Thursday, May 27, 2010

Feminism and the Experimental Exemplar

In response to my last post an anonymous commentator took me to task for my statements about women. With admirable concision, she says, "How dare you attempt to define what it means to be a woman... YOU AREN'T ONE."

On one level, this is pure nonsense, as many of the other commentators who came to my defense (thank you) noted. On the other hand, this woman expresses a common modern view: that it is objectionable to make objective observations about groups of which one is not a member. A friend related to me how he was denounced for implying that South and East Asians tend to be good with mathematics. There are sometimes popular controversies when a white sports commentator praises the talents of Black athletes as such. And let's not forget the "Nappy Hair" controversy in which a white teacher was hounded out of a school for using a book (by an African-American author) about a beautiful Black girl with "nappy" hair.

Now it is very reasonable to see as silly for anyone to object to praise, but on reflection, I came to realize that such objections are inevitable given modern assumptions about what it means to be human.

Take this statement by a prominent American jurist:

At the heart of liberty is the right to define one's own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.

That's the famed "mystery passage" from Justice Kennedy's majority opinion in Planned Parenthood vs. Casey. It's all about self-definition. Only I define myself, I am not to be defined by anyone else.

This belief finds its root in the modern exaltation of the experimental method above all else. This cultural paradigm has two mutually exclusive parts: the experimenter and the experimental subject under investigation: the knower and the known. The experimenter is incorporeal and transcends all rational consideration, but the subject is corporeal and purely passive or receptive. (Notice that the anonymous commentator calls me "a male-bodied person"—as if my masculinity were only a characteristic of my body, not my whole self. This is modern mind-body dualism: I'm not my body but a disembodied intelligence that owns my body.)

It is distinctively human to know: in the visible universe, humans are the only creatures who know intellectually. Modernity takes as the exemplar of humanity the experimenter who can know but cannot be known. On the other hand, the experimental subject cannot know: it is not human, or somehow less than fully human.

So there are two categories: the knower and the known. Modernity cleaves an impassible boundary between these two: there is no overlap at any given time: one is either known or a knower. So that when someone makes an observation about a group, the modern person implicitly interprets this as an assertion of dominance ("I can know you" = "I transcend you") and an assertion that the group being discussed is somehow less than fully human. (This is a large part of the reason "essentialism" is thoughtcrime in the academy today.)

In reality of course, all of us can be known by others. We have objective traits. Even our mode of knowing reveals something about us. The active and the passive are inextricably intertwined in the human person (as in all creatures), not two separable halves. Knowing itself requires not only acting on the universe, but also being acted upon by the universe. How could I see if light did not act on my eyes, or hear if sound did not act on my ears? In touching I act on something, but am also acted upon. Humans as such are not only actors but also receivers of action.

In making positive statements about what it means to be a woman, our commentator think that I am insulting women by observing they have a nature that can be known. But it is really modernity that insults women:

  • by ascribing personhood only to the invisible, knowing, core of a human, to whom the body and its traits are only accidental,
  • by reconceiving humanity to exclude being known,
  • by redefining receptivity (characteristically feminine2) to be less than human.

Of course femininity and masculinity make no sense without each other. They likewise make no sense without recognition of the end of their union: the procreation of new humans. Women in particular are ridiculous without an understanding of their relation to procreation: the womb, the mammary glands make no sense without their purpose: nurturing a baby. Without that, they are wastes of flesh. Women's wide hips are inefficient for running: what would be the point if the enlarged crania of human children didn't need a wide birth canal? But if women did not have these distinctive physiological features, or the hormonal system that supports their activity, what would separate them from men? Nothing.

Masculinity and femininity (pace our commentator) do not stop with the body, but permeate the soul. Men and women approach reality—know it—in distinctive, complementary ways. This is why one can enjoy the company of a person of the other sex without any genital activity or intentions. There is a mutual complementarity of soul, a give and take, that makes it pleasurable for men and women to talk. It is tragic that our society, in its monomaniacal focus on orgasm, is blind to this more gentle, non-genital form of sexual activity ("sexual" understood in its original sense). It is tragic that mind-body dualism, such as expressed by our commentator, has impoverished our culture and our lives.

Feminists like our commentator are victims of this ideology and unwitting agents of its spread. But perhaps ultimately they are not entirely to blame. Blindness to the more subtle, non-corporeal aspects of sexual complementarity may be the result of psychological trauma. Feminists are often deeply wounded women, and almost always it is the men in their lives who have wounded them.

When men fail to take seriously their responsibility to protect women, and abuse their power, women end up trying to take control. The unfortunate result is feminism3


1. Clifford R. Goldstein misses the point when he says Kennedy is merely protecting conscience rights (religious and otherwise) in the American tradition. He makes Kennedy's statement equivalent to Justice Felix Frankfurter's "Certainly the affirmative pursuit of one's convictions about the ultimate mystery of the universe and man's relation to it is placed beyond the reach of law." Notice the invocation of "law": the Frankfurter statement is about the limits of the law, while Kennedy is philosophizing about ultimate realities (the hubris!). Further, Frankfurter speaks of "the affirmative pursuit of one's convictions" (a freedom for the good as one perceives it), while Kennedy is declaring a right to "define" one's self, not unlike the "knowing good and evil" (i.e., right to define good and evil) that the serpent offered to Eve—a freedom from all outside influences. Goldstein misconceives conscience in precisely the way that Kennedy does, as a self-defining freedom rather than a power that recognizes God's truth mediated by our nature.

2. As I say in the body of text, it is procreation that defines femininity and masculinity. Without procreation, it would make no sense to have sexes (and indeed contraception's destruction of procreation has brought the effacement of sexual differences). There is nothing distinctively feminine except in light of women's role in procreation (also true of the masculine and men, as well as of men and women who forgo procreation to use their masculinity and femininity in other unselfish life-giving ways). Now as Aristotle says, we call feminine was produces life within itself and masculine what produces life in another (e.g., "Mother Nature", the Sun personified as masculine). Thus the feminine that reproduces in conjunction with the masculine is necessarily receptive: she must receive the masculine element into herself to conceive. Notice that in human courtship, the male plays the more active role of approaching the female who can receive (or reject). In social dancing likewise, the male plays the active role and the female the receptive (in Scholastic terminology, "passive") role. Note: women aren't purely receptive; only primary matter is purely receptive. All substantial beings are a mixture of actuality and receptivity.

3. Likewise when kings fail to care for their subjects and aristocrats lord their privilege over commoners, the result is Revolution.

Just ran across this ironic invocation of something very like the mystery passage.

Sunday, May 09, 2010

Technology vs. Motherhood

Today is not only Mothers Day, it is ironically also the 50th anniversary of the FDA's approval of the Birth Control Pill, that technology that allows women (and men) to prevent birth in order to avoid control... and motherhood (to take a liberty with Chesterton, who had some other choice words on birth control.)

Time magazine has a pretty thorough review of the history of the Pill, though you have to wonder about a writer who cites the Kinsey Report as anything more than science fantasy authored by a sex maniac (also uses the usual whitewashed biography of Margaret Sanger).

There's one provocative passage about John Rock, one of the Pill's inventors, who was a Roman Catholic:

Would Catholics object and boycott the company's other products? While maintaining its view that contraception — or "sterilizing" the act of intercourse — was morally wrong, the Catholic Church in the 1950s had accepted the rhythm method as a valid approach to family planning; since women were fertile only during certain days around the midpoint of their menstrual cycle, the idea was that couples would limit intercourse to the woman's "safe" period. But this was by no means foolproof, especially for women with irregular cycles.

Rock thought the Pill provided an exquisite chemical escape hatch. With the Pill, there was no barrier preventing the union of sperm and egg; all the Pill did, Rock argued, was mimic naturally occurring hormones to extend the safe period, so that sex was safe all month long. The church wouldn't need to change its historic teaching, he suggested; the Pill just fell outside its definition of contraception.

Yet mimicry, no matter how convincing, is not nature. Rock's argument grew from the classic mechanistic conception of nature: that nature is a somewhat arbitrary assemblage of parts that can be manipulated at our convenience. What's missing is a larger consideration of embodied man as a moral agent. As C.S. Lewis wrote:

There is something which unites magic and applied science while separating both from the wisdom of earlier ages. For the wise men of old the cardinal problem had been how to conform the soul to reality, and the solution had been knowledge, self-discipline, and virtue. For magic and applied science alike the problem is how to subdue reality to the wishes of men: the solution is a technique; and both, in the practice of this technique, are ready to do things hitherto regarded as disgusting and impious—such as digging up and mutilating the dead. (The Abolition of Man, ch. 3.)

Of course pharmaceutical companies have also had to redefine when life begins in order to avoid the Pill being legally categorized as an abortifacient. One of the Pill's secondary effects is to prevent implantation in the uterine lining of a newly conceived child. So big pharma redefined implantation instead of conception to be the beginning of life. (This is not unlike the redefinition of death as "brain death" in order to facilitate the harvesting of organs.)

The Time article is right that the Pill itself did not unleash the sexual revolution: the demand for sexual pleasure without ties that bind has always been a part of human psychology, especially that of men (women as a group tend to desire primarily the relationship sexual relations foster). The Pill is as much a symptom of our societal illness as a cause. The drive to manipulate nature, without accepting the givenness of the world's boundaries, is uniquely modern. The modern project is blind to the sacredness of nature, in particular of human nature. The Pill is a product of this mindset.

The flagship of the modern project is modern science. All of science rises or falls on the experimental method. But take a look at the summit of this method: controlled experimentation. It's about control. Things fall within the purview of modern science to the extent they can be controlled. They fall outside to the extent they transcend control. Thus the "scientific" picture of man is necessarily truncated to that of a being who can be controlled, manipulated at convenience by some unexamined controller:

The expressions ‘the order of nature’ and ‘the biological order’ must not be confused or regarded as identical; the ‘biological order’ does indeed mean the same as the order of nature but only insofar as this is accessible to the methods of empirical and descriptive natural science.... The ‘biological order’, as a product of the human intellect which abstracts its elements from a larger reality, has man for its immediate author.1 (Karol Wojtyla, Love and Responsibility, pp. 56–57)

Man is the manipulator, so man is the author of the scientific order. But in the case of the Pill, man is also the object of study. As Lewis expresses it so well:

Each new power won by man is a power over man as well. Each advance leaves him weaker as well as stronger. In every victory, besides being the general who triumphs, he is also the prisoner who follows the triumphal car.

....what we call Man's power over Nature turns out to be a power exercised by some men over other men with Nature as its instrument. (The Abolition of Man, ch. 3.)

Lewis points out how the Pill manipulates future generations. But it also manipulates the women who use it. Feminists like Carolyn Merchant rightly point to the latent anti-feminine agenda of Bacon's experimental method, but fail to raise the alarm about how the products of that method, like the Pill, damage women.2

For the modern project, the dignity of being called human (in the best sense) is only granted to the extent that a person is the controller, not the controlled. Thus women are only considered fully human to the extent they approximate the attributes of the male: power and independence. This is most visible in Enlightenment philosophers such as Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau, whose hypothetical states of nature depict men as atoms of force and leave no room for the family, children, or what is distinctly feminine. Women as such are a nullity to the modern project. Feminists accept this premise and seek to exalt women by conforming them to the male archetype.

The Pill is a great boon to playboys and womanizers: having excluded the natural ends of sex, a man may enjoy as many women to enjoy as he desires, with no ties, no limits. The AP article says sardonically, "After all these years, a male equivalent to the birth control pill is still five to seven years away." Contraception is above all about men manipulating women.

The Pill is a great boon to social engineers. What good is motherhood anyway? We need a society of homogenized individuals who can be moved and manipulated for economic exigency, so let's do away with intermediate institutions like the family: in the future children will come from central factories and every man will stand naked before the power of the State. Motherhood doesn't count toward Gross Domestic Product, so what good can that institution be? We need more (immediate) productivity, so turn women out into the work force.

For many purposes the Pill effectively turns a woman into a man: a man who may be more verbal, more social, and adorned with pleasing curves, but still a compact economic unit unencumbered by larger allegiances outside the centrally planned State.

Fulton Sheen wrote, "If parents surrender responsibility to their children, the state will take up the slack. State power is the effect of the breakdown of family authority. Mothers more than politicians are the preservers of freedom and democracy."

So thank your mother today for your life and her love: it means much more for all of us than we may realize.


1. The fuller context of the quotation, which is probably the most important part of Love and Responsibility:

The order of existence is the Divine Order, although existence is not in itself something supernatural. But then the Divine Order includes not only the supernatural order but the order of nature too, which also stands in a permanent relationship to God and the Creator. The expressions 'the order of nature' and 'the biological order' must not be confused or regarded as identical; the 'biological order' does indeed mean the same as the order of nature but [the order of nature] only insofar as this is accessible to the methods of empirical and descriptive natural science, and not as a specific order of existence with an obvious relationship to the First Cause, to God the Creator.

The habit of confusing the order of existence with the biological order, or rather of allowing the second to obscure the first, is part of the generalized empiricism which seems to weigh so heavily on the mind of modern man, and particularly on modern intellectuals, and makes it particularly difficult for them to understand the [not theological but philosophical] principles on which Catholic sexual morality is based. According to those [philosophical] principles sex and the sexual urge are not solely and exclusively a specific part of the psycho-physiological make-up of man. The sexual urge owes its objective importance to its connection with the divine work of creation of which we have been speaking, and this importance vanishes almost completely if our way of thinking is inspired only by the biological order of nature. Seen in this [biological] perspective the sexual urge is only the sum of functions undoubtedly directed, from the biological point of view, towards a biological end, that of reproduction. Now, if man is the master of nature, should he not mould those functions—if necessary artificially, with the help of appropriate techniques—in whatever way he considers expedient and agreeable? The 'biological order', as a product of the human intellect which abstracts its elements from a larger reality, has man for its immediate author. The claim to autonomy in one's ethical views is a short jump from this. It is otherwise with the 'order of nature', which means the totality of the cosmic relationships that arise among really existing entities. It is therefore the order of existence, and the laws which govern it have their foundation in Him, Who is the unfailing source of that existence, in God the Creator. (pp. 56–57)

It should be noted that our access to the natural order is not restricted to that small slice of human experience that is experiment (the basis of modern science). To restrict oneself to exploration of the controllable world is a priori to exclude the possibility of discovering anything beyond experimental control, most especially something as transcendent as the Creator. If a person opens himself to the whole of human common experience and reason, he comes to realize that he is not the author of the world's order, but that it must be given by a transcendent author.

2. Not to mention families and the children they nurture. Also not to mention the many unhealthy side effects, like heightening susceptibility to HIV/AIDS; not to mention damage to the extra-human environment. More health side effects at this link.

Nancy Gibbs, "The Pill at 50: Sex, Freedom and Paradox," Time (Apr. 22, 2010).

Carolyn Merchant, "'The Violence of Impediments': Francis Bacon and the Origins of Experimentation," Isis 2008, 99:731-760.

Carla K. Johnson, "America's favorite birth control method turns 50," Associated Press (May 7, 2010).

Fulton J. Sheen, "Women Who Do Not Fail," Life Is Worth Living, Second Series (New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, Inc., 1954), 176-177.