Sunday, May 29, 2011

Cosmology matters (or why Jews make the stupidest queer-haters)

Economist Deepak Lal usefully divides cultures—interwoven ways of doing things passed across generations by learning—into their material and cosmological aspects. In his words (pdf):
The former relate to ways of making a living and concerns beliefs about the material world, in particular about the economy. The latter are related to understanding the world around us and mankind’s place in it which determine how people view their lives—its purpose, meaning and relationship to others
Material beliefs are more amenable to changing circumstances, cosmological beliefs are more persistent. As Lal continues:
There is considerable cross-cultural evidence that material beliefs are more malleable than cosmological ones. Material beliefs alter rapidly with changes in the material environment. There is greater hysteresis in cosmological beliefs on how, in Plato’s words, “one should live”. Moreover, the cross-cultural evidence shows that rather than the environment it is the language-group which influences these world-views.
Since language provide cognitive maps, it is not surprising that language group might matter. (So Islam’s insistence on Arabic as its sacred language probably aids its consistency, its recurring patterns.)

Sex and gender – how sex is to be conceived, what genders there are, how are they to be conceived – are classic concerns of cosmological aspects of culture, since they are so important to being human and human purposes. The most important single reason why conservative Christian perspectives have been losing grand moral arguments within Western civilisation has been the improvement in the status of women. Giving women control over their own fertility, the right to exit marriage and full economic and property rights has involved basic shifts in some fundamental presumptions.

These changes are intimately connected with expanding knowledge and growing technology that has not only downgraded any premium on upper body strength (an area of male advantage), it has also made mental abilities more salient (men have no advantage over women in average intelligence) while making pregnancy much safer (so reduced greatly the risk that investment in educating women will be lost in early death) and child-raising more readily compatible with higher income work: both factors being strengthened by greatly increased average life spans. Capitalism promotes the spread of technology by encouraging use of its benefits, including in its hiring patterns. As women have become more competitive, they have been hired more. As they have become more broadly economically useful, so legal restriction have been removed, each process helping the other along.

Longer life spans and fertility-control technology encourage separation of sex from reproduction, weakening the ability to define sex in terms of reproduction: the fundamental sex-and-gender premise of monotheism since, in monotheism, sex separates us from the divine apart from procreation. (Clearer in Judaism and Christianity than in Islam, since in Islam the principle of status is so much stronger and more pervasive.)

Changing conceptions of gender, sex (and sexual possibilities) have knock-on effects. It is a nice historical resonance that John Stuart Mill and Harriet Taylor’s The Subjection of Women was published in the same year the term ‘homosexual’ was coined. The more equal in status men and women are, the less one man providing another with sexual pleasure involves “betrayal” of male status.

Sex and gender also involve intense, roiling emotions. Which makes it ripe for exploitation in all sorts of ways.

An important role of religion is to give you people to despise, to separate the righteous from the unrighteous. A sense of one’s own virtue (or possible virtue) is so much easier if combined with a sense of other people’s viciousness.

Monotheism, with its conception of a single, authoritative, definitive view of truth, and reviling of false gods and their worship, generally finds it easy to generate people to despise. Combine this status claim (believers as profoundly morally superior to unbelievers) with sex as only being validated by its procreative role, and you have a rich field of intense emotion to exploit. (It also counts for monotheism’s fun allergy, since almost any form of worldly enjoyment can be characterised as separating or diverting us from the divine.)

Controlling women
If sex is only validated by procreation, obviously queers (anyone who does not fit in the binary male/female sex-for-procreation framing) are anathema. But it also makes it much easier to insist on the motherhood-box as normative for women – a religiously-sanctified sex-and-gender role only permitted to be exited for religious reasons. Any attempt to escape the motherhood-box easily becomes an immoral transgression involving a profound loss of status.

[Read the rest at Critical Thinking Applied.]

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