The concept of “gender equality” is quite well regarded in our society today. The idea that men and women are fundamentally equal in capability and, therefore, deserving of equal treatment is mainstream, and essentially taken for granted in our culture. To go against this idea is to wade into the realm of the politically incorrect and invite severe consequences in the process.

Sports pundit Stephen A. Smith, a long time fixture at ESPN, has recently come face to face with this reality. Ray Rice, an American football running back currently contracted to the Baltimore Ravens of the National Football League, recently received a two game suspension from the league. Why?

Ray Rice stepped up to the microphone at a Ravens press conference Thursday morning. He talked about his two-game suspension– and publicly apologized to his wife.

“My actions were inexcusable. My actions are something I have to live with the rest of my life,” he said.

Suspended by the NFL for the first two games of the season, the running back has been quiet during camp. But his critics nationwide have been quite vocal about what many feel was a lenient punishment after he was indicted for physically assaulting his then fiancee.

Infamous TMZ Sports video shows Rice dragging his now-wife, Janay Palmer, from an elevator at a casino in Atlantic City in February after prosecutors say he punched her.

A judge put Rice in a first-time offender program, meaning no jail time and a clean record. But NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, who met with Rice and his wife, says the assault warranted suspension.

“We simply cannot tolerate conduct that endangers others… This is particularly true with respect to domestic violence and other forms of violence against women,” said Goodell in a letter to Rice.

Rice’s conduct will cost him a two-game suspension and half a million dollars.

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That Ray Rice assaulted his girlfriend is not really in question. What is notable, however, is the action that preceded the assault: Rice’s girlfriend actually was the first to initiate physical contact, assaulting Rice and provoking a response. Both were initially charged with assault; though Rice dropped the charges against his girlfriend and she will face no sanction, Rice will be punished for his response.

On Feb. 15, at around 2:50 a.m., Rice and Palmer got into a fight in an elevator in Atlantic City’s Revel Casino. Security called police, who rolled back the surveillance tape and saw that the couple had “struck each other with their hands.” Shortly thereafter, both were arrested and charged with simple assault, suggesting that the cops believed them to be equally responsible. The two refused medical attention, according to the Baltimore Sun, and neither reported any injuries. The Sun also spoke with Rice’s attorney, Andrew Alperstein, who said the fight was a “very minor physical altercation” and “little more than a misunderstanding.” Early word around the Revel indicated otherwise, though at this point no one in any official capacity was reporting that Palmer had been knocked unconscious. The two were released and allowed to leave together, according to the Ravens’ vice president of public and community relations, Kevin Byrne.

Stephen A. Smith had something to say about this:

This quickly landed Smith in politically incorrect no-man’s land, forcing him to make an almost immediate apology.

Is it not prudent, however, to consider the implications of the fact that an apology has been deemed necessary in the first place?

If the concept of gender equality is to be taken at face value, then the actions Rice took in this case do not seem to warrant the consequences he now faces. He was faced with a physical assault and he responded in kind, producing a physical assault on his attacker. If the two are deemed to actually be equal, then it must be accepted that Rice does not deserve harsher sanction for his actions than his girlfriend in this case. They are equal, and equal actions warrant equal responses.

Many will respond to the above by claiming that there is a fundamental inequality here: Rice is a man, and a very strong one at that. Because of the size and strength differential between men and women, some will argue that a response in kind by a man to an instance of physical assault by a woman is not actually equal or justified. Comments trying to emphasize this point usually read something like this:

Men can seriously hurt women. It doesn’t matter if she deserved it. Most women cannot hurt a man but a man can seriously hurt most women.

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This line of reasoning essentially privileges the physical differences between men and women above all else, and claims that said differences warrant a double standard here: larger, stronger men should not be able to hit women even when assaulted, since smaller women are physically less capable than they are. It is more wrong for a man to assault a woman than vice-versa.

Such an argument doesn’t seem entirely irrational at first glance. It is true that men are generally much stronger than women, and it is true that in most instances they are capable of physically hurting her more than she can hurt him. The argument begins to fall apart when you start considering its implications: should a larger and/or stronger male be prohibited from physically retaliating against a weaker and/or smaller male attacker? Those who use this logic to defend women like Rice’s girlfriend in this case do risk the potential for a slippery slope.

If we are to accept the use of fundamental differences in the physical capabilities and composition of male and female bodies in the creation of one double standard (in this case, the double standard relating to a man’s ability to defend himself from the an assault by a woman), then we necessarily open the door to the use of said distinctions in the creation of other double standards. If it is alright to assume that obvious physical distinctions between men and women allow for women to be given more leeway in one regard (assault), what is to stop us from also assuming that said distinctions allow for men to be given privileges in other regards (e.g., vast over-representation in certain high-paying fields that privilege their physical advantages and exacerbate the persistence of the gender pay gap)?

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Is the fact that male sports consistently outdraw their female counterparts by a vast degree to be accepted on the basis of the fact that men are simply more naturally athletic? Should we just accept that, no matter how hard we attempt to promote them and no matter how committed we are to the idea that they are worth as much as their male counterparts, female athletes will never draw the attention and financing of their male counterparts? Should we allow such knowledge to limit enforcement of initiatives like Title IX and the promotion of women’s athletics? Physical differences can be used to justify this double standard, just as they have been in the case of Ray Rice and many others.

And what of Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM)? Credible studies exist that indicate a natural male advantage with regard to hard technical/mathematical study. Should we allow such studies to limit our enthusiasm for promoting gender equality in STEM fields?

If we let the use of physical distinctions between the sexes inform and justify double standards privileging one sex over the other in this instance, then we necessarily condone the use of said distinctions to justify double standards in many other instances. Are those who stand for “gender equality” and the defense of Rice’s girlfriend despite her own clear guilt in this instance (she also assaulted him) willing to accept this reality?

Hopefully they are, because there is not much of a compromise that I can see here. If we are truly committed to the notion of gender equality and the idea that natural distinctions between the sexes should not be used to privilege one or the other in any way, then we must apply it in all respects: equal actions must invite equal consequences. We would need to take the fact that Ray Rice’s girlfriend physically assaulted him just as seriously (no more, no less) as we are currently taking the fact that Ray Rice responded in kind. Neither would be considered more severe than the other, and both genders would have equal responsibilities to go along with equal consequences for neglecting them.

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If we are to accept that physical distinctions between the sexes can alter the application of said equality (thus justifying the treatment of Rice’s offense as the more severe), then we must apply that conclusion in all respects, and accept that one gender may be privileged over the other in some regards and not others. Consistency is essential if we are to maintain any degree of intellectual honestly with regard to this topic. The sexes are either equal or they are not — there is no middle ground.

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