First of all: Hi! Long time, no blog. Aside from posts on my parenting blog and the occasional burst of Twitter rants, my kid hasn’t given me much time to think, much less write, about much else. However, the dear little bug is now a year old, and has started part-time day care, so my writing bandwidth should be in much better shape, soon. Expect more posts here, as well as–I hope!– at least one new book by the end of the year or early next.
On to today’s topic: Sexism, individualism, and emotional asceticism.
I won’t rehash the entirety of the recent SFWA drama here, but suffice it to say: sexism happened, anti-sexists protested, then anti-anti-sexists threw toddler tantrums about free speech and damn broads and all that sort of fun stuff. I wasn’t even indirectly involved, just followed the proceedings and tried not to sprain my eye muscles with all the rolling. This was, of course, an outgrowth of the years-long shitstorm in geek/atheist/etc. circles over harassment, inclusiveness and such. A certain segment of straight, white dudes in these communities have got it into their heads that said communities were built primarily or exclusively for them, and thus have been apoplectic that their crayon-scrawled “no girls, queers, or non-whites allowed” signs are being ignored–and even worse, that other straight, white dudes are being traitors to their kind by actually welcoming the interlopers. Quelle horreur.
In the midst of the most recent iteration of this drama, I also watched an interesting movie called After The Dark (previously The Philosophers.) No spoilers, but the basic gist is a series of thought experiments in a philosophy class re: end of the world/bomb shelter scenarios. The instructor is trying to convince the class that they should choose only those who will be good breeders and have useful post-apocalyptic skills for the shelter, leaving “useless” artists and those with illnesses and such to die. Other students protest that, trying to argue for practical uses for art, etc. The dilemma isn’t specifically presented as one with gendered sides, but it does sort of neatly fall into that, in stereotypical terms: “practical” men and “emotional” women.
Which brings me to the intersection of these these things, and the reality that a life philosophy that encourages minimal emotion is a) impossible to apply and b) actually illogical.
Near the end of our marriage, my disintegrating relationship with my ex became especially tense when he started a philosophy class while I was working on a psych minor. He became obsessed with logic and practicality while I was studying why humans behave the way they do—which is often irrationally. He wanted life to be neat, simple, and predictable, while I was fascinated with the enormous range of human existence and experience. Needless to say, we had some spectacular arguments.
Fast forward a couple of decades, and I still see this battle being played out in many other ways, very often in debates around social justice. Conservatives often argue for dispassionate, cold application of law while progressives argue for compassionate policies. It’s sometimes flipped, however: progressives using logic and facts while trying to convince religious folks why the tenets of their faith ought not to be used to set policy for education, sexual freedom, etc. Libertarians, of course, usually fall onto the side of “logic” in either case: often even declaring in so many words that making emotional decisions about politics is inherently weak and inferior.
Among libertarian-minded sorts is also the strong notion of individualism: the idea that every person who is worthy of being alive should be able to survive entirely on their own without any help, and that people who do need help are inferior. This mindset is what causes them to work against anti-discrimination and playfield-leveling efforts, and what also translates into sometimes-not-even-thinly-veiled racism, sexism and other bigotry. If such people were truly worthy of having power, their logic goes, they’d be able to survive without using the government as an enforcer (nevermind that their own efforts at discrimination are also done collectively–a single individual bigot would have next to no power to do harm; they’re dangerous primarily in packs.) Individualism is natural selection, they argue: Giving people a hand up only makes them dependent, and thus makes the human race weaker. Caring about other people, especially those who need help, will supposedly only lead to our destruction.
This sort of Vulcan-worship mindset is massive within the geek community, and what is, I feel, behind a lot of the community’s problem with sexism. Conventional wisdom has conflated emotional sensitivity and compassion with weakness, and also with women, and thus these guys believe women sort of pollute the purity of logic-driven spaces. Women, to them, exist for limited purposes, generally centered around breeding and domestic service, and are too weak-minded and irrational to be allowed equal status. The gist of this flavor of sexism, whether found in geek circles or elsewhere, is that rationality is inherently better than emotion, men are inherently more rational beings than women, so therefore men are superior and should have the bulk of control.
Aside from the truly mangled understanding of gender involved in this mindset, it also clearly–and irrationally–ignores some established facts about human nature and how we survive as a species. Anyone who respects science ought to know that humans are primates, and that primates live communally. We are not solo hunters, and indeed those rogues who try to live this way usually die without the support of the rest of the tribe. Natural selection doesn’t necessarily favor those creatures that have learned to survive alone. It just favors those that have learned to survive, period, even if that means collective action to keep the species alive. A single ant isn’t likely to live long enough to pass on its genes. An ant in a massive colony? Hell, yes. The modern, Western notion that a male-headed nuclear family is or should be the core unit of human social structure is, evolutionarily speaking, actually counter to our survival. In primate communities, if a parent dies or is otherwise unable to care or provide for their child, the rest of the community steps in to care for that child, ensuring the child, and therefore the community, will survive. In human cultures without that support network, orphaned or under-cared-for children simply die. Not exactly healthy for the continuation of the species, yo. (Also: The theory that letting the children of “weak” parents die is evolutionarily wise is unscientific bullshit, and anyone spouting that should be ashamed not just of their lack of compassion, but of their ignorance.)
Some non-libertarian “family values” conservatives understand that human-tribe concept to some degree, and thus argue for the strength inherent in extended family and church-based support, as well as homogeneity. Their Utopian ideal, however, doesn’t exist for many in modern, developed-world life. Only people in deliberately closed, close communities can survive like that, and let’s face it: we’re not all Amish. Religious faith is neither identical nor ubiquitous, and many, perhaps even a majority of people live far away, either physically or practically, from extended family. Cultural differences and the time demands of capitalism also mean it’s difficult to build local community. Neighbors in small towns may be able to support each other, but that’s just not practical in most other areas. This is why modern civilizations have developed other structures to fill those gaps. Just as we developed grocery stores to serve the needs of people who aren’t farmers, we have developed social services to fill the needs of people without church or family to step in and help when needed. Many services are of course provided and funded by the private sector, but as that’s not practical or possible for some things and some people in need, publicly funded services exist as well. There really is no such thing as a totally independent human. We all need things from other people, and we all pay for them in some way or another, either directly or via taxes.
As it’s an established fact, then, that humans are tribal animals who thrive only when interdependent, it makes sense that our capacity for emotion, particularly emotion that leads to compassion, bonding, and interdependence, is essential to our survival. We need the trusted support of others for our species to survive, so we need emotional connections to build that trust and support. A human trying to exist on a purely logical level, therefore, is actually being illogical. As any good scientist knows, you have to account for all factors, and ignoring the social, and therefore emotional, factors essential to our survival is bad science.
Beyond that, it’s actually not cold calculation driving many of these “rational” warriors anyway. It’s fear, and usually fear grown out of childhood trauma of some sort, often gender-role-based bullying from parents or peers. Bullies operating from the false ideal of individual strength believe they’re doing God’s work by preying on the weak and either eliminating them or forcing them to become strong. Bully parents often call this “toughening up” their sons. What this bullying creates, however, isn’t strength, but a mask to hide weakness. Making things worse, it also creates a massive fear of that mask slipping and the weakness showing through, which leads to maladaptive behavior to keep that mask in place at all costs. It also leads to more bullying: if others show weakness, it’s reminiscent of one’s own weakness, which triggers that fear and thus a desire to eliminate the reminder of that weakness. There is no creature so vicious as a wounded animal trying to survive.
This is not to say that it’s not important for people to learn to be self-sufficient to the best of their abilities, of course. We all need to be strong in our own ways not just for our own sake, but for our ability to support others. But everyone has weaknesses of some sort and therefore needs support in some area, even if they’re strong in others. There is–or should be–no shame in that, because it’s how our species works. We can’t all be electrical engineers, farmers, and accountants. Relying on others to do what we cannot isn’t weakness, it’s normal, and building relationships is how we find others with whom we can exchange that support.
Going back to the philosophy experiment, this is why it would be essential in such a survival situation to make choices based at least in part on addressing human emotional needs. Since humans need not just food and shelter but also bonding, people with the ability to encourage that bonding, including artists, are therefore just as essential to our survival as farmers and electrical engineers. Basic skills necessary to day-to-day living can be learned second-hand (and really, why would a survival bunker not be full of books and other learning materials to teach people how to rebuild afterward?) but human connection and emotional support has to be experienced. This can take many forms–I’m the first to argue that relationships built and maintained via technological communication are as real as any other–but we still have to have those things. Exactly how much of them an individual needs may vary, and introverts and people with ASDs need less than some, but we all still need them. None of us, as the saying goes, is an island.
Dragging this back to the sexism point: Emotion and rational thinking are not mutually exclusive, and certainly not dependent on gender. Men and women are socialized to express emotion differently, and to value different kinds of expression, but there’s nothing biologically hard-wired about that. Additionally, making decisions with a consideration for emotional aspects isn’t inherently weak, but is in fact the most logical way to address human needs, so rejecting women based on the (incorrect) assumption that they make irrational decisions isn’t just wrong, but actively counterproductive. The people who should therefore be rejected by those seeking rationality aren’t women, but sexists.