Saturday, February 28, 2009

C'mon guys - social construct theory is unscientific

There's a little item in today's Herald Sun which is more politically significant than it might seem.

US scientists have conducted tests which measure neuron activity in the brain; they found that women use both the left and right side of the brain to perceive spatial awareness, but that men only use the right side.

What effect does this have? According to the scientists, men have a more focused spatial awareness, which is described in the article as a "more exact form of mental mapping". This is termed a "co-ordinate" spatial awareness.

Women have a "categorical" spatial awareness in which they are more aware of objects around them even if they are irrelevant to the task at hand.

These scientific findings do seem to fit some typical male and female qualities. Men do seem to focus more intently when it comes to understanding and creating systems, whereas women are often more present in the moment for those around them (yes, these are generalisations which don't hold true in every case).

A psychology professor from the University of Sydney, Dianna Kenny, added that the surface of a man's parietal lobe, which is responsible for spatial ability was 10 per cent bigger than women's and that levels of testosterone also seemed to improve spatial ability (so that women with higher levels of testosterone also have higher spatial ability).

Professor Kenny suggested that the spatial ability of men often made them better at tasks such as putting together module furniture or setting up VCRs and also made men more suited to certain careers such as cartography, engineering, surveying and IT.

Why is all this so politically significant? On the one hand, liberals will dislike the scientific findings. Liberals want us to be autonomous, self-defining individuals. Therefore, they want to believe that our sex, the fact of being born a man or a woman, can be made not to matter. For this reason, they usually prefer to explain sex distinctions between men and women as being artificial social constructs, set up for purposes of domination and oppression.

On the other hand, liberals like to think of themselves as being scientific types. They generally look down on those who don't accept a scientific world view.

So here is the conundrum for liberals. Science is telling them that there are significant hard-wired differences between men and women. If they reject the science, they are joining the ranks of those they have looked down on for so long.

If they accept the science, then they have to admit that the social construct theory wasn't correct - that sex distinctions can't be explained in terms of social influence alone, but that they do have some legitimate basis in human nature.

(I can't find a link to the Herald Sun post yet, but there is a report along similar lines here.)

Thursday, February 26, 2009

The angry woman - my turn

Readers have had their say about Elizabeth Stewart, the angry upper-class Englishwoman who blames men for her stressful life.

Some readers thought that Elizabeth Stewart was almost too much an embodiment of the worst trends in modern society. They wondered if she was simply made up.

Other readers debated whether her life was objectively stressful and needed downshifting, or whether she had it relatively good and was oppressed by her expectations.

I'd like to add a few observations. Back in the early 1990s, it became clear to me that feminists weren't going to make any compromises when it came to career and family. What they expected was that both men and women would work full-time and then share equally the traditionally female role.

It seemed poorly thought out to me. The male career role was demanding enough without suddenly having a very large extra burden placed on top of it. Accepting feminist demands would make everybody worse off.

I couldn't understand why the feminists of the era weren't aware of this. But perhaps there is an explanation.

According to feminist patriarchy theory, society has developed to maximise male autonomy at the expense of women. It is men who are supposed to have the power and privilege to be able to do as they want. For this reason, many feminists believe that men have relatively easy lives.

So perhaps there were feminists who assumed that the proposed arrangement wouldn't be so burdensome after all. In their eyes, the male role was the easy, privileged one, so women who adopted it would be better off even if they still had to do half of the old role.

Did Elizabeth Stewart have false expectations of what a traditionally male role would deliver to her? Reader Liesel suggested in the comments thread that this was the case:

She believes the society has existed to give men whatever they want, sacrifice free. This is not now, and never has been, the case. Based on this false notion, she has decided the world should give women whatever they want, sacrifice free, to make it up to them.

The first mistake, therefore, was to believe that men are a privileged oppressor class with easy lives that women could inherit.

There was, of course, a second major mistake. The original idea was that men would take over half of the traditionally female role. But this assumes that gender roles are simply social constructs which can easily be abandoned. It's true that men have taken up some extra household duties, but it's generally not anywhere near half.

So the expectations of women like Elizabeth Stewart have been twice confounded. The career role isn't the easy, non-sacrificing role that the theory suggested it to be; nor has her husband, despite being sensitive and supportive, taken over half of the mothering/homemaking role.

So she feels strung-out and enraged with her life.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Angry woman open for discussion

Jaz made an interesting suggestion in a recent comment. He thought I should link to the Daily Mail story about an angry upper-class woman and let readers of the site have a go at picking it apart.

So I'll limit myself to a brief summary. Elizabeth Stewart is a wealthy twice-married Englishwoman, with one child at boarding school, another at a nursery and a nanny to help at home. She has a high-status job with an advertising company.

She is living the life modern women are supposed to aspire to, but she admits to feelings of rage rather than content.

Her husband is a supportive, sensitive kind of man, but she is angry at him. She is angry too at her ex-husband. She is angry at men in general, believing that they have things easy. She feels guilty, torn between different roles, without any time for herself, living in a "semi-permanent state of panic".

She writes that she is "filled with a permanent nebulous, undirected rage," but she does direct the rage at men, telling us she wants to throttle them and slap them.

There are plenty of things I'd like to say in response, but I'll hold off for a while. I invite readers to look at the article and to suggest ways to respond politically to what Elizabeth Stewart has written.


Saturday, February 21, 2009

A recession is good for men?

Nick Clegg, the leader of the Liberal Democrats in the UK, has declared that there is a positive side to the recession. Men will lose their jobs and this will force them to be liberated from a traditionally masculine role. They will have to "reinvent" themselves and create a new identity, one involving childminding rather than a focus on breadwinning.

And what of women workers? Nick Clegg wants special government action to lessen the effect of the recession on female employment.

But I'll let Nick Clegg speak for himself:

For many [men], full-time work remains the anchor of their identity ... Yet a savage recession, like a war, shakes the traditional identity of men and women. In the Second World War it had a liberating effect of sorts. By 1943 more than 7.25 million women were employed, two million more than before the war ...

As this recession bears down on thousands of communities and families we must again be open to reinventing ourselves. Many men will be forced to let go of their earlier identities and try something new ... And many women may become the only family breadwinner for the first time. For many couples this will be unsettling and deeply disruptive to the settled patterns of life, work and marriage. A new flexibility in which men and women are supported in reinventing themselves will be vital in helping many thousands of families through this recession ...

For women, this means that Government must come down hard on employers who appear to be sacking them more readily than men ... Active support - including free legal advice - must be given to women ...

But some of the biggest changes that still need to take place are in the traditional perceptions of “male” work. Some months ago I suggested that more men should take up jobs in nurseries as childminders. At present, only 1 per cent of childminders are men ...

Rigidity in how parental leave is structured must change too. Mothers can take up to a year, fathers only two weeks ... But this split is out of step with the reality of many modern families, and discourages fathers from making a commitment to the care of their own children ...

The present rules make it almost impossible for young mothers to go back to work early, even if their husbands and partners are ready to stay at home

It is high time we moved into line with other European countries where interchangeable parental leave has long been the norm.

So when it comes to work Nick Clegg wants a gender role reversal. He thinks it is liberating for women to go out to work in traditionally male occupations and for men to either stay home or to work as childminders.

When it comes to parenting, Nick Clegg wants a unisex, interchangeable role in which men are equally likely to be the ones to take time off to mother/parent their children.

Where do such views come from? They stem from liberal autonomy theory. This is the theory that to be fully human we have to be self-determined rather than predetermined. Since our sex is something we don't get to choose it is predetermined and is therefore considered an impediment that individuals must be liberated from. The fact of being born a man or a woman must be made not to matter.

Pamela Kinnear, an Australian researcher, has written a paper called "New Families for Changing Times," in which, like Nick Clegg, she emphasises the idea of self-invention. She writes:

social progressives reject the notion of family breakdown and argue that we must accept the transition to a new diversity of family forms. They regard the idea of family as an evolving social construct.

the social categories of the past (gender, class, race and so on) no longer serve as the framework for individual behaviour or cultural beliefs.

... we are now in the process of re-embedding new ways of life in which individuals must invent and live according to their own biographies ...

In this transition, relationships, including marriage, must be reinvented too. The downside of the 'pure relationship', freed from convention, is some instability as partners continuously re-evaluate their relationship. They ask whether it fits with their own life project to realise self-identity.

Note that traditional marriage is not considered a "pure relationship" by Pamela Kinnear because it is conventional rather than liberated.

What are some possible objections to Nick Clegg's attitude? First, it is based on a theory which itself needs to be critically examined. Is it really true that autonomy is the sole, overriding good in life? Most people in practice sacrifice a degree of autonomy for something they consider to be a greater good, such as love, family or community. Don't we lose too much by putting autonomy above all else?

Nick Clegg's attitude also assumes that human identity is unanchored and can be changed to fit any circumstance. In other words, it assumes that masculinity and femininity are socially constructed and aren't connected to an enduring human nature.

Another problem with Nick Clegg's approach is that it effectively undermines the position of both men and women in the family. If the parental role is an interchangeable unisex one, then the work that men and women do as fathers and mothers is not so important. If Nick Clegg is right, then children don't need their mothers as much as we think; nor for that matter is there a distinct and therefore necessary role for men within the family.

Nick Clegg has already proceeded part of the way down this track. He writes that changes to parental leave are required so that men can stay home and make a "commitment to the care of their own children" - as if the efforts men make at work to support their families don't represent a commitment to their children. Nick Clegg doesn't seem to appreciate the traditional role that men have played in the family.

Finally, it's unwise to suggest to men that their efforts at work are harmful to themselves, their families and to society and that they should instead seek to be "liberated" by not working as they do now. Nick Clegg assumes that men will hear this message and will redirect their work ethic toward a traditionally female role. It's just as likely, though, that men will simply lose their work ethic.

If we really have no specifically masculine duties as men, but should just do as we will unimpeded, then why not hang out at the pub with mates or father children with a series of women but not take responsibility for providing for them?

Nick Clegg should take care when he urges men to abandon their traditional contributions to society. He may not get the result he is looking for.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Ending the gap debate?

From the Mail Online:

Men in their 20s no longer earn more than women, an official analysis of the 'pay gap' declared.

It found that the difference between the earnings of men and women twenty-somethings is 'non-existent'.

Women who choose to stay single are likely to earn more than single men throughout their lives, it said.

This has been known for some time. Women are not paid less than men until they have children and decide to scale back their work commitments. I've seen this many times at work myself: women with strong feminist beliefs who are very ambitious at work until a few years after the birth of their first child, at which point they change their life priorities.

The research findings prompted this comment:

Ruth Lea, adviser to the Arbuthnot Banking Group, said: 'It is a matter of choice. People earn the same until they get together, and then they make choices about work, family and lifestyle. That is what adults are expected to do - make decisions.

'I suspect that in reality the pay advantage lies with women and I think the whole pay gap debate should stop now.'

I doubt, though, that the debate will stop. In part, this is because there are many in the political class who believe that women are less autonomous than men, and are therefore unequal, and that careers are the way for women to get the same autonomy as men. People with this idea won't easily accept an arrangement in which men redouble their efforts at work to support their families, whilst women scale back to care for their young children.

This approach to equality is wrong on a number of grounds. First, it doesn't make much sense to think of the money earned by a husband as a "male" wage existing in competition with a "female" wage. Most of what the husband earns will go straight into family expenses - with much of it being spent by the wife. In reality, what husbands earn is a family wage, spent for the benefit of the family.

Second, it's debatable that careers provide a greater level of autonomy than spending time with family. The men in their 40s who finally do earn more on average than women have a great part of their time and energies committed to work duties. They don't get to choose to do whatever they want whenever they want; on the contrary, their lives are closely regulated by their work. Women too at this time of life are likely to be busy, but they do have a little more flexibility in choosing how to arrange their lives.

Even more importantly, why should autonomy be chosen as the overriding good? Why shouldn't people think it important to do what's best for their children and for their family?

There's one other possible objection to women choosing to scale back their work commitments: it means that the family is playing a significant role in how people organise their lives.

We can't assume that everyone in the political class approves of this. If your aim is to establish a system in which everyone is treated the same along universal, centralised, rational lines, then the continuing relevance of the family in providing support for women to care for their children won't be so easily accepted.

In other words, there is a conflict between those who envisage social organisation in terms of the client individual and the state, and those who accept the family as a natural, non-bureaucratic unit of society.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

A curious debate

Should the liberal state permit the existence of non-liberal communities? There has been a debate amongst academics in recent years on this issue.

One curious feature of this debate is the concept that the liberal academics have of themselves. They usually take themselves to be free, autonomous individuals leading self-directing and self-chosen lives in contrast to the unreflective, non-liberal individuals in traditional communities.

One academic has described the way the debate is framed as follows:

The philosophical issue centers on the questions of who is entitled to freedom, and what sorts of lives they are entitled to create with their freedom.

Are all persons entitled to have their choices respected and their lives left alone? Are persons as we find them in the world — culturally and socially influenced, holding many beliefs heteronomously and only because they were raised to believe them — already suited for liberty?

Or is the moral case for freedom dependent on people having some level of autonomy or intellectual attainment? To put it another way: If persons are living lives into which they have been socialized, if they are making decisions solely on the basis of what tradition demands, or if they are unreflective about their choices, can they really be said to be living freely?

And if their choices are not free to begin with, can one make a moral demand that these choices be respected by the state? We do not think that children, the insane, or the brainwashed are free in a morally desirable sense if they are simply left alone to follow their whims. Why, then, should we consider as free those who hold a religious belief simply because it was instilled in them while they were young?

(The quote is from an article by Professor Jacob T. Levy who is not endorsing the above view but describing a commonly held position amongst his fellow liberal academics.)

To summarise, the question being asked is whether the liberal state should respect the choices made by those people, such as those raised within a religious tradition, who are not autonomous and therefore not free.

What is the problem with putting things this way? Well, one considerable problem for liberal academics is that they themselves are condemned by the very principle they are putting forward.

Who is really the most unreflective in the adoption of their values? The liberal academic or the church-goer? These days it would have to be the liberal academic. A Westerner who makes a serious commitment to a church is acting against the stream and will usually be making an individual choice. Liberal academics, on the other hand, are simply falling in with a reigning orthodoxy.

Another major problem with the framing of the debate is the assumption that what really counts is that I have autonomously chosen a life path rather than being influenced by culture or tradition.

There is a denial here that what really matters are real goods that can be known to individuals and to communities. If, say, we recognise courage and honour in a man as a real good, then we would think it a positive thing if a culture and tradition encouraged these qualities. What would matter would be getting to the particular good.

In the liberal view, though, the priorities change. The liberal is less concerned that a man is honourable and courageous and more interested in the fact of self-direction. If I self-direct against honour and courage I have satisfied the liberal principle.

The end result is not a society of independent free-thinkers. Nearly everyone in the political class today follows the same unexamined first principles. Nor have human vistas been opened up. All the talk about life projects, life plans and so on usually boil down to nothing more than selecting a career for ourselves.

This is the bland side to liberalism: it is what is left when the individual is removed from culture and community and the goods embedded within a tradition.

Thursday, February 05, 2009

A shaky foundation

Here's a comment left at this site a while ago by Apashiol, a supporter of liberal modernism:

I will try to be clear on what I actually think.

For me the proposition of a "highest good" has no meaning ... I see absolutely no evidence that we have been created with a purpose or goal ... Humans must create their own meaning.

I believe in the ideals of secular democracy. I believe in individual liberty and equality. Nobody has a god-given right to coerce or otherwise define what the meaning of life should be for anyone else.

Individual liberty and equality are not ends in themselves, but necessary preconditions from which people can endeavour to discover what is good in life and create their own meaning.

All people are entitled to the same basic rights. They are not entitled due to belonging to a privileged race, class, gender, sexuality or whatever kind of category can be created to contain them.

All human beings should be judged on their character. Not on any incidental attribute.

It's an argument which fails at the very beginning.

For Apashiol there is no natural created order through which human life gains meaning and status. Instead, individuals must each create their own meaning.

It's not a very solid basis for a new philosophy of life. Is meaning really something that we create for ourselves? If so, is meaning all that meaningful?

And what does it boil down to in practice? How do individuals set out to self-create meaning? What are they supposed to do? Pursue career success? Prove their reproductive fitness? Achieve social status?

It's all left vague and unspoken. All that we are really left with is the picture of millions of individuals striving through their life efforts to create their own unique life meaning.

Once you accept this background, then the rest follows on. In particular, you are likely to endorse the liberal understanding of freedom and equality.

Apashiol wrote that freedom isn't an end in itself, but is necessary for people to self-define and self-create their own lives. So freedom will be understood as a liberation from impediments to the self-defining, self-creating individual.

What are such impediments? Whatever is predetermined, which includes aspects of life which are given to us as part of our tradition or as part of our given nature. Logically, then, liberals will attempt, in the name of freedom, to make our sex not matter, to make our ethnicity not matter, to make conventional forms of family life not matter and so on.

It's much the same with equality. If an individual is held back or handicapped in any way in the pursuit of their unique, individual life meaning, then a major injustice will be thought to have occurred - perhaps the very meaning of their existence will have been compromised.

So equality will be linked to a concept of social justice. The rule will be that individuals must not be handicapped, in the sense of being limited in their possible life choices, by circumstances beyond their immediate control. Class barriers, cycles of poverty, discrimination on the grounds of gender or ethnicity - these will be thought to place limitations on some individuals, which might then destroy their chances to create life meaning.

You can understand why liberals would be so upset by the thought that some groups of people were better at some things than others. This would inject a kind of cruel hoax into the Apashiolian world view: it would mean that efforts to self-create our unique life meaning as individuals might be thwarted by some sort of "incidental attributes".

You can understand too why liberals think so poorly of those who resist modernity. In their eyes, life is about the pursuit of individual life meaning; therefore, it is a question of those who are privileged in this pursuit (by not being held back or handicapped by inherited social factors) and those who are not. Therefore, race, class, gender and sexuality will be thought of in terms of privilege, discrimination and inequality: those who defend the "privileged" categories will be thought to be denying the full humanity - the equal opportunity - of others: something which will be explained in terms of supremacy or hatred or bigotry or prejudice.

Of course, if we take away Apashiol's life philosophy, things change radically. The categories referred to above might then be seen positively as sources of self-identity and as aspects of a natural and meaningful order of existence.