“Playing cards” was not an activity in the little town where I grew up. It was an object. “Playing cards” referred to what you used when you played poker and other devious games. “Playing cards” is an activity for people who know how to play poker or even suspension.
I’m not thinking about either of those today. I’m thinking about “playing the ___ card.” It means to activate a status you hold so as to gain an advantage in the discussion. And that’s how it can become the death of dialogue. Here’s an instructive exchange from the movie, Glory.
10th Connecticut Corporal: [Scoffing as he notices Rawlins’ rank] Stripes on a nigger. That’s like tits on a bull!
Sgt. Maj. John Rawlins: You’re lookin’ at a higher rank, Corporal. You’ll obey and like it.
The first speaker is white, of course. The second speaker is black and the holder of a higher rank. The white man is “playing the race card.” The black man is “playing the rank card.” That’s what I mean by “playing cards.”
Playing a card is a dicey move. It is a way of establishing your right to be part of the conversation or your right to right to dominate the conversation or to end the conversation. Because it is an action that calls attention to the speaker rather than to the issue, it is not something the speaker does casually.
“I’ve lived on the streets so I know what real life is like. You haven’t, so shut up.” A claim to dominate.
“Has anybody thought about this from the standpoint of the child care worker?” A claim to participate.
“But I am, in fact, the employer and I say that your services are no longer required.” A claim to end the conversation.
You can see from these examples that playing the ___ card is a claim to rhetorical advantage. That doesn’t mean claiming an unfair advantage. Most often, when a speaker is accused of “playing the ___ card,” on the other hand, the implication is always that he shouldn’t have.
I think there was a time in our history where “playing the race card” meant that a white person was attempting to gain an advantage over a non-white person. Today, it is nearly always the other way around. There was certainly a time in our history when “playing the gender card” meant that a man was attempting to gain an advantage over a woman. Today, it is nearly always the other way around. Looking at this situation formally, we would expect to see a rise in racism among blacks and a rise in sexism among women. I think that’s just what we find in the media and also among some groups of blacks and women.
I referred in an earlier post to my friend Bob, who has a truly amazing collection of “cards” at his disposal and simply refuses to play them. That makes Bob a hero in my eyes, but it is heroic partly because it is so rare. My experience of nearly everyone except myself is that we play the cards we have.
Let’s take the case of women, for instance. Women live in a society that presupposes values that are more common among men or more natural to men than to women. For all the years that they accepted those social practices and values, it was a disadvantage to them. Now that the legitimacy of those practices and values has been turned into a question, it is a great advantage for them. Men are not nearly as conscious of their gender status and attributes as women are. So long as the social practices favored men, there was no reason to be all that aware. Now that the social practices are a source of contention, men don’t know what to do about it.
When “you think like a woman” was a charge that could lower your pay or deny you a job or a promotion, women decided to do something about it. Good for them. Now that “you think like a man” is a charge that puts a man on the wrong side of nearly any issue you want to name, men have no idea what to do. What kind of a man are you anyway? You are not very sensitive. Your mind goes right away to defending your turf, when it really should go to building your network. Your thinking is so…linear. Ugh. You need to let your thinking get in touch with your feelings. You need to be a little more…you know…human. Sex? You know, you’d be a much better person if your interest in sex was more like the kind of interest women have. You think you could maybe work on that a little?
Staying at the formal historical level, it seems to me that there are two things men can do and by “men,” I mean men in the aggregate. Actual men who are comfortable with themselves and comfortable with their wives or significant others who, in turn, like them the way they are—I’m not talking to you. I’m talking about “men in general” in the same way I was talking about “women in general.”
The first is to decide just what it is about being a man that is worthwhile and push it. This would require that men recognize that we are in the minority, not just demographically, but culturally as well. We could develop the kind of self-awareness that religious or ethnic minorities routinely develop instead of relying on the historically exhausted masculine assumptions that were once presupposed. That would make “being male” a card to be played, not a character defect to be apologized for.
Very likely, that wouldn’t work. Or at least, it wouldn’t work in the sense of benefitting men, for a long time. What it would do, almost immediately, is to create a rhetorical game in which there are two players, each of whom has cards and knows how to play them. This means that women are no longer the background against which we can see the real show, which is what men do with power and authority. It means that men are no longer the background against which we can see how women organize themselves to get things done and, at the same time, affirm the personal contribution of each member. It means that the background is rhetorical; that everyone has cards to play; and that who plays which cards when is what we get to watch.
This is, I say again, a game that is to be played on the aggregate level. This is not something individual men and women need to do. It is something that sports shows and game shows and talk shows and sitcoms and crime dramas and articles on “the gender crisis” need to do.
Playing cards is something people do when they are in the foreground. It is not a game when one player is on the stage and the other “player” is holding up the scenery. It doesn’t work that way.
And finally, here’s a story that illustrates the kind of transformation I am hoping for. One of my favorite stories in the world is A Bargain for Frances. As you can see, Frances is a badger. Frances has a “friend” named Thelma. Every time Frances plays with Thelma, something bad happens to Frances. Thelma always seems to come through unscathed. One day, Thelma goes too far; she cheats Frances out of a tea set. This allows Frances to see the whole relationship in a new light and, as a response, she cheats Thelma out of the tea set, restoring the status quo ante.
Thelma is disturbed. “I can see that when I play with you, I am going to have to be careful,” says Thelma. Frances’s response is inspired: “Do you want to be careful…or do you want to be friends?”
Friendship is a possibility now. It never was before. Thelma was the predator and Frances the prey. This was never anything Thelma saw fit to criticize. It had a lot of advantages. On the other hand, Thelma didn’t have Frances as a friend and nothing she could do would supply that to her. It needed to be something Frances could do. Now both Thelma and Frances have cards to play and they can play them or not as they choose.
 You might not have heard of that. Suspension is a kind of bridge.
 I am not saying, of course, that I don’t do it myself. What I said was that if I do it—probably, I do—I don’t catch myself at it.
 Not all women, of course. I know women who are so unassertive they discard trump cards rather than play them. I know women who are heroic in the mode of my friend Bob who have cards and know what to do with them and then don’t do it. But “the women” of TV, movies, books, magazines, blogs and quite a few women I see in conversations that include men, routinely reach for the gender card and play it to their advantage. And why wouldn’t they?
 I started to think about this some years ago when I spent some time looking over the “men’s studies” sections of some very good bookstores. What to do about “the man problem” was divided about 75% into Position A—it’s a disease, but here are some possible cures—and Position B: it’s not a glitch, it’s a feature. Position B gets men out in the woods, painted blue and howling at the moon.
 The second way is to organize in social and political ways to push for gender advantages. I can see I’m not to get there in this piece. It would involve developing schools, for instance, that are as supportive of boys as they are of girls.
 It is an etymological curiosity and no more than that, but the truth is that the vir- in virtue means “man” as in a male human beings. There are, of course, many virtues that women have more prominently than men do, but etymologically, these virtues are all kinds of “manliness.”