May 30, 2013

Here's some basic "reality" for ya

In a week when a British feminist took on & defeated Facebook, Louise Mensch writes disparagingly of the supposed flaccid ineffectiveness of non-US activists, compared to such feminist luminaries as Facebook's Sheryl Sandberg.

This, per La Mensch, is a "reality based" approach to feminism.

It's boring and stupid arguing with Louise Mensch. She is one of those people in whom an early aptitude for conventional education had instilled the unfortunate belief that they possess a comparable level of native intellect. This is unfortunately not the case. The ability to identify the commonplace achievements that carry the most desirable incentives (school grades, mediocre fiction) is useful, but it doesn't follow that to have it is to possess the skills to analyse complex phenomena or comment on serious issues.

So I'm not going to do a close reading of Mensch's piece, but instead highlight the risibility of her "reality" through the example above and one more telling throwaway line. Men, per Mensch, "have been the primary breadwinners in all cultures at all times in history".


Well I don't know that Louise Mensch is a student of history, especially, but OK - she can make such sweeping claims if she substantiates them. Unfortunately this is not the case here. Having made this jaw droppingly bold assertion, she moves swiftly on to argue that given that men have always been the primary sustenance providers, in all societies, for all of human existence, then they must like it. Like, you know, people have always suffered from bouts of malaria, which is how come it's such a hoot.

But it bothers me, this small bit of abysmal reasoning, because it ties in to a hobby of Mensch's that is also a central problem in the public understanding of feminism and gender roles, and that is biological (or in this case historic) determinism.

The standard evo-psych story goes something like this: women are weak and vulnerable, especially when pregnant or breasfeeding. They depend on men to provide them with food and protection. This is why women have "evolved" feminine wiles to attract and retain male partners, and men have "evolved" strength and aggression to compete for and then defend the best female partners. Men then gradually used this aggressive instinct to amass possessions and compete with one another, eventually "inventing" agriculture and thus civilisation.

Never mind for a moment that this is a kindergarten-level understanding of evolution; it's just not true.

In observed hunter gatherer societies, gathering (usually but not always done mostly by women) provides the majority of the group's calories and all its staples. Hunting is an intermittent and risky activity and cannot be relied upon to sustain a group or family unit reliable, especially around vulnerable times of infant rearing.

In existing and historical pre-industrail agrarian societies, women do 90% of the labour and produce almost all of the staples the family or village depend upon. When men engage in agriculture it is more often a) separate from women's growing activities and b) concentrated on production of cash crops, the proceeds of which are not reinvested in the community but are used to purchase personal luxuries such as tobacco, alcohol and clothing for the man.

Chances are that if I say the word "farmer" to you, your brain will supply the image of a man to fit that role. But the crushing majority of farmers in human history have been and still are women. In fact, given that farming probably developed from a kind of enhanced-husbandry model of seasonal gathering, it's perfectly reasonable to suppose that it was invented and perfected by women, too. Even in Europe, up until the modern period women participated in all aspects of cultivation, from walking behind the plough to rearing domestic animals. Men, meanwhile, never took part in the refining and useful application of the resulting products through spinning, weaving, cooking, preserving and so on.

The second shift is not, as we are so often told, the fault of feminists "telling" women to go out and work (never of men for not stepping up to plug the gap). Women have always worked twice as hard as men, and mostly the work they did won and baked the bread. Men have never been and are not today universal "breadwinners", or frankly there wouldn't be all this talk of single mums on benefits, now would there.

Yes, Louise Mensch is blinkered by privilege and yes, that makes her say some really stupid things about how black people should and shouldn't react to racism. But quite apart from that, this woman who's taken it upon herself to lecture us about reality is ignorant and disdainful of the facts. She's just a bit... Full of shit, really.

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