Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Thoughts on destiny

The feminist Leslie Cannold has an article in today's Age supporting a ban on Muslim girls wearing the hijab in Australian state schools.

What interested me about the article was not so much the conclusion, but its liberal framework. In particular her idea that we should aim to "autonomously direct one's own destiny."

It's a nice sounding ambition but with perilous ramifications. Immediately it constricts the way we talk about human life. Once you accept this aim you have already left behind much that has traditionally been considered important in life.

Why? First, because it means that the focus of justice and the good will be on whatever enhances personal autonomy. So our mental focus will narrow to the idea of the "liberation" versus the "constraint" of personal autonomy (which is apparent in Leslie Cannold's article).

What is lost is the idea that some actions and experiences are inherently good and are to be valued regardless of their effect on autonomy. For instance, we might recognise fidelity in marriage to be inherently good, even though it effectively commits us to one particular behaviour and thereby limits our capacity to autonomously "direct our own destiny".

The second reason that Leslie Cannold's aim limits our mental horizons, is that there are many significant things we can't direct autonomously, so for the principle to work, all this has to disappear from view as important life aims.

For example, in traditional societies there were distinctive ideals of manhood and womanhood. It was a case of men and women living up to these established standards to which they were born by virtue of their sex.

If, though, the ruling idea is that we are to autonomously direct our own destiny, then such traditional ideals either fade in significance as being qualities lying outside of our control, or they are more actively subverted.

So an aspect of life so important to our identity, and to our sexuality, and to our family life is never adequately recognised.

There is yet a third reason why Cannold's principle is so radically limiting. It assumes that our "destiny" can be pursued and won at an individual level.

If a woman believes her destiny is to become a journalist, this can be attempted at an individual level. But what if she wants to experience romantic love, and then marriage and motherhood? This then requires not only the cooperation of a man, but the preservation of a culture in which romantic love can flourish and in which men will commit to marriage early enough for a woman to successfully conceive and so on.

If we assume a purely individualistic destiny, then the life aims most commonly presented to us will involve careers, casual sex and consumerism. It is difficult to aim for anything more significant than this, as more significant aims require a larger common purpose to create a particular kind of society or to preserve a particular form of culture.

In other words if we have a larger destiny it is something we share with others.

Sunday, August 28, 2005

Swedish odd spot

I thought I'd share this one with you since it gave me a good laugh.

In left-liberal Sweden they actually have an "Equality Minister". He has come under fire, though, because the unit he set up to implement gender equality in employment has only three men in a staff of 28.

Not unreasonably he was asked by journalists "how he expected to bring equality to society if he couldn't even bring it to his own equality unit."

His excuse was that not enough competent men were coming forward to fill the positions.

Which ought to have led him to consider the fact that men and women differ in their natures and will not be interested in doing exactly the same things. Which is why understanding "equality" to mean an equal number of men and women in all fields is such a grossly ill-conceived piece of social engineering.

Frankly, I'm relieved that few Swedish men want to work as state bureaucrats enforcing gender sameness on society.

Thursday, August 25, 2005

Liberating women for war?

Derryn Hinch is a right-wing talkback radio host here in Melbourne – but he is no conservative.

I was listening to his programme a week or so ago and he introduced the topic of women in combat. First Hinch told us of a female friend who had argued against placing women in the firing line:

My friend said that women were inherently different to men ... That men can kill more easily than women. That women are protective. And if you have a female soldier alongside you then you are at risk because she said a woman is less likely to shoot. It’s in her nature.

This is roughly the conservative position: that men and women are different in their natures and are not interchangeable in all things.

How did Hinch respond to his female friend’s observations about the nature of women? He ignored them. He simply announced his support for placing women in combat on the following basis:

If women want to be soldiers then there should be no restrictions on what they can or can’t do.

So all that matters for Hinch is that we are not impeded in our individual will. This principle is so paramount for Hinch that he doesn’t even bother to deal with other considerations, such as how men and women in their real natures are likely to act in combat situations, or the real instincts and expectations men and women have toward the opposite sex. Hinch does not even bother to realistically consider the physical capabilities of women compared to men.

This is not surprising for a liberal. After all, liberals believe that we are made human because we can create who we are and what we do through our own individual will and reason. So for liberals like Hinch, it’s a threat to someone’s humanity to deny them their will. Unrestricted individual choice becomes everything, even when this is destructive of the framework of a society or of an institution.

Yesterday, there was an interesting sequel to this story. The Herald Sun carried an article in which the first woman to pass an Australian SAS training course spoke out against placing women in combat roles. Jane Cunningham, reputedly one of the physically toughest women in the Australian Defence Force, said of such roles,

Women will never have the personal strength and are not designed to carry the loads required ... in my view women just shouldn’t be out there.

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

The ethics of identity

I’ve started reading a newly published book called The Ethics of Identity. It’s of particular interest as it discusses in a very open way the liberal attitude to gender and ethnic identity.

The author is a Princeton professor, Kwame Anthony Appiah (who is of mixed ancestry, with a father from Ghana and an English mother).

For today, here is a brief review of the preface to the book.

Professor Appiah begins with the observation that liberalism “is not so much a body of doctrine as a set of debates”. When I read this I was reminded of the way that liberalism has managed to “frame” the way that politics is discussed and debated in the West.

If a set of liberal debates is typical of Western politics, then it’s little wonder that conservatives often find it difficult to intervene and express their own point of view. The conservative viewpoint lies outside of the framework of debate.

Therefore, when conservatives look at politics we have to be willing, at times, to reject both points of view. To be true to what we really believe, we have to try to collapse the existing framework of debate. In effect, we need to establish different polarities – different points of contest.

A second useful observation made by Professor Appiah is that liberalism has captured mainstream politics in the West. He writes that liberalism encompasses “nearly all members of nearly all of the mainstream political parties in Europe and North America” and he even adds that liberal issues should concern us “even if, mirabile dictu, you do not find yourself disposed to think of yourself as a liberal at all” (mirabile dictu means wonderful to relate).

Professor Appiah, then, freely admits that liberalism has achieved near monopoly status amongst the political class. Yes, we do get to choose between different parties at election time – but the mainstream parties are all fundamentally liberal in their political outlook.

So we shouldn’t place too much faith in the mainstream “right-wing” parties, as these parties have accepted an essentially liberal world view.

Which brings us to the final and most important part of the preface. When Professor Appiah sets out his basic argument he writes that, “First, the measure of my life, the standard by which it is to be assessed as more or less successful, depends, if only in part, on my life’s aims as specified by me. Second, my life’s shape is up to me.”

He later adds “I start always from the perspective of the individual engaged in making his or her life, recognizing that others are engaged in the same project”.

Now this is very familiar. It is the basic liberal principle that what matters is that we are left unimpeded to create ourselves - to author our own lives - according to our own individual will.

Professor Appiah is following this principle when he claims that the measure of a life is the ability of an individual to determine the shape of his own life and his own life’s aims.

The professor considers this view to be “unexceptional”. But conservatives ought to jump in here and object. As a liberal, Professor Appiah is concerned above all to uphold conditions of autonomy. But this leads to a distorted focus.

Traditional societies did not focus on issues of autonomy in measuring the success of a life. What was important was the fact that a man was a good father, or a good churchman, or a good Englishman, or a virtuous man.

These roles or aims may not have been “self-selected” as part of a project of self-authorship. They may simply have been considered a natural inheritance or a customary understanding of “goodness” in life.

Yet they represent more significant aspects of life than those things we can determine individually, such as our career, our place of residence or our lifestyle.

And there is a further problem with Professor Appiah’s focus on self-authorship as the measure of a life. There are important parts of our self-identity which we don’t get to choose. We don’t get to choose, for instance, our race, our ethnicity or our sex.

Which is why liberals often view such forms of identity negatively as being restrictions on individual autonomy. This is exactly the issue Professor Appiah wishes to explore.

He does not simply assume that individuals are blank slates, as some liberals do. He recognises that “we make our lives as men and as women, as gay and as straight people, as Ghanians and as Americans, as blacks and as whites.”

For Professor Appiah, this raises the “conundrum” of whether such “identities represent a curb on autonomy”.

He declares in the preface that he writes “neither as identity’s friend nor as its foe”. He is certainly not its friend by conservative standards. He asserts, for instance, that identity is socially constructed rather than being hardwired into us.

He also uses typically negative liberal language at times to describe identity. He writes of “the encumbered self, laden with all the specificity of its manifold allegiances” and he worries that ethnic identity might “harden into something fixed and determinate” (putting it outside the realm of individual choice).

Still, there are signs in the preface that he is willing to take the claims of identity more seriously than most liberal philosophers.

Saturday, August 20, 2005

Feminism and the pinup girl

The language of liberalism is everywhere. Just consider this article from yesterday’s Age newspaper. It’s about the results of a British survey which showed that most young women want to be celebrity strippers or lap dancers rather than doctors, teachers or nurses.

How did the feminist writer of the article respond to this disconcerting news? She justified it in terms of liberal theory.

The liberal theory goes as follows. We are made human by the fact that, unlike animals, we can choose to be who we are and what we do, according to our own individual will and reason.

This means that liberals want us to preserve our ability to choose for ourselves without restrictions. Therefore liberals want individuals to remain “autonomous”, “independent” and “self-determining”.

Furthermore, it’s important for liberals that a social “equality of will” is maintained. Otherwise some people gain in their essential humanity at the expense of others. Men have had more economic and political power than women, which (according to liberals) is not a reflection of men following their masculine nature in the interests of their community, but is an illegitimate grab for power at the expense of an oppressed womanhood.

So, for liberals, female “empowerment” is also a buzzword.

Back to the article. How does a feminist writer accept the fact that young women want more than anything else to be celebrity pinup girls? She writes,

For most women who model or want to model for men’s magazines ... there is little contradiction between being an empowered, “independent woman” and posing in one’s underwear ...."

[celebrity females] are known and admired for their smarts and self-determination ... [pinup girls] aren’t clueless women with no other option than to pose in their knickers; they’re women who experience genuine power and accomplishment in their daily lives ...

the language they use to justify their decision to pose is a language of empowerment ... If feminism is about choice, they say, is it not their prerogative to choose to make some relatively easy money from looking pretty and adopting a sexy pose ... Then there’s the picture spread as sexual liberation...

A modern feminist looks at Abi Titmuss and Jordan and approves. These women are making their own choices, gaining economic and cultural power, determining their own lives .... and this is what matters for a liberal. These are the terms of a liberal morality.

Yet, the consequences of accepting this approach to morality are grotesque. It means approving of Paris Hilton or Jordan as the modern feminine ideal.

We can do better than this, but first we have to jettison the hold over us of the liberal orthodoxy, so that we can once again concern ourselves with what is objectively good rather than limiting our field of view to what is self-determined.

Saturday, August 13, 2005

Celebrating Partner B Day

A couple of interesting items on the issue of homosexuality.

The first is a story on David Akinsaya. He is a BBC journalist who has lived as a gay man for many years, but no longer wishes to do so.

Why? Because he doesn’t like the lack of fulfilment of not being able to have a wife and children in the normal way. He says,

what I long for is a nuclear family – wife, kids, the lot. I just want to be normal ... In my present way of being, no one depends on me and I, myself, have no one to rely on. When you have a wife and child, they’re yours and you are theirs.

There are gay couples who have children, but I don’t want to be one of them, as I don’t think it’s fair on the child ... The only way it would feel right for me to have a child is if I’m in love with their mother.

Here we have a recognition of two things. The first is that the liberal ideal of individual autonomy is not all it’s made out to be. David Akinsaya has the opportunity to live an independent lifestyle, but finds it unsatisfying. He wants to make the deeper commitments, and to take his place within an interdependent family.

The second is that homosexuality, by its very nature, is not equal to heterosexuality. Homosexual men have limited options in forming families. As David Akinsaya acknowledges, a child needs a mother, as well as a father who loves the mother. A homosexual man cannot meet such requirements. Homosexuality therefore imposes a radical restraint on human potential which heterosexuality does not.

The other interesting item on homosexuality has a very different theme. Here in Melbourne a booklet has been produced to challenge the “homophobia” of ..... kindergarten children!

The taxpayer funded booklet has been sent to over 2000 children’s centres. It encourages staff to use books, posters, games, dolls and role plays to “promote awareness of homosexual issues” amongst pre-school children.

The booklet even suggests that Father’s Day should be changed to “A Day for Someone Special” and that the terms Partner A and Partner B should be used on forms instead of Mum and Dad.

These last two facts are a reminder that there are points of conflict between heterosexual and homosexual culture. In other words, if homosexuality is to be treated as equal to heterosexuality, then important aspects of a heterosexual culture will have to give way.

I recently wrote about a Melbourne University queer officer who wanted to abolish the very categories of man and woman.

Whilst less extreme, the homosexual activists in this case want to abolish Father’s Day as well as references to mothers and fathers. So again, in order to be “inclusive” of homosexual parents, the normal expression of a heterosexual family culture has to be repressed.

The heterosexual majority should not stand for this. We need to assert the primacy of heterosexuality and the culture deriving from and supporting a heterosexual family life.

Sunday, August 07, 2005

The conservative opposition?

In Australia the Liberal Party is supposed to be the conservative party. For quite some time now, I've argued that it's mostly a right-liberal party rather than a genuinely conservative one.

For proof positive, consider the following. Last week, the Young Liberals in my state of Victoria passed a resolution calling for an end to "mandatory gender equality" in the state Liberal Party.

It seems that for 60 years now, it's been compulsory in the Liberal Party that state branches, electorate councils and state councils have an equal number of male and female delegates.

The Young Liberals called instead for appointments to be based on merit rather than on affirmative action.

Senior Liberals were outraged by the motion. One senior frontbencher told The Age that "Party members are angry that the leadership of the Young Liberal Movement, and the party, have not been able to rein in the zealots" and the leader of the party, Robert Doyle, observed that "There is always a group within the young Liberals who are too radical for the party's own good."

Amazing. In the Liberal Party if you oppose advanced feminism you are called a radical and a zealot. And this is supposed to be our "conservative" party.

A genuinely conservative party would not try to enforce equal numbers of men and women in politics. Conservatives are relaxed about the idea that men and women have different natures and will therefore tend to differ in their social roles.

It's only liberals who believe that gender should not be allowed to affect who we are or what we do, and who therefore get upset when there are differences in the numbers of men and women in some sphere of life.

Why do liberals get upset in this way? Because in the liberal philosophy there is an assumption that we should be able to choose, according to our own individual will and reason, what we do and who we are. We don't get to choose whether we are male or female, so for liberals our sex isn't supposed to affect our life choices.

That's why liberals think that "something is wrong" if there are uneven numbers of men and women in politics. Usually, right-liberals want to increase the numbers of women in politics by talking about equal opportunity and by using non-coercive measures to encourage women to participate. Left-liberals are more likely to coercively use quotas.

So the situtation in the state Liberal Party is that the youngsters are advocating a more typically right-liberal approach (equal opportunity), whereas the old guard are defending a more typically left-liberal policy (quotas).

What we need, though, is a party which doesn't make the liberal assumption in the first place. A party which accepts that individuals are "gendered" in their natures and that this will naturally be expressed in the differing social roles adopted by men and women.