Saturday, March 1, 2008

I Like A Girl With Spirit!

There’s a story I’ve been hearing for some time now, from Golda Meir’s days in the Israeli cabinet, before she became Prime Minister. I haven’t had much luck tracking it down, but I have found this direct quotation (unfortunately unsourced):
Once in the Cabinet we had to deal with the fact that there had been an outbreak of assaults on women at night. One minister (a member of an extreme religious party) suggested a curfew. Women should stay at home after dark. I said: "but it's the men attacking the women. If there's to be a curfew, let the men stay at home, not the women."
Of course the proposed curfew was not enacted; contrary to what most people who tell this story seem to think, I wonder if it had a chance to begin with, since Meir singles out the minister who suggested it as “a member of an extreme religious party” (this was the 1950s, when the ultraorthodox were not the force they are today in Israeli politics). But everyone loves Meir’s comeback, because despite her general anti-feminism, she put her finger on the key issue: why should women, but not men, have to adjust their behavior?
Remember that one result of such a curfew would be that any woman who was raped after curfew would be legally assumed to be “asking for it,” thus letting off the rapist. (I’m not just speculating; such blaming the victim has been traditional in American practice, unquestioned until feminists fought it.) This would also be a consequence of Thornhill and Palmer’s suggestion, in A Natural History of Rape, that girls be taught not to dress provocatively, which is not just stupid and malevolent, it’s regressive. (The same is true, by the way, for their suggestion of mandatory rape-prevention classes for boys, teaching them that they are biologically prone to sexual assault. You don’t have to be a professional psychologist to know that such teaching would encourage rape, not discourage it. But Thornhill and Palmer are scientists, so they must know what they’re talking about.)
Martha McCaughey, in The Caveman Mystique, page 94, quotes two more guys who

remind readers that they do not mean to imply that women should begin to forgive sexual harassers:

It is simply our hope that the more we understand about the evolution of human psychology, the closer we will be to developing appropriate and effective solutions for such unfortunate and deplorable side effects of human nature and behavior as sexual harassment.

Their solution involves changing

the structure of the organizational environment which would reduce the stimulus and opportunity for evolved male sexual psychology to motivate the initiation of sexual advances, and allow women more freedom to change jobs or change their working environment, as they feel is necessary.

Allowing harassers more “freedom” to get fired is not mentioned as a solution, nor is equal pay, although earlier the authors state that women’s economic position relative to men’s makes this male strategy surface (the way lots of gardening makes calluses come out). …

Notice the pious beginning, followed by the assumption that “the organizational environment” should be rearranged around men’s immutable “evolved” obnoxiousness, and that women should be freer to “change jobs” or, in some unspecified way, “their working environment.” (Certainly not in any way that would inconvenience the men.) It’s never clear in such discussions how we – that is, evolutionary psychologists -- know that women are so malleable, so flexible, compared to men’s “evolved” rigidity, which will go all limp if it’s not given free rein. I suspect that malleability is simply assumed, on the male-supremacist postulate that women exist to give service to men; not merely sexual and domestic service, but emotional service as well. (There are echoes of behaviorism in McCaughey’s targets: they want to structure the work environment so as to “reduce the stimulus and opportunity for evolved male sexual psychology to motivate the initiation of sexual advances,” which is right out of Skinner.)
Richard Dawkins exploded (he tends to explode a lot) in a 1997 interview quoted by McCaughey (122f):
[T]he opponents of sociobiology are too stupid to understand the distinction between what one says about the way the world is, scientifically, and the way it ought to be politically. They look at what we say about natural selection, as a scientific theory for what is, and they assume that anybody who says that so and so is the case, must therefore be advocating that it ought to be the case in human politics. They cannot see that it is possible to separate one’s scientific beliefs about what is the case in nature from one’s political beliefs about what ought to be in human society.

It is, however, Dawkins who is clearly too stupid to understand the difference he harps on. In his bestseller The Selfish Gene (Oxford, 1976, p 126) he wrote:
Since we humans do not want to return to the old selfish ways where we let the children of too-large families starve to death, we have abolished the family as a unit of economic self-sufficiency, and substituted the state. But the privilege of guaranteed support for children should not be abused. … Individual humans who have more children than they are capable of rearing are probably too ignorant in most cases to be accused of conscious malevolent exploitation. Powerful institutions and leaders who deliberately encourage them to do so seem to me less free from suspicion.
I found this bit of old-fashioned scientific racism (the Pope is ordering the stinking Irish to breed like rabbits so he can take over England!) quoted in Not in Our Genes (Pantheon, 1984) by Richard Lewontin, Steven Rose and Leon Kamin. In its original context it’s even worse, deranged in fact: to start with, Dawkins believes that there is a gene “for having too many children”, which makes no sense. Evolutionary theory is based on the assumption that all animals have “too many children”: “All species overproduce offspring, not all of which can survive to reproduce in their turn. Thus, there is inevitable competition among the individuals of each species for the means to survive and reproduce, and any inherited advantage in this competition will be naturally selected” (Martin Daly and Margo Wilson, quoted in McCaughey, p. 27). Further, “the family” is not the “unit of economic self-sufficiency”, communities are, and “the old selfish ways” are a figment of Dawkin’s imagination: societies have always made provision for people who need help, and adults limited the size of their families long before modern contraception. Infanticide, especially, is very old, both as a means of culling and as a means of redistributing children to parents who can and want to support them. (Exposed children didn’t always die, as exemplified by the fictional but realistic case of Oedipus.) I’ve often observed that people who like to think of themselves as hard-headed realists tend to be soft-headed fantasists, and Dawkins fits the mold.
“Men must stop prostrating themselves to science,” McCaughey says (136), but “hiding behind” might express it better. It seems to be typical for evolutionary psychologists to begin their sermons by deploring the amorality of “nature.” (They also tend to personify “nature” and “evolution,” but that’s a topic for another day.) They think that doing so proves they don’t justify rape or male promiscuity, and they get very self-righteous when their magic shield doesn’t work. Considering that they have no real evidence that all men are genetically predisposed to abuse women, they shouldn’t be so surprised when feminists (and not only feminists) suspect that they aren’t as disinterested as they’d like to think. When your conclusions aren’t supported by your evidence, it is only reasonable to suspect that you have a personal investment in your conclusions. As Dorothy Dinnerstein wrote over thirty years ago in her brilliant (though, I admit, uneven) book The Mermaid and the Minotaur (Harper, 1976, 215ff):
I have seen on the faces of some men who are on the whole quite likable a certain smile that I confess I find deeply unattractive: a helpless smile of self-congratulation when some female disadvantage is referred to. And I have heard in their voices a tone that (in the context of what women put up with) is equally unattractive: a tone of self-righteous, self-pitying aggrievement when some male disadvantage becomes obvious. This sense of being put upon that many men feel in the fact of evidence that the adult balance of power is not at every point by a safe margin in their favor seems based on the implicit axiom that to make life minimally bearable, to keep their very chins above water, to offset some outrageous burden that they carry, they must at least feel that they are clearly luckier and mightier than women are.
I detect just that kind of smirk in David Barash’s complaint, “If Nature is sexist don’t blame her sons,” quoted by Hilary Rose in Alas Poor Darwin (Harmony Books, 2000, 139). Notice first the personification of “nature”; Nature is not a person and cannot be sexist. But “her sons” can be, and often are; hiding behind Mother’s skirts won’t help them.