A cultural question about our biology

So after watching, crying and flying with Oprah’s speech accepting the Cecil B. Demille award at the 2018 Golden Globes, I pulled out my check book to write a check to her presidential campaign. After a night’s sleep and more reflection, I pushed my check book to the side, still in reach mind you, and considered the scope of change she most powerfully and eloquently envisioned for us. A world where sexual behavior by mostly males is not used to violate the social mores of intimacy in order to instrumentally boost the perpetrators’ sense of power, their own power, not the female’s nor society’s. The current debate focuses on the sexual violence of the already powerful, but I am reminded of a video, last year I think, by a woman walking the streets of New York City, documenting more than one catcall and gratuitous sexual reference per minute of time travelled. These workmen were not the powerful and still they reveled in glorifying their sexual verbiage used to degrade the lady’s personhood walking by.

The scope of change here would (will) be remarkable even in this country, and then I consider the status of females in other countries and cultures around the world. Scandinavia looks more equitable and respectful; Iceland even enacted a law making it illegal to pay women less than men for equal work and demanding that employers with more than 25 workers prove that they remunerate equitably. Many French and Italian women also endorsed this movement and many men there complained that their seductive behaviors are not abusive but in the service of love. Many activists in the Arab world, in Africa, Asia and South America carry on the struggle for women’s rights, from the right not to be killed at birth and the right not to be sold or mutilated for marriage and the right to drive and work to the right of full citizenship in voting and holding office.

If you want a metric to assess the progress of humanity, measuring the rise of female civil and cultural rights and justice would be a fair one. When in a cynical mood (hard not to be these days), I wonder about the learning curve of a just equality. I think about the evolution and development of our humanity over the past 50 to 100,000 years, of the paucity of matriarchal systems surviving into the recent history of humans, say around 15,000 years ago, and how biological roles determined by child-rearing have morphed into subservient social status in so many cultures. I just re-read the Iliad and the Greeks, credited with conceiving democratic governance so long as you discount slaves, non-property owners and of course, females, treated women as chattel. Agamemnon gives favored warriors women they have captured as slaves. Trojan women, including Queen Hecuba, know that their fate is to be enslaved by the Greeks after the men are slaughtered. The narrative shows that some women adapted to their enslavement by becoming treasured concubines, thus Achilles is greatly attached to his captured slave, Briseis, and refused to fight when Agamemnon takes her. Once returned she becomes a comforting bedmate for Achilles.

My point here is that male usurpation of female personhood is long standing and that, I imagine, a case can be made for its entrenched place in our human habitus (that’s culture, if you are new here to the blog) based upon the biologically driven male aggression. Bonobos are wonderfully amazing because their female dominated society stands in stark contrast to that of chimpanzees and other simians, indeed of many other species. What about cetaceans? I don’t know. Elephants? I think females are pretty central but still run when the bull is mad or aroused.

I have written before on my blog about differentiating what is cultural from our biological predispositions (see post 5/23/15: “gender, culture and biology” ), and I think our current arrangement is not an outgrowth of our biology but for the social biological convenience of males wanting to control paternity and property. With some developments in the modern world that contribute to the loss of social coherence based upon authentic relationships, this ‘convenience’ has grown uglier and uglier. And I will not even begin to consider here the interplay between classes, rich or poor, educated or not, advanced or primitive.

When I voice my cynicism about deep change aloud, my wife likes to remind me about the success of tobacco cessation programs instigated by many researchers and non-profits standing together with the Surgeon General to lobby Congress to enact laws curtailing tobacco sales while still helping the farmers and others dependent upon that income and push the CDC to act to reduce highly addictive behaviors. (Don’t you grow angry that our Congress has forbidden the CDC from studying gun violence with a focus on harm reduction? American culture is a special case here, folks). And of course the struggles for civil rights and suffrage have changed our society much for the better. (Again, our ‘special’ American culture now allows reactionary moves against people of color). In all of this, I must cherish the thought that deep change is possible albeit not easy or linear by standing together.

Oprah’s promising vision of a world where girls and women meet respect and justice is one beautiful flower of this moment in time and cultural egress leaving a stultified domain of male privilege and entering one refreshed by the inclusion of females in a new and refreshing view of their humanity, the acknowledgment of their personhood and the refusal by everyone to abide by any violation of this inalienable right. I have several other associations to finish this piece off. First I remember my readings of Celtic society where women were accorded many rights, including control over their own sexual relations. Consider the fierce Queen Medb’s requirements for a mate: not jealous of her other lovers, brave enough to fight and win against any of their challenges, and generous. Another one is of James Hilton’s 1933 book Lost Horizon (and a pretty good movie as well) wherein Shangri-La exists as an isolated utopian community hidden away in the high Himalayas. The change we seek is utopian, not in a secluded and protected environment but in the wider world. Of course, some would call this a dream, but others would call this awakening from a nightmare. Then we have John Lennon’s song “Imagine”: “You may say I am a dreamer, but I am not the only one”, and that is a not so secret weapon we dreamers have, standing together. So I will now travel on. And Oprah, I still have my checkbook beside me on the table.

One thought on “A cultural question about our biology

  1. While the US Congress did pass the Lily Ledbetter Act for fair pay for women when we last had a Democratic majority in Congress, I wonder where the US would be today if the Equal Rights Amendment had been passed over a quarter century ago. -Tristy

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