the sexism, that’s a lot of sexism.  There are also people in the world.  This, again, probably doesn’t surprise anyone.  In fact, there are lots and lots of people.  According to the best estimates, there are more than 7.4 billion people.  The truly surprising thing is the sheer number of those people who have never noticed an incident of sexism.

There are roughly 3.7 billion women on the planet.  That means that about half of the people in the world are possible targets of sexism.  It seems like with so much sexism and so many possible targets, everyone would notice sexism more than every once in a while.  I know that much of the sexism takes the form of microaggressions, but much of it doesn’t.  I know that most people don’t think of themselves as sexist, but that won’t stop people from noticing sexism in others.  I also know that victims don’t always talk about their experiences, but that can’t be an excuse.  No one would say a murder isn’t real because the victim stays silent.

I was in high school, starting my first job, when I first saw and really noticed sexism.  I know I had seen sexism before that, I just hadn’t really paid attention to it.  I see now that there was sexism in things like gendered chores and the fact that girls played the flute while boys played the trumpet.  But, as a kid, I didn’t really notice these things.  My first job was in a restaurant, cooking and washing dishes, and the sexism was impossible to ignore. There was the common sexism, like waitresses making more money by wearing tighter clothes, but it got much worse. There were sexist jokes, like calling the seafood platter a “hooker”. There was the fact that men could hold any position, but the women were only hosts or wait staff. There were the near constant discussions among the cooks about the women’s looks, clothes and what they might be skilled at. And there were even scheduling decisions based on who was cute enough for the Saturday night shift.

Since noticing the sexism at my first real job, I see and notice sexism all the time.  It’s in almost every school, workplace, club, movie, TV show, album, website and commercial I see.  It is everywhere.  Now that I notice it, I can’t help but see it.  I know I’ve been seeing sexism my whole life, and it’s embarrassing that it took me sixteen years to really start noticing it.  Also, it’s disheartening that that makes me better than many, if not most, other people.

It is easy to dwell on the negative, and clearly there is a lot of negative to dwell on.  I’m generally an optimistic person, though.  I choose to find something positive in my experiences.  That positive is the fact that even as an idiot teenager, I was able to recognize sexism and it has been impossible for me to miss it since.  I’m inclined to believe that the same would be true for others.  If we can get others to see and recognize sexism, they will continue to see and recognize it.  And more people recognizing sexism will lead to legitimate social pressures to curb sexism, which will lead to less sexism.  At least that is my hope.

The trick is getting people to recognize sexism when they see it.  Hectoring and yelling won’t do it.  That’s more likely to get people to close off than open up.  Illustrations probably won’t help much either.  Seeing a rat in a zoo isn’t going to help anyone notice a rat in New York.  People need to recognize sexism when they see it in its natural environment.  I can see the arts helping.  Most people are pretty good at seeing the connections between art and life.  But I think the most effective way is to just talk about it, especially with children.  When I say talk, that is what I mean.  Scolding and shaming won’t work.

We have a tendency to treat sexism as taboo.  We don’t talk about it in normal circumstances.  But I don’t understand why.  We talk about all kinds of other bad things that we encounter each day.  Many of us can’t wait to get to work so we can tell our coworkers all about that idiot who blew right through the stop sign.  And we take delight in sharing our experiences being stuck behind that person with at least twenty items in the express check out line.  So, let’s start talking freely about that idiot car salesman who only addresses the man when a couple walks in.  Let’s gossip about the jerk who thinks it’s OK to start talking to a woman even though she is clearly talking to her friend.  Talking can only help.

I’ll end this by saying that I know my analogy can’t be taken too far.  City rats and sexism are alike in that they are invisible to many people and once they are noticed, a person can’t help but notice them.  That’s as far as it goes, though.  Rats are actually pretty amazing creatures and I’m sure they fill an ecological niche somewhere.  Sexism has nothing positive to recommend it.  The sooner we recognize that, the better.

Gender Nominalism and Cats

My whole family had a pretty eventful summer from a medical point of view.  The most serious ailment happened to our cat.  He had a urinary blockage caused by crystal formation.  This is apparently rather common with male cats.  Basically, they form crystals in their urine.  These crystals clump together and get stuck in the urethra preventing any urine from leaving the bladder.  If the cats are not treated quickly, their bladders can burst like a water balloon and they die.  Luckily, we noticed a change in our cat’s behavior and I took him to the vet and he seems to be doing OK.  He’s on a special new diet and I had the joy of medicating a cat for a couple weeks, but he is acting like himself again.

The trick going forward is that some cats are prone to crystal formation and blockages.  That means that this could happen again at any time.  We’re keeping our fingers crossed that our cat is not one of the cats that is prone to this and we won’t have to deal with it again.  But, the vet assured us that if it does continue to happen, there is an option.  The option is called a perineal urethrostomy.  The way this procedure was explained to me is that the vet would cut off the cat’s penis and scrotum and then widen the urethra so that it is similar to a female cat’s urethra.  Apparently the reason that male cats are prone to this and female cats aren’t is because male cats have a longer and narrower urethra.  This surgery solves that problem.

The vet said that the surgery makes no difference to the cat.  It won’t change his behavior or require any special accommodations.  But, I can’t help thinking that we would be giving our cat a sex change.  I know that a real sex change is much more complicated than removing a penis.  I know this surgery isn’t actually a sex change, but the possibility of my cat having a perineal urethrostomy has made me think about sex and gender in a way I never have before.

I should back up a bit here.  I don’t like giving pets human names.  When I was a kid, I had a neighbor with a dog named Toby.  Now I can’t help thinking that Toby Maguire has a dog’s name.  More recently, I met a dog with the same name as my daughter.  Every time the dog’s owner gave the dog a command, I started to get defensive because I thought the dog’s owner was talking to my daughter.  Plus, names indicate a bunch of things to other people, from gender to age to familiarity to ethnicity.  Since I don’t care about my pets’ genders or ethnicities, and I presume that neither do they, there’s no need giving them names that indicate such things.  I’ve had cats named Ding and Dong.  I had an iguana named Guppy.  But, most of my pets are just called what they are (A fish is called Fish, and cat is called Cat, etc.).

I have had three (sort of) exceptions to my no human names for pets policy.  About fifteen years ago, I moved into a new place and there were two cats living there, Amber and Sasha.  My roommate wasn’t a cat person, so I happily adopted them, but didn’t change their names.  The really weird thing was that Amber was a male cat and Sasha was a female cat.  Whoever named them either didn’t know or thought giving a male cat a female name and a female cat a male name would be funny.  Either way, whenever I brought the cats to the vet, I had to correct them multiple times.  The third exception is my current cat, Calisi.  My daughter picked the name.  She had a teacher who had a cat named Khaleesi, after the Game of Thrones character.  My daughter has never seen or read Game of Thrones, but she liked the name.  Since we were getting a female, and Khaleesi is a fictional character, we figured it was OK.  Of course, it turns out our cat is male, not female, so we changed the spelling and kept the name.

As I said before, I don’t care about my pets’ gender (I suppose that’s not completely true.  I did specifically buy a male beta, but only because there is blatant sexual dimorphism in betas and the males are much prettier.)  It’s something I never really thought about at all.  The only reason I corrected the vet was in case the different anatomy might affect treatment in some way (Of course I am confident that the vet would have figured it out without my correction, but better safe than sorry.).  As far as I’m concerned, all non-human living beings can be referred to as “it” without any negative consequences.

If you’ve made it this far, you’re probably wondering what all of this has to do with gender nominalism.  Well, while talking to the vet, I had a momentary Singerian* lapse and wondered what Calisi would think if we had to do the surgery, which meant trying to put myself in his place.  My little felinification (or is it catopomorphism?) thought experiment made me realize something surprising.  While I can’t be positive, since it was imaginary, I think my reaction to a perineal urethrostomy would be the same as undergoing any other medically necessary amputation.  It’s not something I would ever want to go through, but it is better than dying.  That was it.  I feel like society puts pressure on us to think of the penis as somehow different than other body parts.  But in my little thought experiment, it didn’t seem relevantly different.  When I came back up to the human level, it seemed that the penis is still not relevantly different.

When I say the penis is not relevantly different, I do understand that it is a unique organ.  I’m not saying something along the lines of, “It’s OK if I lose my penis, I still have my feet.”  What I’m saying is that, if it were a life threatening situation, I could lose a hand, a foot or a penis and still come out of it being me.  I would find the loss of any body part extremely distressing, but as long as it didn’t change who I am, I would learn to deal with it.  Being lobotomized would be relevantly different, because in that case, even if my body remained alive, I would be gone.

The next step is where I really began thinking about things differently.  When I thought about it, I realized that I honestly feel the same about people, when it comes to gender, ethnicity, etc., as I do about pets.  The only reason I call women “she” and men “he” is to avoid insulting anyone.  There are more than 7 billion people on the planet and there are fewer than five whose gender, ethnicity etc. make any difference at all to me.

This seemed strange when I first thought it, but I can’t quite figure out why.  I’ve known a bunch of people in my life.  Some claim to be men, others women.  Some claim to be gay, others straight.  Some claim to be Italian and others Polish.  It’s not like I’ve ever, nor have I ever wanted to, verify their claims.  Why would I?  On some level, I simply trust other people to identify themselves the way they want to be identified.  And, on another level, I just don’t care.  I don’t mean that in any kind of cold, calloused way.  I just mean that outside of myself and my wife it doesn’t make any difference to me how people identify themselves.  I do care in the sense that I generally wish happiness to others, so I hope that people identify in a way that makes them happy, but that’s it.

I guess the reason it seemed strange to me at first was that people do seem to care about how others identify themselves, even when those people have no relationship with each other.  There is a weird societal pressure to care, or at least have an opinion, but I can’t come up with any reason why.  People cared so much that Renee Richards had to have the New York State Supreme Court intervene to allow her to play tennis.  People claimed that they were afraid she was cheating.  She was only identifying as a woman so she could beat the easier competition.  But, come on, that’s a bad episode of Bosom Buddies, not real life.  I’m fairly certain that no one would undergo gender reassignment surgery just so they could enter a competition against women.  That’s not even close to realistic.  I’ve never met Renee Richards, and I’ll bet most, if not all, of you haven’t either.  Why should I have an opinion on her gender?  It doesn’t effect me or her.  If she’s happy being Renee, good for her.

So, the upshot of my cat getting sick was that I realized that I’m a gender nominalist.  I’m probably an ethnic nominalist and a bunch of other types of nominalist as well.  I’d never have given it much thought if not for wondering how my cat would feel about losing his penis.  It seems a strange path, but there you go.


*For those who don’t read much philosophy, this is a reference to Peter Singer.  He is a Utilitarian philosopher and probably one of the most read philosophers since World War II.  His most famous work is Animal Liberation where he argues (sort of**) that the suffering of animals is an important part of the Utilitarian calculus.

**I say sort of because his arguments are awful and his most controversial premises are always assumed rather than defended.