Tuesday, December 07, 2004

Gotcher truth right here

In this post, Digby does a fine job of summarizing this article, by Davidson Loehr, about the fundamentalist agenda. The background is, I believe, a fundamentalisms project that Martin Marty was heading. In any case, what Loehr notes (these are all quotes from his piece) is that all fundamentalisms share five characteristics:
  • their rules must be made to apply to all people, and to all areas of life. There can be no separation of church and state, or of public and private areas of life. The rigid rules of God—and they never doubt that they and only they have got these right—must become the law of the land.

  • Men are on top. Men are bigger and stronger, and they rule not only through physical strength but also and more importantly through their influence on the laws and rules of the land. Men set the boundaries. Men define the norms, and men enforce them. They also define women, and they define them through narrowly conceived biological functions. Women are to be supportive wives, mothers, and homemakers.

  • Since there is only one right picture of the world, one right set of beliefs, and one right set of roles for men, women, and children, it is imperative that this picture and these rules be communicated precisely to the next generation. Therefore, fundamentalists must control education by controlling textbooks and teaching styles, deciding what may and may not be taught.

  • Fourth, fundamentalists spurn the modern, and want to return to a nostalgic vision of a golden age that never really existed.

  • Fundamentalists deny history in a radical and idiosyncratic way. Fundamentalists know as well or better than anybody that culture shapes everything it touches: The times we live in color how we think, what we value, and the kind of people we become. . . .What they don't want to see is the way culture colored the era when their scriptures were created. . . .[I]f fundamentalists were to admit that their own scriptures are as culturally conditioned as everything else, they would lose the foundation of their certainties.


All well and good--and important, for that matter. But then Loehr and Digby take a leap that I think is unwarranted and bodes ill for any project that wants to combat fundamentalism, whether of the Islamic or Christian or any other variety. Says Loehr: "The only way all fundamentalisms can have the same agenda is if the agenda preceded all the religions. And it did. Fundamentalist behaviors are familiar because we've all seen them so many times. These men are acting the role of “alpha males” who define the boundaries of their group's territory and the norms and behaviors that define members of their in-group. These are the behaviors of territorial species in which males are stronger than females. In biological terms, these are the characteristic behaviors of sexually dimorphous territorial animals. Males set and enforce the rules, females obey the males and raise the children; there is a clear separation between the in-group and the out-group. The in-group is protected; outsiders are expelled or fought."

That is, we/they act this way because we're genetically and biologically programmed to do so. And this argument makes me crazy. In Primate Visions, Donna Haraway makes a much longer and more elegant critique of the common habit of extrapolating from what we (think we) know about non-human primate species to Conventional Wisdom about human primates, but one part of her argument is, basically, we've been wrong about a lot of it. For example, older primate research found "aggression" distributed differently between the sexes--in part because similar behaviors might be labeled differently by the researcher, depending on the sex of the animal displaying it. That is, by definition, a female's behavior wouldn't be labeled as "aggression," precisely because of her femaleness, no matter what the actual behavior was. (The human version is calling male behavior "assertive" and female behavior "aggressive" or "bitchy," even if the people involved say and do exactly the same thing.) For another example, I believe there is significant current primate research that challenges the view that Loehr puts forth--the notion that alpha males rule the world, and everyone else must obey them. (They are not necessarily the most successful reproducers, for example, so if passing along one's genes is a criterion of success, being an alpha male may not be the way to go.)

Okay, now before you get all "so you're saying it's all CULTURE??" on me, let me add that I think it is extremely difficult to determine what contribution hard-wiring and "culture" have in any given person, group, society, or species. Are there biological and genetic predispositions? Absolutely; there are disease conditions that appear to have genetic links, for at least some people (alcoholism, heart disease, colon cancer, and breast cancer, for example, all seem to have some genetic links, and things like Tay-Sachs definitely do). But keep in mind that even this does not mean that any given person will absolutely inherit a given condition, only that their chances of getting that condition are higher than the chances of someone whose family does not have the same set of genes.

And are there biological differences between the sexes? This is a much harder distinction to make. First, a little background. As Thomas Laqueur argues, in Making Sex: Body and Gender from the Greeks to Freud, the older version of the (sexed) body posited a single type of body: that is, the human body was regarded as one kind of thing. Women had a "lesser" version of it, in general, but it was not regarded as impossible that some women would be stronger, smarter, faster, whatever, than some men. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, however, the notion of two different kinds of bodies emerged--that is, men and women came to be regarded as different, and, more to the point, opposite, sorts of things. The male body came to be regarded as the "normal" body, or the defining body; the female body thus must have and display opposite characteristics in order to be regarded as truly female. (The clever reader will see that, if the male body is the standard or the normal, then it becomes impossible to be both female and normal; this reached the height of absurdity with the American Freudians, about whom I won't digress today.) In any case, the important point here is that men and women do, indeed, share much more than they don't. They all have hearts and lungs and kidneys and so on; they have the same hormones, though in somewhat different proportions.

They're not really "opposites" at all--and, to get back to the original argument, way up top there, we (as a species) haven't always characterized the differences between the sexes AS an opposition. The fundamentalism that Loehr and Digby posit at the heart of all fundamentalisms--that is, biological or sociobiological fundamentalism--isn't there, either. And, given the uses that have been made of biological determinism (hint: it never works out well for women who want to use any organ other than their uteri and who want to control the use of those as well), I don't see substituting one fundamentalism for another as a useful tactic in the fight against fundamentalisms.

Don't get me wrong--I see the point they're making. They both suggest utilizing the "territorial defense" part of the biological fundamentalism to challenge the rest of the fundamentalism. As Loehr puts it, using John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King as examples, "When liberal visions work, it's because they have kept one foot solidly in our deep territorial impulses with the other foot free to push the margin, to expand the definition of those who belong in 'our' territory." And I see the value in this: You can't ask too much of people, and you can't take away everything people hold dear and expect them to come along for your ride.

But I see a different pull at the heart of this debate, even though I don't have an answer for it or a strategy to counter it right now. Last night, a coworker and I were discussing a former colleague, someone whom both of us like and whose intelligence we never doubted. The former colleague (let's call him L) really hates uncertainty. He's a scientist, and a liberal, and he's really into scientific investigation and truth and so on. I first had a clue that there's something about L when he said over lunch one day that he's a philosophical determinist--i.e., he believes that free will is an illusion. He's not simplistic in this belief--he thinks that the explanations and causalities can be molecular. L really, really hates uncertainty, though, and this notion comforts him, I think, even if he isn't sure that he really believes it; he's also not that excited about ambiguity.

In important ways, L shares the same tendencies as the fundamentalists Digby and Loehr discuss. You wouldn't know it, of course, because L doesn't subscribe to all of the rules above, and he certainly doesn't want to oppress women, but he really, really, likes his certainty. (In general, I think he would agree with the first principle, though he'd use Science as his religion; he would disagree with the second principle, primarily by countering the "bigger/stronger is better" argument; he definitely wants to transmit science to the next generation--he left to go to grad school, after all; I don't think he spurns the modern or has an idiosyncratic interpretation of history, but I suppose I could distort things to make it fit.) My point, then, is that the personality trait that underlies one's ability to adopt, practice, and live fundamentalism, of whatever sort, is one's inability or unwillingness (or even lack of skills) to tolerate uncertainty and ambiguity and nuance (that's for you, Ann), and to tolerate the differences among people that result from those characteristics. If you really need one true version of the world, if you need an explanation for everything (whether it's a molecular explanation of human behavior or a deity's will), if different opinions make you wildly uncomfortable, then you are going to be more comfortable in a society with fundamentalist tendencies. (And, of course, we all have at least a touch of this.) L has the intellectual smarts and the sense of social justice that prohibits him from imposing (or even wanting to impose) his beliefs on everyone, but he sure would like some of that certainty for himself.

4 Comments:

Blogger Ann said...

Wonderful post. I'm bookmarking it so I can point it out when I revive my blog.

1:12 PM  
Blogger Emma Goldman said...

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1:41 PM  
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10:17 PM  

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