Sunday, February 26, 2023

Empowered to be alone?

Chrissie Swan is a 49-year-old Australian TV and radio presenter. Last year she confirmed that she had separated from her partner of 15 years, with whom she has three children. They still live amicably under the same roof.

She recently discussed the reason for the separation. It piqued my interest because it resembles what other middle-aged women have told me about why they left their husbands/partners. saying goodbye to this chapter, she regained herself. When Chrissie was 45-year-old, she noticed – like many other women – she took care of everyone's needs before her own. Four years later, she is happier than ever and is embracing her best single life.

"I was 45 and I thought, I'm not having much fun. To be honest, I was doing exactly what most women do and I was putting everyone first," she told 7News.

Despite the pressure for women to find 'the one' in their 20s and 30s, Chrissie feels that she has rather gained a better appreciation for life and everything on offer. "I think society tells us that we don't need to be by ourselves as women," she said. "We are the mothers, the friends and the wives... we're supposed to get our life blood from being of service to people, and that wasn't true for me at all."
What Chrissie Swan is describing, in talking about service to others, is the altruistic love that was once thought to characterise the feminine personality. For instance, in 1958 Marie Robinson wrote that,
Related to this feeling in her, to her sense of security, seeming almost to spring from it, indeed, is a profound delight in giving to those she loves. Psychiatrists, who consider this characteristic the hallmark, the sine qua non, of the truly feminine character, have a name for it: they call it “essential feminine altruism.” The finest flower of this altruism blossoms in her joy in giving the very best of herself to her husband and to her children. She never resents this need in herself to give; she never interprets its manifestations as a burden to her, an imposition on her.
So here is the unusual thing. Chrissie Swan is rejecting altruistic love, even though it is how past generations of women expressed a core aspect of themselves, and even though she was not making that many sacrifices in terms of her own individual ambitions and lifestyle. After all, she was pursuing a busy, high status, successful and well paid career during this time, and she had the wealth to outsource much of the domestic work. 

In other words, her service to her family did not prevent her from pursuing other aims in life; nor need it have been burdensome in terms of workload. So why then choose to go solo?

A possible reason is that the world picture that women like Chrissie Swan receive from the culture includes the idea that the aim of life for women is empowerment. This is defined as having the power to freely do whatever you have a mind to do without negative consequence or judgement. As evidence that this mindset has influenced Chrissie Swan there is the following social media post:

She is justifying her decision to leave her partner on the basis that "I am the Captain of my own life. And I can do whatever I like". She is asserting here her "empowerment" as an individual and her commitment to solo development.

What this is leading to is a phenomenon in which some middle-class Western women are now seeing the family stage of life as a temporary aberration. They have a single girl period in their teens and twenties, then find a decent family-oriented guy to have children with in their 30s to mid-40s, before reasserting a full commitment to the empowerment model in later middle-age.

Chrissie Swan

The empowerment model is incompatible with marriage and family life. It is sold to women as representing the good of their sex, but this is highly questionable. Here is how Chrissie Swan describes her new lifestyle:
I have been spending a fair bit of time utterly alone...It’s a weird kind of exhilaration and joy from knowing all I need is myself....Last Friday I even went apple picking alone - and I highly recommend it. I’ve spent some time in my vege patch (I have no idea what I’m doing). I’ve also been buying myself flowers and taking myself out on walking dates, coffee dates, lunch dates and to the movies. Best company ever!
Yes, having quiet time to decompress is important for people with high pressure working lives. I cannot believe, though, that she could not have negotiated this with her partner. And I simply do not accept the idea that a woman buying herself flowers and taking herself out on dates is the higher good for the female sex. It is, rather, a deprivation of one of the higher goods in life, namely spousal union.

There is a conflict in our culture between the goods of empowerment and spousal union. The good of empowerment I think is not only a lower good, but mostly a false one. To date yourself and then later to spend old age alone does not fit the design for human life, at least not for the ordinary person. It takes a great deal of energy for someone to convince themselves otherwise and to make their peace with it.

The good of spousal union, like all higher goods, is not easily achieved. It does not just happen naturally, but requires an uncommon level of commitment for a couple to work their way through difficult times. It also has a logic of its own. For instance, it makes sense for those oriented to spousal union to try to maintain a sexual polarity, so that we bring something to the union that we cannot provide ourselves - hence, no pride in being entirely self-sufficient. In the past, marital unions were conceived in terms of spouses gifting something to each other, which is difficult to do if there is a complete flattening of distinctions between men and women. 

It is also the case that a spousal union asks of us that we be worthy of being joined together with our spouse. We are challenged to show a better aspect of who we are. The emphasis is not just on feeling, or for that matter, on receiving. There is instead a challenge of being - of what we are called to be in relationship with our spouse.

Monday, February 20, 2023

The original "What is a woman?"

The American political commentator Matt Walsh released a documentary recently titled "What is a woman?" It showed the difficulty many moderns have in answering an apparently simple question.

The question was posed, however, much earlier by the woman credited with kickstarting second wave feminism, Simone de Beauvoir, back in 1949 in her book The Second Sex. Her discussion of the question is interesting because it deals with the metaphysical origins of modernity. 

She opens her argument with this:
But first we must ask: what is a woman? 
She acknowledges that some people would answer that there is a feminine quality that women embody and express, an "essence", that is part of the definition of womanhood. However, she rejects the existence of such a quality of femininity:
It would appear, then, that every female human being is not necessarily a woman; to be so considered she must share in that mysterious and threatened reality known as femininity. Is this attribute something secreted by the ovaries? Or is it a Platonic essence, a product of the philosophic imagination? Is a rustling petticoat enough to bring it down to earth? Although some women try zealously to incarnate this essence, it is hardly patentable. It is frequently described in vague and dazzling terms that seem to have been borrowed from the vocabulary of the seers, and indeed in the times of St Thomas it was considered an essence as certainly defined as the somniferous virtue of the poppy

But conceptualism has lost ground. The biological and social sciences no longer admit the existence of unchangeably fixed entities that determine given characteristics, such as those ascribed to woman...Science regards any characteristic as a reaction dependent in part upon a situation. If today femininity no longer exists, then it never existed. 

She claims that there are no innate qualities, and notes that in her time the sciences held character to depend on the social environment. But if there is no such thing as femininity, and we are simply products of our environment, then what does it mean to be a woman?:

But does the word woman, then, have no specific content? This is stoutly affirmed by those who hold to the philosophy of the enlightenment, of rationalism, of nominalism; women, to them, are merely the human beings arbitrarily designated by the word woman. Many American women particularly are prepared to think that there is no longer any place for woman as such; if a backward individual still takes herself for a woman, her friends advise her to be psychoanalysed and thus get rid of this obsession. In regard to a work, Modern Woman: The Lost Sex, which in other respects has its irritating features, Dorothy Parker has written: ‘I cannot be just to books which treat of woman as woman ... My idea is that all of us, men as well as women, should be regarded as human beings.’
This is interesting for several reasons. First, it shows that at the end of the long first wave of feminism, the same result occurred that we are seeing today. The term "woman" lost all meaning. Today, if you ask a progressive what the term means, they will simply say "whatever a woman wants it to mean". If you follow up by asking "can it mean anything then?" they will answer "yes". In 1949, the category was also thought to lack any signifying substance - it was held by progressives to be an arbitrary category that should be jettisoned.

Simone de Beauvoir

Second, Simone de Beauvoir is aware that this attitude has its origins in certain philosophical positions, including that of nominalism. Nominalism is the belief that there are only individual instances of things and that universals have no real existence but are only names. In this view, the feminine is not a really existing quality or essence that gives a distinct nature to women.

Simone de Beauvoir's position on nominalism is complex. On the one hand, she thinks it inadequate because she believes the categories of man and woman to be real - unlike certain later feminists she rejects the idea that there is liberation in escaping the category of woman. However, she also rejects the idea of the masculine and the feminine as being innate qualities that men and women embody and express:
But nominalism is a rather inadequate doctrine, and the antifeminists have had no trouble in showing that women simply are not men. Surely woman is, like man, a human being; but such a declaration is abstract. The fact is that every concrete human being is always a singular, separate individual. To decline to accept such notions as the eternal feminine, the black soul, the Jewish character, is not to deny that Jews, Negroes, women exist today – this denial does not represent a liberation for those concerned, but rather a flight from reality. 
Her defence of the distinction between men and women is not exactly encouraging:
In truth, to go for a walk with one’s eyes open is enough to demonstrate that humanity is divided into two classes of individuals whose clothes, faces, bodies, smiles, gaits, interests, and occupations are manifestly different. Perhaps these differences are superficial, perhaps they are destined to disappear. What is certain is that they do most obviously exist.
Which leads her back to the question her book is intended to answer:
If her functioning as a female is not enough to define woman, if we decline also to explain her through ‘the eternal feminine’, and if nevertheless we admit, provisionally, that women do exist, then we must face the question “what is a woman”?
I have not read all of the remainder of her book. Part of her answer is that women have been defined only in relation to men, as "the Other". She wants, in line with modernity, for women to be autonomous. She has the following negative take on traditional womanhood:
Humanity is male, and man defines woman, not in herself, but in relation to himself; she is not an autonomous being
Her solution is the familiar feminist one of claiming that the differences that have existed between men and women are not the product of an innate masculinity or femininity but are due to socialisation:
One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman. No biological, psychological, or economic destiny defines the figure that the human female acquires in society; it is civilization as a whole that develops this product, intermediate between female and eunuch, which one calls feminine.

I'm sorry to disappoint, but I'm not really sure what her answer is to the question "What is a woman?". She seems to focus on the idea that women are not by nature feminine (which she takes to be a negative thing) and should be autonomous in the sense of living for themselves. She writes of her dislike for marriage, motherhood and family and promotes free love, abortion and careers.

She lived to see her preferences realised in Western society. But we do not live in a culture that can answer the question she raised back in 1949. Our culture still does not know what a woman is.

Sunday, February 12, 2023

A false footing

In 1892 an Australian Christian socialist by the name of William Guthrie Spence gave a speech on the topic of "The Ethics of New Unionism".

He began by noting that the old unionists had rejected the individualism of the past to organise together to improve their wages and conditions. They did not, however, seek reforms outside of their own workplaces.

William Guthrie Spence

Spence wanted the new unionism to go further and to transform the world. In explaining this, Spence revealed himself to be a kind of transitional modernist, in that he mixed together certain more traditional concepts with others that we would recognise today as being modernist.

Like so many other leftists before (and after) him, Spence believed in the perfectibility of human nature:

I take it that the human family is inherently good. I go against that old idea of always crediting our human frailties to original sin. I say that humanity is inherently good if we only let it have a chance to exercise its goodness.

This is an optimistic account, but it leads him into dangerous territory. It allows him to believe that a change of the system in which men live, from a competitive to a cooperative one, will so perfect the nature of man that it will overcome all social ills and usher in a utopia. He does not hold back in expressing this belief:

If I understand anything of the teachings of the founder of Christianity it is that He came to bring heaven upon earth — to set up the kingdom of heaven on earth. I fully believe that we can make this heaven.

...Heaven is an ideal state where we escape from all the ills and sorrows that we experience here. In our present state we see many, very many cases of suffering and of trouble. We can trace its cause and see a way of removing it, and shall we sit idly by and allow the misery to go on? No, a thousand times no. Christ taught men that they could and should bring the kingdom of heaven upon earth. New unionism aims at giving practical effect to that, knowing full well that the inherent good in humanity, if it has an opportunity to expand, will rise, will become practical, and bind the people together.
This is the clearest example I have ever come across of "immanentizing the eschaton" which is defined as an attempt "to bring about utopian conditions in the world, and to effectively create heaven on earth."

This already suggests that Spence's Christianity has been modified by modernist ideas. It is not that Spence is entirely wrong in believing that the conditions people live under affect their behaviour. Nor is he wrong in thinking that Christians might attempt to ameliorate those conditions. But what matters now for Spence is a natural process (evolution) through which humanity acts of itself to create a heaven on earth. It is not far removed from a secular humanism.

When people start to see "humanity" as the significant centre of faith and vehicle of progress, they are likely to prefer a shift toward "higher unities" bringing people to believe in humanity as one larger whole, rather than smaller and localised forms of community. Spence says, for instance,

What is your life or my life worth, unless it has been exercised in doing something to add to the sum of happiness of the human family? Those who are conservative enough to let things run as they are of what use are they to the human family? They retard progress. There are now certain well-defined paths with which you can see the thoughts and actions of reformers are trending. Human energy has hitherto been exercised in a wrong direction. Shall we remove the obstacles and put it in the right direction.

There is no defence here of traditional institutions or ways of life, which now represent the "wrong direction" and are obstacles to be overcome by reformers. The worth of a life is no longer measured by a relationship to God, or service to family or nation, but by adding to the happiness of the entire human family.

His orientation to a single humanity is also expressed when he declares,

We are aiming now at securing an improvement by social and political reforms — and by that means alone a revolution will undoubtedly be effected in time. When I use the word revolution — do not misunderstand me — I mean a quiet one. It will be a change from one condition to the other, which almost deserves the name of “revolution.” I feel certain it will come about steadily and surely and rapidly if we take the proper stand, the only stand — that of common humanity.

He says here that the only stand is that of common humanity. He is consistent, then, when he insists that there should be no distinction of sex:

Women workers will also be included, for the spirit of “new unionism” makes no distinction of sex.
Spence likewise sounds very modern when talking about equality: instead of competition is one of the aims of the New Unionism; giving equality of rights, equality of opportunity, and equality of justice to all men.

I find it particularly interesting that Spence is already, as far back as 1892, expressing something of a technocratic mindset. He argues, for instance, that "In the future things must be done in the mass.'' As we shall see, he also argues for the principle of "efficiency". He is not yet, however, arguing for rule by experts; instead, he wants a landed aristocracy replaced by men of "character, genius and intellect".

In what ways does Spence sound more traditional? Well, his world picture is not yet entirely flat. There is still some sort of vertical hierarchy, of things more noble and more base. He states, for instance, that,
Humanity must, of course, be regarded as part of Nature, and are also influenced by the spirit of evolution. We have been placed at the very apex of the pyramid of created things.
He speaks also of his hopes that if people remove impediments to progress that there will be "an expansion of the good, of the noble, of the best. All these are qualities to be admired in man, and mark the distinction between the higher and lower in humanity." Similarly he later exclaims "The principles underlying this movement are those founded on eternal truth. They aim at giving exercise to the highest and very best qualities of human life and nature."

Spence's version of modernism has managed to withstand a naturalistic logic in which there is no order to creation and no means of distinguishing the high from the low. What Spence does share with the modernists, though, is a rejection of the good within the current order. If evolution is pushing toward heaven on earth, then it is important that reformers remove impediments to progress, which makes it wrong to conserve as a matter of principle. You can see here how politics then develops: there are "progressives" who will push for change in the belief that this will usher in a more perfect world and "conservatives/traditionalists" who are alarmed that the good that exists as part of an inherited tradition will be sacrificed and lost.

There is one final point to be made. In spite of his commitment to humanity as a whole, Spence was still very firmly an ethno-nationalist. As a founder of the Australian Labor Party he wrote:
The party stands for racial purity and racial efficiency — industrially, mentally, morally, and intellectually. It asks the people to set up a high ideal of national character, and hence it stands strongly against any admixture with the white race. True patriotism should be racial.

There is a hint here of the proto-technocratic mindset I wrote about earlier when he uses the phrase "racial efficiency". Spence was not alone among progressives of the time in supporting ethno-nationalism - so too did figures like Alfred Deakin and William Lane. The point I would make is that his overall worldview was unlikely, in the longer run, to support the continuation of an ethno-nationalism.

If you set up as an idea that there is a natural evolution of humanity toward a kingdom of heaven on earth; that conserving tradition impedes this progress; that the meaning of life is to serve the human family; that distinctions, such as those of sex, should not be admitted; and that there should be equality of rights and of opportunity for all men - then it will be difficult in the longer run to defend more particular and parochial inherited identities. 

I noted this already in a post on Alfred Deakin, a future Prime Minister. His biographer, Judith Brett, wrote that,

To him the larger, more unified view was always superior, higher and more evolved, less selfish and closer to the divine purpose than the narrow and parochial...
This is similar to Spence's idea that evolution will bring us ultimately to serve one human family. So how did Deakin justify his ethno-nationalism? Judith Brett believes it was simply left as a contradiction:
Liberal nationalism has an inherent contradiction. It speaks of the universal values of liberty and brotherhood, but it applies them to particular populations. Deakin was well aware of the contradiction: his prayer would be "wide as thy would embrace all living things", "were not this to render it pointless and featureless", and so he narrowed his focus "to my kind, to my race, to my nation, to my blood, and to myself, last and least". A couple of years later he prayed for blessings "for my wife and children, family, country, nation, race and universe".
Future Labor politicians would, predictably, begin to extend the focus. Arthur Calwell in the 1930s, for instance, argued in favour of a greater diversity in the Australian population as a matter of equal opportunity and social justice and this led to the expansion of the migration programme after WWII. Calwell's focus did not extend beyond European migration, but by the late 1960s/early 1970s both Labor and Liberal politicians went full focus and adopted a policy of multiculturalism.

You cannot expect something to survive forever when it exists as an unprincipled exception to the larger worldview that you have adopted. If you want a traditional nation to continue, then your worldview needs to accept that there are things embedded within traditions that represent the good and that are worthy of conserving - and that the project of conserving is not just some reactionary offense against progress to an unlikely utopia.