Monday, March 14, 2005

Thinking things through

During the past week I've highlighted two quotes on gender. The first was the statement by a Swedish minister that his government "considers female and male as social constructs." I have little doubt that most conservatives would instinctively recognise this claim to be radically liberal. I expect, in fact, that a lot of conservatives would wonder how liberals could believe such a thing. How could a reasonable person come to believe that there are no natural differences between men and women?

The second quote was by Jada Pinkett Smith. She said when receiving a Harvard award that "Women, you can have it all - a loving man, devoted husband, loving children, a fabulous career. They say you gotta choose. Nah, nah, nah. We are a new generation of women. We got to set a new standard of rules around here. You can do whatever it is you want."

In contrast to the first statement, a lot of conservatives seem to have no problem with this second quote. The only criticism I found of it at many "conservative" sites was that it was a bit "Opraesque" or a bit "unexceptional".

This is a problem. It means that people who consider themselves conservatives aren't thinking things through. The two quotes are not substantially different in what they claim. If the first is a perplexing radical liberalism, then so is the second.

When Pinkett Smith says that women "can have it all" and that "you can do whatever it is you want" she is assuming that the Swedish minister is correct, and that there is no naturally occurring maleness or femaleness to limit or direct what we choose to do. They are both effectively proposing a blank slate model of the human person.

So why do some conservatives react differently to the two statements? I expect it's because the Jada Pinkett Smith quote puts the liberal view in its more appealing form. She uses the language of unlimited freedom: of being whatever we want to be.

There are conservatives who want to define conservativism itself in terms of such freedom, and who are therefore attracted to (and disarmed by) Jada Pinkett Smith's appeal to individual freedom.

If there are "conservatives" who are persuaded by Jada Pinkett Smith's appeal to individual freedom, we shouldn't be surprised that there are liberals who choose to hold such ideas, and who are willing to believe that maleness and femaleness are artificial and oppressive social constructs. Even though such ideas seem to the ordinary person to be radical and counterintuitive, they underpin the more appealing idea that we have unlimited "freedom" to act as we will.

And what of Jada Pinkett Smith's claim? Is she really a shining example of a liberal woman who has successfully chosen to have it all?

Readers might like to note that her idea of "having it all" is a little bit different to most other women. Her "devoted husband", the actor Will Smith, has insisted on his own right to do whatever he wants, which includes sleeping with other women. Will Smith has admitted publicly his preference for an open marriage and his belief that monogamy, like gender, is another of those artificial social constructs which inhibit free behaviour.

Individual freedom, defined the liberal way, is not likely to deliver what most of us would truly want or expect for ourselves or our society.

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