Monday, October 5, 2015

When Death Threats Are Outlawed, Only Outlaws Will Make Death Threats

I haven't written about Gamergate here, because I didn't feel like sorting through the controversy and finding out what was really going on.  Plenty of other people who knew what they were talking about, and who love gaming, have written about Gamergate competently. I an not particularly interested in gaming myself, and I have nothing to add to their analyses.

What I am interested in are issues of civility (though maybe I should put that word in quotes), sexism, misogyny, anti-feminist backlash, homophobia, and freedom of speech.  So this post at Alas, a Blog about some reactions to journalist Anita Sarkeesian's testimony at the United Nations, gave me something to write about.  Here, courtesy of Ampersand, is the relevant portion:

Ampersand showed how certain of Sarkeesian's critics misrepresented her remarks (without actually quoting them explicitly, he says).  What interested me were the defenses of Gamergate by some commenters under that post, which eschewed the more typical frenzied misogynist rants in favor of mere condescension (referring to Sarkeesian as "Anita," for example) and superficially civil calls for freedom of speech and debate.

One commenter claimed that harassment must consist only of overtly hostile, threatening behavior.  But if someone were to call this guy up every night at 3 in the morning, say nothing for thirty seconds or so, and then hang up, I feel pretty sure he'd consider that harassment before the first week was over.  It wouldn't be necessary to tell him he was going to be raped anally with a fencepost or his nuts cut off and stuffed down his throat.  I think that if an anonymous caller merely said "Hi!" in a bright, friendly tone before hanging up over and over, he still would consider it harassment.

The most useful comment for my purposes was posted later in the thread, though.  It stated a notion that had been gestured toward by others, but stated it clearly and reasonably unambiguously.  Ampersand had linked to a sample of misogynist abuse of a feminist writer and asked if such stuff was "fair game."  The commenter replied:
None of those are in the vicinity of “you suck” or “you’re a liar” which is what she was complaining about, and which are valid responses to someone’s output.

We don’t think racist, sexist, homophobic, what-have-you insults are okay, even (especially?) when directed at public figures. But we do expect them to put up with generic insults, like “you suck”.
"You suck" is not a valid response to someone saying something one dislikes or disagrees with. If anything, it amounts to a confession that one has nothing valid to say in response to them. It doesn’t show rationality, finely-honed debating skills, superior knowledge about gaming or any other subject. Saying "you suck" shows that one is a inarticulate lump who has nothing of any interest or value to say about the subject about which one has gotten all hot and bothered.  This is not necessarily a bad thing -- some of my best friends are inarticulate lumps -- but it's not the same thing as being rational or articulate. The beauty of the internet, of course, as of free speech in general, is that no one has to be intelligent, or knowledgeable, or rational to share their opinions with the world. But no one is required to pretend that the equivalent of monkeys throwing feces is intelligent discourse. Yet I’ve noticed that these shit-throwing boys not only want to be taken for rational thinkers, but want respect and sympathy for themselves and their hurt feelings.  Much like bigots in general.

"You're a liar" has more promise, but only as a beginning.  It has to be followed, or accompanied, by some evidence for that claim it makes.  Not too surprisingly, that doesn't usually happen, and as in this case, when the attempt is made, the evidence is mostly or entirely false itself.

If you feel that you really and truly must say "You suck" to someone else, saying it once is enough.  You'll achieve nothing positive or constructive by saying it over and over, let alone escalating from there to dismemberment fantasies and threats.  (Bear in mind that the threats were not a response to escalating feminist criticism of gamer culture -- rather the opposite.  If their targets didn't respond in kind, they took that as license to come up with more baroque dismemberment and rape fantasies.)  And if you discover in yourself a certain ambition to be something more than an inarticulate lump, you can begin by seeing how many people have already told the offending person that he or she sucks.  You get zero points for originality after the first dozen or so.

The Gamergate notion that being a Gamer is an "identity" that must be defended at all costs was significant, I thought.  It ties into to the claim by another comment that Sarkeesian was not an innocent victim after all: she had criticized a subculture, and "many people from that subculture responded with attacks using a style of rhetoric common to that subculture."  This was intended of a defense of the vitriolic attacks, by the way, though the commenter also claimed that they were the work of only "a few bad examples."  This kind of equivocation is common as a distractive tactic, I've noticed: first, the behavior was appropriate to the culture; second, it was not typical but the work of a few bad apples.

Another thing about “subculture”: it’s one thing (though not above criticism and censure) for the members to engage in these antics among themselves, and quite another to direct them against those who didn’t ask, and don’t want to play. The funny thing is that the people who are here (and elsewhere) defending the monkeys are thereby inadvertently confirming everything derogatory anyone could say about boy-culture and gamer culture in particular.

The same commenter later accused me of misandry for comparing the more intemperate Gamergaters to feces-throwing simians.  I don't think so, though I'd pay attention to a rationally argued case for the accusation.  (Need I tell you that he didn't attempt one?)   But I think he missed something.  If I were to say that all human males are feces-throwing monkeys, and offered no compelling evidence to support the allegation, then yes, an accusation of misandry might well be called for.  But I didn't even compare all Gamergaters, or video-game players, to feces-throwing monkeys: I compared those whose total and mildest collective retort to criticism of the gamer subculture was "You suck" to feces-throwing monkeys.  I might have other characterizations of the scum who spammed their opponents with death threats.

There's an entertaining irony here that I've noticed before.  It's not I who am saying that the innate nature of human males is to cry "You suck" when someone criticizes (no matter how rationally) their little ways, it's the angry males who defend and justify their behavior by attributing it to male nature.   A friend told me that in a video of Jane Elliott's blue-eyes/brown eyes exercise, a white man expostulated that he didn't like being told he was ignorant because of the color of his eyes.  According to my friend, Elliott replied: "Oh no, sir -- your ignorance has nothing to do with the color of your eyes."  (There's a lot of feces-flinging in some responses to Elliott in this article from Smithsonian magazine.) I myself have dealt with white people who claimed they were called racists simply because of the color of their skin; ; heterosexuals who claimed they were called homophobes merely because of their sexual orientations; men who complained that they were called sexists just because they had a penis.  Oh no, sir -- your sexism has nothing to do with your penis.  At most it has to do with your conviction that having a penis (or a melanin deficiency, or an erotic fixation on the other sex) impels you to behave in certain ways, and should entitle you to certain privileges.

On the other hand, I doubt that the Gamergaters would have responded the same way to, Harvey Mansfield's association of violence with manliness, just as no conservatives accused Phyllis Schafly of hating men when she claimed that men wouldn't support their children unless the law made them do it.  As Callie Khouri, the writer of Thelma and Louise, pointed out, no one sees ultraviolent gangster or action or horror movies as defaming men.  What's unacceptable is to say that male violence is a bad thing, and even worse: merely to suggest that ultraviolence is not part of the essence of manhood, and that men don't have to be violent to be good men.  That's what sets off the flying feces.

Even when I speak of Boy Culture (I choose Boy to imply my belief that it's a construct of some immature males, not an expression of adult maleness), I cheerfully admit that not all males conform to it or support it -- indeed many are victimized by it -- and that many women also embrace and endorse it.  That's a big part of my point: that would-be alpha males are not only a small minority of men but that many or most men aren't interested in being at the top of a heap.  (As others have noticed, researchers have an unseemly tendency to focus on the cool kids and ignore the others who constitute the majority.)  The dominant (hegemonic, to use the jargon) model of manhood, like other dominant models, is often true of only a minority in a society, but it will be paid lip service as 'natural' or 'the way things are' by the majority.  That's a datum, but it doesn't make the dominant model true.

The most interesting response I got in the comments thread sought to catch me out in my own logic.
Would you ever apply this criticism to (using a group I identify with) gay activists who use intemperate, insulting language? Or do they get a pass because they never claimed superior rationality? I’m not actually a fan of people telling others “you suck” online, but I also don’t think it’s a particularly strong insult at all – consider the arguments about language changing above – and I think you’re articulating a double standard.
Hey, I identify with gay activists too!  I have been a gay activist myself, and may be one again (activist, that is; I’m still gay). And yes, I would criticize gay activists for using intemperate language, etc., though I'd have to see each case to evaluate. But in fact I do criticize my fellow queers and our allies when they say “you suck” and “fuck you” and the like, because nothing says enlightenment and opposition to misogyny and homophobia like homophobic/misogynist language. Sometimes I tell people who say “fuck X person” that I’m glad they love Kim Davis (or Donald Trump, or whoever) and want to give her pleasure, but I don’t think that’s the message they are trying to convey. And yes, my people do like to present themselves as rational and enlightened compared to those stupid fundamentalist Bible thumpers who are fat and stupid. It’s painful to be reminded, constantly, that so many of my fellow gay people and liberals and leftists are stupid, bigoted swine. But I soldier on.

I’m not so much concerned with “insult” or how “strong” the insult is, in this case — I think you’re missing the point about that. I said that saying simply “You suck” to someone you disagree with is not a valid reponse to them. Yes, language changes, but “you suck” and “fuck you” still seem to me to convey the sense that being penetrated is debasing, and therefore throwing those words at another person effectively means to feminize and debase them. I’ve noticed some straight guys trying to argue that “faggot” isn’t really antigay, it’s a putdown of those who “bend the knee,” which is of course nonsense. And I must point out that the same excuse about changing language gets made for the kind of raving abuse that women like Sarkeezian are targeted with. They’re accused of being too sensitive, etc. One commenter on an article on Gamergate actually claimed that if he’s not allowed to make death threats online, all “our” freedom will have been stripped away by the feminazis.   (No permalink that I could find: see Atavax, 10/20/2014 9:00 PM EST.)

But leave that aside. It doesn’t really matter whether I’m right about the misogynist/homophobic punch of “You suck.” The important thing is that someone who says is declaring his or her refusal to debate rationally. He or she is expressing his or her feelings, I suppose; but they’re not interested in anyone else’s. Over the years I’ve run into numerous homophobes online who’ve tried to discredit what I say by insinuating that I must be a homosexual, or by trying to “out” me. You can’t “out” someone who’s already out, and it drives them up the wall when homophobic shaming doesn’t work on me. If someone says “You suck” to me in such a situation, I’m likely to say, “Why yes, I do. What is your point?” I’m not interested in censoring them, but I am interested in censuring them, mocking them, deriding them, and withholding respect from them. That’s not a double standard; the double standard is held by people who want to hurl abuse at other people, threaten them online, etc., but panic and whine that they’re being persecuted when someone throws the abuse back at them. If they want me to tiptoe around their tender little feelings, they need to show the same consideration to others. And as I’m afraid even this relatively reasonable thread shows, there are many men who can’t see any discussion of sexism as anything but a call to castrate them, as shown by the misreadings of Sarkeesian that Barry has to keep correcting. Just as there are many whites who can’t see any discussion of racism as anything but a call to drive The White Race into the sea. And many heterosexuals who see the legalization of same-sex civil marriage as opposed and hostile to heterosexual marriage. I can sympathize with their irrationality and the pain that drives it, but I see no reason to call it “valid.” It’s not.

So no, I don't think I was articulating a double standard.  My interlocutor couldn't have known my history of criticizing my own side, of course, but it's significant that he chose to suppose that I don't do it.  I think he revealed a double standard of his own, however: that for ostensibly straight boys to attack their critics in these terms is at least understandable, but for gay activists to behave in the same way is not.

A curious thing, though, about that other commenter's claim that the frenzied response to Sarkeezian and other feminist critics of gamer culture was that the gamers used "a style of rhetoric common to that subculture."  It follows that Sarkeezian and her colleagues would have done better to use the same style of rhetoric in reply.  I doubt it would have worked.  I've occasionally experimented by responding to right-wing bigots with their own style of discourse.  They always attack for me for incivility, irrationality, and dishonesty -- for sinking to their own level, in effect, though they're careful not to recognize their manner in the mirror.  The gamers conform to this pattern, though since their targets mostly do not respond in kind, they have to invent horrific feminist calls for the subjugation, castration, or elimination of all men.  Are they happy that women are learning to use the style of rhetoric common to the gaming subculture?  They are not; they are distraught that man-hating feminists are brutal misandrists.  Even the comparatively mild humorous trope about "male tears" is cast (see the comments) as a foreshadowing the Androcide to come if feminists have their way, because of course women fear male violence, and males fear female laughter.  But isn't it misandrist to accuse feminists of sinking to men's level?

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Who Would Jesus Curse?

I admire Ella Shohat and Robert Stam's work.  Their Unthinking Eurocentrism: Multiculturalism and the Media, originally published by Routledge in 1994, is the best book on post-colonial theory I've read and one of my favorites among those I've read in the last several years.  Shohat and Stam are very good at covering complex topics; while they understand the theoretical tools and concepts they're working with, they write accessibly and are often actually fun to read -- very unusual for academic writers.  Stam's Film Theory: An Introduction (Wiley-Blackwell, 2000) surveys the history of film theory, giving a capsule account of each school or approach.  It's an excellent introduction because it shows that there's a wide range of doctrines and opinions about what Film is or should be.  The temptation for a beginning student is to suppose that the doctrine her teachers prefer is the answer; Stam's book shows that there are many answers.

So when I happened on their Flagging Patriotism: Crises of Narcissism and Anti-Americanism (Routledge, 2007), I was ready to dive in.  (As you can see, I tend to lag several years behind them; they have a more recent joint work, Race in Translation: Culture Wars and the Postcolonial Atlantic [NYU Press, 2012], which I'm adding to my reading pile.)  In Flagging Patriotism they compare how the United States, France, and Brazil see themselves, each other, and their places in the world.  They draw on writings and popular media from all three countries, especially the literature of anti-Americanism in France, and generally work that isn't available in English.  (I was highly intrigued by a Brazilian film comedy they mention, O Homen do Sputnik [1958], about a Brazilian peasant who finds a fallen space satellite in his field.  The Russians, the Americans, and the French all want to get at it, and the French score with a Brigitte Bardot lookalike [played by a Brazilian Bardot lookalike].  Looks like it's on Youtube, but without English subtitles.)

Much of Flagging Patriotism is very good: Shohat and Stam ably navigate the difficult waters between one-sidedly condemning the crimes of the United States while overlooking the crimes of its French and Brazilian critics, and excusing the United States by pointing to the crimes of its critics' countries.  Their guiding principle is that no country or culture is monolithic or homogeneous, and they carefully lay out the contradictions in each of their subjects' histories and present.  This part of the book, roughtly its first half, will probably be useful to many people; I learned a lot for it.

But when Shohat and Stam discussion religion, they leave their guiding principle behind.
Although it is obvious why the Christian right sees itself as being on the righ, it is less obvious why it thinks of itself as "Christian."  Perhaps the right is Christian in the same sense that the Crusade, the Spanish Inquisition, and the Salem witch trials were Christian.  But the right is clearly not Christian in the sense of "love thy neighbor" ... [253]
On the other hand, the right is clearly Christian in the sense of "Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire"; or "It is not meet to take the children's bread, and to cast it unto the dogs"; or "You are of your father the Devil"; or "Ye generation of vipers, how can ye escape the damnation of hell?"  These are also teachings of Christ, and liberal Christians are perfectly happy to quote them against those they don't consider their neighbors.  And why shouldn't they follow in the Master's steps?

Shohat and Stam go on to misquote Jesus, sometimes ungrammatically:
... his "politically correct" tolerance -- "judge not, lest ye be judged," "let he who is perfect cast the first stone," and so forth -- and ... his excessive love of peace ("Blessed be the Peacekeepers") ... [253]
I wonder if that last howler is deliberate, though it probably isn't.  Maybe in the Beatitudes Jesus was prophetically blessing the Peacekeeper missiles, which the Christian right would welcome.  Unfortunately, though Shohat and Stam have a pretty good sense of human and made me laugh aloud a few times, I don't think they were being sarcastic in this case.  It appears that, like so many good, educated liberals, they don't know very much about religion.

In the last hundred pages of Flagging Patriotism, Shohat and Stam focus on the vileness of the Republican right, which is fair enough when you recall that the book was published in 2007, during the declining years of the Bush administration.  By way of contrast they mock the fecklessness of the Democrats:
The Democrats' mistake in 2004 was to accept the right-wing framing of the issue of patriotism and then offer a servile mimicry of "us too" militarism [236]
This is not so fair.  Democrats have shown themselves to be all too willing to shed the blood of dusky foreigners, and while Shohat and Stam couldn't have known what a warmonger Barack Obama would be, they tend to underplay Bill Clinton's horrible record.  From the occasional allusion it's clear they know about it, but they don't seem as eager to balance Bush/Cheney bloodlust with Clinton/Gore bloodlust as they are to balance American imperialism with, say, French imperialism.  They quote with approval the "When Clinton lied, nobody died" bumpersticker, which commits the very offense they ascribe to the Democrats in 2004: it accepts the Republican frame that the only Clinton lies that mattered were the ones he told about his sexual history, and not his lies about Iraq, Iran, Kosovo, Indonesia, welfare "reform," NAFTA, and other genuinely weighty matters.  Their analysis of media would benefit, I think, by taking the Herman-Chomsky propaganda model into account, but they never mention Chomsky and their discussion of media doesn't show his influence.  They do, however, mention Steven Colbert and Jon Stewart numerous times.  By the end of the book they're carrying on like any liberal Democrat, not the radical-left multiculturalists they claim to be.

I wonder what Shohat and Stam think about Obama.  A cursory search doesn't turn up anything, and though they don't seem to adulate him in this 2012 interview, the few references they make don't shed much light.  Maybe Race in Translation will tell me more; I hope to get to it this year.

But let me return to my main point.  It baffles and disturbs me that so many academics let themselves be sloppy and simplistic about religion in ways they would never tolerate in themselves on other issues, and certainly would not tolerate in their opponents.  It's not because they consider religion to be unimportant; it's easy to see from Shohat and Stam's condemnation of the Christian right that they consider it quite important. Christianity is no more monolithic than Americanism. (Of the errors and distortions promulgated by laypeople, the less said the better perhaps, but I have anyway.)  Christianity is much older, after all, so it could be expected to diversify; but even in the New Testament it displays the kind of internal contradiction one would expect of a much older and established cult.  This can be seen in the letters of the apostle Paul, the oldest surviving Christian writings.  Not only is Paul less than consistent, he refers to controversies with fellow believers that show rampant factionalism and disagreement about basic doctrines and practices less than a generation after Jesus died.  (Those interested might start by reading Galatians, which is one of his shorter letters and lays the doctrinal rifts out very clearly.)  The gay Catholic scholar Mark D. Jordan does a much better job of discussing historical and contemporary Christianity in all its contradictory messiness; it can be done.  See his Silence in Sodom (Chicago, 2000) for a good start.  Flagging Patriotism would be a better book if Shohat and Stam had taken the same care writing about Christianity that they did about politics and history.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Show Me the Critical Thinking; or, The Digital Natives Are Restless

Recently I read bell hooks's Teaching Critical Thinking: Practical Wisdom (Routledge, 2010).  I haven't read much of hooks's work, mostly her first book, Ain't I a Woman? (South End Press, 1981) and the occasional article or interview since then.  It seems to me that she does better in short pieces than in books -- some of her critical essays on African-American film interested me, for example -- and that she gets lost when given the length of a book to move around in.

Teaching Critical Thinking confirmed that impression.  The writing is mostly slack, in the Culture of Therapy mode, and there's precious little critical thinking on display here.  To keep it personal, it takes very little critical thinking for me as a gay man to object to antigay bigotry and heterosexual supremacy.  I must also turn my critical faculties on my own views, on my condition as a gay man, on my responses to homophobia, sexism, racism, and classism in my own community.  It may not be fair to compare hooks to someone like Audre Lorde, but really, why should I read hooks when Lorde is so much more challenging, inspiring, and a much better writer?

I was especially annoyed me by hooks's discussion of literacy.  She quotes some debatable numbers on American illiteracy and some typically bogus generalizations about the ignorance of Kids These Days, then goes on to complain:
Of course, there is much discussion about the role of technology, specifically about computers replacing books.  Yet reading books on computers can never be the same as holding a book in one's hand, returning to pages without the aid of electricity or batteries, reading passages aloud to oneself or another person, reading the book in bed, lingering over pages, reading aloud.  [Your Department of Redundancy Deptartment.]  For many the book is vital to the practice of constantly re-reading, but more essentially it is necessary for genuine reading.  Books invite us to imagine [129].
And did I mention reading aloud?  This is appalling.  Oh, it's true, reading a book on a computer (and an e-reader like the NOOK or the Kindle is a dedicated computer) is not the same as holding a printed book in one's hand.  But bookmarking -- to say nothing of the search function -- makes it easier to return to previous pages.  And there's nothing about a computer or a dedicated reader that interferes with reading passages aloud, reading in bed, lingering over pages.  Did I mention reading aloud?  As for re-reading, I do that often on my e-reader; perhaps too often.  Perhaps "many" find the printed book on paper to be "vital to the practice of constantly re-reading," but there doesn't seem to be any real basis for their compulsion.

"There is much discussion about the role of technology, specifically about computers replacing books." True, there's a lot of discussion about all kinds of issues, and much of it is empty babble.  I would expect a critical thinker to point out some of the history of failed predictions by technocratic triumphalists (analogous to the history of failed predictions of the Second Coming).  I'd also expect a critical thinker to point out that printed books are part of the history of technology, that the advent of printing in Europe inspired the same kind of panic and predictions of doom that e-books inspire now, and above all that "digital" and "electronic" books are still books.  A book isn't the material object but the virtual content.

About a week ago, FAIR reported on a New York Times story about the present state of e-books.  It appears that sales of e-books are slowing, sales of printed books show "surprising resilience," and even many younger readers ("digital natives," the Times calls them) say that they like physical books as well as digital books.  One of the more significant revelations in the story was that publishers had decided that "cheaper e-books would cannibalize their business," so they raised e-book prices, often above the price of physical books.  FAIR writer Jim Naureckas commented, "Well, yeah–when you raise prices of things, people tend to buy less of them."

Eastasia has always been at war with Oceania.  I seem to remember that corporate media previously touted and cheered on the "digital apocalypse," the inevitable trampling of print beneath the feet? hooves? claws? of the e-book.  Now that our Shadowy Publishing Overlords have changed their minds, the Times can exhibit relief that print is making a comeback.  The funniest part might be the surprise that many people -- even the hip, digital-native techno-savvy young! -- might use both print and e-books.  Just as they might collect vinyl LPs and listen to digitally-stored music on their phones!  Like, OMFG, are they allowed to do that?  Is it even natural?

The science-fiction writer and gadfly John Scalzi wrote a good piece about the same Times article on his blog, reporting anecdotally that his teenage daughter, "(who now, as it happens, works at the local bookstore), ... [is] sucked into her phone as much as any person her age, or indeed, as much as most people alive, it seems. And yet, when she reads books, and she reads a lot of them, print is her preferred medium, and was even before the bookstore."  He then analyzes the article from the viewpoint of a successful writer who's attentive to the business of writing, publishing, and selling books.  He noted that the Times article didn't address sales figures by independent publishers, and declared: "[N]o matter how you slice it, if you’re lightly sliding over its existence, you’re not accurately describing the current publishing market."

There's good discussion in the comments too, some of which addressed "hybrid" readers and how we mix e-books and physical books.  Like Scalzi, "I like to read print books at home but am immensely grateful for eBooks when I travel."  Also, as an old man who's thinking about what to do with the thousands of physical books I already own, I anticipate that e-books are going to play an increasing role in my reading future.  I'd like to relocate, and I neither want to take all my books with me, nor can I, unless I get a massive infusion of money from somewhere to pay for shipping and other costs.

Others pointed out something I should have thought about before myself: audio books.  The reason I hadn't thought about it was probably that I don't use them.  I've listened to a few, but 1) they're too slow compared to reading -- but I'm a fast reader compared to most people; 2) I find the narrators' voices distracting, compared the inner voice I hear when reading text; 3) I find it difficult to concentrate on listening -- how do people listen, as many do, while driving to work? -- and my retention of content when I've tried has been poor compared to reading text. One thing about critical thinking that I must stress when I talk to my friend's class next year is that it is not a purely individual process but depends on the input and ideas of other people, who notice things I don't.  Several of Scalzi's commenters remarked on the sales of audio books (whether on physical media like cassettes or CDs or in digital files) as a proportion of book sales overall.  That certainly should be taken into account in any discussion of electronic publishing, not least because many audiobooks are electronically stored and played.

It also occurred to me, though, that when people are wailing about the supposed decline of literary e-books will inevitably bring about, no one seems to mention audiobooks.  Maybe I just haven't noticed it before, but I don't think so.  Even the people who mentioned them under Scalzi's post only discussed their impact on book sales and the publishing industry, not on literacy or the survival of dead-tree books and brick-and-mortar bookstores. Yet if any book format constitutes a threat to literacy -- not to mention the sensuous pleasure of holding a book in one's hands, rereading favorite passages, etc. -- surely audiobooks are more dangerous than e-books, which still involve reading text.  Ebooks bad, audiobooks good!  The relative silence about the growing popularity of audiobooks, when people are wringing their hands about the Digital Apocalypse, indicates to me that not critical thinking but a highly biased and selective technophobia is at work.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Playing the Game

Laura Kipnis is an interesting writer.  I've read a couple of her books, so when I found her latest, Men (Metropolitan, 2014), at the library, I looked through it.  I was most interested in the chapter called "The Manly Man," a partial transcript of her debate with Harvey Mansfield, the author of a book on Manliness that excited a lot of comment when it was published in 2006.  Martha Nussbaum patiently detailed Mansfield's faults as a serious thinker in the review I just linked to, so I never bothered to read the book myself.  Mansfield's performance in "The Manly Man" just confirms Nussbaum's critique.

I was particularly struck by this part:
[Mansfield]: ... isn’t it true that women, when they abandon the double standard in sexual morality – and that, by the way, is the only standard – are simply unhappier?  Because once you abandon that, you abandon any standard at all.

[Kipnis]  Well, mutual pleasure is one standard.

[Mansfield] All right, okay -- I agree with that.  But it’s not a moral standard.

[Kipnis]  We probably disagree about that.

[Mansfield]  All right.  But once you play the man’s game, aren’t you pretty likely to lose? You’re going onto their ground when you try to compete with men in brashness.  I think it’s still the case that women like to be asked out, rather than asking out [113-4].
When men “play the man’s game,” they’re pretty likely to lose too.  Mansfield's kind of manliness is competitive, with men climbing toward the top of the heap over the bodies of those they've defeated, and since no one stays young and strong forever, even the winner ultimately is defeated and replaced.  And no matter how long he stays on top, he always must be ready to defend his place against the next challenger.  That would be pathetic (that is, not tragic) if it were the only way to be a man, but it's not.  The trouble lies with men like Mansfield, who keep insisting that the way of the Warrior is the only way, and any male who doesn't want to compete isn't really a man.

But, and this is more important I think, for women the double standard and patriarchal marriage are playing "the man’s game." Since Mansfield believes that males are naturally promiscuous and females aren't, he must accept the existence of "public women," women who have no one owner but can be rented or ravished.  He must also pretend that even women who play the man's game by accepting the double standard can never really escape it, even when married; remember that until recently, because of feminism, married women had no recourse if their husbands forced sex on them.  Once a woman had given her consent, she could never take it back, and a woman once polluted by even marital penetration was polluted forever.

Mansfield adds, after the passage I quoted above, that "Women and men are just happier married," but even if that were true (which it isn't), it would only prove that married women were less unhappy because they're not out in the jungle of untrammeled male violence.  It's true that married men are happier than unmarried men, but I've never felt that anyone has the right to demand service from another, at the expense of her happiness, in order to gain his own.

Those who want to justify the ownership of women by men try to cast it as "men taking care of women", but as one woman writer noted, "Mostly I see women bumping buggies down the steps at train stations while no one helps," and in reality it is men who demand that women take care of them, providing material and emotional and sexual service in return for their dubious "protection."  Mansfield is delusional, and if he weren't saying what so many men want to hear, it would be hard to believe that he gets a platform for his babbling.  Kipnis goes far too easily on him; I wonder if she bothered to prepare for this appearance by acquainting herself with Mansfield's ideas -- reading Nussbaum's review would have been sufficient.

But I've written about this before.  What I want to do now is bring in what I've been saying about human nature.  Mansfield presumably believes that his standards of morality and manhood are based in the nature of the human species as a whole.  But as he admits, human nature is various:
How I define manliness is “confidence in a situation of risk.”  Women have confidence, too, but they don’t seek out risk the way men do.  Or, better to say, the way some men do [112].
This is absurd.  Women "seek out risk" every time they allow a pregnancy to continue to term -- and, I'd add, when they enter into relationships with men who are manly by Mansfield's criterion.  The fantasy that "real" men don't hit women is just that, a fantasy; it had to be bolstered for centuries by covering up male violence against women, and by explaining it away when it couldn't be covered up.  Mansfield might try to evade this by calling such violence "a corrupt or perverted manliness" (119), but that won't work.  As long as men conspired not merely to cover up their violence against women but to justify it (look at the role it plays in the Hebrew Bible, for example, ascribed to Yahweh himself), it must be recognized as part of official Manliness.

Mansfield has to do some fancy footwork to explain away more general male violence:
So you look at the manliness of the Islamic hijackers, it takes a certain manliness – a corrupt or perverted manliness – to fly airplanes into buildings and kill people.  Versus the manliness of the New York Police and firefighters who went up the stairs of those buildings, knowing that they probably wouldn’t come back down (119).
This is a desperately false comparison: the real counterpart to the 9/11 hijackers would not be police and firefighters but US troops invading, bombing, and looting Iraq and Afghanistan, or American helicopter crews massacring civilians from the air.  Mansfield knows this, too, for he speaks of "the decline or decadence of Europe," which he ascribes to "all the womanliness in their policies" (119)  He doesn't expand on which policies he means, but I think it's clear in context that Europe isn't warlike enough to suit him.  War fever has to be cultivated, however, usually dishonestly; most people aren't normally that eager to go to war. A few ideally manly leaders must work hard to get them to go along with it.

Since Mansfield concedes that not all males meet his standards, we're in Mary Midgley's world where "human nature" refers to the supposed natures of individuals.  Men like Mansfield tend to worry that Homo sapiens may not be up to evolutionary snuff, because the species isn't manly enough anymore.  If men don't go to war, cultivate blood sports, and keep women barefoot and pregnant, the human race will die out.  But this misunderstands natural selection.  If the violence of certain men becomes an evolutionary liability, they have no claim, no natural right, to demand that they escape culling by Mom Nature.  Yet they do, presenting themselves as the "fittest" who must survive -- according to their fantasy of what evolution means -- and whine that "men" are an endangered species.  They don't own the future of the species, however; no one does.  And no doubt there are also women whose natures are compatible with theirs, so they won't really have to do without mates.  If there aren't enough of them, too bad.  Nor is the majority obligated to help them reproduce themselves.  Mansfield just wants his pet conceptions to be the platonic ideal of humanity and manliness. There's no reason to let him have his way.

It's debatable whether humanity's evolutionary success so far has much if anything to do with "manliness" as Mansfield conceives it.  It's likely that cooperation and the use of intelligence rather than brute force are the chief reason why vast numbers of human beings infest this planet.  Or maybe not; no one really knows.  But just because any given trait was successful in the past doesn't mean it will be successful tomorrow.  Noam Chomsky says that Ernst Mayr, "the grand old man of American biology ... basically argued ... that intelligence is a lethal mutation."  Even if our intelligence enabled us to spread like a radioactive virus all over the earth, there's no guarantee it won't kill us off, and sooner rather than later.  The same could be true of Mansfield's "manliness," if it did play any role in human evolution.  It might be a trait that Natural Selection is going to weed out.  It wouldn't be a great loss.  It might even be the real lethal mutation.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Doing What Comes Naturally

I considered adding this to yesterday's post, but decided I might as well start a new one.  Midgley also wrote in Heart and Mind:
Now it is exactly this variety, this obstinate innate uniqueness of each human being, that gives real force to the demands for political freedom.  Mill, in his Essay on Liberty, emphasized it constantly and correctly with organic metaphors.  People, he said, are like trees which should have their full shape and not be pollarded; like human feet, which should have their natural growth and not be bound.  
Like human hair, which should have its natural growth and not be cut or bound or dyed?  Like the human body, which should go naked and not be covered by clothing?  “Nature” in this sense starts to stretch too much, and those organic metaphors bump up against real practice, such as longstanding human manipulation of the breeding and culture of non-human species.  Is it bad to trim a tree, to to mow your lawn, to domesticate plasts or animals for food and other purposes?  We expect a more hands-off approach to human beings (though some of us fantasize about breeding people as we breed dogs or cattle), but the organic metaphors Midgley approves break down there.

But stick to people: I wonder what that Victorian gentleman John Stuart Mill thought about contraception?  Abortion?  Homosexuality?  Celibacy?  Chastity?  For his time he was a very advanced supporter of women's autonomy, but I haven't yet read The Subjection of Women and don't know the details of his opinions.  Sex-reassignment surgery didn't exist then, and it's interesting to speculate what he would have thought of it.  Transsexuals don't think they are going against their natural growth, of course: they insist that they're expressing it.  And who can say?  But human intervention in nature, our own or other organisms', is too widespread and general to be dismissed as lightly as Mill did in Midgley's paraphrase.

In the real world, “nature” is limited not by innate gifts but by the environment.  A drought, for example, or a plague, or a fire, or an asteroid strike.  Or, as in Mill's case, a driving father who was determined to make him into a genius.  As the Encyclopedia Britannica puts it, "His childhood was not unhappy, but it was a strain on his constitution and he suffered from the lack of natural, unforced development."  I wondered when I read this passage if Mill didn't have his own experience in mind when he said these things.  But that raises another point about "nature": Mill would not have been the person he became if not for his controlling father, and would not have written what he did in the way he did.  If he'd been born in England with the identical "nature" a thousand years earlier, he'd have turned out very differently.
They shouldn’t have a single stereotype, he insisted – and that is why we need a rich, varied, hospitable, enterprising society.  But if they were not innately unique, if they were naturally indeterminate, there would be no objection to pouring the lot of them into standard moulds.  It is quite time that the radical Left got rid of this confusion, this dead beetle which is poisoning its concept of freedom [42].
I'm not sure I can disentangle Mill from Midgley here, but I think this passage confirms my impression that when she wrote that "each person is different in kind" from birth, that by "human nature" she meant individual human nature.  That's all well and good, but I don't think it's the usual commonsense meaning of the term; people may say "that's his nature" of an individual's quirks, but "human nature" usually refers to the species.

And what if one's nature drives one to do terrible things?  People have often tried to find a way around this problem, by postulating that the terrible things are not the result of nature but of being carefully taught the wrong way to behave.  I don't think so.  Nature isn't as red in tooth and claw as some romantics like to think, but it's not all sunshine, rainbows and lollipops either.  Hyenas are part of nature as surely as butterflies are.  This only means that we needn't be, mustn't be nonjudgmental about nature either.  It may not be pleasant, but some natures must be bound, pollarded, and even extinguished; and we must take responsibility for our judgments and how we act on them.  (I think this was roughly what Sartre had in mind with his denials of human nature and the necessity of choice.  If I'm wrong about that, no matter: it's what I have in mind.)

What made this passage stick with me, though, was Midgley's apparent assumption that "unique" is the opposite of "indeterminate", and that those unique individual natures are somehow fixed from birth.  That may very well be so, but it needs to be argued, not asserted.  It seems to me that human nature, both at the species and the individual level is indeterminate.  That's not to say it's unbounded, or infinitely malleable, but everything we know about the interaction of genetic endowment and experience / environment, to say nothing of human beings' capacity for learning, tells us that organisms are both unique and indeterminate.

As an example of the uniqueness and determinacy she has in mind, Midgley declares:
The fascinating thing here is not just the capacity, but the interest which goes with it.  Our faculties demand use; we need to do what we are fitted for.  That delightful wood-engraver, Thomas Bewick [1753-1828] was the son of a small farmer in a lonely part of Northumberland.  He tells in his Memoir how from his earliest years he used to draw pictures, with anything he could get and on any surface he could find, although nobody suggested this to him and on the whole people discouraged him.  ‘At that time’, he goes on, ‘I had never heard of the word “drawing”, nor did I know of any other paintings besides the king’s arms in the church, and the signs in Ovingham of the Black Bull and other inns.’

Bewick, in fact, was a born draughtsman ...  Such people exist.  Therefore, there has to be something wrong with a concept of freedom which can’t accommodate them.  Certainly, they show that freedom has its limits.  Nobody is free to have somebody else’s gifts as well as his own, or instead of them [41]. 
This is true of certain individuals, but not of all.  Not everyone has the kind of early-onset vocation that someone like Bewick exhibited.  I'm not sure what I myself was born "fitted for"; it's hard to see how either reading or writing could be inborn, since these abilities are human inventions.  Drawing, we know, is older, but I'm not sure what kind of innate endowment would produce a "born draughtsman."  I have a good ear for music, a decent voice and the dexterity to play guitar adequately, but no driving need to make music above all else.  I can also draw fairly well but never worked at it.  I sometimes liked to tease people I knew by saying that I was born to be a dishwasher, since I fit so well into that job for thirty years.

In the communitarian society she imagined for her 1976 science-fiction novel Woman on the Edge of Time, Marge Piercy addressed questions like this.  Of one character we are told that she "does not switch jobs but is permanent head of this house of children" because:
Sometimes a gift expresses itself so strongly, like Jackrabbit's need to create color and form, like Magdalena's need to work with children, that it shapes a life.  Person must not do what person cannot do -- you have heard us say that a hundred times; but likewise, person must do what person has to do.
Most people, however, are expected to work at certain service jobs rather than identify themselves with one office.  Even Jackrabbit, the artist also mentioned, must work on food and other production, cleaning and so on; he must also go on defense against the mega-corporations that menace his community.  Connie, the novel's protagonist from the 1970s, is shocked to learn this: he's an artist, shouldn't he be free to commune with his muse?  Why risk such a talented person on defense?

Most of the characters in Woman on the Edge of Time are doubled, in the 1970s present of Connie, the protagonist, and the 2130s of Mouth-of-Mattapoisett.  One reason for this is to suggest how the environment shapes whatever innate characteristics a person has.  Jackrabbit's 1970s counterpart is Skip, a young gay man committed for to a mental hospital for electroshock by his parents in an effort to "cure" him; if he has a "need to create color and form," he never gets a chance to express it.

Luciente, Connie's guide in Mattapoisett, says of her daughter:
"At four, Dawn was timid.  We worried.  Me, my [co-mothers].  We all struggled to bring per out."

[Connie] "But you say you respect difference." 

"Different strengths we respect.  Not weakness.  What is the use in not actively engaging life?  It passes anyhow."
I'm sure that Midgley, who's a mother herself, knows this: respecting each child's individuality doesn't mean that one never intervenes to encourage growth in what seems a desirable direction.  Contrary to her paraphrase of Mill, some interference and shaping, conscious or not, is inevitable in the raising of human children, because of their long period of dependency and their great capacity for learning. What is desirable, though, is not determined by "nature" but by ideological preconceptions.  Somewhere I read that in 'the West' babies are seen as dependent beings who must learn to be independent and take care of themselves, while in Japan (and perhaps elsewhere in 'the East') babies are seen a little egoists who must learn to be connected to, and interdependent with other people.  This is probably an overgeneralization, like most generalizations about cultures, but the point is that babies aren't different in Japan and the United States, but the way they are seen and the expectations for them are.  Both of these ways of thinking about babies seem true to me at the same time: they are dependent, but they're also little egoists who must learn to co-exist with others.  "Human nature," whether we're speaking of individuals or of the species, is self-contradictory at its root. Woman on the Edge of Time is, among other things, a book about human nature, but I suspect it would annoy Midgley for dealing with questions she doesn't care to engage.  (A couple of years after Heart and Mind, Midgley co-wrote an awful book on feminism that I hope to dissect here one of these days.)

Another reason why talk about nature, human or otherwise, runs into fatal difficulties is that nature has history -- that is, a sequence of changes that can't be predicted though they can, with luck, be described in hindsight.  The pitfall of doing so is that, no doubt also as part of human nature, the historian is tempted to find a story in the sequence: an ordered, causal narrative, which implies that with a bit more wisdom one could have predicted how it would turn out.  Darwinian evolution is the anti-story of change in Nature.  Not only do languages and other cultural features change over time and from place to place, but the biology of organisms changes too.  It's indeterminate -- not infinitely malleable but not fixed in place either.

Monday, September 28, 2015

You've Got to Be Sloppily Taught

It's not enough to reject biological reductionism: you must also offer a better alternative to it.  Mary Midgley is properly critical of "blank slate" (or, as she calls them, "blank paper") conceptions of human nature.  I began to wonder, though, how many people actually, consistently believe that human beings are blank slates.  I've noticed that many who are accused of that belief don't actually hold it; often they are professionals in biology and related fields, like Stephen Jay Gould, Richard C. Lewontin, Hilary Rose, and Anne Fausto-Sterling.  It's a typical reaction to criticism of a belief to accuse the critic of holding an absolutely opposed stance: if you criticize a given case of biological reductionism, you will be accused of believing that biology is totally irrelevant, just as someone who criticizes a given US policy will be accused of hating America and wanting to see it destroyed, or a woman who criticizes a man's behavior will be accused of hating men and wanting them all castrated.

Case in point: I just read Paul Shankman's The Trashing of Margaret Mead: Anatomy of an Anthropological Controversy (Wisconsin, 2009), an account of Derek Freeman's trashing of Margaret Mead at the end of the twentieth century.  Among much else, Freeman accused Mead and her teacher Franz Boas of believing that human beings were blank slates and that biology played no role in numan nature or culture.  Numerous evolutionary psychology types, including Steven Pinker, David Buss, and Matt Ridley, were happy to parrot Freeman's claim without bothering to determine how accurate it was.  Shankman shows that this accusation was utterly false.  Ironically, Freeman himself rejected sociobiology (though not, it seems, evolutionary psychology) and adhered to an approach he called interactionist; but he could have been accused of rejecting biology for blank-slate cultural determinism if anyone had cared to misrepresent him by dishonest selective quotation.

Shankman quotes Ridley as noting that "For fifty years Mead's Samoans stood as definite proof of the perfectibility of man" and that Boas, Ruth Benedict and Mead had argued that "human nature must be infinitely malleable by culture because (they thought, wrongly) the alternative is fatalism, which is unacceptable" (Shankman, 207-8).  These are also common accusations, but there's no reason why a real blank slate position should imply "the perfectibility of man," and Mead seems not to have believed in such perfectibility: arguing that some cultures are better than others suggests improvement at most.  And ironically, nowadays it's biological determinists and Artificial Intelligence propagandists who talk as though they believe and hope that "man" is perfectible and "infinitely malleable" by genetic manipulation and by turning us into cyborgs.

Midgley does discuss a couple of positions that might plausibly be called "blank slate," such as Skinnerian behaviorism and Sartrean existentialism.  Certainly both approaches seem to encourage people to make extreme and not very well thought-through statements about human nature.  It's not clear to me that Skinner, as wrong as he was, actually thought human beings are blank slates.  Often people will make such extreme statements but if they're challenged, they'll backtrack quickly and qualify them.  I haven't read enough Sartre to be sure about him, but even leaving aside the many changes in his philosophy and politics during his career, I suspect that his reduction of human nature to pure will was a rhetorical move he wouldn't have cared to defend very far.

I've found this to be true of laypeople, who are perfectly capable of saying that human beings are effectively blank slates. and then almost immediately make equally wild, concrete, and unfounded generations about our real human nature.  They may not root that real nature in biology -- often they think it consists of "spirit," "soul," or some other non-material essence -- but they are sure it's real.  So, for example, I've become very tired of the "You've Got to Be Carefully Taught" meme, such as this one:
Someday I must make a meme in which a baby reminds us that it knows nothing of language, clothing, taking out the trash, or bowel control.  But when people say things like this -- there's a DJ on the community radio station who regularly plays "You've Got to Be Carefully Taught" and similar, less well-known songs -- I want to ask them where they think hatred, intolerance, racism, etc. come from if they must be "taught" to us.  Who invented them, and first taught them?  Someone bad, I betcha.  Maybe it was "religion," conceived as an independently existing autonomous malevolent being rather than a human invention. Someone who sees other people as Them, no doubt -- but that certainly includes many people who believe that Someone Bad taught innocent little babies to be intolerant.  A photo circulated recently on Facebook of a very young bobcat and a very young deer cuddled together, with the caption "Why can't we humans do this?"  Well, first, of course, we humans can, and we do.  We are not always at each other's throats, and a meme like this does nothing to explain why we sometimes engage in violent conflict.  But second, do the people who made, shared, and like this image believe seriously that bobcats and other predators kill for their food because some bad person "carefully taught them"?  This isn't a blank-slate position, it's thoughtlessness.

Midgley talks about the human "heart" and the "soul," which doesn't really get her very far.  Both of these are metaphors, and extremely vague ones at that.  If "heart" means something like core or center, fine, but in fact neither our blood-pumping hearts nor our chest cavities more generally are organs of moral reflection and judgment.  As for the "soul," it's even vaguer.  People talk about it in various ways, sometimes equating it with "spirit" and sometimes distinguishing the two; since neither term refers to any entity in the real world, it doesn't matter where you draw the line, but it doesn't settle anything either.

At one point Midgley declares: "For Christianity, the true self is indeed the soul, but the body is a necessary and suitable expression for it; the resurrection of the body will ensure that whole people, not just ghosts, inhabit Heaven" (10).  As usual, when Midgley talks about religion she gets it wrong.  Christianity has never quite sorted out the nature of the "true self."  The Bible is no help, and later theologians have had to fall back on Aristotelian and Platonic philosophy.  The apostle Paul, whose discussion of the Resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15 is often referred to, distinguished between the body and flesh, declaring ex cathedra that in the resurrection of the body, the flesh will be replaced with a body of spirit.  The gospels present Jesus' resurrection as a body of flesh, so most people who quote Paul equate the body and the flesh.  If the new body will be "spirit," what is the difference between that and the soul?  "Ghost" comes from the old German for "spirit," so that's no help to Midgley either.

She even falls back on "common sense," which she defines as "not some special na├»ve set of beliefs, but any sort of practical assumption compatible with the business of everyday living" (38).  The trouble with this is that any number of irrational and harmful assumptions are "practical" and "compatible with the business of everyday living."
The notion of human nature is wide and indispensable to political thought.  Thinkers of all colours have always used it, and it is still presupposed by those who officially deny it.  (For instance, those who deny that man is naturally aggressive on the ground that he is naturally friendly are not dispensing with the notion of human nature.)  The real disputes are about what human nature is like [39].
The trouble is that "human nature," like "comnon sense," is always used from the wrong end: rather than point to evidence of "what human nature is like", people tend to rationalize their prejudices and wishes as "common sense" and "human nature."  In an important sense, they're right.  A popular slogan from the 60s and 70s claimed that the only unnatural sexual act is one you can't perform -- that is, because it's physically impossible.  Anything that human beings do is "natural" -- if it weren't, we couldn't do it.  This applies to traits and behavior we don't like as well as to those we do.  If "thinkers of all colors have always used" the concept of human nature, that suggests to me that it doesn't have much content: it's what I call a totem-word, invoked to shut off debate and to obscure the issues rather than introduce any real information into the discussion.

There's a curious divide in the way people use words like "nature" and "natural."  People "oscillate," to use Midgley's word, between descriptive and prescriptive means of important abstractions.  "Normal," for instance, can describe what most people do -- or it can prescribe what people should do, though the thought process  (such as it is) is circular: we should do this because it's what most people do, but if most people don't do it, they should.  Other such words are "culture" (used descriptively for the constellation of practices and norms and so on typical of a group of people, and prescriptively for good practices and norms which demonstrate that you're a "cultured" person.), "art," and "nature."  ("Nature" especially exhibits this oscillation in Christian use, where "nature" is both the voice of God and the voice of sin.  In Secrets of Life, Secrets of Death [Routledge, 1992], Evelyn Fox Keller shows how and why this oscillation came about.)  Just because something is natural doesn't mean it's good, as the most dogmatic champion of human nature will concede; but he or she will flipflop to the normative sense of "nature" when it's expedient.

Another important concept that gets used in such conflicting ways is "evolution."  People commonly use it as a moralizing term: an "evolved" person is mature, wise, learned, an "unevolved" person is not.  But any trait that human beings exhibit has survived the trial-by-ordeal of Darwinian natural selection.  Midgley herself falls into this error when she says that "In going up the evolutionary scale, we find a quite steady increase in the openness of programs" (154); but there is no evolutionary scale to go up and down.  She's referring to the pre-Darwinian, and actually anti-Darwinian Great Chain of Being, which ranks organisms from less "complex"to more "complex" -- the latter of course assumed to be better.  And every organism, human beings not excluded, embodies old and new, "primitive" and "advanced," traits.

So it seems to me that "human nature" is a vacuous, circular term that is not of any help in the discussion of moral issues or any other.  You can debate whether a given trait is innate or not, but particularly in human behavior, it's hard to settle the question.  As Midgley also says,
Right from birth, people are individuals; each person is different in kind.   I think this is in part what makes the concentration on IQ seem so unsuitable and offensive.  What happens in heredity certainly is not that we are born with a definite quantity of a standard stuff called intelligence, or even cleverness, entitling us to a particular place in the social hierarchy, a pre-programmed degree in some monstrous cosmic examination.  Instead, we each have our own peculiarly formed set of capacities and incapacities, our own personal repertoire [40-41].
If it were true that "each person is different in kind", then each individual would have his or her own nature (which is what "kind" means in this context) and it would be meaningless to talk about human nature as a trait of the species.

Still, Midgley is on to something here: most reductionist talk about human nature overlooks the variety among individuals, assuming that all men are alike, and all women are alike, all blacks, Hispanics, and so on, even though if "science" can be said to have shown everything, it is that we are all different from each other in important ways, and that the variation within groups often exceeds the average variation between them.  It may well be "human nature" to ignore such differences -- but if it is, so much the worse for human nature.

So, for a hot-button contemporary example, there's been a fuss over the women who passed Army Ranger camp recentlyCan women meet the exacting standards of this elite terrorist group? the media asked.  Well, not all women can, any more than all men can; but it's not obvious a priori that no women can.  It would be surprising if none could, given a fair chance to do so.  The same goes for any discussion of race, sex, etc., as it affects ability to do science, math, music, or any other human endeavor.  Every few years somebody, usually a sports journalist, tries to argue a scientific case that people of African descent are innately better at sports than white people, which explains why there are so many blacks in elite sports nowadays.  This project is touted as a bold defiance of Political Correctness, of course.  Whatever the validity of the science involved, there always seems to lurk the assumption that if you're good at sports, you're not good at anything else, and shouldn't be allowed to do anything else.  Analogously, there's no doubt that human females "evolved" to bear young, but that doesn't imply that all women must bear children or that they can't do art, science, sports, or anything else.  The same illogic would dictate that, since males evolved to supply spermatazoa, we are good for nothing else.  But whatever ideas about "human nature" can be used to bolster the status quo qualify as "common sense."

The problem then is not "human nature" -- which doesn't settle anything -- but how we think about it.  And while I'm mostly on Midgley's side, she seems to miss most of what's important about how we think about it.  If I want to study mathematics or nuclear physics or basketball or poetry or the violin, it doesn't matter whether males or whites or any other group does better on average at those tasks.  Regardless of who I am, the odds are overwhelmingly against my excelling compared to the very best individuals in the field.  There's no way to know in advance how well I'll do, and there's no reason why I must be the best anyway.  One of the reasons why the concept of "meritocracy" is so malign is that it tends to devalue everyone who isn't in the top rank of achievement.  It seems to me that "human nature" only functions negatively, to tell certain people they can't do what they'd like to do, that they must do what they don't particularly want to do, or to excuse bad behavior by the privileged on the grounds that it's just human nature.  I can't think of any positive uses the concept could have.  I'm not denying, mind you, that there is such a thing as human nature; only that we don't seem to be able to say anything useful about it.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

I'm Not the First Guy to Observe This

Someone posted a link to this video clip by Bill Nye the Science Guy, allegedly "bring[ing] science to bear on the abortion debate."

This reminds me of a cartoon I once saw of a business meeting, all men in suits except for one woman. The leader of the meeting is saying, "That's a very interesting suggestion, Miss Jones. Perhaps one of the men here would like to make it." Nye isn't saying anything that women haven't said many times, but of course, being science-based, a male statement counts for more.  His bowtie alone inspires absolute confidence!  Science has also been brought to bear on the abortion debate before, but of course Nye's fans are historically illiterate, so they can't be expected to know that.

I like the "He tends to prefer facts" bit. Well, let's look at some facts. Nye alludes to "'men of European descent' having their own interpretation of 'a book written 5,000 years ago' and then deciding that abortion should be illegal." What book could he be talking about? The Bible was written less than 3,000 years ago, parts of it less than 2,000, by men of West Asian descent; many of its present-day fans are of Asian and African descent. Further, the Bible doesn't say anything about abortion. So, those -- whatever their descent may be -- who oppose abortion aren't basing it on the Bible.

Another science-based writer who sought to shed scientific light on reproductive issues reported that "among women between the age of fifteen and forty-nine in the United States, 70 percent of Catholic women were using some form of contraception in 1995, about the same percentage of all women in that age group. ... The data are quite clear: the Catholic Church has very limited moral authority with Catholic laity in matters of sexual behavior and reproductive health."  In fact, Catholic women are more likely to get an abortion than Protestants. So, even people who officially accept the authority of that five-thousand-year-old book nevertheless do what they want to do.  That's at least partly because the Church no longer has the power to punish them; as the composer Hector Berlioz observed of the Roman Catholic Church more than a century ago, "Since she has ceased to inculcate the burning of heretics, her creeds are charming."

The "science" Nye cites has little, maybe nothing to do with the issue. One could accept his every claim yet still oppose abortion, perhaps out of a desire to control women that doesn't come from religion but uses religion to give more authority to policies that wouldn't otherwise have any. Many atheist, pro-science males still want to control women. Religion has no inherent moral content: people put their wishes and prejudices into the religons they invent. But then science has no inherent moral content either, apart from the professional ethics that govern their work internally.  And alas, when scientists who don't know very much outside their specialties try to address social or political issues, they generally make fools of themselves. Well-intentioned fools, but fools nonetheless.