Rebecca Goldstein on mattering

Now enough kvetching, it’s time to say how great the conference was, and why.

As I mentioned on Saturday morning, Rebecca Goldstein’s talk was brilliant. Miri did an incredible job of liveblogging it, so you can just read her post to learn what RG said. Ditto Jason and his post.

From Miri’s:

In preparation for this talk, I polled some very prominent women and asked them if they ever feel that their gender undermines them professionally. Virtually all of them reported saying something in a discussion or meaning and being completely ignored–until the comment is picked up and reported by a man. Then, suddenly everyone jerks to attention.

Obviously it’s true that compared to more violent manifestations of misogyny, being ignored/interrupted/talked over is easy to dismiss because it’s an experience of privileged women. We privileged women can feel petty and ashamed voicing complaints about these things.

Indeed. Especially when an important dude comes along and says out loud that what we’re talking about is not just trivial in comparison to stoning (which of course is undeniable) but also just plain zero harm.

Happily, someone actually asked Maryam about that in the Q and A after her talk. Maryam is the ideal person to ask, obviously, because her focus is on the worst kind of oppression and violence. You know what she said? She rejected the whole idea. “I don’t like those comparisons,” she said firmly. We do get to talk about being dismissed even though other women are being beheaded. Yes we do.

Psychologists call these experiences “microaggressions,” and they cite evidence that for women (and other marginalized groups), these small attacks take a greater toll than the more outright expressions of misogyny.

Derald Wing Sue, a researcher on microaggressions, says that it’s easier for marginalized people to deal with the more outright expressions of bigotry because there’s no guesswork involved. You can easily dismiss them as bigotry.

While if you point out a microagression you may get called a Nazi McCarthyite inquisitorial witch hunter.

Here’s one bit that was a light bulb moment for me – it’s what I was talking to Dave Silverman about while doing all that gesturing.

4:35: What is it that keeps intellectually sophisticated people clinging to propositions about the world so improbable that they can be described–if you’ll allow me to use the technical terminology of epistemology–as crazy-ass shit?

These beliefs extend at least 30,000 years to Cro Magnon man, whose cave paintings are interpreted as expressions of spiritual beliefs. But the religions that still resonate with people were all originally forged during the period called “the Axial Age“–between 800 and 200 BCE. At the same time, secular philosophy and tragic drama emerged in ancient Greece. This period is called “the axial age” because these traditions still extend into our own age, including among the secularists who are the inheritors of Greek tradition.

What they have in common is a preoccupation with the issue of mattering.

Some lives achieve mattering and others don’t. Perhaps there’s something a person can do that will make the difference when it comes to his or her mattering. The question is, what is the human life that matters?

That makes a great deal of sense, and helps to explain a lot. I particularly liked it because the novel (her first) in which she presented the idea of the mattering map (see Miri’s post for more) is one of my favorite novels, I’ve read it many times, and the mattering map always struck me with its explanatory power. It doesn’t suprise me that it’s a Thing in social science now. (It did surprise Goldstein though.)

Tying it together at the end:

Back to microaggressions. What do they do? They undermine a person’s sense that they matter. And they’re even worse when they come from someone who matters to you, who can’t be dismissed as the ranting bigots and slobbering misogynists.

4:50: Without sensitivity to the will to matter and how it gave rise to religion in the first place, we fail to understand the secular ethical progress to which we are the heirs, and upon which we wage an assault, macro or micro, every time we undermine a person’s sense that he or she matters.

Yes. It applies to us as objects but also as perps.

She got a huge standing ovation. It was an absorbing, exhilarating, inspiring talk.



  1. quixote says

    Framing it as who matters is an interesting way to put it. It’s about the same old who-has-power-who-doesn’t issue, and it’s a useful new angle on it. Or at least new to me.
    It also left me thinking that ignoring people is a way of erasing their minds, and that made me think about how few good minds humanity is privileged to have and that wasting any of them has massive social consequences. The old idea about “the inventor of faster-than-light travel got killed in a war before she could invent it.”
    The consequences for individuals are bad, and the consequences for everybody may be even worse.
    Speaking of the individuals, erasing people’s minds is arguably worse than erasing their bodies. Their works and their contributions would live on if anyone was listening. But consigning them to nameless faceless nothingness destroys everything.

  2. Martha says

    I was amazed at the force with which lumping the secular tradition along with the axial religious traditions struck me. I’d never heard anyone say that before, nor had I heard anyone attribute this need to matter with the rise of cities.

    Miri’s captured her talk so well! I have no idea how she could do it, as I was too busy staring open-mouthed at Goldstein’s insight and brilliance to write anything down. I see a lot of seminars in a given year, and I only see one this good once every five years or so.

  3. Stacy says

    It’s about the same old who-has-power-who-doesn’t issue, and it’s a useful new angle on it.

    I think it’s actually about more than that. Power is only one manifestation of mattering. I think.

  4. quixote says

    I didn’t mean that the two are the same thing. The same in the sense that it’s people with power (of whatever kind) who can matter. It’s a necessary condition for it. I don’t know if I’m being any clearer.

  5. bad Jim says

    The importance of mattering is a neat insight. It explains the appeal of “everything happens for a reason”, and why even people who are dying rationalize their situation in terms of some good thing it brings about, like becoming reconciled to a family member. The idea of not being the hero of your own story is unbearable.

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