Sunday, August 29, 2010

Oversexed or Undersexed

Stacy MacDonald has some insightful comments about my recent blog series on gender, morality and modesty. For example, taking up where I left off she acutely observes that "Ironically, as our senses are dulled, rather than being oversexed, we become undersexed. Not that sexual activity decreases, but the satisfaction of it does. In addition, sexuality must become more and more shocking to invoke a reaction, which introduces perversions of all sorts.”


Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Gender, Morality and Modesty Part 6 (Liberated into Bondage)

This is the final post in a series on gender, morality and modesty and builds on the arguments developed in the earlier posts. To view the earlier articles in the series, click here.

In carrying on the discussion in this final post, I would like to suggest that by urging us to follow the dictates of “nature” rather than an externally imposed system of morality, the propagators of the Enlightenment believed they were liberating our sexuality, freeing us to be naturally sexual rather than unnaturally repressed.  It would be some time before we would witness the consequences of a society that was willing to take this agenda seriously.  Since the Enlightenment there has been a gradual lessening of all sexual restraints, with high points such as the “free love” movement of the mid-nineteenth century and, finally, the so-called “sexual revolution” of the 1960s.  The total result is perhaps the last thing we would expect: we find that, comparatively speaking, the people of today have become de-sexualized and inhibited in being naturally sexual.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Gender, Morality and Modesty Part 5 (the Disenchanting of Sex)

In the current series of blog posts (all of which can be assessed here) we have been considering the formative role that various secular philosophies have had in deconstructing what it means to be human in general and what it means to be a man and a woman in particular.
In the first post, 'Gender, Morality and Modest Part 1' we considered the implication that certain ideas of the European Enlightenment had on the concept of nature.  If everything a person does is simply the predetermined result of mechanical forces, then all actions can be defended as being “natural.” We explored some of the implications this had in the area of sexual morals.  In particular, we saw how it unleashed a sexual revolution at the time of the Enlightenment. We saw how the followers of Locke had no reservation in moving from a mechanistic view of man to formulating an entirely mechanistic theory of moral values. Hence, we saw Diderot arguing that since man is a part of nature, whatever he does is, by definition, “natural”.  We explored that it was in the area of sexual ethics that the ideas of the Enlightenment become acutely practical. Since determinism implied that anything is natural as long as you are doing it (since no action could have been otherwise in the great deterministic machine), it followed that nature could be used to defend sexual taboos as well as a more licentious approach. (And it should hardly come as a surprise if the naturalness of the latter and not the former began to dominate popular thinking as the eighteenth century progressed.)

We built on this in Part 2 by considering the way key Enlightenment thinkers were unhappy with the practical ramification their ideas were having in the area of sexual morality. As an alternative, they proposed utilitarian substitutes to Christian morality. The pragmatic approach to sexual ethics at the time of the Enlightenment is similar to how people also began to approach religion in the eighteenth century. Though the materialist philosophers of the Enlightenment all agreed that the doctrines, practices and claims of institutionalized religion were absurd, a good many of these philosophers also felt that society needed these institutions in order to give the common people an incentive for morality. In other words, though religion might be based entirely on fables, it was still a necessary component to a cohesive society. Likewise, while many 18th century intellectuals considered the Christian taboos about extra-marital sex to have no rational basis, still it was better for society if those taboos were generally adhered to. And, of course, they weren’t. Clinging to the forms of religion and morality without the content, the result was not dissimilar to the way our own era has developed a pseudo-morality around the need for “safe sex.” (Indeed, following in the Enlightenment pedigree, the Chastity Movement has generally been content to affirm the thou-shalt-nots of Christian doctrine on entirely utilitarian grounds.)

In the third post in this series, titled “Ideas Have Consequences”, we considered that just as materialism affected one’s view of morality, it also affects one’s view of gender.  A corollary of mankind being deconstructed by the materialist hammer is that our identity as men and women is also smashed.  We saw how these problems played out in the conflict between Rousseau and Mary Wollstonecraft. The very idea that the sexes would have different roles, responsibilities, strengths and weaknesses, had assumed that these differences went beyond mere physical dissimilarities. Indeed, it had assumed that men and women were different in their very natures. However, materialism’s reduction of human beings left men and women without any natures at all. What we call our “nature” is really only billions of particles that happen to have collided in the event we call a person. The corollary of this was that the ancient customs and notions that the eighteenth century inherited concerning relations between men and women were believed to be flawed not simply in practice, but in very principle. We thus find Mary Wollstonecraft keen to eliminate modesty as a sexual virtue in women. This reduction of modesty to a sexually neutral virtue was an unavoidable consequence of Wollstonecraft's androgyny, which was itself an inevitable consequence of the Enlightenment materialism explore in Part 1 of this series.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Gender, Morality and Modesty Part 4 (the Gender Benders)

In a previous post, ‘Utilitarian Ethics’, I considered the way the Enlightenment severed sexuality from the restraining influences of an allegedly outdated ethic. At the same time, we saw that it was customary to temper the implications of this move with a utilitarian pragmatism as ambiguous as it was ungrounded. However, once it was conceded that there was no more to man and woman than matter, that men and women are as much a product of determinism as the motion of the stars (a topic I explored in the first post in this series), a sexual time bomb was necessarily set in motion. It is in our own age that this time bomb has gone off.

This is not to deny that there were immediate practical consequences of the new thinking. Indeed, we explored some of these consequences in my previous post, ‘Ideas Have Consequences’. However, in the eighteenth century these consequences were mainly manifested in a straightforward increase of sexual licentiousness, on the one hand, and a plea for egalitarianism, on the other. Our age, however, has seen more than merely a quantitative increase in either of these areas; rather, we have undergone a complete qualitative upheaval in what it even means to be a sexual being.

The Deconstruction of Gender

The synthesizing of the gender polarity has been one of the hallmarks of the twentieth century. Starting from the correct premise that many of the roles and differences assigned to the sexes have been culturally conditioned, it has become commonplace to assume that all gender differences are culturally limited. Reflecting on this reductive approach to gender, David Wells pointed out that

It is true, of course, that manhood and womanhood are partly cultural creations. They are matters of cultural nurture. What much of our current belief assumes, however, is that they are only matters of nurture, not of nature at all, and that our most fundamental identities as men and women are matters of choice and of construction. (David F. Wells, Losing Our Virtue, p. 90.)

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Language and Cognition

Ever since reading Malcom Gladwell’s book Outliers I have been fascinated by the relationship between language and cognition. Gladwell explores this in relation to why Asians are good at math. They are good at math because there is a built in logic to the way numbers are described in the Chinese language (they are also good at math because of their rice paddies, but that is a different story). Click here to read an extract of Gladwell’s discussion, where he explains numbers make more sense for someone speaking Chinese than English.

This same theme was taken by a few weeks ago by a fascinating article in the Wall Street Journal, titled ‘Lost in Translation.’ Using the latest cognitive research, sociologists have discovered that how you speak affects not just how you describe the world, but how you see it and how you interpret your experiences. The article is full of the most fascinating examples, including this one:
About a third of the world's languages (spoken in all kinds of physical environments) rely on absolute directions for space. As a result of this constant linguistic training, speakers of such languages are remarkably good at staying oriented and keeping track of where they are, even in unfamiliar landscapes. They perform navigational feats scientists once thought were beyond human capabilities. This is a big difference, a fundamentally different way of conceptualizing space, trained by language.
Differences in how people think about space don't end there. People rely on their spatial knowledge to build many other more complex or abstract representations including time, number, musical pitch, kinship relations, morality and emotions. So if Pormpuraawans think differently about space, do they also think differently about other things, like time?
To find out, my colleague Alice Gaby and I traveled to Australia and gave Pormpuraawans sets of pictures that showed temporal progressions (for example, pictures of a man at different ages, or a crocodile growing, or a banana being eaten). Their job was to arrange the shuffled photos on the ground to show the correct temporal order. We tested each person in two separate sittings, each time facing in a different cardinal direction. When asked to do this, English speakers arrange time from left to right. Hebrew speakers do it from right to left (because Hebrew is written from right to left).
Pormpuraawans, we found, arranged time from east to west. That is, seated facing south, time went left to right. When facing north, right to left. When facing east, toward the body, and so on. Of course, we never told any of our participants which direction they faced. The Pormpuraawans not only knew that already, but they also spontaneously used this spatial orientation to construct their representations of time. And many other ways to organize time exist in the world's languages. In Mandarin, the future can be below and the past above. In Aymara, spoken in South America, the future is behind and the past in front.
In addition to space and time, languages also shape how we understand causality. For example, English likes to describe events in terms of agents doing things. English speakers tend to say things like "John broke the vase" even for accidents. Speakers of Spanish or Japanese would be more likely to say "the vase broke itself." Such differences between languages have profound consequences for how their speakers understand events, construct notions of causality and agency, what they remember as eyewitnesses and how much they blame and punish others.
In studies conducted by Caitlin Fausey at Stanford, speakers of English, Spanish and Japanese watched videos of two people popping balloons, breaking eggs and spilling drinks either intentionally or accidentally. Later everyone got a surprise memory test: For each event, can you remember who did it? She discovered a striking cross-linguistic difference in eyewitness memory. Spanish and Japanese speakers did not remember the agents of accidental events as well as did English speakers. Mind you, they remembered the agents of intentional events (for which their language would mention the agent) just fine. But for accidental events, when one wouldn't normally mention the agent in Spanish or Japanese, they didn't encode or remember the agent as well.

To read the entire article, click here.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Peter Singer Quote

"Here is a thought experiment to test our attitudes to this view. Most thoughtful people are extremely concerned about climate change. Some stop eating meat, or flying abroad on vacation, in order to reduce their carbon footprint. But the people who will be most severely harmed by climate change have not yet been conceived. If there were to be no future generations, there would be much less for us to feel to guilty about. So why don’t we make ourselves the last generation on earth? If we would all agree to have ourselves sterilized then no sacrifices would be required — we could party our way into extinction! Of course, it would be impossible to get agreement on universal sterilization, but just imagine that we could. Then is there anything wrong with this scenario? Even if we take a less pessimistic view of human existence than Benatar, we could still defend it, because it makes us better off — for one thing, we can get rid of all that guilt about what we are doing to future generations — and it doesn’t make anyone worse off, because there won’t be anyone else to be worse off." Peter Singer, from 'Should This Be the Last Generation?'

Gender, Morality and Modesty Part 3 (Ideas Have Consequences)

It is reported that William Temple, who became the Archbishop of Canterbury in 1942, once asked his father, who was then the Archbishop, “Daddy, why don’t the philosophers rule the world?” His father looked down at the boy and replied, “Of course they do, silly—two hundred years after they’re dead!”

The more one studies history, the more apparent it becomes that William Temple’s father had a point.  In fact, we could state the matter in even stronger terms: there has never been a more powerful influence, a greater agency of change or a stronger force for good or ill in this world than that of human ideas.

Such a statement may seem out of place in a society that has long since relegated philosophy (the science of correct thinking) to a specialists’ discipline. Reflection on ideas has little or no relevance to the world of everyday affairs, many people think. We have come a long way from the time when philosophy was considered to be the backbone of all the disciplines, including the sciences (indeed, the early scientists called themselves “Natural Philosophers”).
One’s philosophy of the world, or worldview, is still the backbone for how we view everything else, whether we realize it or not.  This is even true for those who have never given much thought to questions of worldview. As John Byl puts it in his book The Divine Challenge:

Many people hold their worldviews implicitly, without having deeply reflected on what they believe and why they believe it. They may not even realize that they have a worldview. Consequently, they may unwittingly hold beliefs that are mutually contradictory.

A person’s life, motivations, priorities, agendas, conversation and assumptions are just some of the areas that are affected by one’s worldview.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Gender, Morality and Modesty Part 2 (Utilitarian Ethics)

R.G. Collingwood once remarked that “The chief business of twentieth-century philosophy is to reckon with twentieth-century history.”

Too often Collingwood’s injunction has been ignored, with the discussion of ideas being insulated from the consequences those ideas have had in the world of space and time.
This is especially true when it comes to ideas affecting gender and sexual morality, which is the topic of my present series of blog posts. I want to eventually comment on the contemporary crisis of gender confusion, but I find I can only do so by first spending some time examining ideas that were forged in the fires of the European Enlightenment. Only by understanding those ideas will we be in a position to adequately address the challenges that face us today.

In the previous post in this series I suggested that various ideas that became popular at the time of the Enlightenment had the affect of reducing human beings to an impersonal machine. In this post I would like to explore how various philosophers tried to temper the severity of this implication and still maintain some vestige of morality, while in the next post we will look at the effect that this had on the idea of gender.

Monday, August 09, 2010

Gender, Morality and Modesty Part 1 (Reducing the Human)

Having taken up the subject gender in my silly post last month (I hope everyone knew it was tongue and cheek, although there have been a few people who have worried about me ever since), I return to the subject of gender in a tone of seriousness. However, this time I will be discussing gender in relation to morality and modesty. At least that's where I hope to get by the end of this series. This present post will lay some of the foundation by giving a brief history lesson.

Few people know about the sexual revolution that occurred in Europe during the mid 18th century, but it is crucial for understanding the subsequent contour that gender has taken in the modern West ever since. At the risk of gross oversimplification, there were three main ideas of the 18th century Enlightenment that played out in how people began thinking of gender, morality and modesty. They were

1)    Materialism
2)    Materialistic Determinism
3)    Nature

Let’s start with the first.

Saturday, August 07, 2010

Child Rearing

"What we want to do with our children, is not merely to control them and keep them in order–but to implant true principles deep in their hearts which shall rule their whole lives; to shape their character from within into Christ-like beauty, and to make of them noble men and women, strong for battle of life. They are to be trainedgoverned. Growth of character, not merely good behavior–is the object of all home governing and teaching. Therefore the home influence is far more important than the home laws; and the parents’ lives are of more significance than their teachings. Whatever may be done in the way of governing, teaching or training–theories are not half as important as the parents’ lives. They may teach the most beautiful things–but if the child does not see these things modeled in the life of the parent–he will not consider them important enough to be adopted in his own life. J. R. Miller, from Home-Making, 1882.

Friday, August 06, 2010

Learning from the BP Oil Spill

At approximately 9:45 pm on 20 April 2010, methane gas under extremely high pressure short out of the drill column at the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig in the gulf of Mexico. When the gas reached the platform on the oil rig, it ignited, killing eleven British Petroleum workers.

But that was just the beginning of the disaster. For nearly three months, crude oil gushed out of the wellhead at a rate of at 210, 000 gallons per day while BP workers tried frantically but unsuccessfully to contain the leak. Meanwhile, the resulting oil slick spread out over a radius of at least 2,500 square miles, polluting the coastlines of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida and killing thousands of species in what was already an extremely delicate ecosystem.

Finally, on 15 July, 2010, BP workers said the leak had been contained through the installation of a cap, although it is by no means certain that this will work as a permanent solution.

By far, this has been the worst environmental disaster in American history, prompting dozens of scientists and politicians to ask what they can learn from the tragedy. Unfortunately, however, the real lessons we should be learning seem to have evaded the experts. The very same shortcuts and foolish decisions that led to the disaster in the first place continue to be perpetuated, not least in the clean up efforts.

To read my entire article on this subject, click HERE.

Wednesday, August 04, 2010

Christendom is not simply a collection Christians living together in society. Rather, Christendom is the institutions, literature, manners, works of arts, values – in short, the entire fabric of the culture emanating out of Christian civilization.
As Christian belief has worked its way through Western culture, conquering the forces of barbarism and paganism, one very noticeable consequence has been in the type of art that Christendom has produced. The rise of oil painting, the Sonata, the sonnet, the symphony, the opera and dozens of other creative enterprises have all been products of Christian culture. This is no coincidence, for many of the aesthetic norms and genres associated with Western art came as a direct result of the Christian worldview being deeply saturated in the fabric of our cultural ethos. Although the doctrine of the image of God as well as the doctrine of God’s common grace mean that unbelievers are capable of producing artifacts which truly reflect Divine beauty, over long periods of time non-Christian cultures generally tend towards ugliness. They tend towards the ugliness that comes as a corollary of the relativism necessitated by the rejection of any final standard of truth.
Unfortunately many Christians today have been influenced by the pagan notion that aesthetic categories are subjective. Hence, a generation of young people are growing up who are unequipped to defend the great works of Western art as having any objective primacy over and against the ugliness of contemporary paganism. While rejecting relativism in ethics (“there are no absolutes when it comes to right and wrong”) and relativism in truth (“you have your truth and I have my truth”), many Christians have unwittingly embraced aesthetic relativism, unthinkingly repeating maxims like, “what is beautiful to you may not be beautiful to me,” and “beauty exists in the eye of the beholder.” The following resources aim to debunk this myth by establishing, first, that beauty is an objective quality and, second, that when it comes to matters of aesthetics, a the worldview of a culture has a direct bearing on artistic production and notions of beauty.

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Sunday, August 01, 2010

The Secularization of Victorian Religion

"The moment of secularisation was not the fracturing of an already-desiccated Victorianism in the 1960s; it was somewhere around the time that evangelical ethics became second nature to the British, not requiring the exogenous relief of the salvation economy because nine-tenths of salvation was now conduct. As the Congregationalist, R.W. Dale, perceived, the impulse to live without God could grow within the religious culture. When he warned in 1880 of the danger of cultivating ‘religious sentiment of a kind which makes God unnecessary’ he touched a raw nerve in Victorian Christianity – and one that has scarcely registered with historians. It was the secularisation of the Christian culture itself, rather than society at large, that was the crucial development. My contention is that the process was driven less by ‘high’ theology than the implicit theology that came to equate sin with certain kinds of pleasure and salvation with avoiding them. This mutation of religion into ethics took place right under the eyes of some of the most conservative Christian leaders; indeed it was welcomed as evidence of realism, practicality and engagement. Yet it was a process as subversive of the salvation economy as any external challenge. It proclaimed the most unevangelical message that an ability to resist a known set of ‘temptations’ was the greater part of godliness. Victorian religion was all about combating such temptations, employing manliness, self-control and ‘safe’ alternatives such as sport. In the long run, the cure proved as deadly as the disease, and evangelicals felt it most. The salvation industry could not live on a diet of temperance, recreation and stiffened wills, and it faltered. Evangelicals had protested louder than any at the eighteenth-century equation of Christianity with mere moralism, they had reminded the British that Christianity is, in Weber’s phrase, ‘salvation religion’, but they had manufactured something comparably ‘this-worldly’ by the late nineteenth century.

"...some ecclesiastical strategies were ‘a form of secularisation’ not because they broke the pristine rules of one denomination but because they established mechanisms of salvation that were increasingly independent of supernatural belief and sustenance. Slowly but perceptibly the tone and mentality of Christian organisations changed as the Christian walk was redefined as an essentially earthly agon. The process was subtle but, over a period of time, decisive.” Dominic Edozain, The Problem of Pleasure: Sport, Recreation and the Crisis of Victorian Religion, p. 6-7 & 13.

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