An Example of Self-Interest vs. Bigotry

Thursday, November 03, 2016

Finally reading a scholarly article I heard about some years ago, I ran across an interesting historical example of the self-interest of men benefiting women. At the time, women did not have the vote, and were daily victims of prejudice, such as being considered incapable of operating machinery. But that prejudice was hurting sales, and Isaac Singer countered it by training women to demonstrate his sewing machines to the public:

Contrary to its humdrum reputation today, the sewing machine was identified repeatedly in the nineteenth century as one of the "epoch-making inventions of America," receiving this accolade at none other than the centennial celebration of the American patent system in Washington, D.C., in 1891. In separate remarks at the centennial celebration, Senator Orville H. Platt included the sewing machine in a list of "the seven wonders of American invention." Another participant at the centennial waxed poetic that the sewing machine "emancipated human fingers from the most monotonous, wearisome and slavish of all forms of labor." In addition to "usher[ing] in an epoch of cheap clothes," it was observed that the "invasion of all occupations by women, and the sweeping changes which have been taking place in their relations to the law, and society, and business, can be ascribed in large measure to the sewing machine." This was not hyperbole, as attested to by Singer's successful and innovative efforts at commercializing the sewing machine -- a productiveness unleashed by the freedom secured by the Sewing Machine Combination. Singer may have been only chasing after "dimes," and he was certainly a chauvinistic, abusive bigot, but it was his business acumen that challenged longstanding cultural norms about the mechanical capabilities of women. [footnotes removed]
This reminds me a little bit of both the peaceful desegregation of Houston and the end of baseball's "color barrier." (The former was spearheaded in the 1960's by businessmen who realized that Jim Crow was "bad for business.")

Anyone interested in bettering the lot of those marginalized by law and custom should argue on behalf of those they wish to help. But if they fail to see that bigotry is self-destructive (i.e., that we have a selfish interest in judging others objectively), they will, at best, only make half the case they need. In fact, absent such an argument, many fall prey (or carelessly lend credibility) to the idea that the government should compel just behavior (as if it can), or far, far worse. Others, far from innocent, deliberately cash in on such confusion about self-interest. Self-interest, far from being the enemy of justice, is one of its greatest benefactors, whether or not a given individual is actively interested in aiding the oppressed.

-- CAV

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