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Semiformalishmaybe

Commitment and Fact

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:It looks like the breaking up of all-male atmospheres, as an (accidental?) effect of empowerment of women, is one of the markers he considers something pulling us towards peace. I can't claim this to be science, but over the course of my life I've felt a different social atmosphere in some all-male environments than in mixed-company environments. Having grown up without this (three sisters, no brothers), it's always been very uncomfortable for me (perhaps this is something common among intellectuals); the exaggerated heterosexuality for show, the willingness-to-be-disgusting, the demeaning talk of women (and if there are not mixed-races, of non-whites). I've never felt like I belonged among them, which is probably why I've generally shrugged off heteronormativity and a conscious male self-identity (not that I've picked up another gender self-identity to replace it, nor do I resent the *category* of being male, I just don't care any more than I care about any of my ethnic roots, or where I was born, or what sport teams I might claim). Could I imagine what I have occasionally seen in all-male environments leading to enhanced conflict? Maybe. It at least feels less civilised, like civilisation, for a lot of men, is an unwanted burden that one can mostly turn off whenever there are no women around.

Is being civilised self-domestication? Maybe.

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.

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