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Singlism: Should We Just Shrug It Off?

If singlism is no big deal, then let's turn the tables.

Thanks to Governor Ed Rendell's proclamation that single woman Janet Napolitano will be "perfect" for the job of Secretary of Homeland Security because she has "no life," and Gail Collins's glorious send-up of the matter in her op-ed in the New York Times, singlism is having its day. This matter of stereotyping and stigmatizing people who are single has now been addressed in the Wall Street Journal, on CNN's American Morning, on the ABC news website, and on the Ron Reagan Show on Air America, to name just a few national venues. It also made the cover of The Week magazine, and it is all over the blogs. (A few examples are here and here and here.)

I love all this attention that singlism is garnering, and not because the commentary has been uniformly approving or affirming. It hasn't.

Consider, for example, the 205 comments that were posted in response to Gail Collins' column before the comments option was closed. Many were positive, and I was heartened by them. The readers thanked Collins for her insight and her wit, and recounted their own experiences of singlism in the workplace and beyond.

I was most intrigued, though, by the nasty stuff. One said that if the choice for the position of Homeland Security chief was between someone "with a spouse and kids" and another "with no responsibilities other than filling the cat's food bowl at night," then he would "pick the loner every time." (Singlism, anyone?)

More than a few commenters chastised Collins for writing about the topic at all. They said it was "much ado about nothing," it was "silly" and "ridiculous," and that she should have instead discussed "an issue, ANY issue, that actually matters."

Several said that we single people are just crying victim, that we are hypersensitive and resentful, and that we should just "let it go." One person even made the clever (if obnoxious) suggestion that anyone who thought Rendell's "no life" comment was offensive should "get a life."

What made all these dismissive and derogatory comments especially interesting to me was that I've heard similar versions from fellow scholars. In an academic publication, they have suggested that singles are not really perceived negatively, that any stereotyping or discrimination they experience is small potatoes and is doled out only very selectively (for instance, to people who remain single after the age when most others are married). Some have advised me and my colleagues to put aside the study of singlism and focus on something else.

I thought long and hard about how such otherwise intelligent people could be so apparently resistant to the idea that singlism really does exist and that it matters. Even more importantly, I thought about how I could make my case more persuasively.

I went through all the predictable options. I pointed to data documenting the practice of singlism, and showing that even young singles are perceived negatively, relative to young people who are coupled. I repeated an important qualification that I had already articulated - that in the degree of viciousness and violence it can engender, singlism is not akin to some of the other isms such as racism and heterosexism. I tried making my case with logic, asking how extreme or hurtful an unfair behavior would have to be before it would be considered appropriate to try to address it. And: who should decide this?

Then I came up with this thought experiment. If you think that singlism really is "much ado about nothing," that we singles are just being hypersensitive and should "let it go," then it should also be perfectly fine to turn the tables. I liked this approach so much that I made it the opening page of my book, Singled Out. Here it is:

EXCERPT FROM PAGE 1 OF SINGLED OUT: How Singles are Stereotyped, Stigmatized, and Ignored, and Still Live Happily Ever After:

I think married people should be treated fairly. They should not be stereotyped, stigmatized, discriminated against, or ignored. They deserve every bit as much respect as single people do.

I can imagine a world in which married people were not treated appropriately, and if that world ever materialized, I would protest. Here are a few examples of what I would find offensive:

• When you tell people you are married, they tilt their heads and say things like "aaaawww" or "don't worry honey, your turn to divorce will come."

• When you browse the bookstores, you see shelves bursting with titles such as If I'm So Wonderful, Why Am I Still Married and How to Ditch Your Husband After Age 35 Using What I Learned at Harvard Business School.

• Every time you get married, you feel obligated to give expensive presents to single people.

• When you travel with your spouse, you each have to pay more than when you travel alone.

• At work, the single people just assume that you can cover the holidays and all of the other inconvenient assignments; they figure that as a married person, you don't have anything better to do.

• Single employees can add another adult to their health care plan; you can't.

• When your single co-workers die, they can leave their Social Security benefits to the person who is most important to them; you are not allowed to leave yours to anyone - they just go back into the system.

• Candidates for public office boast about how much they value single people. Some even propose spending more than a billion dollars in federal funding to convince people to stay single, or to get divorced if they already made the mistake of marrying.

• Moreover, no one thinks there is anything wrong with any of this.

Married people do not have any of these experiences, of course, but single people do. People who do not have a serious coupled relationship (my definition - for now - of single people) are stereotyped, discriminated against, and treated dismissively. This stigmatizing of people who are single - whether divorced, widowed, or ever-single -- is the 21st century problem that has no name. I'll call it singlism.


If these kinds of things really did happen to married people, how long do you think it would take before we would all start hearing about the unfairness of it all? Like I said, I wouldn't want that. I want fairness for all, and I'm searching for ways to make my case.