Tuesday, October 31, 2006

The failure of ethics

We are supposed to rely now on "ethics" to judge human action. But we cannot - modernist ethics simply doesn't work well enough.

Consider the following example. In last Saturday's Age [Certain Women Good Weekend 28/10/06] 35-year-old Mia Freedman was interviewed about her attitudes to life. Mia has been an editor of Cosmopolitan and Cleo and is now a director at Channel 9. She's married with two children.

She was asked the following question: "Is raunch culture empowering to women?"

Her feelings on the matter are clear enough. She answers:

Raunch culture alarms me horribly, especially as I get older and now that I'm the parent of a daughter. Women embrace it because of the shock value, but that will wear off ...

The waters get much murkier, though, when Mia reports an exchange with her mother on this very issue:

Ironically, I've found myself having to explain to my mother why raunch culture is not a good thing. She's like, "But hang on, isn't this what we fought for as feminists? For women to be able to express themselves in whatever way they choose and reclaim their sexuality?

I said, this is different. It's not about women having a threesome because they want to have one. It's about a girl pashing another girl in a nightclub to impress a boy. If it was an organic expression of how they feel, I'd say go for it.

Most people, understandably, won't get this. It's difficult to comprehend a logic by which wanting to have a threesome is ethically good, but wanting to pash another girl is ethically bad. The basis for the distinction isn't immediately apparent.

But I think I can explain it. The traditional idea of morality was that there was a really existing "good" to guide the behaviour of individuals and communities. In modernist ethics there is held to be no such good existing externally to the individual.

Therefore, the "good" is often thought to be something created by individuals themselves. In particular, the human capacity to choose freely, without impediment, is often identified as the good in life.

So choosing and getting what I want takes on the force of what is ethically good. That's why Mia Freedman accepts her mother's view that if a woman wants to have a threesome that it is an ethical behaviour.

But how then can women choosing to pash each other in a nightclub be thought ethically wrong? One logical path for a modernist to take is to claim that it's wrong because it isn't really an expression of individual want.

This explains why Mia Freedman justifies her rejection of raunch culture on the basis that it is not "an organic expression" of how women feel; in other words, it is not an authentic want but somehow represents a distortion of the normal process of choice.

So there is a logic to Mia Freedman's comments, but not one which makes useful or persuasive distinctions between ethical and unethical behaviour.

Notice the difference between Mia Freedman's real feelings on the issue of raunch culture ("alarms me horribly") and what position she is left defending once the logic of modernist ethics is introduced ("If it was an organic expression of how they feel, I'd say go for it.")

Notice too how easy it is to collapse the distinction made by Mia Freedman. Why, after all, should threesomes be thought of in terms of authentic wants, and acting raunchily in a nightclub be categorised as inauthentic? Is it really any more likely that women engaging in the first activity will do so as an "organic expression" of how they feel?

(I remember at this point the case of actress Jane Fonda who set up threesomes with her husband Roger Vadim because it was the 1960s thing to do - the "raunch culture" of the time - whilst later expressing regret.)

Mia Freedman's moral feeling is healthy enough. She thinks of raunch culture as degrading to women and doesn't want her daughter to participate in it.

The framework of ethics, though, doesn't let her argue this view persuasively. Modernist ethics doesn't function well as a tool to either define or defend what we really believe to be morally good.

Sunday, October 29, 2006

Too many mirror sheiks

There's something else that hasn't been picked up in Sheik al-Hilaly's speech. The media has focused on the sheik shifting the blame for rape onto women. In the speech, though, the sheik goes further than this and portrays women as generally being the agents of immorality, corrupting otherwise morally sound men.

For example, when it comes to theft the sheik said that,

On the issue of stealing, when the man is responsible for earning ... Maybe circumstances forced him and Satan tempted him, and there is a woman like hell behind him; she never has enough. And behind every man who is a thief, a greedy woman. She is pushing him ... And no matter how much he brings her she wants more.

This makes women responsible for drugs too:

Either she will tell him to go and deal in drugs, or to go and steal ... If you demand from your husband more than his ability, then what does that mean? Who is the one who would have to become a mafia? A gangster? And steal cars? And smash banks? And deal in the "blue disease" [drugs]?

Women are also the ones responsible for adultery:

But in the event of adultery, the responsibility falls 90 per cent of the time with women. Why? Because the woman possesses the weapon of seduction ...

And rape:

She is the one wearing a short dress, lifting it up, lowering it down, then a look, then a smile, then a word, then a greeting, then a chat, then a date, then a meeting, then a crime, then Long Bay Jail, then comes a merciless judge who gives you 65 years.

And for male corruption in general:

That's why Satan says about the woman, "You are half a soldier. You are my messenger to achieve my ends. You are the last weapon I would use to smash the head of the finest men ... Oh, you are my best weapon.

The message? That men are the naturally virtuous sex, and that crime and immorality are to be examined in terms of female culpability.

Which is interesting as we in the West are used to the roles being reversed. It has been common in Australia for women to be thought morally innocent and for men to be assumed to be the agents of immoral behaviour.

For instance, soon after the sheik's speech Rob Moodie of VicHealth released a report on domestic violence (Male myths hard to kill Herald Sun 27/10/06). The gist of this report is that there are a number of dangerous "male myths" about domestic violence which need to be overcome. Included in these "myths" are beliefs that:

1) women might make up complaints of rape
2) women might make up claims of violence to gain an upper hand in custody disputes
3) men and women are equally guilty of domestic violence
4) yelling abuse at a partner is not a serious form of violence against women

What does it mean when we are asked to believe that women would not make up complaints of rape or would not make up claims of violence to gain an upper hand in custody disputes?

It would take an especially fervent belief in the moral culpability of men and the moral innocence of women to believe such claims.

You only have to read the newspapers (and trust your own commonsense) to know that such claims are not true, and that women do make up claims of rape and domestic violence.

In September alone three cases came to light of women making up claims of being raped (see here for more information on false rape claims).

As for men and women being equally guilty of domestic violence, there is considerable evidence that this is, in fact, the case. It's true that there's disagreement about this amongst researchers, but to talk of a "myth" when there is serious academic research in favour of this claim is clearly wrong. (See here for further information).

Finally, there's the issue of yelling. It is possible to imagine scenarios in which yelling really is part of a pattern of domestic violence.

Still, it's understandable that people don't want to make any act of yelling part of a definition of domestic violence, as it's an inevitable part of any relationship.

Doesn't it also defy all sense of reality to believe that yelling in marriage is a one way street in which men are the aggressors and women the victims? It's a pity Rob Moodie didn't read the comments of Penny Biggins in yesterday's Age. When asked by an interviewer "How do you resolve disputes or tensions with your partner?", she replied,

I bellow and scream, possibly rather unattractively, he sits looking mutinous, and then it gets sorted. It's a very effective conflict resolution.

The point I am making here is that Rob Moodie is not really challenging the intellectual framework put forward by Sheik al-Hilaly. Instead, he is being a kind of "mirror sheik" who simply switches the place of men and women within the argument.

It must be possible to arrive at a more subtle kind of position on this issue, than that served up by either Sheik al-Hilaly or Rob Moodie. To argue that women are incapable of acts of violence or deception and that we must always assume that men are the culpable aggressors and women the victims is a crude position to take.

It is no answer to the sheik's unrealistic view that men who commit crimes are the victims of the corrupting influence of women.

Saturday, October 28, 2006

Isn't this bit of the mufti's speech even worse?

Australia's top Muslim, Sheik al-Hilaly, has been under fire for blaming women for rape in a recent speech. What I haven't seen commented on, though, is an even more objectionable part of the same speech.

The sheik spends much of the speech condemning the Christian belief in the Holy Trinity as a form of polytheism. This is not what concerns me, as it seems reasonable for a religious leader to criticise the theology of other religions.

However, just see where this criticism of Christian "polytheism" ends up. Here is the quote:

Why wasn't the verse ended with forgiveness and mercy? Because there is a crime of polytheism. God does not forgive polytheism, and forgives everything else. These people [Christians] said that God took a son, these people said that divinity united with man, and the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, and they will see mercy? They will never see it, not him or his father. Not dad or mum. No one will see mercy, of those who believe in polytheism ....

Those who disbelieve amongst the people of the Book and the polytheists, where will they go? Surfers Paradise? Gold Coast? Where? To the fire of hell. And not part-time, they'll be in it for eternity. What are these people? The most evil of God's creation on the face of the earth. The issue is clear.

What does this mean? When the sheik speaks of the disbelievers amongst the people of the Book and the polytheists, does he mean the atheists amongst the Australian people or is he referring (as the context implies) to Christians as well.

Why hasn't a mainstream journalist (or none that I'm aware of) sought to clarify this issue? Does nobody care if the leading Muslim cleric labels mainstream Australians as "The most evil of God's creation on the face of the earth"?

Friday, October 27, 2006

Setting the record straight ...

Do mothers still matter? This is the question Jim Schembri asks in the Melbourne Age this morning.

Having met a female friend who felt that her role as a mother no longer had the same relevance attached to it by society, Schembri gives a fighting response.

He thinks that it is a "crazy world" which treats motherhood this way. He writes in defence of having children that,

The upside of having kids is that you get to look into the eyes of a child and say: "This came from me."

Nor does he lose his nerve when identifying why society doesn't value motherhood as being of core significance:

Many people blame feminism for promoting the concept that motherhood runs a poor second to a career of boardrooms and paper jams. And I do too. (Feminism is still a good idea. It just needs to be digitally remastered to include women.) [Do mothers still matter? 27/10/06]

And all this in the leftish-liberal Age. More evidence, I think, that feminism is losing its sway.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Whiteness studies III - Is it vilification?

There is one last contradiction within whiteness studies I'd like to raise.

Whiteness theorists think of themselves as being at the cutting edge of anti-racism. Yet it is they who are arguably the worst perpetrators of racial vilification.

There are three grounds on which I base this claim. First, whiteness theorists deny the real existence of a white race; second, they wish to put an end to the existence of whatever white identity does exist: and third, they give whites an inescapably inferior moral status to other groups.

(It might be argued against the first point that whiteness theorists deny the real existence of all races. However, as we've seen they allow some other groups a real existence as "indigenes", and anyway they're only concerned at deconstructing whiteness - they don't target other races.)

Imagine if, say, black Americans were the target of such an academic theory. Imagine if young black students were forced to enrol in university courses in which they were told that the existence of their race was a fiction, that the "moral" thing was to be a traitor to their own race and to seek the abolition of black identity, and that, no matter what they did, they would always be morally inferior to other groups.

There would be a tremendous uproar if black students were forced to undergo such indoctrination. Yet this is what is happening to white students in Australia and overseas.

For instance, those studying to be teachers at Perth's Murdoch University have had to undertake courses taught by whiteness theorist Nado Aveling. She has written of her students:

I know that some of them only enrol in "Aboriginal and Multicultural Education" because it is a mandatory course. These students are apt to comment along the following lines:

I would never have done this course if I wasn't forced to and find it offensive that I need to pay for the privilege.

I felt I was forced to take on her views, otherwise I would not get anywhere with my marks.

Anti-racist content needs to be changed to ensure that white students are not affronted.

Nado Aveling then notes that such responses are not peculiar to her students. She quotes another whiteness theorist, Cochran-Smith, who has observed that:

responses are often strongly emotional, and resistance, misunderstanding, frustration, anger, and feelings of inefficacy may be the outcomes.

There are white students, in other words, who do react strongly at being racially vilified in whiteness studies courses.

Finally, if you're still not convinced let me introduce you to Noel Ignatiev, a Harvard academic. The kind of ideas found it whiteness studies have unleashed in Dr Ignatiev a most forthright vilification of whites. Here are some of his thoughts on the matter:

"The key to solving the social problems of our age is to abolish the white race."

"The goal of abolishing the white race is on its face so desirable that some may find it hard to believe that it could incur any opposition."

"we intend to keep bashing the dead white males, and the live ones, and the females too, until the social construct known as "the white race" is destroyed -- not "deconstructed" but destroyed."

"treason to whiteness is loyalty to humanity"

As I pointed out earlier, whiteness studies is based on a number of contradictions, the chief of which is that it claims to be "anti-racist", whilst clearly encouraging a most radical racial vilification of whites.

Friday, October 20, 2006

Whiteness studies II: real indigenes vs fictitious whites

Whiteness studies is worth a part two. By drawing out the theory a little more, you get a better sense of what is really involved in this field of studies.

Indigenous Sovereignty

The basic claim of whiteness studies is that race is a social construct, rather than a biological reality, formed to allow some people to enjoy an unearned privilege at the expense of the oppressed other.

But who is this oppressed other? According to Australian whiteness theorists it is the Aborigines. This leads these theorists to talk a lot about "indigenous sovereignty".

Damien Riggs, for instance, states that "indigenous sovereignty is the ground on which we stand", whilst the whiteness studies association has as its first aim to "respect the existence of and continuing rights deriving from Indigenous sovereignties in Australia and elsewhere".

But this creates some logical tensions within whiteness theory. Just as it's difficult to assert that whites don't exist as a race but are a racial power group, so too is it awkward to claim that Aborigines don't exist as a race but are nonetheless a real entity, even to the point of being 'sovereign' over other groups.

Whiteness theorists, in other words, are assuming Aborigines to have some real, essential existence as a distinct group, whilst at the same time treating the existence of whites as a kind of fiction to be socially deconstructed.

Furthermore, it's difficult to set up an opposition between really existing indigenous peoples and fictitious whites, given that it is whites who are the indigenes in Europe.

Do European whites have a real sovereign existence, given that they are the indigenes? I would bet anything that whiteness theorists would wish to argue no, but this is the implication of connecting indigeneity and sovereignty.


Another feature of whiteness studies is the idea of complicity.

According to this idea all whites, even the whiteness theorists themselves, remain part of the oppressor group. There is no way to separate oneself from this group, as all whites benefit from unearned privilege and are trapped unconsciously within white ways of knowing the world.

In his essay, Riggs frequently turns to the idea of complicity, as when he reports that:

all non-indigenous people are implicated in practices of oppression, and that the task is to develop ways of exploring this complicity, rather than denying our location within it.

Why stress the idea of complicity? It seems to me that whiteness theorists are trying to close any loopholes by which whites might escape "reflexivity": a discomforting confrontation with their own oppressive privilege.

The noose is set very tight. Riggs quotes another whiteness theorist, Janne Haggis, to the effect that anti-racists are just as complicit as racists:

I contend, we (the social analyst) still construct in the anti-racist position, a moral space of no more or less complicity.

Nor are whites who give up power and privilege any less complicit. Again, Riggs quotes a colleague, Fiona Probyn, who asserts that:

claims to "giving up power" only make sense in relation to having the ability to choose to do so - they only reassert white dominance.

Nor are whites who choose to identify with Aborigines off the hook. Riggs returns to Jane Haggis who informs us that the task for the 'traitorous' sociologist of whiteness (her description) is, in part, that of:

refusing the seductions of slipping into indigeneity to avoid the discomforts of being within whiteness.

So there you are. There are to be no possible ways of avoiding the "discomforts" of whiteness.

Once again, though, there are contradictions in the theory. The idea of complicity is supposed to force whites into reflexivity. It does this, but only at the cost of what whiteness studies was supposed to achieve in the first place.

Liberal moderns treat race as a social construct because they don't like the idea that individuals might be influenced in important ways by a fixed, unchosen category like biological race.

Whiteness studies is part of this liberal effort to deconstruct the concept of biological race as a fixed category. The idea of complicity, though, lets fixed categories return with a vengeance.

According to whiteness theorists, our existence is thoroughly racialised and there is no possible way to escape from our racialised category. Our position is fixed.

So much for the "multiple fluid identities" usually touted by liberal moderns!

There is one final point to be made. The idea of complicity is supposed to leave all whites stuck in a position of discomfort. Our whiteness is supposed to cling to us as a trouble.

But what healthy minded person would accept such a theory? Why would anyone willingly take on a negative self-identity? Who would willingly make themselves subservient to others in their moral status?

We are being asked to share a kind of psychological perversity. And all for the sake of a political theory which struggles to be logically coherent.

(I'll finish here, but return in a later post to look at the most unpleasant aspect of whiteness studies.)

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Whiteness theory: You don't exist and you're bad!

Ten years ago there were no such courses. Now "whiteness studies" is being taught at over 30 American campuses. In Australia too there are academics teaching this subject; in 2003 they formed their own whiteness studies association.

So what is it? In short, it's a field of studies based on the theory that whites invented the idea of biological race in order to oppress other people and benefit from unearned privileges.

To understand the theory in more depth I'd like to comment on an essay written by a whiteness studies advocate, Damien Riggs.

A) Race as a social construct

Riggs believes that race is a social construct rather than a biological reality.

On the face of it, this is a very odd assertion. After all, there do exist people who are white as a matter of human biology - tens of millions of them.

So why would Riggs hold to the "social construct" theory? The answer is, I believe, that the idea of race as a social construct fits in well with liberal political theory. It makes sense in terms of ideology, even if it appears to be at odds with observable reality.

The intellectual orthodoxy of our times is liberalism. Liberals believe that we become human when we are free to choose for ourselves who we are to be. Liberals, therefore, don't like the idea of a "biological destiny". They don't like, for instance, the suggestion that our biological sex influences who we are, as this is something fixed that we are born into rather than determining for ourselves.

Similarly, it makes sense within the terms of liberalism to deny the biological reality of race, and to prefer instead the suggestion that race is merely a social construct, something which humans have made and can therefore readily unmake.

There is one further step in the logic of whiteness studies. In theory, liberals could apply the social construct idea equally to all races. They could argue that all races are mere constructs to be overthrown in favour of a universal individualism.

Whiteness studies is more partisan than this. Theorists like Riggs don't stop at the suggestion that all races are social constructs. They go on to ask a more specific question of why humans invented whiteness. The answer they give is that it's to allow some people to get power over others. Whites exist because whiteness allows them to be privileged oppressors.

This last claim has some particularly unpleasant consequences, which I'll discuss later. For now, though, it should be possible to understand Riggs' summary of his own field of study:

Whiteness is seen as a thoroughly racialised project that aims to legitimate the authority of certain groups over others by drawing on a legacy of 'biological' explanations of race ... Whilst this approach starts from an understanding of race as a social construction, it also acknowledges the very concrete ways in which race shapes experiences of oppression and privilege.

The theory of social construction is not without its contradictions - as those advocating whiteness studies are only too aware.

Theorists like Riggs wish to deny the real existence of race and to persuade us that race is a fictional category. At the same time, though, their central focus is on "whites" as a real category of privileged oppressors. In fact, in trying to highlight racial privilege, one of their aims is to try to get whites to be more conscious of their "racialised" existence - they don't want whites to be race blind.

So whites are being told: you don't exist as a race, but as a racial power category you do exist.

It's a difficult distinction to hold, and Riggs himself warns that:

it is important to recognise that in talking about race we run the risk of reifying race as a 'real entity'

(There's a couple of other important aspects of whiteness studies to discuss but I'll leave them till later.)

Monday, October 16, 2006

Arndt on the wage gap

Bettina Arndt has a terrific piece in this morning's Herald Sun, in which she explains the reasons men tend to earn more than women. Given that Herald Sun articles are only availabe online for a short time, I've reproduced the article below.

Why men are paid more

October 16, 2006

EVERY few years the Australian Bureau of Statistics releases data about the gender wage gap. And every time the Labor Party announces the sky is falling in.

The fact that men earn more than women is presented as proof that the country is going backward under Howard. The white picket fence is rising up to capture us all.

Everyone who participates in this farce knows full well that these wage-gap statistics are meaningless.

So, what if the average woman in Australia earns $300 less per week than the average man.

That statistic fails to take in account the hours worked. In fact, the average Australian Joe Blow works almost twice as many hours as the average Jenny Blow, according to data HILDA, the Household Income and Labor Dynamics in Australia survey.

Since he's putting in twice as many hours, I hope Joe Blow would earn far more. Not only does he work far longer hours, he's also far more likely to take on hazardous jobs such as mining, construction, trucking, he's more likely to be willing to move overseas, or to an undesirable location on demand and has trained for more technical jobs with less people contact.

In fact, the wage gap hasn't much to do with discrimination, or conservative governments trying to keep women in their place. Differences in the way men and women behave in the workplace largely determine how much they earn.

Women are more likely to balance income with a desire for safety, fulfilment, flexibility and proximity to home. These lifestyle advantages lead to more people competing for jobs and thus lower pay.

Wage gaps tend to disappear when women put in the same hours and have the same experience, training and work history as men. In Australia, similarly trained men and women under 30 show similar earnings. It is only in the older age groups that wage gaps start to widen, according to Mark Woden at the Melbourne Institute.

Yet men and women still tend not to have the same training. A London School of Economics study of more than 10,000 British graduates found the men started off earning 12 per cent more than the women.

The reason? Most of the women had majored in the social sciences, while many men chose engineering, maths and computing.

While more than half the women said their primary interest was a socially useful job, men were twice as likely to mention salary.

SIMILAR patterns emerge here. Graduate women in Australia, who move into traditional male professions, often start off earning more than men. For instance, the average starting salary for female geologists in Australia is $60,000 compared to $52,000 for men.

When women go into potentially high-earning careers, many end up earning far less than their male colleagues because of the way they structure their working lives. Look at female doctors. To get into medicine, these women were as ambitious and hard-working as any of their male colleagues.

But a few years down the track it's a different story. Current figures show a female GP works in her paid job only 63 per cent of the hours put in by a male, although clearly many face a second shift at home.

Women are making choices. Yes, these choices are constrained by their family responsibilities. That's the reason they work those shorter hours and seek the lower paid, but more flexible work closer to home.

Australian women still choose to take time out when their children are young, then return to part-time work. They miss out on financial rewards but are more content. The latest HILDA survey clearly shows women working part-time are more satisfied than full-time working women.

The part-timers are far happier with their work-life balance and just as satisfied with their jobs as the full-timers. In fact, more than half the women working full-time want to work fewer hours while just over a third of the part-timers want to work more.

Yes, there are still glass ceilings, pockets of discrimination, but the major reason men earn more than women is the trade-offs women choose to make. So, the next time Anne Summers bleats about wage gaps, you'll know she's trying to pull the wool over your eyes. Wage gap talk is a con job.

I'll add just one brief point to Bettina Arndt's efforts. It makes little sense to oppose male earnings and female earnings. It's not as if the male wage stays with men, to be used for the purposes of men. What men earn is mostly spent on the upkeep of a family; a lot of it, in fact, will ultimately be spent by women.

So even the framework of the "male wage" debate is misconceived. The money earned by men is not really "male" income, but family income which women directly share. Women have an interest in encouraging their husbands to earn a good income, and this too helps to explain why the gender gap in wages still persists.

Saturday, October 14, 2006

The end of the wave?

Years ago I was browsing through a second hand bookshop and I found a pile of American magazines from the late 1940s. The lead column in one of these magazines was written by a female editor. The editor asked the question of whether feminism had really been worth it: worth the disruption to relationships, to family life and to motherhood. She answered no.

I wish now that I had bought the magazine for future reference. The article seems to mark a significant shift in attitude; it was, after all, at exactly this time that the very long phase of first wave feminism finally came to an end.

I wonder too if we have now reached a similar turning point. It's possible that the shorter, but more intense, wave of feminism which began in the early 1970s and peaked in Australia in 1994 is now really starting to turn.

Older feminists seem to have become disillusioned with the disruption caused by feminism to their own personal lives; instead of a stridently orthodox feminism it's now increasingly common for political women to reassert the traditional in relationships, or even to express regret at some of the effects of feminism on society.

I'll give two recent examples. Jill Singer is the resident left-wing columnist for the Melbourne Herald Sun (possibly in her mid 30s, though I'm not sure). In her recent article on masculinity (Latham Shot Down 02/20/06), there's a clear shift away from the usual feminist support for role reversal and raising empathetic men. Nor is there talk of traditional provider-type men being dinosaurs or oppressors. Instead we get this:

While there's a growing number of women fortunate to have supportive stay-at-home husbands, the majority probably still prefer their man to be a traditional bread-winner.

Just as men hanker for women who are more gorgeous but less clever than themselves, women will generally keep seeking men who can provide for their family in material terms.

I hear many women complain they feel dudded in their relationships, that gender equality means women's workload is made unbearable by both work and home duties.

Their husbands apparently benefit from their wife's income but don't put in more at home themselves.

We're not just talking about caring for children, but old-fashioned domestic duties that men used to do such as household repairs. Sure, there are lots of good handymen out there, but they're not married to anyone I know.

It's pretty sad hearing a bunch of educated, well-paid, busy working mothers fantasising about their husbands repairing a door hinge.

Women might melt at the sight of men who are good with children and doggies, but what really brings us undone is an old-style bloke who knows one end of a spanner from the other and black from red in a balance sheet.

... Snags are for nagging, not shagging.

What women really want, sugggests the very left-wing Jill Singer, is an "old-fashioned bloke" rather than a feminist new man.

Then there's the recent contribution of feminist novelist Fay Weldon. Now 75, she too has broken with the feminist orthodoxy of the past. Instead of promoting gender role reversal as a "liberation" for women, she now worries that,

many women are failing to accept that, hormonally and physiologically, they are programmed to experience life differently from men.

I think we need to make the most of being women as women, not aspirational men. The assumptions we all make now as to what comprises a good relationship are upside down. The differences between men and females are what we should be celebrating.

Fay Weldon even appears to feel some guilt for her own earlier feminism. A near death experience convinced her of the existence of an after life, but she wrote that "It is not all sweetness and light over there, at least it won't be for me." A journalist for the Melbourne Age sought clarification on this and asked her if she had a sense that she was being held responsible for doing something bad. She answered,

Yes. Because contempory culture is (partly) my fault. If you help shift the balance in gender, you feel a vague responsibility. Because at the time people shook their fists at you and walked out on you because you were doing that and they may have been right.

I'm not suggesting that feminism will go away entirely. There will still exist feminist academics and a layer of femocrats in government employment (just as there was in the 1950s).

But hopefully some space will open up for family formation, just as it did in the post-War period. If this does occur, the challenge then for conservatives will be to weaken the influence of the underlying liberalism which keeps generating fresh waves of feminism (when the personal costs have been forgotten).

Thursday, October 12, 2006

When it's not allowed to matter

One of the world's leading political scientists has conducted research showing that ethnic diversity is destructive of community.

The Financial Times reported on the findings by Professor Robert Putnam of Harvard University as follows:

His research shows that the more diverse a community is, the less likely its inhabitants are to trust anyone - from their next-door neighbour to the mayor ...

The core message of the research was that, "in the presence of diversity, we hunker down", he said. "We act like turtles. The effect of diversity is worse than had been imagined ..."

When the data were adjusted for class, income and other factors, they showed that the more people of different races lived in the same community, the greater the loss of trust.

These results aren't surprising. They support the findings of similar research in Australia, in which ethnic diversity was associated with lower levels of personal wellbeing, and the UK, where multicultural communities were found to be both less happy and less trusting.

It's interesting to note that Professor Putnam was disconcerted by the results of his own research. He admitted that he had delayed publishing his findings "until he could develop proposals to compensate for the negative effects of diversity".

Liberals like Professor Putnam usually believe that individuals should be "self-determining" in the sense of choosing for themselves, as individuals, who they are. We don't, however, choose our ethnicity, as this is an inherited, communal identity. Therefore, liberals generally hope that it can be made not to matter.

There are two popular intellectual strategies used by liberals to try to make such things not matter. The first is the socialisation thesis. This is the idea that forms of identity like ethnicity or gender have no real basis in human nature, but are merely socialised (through cultural influences). This means that there is no reason why people cannot, and should not, be re-socialised to remove the influence of gender and ethnicity.

This is the strategy Professor Putnam chooses to counteract his own research. He claims that the trends he uncovered "have been socially constructed, and can be socially reconstructed".

But there are problems with the socialisation thesis. First, the social reconstruction doesn't usually work as it's supposed to. In the 1980s and 90s, feminist parents who tried to resocialise their children to act against traditional gender patterns most often gave up in frustration (I remember one case in which a feminist mother realised she was getting nowhere when her sons crafted toy guns out of their toast). In one famous case (that of David Reimer), a psychologist actually tried to turn a young boy into a girl, in the belief that gender could be changed during infancy. The infant boy had reconstructive surgery and was brought up as a girl, but nonetheless never lost his masculine identity. The experiment failed dramatically.

It's a similar story when it comes to ethnicity. We have had decades of diversity propaganda telling us how enriching multiculturalism is and how boring (or immoral) the older monoculture was. It's drummed into us incessantly from early childhood onwards. We should, therefore, all have been resocialised by now to react positively to diversity. The research, though, shows the opposite: that we still prefer to live within our own ethnic communities.

There is a second major problem for the socialisation thesis. Science is increasingly able to show how traditional forms of identity are hardwired into us, rather than being a product of culture alone. It's now accepted that men and women are different because of differences in the structure of the brain and our exposure to sex hormones. Science, therefore, is making it difficult to hold onto the idea that we have been merely "socialised" to be the way we are.

The second intellectual strategy favoured by liberals to make traditional identities not matter is the power thesis. In liberal theory what really counts is that we are able to enact our own will (as our human status depends on this). Therefore, having the power (the money and social position) to enact our will is critical.

There's a strand of thought within liberalism, therefore, which reduces most things to power relationships. Society is considered in terms of a will to power, with some individuals organising to establish a privilege, a getting of power, at the expense of other oppressed individuals.

What is then sometimes claimed is that the privileged groups are fictitious entities, established simply to consolidate the power of some individuals over others. So men share a male identity as a means of participating in a power structure in which they're privileged and not because there is a natural basis to masculinity. Similarly, it's asserted that there is a white identity only because some individuals get access to a privileged position of power over others by identifying this way and not because there is any natural basis to race or ethnicity.

This is an influential theory, especially on the left. It explains the recent growth of "whiteness studies" on campuses, the central tenet of which is described as:

a reading of history ... in which the very concept of race is said to have been constructed by a white power structure in order to justify discrimination against nonwhites ...

... theorists of Critical White Studies seek to examine the construction and moral implications of whiteness. The field inherits from Critical Race Theory a focus on the legal and historical construction of white identity, the use of narratives (whether legal discourse, testimony or fiction) as a tool for exposing systems of racial power.

The power thesis is a product of liberal theory; it is ideological in origin. It requires us to believe, against mounting scientific evidence, that gender and race have no real, biological basis but are fictional categories formed to consolidate an illegitimate power structure.

The power thesis overlooks the many respects in which men or whites are not privileged; or have succeeded through hard work and responsibility. It overlooks a most obvious point, too, that whites will naturally dominate positions of power in Western societies as they have traditionally made up an overwhelming majority of the population.

Most of all, the power thesis assumes that we are so denatured, that we don't have a positive sense of our nature as men, or a love of our own ethnic tradition. If we did recognise such positive factors, then we would not stigmatise masculinity or whiteness as being motivated by an oppressive power over others.

Finally, and this is a point I hope to develop in a future post, the logic of the power thesis is dismal: it requires whites who accept it to see themselves as somehow irredeemably stained by their own identity; to focus on an impossible, never-ending quest to identify and confess their own experience of privilege; to act self-effacingly, in a permanent state of kow-tow, especially toward the non-white other; and to foster a spirit of surrender in themselves - to welcome the decline of their own position and that of their own culture and tradition.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Moral Lumbyism

The French writer Catherine Millet visited Australia recently. She is famous for a book cataloguing her very promiscuous sex life, including group sex with men and women.

Some Australian commentators reacted unfavourably to the book, noting its "desperate emptiness" and "unrestrained liberation and self-indulgence".

However, Millet found one defender in the Australian academic Catharine Lumby. Ms Lumby believes that Millet's promiscuity is admirable, because it requires "a sense of self which is quite independent of social norms" and because it forced Ms Millet to "rethink the ethics of self and sex from the ground up."

What this means is that Catharine Lumby does not admire a person for following a moral good, but for being "emancipated" from social norms and from pre-existing concepts of morality.

Why would she think this way? The answer is that she is following, in a radically consistent way, the liberal first principle: that we should be self-created by our own reason and will.

If you want to be self-created by your own reason and will, you won't like the idea that you are limited in what you can choose to do by any external code of morality.

This means that you will see morality itself in a negative light as something oppressive to the individual. You will prefer, instead, a more "open" or "fluid" attitude to what is right and wrong, one in which individuals "negotiate" for themselves their own ethical standards according to their personal circumstances and preferences.

Given this general outlook, it's not surprising that Catharine Lumby rejects morality altogether in favour of ethics. She does so on the grounds that "Morality is a blueprint for living that someone hands to you. Ethics is the zone we all enter when we find ourselves, by choice or necessity, negotiating those rules."

Again, the emphasis here is on acting freely according to our own individual will and reason. Morality is condemned because it's a closed system, a "blueprint", that is handed to us, rather than self-constructed. Ethics, on the other hand, is a system open to individual negotiation - and therefore more congenial to the spirit of liberal individualism.

The same spirit of liberal individualism is also given voice when Catharine Lumby urges us to "avoid asserting moral beliefs as moral truths" and instead "accept the principle that there are no givens and that all ideas should be up for debate".


The front-page news in Australia recently has been a sex scandal involving players from different football codes. It seems that some players have become accustomed to participating in group sex (or to put it more crudely, but more accurately, gang-bangs). A number of women have complained that they have been sexually assaulted by players engaged in this activity.

What did the National Rugby League do in response? They hired Catharine Lumby for expert advice! Now remember, it was Catharine Lumby who praised Catherine Millet for engaging in group sex. It was supposed to be an admirable thing for Ms Millet to set herself outside social norms in this way.

It can't be expected, then, that Ms Lumby would ask National Rugby League players to rethink their standards of sexual conduct. After all, for Ms Lumby there are no moral truths to follow, and it is not for her to give players a "blueprint" for how to live their lives.

So what can she ask of the players? One thing that liberals can do in such circumstances is to uphold the idea of individual consent. After all, what liberals want us to do is to follow our own, unimpeded will. It is perfectly within liberal theory, therefore, to insist that we are not forced into any activity, but that we individually consent to it.

It's possible, in other words, for a liberal to believe that "anything goes" but to still react negatively to cases of sexual assault on the basis that someone's consent was lacking (ie their will was infringed). This helps to explain why liberals often view sexual assault as a failure of men to understand the process of consent: what has gone wrong is that men haven't understood that no means no.

Even for many liberals, though, this is not a convincing response to the problem of sexual assault. It ignores the fact that a man might understand a woman's refusal to consent, but attack her regardless.

What liberals have therefore added on to the idea of consent is an emphasis on "respect". The hope is that if a culture of respect is created then no one would act to hurt another. Nor does the notion of "respect" contravene liberal first principles: it says nothing specific about what individuals may or may not do - everything is still left open to negotiation.

The credo of "respect" seems to have already gained ground within sporting clubs. It certainly has at the Hawthorn Football Club, whose team captain, Shane Crawford, said of the sexual assault scandal that,

We just hope that our players are very respectful of everyone and we're pretty confident that's the way it is.

You just hope in general everyone's respectful of people. I think that's all you hope for.


But is Shane Crawford right? Is an ethics of consent and respect enough? Catharine Lumby seems to think so. She is confident in her mission with the National Rugby League because,

There are many people who have expertise that will assist the NRL in its mission to ensure all players treat women with care and concern and respect in all situations. I intend to consult with them.

Others are not so sure. Journalist Andrew Bolt points out that footballers are unlikely to treat the groupies who submit to gang-bangs with respect. He writes:

[Catharine Lumby] has since said what matters isn't that players use women in group sex, but that they treat these women with respect...

Which means, I gather, that she can imagine sportsmen boozily sharing some groupie they've picked up for a gang-bang and treating her with courtesy. As an equal. With respect...

Yes, Lumby really seems to think that's how gang bangs work. Or could, if only we left our sad old morality on the chair with our jeans.

Writer Angela Shanahan makes much the same point,

To tackle the entrenched "culture" of group sex ... the NRL has hired a "gender expert", Catharine Lumby, to devise a program to teach players respect for women in what she has called "the real world of gender politics."

Lumby ... has declared that it is not group sex per se that is wrong, but coercion. Come again? Are players to be treated to earnest dissertations on the concept of "no" in the politics of the orgy? ...

I find it very difficult to see how anyone involved in group sex can have much respect for anyone else ... Yet in the Lumby world view we can rely on female consent as the central factor in any variation of sexual congress to which footballers are partial.


Which is all to say that liberals are left with a very restricted approach to moral issues by their first principles. In general they are led to treat the very notion of morality negatively, as something which impedes individual will; those who break down accepted norms of morality are the heroes in this world view.

When a more positive attitude is called for, liberals are left with concepts like consent and respect. It's difficult, though, to fit such concepts with the demand that we act outside of traditional moral norms - which will usually mean acting in ways which are harmful to ourselves and others.

To act harmfully and wrongly - but to do so with a show of concern: this will too often prove to be the consequence of a radically liberal approach to morality.

And what if we broke with liberal first principles? Then we would no longer need to regard morality negatively, as an impediment to individual will. We could return to a more positive sense of what it means to act according to a moral good.

(First published at Conservative Central, 21/03/2004)

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Making distinctions

Here's the Ozconservative outline of the political spectrum.

a) The spectrum is about differences in liberal politics. When we speak about the left-wing and the right-wing of the spectrum we're really talking about a difference between the liberal left and the liberal right.

There's a reason for this. All forms of liberalism have to answer a very significant question. If you have an individualistic picture of society, in which millions of individuals each act unimpeded to follow their own will and reason, then you have to explain how a society will hold together.

The answer given by right-wing liberals is that individuals can act selfishly, but to the benefit of society, if the hidden hand of the market is allowed to regulate their activity.

Left-liberals, in contrast, look less to the free market, and more to the state to regulate society and to "harmonise wills".

b) Therefore a spectrum will go roughly as follows:

anarchists - Marxists - social democrats - mainstream right liberals - libertarians

If you start in the middle, you have the distinction between left-liberal social democrats (like the Australian Labor Party) and the mainstream right-liberal parties (like the Australian Liberal Party).

The distinction is clearest if you compare the left-wing of the Labor Party to the Liberal Party. The Liberal Party is very clearly more in favour of privatisation and deregulation than the Labor left.

If we go leftward, we find more "radical" versions of left-liberalism. They're more radical in the sense of being more violent in the means they're willing to use, not that they are necessarily more statist. The Marxists want to smash capitalism and establish a coercive workers' state (but this state is then supposed to wither away). The anarchists believe in direct action, but want to replace capitalism not so much with a central state as with local forms of organisation.

If we go back to the middle and turn rightward, we find a more "radical" form of right-liberalism in libertarianism. It's more radical not because it's more violent, but because libertarians want to more strictly limit the role of the state in regulating society in favour of a freer market system.

The spectrum is no doubt crude in the way it describes politics, but it does seem to broadly work.

The point for traditionalist conservatives is not to find a place within this spectrum but to open up a political position outside of it.

Sunday, October 08, 2006

Europe & the four freedoms

Where is Europe heading? More evidence has come to light that the politicians of the European Union have a grandiose plan in mind. They envisage the creation of a larger entity, a sphere comprising Europe and the Muslim south, which some have termed "Eurabia".

The internet writer Fjordman has gathered together some of the materials relating to this project. His article is well worth reading in its entirety, but I'll list some of the key information for readers below:

a) Economic integration & open borders. A Common Strategy of the European Council (June 2000) includes the goal of assisting Arab partners with "the process of achieving free trade with the EU". In December 2003 three leaders of the EU signed a plan for "Strengthening the EU's partnership with the Arab World" which also included the creation of a free trade area.

The significance of these proposals for a free trade zone with the Arab world is made clear in a statement from the "Sixth Euro-Med Ministerial Conference" in Brussels, November 2003. According to this statement, the Arab partners have been offered the chance of "gradual integration into the expanded European internal market and the possibility of ultimately reaching the EU's four fundamental freedoms: free movement of goods, services, capital and people."

In May 2004 a Meeting of Ministers of Foreign Affairs of the two regions reiterated this offer, declaring that "Work is now in progress to develop an agreed view ... The EU can offer ... greater access to EU programmes and policies, including their gradual participation in the four freedoms particularly the Single Market."

b) Political integration. In March 2004 The Euro-Mediterranean Parliamentary Assembly was created. It consists of 120 MPs from EU countries and an equal number of representatives from Arab countries. At present it is a consultative body with the right to comment on any subject of interest to the Euro-Arab Dialogue.

c) Cultural integration. This is the buttering up of Europeans to accept integration with the Muslim south. The EU has proposed: establishing a "Euro-Mediterranean Foundation for the Dialogue of Cultures and Civilisations" and a Euro-Mediterranean journalism centre; developing "a harmonised education system"; "encouraging the circulation of individuals"; setting up a network of "Euro-Mediterranen Youth clubs"; establishing a "civil watchdog" anti-defamation observatory; reviewing European textbooks to remove "negative stereotypes" about Islam; reviewing school curriculums; and promoting "the contribution of Islamic civilisation to European culture".

This propaganda offensive explains the extraordinary comment of French President Jacques Chirac in 2004 that "the roots of Europe are as much Moslem as Christian". It's a bizarre statement in terms of real history, but "rational" if you are trying to foster the integration of Europe with the Arab world.

The civic nation

The move to integrate the EU with the Muslim world to the south is yet another reminder that civic nationalism doesn't work.

Before WWII, most Western nations were defined ethnically. A nation was thought of as a people with a common ancestry, language, religion, culture and history.

More recently, though, the West has moved to a civic nationalism, in which citizenship, rather than ethnicity, determines membership of a nation.

A civic nation is likely to become multiethnic and multicultural. New members of such a nation can come from any ethnic background as long as they are willing to pledge allegiance to a shared citizenship.

A civic nation, therefore, is likely to change radically in its inner composition, in its population.

For some people, this doesn't matter. It doesn't change their sense of national allegiance. They believe that the national identity they have won't change, or might even be enhanced by multiculturalism.

Australian readers will be familiar with the chorus of a song that is played endlessly on TV:

We are one, but we are many
And from all the lands on earth we come
We share a dream and sing with one voice:
I am, you are, we are Australian.

Or take the views of "Karl" as quoted in a Bond University study:

Australia is a multicultural nation and I'm proud of it being a multicultural nation, I want to look after it and protect it and keep it the way that it is...

I can't help but think that these sentiments are naive. Once you move from an ethnic to a civic nationalism, not only are you likely to get a shift toward a multiethnic population, but the state you belong to itself is likely to change.

In other words, you get a shift not only of population, but of borders, which will place you within some other geographical "nation" (some other country) than the one you once belonged to.

After all, if nations can be formed out of any diverse group of people, then what's to stop the integration of existing nations if there's thought to be some political, diplomatic or economic advantage in doing so?

Already, the Australian Senate has discussed favourably the idea of forming a kind of Pacific nation, made up of Australia, NZ and a dozen smaller Pacific states.

Then there's the moves towards the integration of the US, Canada and Mexico.

The EU, though, is the prime example of how unstable a civic nationalism is. Nations which have existed for many centuries are being gradually subsumed within a European super state. And this state itself has already taken steps toward a further integration with the Arab world. And who knows what might follow?

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

A conflicted modern girl

Andrea Burns is young and pretty and a columnist for the Sunday Herald Sun. Her latest piece is a complaint about the men of her generation. Having been jostled out of the way for a taxi by a group of young men she writes,

What happened to the days when a boy would throw his coat down in the mud so that a lady might pass over? Were they a fantasy or did chivalry really exist at some point? ...

Women have wanted to be treated as equals for generations, but now that we live in this "liberated" new millenium, I have to wonder if we have been a tad hasty ...

Going dutch at a dinner and taking charge of the parallel parking are my rewards.

Of course I want to be treated as an equal, fight my own battles and wear the pants, but I would relinquish all that when I am left footsore and jacketless and my cab is stolen by a rowdy group of boys on a Saturday night...

An older man will hold the door open for his date, he will pay for dinner and will hold her chair while she sits down. All this may seem a bit outdated, but it still has its place in the modern dating scene.

A typical date these days can consist of you picking the guy up from his house, paying for yourself at the movies and dinner at McDonald's drive-thru on the way home - plus an invitation to come inside on the first date.

... it would be refreshing to meet an old-fashioned man.

Young men are different to women, but they do not feel compelled to place us on a pedestal.

It seems a lot of young men think that women will be offended or feel degraded if they treat them differently ...

Forget the metrosexual hairstyles, the Tsubi jeans and expensive aftershave; try listening to our conversation and being content with the anticipation of hitting that home run, not smacking the ball out of the park on the first date. (Good manners get you everywhere, 1/09/06)

Andrea is wrestling with some big issues here. She makes clear that what she wants romantically is a traditional recognition of gender difference, in which men treat her with special courtesy as a woman rather than diffidently as one of the guys. She isn't impressed by a metrosexual attention to grooming, but by an old-fashioned masculine chivalry.

At the same time, she still expresses some support for the independent modern girl ethos. She writes, for instance, that she wants to "fight my own battles and wear the pants".

She seems to be aware of the conflict between her old-fashioned romantic wants and her modern girl philosophy, but she leaves this unresolved in her article - perhaps because it's not easy to find a resolution.

It would be helpful if young women like Andrea Burns were more aware of the psychological adaptations men have to make to get along with the independent modern girl.

What happens if a man really comes to believe that women are independent and don't need masculine support? There is a kind of psychological chain reaction to this, in which the older categories of the mind gradually collapse and aren't easily reconstructed (meaning that men are unlikely to "swap over" in their mindsets, between the traditional and the modern, as readily as women might expect them to).

Most men start out with masculine instincts toward women, of the kind which Andrea Burns is looking for romantically. But if men inhabit a culture infused with the idea that women don't need masculine support, then it's possible for men to be forced toward a new mentality. Men will look to answer the question of what they are to do when the masculine connection to women appears lost.

For some men, the answer might be to direct the masculine drives elsewhere: into work, or sports or even masculine friendships. Over time, though, a lot of men will respond to a female individualism with their own masculine one: they will try to get what they can for themselves out of the new situation.

They might look to the apparent advantages of not being expected to be a provider (the opportunity for more creative work or part-time work); or, if they aren't expected to be traditional husband material in their 20s, they might see an advantage in being a player and scoring those home runs with many partners.

Remember too the imagery presented to young men today. How many times are men exposed to representations of "kick-ass" type of women, who kick-box or wield machine-guns, with the "deal" being that these women will redeem their attractiveness to men by acting sexy? Too many times for the cultural ideal of male gallantry to survive intact.

Anyway, what I would suggest to Andrea Burns is that women would get further if, instead of sending mixed messages, they opted more decisively to expect and appreciate the masculine support of men.

A traditionally masculine man can always be worked on by a woman to get what she wants in terms of independence, but there's not much women can do to get what they want romantically from men, once men have made the psychological adaptations to an independent girl culture.

Danger times for C of E

From the Daily Mail:

Church of England leaders warned yesterday that calling God "He" encourages men to beat their wives.

They told churchgoers they must think twice before they refer to God as "He" or "Lord" because of the dangers it will lead to domestic abuse.

In new guidelines for bishops and priests on such abuse, they blamed "uncritical use of masculine imagery" for encouraging men to behave violently toward women.

What's perhaps saddest about this story is that the recommendations have been "fully endorsed by Archbishop of Canterbury Dr Rowan Williams".

Conservatives within the Church of England really do have their work cut out for them. The leadership of their church has accepted feminist dogma linking both men and masculinity to domestic violence.

There have been criticisms of the policy from within the church. Simon Calvert from a grouping called the Christian Institute said:

They appear to suggest seriously that we should ditch many centuries of Judaeo-Christian teaching because of some half-baked feminist theory.

I hope these conservatives speak loudly now, because there is a danger that the church will lose some of its credibility in the eyes of its own rank and file and amongst the general public (just click the "read all letters" link following the article if you want to gauge the public response).

How can a church take aim at "masculinity" and still hope to keep large numbers of men within its ranks. Won't men simply drift away, as they have done from other left-wing institutions which have similarly adopted a feminist ideology hostile to men?

The C of E desperately needs to go exactly the other way. It needs to promote itself as a male-friendly place. It needs to place itself on especially good terms with those men, who having married and had children are concerned (out of a masculine sense of 'stewardship') that their families be positively influenced by the moral and spiritual teachings of a church.

Such men aren't looking for feminist rants against men and masculinity. Nor are they looking for a kind of intellectual atmosphere which might just as easily be found within the arts department of a modern university (in fact, within the women's studies department of a modern university).

The church needs to be seen as a different kind of institution, one not based on the secular ideologies of the day, but on something more than this; it needs to be seen as the defender of what is held to be truly important across the ages.

Monday, October 02, 2006

Morally complete and virtuous?

What is the modernist attitude to morality? One writer recently tried to sum up morality as follows:

we are morally complete and virtuous individuals if we do as we wish so long as our actions do not harm others and we "kick in" to help the needy when this does not set us back much

This is a reasonably fair way to present the dominant liberal view on the matter. I don't think though that it's a position that really works as it's supposed to.

First, the position is more arbitrary than those holding it imagine it to be. It arose out of a rejection of a more traditional view of morality, in which there exists, outside of our own minds and choices, a real category of "goodness" which a moral person will endeavour to follow.

There is a significant current in Western thought which rejected this traditional view (often traced back as far as the nominalists of the Middle Ages). It seems that what often replaced it is the assertion that value is created instead as an act of our own will.

Value, in other words, doesn't exist independently of me, with my task being to align myself with it. Instead, it is in a kind of "process" of individual will that value is made.

Therefore, the highest moral good will be thought to be a freedom for this "process" of willing.

The significant point to be made here is that the modernist view rests on two assumptions. First, that an entity of "goodness" does not really exist external to us and, second, that value really is established "internally" through some kind of process of asserting our will.

It's difficult to establish the truth of these assumptions in terms of modern science, and it's in this sense that the modernist view is established more arbitrarily than is usually admitted.

Nor does the liberal statement of morality really have the simplicity it suggests. In the physical sciences, knowledge can be reduced to simple formulas like e=mc2. It's possible that modernists want to try to mimic the hard sciences by providing a similarly clear and elegant formula for a science of morality.

The formula provided above, though, is only deceptively simple. It tells us we may do as we wish as long as we don't harm others. How, though, is it to be decided if our actions harm others or not?

Once you open up this question all elegance is lost. For instance, does the formula allow a man to divorce his wife? If he does choose to divorce, it might be objected that his action will harm either his wife or children. Alternatively, if he stays in an unhappy marriage this too might produce harm to others. If the man has a mistress, should any potential harm to her be considered? How can the degree of harm be objectively measured and weighed, especially when there are so many unpredictable outcomes, including the chances of the wife remarrying, the degree of resilience of each of the children and so on.

Which brings me to a final consideration. The liberal formula is less impressive in its practical application than the traditional view. Not only is the harm principle difficult to decide in practice, worse still it isn't usually taken very seriously. In other words, the "do what you want" is given a lot more weight than the "don't harm others".

When I asked, for instance, whether the formula allows a man to divorce his wife, I doubt if many political moderns would really ever consider that the answer might in some cases be no. It is simply assumed that the answer is yes.

Nor does the liberal formula really correspond to our actual experience of virtue. Does doing what we want really make us feel virtuous?

For most people, I expect, virtue is felt when we actually restrain from following a passing want in order to hold to what we feel to be right, or out of a sense of moral integrity.

If, for instance, a married man meets a desirable, flirtatious woman on a business trip, he might well experience a "want" to sleep with her, and he might well reason that as no-one will find out no-one will be hurt.

According to the liberal formula, he should feel a sense of virtue in following his non-harming wants and bedding the woman. In reality, he is more likely to experience a sense of virtue at the moment he chooses to follow a sense of right, rather than a want.

Sunday, October 01, 2006

Are men killing the novel as art?

One thing which points us to the underlying differences between men and women is what we choose to read.

I can remember pondering this question years ago when I used to take public transport to uni. The men in the tram/train carriage would generally read a newspaper or some kind of trade journal; the women were more likely to read a magazine like Cosmo or a novel.

It turns out that my observation about women reading novels is generally true. In an article titled "Why Hemingway is Chick-Lit" we learn that 80% of novels are bought by women. Men, in contrast, buy a majority of non-fiction books.

The gender contrast is so stark that some fear it is undermining the status of the novel. Lakshmi Chaudry, in the article I linked to above, writes that:

we may be headed back to the 19th century, when the novel was considered a low-status, frivolous, pastime of ladies of leisure, unfit for real men ...

... the novel seems to be reverting to its origins as a feminine hobby, and hence is in danger of being toppled off its high artistic perch.

Penguin books has even tried to improve the situation by sending out models to award a prize of 1000 pounds to any man caught in possession of one of their novels.

Which brings us to the most interesting question. Why is it that women read more novels than men?

Lakshmi Chaudry gives a modified liberal answer. Usually liberals adopt a constructionist explanation for gender difference. This is the idea that gender difference is caused by the influence of culture, which means that there are no fixed, essential traits defining men and women.

Liberals are drawn to the constructionist view because of their underlying belief that we only become human when we are self-determining: when we can make up for ourselves who we are.

The constructionist view suggests that gender difference is something that we ourselves have created, and that it is therefore malleable, changing and evolving. It doesn't, as a result, place any necessary limits on what we can (or should) will ourselves to be. Nor does it give to the qualities of manhood or womanhood the status of unchanging, objectively existing truths that we might measure ourselves by.

The French feminist Simone de Beauvoir put the constructionist view in its most radical form when she declared that "one is not born, but becomes a woman".

The major problem for the constructionist view is that modern science is begining to map significant differences in the male and female brain. It is going to become increasingly difficult to uphold the view that culture alone is responsible for generating differences in behaviour between men and women.

So how does a modern liberal cope with the new trends within science? Lakshmi Chaudry gives some ground, but not much. She still firmly rejects the more conservative "essentialist" view:

In recent years, various pundits have used this so-called "fiction gap" as an opportunity to trot out their pet theories on what makes men and women tick. The most recent is New York Times columnist David Brooks, who jumped at the chance to peddle his special brand of gender essentialism. His June 11 column arbitrarily divided all books into neat boy/girl categories - "In the men's sections of the bookstore, there are books describing masterly men conquering evil. In the women's sections there are novels about .. well, I guess feelings and stuff." ...

Brooks' real agenda, however, is ... to promote the latest conservative talking point: blaming politically correct liberals for a "feminized" school curriculum ... "It could be, in short, that biological factors influence reading tastes, even after accounting for culture," Brooks claims, "The problem is that even after the recent flurry of attention about why boys are falling behind, there is still intense social pressure not to talk about biological differences between boys and girls."

So, when David Brooks raises the idea that there might be biological differences between boys and girls influencing reading habits he is described negatively as a conservative peddler of gender essentialism.

However, Lakshmi Chaudry does make a small concession to the newer science. She accepts some cognitive research cited by Lisa Zunshine as it attributes only a "small difference" in reading habits to biological difference. This allows Lakshmi Chaudry to claim that this small biologically based difference is then greatly increased in extent by culture:

But in a culture infused with polarizing messages about gender, such small differences can be magnified into vast disparities.

So the social constructionist explanation still dominates, in spite of Lakshmi Chaudry's small step forward.

Finally, I should point out that conservatives don't deny that culture has an influence in shaping gender difference. We do, though, take the idea of an essential masculinity and femininity, hardwired into our natures, much more seriously than liberals. We don't view such gender qualities negatively as potential impediments to our individual will, but as important parts of our self-identity and as an aspect of the "good" in human life.

(Hat tip: reader KS)