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.


Equus nom Veritas said...

"(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 also the greatest bit of irony in an already non-sequitur (or ad hominem, depending on how you look at it) argument. It's funny how she sees no cognitive dissonance between her assertion that "YOU AREN'T [A WOMAN]" and "[you are] a male-bodied person." It's something akin to saying "how dare you criticize my driving the Hummer: you drive a BMW convertible!" If we followed her (lack of) reasoning, the body doesn't matter to your gender--yet your gender (or sex) matters immensely to whether or not you can make a statement concerning transcendent morality (which is what her short rant was really about)--indeed, in objective reality writ large. A material fact which is specific and particular to you says nothing about your underlying reality ("masculine," "man") to which it is tied, but everything about the general principle to which it is not.

Lawrence Gage said...

Great point. But I suppose she might claim that my having a male body would prevent me from drawing on the experience of having a female body.