Feminism is a Humanism

Modern discourse is a gluttonous beast.

Round the clock media makes information ephemeral, important issues are routinely trivialized, and 140 characters of language is now considered an adequate bite. Every opinion is at risk of being devoured, and only a select few survive.

The flip side is: modern technology has also allowed an unprecedented number of people to add their voices to the collective hum, and has thus enabled a more democratic way of shaping our history.

Feminism is a relatively recent idea [1], born and raised alongside the modern computer. I can only hope it will survive the frenetic pace of this new era, and continue to evolve. I won’t despair too much however, because in the selection of ideas, we do have a say.

That said, anytime someone comes up with a new idea or rehashes an old one, we are best to listen, contemplate, compare, make an informed judgment, and then choose either to dismiss it, or embrace it. Nor should we be surprised that evaluating an idea requires a lot of time, and a lot of explanation.

For example, Jean-Paul Sartre did a lot of explaining in the infamous lecture he gave to a rapt audience at Le Club Maintenant in 1945, a lecture he named ‘L’existentialisme est un humanisme‘. Thanks to his efforts (and those of many others before and after him), the idea of existentialism has both lingered and evolved.

Obviously it would be ridiculous for me to explain feminism to anyone [2], but as a human being, I can continue the discussion regarding its application. Similar to Sartre, what I really want to talk about in this essay is what I mean by ‘humanism’.

Imagine I’m a Parisian academic, slightly reticent, maybe a little nervous, probably wearing a pretty slick suit, horn rimmed glasses, coiffed hair, the whole get up. I’m occupying a podium in a room that’s filled with young philosophes and cigarette smoke.

Obviously I’m not Sartre, and obviously many things have changed since his time, but his words—with some obvious tweaks [3]—can be made useful in the discussion I’d like to have.

Imagine I say:

My purpose here is to defend feminism against some charges that have been brought against it. First, it has been blamed for encouraging people to remain in a state of petty rebellion against common sense. For if a conservative view of progress is maintained, so does revolt linger, ad nauseam. And inasmuch as voicing one’s opinion is a luxury, we are told it is easier to maintain a more divisive point of view. These are the main reproaches made by the Platonists.

Like I said, I’m not Sartre, but I’m sure that he—like myself—took issue with Plato’s rigid preference for finding the truth, and not a truth.

To this sentiment I would add another. I would also acknowledge that insofar as existentialism and Platonism stand in opposition to each other, both are necessary when it comes to discussing our complex human nature.

So it goes with any set of opposing concepts.

Existentialists and feminists alike are forced to think of Plato’s immense legacy as a mixed blessing, where—for my purposes anyway—the modern form of Platonic thinking is defined by its tendency to impose rigid definitions and/or prescriptions, often solely on the basis of introspection [4].

Time and again, Platonic reasoning has been used to clamp down certain ways of thinking, and thus, to rescind open-minded inquiry. But, in so doing, it has also come to define some very useful concepts, and has thus woven itself into various secular and religious institutions. In this way, Platonic reasoning has lingered for thousands of years. And with regard to this particular lingering mindset, only one thing is certain: without any sign of its retreat, we must always be wary.

To wit, excessive libertarianism, most orthodox theology, objectivism, extreme nationalism, outright hedonism, sexism, or any other solipsistic bigotry; all of these depend on some form of Platonic reasoning, which is based on the rigid presupposition that, given adequate scrutiny, our individual conception of virtue does hold weight over all others that contrast with it.

It should go without saying that such a presupposition is absurd.

My point is this: Platonic reasoning ignores the fact that our worldview is exactly equal to every other human’s, which amounts to an egregious error, because beliefs that enable us to ignore the beliefs of others are always limited on the basis of their provenance, which of course is the mind.

It turns out that Sartre was on to something when he affirmed that “existence precedes essence”. Whether he knew it or not, he was legitimizing the claim that our group—humanity—has enough brains and culture to exist indefinitely, if only we can ensure an adaptive rendition of our essence.

I mean sure, we’re nothing more than a quibbling and feverish mass of elements, and sure, our existence constitutes an engrossing if not tenable mystery; the fact remains that we think and feel to the steady hum of time, and we’re responsible for this ability.

In navigating the special hell of existence, our behaviours inevitably affect those of others, all the time. Within this existence, it’s tempting to conclude that avoiding others will negate our effect on them. However, we must remember our family, friends, or even acquaintances; some or all of these people may worry if we suddenly become a dedicated introvert, or even worse, a belligerent and bigoted extrovert. Accordingly, the only way to escape our fiduciary existential role is to be both an orphan and a stranger. Only then could our existential impact be regarded as negligible. But even if this were true, we would still exist within the confines of a skull sized kingdom [5], and the trouble is, biological science has made it very clear that without a certain amount of socializing, a human mind would not develop properly, and its attendant reality would very likely be garbled and meaningless. Thus, just as it can be difficult for humans to live among others, it’s essential for humans to exist among others. That’s our lot.

Thankfully, we are capable of achieving an ever-varying perspective, one that imparts levity to the more onerous aspects of our existence.

Feminism, like existentialism, seeks levity for everybody [6]. If it’s to linger, it must weave itself into our established doctrines, and to accomplish this feat, it must be able to defend itself from its detractors, meaning its rhetorical parries must become ever-more subtle. And survive it must, because men still occupy more positions of wealth and influence than women in all too many realms of society, and women are still disproportionately degraded or abused by men on the basis of one pathetically rigid ideology or another.

In short, women have many pressing claims that justify their continued revolt, which entails being heard, which is a hugely problematic thing when so many people fail to hear anybody but themselves.

The prevailing counterclaim—at least from the Men’s Rights Associations (MRAs) that have started to make their presence known—is that some women have a tendency to abuse the trust their rebellion depends on. As a Machiavellian injunction the claim is disquieting, but ultimately it crumbles in light of persistent statistical disparity. As a statement of truth, it’s not entirely bogus either. There have certainly been instances of false accusations bolstered by a double standard, or nepotism veiled as affirmative action.

Undeniably, women are just as susceptible to insidious neurotic tendencies as men. Alas, as much as claims and counterclaims will always have value, they’re often lost within the gaping maw of modern human discourse.

I would posit that for most humans, who rarely (if at all) think about issues they haven’t been forced to deal with, and who are nevertheless distracted by the tedium of daily life, feminist issues don’t actually register as important [7]. It’s worth pointing out that this particular brand of complacency is the root of bias, because it enables the adoption of whatever arbitrary ethos happens to be most popular.

Within the realm of “Western” culture [8]—which is largely founded on Platonic ideologies like those mentioned above—it seems as though people are quite happy to adopt some kind of bias that places their own selfish interests before those of the group(s) they belong to.

And yet, the gnawing hum of time reminds us that our minds are indeed amenable to change; gradual, conservative, and all-too often fraught change mind you, but change nonetheless. Given that feminist ideas are both espoused by and directed at individual humans, they too can serve to change any solipsistic attitude that happens to prevail among any arbitrary grouping of individual humans who happen to value themselves too much. This is precisely what I mean when I say that feminism is a humanism.

The trouble is, to achieve the lofty and truly influential status of normality, feminist ideas need to resonate across broad ideological and geographical spans, and they need to do so for a long time. Just like Platonism, or existentialism, or any other ‘ism’ that is worthwhile, feminism needs to linger, and thus weave itself into our default way of encountering the world. Thankfully however, that process has begun, and all that’s needed for its continuation is open dialogue between individual humans and the social group(s) they belong to.

***

Edward O. & David S. Wilson are two biologists who’ve got something to say about our social group(s) [9].

According to them:

It is simply a fact of social life that individuals must do things for each other to function successfully as a group, and that these actions usually do not maximize their relative fitness within the group.

It’s a tough indictment because it’s painfully true. If we wish to do our part in the maintenance of our existence, we need to make sacrifices in order to form functional groups, or put another way, if we belong to a group and we want it to function well, we have to behave altruistically.

It can be argued that giving one’s time, strength, or money all constitute altruistic behaviours, typically on the basis that we only possess a limited amount of these things, and our chances to procreate increases in proportion to their abundance, so we are thus wont to conserve them. This mandatory frugality, which is born of existence, creates the psychological tension which forces us to delineate for whom we are willing to commit an altruistic behaviour, or rather, it forces us to identify our group, whether it be our family, nation, race, gender, social circle, political party, whatever.

In other words, because we exist, we inevitably align ourselves with any number of groups whose definitions are drawn from arbitrary and oft times Platonic abstractions.

However, there is one group whose definition is not an arbitrary abstraction. Rather, its definition is a deliberate abstraction, one that’s founded on thousands of years of accumulated scientific knowledge, and is thus amenable to the changes imposed by continued scientific discovery. It’s our species, Homo sapiens. And if we do employ this most unPlatonic of abstractions, then perhaps we need to ask ourselves: given the present state of affairs, just how functional is our group?

This question invokes the knowledge of sociobiology, which is founded on multilevel selection theory. The Wilsons think the entire discipline of sociobiology has become too one-sided, whereby gene-centric explanations are seemingly preferred by sociobiologists when analyzing their data. They argue that gene-centric notions have become too pervasive, and need to be reigned in, if only just to make room for group-centric notions, which rely on a mechanism of evolution called ‘group selection’, the simple yet non-intuitive idea that groups can evolve (and thus, exist indefinitely) despite the maladaptive altruistic behaviours of their individual members.

In essence, the Wilsons are saying that two opposite ideas, genetic selfishness and genetic altruism, are all too often seen to contrast, and too seldom seen to complement, which has caused a tacit bias to creep in. They argue that gene-centric notions have become too pervasive, and need to be reigned in, if only just to make room for group-centric notions.

The seeds for both ideas can be found within the work of Charles Darwin, but for whatever reason, gene-centric approaches to group selection have proliferated into a broad array of entrenched sub-disciplines, things like inclusive fitness theory, evolutionary games theory, or certain forms of genetic determinism, while theories based on true cooperative altruism have largely been overlooked. In essence, gene-centric approaches to sociobiology constitute any and all theories that are overly bolstered by the selfish gene hypothesis, which is an ontological argument founded on the idea that genes can seek only to replicate themselves, and is often misinterpreted to mean that individuals can seek only to replicate themselves (and not, it would seem, their group).

The selfish gene hypothesis has a Platonic bent, propounding as it does a rigidly individualistic way of viewing evolution, while excluding complementary hypotheses. And so we must be wary here too. If we continue to confound our genes with their self-organized products—meaning individual humans—then we’ll continue to see self-interest as the absolute means to evolutionary fitness. Moving forward, we are best to at least acknowledge the flip side, and address the complex nature of social groups like ours, where altruism between genetically unrelated individuals abounds, and genetic~environmental causations are very hard to pin down.

The Wilsons think an over-emphasis on the selfish gene hypothesis has come to hinder the field of sociobiology by allowing people to make overly ambitious claims on the basis of genetics alone, and that humanity’s collective obsession with the idea of “survival of the fittest” has made everyone—many biologists included—blind to its complementary half, the idea of cooperation among the group(s).

Their proposition is simple enough:

The whole point of multilevel selection theory is […] to examine the component vectors of evolutionary change, based on the targets of selection at each biological level and, in particular, to ask whether genes can evolve on the strength of between-group selection, despite a selective disadvantage within groups.

Our group is solid, there’s no doubt about that. Hell, our group has even precipitated the elimination of others, for example, the dodo, the giant sloth, or the Neanderthal. On a between-species level, we’re at the top of the food chain, but, we’re also proliferators of nuclear weapons, and changers of world climate. We’re also a threat to ourselves.

If we imagine Sisyphus—that mythological rock pusher whose endless toil is punctuated by fleeting moments of respite—if we imagine that mythological person as a happy person [10], then it’s incumbent on us to vouch for our species’ continued existence. And if existence is the target of selection we choose, it’s imperative that we maintain a cogent view of the traits that enable us to survive.

Visually, human multilevel selection can be represented as a set of nested and interdependent levels of evolution, as seen in the diagram below. It is important to remember that evolution occurs at every one of these levels, and that each level has its own characteristic time scale. Also, each level interacts with its neighbouring level, and those interactions occur with wildly varying degrees of strength. Finally, we mustn’t forget that in viewing an incredibly complex system [11] like our own, perspective always matters.

A single person’s vision will always differ according to whether they look down upon the system as a whole, starting from a vista of systematic scrutiny, or rather, if they look out from within it, starting from their own experiential certainties.

The Ways We Evolve_v6

From the bottom-up, the evolution of our genes directly affects the evolution of we ourselves, meaning our proteins, cells, tissues, and minds. But, we ourselves can only tenuously affect our environment, which is mostly dependent on the coordinated actions of the group(s) to which we belong.

From the top-down, the evolution of a single mind can only tenuously affect society. But, a multitude of minds working together form society, which directly affects the environment. And of course, we ourselves are only tenuously shaped by our own particular environment.

And so, the level of evolution most pertinent to a discussion of feminism, or existentialism, or Platonism, or humanism—any ism really—is the mind.

This level is distinct, not only because it imposes a limit on the system, but also because it simultaneously includes the perspectives of the group and the individual. Indeed, the boundary between these perspectives is where ideas proliferate.

Accordingly, just as particle/wave duality is needed to study the phenomena of light, so is the duality of individual/group needed to study ideas, or their common source, consciousness. Thus, in-group and between-group selection are complementary [12] with respect to the human mind.

If the individual is regarded as subject, and the group as object, then it’s feasible to say that consciousness is the bridge that connects them. What’s truly remarkable about this conclusion is: we can control our consciousness as individuals (the way we behave), or as a group (the way we communicate).

Wilsonian multilevel selection abolishes the old nature v. nurture debate, and embraces both as valid. If we—to the best of our collective abilities—nurture each other, then our species will continue to exist, and, if we—to the best of our own abilities—survive to pass our genes, then we will have done our part.

Nurture is real, and just like its counterpart, it’s essential. With enough of both, we may even make it to the other planets, or perhaps even galaxies, before the sun burns out. The rub is: adhering to an adaptive mindset requires the delineation of which groups matter. In our case, a highly parsimonious solution is to group all humans together. This radically simplified view would enable us to agree that war is an abomination, or that strife should only occur in rare situations, or that we must take care of the planet we all depend on.

It’s tempting to think of history as a mirror that reveals our “true” and unchangeable human nature. It’s tempting to convince ourselves that we are nothing more than nasty insolent beasts, and cannot change. It’s tempting because it’s easy to do so. Perhaps we can help ourselves by shunning that temptation. Perhaps it’s better to see history as a computer screen, one whose output reflects its underlying program.

To be sure, the computer screen of human history denotes a tremendously complex program, one rivaled only by our human minds. If we have any hope (and we do) of manipulating the images it will eventually come to display, we may have to tinker, or experiment.

Feminism is one such experiment. It seeks to mend a single imbalance, but defies us to treat all people with a certain amount of respect; to refrain from intimidation, violence, or war; to minimize arbitrary boundaries, and to live simply as the occupants of a single planet in a vast universe. It has tremendous potential to serve as a guide to social ethics, which rely on the communal decisions humans make within their social groups, be they families, communities, cities, nations, continents, whatever.

For this experiment to succeed, collective agreement is vital. We can’t just believe in equity, we must both demonstrate and spread it. However, this is easier said than done. As described above, “Western” society is founded on ideologies that derive from Platonic reasoning, which more often than not has a profound influence on our individual, and not our collective, minds. The net result of this imbalance: our species’ tendency toward prejudice and self-destruction.

Some would say that prescriptive solutions to counter this tendency—like feminism—will always be in short supply, whereas some would say that we can certainly help ourselves, but simply choose not too. Hell, some would even say that our fate is sealed from the get go, so why even try!

Reality is obviously complicated. We all have biases that emerge from our particular experiences, and unfortunately, it takes effort to uncover them, let alone combat them, let alone communicate them to others so as to agree on a communal strategy to do the same.

The only real burden of empathy is the time it takes to sift the countless views of others. Thankfully, modern technology has helped ease that burden by allowing us to efficiently peruse the entire spectrum of contrasting human perspectives. For a hastily growing majority and their various internet-connected gadgets, this can be done at leisure, at any time.

Yet here we face a new obstacle to empathy. Among the countless selfies of the Internet we find a glut of ads that sell ourselves to ourselves. In all of that, it’s all too easy to loose oneself.

The thing is: we needn’t let the glare of modern hyper-solipsism cloud our vision. We can install ad-blockers, and veer our attention. We can see the world as we never have before, in any way we choose, which is an extremely corny if not privileged thing to say, but is nonetheless true.

In finding the complement to our self-centered tendencies, a good place to start (it would seem anyway) is to acknowledge that humans are evolved animals whose individual and collective minds—emerging as they do from the complex interactions between body and environment—are indeed amenable to change.

***

Various disciplines of neuroscience have shown us that our minds are evolved structures, and as such, incline us toward the behaviours of our evolutionary ancestors. In due course however, the insights of neuroscience have also indicated that we can alter these inclinations if we make the effort to think and communicate in adaptive ways.

The neuroscientist Paul MacLean was among the first to publish scientific speculations about our brains’ evolutionary origins. His triune brain model posits that the human brain evolved stepwise in a process that is thought to recapitulate our evolutionary lineage; ‘mammalian’ and then ‘human’ layers are thought to have successively accumulated on top of a more or less conserved ‘reptilian’ brain. Carl Sagan provides a wonderful metaphor to illustrate this insight in his Cosmos, when he compares brain evolution to that of New York City, a place where structures old and new coexist in a relatively harmonious state, a place where change is ongoing.

Truth be told, the triune brain model is a very simple way to look at something bewilderingly complex, but it serves well enough for the purposes of this discussion. The point is: there are conserved structures in our brains that give us, more or less, the same behavioral impulses that govern reptiles and mammals alike.

Tendencies toward aggression, dominance, or greed were served quite well by massive size, sharp claws, rough hides, and relatively simple brains. Using these adaptations, dinosaurs ruled the earth for a really long time, but their existence was savage and chaotic; you needed to be quick and/or tough to survive it. Accordingly, their multilevel selection schema relied on a purely self-serving physical constitution, and was thus limited to the perspective of ‘individual’ (i.e. blue in the diagram above).

Dinosaurs were condemned to live as individuals because they did not exist long enough to evolve the complex brains that would give rise to the complex behaviours that would give rise to a complex society, or its conscious manifestation, culture, all of which emerges alongside the ‘group’ perspective (i.e. yellow in the diagram above).

And of course humans didn’t evolve from the biggest or most brutish dinosaurs. Rather, we evolved from their shrew-like derivatives, whose specialties included things like hiding and scurrying. We are the glorious ancestors of those jittery little creatures, whose evolutionary timeline led to the emergence of a humbling selective bent, one that entirely depends on a relatively “new” brain structure, the cortex.

The human version of this structure [13] is the absolute cutting edge. With it, we are able to turn our perceptions inward to see ourselves as we are, which gives us at least some control over how we think.

This is possible because our cortex is intricately wired into the “older” structures underneath it, which themselves are responsible for processing the sensory information that is gathered by our eyes, ears, nose, tongue, and skin. Contemporary evidence indicates that a major (if not the major) function of the cortex is to compare incoming sensory data to a preconceived version of the same that’s based on past experience and thus derived from the underlying, evolutionarily conserved memory and emotion systems.

Essentially, our cortex continuously updates the experiential knowledge that allows us to manipulate our predictably unpredictable environment.

Importantly, this ongoing process allows for the emergence of things like categories, beliefs, or remembrances, which themselves inform the biases we inevitably establish throughout our lives. This is an incredibly powerful insight, as it allows us to realize that our biases are to a very large degree determined by the breadth of our experiences. That is to say, if we wish to amend our biases, we must remain open to experiencing the world from alternative perspectives, or put yet another way, we must strive to be more empathetic.

And so, our relatively “new” cortex is the seat of cognition, which combines with the “old” memory and emotion systems of our brain in order to provide the psychic tensegrity [14] that defines our unique human mind, and thus reduces our inclination toward our conserved solipsistic behavioral impulses (e.g. aggression, prejudice, or deviancy) in favor of the prosocial behavioral impulses (e.g. worry, kindness, or cooperation) that derive from our cumulative experiences and the culture that informs them.

And with respect to culture, very interesting studies are starting to emerge. For example, the neuroscientist Richard Davidson and his research group have begun to study the culture of empathy using a broad spectrum of valuable methodologies. In a 2004 article his group provided a poignant demonstration of how empathy, when applied conscientiously, can actually attune the brain accordingly.

The authors of this study showed that as experienced Tibetan Buddhist monks practice ‘compassion’ meditation, their brains exhibit significantly greater resonance (compared to control subjects) between the functional brain areas that are thought to underlie cognition and emotion. Relying on Hebbian reasoning (neurons that fire together wire together) [15], and informed by contemporary neurophysiological insights, the authors of this study were able to suggest that “attention and affective processes… are flexible skills that can be trained”. Their take-home message is amazing; apparently we can increase our brain’s ability for empathy very simply by: conscientiously practicing empathy!

This is good news, because an ideology like feminism can only flourish if we are able to gauge every facet of our species, and reconcile any of the so-called “differences” we perceive that are based on sex or gender. With over 7 billion humans spread to every corner of the planet, this task lays a tremendous burden on both our individual and collective intellect.

Understandably, many among our species are simply too busy to ruminate past the stress of daily life, let alone critically evaluate their own biases. I suppose this is what “Sartre” (i.e. me) meant by the “luxury” of opinion.

The thing is, rumination comes free, and in a world that’s been graced with modern technology, it’s up to us to make time for it.

Lest we forget however, some configurations of the mind can lead to a thorough loosening of the threads of consciousness. In the context of an adequately stressful environment, these neural patterns can yield constitutive urges toward all manner of pernicious behaviors. Evolution has ensured that patterns like these are a minority, and we have thus labelled them as “mental illness”. It’s a dubious label because it carries stigma, and can thus exacerbate the vulnerability of those it isolates, but it’s worth remembering that such a category is meant to help establish adaptive norms for the group.

Besides, even if some individual humans inevitably lash out in instances of sociopathic behavior, that’s why we’ve invented the police department, right?

Part of our collective conscious effort has been the proliferation of institutions to deal with the contingencies of our nature. This effort depends on culture, and typically relies on some form of democracy, because we’ve realized that a stable and representative government is needed to coordinate the institutions that protect ourselves from ourselves, at the littlest cost to ourselves. We’ve realized that even if we cannot always abstain from violence, prejudice, or ignorance, we can set up a system that deters us from adopting these tendencies.

The question then arises: in this project of building our culture, why do we continue to draw so much inspiration from divisive Platonic beliefs like those mentioned at the onset?

If our continued existence imparts meaning to the concept of human essence, and is dependent on our interaction with others, then we must treat others—regardless of their creed, race, sex, or gender—as valuable members of a single species. In other words, we must consider the group and the individual equally, and in so doing, we must practice empathy, the precursor to altruism, which, as we know, is an eminently valid way of evolving.

The whole point of this meandering essay is to articulate that we humans have already found a way to realign our outlook. The key to our salvation, it would seem, has been around for hundreds of years, but for whatever reason has never achieved the long-lived status of normality. All that’s required is an honest, perpetual effort to amend our biases, by employing (at least halfway) the tenets of humanism, and by extension, feminism too, because both of these isms serve the same laudable goal (our evolution as a species), and entail the same behavior, which is to perceive others with empathy, if not just plain interest [16].

***

Change takes time, evolutionary change even longer, but the reverberations of strife and despair that have so far plagued our species are as old as we. It’s high time we stand tall and face up to them.

Adapting to minimize these problems means restructuring major parts of our intellectual history, and reformulating our culture. It’s a massive rebellion, one whose legitimacy will take generations to establish—but it’s certainly worthwhile.

And if we wish to change culture, which is composed of inherited knowledge, discourse is vital. Indeed, besides our will, it is the only thing we have some form of control over.

The flip side is: now more than ever before, discourse is also susceptible to gluttony, with everyone yelling into the void, hoping their words resonate loudly enough to be heard.

And just as our cortex evolved to cope with heaps and heaps of extrasomatic data, so did culture evolve to assimilate all of that data into a malleable and growing historical narrative, one that’s grown so large that it might have become unwieldy.

When faced with such a dismal uncertainty, it’s worth remembering: what’s truly amazing about our species is that it has some modicum of control over its own survival. All that’s required is that we use our consciousness to strive for open discourse that promotes adaptive like-mindedness.

Feminism constitutes a vocal rebellion, and this feature vindicates it for what it is, namely, a mindset that is harmless to others, and whose focus—because it promotes equity within the human species—is adaptive. It aims to open new dialogues, and thus to instill tolerance within our individual and collective ethics. It aims to change culture, one discussion at a time.

If you pay even the scantest attention to media (digital or otherwise), you’ll know that many people have their take on feminism. If you read the commentary pertaining to media, you’ll also know that a declarative take on feminism often leads to a litany of distorted echoes. Some defend their own particular views, and some insist on trolling for dissent. And while certain individuals find criticism just as valid as the article it proceeds from, others refuse to look at it because they fear contrarianism.

Commentary is very underappreciated. There’s a lot to be said for it. Anyone with a voice, a pen, or a connected computer can add to the sprawling narrative of culture, and thus contribute their ideas to the whim of posterity. It’s worth pausing to reflect on what this means.

If you come to the conclusion that I am nothing more than a misguided windbag, and that my words are a heaping pile of bullshit, I implore you, let everyone know by making your thoughts known. That’s your privilege, not your luxury, and no one can take it away from you.

Whether or not you buy into the merits of feminism, many do, and now more than ever, they are challenging us to think differently. They are spreaders of empathy; they are experimenters in social evolution. I suspect these people will only increase in numbers, for as the Wilsons were able to surmise:

Selfishness beats altruism within groups. Altruistic groups beat selfish groups. Everything else is commentary.

Time hums on. We continue to gain valuable insights about our stubborn yet malleable minds, and feminism continues to exert its influence on our ways of communicating. So be it if we must contend with the newly risen and most gluttonous beast of modern discourse. I’m sure we’ll adapt.






FNs

[1] Prerequisite to any discussion of feminism is to agree that men, for better or for worse, have been disproportionately influential throughout history. Due to tacit notions of their “superiority”, or nepotism in their favor—usually both—they have occupied more illustrious positions within most cultural realms, be it Science, Politics, Religion, Art, etc. Men have thus ensured that recorded history is replete with violence, rape, bondage, and war: all fruits of their testosterone-fueled self-interest. Women, on the other hand, have just begun to carve out a space for their ideas, which, largely because they force us to consider new perspectives, have served to mitigate those aforementioned fruits. I for one think it’s truly wonderful that this has finally happened to our species.

[2] If, like Sartre, I expounded from a podium, I would have to address the elephant in the room, namely, that I am a man, and all of the sources I quote in this essay are men. And while some might say that a man having an opinion about feminism is an absurd notion, I would like to say that I readily agree with these people. In any case, I am best to acknowledge that feminism is an idea that both comes from and belongs to women, but nevertheless applies to everyone, which is pretty much my entire point in this essay.

[3] According to the 2007 Yale University Press edition of Existentialism is a Humanism, as translated by Carol Macomber, Sartre’s actual opening remarks went something like this:

“My purpose here is to defend existentialism against some charges that have been brought against it. First, it has been blamed for encouraging people to remain in a state of quietism and despair. For if all solutions are barred, we have to regard any action in this world as futile, and so at last we arrive at a contemplative philosophy. And inasmuch as contemplation is a luxury, we are only espousing yet another kind of bourgeois philosophy. These are the main reproaches made by the communists.”

[4] This perspective is based on The Complementary Nature (2006), a philosophical work by two neuroscientists, J.A. Scott Kelso and David Engstrøm. It’s their attempt to redefine our manner of reconciling opposites. They sum up their view of Plato quite nicely:

“For Plato, being was more fundamental than becoming, stasis more fundamental than change. The immutable soul was more fundamental than the life he directly and daily experienced. Although Plato used contraries in his dialectic, his preference for one side over another may have kept him ultimately a prisoner in his own cave.”

[5] David Foster Wallace coined the idiom ‘skull sized kingdom’ in a commencement speech to a group of college grads, where it was meant to illustrate the default setting of most humans, which is to consider one’s own perspective before that of others, or rather, to be solipsistic. This speech was published posthumously as a book (This is Water, 2009), and addresses the topic of empathy. It’s a very quick read, and it should be accessed by anyone in need of an expanded perspective, which is to say, everyone.

[6] Feminism and existentialism are similar insofar as they force us to consider others just as much as we consider ourselves. In a world where our interactions with others determine how much stress we carry, both ideologies can be extremely helpful in lightening the load. The flip side is: many forms of Platonism make us contrary to those who surround us, and thus add to our stress levels, hence my comments up to this point.

[7] Okay, okay, this is misleading. For many among us, these things do matter, and for some among us these things matter a lot. Truth be told, the daily repercussions of misogyny or misandry can be deadly serious, and I suspect that many of you will be annoyed that I give them so little mention. Please bear in mind, however, that I’m trying to address my chosen topic from an oft-ignored and equally serious perspective, that of the human species.

[8] Because I’ve lived my entire life immersed in Western culture, it’s all that I can really talk about in this essay. However, given everything I’ve ever learnt about other cultures, I would speculate that the vast majority of humanity is informed by Platoesque reasoning, and thus prone to the same tendencies.

[9] Although they share a last name, they are unrelated, which is neither here nor there, because they are both fervent thinkers with a lot of great ideas to offer. Their amazing work, Rethinking the theoretical foundation of sociobiology (2007), gets quoted a few times in this essay.

[10] This is how Albert Camus, my favourite existentialist, put it in his Myth of Sisyphus (1942), which condemns the act of suicide by lucidly affirming the value of life.

[11] In his remarkably eloquent paper The Architecture of Complexity (1962), Herbert Simon argues that complex systems are typically composed of hierarchies of distinct elements which are themselves complex systems. To hear him tell it:

“I shall not try to settle which is chicken and which is egg: whether we are able to understand the world because it is hierarchic, or whether it appears hierarchic because those aspects of it which are not elude our understanding and observation. I have already given some reasons for supposing that the former is at least half the truth—that evolving complexity would tend to be hierarchic—but it may not be the whole truth.”

[12] Neils Bohr, the Danish physicist, won the order of the Elephant—his nation’s highest honour—in large part because of his “Copenhagen interpretation” of quantum theory, which reconciled the dual nature of light, and was rooted in the idea of complementarity. This award enabled Bohr to design his own coat of arms, which hangs at Frederiksborg castle in Copenhagen, and appears below. The motto reflects his philosophical side, and translates to a simple statement: “opposites are complementary”.

bohr_crest

[13] The human cortex—the bulging part on top—is commonly referred to as a single entity, but it can actually be subdivided into diverse functional areas. One of the major goals of contemporary neuroscience is to discover the boundaries between these areas, and thus formulate a holistic picture of how the mind gives rise to consciousness. To be sure, there is a lot of work left to do, and many technological hurdles to be overcome before this goal is even graspable. Still, contemporary evidence is intriguing, and yields insights that can easily withstand rigorous skeptical analysis.

[14] This idea was popularized by Buckminster Fuller after his student Kenneth Snelson first described it, and involves a design principle that combines tension and structural integrity so as to achieve scalable stability. It can be used to describe the cellular architecture of our cortex, and was thus beautifully employed by the brilliant neuroscientist György Buzsáki in his very comprehensive book, Rhythms of the Brain (2006). For my part, I would like to suggest that the cognition, memory, and emotion systems of our brain come together to form a trinity that is both stable and scalable, and which we usually refer to as: consciousness.

[15] Donald Hebb was a psychologist who worked at McGill University from 1947 to 1972, and is a grandfather of sorts to the field of neuropsychology, which links specific functions to specific brain regions. His protégé, Brenda Milner, still works at McGill, and has spent her career helping to define the brain’s memory systems. She is also an ardent champion for women in science, which makes her doubly amazing.

[16] To all those who would label him a humanist, Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., in his Address to the American Physical Society (1976), had this to say:

“You have called me a humanist, and I have looked into humanism some, and I have found that a humanist is a person who is tremendously interested in human beings. My dog is a humanist. His name is Sandy. He is a sheep dog. I know that Sandy is a dud name for a sheep dog, but there it is.”