Relieve you of that critique, madam?

Several times this week I have been on the receiving end of benevolent prejudice. A male shop assistant addressed me as “young man”, a clear and unashamed reference to the fact that I am not young. A woman referred to a group of men of which I was part as “the boys”. Serving me in the local shop, Linda – something of a serial offender in this regard – has quite shamelessly called me “darling”, “babe” and “lovey”, when I am clearly none of these things to her.

According to a new academic study, the remarks made to me represent a sort of prejudice – or, as the paper’s authors, Julia Becker and Janet Swim, would put it, they “comprise subjectively positive but condescending beliefs … which reinforce gender roles and power relations”.

Admittedly, Becker and Swim did not have me in mind when they wrote “Seeing the Unseen: Attention to Daily Encounters with Sexism as a Way to Reduce Sexist Beliefs” for the Psychology of Women Quarterly – indeed, I would almost certainly be a target of their critique.

There is such a thing as benevolent sexism, they argue. Every day, women suffer acts of “micro-aggression” in the form of compliments from men, offers of help and expressions of concern. The benevolent sexist will pick up the tab for dinner on a first date, help a woman whose car has broken down, or offer his seat on a crowded train, assuming his own superiority.

There is a worthwhile point being made here but, boy, do these feminist academics make it tough to take them seriously. Their clotted, ungrammatical prose reads as if it has been spewed out by a computer translating from a foreign language with a faulty program. Their view of gender is confrontational, bordering on the paranoiac.

When few men in their study accept the concept of benevolent sexism, they conclude smugly, “We expect this outcome because of men’s higher status in society and the corresponding great interest in maintaining this status.”

Strictly speaking, though, they are right. Paying for a first-date dinner does establish a power relationship: he is showing her that he will decide who will pay for what. Helping women with a car or a computer or heavy bags does assume a weakness on their part.

All the same, it is an odd and cynical perspective which sees benevolence as a tool of repression. In a world where women suffer from real violence and exploitation, where salary levels remain at a significantly lower level for female employees than male, where the effects of unemployment are also serious skewed by gender, it seems perverse and counter-productive to conduct solemn research into behaviour which is essentially propelled by that most underrated virtue, kindness.

As Jan Morris, who probably knows more about sexism and prejudice than most, said in a recent interview with John Walsh in this paper, “Kindness is the ultimate path, the one thing that can stand up against all the shit, the ghastliness,” she said. “It is the ultimate human quality.”

For all their earnest talk of empathy, Becker and Swim have lost sight of that quality while studying new paths of sexism. It is by behaving decently, thoughtfully and with humour towards one another that humans make everyday life bearable. Sometimes they get it wrong, revealing outdated attitudes as they open a door, give up a seat, or offer to carry something. Acts of generosity are misunderstood, compliments backfire, and jokes flop. But because the general direction is towards kindness, these things are rarely lethal.

A world in which men are forever checking their attitudes and women are scrutinising the smallest gesture made towards them in case it contains a covert insult would be a cold and humourless place. A few micro-aggressions are a price worth paying.

Independent, Friday, 17 June 2011