What Is the Question “What Are Women For?” For?
February 18, 2012

Creation of the Sun and Moon by Michelangelo, ...

The Dude (via Wikipedia)

Now that everyone’s gotten in their shots at James Poulos (including my friend Lisa McIntire, who I think wins the award for both aplomb and bile), I’d like to skip ahead to his follow-up column and zero in on what seems like one of the more toxic premises undergirding this whole exercise (emphasis mine):

Women are largely freer than ever to pursue their life plans without the burden of a moral obligation to center their activity and their ambitions around exercising their unique reproductive capabilities.

Yet the story doesn’t end there. We still argue and wonder about which life plans to choose in a civilization that has greatly and productively loosened the once-intense moral link between women’s fecundity and women’s lives as unique individuals. And one area in which patriarchal dominance has persisted is in privileging some kinds of human pursuits over others. Philosophers from Plato to Rousseau to Heidegger have disapprovingly warned of the apparently natural propensity of men to fill up the world with stuff — machines, weapons, ideologies, and so on — that often objectifies and instrumentalizes people, and often distracts us from its own sterility as regards fruitful human living.

Difference doesn’t presume or ordain inequality. I’m not alone in thinking that women are uniquely able to help humanity avoid becoming enthralled to the more sterile cultural creations of men. But this sort of insight is far more circumspect and modest than the central principles of virtually all social conservatives.

While I was in Israel, I heard a Hasidic rabbi — new Hasidic, mind you, with an acoustic guitar and all the affectations of a totally chillaxed SoCal beach bro — make a very similar argument. His intention was to demonstrate to us that the convention of identifying God with the male pronoun “He” wasn’t really sexist or patriarchal, because all it did was link God to the male creator energy. The universe, he argued, had a distinctly female creation energy, which was great for women, because it meant that they were intrinsically closer to their creator — God — than us guys, who don’t hold within ourselves as much of the female creation energy.

According to Rabbi Jack Johnson, the reason why men observe Shabbat — during which time Jews are forbidden from participating in any act of creation — is to become, in a sense, more female, and therefore more receptive to God’s male creation energy. Women don’t have as difficult a time doing this, because they’re already predisposed, but — unfortunately, says the good Rabbi at this point — modern women have absorbed more of the male creator energy in recent years as they’ve taken a greater participatory role in politics, business, and other profane worldly affairs.

I don’t think I’m quite doing justice to how well the Rabbi framed this fundamentally conservative argument in the liberal-values-friendly vocabulary of hippie-dippie-dom. Lucky for us, he betrayed himself by blurting out the word “unfortunately,” thereby disclosing what the real implications of this worldview were. If women want to stay close to God all week — the way men try to get close to God from Friday evening through Saturday afternoon — then they need to abstain from icky male creator acts. You leave all the politicking, horse trading, art-making and craft-working to us menfolk, sweetie. That way it won’t soil your special connection with The Ultimate Manfolkperson.

Thus we see closeness to God become a consolation prize to be awarded to that underclass which Rabbi Duderino wishes barred — either by social convention or other means — from having any direct agency in worldly affairs. Poulos, along with the philosophers he enlists in his cause, appears to be making the same argument. Difference may not presume or ordain inequality, but I’d love to hear what makes this preferred state of affairs anything but deeply unequal.

UPDATE: Elias Isquith (whose blog you should be reading, if you aren’t already) tweets:

some men think if they turn up the “Madonna” and down the “Whore” in their Madonna/Whore complex, they’re feminists

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July 14, 2010

I’ve had a couple of conversations regarding the concept of shame over the past week, and it’s gotten me thinking.

Shame enforces social and cultural norms. In one sense it’s a tool used to discourage people from deviating from those norms, and in another sense it’s a self-imposed reason to adhere to them. There is a major sense in which this is deeply messed up, because many of the cultural norms shame enforces are either arbitrary or downright harmful. For example: shame over sexual orientation, gender identity, popular beauty standards, race, popular gender norms, etc.

So yes, shame is dangerous. It is, among other things, a tool for oppression. It can also be emotionally crippling and developmentally stunting. But I’m hesitant to condemn shame as either an inherently illegitimate emotion, or an inherently illegitimate societal function. When someone feels shame, or is publicly shamed, for having done something that is legitimately immoral, that’s a good thing. It’s an incentive to not do it again, as well as an indication of recognition that it was wrong in the first place.

Besides, I’m inclined to side with Heidegger when he says that guilt—which is distinguishable from shame, but very closely linked—is simply one of the underlying structures of self-conscious existence. It is not, in of itself, good or bad, but simply there. And the choices we make that are most true to ourselves are those which acknowledge and confront it.

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Humans versus Persons
May 27, 2010

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A couple commenters have made reference to evolutionary biology and “human nature” as the causal force behind existing ethical systems. Now, there’s obviously something to that (look for an upcoming post on something called the Darwinian Dilemma), but it also means that the time has come for us to draw an important distinction: most humans are persons, and as far as we know all persons are humans, but that does not mean that the definition of one exhausts the definition of the other.

“Human” is a label referring to a set of biological characteristics. Personhood is … something else harder to define. But, with the help of some examples, I think it is doable. So: I would argue that an individual who no longer has any brain function beyond basic life support is a human that is no longer a person. On the other hand, to use several geeky examples, Kal-El (pictured), Frodo Baggins, Data from The Next Generation and Dogbert are all non-human persons. Recently, some scientists have argued that the same applies to dolphins.

So what, then, is a person? I think the existentialist definition works best: Heidegger and Sartre refer to man as the “being-for-itself” (in Sartre’s French, the pour sois). What this means is that persons are the only things in the universe that can reflect on themselves and their own actions. The other way to put this is that persons are defined by the fact that they alone are self-aware.

This is an important distinction to make because I think a good ethical system is one which seeks to describe good interactions between persons. So, for example, murdering Frodo in order to get your hands on the one ring is unethical, whereas killing a non-person animal for food or terminating life support for someone in a persistent vegetative state at the wishes of the family is not necessarily wrong in and of itself.

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