Why I'm Glad the Ground-Combat Ban Was Lifted
Tuesday, January 29, 2013Tweet
A big announcement was made last week, yet I've seen very little attention given to it across the corners of the blogosphere and social media that I frequent.
The Army announced last week that it was eliminating the rule preventing women from serving in ground combat. This is an important change because, while there is still plenty of gender inequality in all kinds of professional fields, the military is one of the last few holdouts in the United States where people can actually be prohibited from taking on a particular role solely because of their biological sex. The lifting of the ban on ground combat means opportunities are now open to women that were not before.
I want to talk about this not only because it's an important milestone in American history but because the debates around this issue so poignantly capture the problems with certain beliefs about gender roles and gender essentialism.
(Note: For the purposes of this post, I'm going to use the word "women" to refer to those who are assigned as female at birth, because that's how it is used related to this particular rule. As I've explained before, biological sex is not always clearly defined, and the gender of one's brain doesn't always match the gender of one's body.)
The primary reason for prohibiting women from certain roles in the military is that on average women tend to have less physical strength than men. This fact is not disputed, but it's vital to realize that we're talking about averages -- generalizations about all women vs. all men.
Here is a basic statistical truth: The fact that there are statistically significant differences between any two groups does not tell us anything about an individual in either group. That is, we may know that there is a statistical likelihood that when any given woman is compared to any given man, he will have more physical strength. But this does not tell us with certainty what a specific woman will be capable of doing.
So the argument that "Women should be kept out of combat because it's a biological fact that they're weaker than men" is logically unsound. How most women are, on average, does not tell us how all women are, and therefore making a rule that applies to all women does not follow.
The new rule now says that any area that wants to continue to exclude women must provide justification for doing so, and I've seen the Navy SEALs cited most often as where this might happen because of its physical demands. But a blanket ban still doesn't make sense.
To explain why, consider the corollary to the argument about women above: "Men are stronger than women; therefore, all men are fit to be Navy SEALs." We know right away that this isn't true. Any man wanting to fill a particular role must be able to prove that he has the physical strength, endurance, stamina, etc. to be able to fill that role. He doesn't qualify solely as a result of his genitals, right?
So it makes sense that the same should be true for women. Assuming a clear and consistent standard, even if women are statistically less likely to be able to meet this standard, this doesn't mean that a woman who is able to meet the standard should be prevented from taking on the role solely as a result of her genitals. (Or chromosomes, or however you want to define biological sex.)
(If this changes, and the standards are lowered to allow more women to qualify, or quotas are introduced so that a certain number of women must be given certain positions, I can understand concerns about that. But at the moment we're talking only about the lifting of a complete ban on women taking on certain roles.)
This situation is a great example of a pervasive problem in how we conceptualize groups of people. Essentially, we run into problems whenever we make arguments that sound like this:
"Because most [members of a certain group] are/can/have [some common characteristic, ability, or choice], ALL [members of this group] should be required to / prohibited from [some opportunity or action]."
This is particularly a problem when our "Most X people..." statement isn't even based in fact, but in assumptions, stereotypes, limited experience, historical precedent, or other faulty sources of evidence. So now we're putting restrictions or requirements on other people not even because of how they are, but how we think they are.
So yes, regardless of my feelings about war or the military, I'm glad that this ban has been lifted so that women who want these roles and are capable of fulfilling them are able to do so. As the Defense Secretary said, "Not everyone is going to be a combat soldier, but everyone is entitled to a chance."
What do you think?