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Bias, crackpots, and gender

July 1, 2011

I hadn’t intended to do this kind of post, but ran across an excellent comment on a post I somehow ended up at, Elevating individuals doesn’t solve privilege. In part:

Often I get the impression while talking about gender oppression in history that it’s almost taken for granted that patriarchy has been the *only* or the most widespread form of human society. And if this wasn’t always so, then its evolution to dominant cultural condition was somehow inevitable. (Simone DeBeauvoir’s “The Second Sex” really stands out to me as an example of this.) Maybe this is true, who am I to know?

But I’ve always wondered just how many societies and cultures have lived and died throughout human history without ever being noted. How many of them were matriarchal or egaliterian? How many might never have been laid eyes on by any other tribe, or even been destroyed outright before they could leave some relics?

We know that European settlers and missionaries forcibly converted, “re-educated”, or even stamped out entire peoples that conflicted with them and their “Christian morality” or whatever. We also got most of what we know as history and descriptions of “native people” from these same European sensibilities. Isn’t it possible that their descriptions of different cultures were coloured by a lens of rigid religious and patriarchal attitudes so that they might even have misinterpreted their observations to better fit their own biases?

We’ll never hear the voices of those who were silenced. We’ll never know about the existence of those who never left tracks. That doesn’t mean they never existed and that their lives would not have any implications for us today, even if we don’t know it.

Anyway I’m not saying any of this is actually true, and I certainly hope I don’t sound like I’m peddling some crackpot conspiracy theory. >_< But I’ve often heard people talk about history – and especially historical oppression – as if “that’s just the way it would always have been” and that we should just concentrate on fixing it now. I don’t disagree with the second part, but I cannot agree with the first.

We might as well say that the evolution of humans to dominant lifeform on Earth – and their physical characteristics of being carbon based, having 2 eyes instead of 10, 1 heart instead of 4, etc. – was inevitable. It wasn’t. It was just a collossal stroke of luck that the factors aligned in just such a way as to facillitate our coming into being in the way we have. It could have gone any other way really if the wind had blown differently (so to speak).

I’ve also heard some feminists mention derisively a belief in a “mythical matriarchal past” which they feel is not constructive in tackling the problems we face today. I’m not sure what they’re referring to exactly, and if it conflicts with what I said above – about the possiblity that hey! Maybe patriarchy wasn’t ALWAYS the way things were and we just didn’t get to hear about it. If anyone has any reading material which could explain this position, I’d appreciate it.

Of course we shouldn’t even need history to bolster the argument for human rights. Hell, there shouldn’t even BE an “argument” about human rights. But I suppose diminishing the opposition’s usual position about “the way things were” would be helpful.

With the immediate followup:

Good Gourd, that was LONG! o_0

I wanted to add that I’ve mentioned “patriarchy” here, but I also include in this acceptance of homosexuality, transgenderism, and anything else that might slip my mind right now and I’ll remember 2 seconds after hitting “post”.

Not surprisingly, the in-depth discussion of this kind of thing–and the both unconscious “this just makes no sense to me, based on anything I have ever experienced” and very conscious, politically/religiously motivated “Euro-forming” of data–is one of the biggest things that made me appreciate Barbara Mann’s Iroquoian Women so much.

In some ways, that introduction to actual Native historians and feminist writers* felt like a lifeline. (Which also led me to others from outside Western cultures.) It made me feel a lot less crazy in some ways. The universalism and continued Euro-forming can turn into straight-up gaslighting, when your own experiences living in a rather different culture still do not agree with common supposedly universal pronouncements. Some of it is coming from (encouraged) ignorance, some from one of the nasty sides of widgetry. To requote from Mann:

Although it is not often acknowledged (at least not out loud, at least not in academia), Euro-feminist philosophy is as ardently Eurocentric as any other western school of thought. Feminism operates from European premises and uses European strategies. In particular, feminism often unthinkingly partakes of the Euro-supremacist “right” to speak for and about Others…

Worse, I have found that, once confronted, western feminism harbors little interest in abandoning European myths when they happen to be working for western feminist agendas, as they often enough do–in the pernicious myth of universality, for instance…

The gantowisas and gendering are particularly troublesome to feminists, since Haudenosaunee fact and feminist myth collide rather resoundingly over the issue of patriarchy. Western feminists have a political stake in defining the slit-eyed patriarchal oppression of women as “universal” and “unbroken” since The Beginning of Time. As a result of this proposition, some are loathe to admit that any culture might ever have existed that did not oppress women. Still less are they open to the proposition that men ever existed who did not automatically scorn women. In their rush to demolish patriarchy, they do not hesitate to manipulate Native cultural truths, heedless of how much damage they may be doing Native lore or of how zealously they may be Euro-forming tradition in the process.

Nor how much harm to actual Natives who are trying to make sense of their lives and experiences around gender and so many other aspects of life, but that’s kind of implied. I have a copy of The Second Sex, BTW, but could not finish reading it, because of the style of universalism. It felt like my life and my ancestors’ and basically the whole way I experience the world were getting totally erased in a way that gave me a splitting headache and a strong urge to cry. There is a lot of “classic” Western feminist literature which has affected me similarly, but that one was pretty extreme.

And, even in that otherwise good comment, there is also the erasure and disappearance. If there ever were any people with a less oppressive societal setup, they must be long gone, leaving no trace. (Not that people from more oppressive cultures didn’t try to physically disappear a lot of other groups, but it did not work as well as they’d hoped.) Rather than some still being around, feeling very frustrated at continuing to get mentally disappeared, just not listened to,  and dismissed as unrealistic crackpots with some kind of agenda while their whole history gets misrepresented. (Yep, I’ve got an agenda, which is maybe best described as trying to break the idea of zero-sum basic respect.) While we keep getting to hear and read all these ugly universalist conceptions of How Things Have Always Been, Everywhere–But Even Worse Elsewhere Before Westerners Dragged “Others” Kicking And Screaming Into The Century Of The Fruitbat.

Genocide of the Mind, indeed. When it comes to matters such as gender and sexuality which are turned into such huge life-defining characteristics in Western society, this kind of thing really has potential to screw a person’s thinking up. Especially living between cultures. (Back to that in a bit…)

As seemed important to bring up in another context, the culture I grew up in is still big on horizontal collectivism and the egalitarianism that implies. (Seeing this kind of thing repeatedly stated also made me feel less crazy, with all the universalism and experiences just not matching with that at all.) In a nutshell:

In a review of the literature, Susan Keefe identifies a set of core Appalachian values that include:  “egalitarianism, independence and individualism, personalism, familism, a religious world view, neighborliness, love of the land, and the avoidance of conflict” (Keefe, 2005, p. 10).
Egalitarianism is the “belief that fundamentally one man or woman is as good as another or at least can be if he or she tries” (Maloney, 2005, p. 328).

(In some cases, BTW, I do also quibble with assumptions about what might be a common “religious world view”, especially considering I was surprised to grow up and find out that monotheism and pan(en)theism were not the same thing!)

And a continuing core problem:

Slone (1978) states: … “When our children go into the cities for work or are drafted into the army, they are forced to deny their heritage, change their way of talking, and pretend to be someone else, or be made to feel ashamed, when they really have something to be proud of.”

(And, yes, the theme of pretending to be somebody else has already come up here multiple times, and will come up again in a specifically gender- and sexuality-related context! Along with the themes of lots of people going out of their way to look down on and try to “correct” all the “backward” values you grew up with. Like an egalitarian and non zero-sum outlook, yeah. 😐 )

Yes, our culture is very different in a lot of ways from the dominant, Euro-American culture in ways that are not supposed to exist–and I suspect that my family’s explicitly Native subculture matches even more badly with the dominant expectations in some ways. And you see how Appalachian people continue to get Othered and “Third-Worlded” (both in perception and in exploitation), BTW.

And, as I pointed out before in the first endnote there, outsiders still keep coming up with descriptions like “basically patriarchal”. I mean, in the very mixed bag that is Collectivism in Appalachia: Are the differences more than economic?, the researchers knew that they were dealing with a very different culture, and commented on egalitarian attitudes about race/ethnicity (no, really!**), socioeconomic background, etc. So, they barely even mention gender, mostly to say “Appalachian families tend to be traditional in the gender roles and rules where each individual has a unique and specific role to play”. (As if someone from a lower-context culture would necessarily even spot or understand said “rules” and roles…) Again with the universalist assumptions about gender roles and relations; it’s just assumed that what they are seeing is “traditional” (read: patriarchal), because that’s the only real option, right? Even when that assumption logically fits with nothing else you have seen.

That’s how ingrained this idea is. People who should know better look at a “remarkably” egalitarian culture, and widgets get in the way of being able to entertain the thought that this might also hold true where gender is involved. From early invasion of the Americas on, actually (though there is still that distressing tendency to invent “kings”/”emperors”–who must be male, natch–out of a combination of cognitive dissonance and political expediency).

With synchronicity or something, I have to echo Jaded, from last night:


So no matter how many times I say it people don’t get it. Clearly, this means I need more unicorns.

So the text is REST OF THE WORLD IS NOT LIKE THE WEST. Now how do I put rainbows and unicorns around this?

Even if the part of the world in question might be embedded in “The West”… *sigh*

This is more of a gender and universalism meta-post, just because I was reminded of it. I’ve been having to think a lot lately about how not just my gender presentation/performance and how it seems to be perceived–but my experience of gender and disharmony/dysphoria–varies depending on the social setting and the expectations that go along with it. With any luck, I’ll be able to sort those thoughts into a coherent post before long. Maybe coherence is overrated. 😉


* Who have to back up groupthink-unfriendly assertions with plenty of research; note the “crackpot conspiracy theory” concern from the author of the comment which inspired the post. This is one of the major reasons I throw in so many references, with any kind of topic that seems to go against (especially dominant-culture) received wisdom. Not that all the research in the world will stop some people from acting nasty in response to cognitive dissonance… 😐

I am still digesting some information and making new connections (in a combo radial/helical way), with the dissonance/groupthink/xenophobia/wétiko/etc. cluster, after reading a couple of things that really fired up the old thinking apparatus. And am also trying to figure out how some of the new relationships/patterns I see can be worked into something other than a Monster Mega-post. Getting language wrapped around stuff is a lot harder than generating ideas in the first place, as usual!

Yes, the same basic topics keep cropping up again and again, hopefully with value added. Part of the helical fun! 😉


He also said that despite the laws, daily life was more integrated than popularly imagined, especially when it came to musical events.

“I understand that there wasn’t too much segregation that went on then,” he said. “It seems that most of the musicians were local fellows.”

This meant a mix of both white and black musicians and patrons.

And, according to Mills, some of the weddings that took place there were interracial as well.

You don’t say?! *gasp* (And never mind the Indians and assorted multiracial folks; yay, Great American Race Binary! It kind of appalls me that the reporter felt a need to explain the lack of segregation with “local fellows” in the first place, amazing a concept as that is. *eyeroll*) A lot of people do also seem to have problems not making really bad stereotype/widget-based assumptions here, too. The legal situation was absolutely horrible for anyone who was not White in Virginia at that time, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that everyone was behaving accordingly everywhere on the ground. (Actually, in context, I’d expect some people to get stubborn on principle at getting told what to do like that, even if they were flaming bigots themselves!)

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