Sunday, January 13, 2019

I think I just stopped being a feminist


Clemson’s Justyn Ross makes a one-handed catch in front of Alabama’s Josh Jobe during the second half of the NCAA college football playoff championship. (AP Photo/Ben Margot)

Over the past two years I have been writing off and on about social cohesion, inspired in large measure by Sebastian Junger’s Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging and to a lesser extent by Charles C. Mann’s The Wizard and the Prophet.

I actually began writing about this subject many years ago, but back then it was more about cognitive science and why we as a species are so easily lured to deny peak oil, climate change, and ubiquitous ponzinomics.

When I wrote about synthetic fabrics in fashion a couple weeks ago, I fell back into a familiar analogy, probably stolen from Nate Hagens a decade or more back, of wildebeest crossing a river full of crocodiles. Not all the wildebeest make it, but most do. It is herd strategy, the same one we adopted as primates before we came down from the trees, if not earlier. 

The herd strategy is defensive and hard-wired. It pairs well with the MORT gene I described here after reading Anit Varki and Danny Brower’s paper in Nature in 2009, “Human uniqueness and the denial of death.”

Denial: Self-Deception, False Beliefs, and the Origins of the Human Mind The history of science abounds with momentous theories that disrupted conventional wisdom and yet were eventually...

In Irmageddon, I wrote:
For reasons that have been well articulated now by cognitive scientists, human denial — a DNA-level defense mechanism — goes into overdrive when our survival is placed into jeopardy. Denial and existential climate threat are a stable pair.
In Rescuing Los Angeles, I wrote:
We continuously signal to others in our herd that we are with them. We are part. We are in this tribe. We seek tribe approval, acceptance, respect. We may do this the way birds do, with colorful plumage, or the way horses do, with speed and agility. A necktie or a pants suit are forms of that signaling. A sports car is another.
I have come to the conclusion that virtually all aspects of our existential predicament, if not all human problems, stem from these two unfortunate genes, tribe and denial. Separately, we might be able to cope with the consequences of either. Together, they are fatal to our kind, not to mention the collateral damage caused to the web of life as we ungracefully exit this brief experiment with human-level existence.

It is easily seen in political factions. Caitlin Johnstone observes:
Trump supporters are acting like he’s a swamp-draining, war-ending peacenik, his enemies are acting like he’s feeding a bunch of Kurds on conveyor belts into Turkish meat grinders to be made into sausages for Vladimir Putin’s breakfast, when in reality nothing has changed and may not change at all.
This battle of narratives, reinforced by normative and cognitive biases, is really no different than what happened in Buenos Aires in the run-up to the soccer game between arch-rivals Boca Junior and River Plate or can be seen in any US football stadium or Commonwealth rugby pitch on game day. It is not just the teams that are squaring off, it is the intensely loyal fans.

You can say team spirit is a good thing, and I gave an example when I wrote about my proto-ecovillage, The Farm, in The Ragweed Tribe. You can watch the Netflix series “Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events,” based on the children's books by Daniel Handler, and have great sympathy and admiration for three orphan children who cling together through cascading miusfortune, but as my permaculture mentor Adam Turtle once said to me, “Family ain’t no account.” And he is right. Your family is just the luck of the draw. You could as easily be born to crackheads as Oxford scholars. What loyalty do you owe and what good or evil might that accomplish?

As much as I like to lionize the wisdom of indigenous peoples, I will be the first to acknowledge that a lot of cruel and horrid practices rippled through Native American societies for generations, entirely out of unchallenged and unchallengeable familial loyalty.


Last fall a friendly argument with a Cuban history professor in Havana grew heated when I asked what his thinking was on Che Guevara’s inability to resist the temptation to torture former torturers, including members of Batista’s Buró de Represión de Actividades Comunistas, that he held captive in the Forteleza La Cabaña. The professor vehemently denied Che would do such a thing, and gave me examples of extreme clemency, although I still find the testimony of survivors compelling. Tribal loyalty in Cuba runs very high and can cast even otherwise cautious scholars adrift on popular waves of myth and fable.
“Hatred as an element of struggle; unbending hatred for the enemy, which pushes a human being beyond his natural limitations, making him into an effective, violent, selective, and cold-blooded killing machine. This is what our soldiers must become … ” 

Cuban poet and later Ambassador to the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, Armando Valladares, described what going to La Cabaña meant:
For me, it meant 8,000 days of hunger, of systematic beatings, of hard labor, of solitary confinement and solitude, 8,000 days of struggling to prove that I was a human being, 8,000 days of proving that my spirit could triumph over exhaustion and pain, 8,000 days of testing my religious convictions, my faith, of fighting the hate my atheist jailers were trying to instill in me with each bayonet thrust, fighting so that hate would not flourish in my heart, 8,000 days of struggling so that I would not become like them.

“Like them” to Valladares meant the torturers who forced him to eat his own excrement because the Revolution did not approve of his poetry. To his tormenters the “they” were the counter-revolutionary intelligentsia that opposed communism on principle and would never see reason. Guevara, cleaving to the lineage of Cuban patron saints Martí, Bolivar, Humboldt and Hatuay, saw the enemy as anyone who would accept dictatorship by wealthy elites on the false promise they could aspire to become materially wealthy themselves. Both sides of this debate are profoundly wedded to ethical rectitude.

Nafeez Ahmed, pondering how humans managed to get themselves to such an existential precipice, writes:
If we take a moral or ethical value to be indicative of a particular mode or pattern of behaviour, we can conclude from our current civilisational predicament that the predominant value-system premised on self-maximisation through endless material accumulation is fundamentally flawed, out of sync with reality, and objectively counterproductive. Conversely, values we might associate with more collaborative and cooperative behaviours appearing to recognise living beings as interconnected, such as love, generosity and compassion (entailing behavioural patterns in which self-maximisation and concern for the whole are seen as complementary rather than conflictual), would appear to have an objective evolutionary function for the human species.
Sounds pretty communistic to me. If Ahmed were a Cuban under Batista he might be hunted down and shot. After La Revolución he might have become an Ambassador, or targeted by the CIA. Perhaps he is.

Ethical perches seem to me very fuzzy. If by feminism one means seeking to establish educational and professional opportunities for women that are equal to those for men or opposing harassment, domestic violence, genital mutilation and rape, then I am still down with that. But if by feminism one means taking into account only black or white, middle class, Christian and college-educated perspectives, while wishing to impose a dualistic view of gender (personally, I lean towards 12 human sexes, about a third as many as our evolutionary relatives, the basidiomycetes and ascomycetes), then count me out.

I would have liked to see Alabama beat Clemson (I am a big fan of fellow Hawai’ian Tua Tagovialoa and his Maori-style facepaint), but I can stand up and cheer with the Clemson crowd when I see Justyn Ross make an amazing one-handed catch. 

While I love my children and other relatives and hope they will care for me if or when I have need, I do hereby renounce any special obligation beyond garden-variety human compassion. I just wish it was not left, by evil design and an anti-socialist tribal narrative, to poor families to care for their elderly and infirm. That wicked policy defaults to discriminate against any of us who may not, by luck of that original draw or later events, have supportive families, and where is the compassion there?

Color me neither capitalist nor socialist, revolutionary nor reactionary, spiritual nor heretical (present essay notwithstanding), Angloamerican nor Irish, hippy nor square. I think the royal houses of Europe had it right when then undertook to intermarry, quixotically attempting to avert the horrors of whatever last war they just experienced. I find the multilateralism of the United Nations laudable and those who seek to undermine it despicable. Color me the universal human, whose only outward, or inward, symbol of membership in any tribe is my belly button.

From where the sun now stands I will tribe no more forever.

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5 comments:

James R. Martin said...

"From where the sun now stands I will tribe no more forever."

I can just hear the almost silent, snide, under their breath "Yeah, good luck with that"s from those readers who emphasize "nature" over "nurture" in psychology and behavior. And as I pondered it all just now I wondered if there isn't a third category -- a triad rather than a dyad -- in relation to nature and nurture. What would it be called, "will"? Personal will? And when I think about this all it occurs to me that I'm not quite a determinist of the sort some are. Neither biology (nature) nor 'environment' (nurture) determine how I will think, feel and behave -- at least not exclusively. Nor can nature and nurture be disregarded in puzzling out human behavioral, cognitive and experiential dynamics. But something else is at play here besides these two. I don't know if we ought to call it "will". (That may be a traditional word for it?) I'm almost ready to call it … not "soul" but almost "soulfulness" or even "heart". Something -- a human potential -- in us can awaken from the dreams of both nature and nurture, it seems. We become less deterministic, less like machines of tissues and cells, chemicals.... But it has got to awaken of itself, from within. And yet if the conditions are there to nurture and support it in what we call "environment" all the better are the chances we'll "awaken". Yes.

Steve Carrow said...

several point to comment on:
This genetic destiny seems like a feature, not a bug. Call it our original sin, or our dual nature, but the dark side currently dominates because of the environment we are now in. Many religions in their own way identify this aspect of our makeup. Partly our own creation, resulting in emergent patterns, but still not the original conditions that our blend of selfish and cooperative behavior developed in.

This "hard wired" aspect makes our prospects seem rather dim. I assume you are familiar with Dave Cohen's extensive writings on the predicament from the perspective of human psychology. His blog at "decline of the empire" is not active anymore, as he has given up hope of spreading awareness. Some good ideas developed there, but no solutions.

Agriculture, or other factors, have gotten us out beyond Dunbar's number, and there will be hell to pay. As your recent post mentioned, nature plopped a high powered brain in a dexterous, generalist primate, and it's a very new variation, so needs a few million more years to either stabilize in its behavior patterns in relationship to the ecosystem, or to go extinct.



James R. Martin said...

Steve Carrow said...

"Agriculture, or other factors, have gotten us out beyond Dunbar's number, and there will be hell to pay. As your recent post mentioned, nature plopped a high powered brain in a dexterous, generalist primate, and it's a very new variation, so needs a few million more years to either stabilize in its behavior patterns in relationship to the ecosystem, or to go extinct."


I'm not so enamored by Dunbar's number, due to how Dunbar arrived at it by extrapolation of brain size. Nevertheless, it is true that people cooperate and collaborate better within social systems or arrangements built on what is commonly called "the human scale" (In Kirpatrick Sale's sense of that term).

I'm convinced that both root and branch of our social and ecological problems and crises are overwhelmingly ideological in nature, and are therefore mostly perpetuated through (rather ironically) what is called "education" -- which has the core problematic ideology woven right into it from kindergarten through graduate school (and in the home, and on tv and radio and in magazines...). What I'm sayin is that it is our culture which is mad and which drives us mad and has us repeating entirely mad behaviors. Biology surely plays a role in all of this, but it is not the principal driver of our collective madness.


I am neither an optimist nor a pessimist by the dictionary definitions, which all center on predicting that things will either turn out well or will not. That's putting the engine behind the caboose quite unhelpfully. What we need to do is awaken from our cultural ideology / trance / "education" by conforming human nature (and behavior) to … well, natural nature. Or nature as it really is -- including our own. This is the true task of wholesome and good education, with all other approaches being a perpetuation of the ever so familiar madness. All education (actual education) in our time, therefore is both radical and revolutionary in nature. The revolution will (okay, it should) start on campuses and will (should) ultimately fulfil its aim by collapsing the boundary between learning institutions and … everything else. The campus should be the locus of cultural transformation -- until it fulfills this ultimate aim.

Lidia17 said...

Hmm. It sounds like you're just going to become a member of the new tribe of those who nobly reject tribalism.

brothermartin said...

This post is perhaps the first thing you have ever written that left me unsatisfied, though I'm not sure that's quite the right word. You spoke to your post's title in only one paragraph:


Ethical perches seem to me very fuzzy. If by feminism one means seeking to establish educational and professional opportunities for women that are equal to those for men or opposing harassment, domestic violence, genital mutilation and rape, then I am still down with that. But if by feminism one means taking into account only black or white, middle class, Christian and college-educated perspectives, while wishing to impose a dualistic view of gender (personally, I lean towards 12 human sexes, about a third as many as our evolutionary relatives, the basidiomycetes and ascomycetes), then count me out.

I think I would feel more "satisfied" if you unpacked this rather terse denouement--the tree lines beginning with "taking into account: and ending with "dualistic view of gender." Thank you!

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