Uncommon Sense


Take for instance the arguments of E. O. Wilson, who is a very distinguished biologist at Harvard University who wrote a book entitled On Human Nature. His expertise is in insects, but he jumps from insects to human beings and he talks about human beings as being “innately aggressive.” I go over his book very carefully and show that even though he says that human beings are innately aggressive at one point in his book, and in another point in his book he indicates that human beings have to be taught to be brutal and to kill. That human beings that behave peacefully in one situation may behave aggressively in another situation. In other words whether we, as human beings, are violent and murderous really depends on the situation we’re in. And, if that is so, then it is not simply an inevitable fact of human nature. It means that aggression is one of our potentialities.

We also have the potentiality to be kind. And, in fact, if you look at the history of human behavior over all the centuries, you see instances of terrible human cruelty and you also see instances of remarkable human sacrifice for other people. So, my point is that human nature is open – it’s open to whatever society does to people: to put ideas in their heads, to put weapons in their hands …

Howard Zinn

To me one of the most compelling arguments against the idea that wars are the result of human nature is what I think is an obvious fact: if you look at the wars fought, especially in this this century, since wars began to be fought be massed armies – you do not see wars coming as a result of people spontaneously rushing to fight other people. What you see is that the citizens of a country, in order to go to war, must be mobilized by the national state, must be enticed into the military by economic bribes taking them out of lives that which they probably are very unhappy with – they can’t get jobs and they’re offered training and little inducements. Or, drafting them and forcing them to go to war. And modern war requires – in order to mobilize armies, to mobilize a nation for war – requires an enormous campaign of propaganda to persuade the nation that this war is justified. That it’s worth fighting.

When you look at that – when you look at the tremendous lengths to which nations have to go to mobilize and persuade and coerce citizens into fighting, what is left of the argument that it comes because of human nature?

It takes time for the public to catch up because the government has the first word on these things, and the government has the most powerful word. The government has the resources at its command to get the attention of the public and to give its reasons for the war to the public before the public has a chance to analyze them and to think about them and to check up on them. And governments accumulate experience – they learn what works to get people to go to war. If human nature was aggressive then all governments would have to do is say “go get ’em! Here’s an opportunity to express your aggressiveness!”

But, no, governments have to present wars in moral terms. They have to say to people, “you’re doing a wonderful thing. It’s not that you want to kill people, you’re doing it for freedom, or democracy. You’re doing it to save somebody.”

– Howard Zinn
(Radio interview KPFW, 1991)

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Zinn’s argument against “human nature” also applies to sexism and racism – the fact that a blockhead like James Damore has to argue that women don’t belong in tech shows that there are men who are trying to get women out of tech – thereby neatly proving himself wrong.

The way that Zinn delivers these ideas is like a friendly old uncle just explaining a few things; they’re so obvious. But they’re really not.

Comments

  1. Dunc says

    I suppose you could argue that it’s human nature to form the sort of hierarchical societies which find it both possible and advantageous to fight wars…

    On the aside re: men trying to get women out of tech – I will shortly be buying the new paperback edition of Programmed Inequality: How Britain Discarded Women Technologists and Lost Its Edge in Computing, which is a social history of exactly that, during the early years of the industry here in the UK. I listened to a radio programme a while back in which it was mentioned… Apparently in the late 40s / early 50s, the government decided that it was necessary to expand the workforce in this new area of technology – particularly to people who weren’t expected to quit as soon as they got married – and so embarked on a program of what we would now call “affirmative action” to encourage men into what was, at the time, a female-dominated industry.

  2. says

    Zinn’s argument against “human nature” also applies to sexism and racism – the fact that a blockhead like James Damore has to argue that women don’t belong in tech shows that there are men who are trying to get women out of tech – thereby neatly proving himself wrong.

    I like this argument. I’ll keep it in mind; I might find it useful soon. The fact that there are people attempting to prevent women from obtaining sterilization and forcing all women to make babies neatly proves that their worldview—namely, “all women want babies”—is wrong. (Somehow I suspect that it will take me quite some effort to get the procedure that I’m legally entitled to in the first place.)

    Although, now that I think about it, I have heard a common refutation for Zinn’s argument. Women currently working in tech are delusional, they suck at their job, and they are so stupid that they don’t even realize how badly they suck. The result is that these women foolishly insist on doing a job they are not suited for, while their employers get poor performance from their female employees. If women currently working in tech changed their profession and became nannies instead, they would become happier and their employers could hire some more competent male employees in their place, thus everybody would benefit. Alternatively: men are violent; they just delude themselves and pretend to be peaceful. Thus governments must nudge them to go to war, but, once they get to the battlefield, they happily realize the truth about themselves and embrace their true calling. I remember hearing various versions of this argument (I have heard a lot of crap while arguing against conservative people).

    Regarding James Damore. I find the discussion about differences between men and women a real pain. By choosing which studies you cite, you can prove that either there’s no difference between the sexes or that there are significant differences. There are a lot of scientific studies to choose from (thus you can cherry pick), the conclusions of each study are different, and you are free to interpret the findings. I have read Delusions of Gender: How Our Minds, Society, and Neurosexism Create Difference by Cordelia Fine, where the author argued that there are no genetically predetermined differences. I have also read The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature by Steven Pinker, where there was a chapter about gender, and the author argued that there are significant biological differences between the sexes. Obviously each author had plenty of citations to support their opposing conclusions. And that’s just part of the problem. Let’s assume that some meta-analysis conclusively proved that, indeed, there are some differences. How do you determine the cause? Is it nature or nurture? Or maybe it’s just the placebo effect (for example, at school girls are told that they must suck at mathematics, therefore, as a result of the placebo effect, they end up having lower scores in mathematics tests).

    The whole debate is such a big mess that I don’t even want to get into that. This is why, when discussing this topic, I always tend to go for a different argument. When dealing with some human being, when hiring some employee, you are never dealing with “the average man” or “the average woman,” instead you are dealing with a unique individual. Let’s assume that there really was a difference in average performance in men and women in some skill that’s relevant for the job. Men’s scores and women’s scores would each form a Gauss curve, and there would be a lot of overlap between both curves. Therefore, if you need an employee that has a high performance in some skill, it’s silly to just hire some dude, only because men, on average, had a slightly higher performance. It is perfectly possible that the woman who showed up for the job interview has a significantly higher than average mastery of whatever skill you need for the job. Since both Gauss curves are overlapping, both male and female job applicants can be good at the skill that’s relevant for the job.

    Whenever people argue that there are some differences between the sexes, they always do so in order to justify discrimination. It’s never just some abstract scholarly curiosity. Instead they want to use this data in order to deny people jobs or lifestyle choices. This is why I think it is a better strategy to just argue that discrimination cannot be justified even if you succeeded in proving that, on average, there exists some difference between the sexes.

  3. bmiller says

    “When dealing with some human being, when hiring some employee, you are never dealing with “the average man” or “the average woman,” instead you are dealing with a unique individual.”

    THIS is a great/proper response in a nutshell. Even IF reactionary fulminations about inferior women (and ethnic groups) are true, refusing to accept this is both unfair to the individual AND destructive to the organization (who loses out, perhaps, on a unique talent)>

  4. grahamjones says

    “I can’t remember what all Frank had fighting
    in the jar that day, but I can remember other bug fights we staged later on: one
    stag beetle against a hundred red ants, one centipede against three spiders, red
    ants against black ants. They won’t fight unless you keep shaking the jar. And
    that’s what Frank was doing, shaking, shaking, the jar.”

    {quite a large chunk of a novel omitted here.}

    “The experiment had solved in short order the mystery of how ants could
    survive in a waterless world. As far as I know, they were the only insects that
    did survive, and they did it by forming with their bodies tight balls around
    grains of _ice-nine_. They would generate enough heat at the center to kill half
    their number and produce one bead of dew. The dew was drinkable. The corpses
    were edible.”

    From Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut.

  5. enkidu says

    I have read somewhere that one of the biggest problems, for armies in combat, was to actually get soldiers to shoot.
    I’ll try to find a source.

  6. says

    enkidu@#5:
    I have read somewhere that one of the biggest problems, for armies in combat, was to actually get soldiers to shoot.

    Perhaps that was John Keegan’s The Face of Battle?

    There is mention in Every Man Shall Do His Part of how napoleonic naval battles were so horrific because, when you’re on a ship, you can’t run. Or hide. So people would actually go gunport-to-gunport and blast away because they had no choice once their commanders had put them in the position of having to do that.

    That aspect of war is also touched upon in On Killing if I recall correctly; one of the best ways to “blood” troops and build unit esprit is to place them in a position of danger. Usually they will defend themselves – which often means, actually, going on the offensive. It is when they are cut off and surrounded that warriors become the most dangerous. The Greeks used this technique at Plataea, opposing their second-best troops against the enemy’s weakest troops, their best troops against the enemy’s second-best troops, and telling their green, inexperienced troops, “just try to hang on; fight hard!” Sun Tzu describes this strategy in Art of War but it was probably old when he wrote that book.

    enkidu@#6:
    Apparently this claim is controversial, so I’ll just leave it as a possibility.

    There have been weapons found on napoleonic battlefields, and American civil war battlefields, which have had multiple balls rammed down the barrel. Some historians like Keegan see that as people freaking out at the carnage and just keeping their hands busy putting more balls in their gun. That theory is controversial because it could be that someone experiences a misfire and doesn’t hear the misfire because of the battle-roar and they think they are reloading normally; eventually they figure it out but by the time they have 2 or 3 balls and powder-charges rammed down the rifle nobody wants to try to get the balls out so they “lose” the rifle and pick up another one. My friend who fought in Vietnam said that when the artillery was coming in you couldn’t tell if your rifle was firing properly all the time because of the shock waves that basically make your brain go blank for a fraction of a second.

  7. says

    Dunc@#1:
    I suppose you could argue that it’s human nature to form the sort of hierarchical societies which find it both possible and advantageous to fight wars…

    Hey, are we re-inventing evolutionary psychology, here, or what? I believe that argument has been tried; it basically goes, “since humans reproduce sexually, anything that has to do with humans is somehow involved with reproduction. therefore: it also evolves!”

    On the aside re: men trying to get women out of tech – I will shortly be buying the new paperback edition of Programmed Inequality: How Britain Discarded Women Technologists and Lost Its Edge in Computing, which is a social history of exactly that, during the early years of the industry here in the UK. I listened to a radio programme a while back in which it was mentioned…

    There is a good episode of NPR’s Planet Money podcast entitled “When women stopped coding.” [npr] it’s really interesting and a bit saddening. Short spoiler: marketing.

    Women are programmers. Some are great, some not so great. I had an older woman who was a project lead for me back in the NFR days; she had gotten her PhD in math (with specialization in computer science) in Moscow around the time I was learning how to walk on 2 feet and wrote the microcode for a Soviet-made knockoff of an IBM 4341. She was one of those old-school small memory system coders – the kind that sit and stare off into space and write code on green-line paper. Code that never, ever, crashes. (I only mention her age because, well, she did get her PhD when I was a toddler)

    It pisses me off that they even call Damore a “programmer.” He’s probably one of those weenies who never learned how to do their own memory management… (sigh) [He appears to have specialized in mathematical modeling / computational biology. I wonder if he’s a matlab scripter with delusions of being a programmer.] [I just found his resume on linkdn; he’s a matlab scripter who knows latex. Perhaps his persecution complex derives from being looked down upon by programmers…]

  8. says

    grahamjones@#4:
    Vonnegut’s experience in WWII shaped his entire life. Zinn was a bombardier; he may have dropped some of the bombs that Vonnegut was huddled in slaughterhouse #5, enduring. It’s interesting symmetry. They both worked together on a project bringing some of Zinn’s A People’s History to life – Vonnegut did some readings. They were a wonderful old pair.

  9. silverfeather says

    Ieva Skrebele @2

    I’m generally on board with everything you’re saying, but I have one nit to pick. In Delusions of Gender: How Our Minds, Society, and Neurosexism Create Difference by Cordelia Fine, her premise is not that there are no genetically predetermined differences between men and women. Her argument is that we are not yet able to tease apart the difference between what may be genetically predetermined and what is culturally influenced, yet we have been very quick to assume a great biological divide between the sexes in ways that are detrimental to women. She backs this up both by discussing how scientific sexism over the years has colored studies involving gender (showing the assumptions and flaws in the studies that are oft quoted to back up women’s inferiority), and also by discussing the results of other, newer studies that attempt to get to the truth and avoid this bias. She is very careful to only argue that we should dial back the “biology is destiny” belief that we seem so desperate to cling to – at least until we actually know where the socialization ends and the biology begins.

  10. says

    Ieva Skrebele@#2:
    Although, now that I think about it, I have heard a common refutation for Zinn’s argument. Women currently working in tech are delusional, they suck at their job, and they are so stupid that they don’t even realize how badly they suck. The result is that these women foolishly insist on doing a job they are not suited for, while their employers get poor performance from their female employees.

    There’s a problem with that reasoning, but I can’t put my finger quite on it. The presumption is that Google (which has notoriously tough job interviews) has a terrible H.R. department which doesn’t hire good people? Google’s H.R. department is secretly working for the enemy by hiring people who are less qualified?

    If women currently working in tech changed their profession and became nannies instead, they would become happier and their employers could hire some more competent male employees in their place, thus everybody would benefit.

    But instead Google hired a clunker (Damore) who turned out to be such a low-value employee that they had to fire him. It appears that Google’s H.R. people felt that the women they hired were much better employees in general, than Damore, and they were right.

    Alternatively: men are violent; they just delude themselves and pretend to be peaceful. Thus governments must nudge them to go to war, but, once they get to the battlefield, they happily realize the truth about themselves and embrace their true calling.

    That’s why so many soldiers return home and slaughter politicians. No, wait, that’s not it. That’s why so many soldiers return home traumatized and searching for peace.

    (As a Bombardier, Zinn would have doubtless heard of Catch-22: you can’t get a medical discharge for mental health because nobody in their right mind would not want to get a medical discharge and therefore anyone who wants a medical discharge is sane.)

    By choosing which studies you cite, you can prove that either there’s no difference between the sexes or that there are significant differences. There are a lot of scientific studies to choose from (thus you can cherry pick), the conclusions of each study are different, and you are free to interpret the findings.

    That’s the beauty of the social sciences. Their testing methods are generally bullshit and they have problems with sample bias – but you can find a study that supports any position, to some degree. You can also find that (most of the time) the study cannot be replicated (and is garbage) therefore you can do a sort of gish gallop by referring to lots of studies that the other person hasn’t yet realized are bullshit.

    I have also read The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature by Steven Pinker, where there was a chapter about gender, and the author argued that there are significant biological differences between the sexes.

    I have been meaning to go back and review that bit; I distinctly remember it’s about 3/5 of the way through the book – he makes this weird argument that, because surely some biological differences between the sexes exist, they will affect behavior, and therefore feminism is wrong. And it depends on a mis-characterization that is the heart of the entire book – that feminists claim that people are a blank slate, but they’re not. The whole thing feels like a big strawman argument against a form of feminism that nobody is preaching. At the time, when I read it (the book came out back in ’09 or something?) I remember thinking “huh?” like I was walking into the middle of an argument he was having with someone else, and he was declaring victory.

    Perhaps we should have a discussion circle about the book. I don’t know if it’s worth it, though.

    When dealing with some human being, when hiring some employee, you are never dealing with “the average man” or “the average woman,” instead you are dealing with a unique individual. Let’s assume that there really was a difference in average performance in men and women in some skill that’s relevant for the job.

    Yeah… Stop right there, you’ve already made a winning argument. (per bmiller@#3) I think you get lost in the weeds when you start talking about the bell curve (and you tread close to the sucking maw of The Bell Curve) You can win by pointing out the argumentum ad Google H.R.; let me reformulate as:

    When dealing with some human being, when hiring some employee, you are never dealing with “the average man” or “the average woman,” instead you are dealing with a unique individual. And Google’s brilliant H.R. Department is hiring the best people it can find, of whatever gender or color – by definition they are trying to hire everyone that is above average. If they are trying to hire more women, they’re going to hire more “above average” women. Average only matters if you hire people by throwing darts at a telephone book.

    Shorter form: Damore’s an idiot because Google is a biased sample thanks to the diligence of Google’s H.R. Department.

    Slightly longer form: Damore’s an idiot because Google is a biased sample thanks to the diligence of Google’s H.R. Department who still screwed up by hiring James Damore; it happens.

    A related issue is something I can only discuss by reference to someone else’s experience that I have not had, so – take that into account. I have had this conversation with a friend who is a black woman. She’s at the intersection of two bad prejudices 1: anti-woman 2: racist. She works in IT, got fine grades in school, is honest, hard-working, and has taken several professional certifications and passed with outstanding scores on the first try (these are certs that most people fail a couple times). But she still feels that, because she’s a black woman, she is going to be judged more critically than a white guy. So she lives in a state of constant fear of failure, fear of being anything less than the best. It makes her work herself to exhaustion and – paradoxically – poisons her success. The point is that she can’t even be “above average”; she’s terrified of being merely “above average” and has to be killing it every day in every way.

    As an aging white guy who grew up in tech, during the period when men were taking over, I never saw any of this. But now I do and it’s really horrifying. It’s “if you lose, you lose” and “if you win, you’re in constant terror of losing.” We privileged aging white guys never even see that from where we are. We fail, we know we can just pick up again and get pats on the back for stick-toit-iveness. She knows that if she fails she gets crushed with a bulldozer and fed to the crows.

  11. Dunc says

    [I just found his resume on linkdn; he’s a matlab scripter who knows latex. Perhaps his persecution complex derives from being looked down upon by programmers…]

    Lol.

    he makes this weird argument that, because surely some biological differences between the sexes exist, they will affect behavior, and therefore feminism is wrong.

    Yeah, I see this a lot. There seems to be an idea that if you can demonstrate that there are some innate differences, then you can just assume that those innate differences account for for everything, without having to do any of that difficult stuff with effect sizes and multivariate analysis and actively eliminating alternative hypotheses. And so you go straight from demonstrating that infant vervet monkeys show a small but statistically significant correlation between toy preferences and pre-natal testosterone exposure to assuming that a 95/5 gender ratio in advanced programming jobs is both natural and inevitable. Culture? Never heard of it.

  12. says

    That aspect of war is also touched upon in On Killing if I recall correctly; one of the best ways to “blood” troops and build unit esprit is to place them in a position of danger.

    In Dave Grossman’s On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society the author argued that you can get soldiers to kill the enemy by training them to do so. Before Vietnam soldiers were trained to operate their guns (how to clean, load, shoot them). The result was that some soldiers refused to kill and instead shot their bullets over the enemy heads. So they changed the training methods, they started training soldiers to kill. For example, they started using human shaped targets, which fell down after being hit. Grossman argued that this is what made a difference.

    That theory is controversial because it could be that someone experiences a misfire and doesn’t hear the misfire because of the battle-roar and they think they are reloading normally; eventually they figure it out but by the time they have 2 or 3 balls and powder-charges rammed down the rifle nobody wants to try to get the balls out so they “lose” the rifle and pick up another one.

    It’s pretty easy to prove that some people who were drafted against their will really refused to kill any enemy soldiers. After being sent back home they openly talked about their experiences and how they didn’t kill anybody despite being sent to a battlefield. So there definitely were at least some people who refused to kill the enemy. (I tend to collect “how I successfully dodged the draft” as well as “how I was sent to the battlefield but didn’t kill a single enemy” stories, so I know about such cases.) The problematic question is figuring out exactly how many soldiers did that. Dave Grossman attempted to calculate that, and he claimed that majority of soldiers must have done that. But it’s not simple to calculate this.

    I have been meaning to go back and review that bit; I distinctly remember it’s about 3/5 of the way through the book – he makes this weird argument that, because surely some biological differences between the sexes exist, they will affect behavior, and therefore feminism is wrong. And it depends on a mis-characterization that is the heart of the entire book – that feminists claim that people are a blank slate, but they’re not. The whole thing feels like a big strawman argument against a form of feminism that nobody is preaching. At the time, when I read it (the book came out back in ’09 or something?) I remember thinking “huh?” like I was walking into the middle of an argument he was having with someone else, and he was declaring victory.

    I’m willing to accept that there are some biological differences between people. How else can you explain the existence of trans people? These people were raised in accordance with their anatomical sex, yet they ended up living differently. That’s clearly not the result of nurture.

    My biggest problem with Pinker was his claim that nowadays parents raise their sons and daughters similarly. That’s just wrong. Incredibly wrong. Pinker uses this claim to defend the idea that, since parents raise their male and female children similarly, the resulting differences must be nature rather than nurture. But the truth is that parents raise their male and female children extremely differently. Not to mention all the subtle ways how our culture tries to force children to behave in accordance with the stereotypes about their biological sex.

    If you don’t even try to move around, you won’t notice the chains that bind you. I suspect that feminine girls and masculine boys simply don’t notice all the pressure they are exposed to. Why should they notice any of it, if they don’t even attempt to do anything that goes against the gender norms? It’s a whole different situation for people like me. I have been noticing a lot of pressure for all my life. My parents, teachers, classmates, friends, society—everybody attempted to force me to behave like a woman.

    I could tell so many stories about this. I don’t even know which ones to pick.

    In kindergarten we had a girls’ play corner with girl toys and a boys’ play corner with boy toys. Both play zones were in the opposite sides of the room. It was forbidden for a boy to enter the girls’ corner and vice versa. I remember one incident where a boy stepped into the girls’ play corner. All the girls treated that as an emergency, they surrounded that boys, started mocking him and demanded him to leave. He promptly left.

    In kindergarten we had dance lessons, and girls were supposed to dance in couples with boys. The problem was that often the number of boys and girls differed. Every child always felt extremely ashamed if they had to dance the part reserved for the other sex. I have always hated dancing, one of the reasons was the enforced gender roles.

    In toy shops there are separate sections for boy and girl toys. As a child I believed that it’s wrong for me to enter the boys’ side. When I was 10 years old I wanted to buy a toy sword. I was extremely uncomfortable about approaching the shop assistant in the boys’ side. I remember throwing quick glances at the swords while walking past. I did buy the sword, but I remember myself feeling extremely uncomfortable and embarrassed while doing so. I played with it alone and at home. Nobody (not even my parents) ever found out that I had this toy sword.

    Ever since I was about 5 years old my favorite color has been blue (it still is). Yet as a child I was forced to wear pink clothes all the time. Mother bought me pink dresses, my school uniform included some pink items (boy uniforms had blue instead). Nobody seemed to care about what I like.

    Male and female mannerisms generally differ. There’s nothing natural about that. My mother had told me many times that whenever I sit, I must keep my knees together. She has scolded me for sitting in poses appropriate for boys only. At school teachers have reminded me to sit like a proper lady on multiple occasions.

    When I was about 13 years old, I started learning how to do “men’s jobs.” Here some jobs are perceived as women’s (cooking, cleaning, fixing clothes) and some other jobs are perceived as men’s. Once I was in our family garden sitting on the roof of the hut and fixing holes in that roof (the roof was leaking). An elderly woman walked past and told me that my father should be doing that job instead of me. On another occasion I was fixing the fence (digging holes in the ground for the fence poles). An elderly couple walked past me and told me that a girl shouldn’t be doing that.

    Speaking of male and female skills, in Latvian schools boys attend lessons where they are taught woodworking. Girls attend lessons where they are taught sewing, knitting, needlework and cooking. Class gets split in half and these lessons happen simultaneously. In my school it was not allowed for a girl to attend boys’ lessons. Incidentally, I would have preferred those, because I find woodworking a lot more interesting than what I had to learn. I especially hated the cooking lessons.

    I still hate cooking. More precisely, I hate cooking for others. When I prepare food for myself, I see it as a boring chore, but I don’t particularly hate it either. My problem with cooking for others is that I have experienced many situations where I was expected to (and sometimes even told to) prepare food for others. On numerous occasions men have asked me for coffee, tea, or food in such circumstances, where it was painfully obvious that they are asking me only because they perceive me as a woman. They would never have asked a man to bring them food in the same circumstances. Nowadays I simply refuse to prepare food for others. It’s one of my rules that my sex partners must always prepare the food. Speaking of which, it turns out that most guys are pretty good cooks when they want to.

    On numerous occasions people have told me that I ought to wear feminine apparel, use makeup and so on. I have even heard that at school from my teachers. At school I always wore jeans and dark sweaters and I never used any makeup. During the school’s graduation ceremony (where I was forced to wear a dress, which I hated) my history teacher had to inform me that I look beautiful and that I ought to wear feminine clothes more often. I have also heard similar crap from my female classmates. People stopped telling me this only after I switched to male clothes. When I show up wearing a male suit it’s pretty damn obvious that I’m not looking for fashion advice, so they skip it. My sex slave still keeps on suggesting that I should wear dresses though. I know that he finds feminine attire sexy, but, damn, I don’t like it.

    When I realized that I prefer male clothes, at first I was uncomfortable about just entering a shop and buying some. It felt for me like there’s this huge social stigma about wearing the wrong clothes. The word “transvestite” has immense negative connotations in my native language. It took me a while to stop caring about this. In fact, it took me quite lots of effort to free myself from all the gender related expectations. I could only ditch them gradually one by one. Even ditching the bra (I find bras uncomfortable) wasn’t as simple as just not wearing one. When I stopped wearing a bra, my mother kept reminding me that it’s wrong to do so, because other people can see that I don’t have one. (Why the fuck should I care about what other people can or cannot see?)

    When I was 16, I signed up for fencing lessons. It was fun, I enjoyed it. My mother did everything she could in order to make me quit. She felt it was inappropriate and she didn’t like that I occasionally got bruises there (a girl is supposed to be pretty; she isn’t supposed to have visible bruises on her body). Ultimately I ran out of money savings, and I had to quit after just two months.

    When I got more serious about woodworking as a hobby, my mum attempted to make me quit it. I had to practice in secret. If my mother had seen my first clumsy attempts of making something out of wood, she would have argued that I have no talent for it, therefore I should quit (incidentally, my first attempts at sewing or needlework were outrageously bad too, but then nobody told me that I should quit, because I lack talent; instead they told me to try again, because I woman must learn how to do these things). It took a while for my mother to accept that I’m interested in woodworking. After I made her a kitchen table she actually started giving me commissions for more stuff.

    In my first debate club we had this one guy who seemed educated and reasonable; at first we were friendly with each other. Then once he said that “all women want children.” I protested, because I know that I don’t want any. His answer was: “You are deluding yourself; deep down you really want children. If you’ll have no children by the time you are over 30, you will be extremely unhappy.” After that one I started treating that guy very coldly, and the fact that I couldn’t get along with him was part of the reason why I got kicked out from my first debate club. It felt weird to get kicked out from my debate club after I had been the de facto leader for half a year there. After that I joined my second debate club.

    Speaking of debates, on countless occasions I have argued against people who claim that “all women love children, they have high empathy, they enjoy submitting to their husbands, they dream about their wedding day, they are inherently bad with mathematics and sciences, they are emotional” and so on. These kinds of society’s expectations are tiring.

    I could go on like this, but I’ll stop now.

    My personal opinion is that nurture as well as the placebo effect play a huge role in the differences between the sexes. Parents, teachers, classmates, peers, everybody treat male and female children differently. There’s all this subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) social pressure to conform to the gender norms.

    And there’s also the placebo effect. For example, in some countries girl scores in mathematics exams are lower than boy scores. In Latvia that’s not the case, there are no such differences in mathematics exam scores. We also don’t have this cultural expectation that girls are supposed to be bad at mathematics. I learned English and got access to the Internet only when I was already 15. That’s also when I learned that girls are supposed to be bad at mathematics. Luckily, by then I was already extremely good at it (I was the best in my school and I routinely competed in state level mathematics competitions). It’s great to completely miss the memo that you are supposed to be bad at something.

    Another problem I had with Pinker was his dismissal of gender neutral parenting. I have read about some cases where parents don’t tell their children or anybody else what the child’s sex is. Instead they keep it a secret and let kids figure out what they like, try things out, experiment. I see this as a pretty good idea. Pinker was against such an approach, claiming that it’s wrong, because boys and girls are biologically different. And somehow that justifies dressing them up in pink and blue and giving them gender appropriate toys. I don’t like this attitude. I have suffered a lot when people around me attempted to force gender norms on me. It’s wrong to put people like me through all this crap just because many other people are happy to behave in accordance with stereotypes about their sex.

  13. says

    he makes this weird argument that, because surely some biological differences between the sexes exist, they will affect behavior, and therefore feminism is wrong.

    If you’ve got young children, you will inevitably spend time with the parents of other young children. Tell me if you know this situation: Parents remark how different their children are. Those who have kids of different assigned genders will inevitably claim that their biological sex is responsible for the differences. If you got two of the same you notice quickly that your s are just as different.
    Recently one of my younger kids’ after school daycare teachers asked what you had to do to get such a tidy kid. I told her that if I knew I’d have two of them.
    Yes, people are different. And since it is profoundly unethical to create thousands of babies and then raise them in controlled labs we may never ever know what exactly is genetic and what is social, though different societies give us clues (look at images from the Indian space program and you won’t obviously just see lots of brown people doing science, but also lots of women).

    Dunc

    And so you go straight from demonstrating that infant vervet monkeys show a small but statistically significant correlation between toy preferences and pre-natal testosterone exposure to assuming that a 95/5 gender ratio in advanced programming jobs is both natural and inevitable. Culture? Never heard of it.

    I personally find it fascinating that a preference for toys with wheels seems to be genetically hardwired in a species a few million years away from inventing it.
    Did I mention that I’ll get my PhD on ostrich behaviour any day now? I wrote it after watching the blackbirds in my garden…

  14. Dunc says

    Giliell:

    I personally find it fascinating that a preference for toys with wheels seems to be genetically hardwired in a species a few million years away from inventing it.

    Well, yeah, there’s that too… But my point is that even if you accept the vervet toy-preference stuff without question, it still comes nowhere near demonstrating that innate differences are a sufficient explanation for gender disparities in the workplace, or that there are no other factors involved. It’s a ludicrous non-sequitur.

  15. says

    I expect that we will practically never answer the nature/nurture question, because it’s fractally complicated all the way down – there are nothing but arbitrary distinctions to measure against. Is it nature or nurture that one person is better than another at playing Dance Dance Revolution? Well, because evolution gave them legs, evolution is clearly a factor because you use legs to play. But as Giliell points out, we did not evolve any abilities specifically for a game that came out 10 years ago.

    I don’t know the right term for it, but the problem appears to be that we’re trying to collapse what appears to be a gigantic tree of interconnected if-else-but influences into a single yes/no answer. I suppose that may be a “category error” but perhaps it’s just “a profound lack of understanding.” I think that, like with “race” we will eventually understand that “nature/nurture question” isn’t even meaningful. Ah, I suppose it’s “a great big stack of interdependent vague concepts.” That’s why our discussions about nature/nurture are so frustratingly dialectical – like with Marxian economics, you’re trying to nail jello to the door of the church and you don’t even have a hammer.

  16. says

    Ieva Skrebele@#13:
    It’s pretty easy to prove that some people who were drafted against their will really refused to kill any enemy soldiers.

    I think Howard Zinn would point out that the mere existence of draft evaders (including the rich ones with “bone spurs”) is proof that humans are not necessarily aggressive and warlike and that they need to be forced into battle. Some of them, clearly desire violence, some don’t.

    As soon as we split the horizon and say “some do, some don’t” then we’re into arguing about whether there is something in some people that makes them individually aggressive or not, and the opposition has to start arguing “most do, only a few don’t…” and then it’s trench warfare over measurement methods and metrics.

  17. says

    Giliell, professional cynic -Ilk-@#15:
    Recently one of my younger kids’ after school daycare teachers asked what you had to do to get such a tidy kid. I told her that if I knew I’d have two of them.

    That’s really funny.

    My parents tried to raise me without war toys but apparently I immediately made swords out of wood. I am pretty sure it was because of a book I read (Knight Crusader a most excellent book) when I was(?) really little. Early enough that it’s such an early memory I can’t put a time to it. Am I “warlike”? I don’t know.


    1965: I was 3.

  18. brucegee1962 says

    I keep coming back to the idea that cultures evolve in ways similar to the way in which species evolve.

    Back in the early days of humanity, there was natural variation among cultures, just like the variation between individuals in a species – some were more peaceful, and some were more aggressive. The more aggressive ones would tend to flourish and reproduce (both biologically and memetically by having their ideas imitated) when they took their neighbors’ stuff or just enslaved their neighbors. Eventually, almost every culture would have developed some form of militarism, because the peaceful ones would have gotten themselves subsumed by the militaristic ones. This would also explain a lot of the other aspects of cultures that developed to support militarism – heroic poetry like Homer’s, religious rewards of going to Valhalla if you die in battle, sexist women-as-breeders customs to boost population numbers, and a host of other religious and cultural traditions.

    Of course, there were counteracting forces at work too, and in the modern world, those forces seem to have won out. Anytime earlier than 1700, most people around the world would probably be able to say “I definitely know of at least one hostile group within a week’s march from us that would attack and subjugate us if we didn’t have any defenses.” Now, with the UN and other international peacekeeping organizations, that percentage is much smaller. And as the political circumstances of the world change, cultural memes change as well. I think that the rise of movements like atheism and feminism can both be traced directly to the changed political situation of the world regarding warfare, in which getting invaded simply isn’t the pervading fear for most people that it used to be in previous centuries. For instance, I don’t think it’s an accident that concepts like human rights got started in the eighteenth century just after changes in weaponry had caused armies to switch from large groups of conscripts to smaller, professional units.

    Basically, if I lived in 1500, I would have a direct personal interest, so deeply ingrained that I might not even be conscious of it, in having a large lower class that was culturally and religiously indoctrinated to die in order to defend me, and women indoctrinated to have as many children as possible for the same reason. These days, I don’t, and I’m thus a lot more likely to challenge those forms of indoctrination.

    Marcus Ranum @8

    Hey, are we re-inventing evolutionary psychology, here, or what? I believe that argument has been tried; it basically goes, “since humans reproduce sexually, anything that has to do with humans is somehow involved with reproduction. therefore: it also evolves!”

    I think Dunc @1 was talking about cultural evolution, not evolutionary psychology. Evo Psych is bollocks. Brains take millenia to evolve; the contents of those brains, though, can change utterly in a single generation. I think a compelling argument has been made that humans’ abilities to copy memes from one another (mainly via language) is the main reason why human cultures change their behavior lightning-fast compared to other species.

  19. says

    brucegee1962@#20:
    I think Dunc @1 was talking about cultural evolution, not evolutionary psychology. Evo Psych is bollocks.

    Yes; I was not trying to rubbish Dunc, I was just trying to rubbish Evo Psych (well, technically, almost all of Psychology is on my rubbish-list) But, ahem. Let me try to avoid resuming that crusade for a while.

    If Henry V was transported, immediately upon birth, forward to this time, he would grow up a normal child; he’d probably have an iPhone (or be an Android user) and might enjoy playing World of Warcraft. What aspects of his life would not be different? He would even urinate and wipe his bottom differently. He would eat differently, sleep differently, fuck differently, and be raised with vastly more knowledge of the world than he otherwise would have been. In short – everything about him would be completely different. About the only thing that would not be different would be his genes. In terms of the nature/nurture debate, we’re down to arguing whether he might somehow have a natural predeliction to be party-leader and be a bossy jerk when he plays World of Warcraft.

    I’m not sure where I’m going with that… Except that, whenever I start thinking about the nature/nurture thing, I use my Henry V thought experiment. Evo Psych believers or James Damore are basically saying that cross-time Henry V would still be kingly, today. Think about that for a second! It’s absurd.

  20. says

    Marcus

    1965: I was 3.

    You were adorable.
    I have similar pics of #1 at that age, before she knew that she wasn’t supposed to like sword fights. She’d never admit it in public, but she and her sister still enjoy sword fights.
    Me, I was always making bows and arrows. I inherited my sisters doll stroller, I turned it into a car. I was born in January, so my first christmas came when I was about a year old. My paternal grandparents (to my grandfather I was “only another girl”) gave me a doll. Family history has it that I undressed the doll and when there was nothing further to “unwrap” I put it down and never looked at it again. For my birthday I got a big plastic truck which I loved to no end.
    This is a pic of me back from those days.
    Notice the absence of pink back in the early 80s.

  21. says

    Of course there are innate biological differences between male and female, and of course those differences includes brain function. The mix of hormones you’re bathed in during the development of you-as-a-fetus has some pretty obvious effects on all the tissues which make up your body, and do you really want to argue that neural tissue is somehow immune to that?

    Sadly (for people like Damore), while there are surely innate biological differences in brain function, there’s also a little thing called “neural plasticity”. Our brains rewire themselves constantly in response to our experiences. There are cases on record where people who’ve had various bits of their brain get damaged or removed, find that other parts of their brain actually rewire themselves to take over the functions of the damaged/absent bits. This isn’t a sure thing, mind you, but the mere fact that it happens at all really ought to put paid to any simplistic brain-is-destiny notions.

  22. says

    cubist@#23:
    There are cases on record where people who’ve had various bits of their brain get damaged or removed, find that other parts of their brain actually rewire themselves to take over the functions of the damaged/absent bits. This isn’t a sure thing, mind you, but the mere fact that it happens at all really ought to put paid to any simplistic brain-is-destiny notions.

    When I was an undergrad, there was apparently a fellow who was a few classes ahead of me, who suffered a head injury and wound up in the hospital with them looking at his brain, and they discovered he didn’t have much of one – several large regions simply had not developed for some reason – yet here he was in his sophomore year at an ivy league school. I don’t recall what the syndrome is even called but the neuro professor who told us about the case said he had about half his brain never grow at all. I googled around a bit to see if there was any mention of that specific case and it turns out it’s not uncommon [medical]

  23. Dunc says

    brucegee1962@#20:

    I think Dunc @1 was talking about cultural evolution, not evolutionary psychology.

    Well, I was talking about the observation that all social primates seem to form hierarchies of some kind. I wouldn’t care to speculate as to how much of that is genetic and how much is cultural, and I’m not sure that it matters.

  24. says

    Giliell, professional cynic -Ilk- @#22
    My paternal grandparents (to my grandfather I was “only another girl”) gave me a doll. Family history has it that I undressed the doll and when there was nothing further to “unwrap” I put it down and never looked at it again.

    Yeah, this one sucks. At school we had occasions where boys were given encyclopedias as gifts but girls got romance novels. Almost all the books I got as presents from my school landed directly in the trash bin (I don’t like romance novels).

    It feels far worse when close family members do this crap. I’m pretty close with my uncle (we meet about once a week). He has given me perfume and jewelry on countless occasions despite the fact that I don’t wear any jewelry and I don’t use perfume. He even gave me earrings twice despite the fact that I have never pierced my ears. I got so sick of this that I ended up being really rude and simply refused to take a gift from him. Only then he finally understood, and in my next birthday I got a circular saw from him.

  25. jrkrideau says

    # marcus
    Knight Crusader
    Good lord, this is almost enough to make be believe in “recovered memories” it has been that long.

    I enjoyed the book immensely but it did nothing to interest me in swords. Possibly because we already had a machete, a couple of sickles, two or three scythes and a couple of other edged tools around. Not counting the cutting bars for things like the mower or binder.

    Sharp-edged instruments were just work-a-day tools overall and a pain to sharpen. Grinding down the cutting blades for the mower is a seriously time consuming pain in the neck.

    A scythe is a pain to use, at least when one is a beginner.

  26. says

    jkrideau@#27:
    Good lord, this is almost enough to make be believe in “recovered memories” it has been that long.

    Bah, I still remember the description of Philip’s sword – unusually light down the blade and of the finest steel available at the time. I realized, as a kid, that Welch was trying to say something about the invention of the art of fencing. I never did like the crusader swords much, though some of the newer-made versions are quite beautiful.

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