“A certain psychological dogma”

Justice, or rather human equality, does demand that a man and a woman should alike have social dignity and social power. It does not in the least demand acceptance of a certain psychological dogma about the effects of sex. Of course these people never state their own dogma clearly; but it might be stated clearly, somewhat thus: that sex only affects sexuality, and that sex can cause no other variation in social functions. This is very far from being self-evident; and is quite the reverse of a rational deduction from human equality. I believe it to be quite untrue.

The New Witness, 5 September 1919.

Published in: on May 18, 2011 at 9:46 am  Comments (13)  

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  1. Gotta’ disagree with Chesterton again on this one. Having known a sufficient number of women over my lifetime, I’m not even sure that sex affects sexuality, let alone anything else. I think he might be mistaking enculturation for a hard and fast biological rule.

    After this post and the previous one that sparked some debate a few months ago, it seems that women’s equality is one of the few areas that he has a really hard time grappling with. Regardless of what glowing terms he uses to describe goddesses and queens and mothers, Chesterton always comes off as really uncomfortable about the prospect of dealing with women as people.

  2. Part of the pleasure of these posts lies precisely in those points at which Chesterton runs up against the special pieties of our times. This is certainly an instance. If you are suggesting that Chesterton thought women inferior to men, I would like to see the evidence. That he thought them different from men in interesting and non-negligible ways, I will not contest, but in this judgment he was hardly alone — indeed, it is we who stand out as anomalies.

    A more recent essay that pursues a similar line of thought to Chesterton here is Roger Scruton’s “Modern Manhood”, at City Journal.

  3. There running up against the special pieties of our times and then there is how revealling it is to treat some things as “special pieties”. For instance, the equality of women is not a “special piety”, and I don’t think that men would tolerate having our dignity and humanity discussed in those sorts of terms. At the heart of every movement towards equality in the last… well… forever is the non-negotiable statement by the subject peoples that their equality is a right owed, not a privilege granted. The total legal equality of women and homosexuals/bisexuals/trans and African Americans and slaves is not a “special piety”: it is a fundamental right of their status as human beings. On the contrary, being entitled to talk about the equality of other people as “special pieties” is evidence of privilege and is itself a special piety.

    I did not say that Chesterton necessarily thought women to be his inferiors. I said that he seems to have difficulty or discomfort thinking of women as his equals. Those are two different things. He certainly did have very exalted views of women as goddesses, queens, empresses and mothers. The problem is that those are all roles. I may have exalted views of gods, kings, emperors and fathers… but what of men? Just men, as people, for what they are in all their various, sundry and individual personalities, capabilities, virtues and faults?

    A female friend of mine, who is a PhD in religious studies, made this sort of an observation about the Smurfs. All of the Smurfs are defined by either a job or a personality trait. And then there is Smurfette, who is defined as being a woman, because being a woman is a job or a personality trait, apparently. Actually she used much more colourful language that I can’t repeat here.

    Because of the dissociation between thinking of women as goddesses/queens/empresses/mothers and thinking of women as people, Chesterton now and then pulls remarks out about the supposed dangers of “unlocking the kitchen door” or “dogmas” about “social function”. The actual feminist response is not to engage Chesterton in a debate about “special pieties” as though the equality of women were up for debate. Like his own approach to the madman, it is simply to tell Chesterton to shut up. It is not his business to have an opinion on what a woman is or is not allowed to do.

    Yes, our society is a global anomally in that we recognize the total legal equality of women and don’t treat them as articles of property. And we are anomalous in recognizing the rights of homosexuals (well, we’re getting there). And we’re an anomally in the belief that children are entitled to legal protections. And in the fact that we have abolished slavery. And in the freedom to pratice our religions. And to vote for our representatives. We are anomalous in many virtues indeed.

  4. To call something a ‘special piety’ is not to say it is untrue, but to say it is especially close to the heart. Chesterton affirms the doctrine of human equality; the question is what this really means. That ‘equality’ of men and women means that there are no differences between them, that nature and culture are and must be completely blind to masculinity and femininity (which, in consequence, do not exist) is a special piety of our time — as your stirring response indicates — yet this is not the only possible meaning of ‘equality’, nor, arguably, is it the most persuasive.

  5. Well, I wouldn’t argue from my “passion” because I am thorough with any comment I make about any subject, unless I don’t think it’s even worth talking about to begin with.

    The hump for me to get over here is the fact that gender roles are socially constructed. Period. Flat. As I alluded to in my first comment, I have seen absolutely zero evidence to support the contention that men and women behave in observably distinct categories. I’ve known too many women, and too many men, to think otherwise. All I see are people who, if they can be categorized, can be distinguished in far more complex ways than by whether they have one set of sex organs or another (or decided to change them halfway through), nor by where they chose to stick those organs.

    The article you referred me to is a perfect example. I actually found it difficult to get through the whole introductory section because it was so off-the-wall from my experience. I was reminded of that joke about the Lone Ranger and Tonto being surrounded by 1000 angry Sioux warriors. The Lone Ranger turns to Tonto and says “It’s looks like we’re in a bit of a tough spot, old friend,” to which Tonto replies “What do you mean ‘we’ white man?”

    My reaction to his talk about male pride and male identity was fairly close to my reaction to ideas of white pride and white identity. Why should I tether my identity to someone I have nothing in common with except the presence of a penis? Why should I feel any pride in what someone else with a penis does? Why should I allow a stranger to take any kind of credit for my own accomplishments simply because we both have penises? Taking pride and identity from being male, like from being white, seems like one of those things you do when you cannot find an identity for yourself or take pride in yourself. It’s a surrogate.

    Figuring out who I am does not require me to subjugate other people or tell them what they are and are not allowed to do. That doesn’t even make sense to me. If I cannot realize myself without telling other people they cannot realize themselves, if I cannot live and compete in the world without telling other people that they cannot live and compete in the world, If I cannot be in relationship with others without dictating to them the terms of the relationship, then it’s really kind of pathetic, isn’t it? It’s just stacking the deck in favour of my surrogates, whether that’s gender or race or nationality or whatever. Feminists call that “privilege” and “entitlement”. If it were a game, it would simply be called “cheating”.

    I am a person, in a complicated world full of other complicated people. My identity and pride comes far more from my relationships and my accomplishments and my person virtues and my experiences than by however I have or have not been enculturated or by what skin tone I happen to have or by what sex organs I possess. I have seen this to be true for everyone else I have ever encountered, even those who insist upon the comforts of group-associations. I have seen nothing to suggest that equality should mean anything other than what it plainly means, without revisons, provisos or exceptions. The dignity and capability and humanity of each person is their own and not concentrated in their genitals.

  6. I have not said anything about specific gender roles, nor anything about ‘roles’ at all. It is true that masculinity and femininity manifest differently in different cultures, but manifest they do. I have known too many men, and too many women, not to be convinced of that. Parenthood, too, has convinced me. Perhaps that difference of experience is at the root of our disagreement.

    We are now living in the wake of several decades’ worth of effort — educational, social, political, and bureaucratic — aimed at demolishing those myriad ways in which men were men and women were women. I do not now contest whether this was a good thing or not. You seem to be telling me that the effort has largely succeeded. It is difficult to resist the conclusion, however, that this is the socially constructed outcome — or, at least, that it is not any less socially constructed than anything else. Would you agree with that?

    The idea that being male is reducible to having a penis is a familiar trope, but false, even on a strictly biological account. Being male affects the whole body; being female affects the whole body. This is why medical studies routinely divide their patient groups by sex; it makes a difference. If one is a materialist, for whom the body is the person, it would therefore not be surprising to find that sex correlates with certain patterns of thinking and with behaviour. (Behaviorist materialists, of course, are careful to look only for correlations with behaviour.) If one is a Christian, for whom the person is an embodied soul, one likewise expects the body to matter. Cartesians, I suppose, are free to believe in the strict social construction of the masculine and feminine. I am not a Cartesian, and I am not sure that I know anyone who is (except, possibly, you, in which case I extend to you a clear and distinct expression of good regard).

    The imagery that comes to my mind when I think about these matters is that of dance. I think of the difference between a ballroom and a club. Sure, the clubbers are, in some sense, more equal than the waltzers — there is no discernible difference between the men and women, and they could be interchanged without changing the scene — but the result is rather ugly and flat. In the waltz, however, we see the grace of complementarity, and it is both civilized and beautiful.

  7. It is difficult to resist the conclusion, however, that this is the socially constructed outcome — or, at least, that it is not any less socially constructed than anything else. Would you agree with that?

    Not really, because we’re talking about a distinction between a social construction and a social deconstruction. It’s hard to say that a deconstruction is a construction without eating your own tail. I would agree that it has taken some concerted effort to deconstruct those socially constructed gender identities, but that’s a good thing. Deconstructing issues of race and orientation have also taken some doing and are still works in progress. I don’t think that we would be having a comparable discussion of how the equality of African-Americans is a social construct.

    Sorry, no one is arguing that they’re not equal. We’re just saying that they should be drinking out of different fountains. Or with gay people, it’s not that they’re not equal, but rather, that there should be a different terminology and set or rules for their “civil unions”.

    I guess one of my assumptions is that any equality worth using that term for implicitly includes equal rights and freedoms. That equality of rights and freedoms cannot exist where roles are prescribed. You say you haven’t been talking about that, but that’s ultimately where this discussion ends up. What is the point of making any kind of distinction unless it’s supposed to manifest to some practical utility? Even if men and women were somehow different in categorical ways beyond individual personality, who cares? Why is it worth even mentioning unless you planned to do something about it? Chesterton was already the one who talked about women in terms of roles, in relation to issues of women’s rights.

    You bring up biology, but even that’s not as simple as people make it out to be. Gender is not an absolute. Biologically and genetically it is a spectrum, with all sorts of interesting hermaphroditic crossovers. Dialectic categories are simply false and there’s no two ways around that. And when I look on the census form I see races represented even though “race” is biologically discredited. There is a difference between statistics and science.

    That in turn factors into my understanding of psychology. I am a Christian and therefore I do not believe in a soul, so our bodies are what we are. But our bodies are complicated things and our brains are the most complicated part of them. There is a lot that goes into determining what a person is like, and in my experience I have never seen some immutable fact of gender play a role. I have seen gender socialization play a role, certainly, but that’s is only incidentally related to the plumbing. I’ve also seen race construction play a role, which has nothing to do with any supposed inherited traits of a race.

    The imagery that comes to my mind when I think about these matters is that of dance. I think of the difference between a ballroom and a club. Sure, the clubbers are, in some sense, more equal than the waltzers — there is no discernible difference between the men and women, and they could be interchanged without changing the scene — but the result is rather ugly and flat. In the waltz, however, we see the grace of complementarity, and it is both civilized and beautiful.

    You lost me there because this analogy is entirely social construction. Besides the fact that there are horrible waltzers out there and amazing clubbers, or that two men or two women can waltz just as well as a man and a woman… like… seriously, is this the 1950’s? You’re picking on other people’s dancing styles as an analogy to prove immutable laws of gender? There are cultures out there that consider any dancing to be horrible and disgusting preludes to sex, or would balk at your description of a waltz because it involves partners actually touching (gross!), or think that recreational dancing is offensive because dancing is supposed to be religious. All you’re doing is displaying your enculturated personal preferences.

  8. I have been away for the long weekend; apologies.

    Chesterton’s point in the quotation that sparked this discussion was that there are differences between men and women which are not exclusively limited to sexuality (by which I take it he meant ‘overt’ sexuality) but which also affect other things, including culture and behaviour, but that those differences need not imply unequal dignity of the sexes. To my mind, that is a very modest claim.

    As far as I understand you, you hold to a view in which sex (or, if you prefer, gender) has no social significance . You seem to see the distinction between men and women (as social beings, not just biological creatures) as a social invention, and you also seem to believe that honouring the differences between the two is somehow unjust. You also have an antipathy to gender-differentiated roles as such, regardless of what those roles happen to be in any particular culture.

    If that is a faithful summation (and I welcome correction), then I must simply say that I do not agree. The fact that ideals of masculinity and femininity — whatever they happen to be — are present through time and across cultures disposes me to believe that there is something to them. I think it likely that they are ultimately rooted in our biological differentiation into sexes. As such, your appeal to “social deconstruction” looks to me not like a neutral ‘peeling back the cultural onion’ to recover a state of nature wherein individuals are truly free, but more like a simple question-begging exercise that is contrary to nature, the achievements of which will only be sustained by continual vigilance and enforcement. Time, I suppose, will tell.

    My appeal to dance was whimsical and perhaps infelicitous. I only wanted to propose an example in which sexual differentiation co-exists with cooperation, dignity, and grace. I do wonder why you think waltzes are “other people’s dances”? I like waltzing, I assure you.

  9. …there are differences between men and women which are not exclusively limited to sexuality… but which also affect other things, including culture and behaviour, but that those differences need not imply unequal dignity of the sexes. To my mind, that is a very modest claim.

    …you also seem to believe that honouring the differences between the two is somehow unjust.

    Regardless of how “modest” it may be, my first objection is that it is not merely “unjust”, but demonstrably false. I’d actually reverse your/his statement: culture and behaviour have far more influence on our differences as individuals than does our gender. I would even say that culture and behaviour have far more influence on our sexuality, even, than does our gender. There is no such thing as “the difference between men and women” if you are talking about anything beyond the genitals. “Man” and “woman” are not valid psychological categories.

    You also have an antipathy to gender-differentiated roles as such, regardless of what those roles happen to be in any particular culture.

    Because people in any one group telling people in any other group that they’re not allowed to do something because they are part of that group is the definition of discrimination. It is ultimately rooted in bigotry no matter how polite or affirmative one makes it sound. In Chesterton’s own time, the most ubiquitous method of punishing women for being women was to put them on a pedestal.

    The fact that ideals of masculinity and femininity — whatever they happen to be — are present through time and across cultures disposes me to believe that there is something to them.

    Except that those ideals are different. When making a universalist appeal, the proviso “whatever they happen to be” is critical. If whatever they happen to be is actually different from culture to culture, then it’s actually evidence for the contrary.

    Universal appeals can also be used as evidence for a point far beyond the one a person is trying to make if they don’t realize how exceptional they are. For example, the belief that “those differences need not imply unequal dignity of the sexes” is a minority view in the history of men’s relationship to women. If you wanted to make a truly universal appeal, then the “ideal” of femininity is to be valuable property.

    But moreover, universal appeals are ultimately meaningless. It’s a type of logical fallacy, argumentum ad populum. Just because different cultures believe different things about the psychological or social differences between men and women doesn’t mean that there are universally true psychological or social differences between men and women.

    I think it likely that they are ultimately rooted in our biological differentiation into sexes.

    They are. And the roots of racism are in our biological differentiation into races, and the roots of homophobia are in our biological differentiation into sexual orientations. That doesn’t make them right, or accurate, or even that the biological differentation is absolute and impermeable.

    And I am aware that the struggle against our baser impulse to think that people physically different from ourselves are somehow different in their proverbial soul is an ongoing one. It will never end, because we are fallen and sinful and superficial. Doesn’t mean we’re supposed to stop trying to live rightly though.

    My appeal to dance was whimsical…

    It wasn’t. As I said, the problem with it is that you are trying to defend the immutable differentation of gender using an analogy grounded in the fact that you were born at a certain time in a certain culture and raised in a certain way to consider waltzing an attractive form of dance as opposed to clubbing (which is “other people’s dancing”). I don’t know if you have ever considered that someone else from some other time or culture or upbringing could consider waltzing grotesque, or both waltzing and clubbing to be beautiful. It failed as an analogy because all you did was try to explain one debatable form of enculturation (gender roles) with one obvious form of enculturation (preferred dancing styles).

  10. The argumentum ad populum is, I agree, not going to be helpful in an iron-clad logical deduction, but I do think it can have a suggestive, prudential value. All I mean to claim is that something can be learned about human nature by looking at human beings; again, I think that quite a modest claim. No doubt the masses are prone to errors and foolishness, and we are obliged to measure any culture according to our best understanding of justice. Yet a complete dismissal of ‘the way things are and have been’ is also prone to error and abuse. It is a favourite tactic of ideologues, for instance, because it is an effective way to dissolve existing cultural norms and institutions. (Note: I saying this I do not intend to call you, in particular, an ideologue.) I am generally wary of such projects. As Chesterton said in another place, a fence should not be torn down until one has a thorough understanding of why it was put up in the first place.

    I am grateful to you, Cory, for taking the time to explain yourself at such length. I confess that your views seem to me to be lunatic (in the sense in which Chesterton used the word in Orthodoxy), but I am happy to have a clearer understanding of why you objected to the quotation that sparked this exchange.

  11. All I mean to claim is that something can be learned about human nature by looking at human beings; again, I think that quite a modest claim.

    I would agree with the claim. So much so, in fact, that it formed the entire basis of my argument, as I stated repeatedly. The problem is that we seemed to have arrived at different conclusions about human nature by looking at human beings. You found evidence to support the views to which you subscribe, and I did not.

    Yet a complete dismissal of ‘the way things are and have been’ is also prone to error and abuse.

    Except that my objection has not been to “the way things are and have been.” My objection has been to “false things that are widely held to be true.”

    It is a favourite tactic of ideologues, for instance, because it is an effective way to dissolve existing cultural norms and institutions.

    That is neither here nor there. Regardless of the fact that it swings into argumentum ad Hitlerum territory (which you were careful to clarify didn’t mean me specifically), it ignores facts like:
    1)Existing cultural norms and values can themselves be ideological;
    2)The existing cultural norms and values may be flawed and/or unjust;
    3)The overthrow of those existing norms and values are motivated by a genuine movement towards truth and justice; and
    4)Even if it is “ideological,” that doesn’t necessarily makes it bad or wrong.

    I confess that your views seem to me to be lunatic (in the sense in which Chesterton used the word in Orthodoxy)

    You’re welcome for the clarification, though your application of Chestertonian lunacy is petty. I don’t think he meant it to be applied willy-nilly whenever someone has a defensible difference of opinion from our own. Lunatics may be great (if constrained) reasoners, but that does not mean that all reasoned views are lunacy nor that an unreasoned view is necessarily sane.

  12. I agree with much of what you wrote; I think we are not actually that far apart. However, being given to pettiness, I won’t waste your time or mine by adding anything further.

  13. I know you have moved on, but I would like to commend you for your self restraint in discoursing with a very silly person, cburrell.

    All statistical behavioural differences between men and women are not cultural constructs. Evolutionary biology suggests different optimal strategies for each gender and in all human cultures we see these different optimal strategies enacted in greater or lesser degrees. I would actually like there to be no differences; but there are.

    “Dialectic categories are simply false and there’s no two ways around that.”???
    Just because there are places I can stand with one foot on either side of the international date line does not mean there is no such thing as Thursday.


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