Tackling the current obsession with “fake news,” a recent Science magazine study (Science 09 Mar 2018) concluded that false stories indeed spread more rapidly on the Internet than true ones, but not because the algorithms are rigged against us. “Contrary to conventional wisdom, robots accelerated the spread of true and false news at the same rate, implying that false news spreads more than the truth because humans, not robots, are more likely to spread it.”
This conclusion may be comforting in that it keeps the HAL 9000 at bay for a time, but may be unnerving for what it says about human nature. Let me seize this unnerving moment as the occasion to review of Enlightenment theories of human nature. After all, the Enlightenment, with its investment in the scientific method and evidence-based epistemology, with its tenet of universal rational principles as a foundation for universal rights, represents the beginning of our age, an age now under attack, some would say, by a postmodern epistemology.
Enlightenment thinkers looked for the roots of human nature at its origin. What was the human condition in a state of nature? Start there and maybe we can unravel the rest.
For the late 17th-century Hobbes, left on our own in a state of nature, we would find life “nasty, brutish, and short.” In a word, we’re a bad lot, which is why we’ve had to build up all this civilizing infrastructure over the millennia.
Some decades later, Rousseau, perhaps a more Romantic spirit, held that human beings in a state of nature were “noble savages,” intrinsically good until so-called civilization corrupted their natural goodness.
From Voltaire’s point of view – and I’m thinking mainly of Candide (from memory) – both Hobbes and Rousseau seem a little silly, dogmatic. Everywhere Candide goes, he finds a mix of generous people and self-interested people. Neither nature nor nurture matters very much. Wherever you go, cross-culturally, you will be mistaken (comically so if you are in a Voltaire narrative) if you expect to find a collective human nature that is idealized and you will be mistaken if you expect to find seamless corruption. We’re a mixed bag wherever you find us.
So take your pick: a darkly driven human nature that needs external structures and traditions, an idealized human nature that needs to throw off the shackles of civilized society, or an irreducibly mixed nature.
Ah, but the article in Science. We may be neither programmed for generous behavior nor for selfish behavior, but it’s hard to read the article and think that we are not programmed for stupid behavior. Maybe we need to call in the HAL 9000 after all.
If you look at clips of hippies from the Summer of Love or Woodstock or their post-60s communes, you see, the sexual liberation of the times aside, lots of non-sexual touching and hugging. In the hippie zeitgeist, human touch was one of the primary glues of communal oneness. Physical touch was not just symbolic of healing and unity. It was the physical joy of human connection itself. It not only symbolized but manifested oneness with our fellow beings on the level of all the sheaths of identity (physical, emotional, intellectual, spiritual). You could feel the bonds. Besides the cosmic, hippyish explanation, this may simply be evolution. For millions of years, grooming and snuggling and other forms of touch have defined primate behavior.But as with so many things in the hippie spring of the 1960s, the reinvestment in physical touch was part of a social vision, a push toward a society that was less materialistic but richer in human contact.
Nowadays, the focus on sexual harassment has brought shame to many who long deserved it, but has also raised a question for us hippie sympathizers: Was there a utopian naivete about the hippie zeitgeist on touch? Can it be exploited by those who would sexually harass? That is certainly a risk, and the anti-harassment movement we see today is a corrective to that risk. But I fear the baby being thrown out with the bathwater. Along with those who are justly punished, there seems a sense building that any touch on the shoulder or forearm, is a blip on a gradient that ends in rape. We have moved from seeing “human touch” as one of the great healing and redemptive powers at our disposal to seeing it as something intrinsically dark.
I don’t want to overstate my case. I understand that no one is proposing that all human touch be marked negative. But is that becoming the new default setting? In our eagerness to right wrongs, is “potentially toxic” becoming the first thing we think of when one human being touches another? Come to think of it, a lot of default settings seem to be moving the needle to “toxic.” Masculinity is increasing portrayed as toxic in itself, invested in violence and power and subjugation; heterosexual sex is seen as vaguely toxic, and even women with straight heterosexual desire should feel a little guilty for being complicit in the heteronormative patriarchy. Such are the times, at least as they are being engineered by the theories coming out of academic identity departments.
But touch, I hate to see touch go. Whereas the push in the 60s was for a society richer in physical human contact, the push now would seem to presage a society that valorizes a decrease in physical human contact. Granted the naivete of the hippie zeitgeist had a vulnerability that could be exploited, I just worry about the pendulum swinging too far. I am uneasy about the demise of that hippie optimism about human nature and human connection. I worry that the beauty of human touch will be lost in a new age of puritanism. I worry that this new idea we have of the integrity of the isolated individual – some would say an idea that really only emerged 100 years ago with the existentialist philosophers – that this idea puts us at odds with millions of years of evolution, in which identity formed as part of a group, with constant tactile confirmation giving “wholeness” to that identity.
A society depleted of that tactile confirmation may indeed make individuals safer,and there is an absolute value there that gives pause to my own thesis. That value alone makes today’s anti-harassment movement potentially a great positive in our effort to “form a more perfect union.” But great positives can become negatives without moderating voices, just as the heady liberation of the French Revolution (1789) morphed into the Reign of Terror (1793). Without a Martin Luther King or a Gandhi, the passion of protest can turn unprofitably violent. And if Facebook posts are any indication, there are certainly some cultural warriors out there harboring a little of the Robespierre bloodthirst. So yes, I am all for the increased safety that might result from the anti-harassment movement, but be aware that a lack of moderation always comes with its own risks. The risk in this case is a more general fear of human contact. People may slowly become more isolated, alone, bereft of the redemptive power that has always saved us from our fragmentary, individual lives and given us a pathway to fulfillment that only comes viscerally, through abundance of human contact.
Photo credit: Peter Simon (http://www.petersimon.com/)
Mixed feelings on sexual harassment in the news stories of the day. It’s good to see those who routinely harass getting caught and going down in greater numbers. But I do worry about a loss of perspective. If there are 50 million married couples in the US, and you asked how many started with (a) venturing a kiss in the hopes that it would be reciprocal, or (b) asking permission for a kiss, I’m guessing that at least 49 million would say (a). By today’s standards, that means 49 million marriages started with an act of sexual harrassment. Similarly, by the standards of California’s “yes means yes” law, I believe every sex act I’ve ever had would be a rape, since I never explicitly asked or received a verbal permission. In fact, since I align with 1960s feminists (who proclaim for women equal strength and agency with men) more than with current feminists (who more often risk infantilizing women for political gain), I’d have to say every sex act was a mutual rape, since I also did not explicitly say “yes, it’s OK” before the act. This is what I mean by a loss of perspective. I am not sure of my position because tides and definitions change so quickly on the topic, so I’m open to feedback. It’s been too long, anyway, since we’ve allowed each other to air out unfinished thoughts openly in the public sphere without triggering the hegemonic machinery of shame and condemnation. So for all those who would like to see a little more tolerance and openness, maybe even a little more play and freewheeling chaos, in the greater communal idea exchange, I’ll go out on that limb.
Now to turn from sexual harassment to “rape culture,” here too it’s good to see rapists nailed as often as we can nail them, and forcible rape should be “one strike you’re out” with no hope of parole. But blaming it on “rape culture” gives me pause. I didn’t grow up thinking rape was OK until someone taught me otherwise. I think most men are horrified by the thought of rape without having to be “taught” that it is wrong. Those who need to be “taught” that harming innocent people is wrong may already be hopeless. This doesn’t mean I’m against educating people – and boys in particular – about where the line is or how certain behaviors make women feel – but keep it in perspective. Blaming “rape culture” or Western culture in general is like blaming black culture when a black man commits a crime or Islamic culture when an Islamic terrorist strikes. Broadening the blame so widely takes the focus off of the criminal, and elides all laws and social forces aligned to punish rapists and other criminals without broad-brushing the rest of the group with guilt by association. And there’s also the problem of blurring categories. It seems in the media that “rape culture” is a vague umbrella under which crude jokers and clumsy suitors are more or less lumped in with brutal rapists, which may not be the best way to focus the efforts of a wide range of people. I sympathize with the goal of calling attention to and clamping down on sexual assault, but I’m not yet convinced that the broad brush of “rape culture” is the right tool.
While I’m out on that precarious limb, I fear a similar loss of perspective on race. Per the Black Lives Matter focus on cops and black suspects, I am glad there’s a watchdog to insure an investigation when a suspect is killed. Given our history, it makes sense to have a watchdog group with a particular eye on black suspects who are killed. A demand that an investigation take place, and evidence be gathered and presented in court, is totally fair. A demand for a guilty verdict before a trial takes place seems a bridge too far, but it seems a bridge many routinely cross nowadays. I’m reluctant to use an individual criminal case as a venue to redress social problems. I have friends both liberal and conservative who seem more eager than I am to take sides up front based on preconceived notions about race relations. But even if those preconceived notions are correct, not every white cop is a racist and not every young black man is a thug. With individual lives at stake, specific cases should not be prejudged on political grounds. At least that seems a good general rule. As political currents shift, grand juries and juries of peers seem a safer long-term bet than guilt assigned and convictions demanded before investigations take place.
Tiptoeing still further out on my limb, I will say that I think in the wake of Trump’s election, some of my liberal brothers and sisters have generally taken their eye off the ball on how to address persistent racial inequality. I think this stems from a misreading of Trump’s supporters. Sure, the hard-core racists who never vote Democrat voted Trump, but my theory (coming from a conservative part of the country where probably 40% of my friends and family voted Trump) is that most people who voted for Trump did so because (a) they always vote Republican regardless of the name of the ballot, or (b) they were sick of Democrats and Republicans and political correctness, and Trump seemed to them an outsider who would cut through the crap. In the case of the white working class, they were sick of being told by liberals that they were racist, sexist dolts who were overloaded with unearned privileges. I think voting for Trump was a mistake, but one that is explicable without appeal to racist, sexist xenophobia.
Once Trump votes were marked as a simple indicator of widespread racism and misogyny, the damage was done to the liberal mindset. In facing persistent racial inequities, focus on schools and economic opportunity in specific areas seems to have shifted to a focus on a vast conspiracy of white supremacists. In a word, liberals went back to fighting the battle of the 1960s. As unpopular as it sounds, white people’s hatred and prejudice against black people is not the biggest inhibitor to racial equity today. Although there is some of that, and it has perhaps been hardened in recent years by an unfortunate backlash against a relentlessly race-conscious identity politics, there are still few actual white supremacists. The big national call for a white supremacist gathering in Tennessee a few weeks ago brought in a total of 300 people from around the country. These knuckleheads have been increasingly marginalized since the 60s. As Charles Barkley said, if ignored, these 300 idiots gathered from around the country could talk stupid to each other for a couple of hours and then go home with no one ever noticing. Our new crop of liberals raised on identity politics, though, have vastly enhanced the prestige of those 300 idiots, telling them that America in general is a white supremacist nation that has their back. I fear that today’s liberals are rapidly reversing the gains in consciousness we made in the wake of the 1960s Civil Rights and hippie movements. By the end of the 70s, I’d say very few white people I knew really thought whites were genetically superior to blacks, and even those few would not admit it in public. Yes, there are still inequities that need to be addressed, yes there are still pockets of racial prejudice, but overall we’d gone a very long way toward marginalizing KKK thinking. (As Professor Cornel West once said on a talk show appearance while seated next to some klan members, “The KKK doesn’t represent white people; they represent morons.”) Sadly, the new liberal idea that everyone is a white supremacist moves in the other direction, giving those few KKK idiots an enormous microphone. The unpopular truth is that most corporate entities are eager to recruit women and minorities, if for no other reason than the edge it gives them when seeking big government contracts and major clients. The major obstacle for these corporate entities is finding enough women or minorities who have been well-prepared for board seats or top-level positions. We need to work on getting women and minorities well-educated from the ground level, well-prepared professionally – schools, mentoring, and economic conditions on the streets – this will serve better than marching against the till recently quite marginalized idiots of the KKK.
So let’s take the spotlight off the idiots, and off of the supposedly entrenched demographic differences that falsely present us as enemies, and see each other anew. Obama, in 2008, probably gave the best speech since Martin Luther King on the issue of race:
“I believe deeply that we cannot solve the challenges of our time unless we solve them together – unless we perfect our union by understanding that we may have different stories, but we hold common hopes; that we may not look the same and we may not have come from the same place, but we all want to move in the same direction – towards a better future for of children and our grandchildren. This belief comes from my unyielding faith in the decency and generosity of the American people.”
It’s hard to tell whether Obama is schooling prospective Trump voters or identity politics liberals in this appeal, but let’s hope it’s a little of both. We need to stop the nonsense, see the good in each other, and get to work. Forget about all the theoretical divisiveness and do what it takes to make this school or that neighborhood better with an eye not on the past but on the immediate future.
That the monster represents some projected aspect of the good Dr. Frankenstein is clear enough. (And Victor is indeed a good and noble man at bottom, his fall that of a tragic hero.) But what projected aspect? What exactly is it that the doctor sublimates into monstrosity? I’m sure many illuminating answers are possible, but I have one that relates to three value systems operable in the culture and literature of Shelley’s day.
I am grateful to Shelley for giving Victor a pathological work ethic, evidenced by the time he spends in his lab, because I call on the doctor here to perform a double duty. Among the value systems of the day, Victor represents both the Enlightenment faith in science and the Romantic passion to strive beyond all accepted limits. A third value system – let’s call it the Sentimental — was anchored in the kinder, simpler domestic bonding of friendship and companionate marriage as the locus of value, and it would reach from the 18th century Cult of Sensibility (Laurence Sterne, Henry Mackenzie, et al) toward the novels Dickens would write in the decades after Frankenstein. Even as a teenager, Mary Shelley would be quite aware of these cultural formations, since her parents were famous Enlightenment radicals, her young husband already a famous Romantic poet, and the sentimental novel had been all the craze for some decades.
While Victor epitomizes both the Enlightenment faith in science and the Romantic excess of passion in his pursuits, Elizabeth (and to a lesser extent, Henry) represents the Sentimental, pulling Victor away from strife and excess toward the more domesticated bliss, the sweet contentment of conjugal love and home life. Elizabeth fails, of course, and Victor hurtles to the outer reaches of the earth, following his extravagant aspirations to his own self-destruction. Elizabeth fails to turn the plot, that is. In terms of the moral of the tale, she wins hands down. What did Victor’s relentless Romantic passion to do great things beyond measure, what did his faith in human science get him? How much more fulfilled might he have been if he had settled down with Elizabeth in domestic bliss and spent out his years peacefully “tending his own garden,” as Voltaire had recommended we do? Despite the wild and stormy romanticism of the novel’s setting and plot, despite the fact that Shelley was at the time of writing traveling with two of the greatest Romantic poets of the day – it seems that the novel’s resolution, after all the crash-and-burn of colliding value systems, favors the Sentimental anchor of fulfillment – at least for us mere mortals.
In a nutshell, identity politics is the art of taking something quite simple and getting it all wrong.
The backdrop question – what role does demographics play in human identity – is actually simple. So simple, that only very powerful institutional politics (departmental interests within academia and monied interests outside of it) can steer people wrong. Before the brainwashing begins, everyone knows that there are multiple layers of identity – gender, racial, sexual orientation, etc. – and everyone knows that the bottom layer is the layer of shared humanness. Everyone instinctively knows that in our social interactions, sometimes our shared humanness is the dominant feature of the interaction, and sometimes one of the other layers of identity is relevant or even the dominant feature of a given interaction. But in any wholesome vision of a more ideal multicultural society, it is the shared humanness that lays the foundation. We need to celebrate our differences without denying our shared humanness. This is not rocket science.
“Identity politics,” in its current usage, removes shared humanness and defines human identity in every transaction as demographic identity. A black woman sees everything from the point of view of a black woman, a white man’s reality is always white and always male. Every thought or speech act is a priori politically situated. There is no escape from demographics. Indeed, in an Orwellian turn of the dial, the concept of “shared humanness” is itself rejected as racist. Saying that you “don’t see color” when meeting people is officially listed as a racist microaggression at many universities, oddly enjoining students to view each other first and foremost not as fellow human beings but as instances of this or that race. And the point is not to create sympathy between the races but to highlight impenetrable walls between their experiences. For example, when activists recently called on the Whitney Museum to “remove and destroy” Dana Schutz’s painting depicting Emmett Till’s open casket on the grounds that “the shameful nature of white violence” cannot be “correctly represented” by a white artist (quoting Hannah Black’s letter to the Whitney), the message is clear: Creatively identifying with people of other races, genders, etc., is to be forbidden, presumably because it asserts the false notion of shared humanness. This is identity politics in its current form.
There are a few problems with this approach. First, it is false on the face of it, as anyone with even a modicum of multicultural social life outside of the ivory tower of academic theory knows that cross-group social bonding takes place often in a spirit of shared humanness and less often with attention to group differences. Secondly, it is impractical. It is de facto a divisive theory and not a unifying theory and thus intrinsically antithetical to any future vision of a society living in racial harmony. Thirdly, in its historical aspect, it reverses the positive trends of the Civil Rights and hippie movements of the 1960s, movements that were both radically integrationist and unifying, movements that looked to a time when people “will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” We could appreciate our different backstories, race, ethnicity, etc., but the anchor was shared humanness with universal rights and principles. Everyone acknowledged historical inequities that still need to be addressed, but the idea was to work them out together as human beings with a common interest in a more perfect union. Identity politics, on the other hand, fosters the idea that common interest is a myth, that each demographic group needs to get its share of the pie and then go home and block the entrances. It is a short-term vision with no hope of reaching the ideal of a multicultural society that is harmonious, uninhibited, and free to join hands across demographic lines without shame or judgment.
Thus, the final problem with the “identity politics” branch of liberalism is that it has done more than any conservative formation to reverse the gains of the Civil Rights era. Surely, conservatives have been most unhelpful in the policy arena, but in terms of the evolution of consciousness toward a society of peace and harmony across races, genders, nationalities, etc., identity politics has been the most destructive force of the past 30 years. It is demoralizing to consider, but it is not conservatives today but identity politics liberals who are rapidly burning all bridges back to Frederick Douglass and Olaudah Equiano and Mary Wollstonecraft, Gandhi and Martin Luther King and Mandela, all of whom explicitly appealed to our shared humanness as the lighted path toward racial and gender harmony.
So here we stand at an urgent pass. The identity politics Left gets worse, with “cultural appropriation” fences and do-not-cross lines (despite the head fake of “intersectionality” but that’s for another discussion), the demographic double standards for what you can say, think, or do, the branding of all whites as racist and all men as sexist, the erasure of all past and present Western culture as white supremacist and thus without value. Conservatives too have taken a turn for the worse in Trump era, reasserting their own kind of racist, sexist, and xenophobic, demographics-driven identity politics. Despite a policy platform that perpetuated disparities between races and genders, most of my conservative friends had over the years, on the level of consciousness, jettisoned the Bull Connor racism of the Civil Rights era and accepted the equality of all humans as a universal principle and an endgame of racial harmony as a valid goal. Despite liberal cries to the contrary, the Left-Right dance had actually brought moderate conservatives closer than identity politics liberals to Martin Luther King’s principle of equal treatment and unbiased judgment for all regardless of demographics (again, this is on level of consciousness and not policy). But now both Left and Right are in a demographic divisiveness death spiral.
I might sound quite pessimistic here, but all is not lost. Little children growing up in our multicultural spaces understand perfectly well that some kids are black, some kids are male, some kids speak different languages, but that we are all on some level kids with a shared interest in playing together. They get the “shared humanness” part. And therein lies our hope. Just forget about everything you learned in academic theory classes and become like little children. You were there once. You can go there again. And in today’s political and environmental conditions, now is the time to make the pivot. Turn off that academic theory. Turn on the heart and imagination. Greet everyone you meet on the street in a spirit of shared humanness, without regard to race, gender, or political affiliation. We’re all in this together and we might not have much time.
Unless you change and become like little children,
you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.