I read a provocative review of a new book by Steven Pinker called "The Better Angels of our Nature", provocative in that it claimed that differences between how women and men think combined with the move towards women's rights are responsible for a decrease in violence over the world. The claim seems historically plausible, and I would not generally want to gainsay Pinker on gender topics. This difference, like all nonessential differences between women and men, would just be another inconvenient fact for gender abolitionists. We live in a world that's full of inconvenient facts for our commitments (whether they be liberal or conservative or not recognisably either), and the most long-thinking thing to do with them is to acknowledge them and note that our values are what drive our political conclusions rather moreso than facts. We have sciences that strongly suggest that men and women have different tendencies, abilities, and the like; these are not hard facts that apply to every man or woman so much as statistical facts that provide various means of human ability. Our general understanding of gender as well as race is easily summed up with Venn diagrams with very significant overlap for every permutation of race/gender/whatever, not entirely equal diagrams. It may feel dangerous to let go of any possible line of defense in an argument, so we might be inclined to pretend that all populations are the same, regardless of the genetic differences, but this in the long run is in fact a weaker position; as the science on these things advances, if we've knowingly and dishonestly always claimed all the facts support us to the greatest extent, we'll face embarassment when we must backtrack as the science comes in. Instead, we hold that racial and sexual equality is a political and social norm worth striving for regardless of whatever the facts might be on differences in the means of the populations, and defend that they're close enough that the overlap in abilities are very substantial. (Of course, if specific sexists or racists make statements that are unfounded, we'll challenge them too)
I was going to write that in considerably more detail, particularly given that Pinker has generated some controversy before when tackling issues of gender (see the Larry Summers controversy for more detail, on which I don't feel qualified to take an opinion). However, as far as I can tell from other reviews of the book, gender issues are only one part of the book, so the review I read first was a bit misleading.
Thinking a bit more personally:( Collapse )
Pinker's book touches heavily on a number of topics I've been thinking about for my whole life; I'm likely to pick it up at some point. I believe that the task of making a betetr society requires just as much focus on improving ourselves (as personal self-improvement and as learning how to better pass values along to future generations; synthesis: raising children that seek self-betterment) as learning how to build the larger societal structures that produce good results.