Sunday, September 28, 2014

The eternal now of conservatism (1)

In a paper on how to reliably measure political (i.e. economic and social) conservatism, psychologist Jim Everett makes a useful distinction:
authoritarianism and conservatism are distinct because authoritarianism focuses on aversion to difference across space (i.e. diversity of people and beliefs at the present time), while conservatism reflects aversion to difference over time (i.e. change). As such, there is no logical connection between the two, even if they often co-occur in practice.
They often co-occur in practice because societies have frequently used mechanisms to minimise diversity of people and beliefs, particularly in specific social roles. If those mechanisms weaken, or are explicitly challenged, that will lead to change across time (likely to be resisted by conservatives) as well as more diversity across space (likely to be resisted by authoritarians). So, conservatives will find themselves committed to blocking diversity and authoritarians to resisting change.

The more one is aware of the diversity of human arrangements, the less likely one is to be to be discomforted by diversity or change. Which is to say cosmopolitanism--awareness of the contingency of human arrangements--tends to be antithetical to both conservatism and authoritarianism. Especially as it generates a broader view of what can be made to work--making both diversity and change seem less threatening--and a broader view of what aspirations and capacities people have or aspire to.

Patrilineal plays
Not all human societies have, for example, been patrilineal (male-line descent). Plough-based farming societies and herding societies are, for entirely understandable reasons. As anthropologist Judith Brown's 1970 note on the division of labour by sex explained, women have tended to do activities compatible with child-minding, men those that were not. More specifically:
Women are most likely to make a substantial contribution when subsistence activities have the following characteristics: the participant is not obliged to be far from home; the tasks are relatively monotonous and do not require rapt attention; and the work is not dangerous, can be formed in spite of interruptions, and is easily resumed once interrupted.
Neither herding nor plough-based farming were compatible with child-minding, so men did them. Which meant that men left the main economic asset (land or animals) to their sons (i.e. patrilineally), which meant that males controlled the dominant economic asset. So, women moved in with their husband's family (i.e. such societies are overwhelmingly patrilocal).

Since maternity is certain but paternity is not, it became important to both control, and be seen to control, the fertility of women. The women of the husband's family would help police the respectability of wives: the "damned whores or God's police" phenomenon. (Some societies were bilateral--both male and female descent counted--but such societies were still mostly patrilocal, since patrilineal descent counted.) Families were expected to reliably deliver the controlled fertility of their daughters to any husband's family: the dynamic which is the basis of (dis)honour killings.

Needless to say, all this involved massive discounting of the decision-making rights and capacities of women, though the degree to which they did so varied considerably between societies.

Matrilineal alsos
But there have been matrilineal and matrilocal societies. Hoe-based farming is compatible with child-minding. So, in many such societies, women did the farming and left the land to their daughters. Husbands would move in with their wife's family. As plough-based farming is more productive than hoe-based farming, and herding was the only significant alternative to farming for complex societies, patrilineal-and-patrilocal arrangements came to dominate human history. Making such arrangements seem "natural". But they are simply historically contingent reactions to circumstances. As circumstances change, so will such arrangements.

For example, increased prosperity makes neolocal (husband and wife move into their own residence) much more common, which inhibits supervision of women by their husband's relatives. Increased prosperity increases non-parental child-minding. Technology increases the demand for female labour. Most dramatically of all, the development of the contraceptive pill gives women safe (especially compared to pregnancy), cheap, reliable control over the own fertility.

All this dramatically weakens previously operating selection mechanisms directing women into particular social roles. It turns out--surprise!--that women have broader aspirations than those they were previously channelled into. Hence the development of the "women in all walks of life" phenomenon.

But if you think that those patrilineal-and-patrilocal mechanisms represented "natural" society, and operated for reasons which are inherent in the nature of the human, and not in contingent social circumstances--in other words, operated according to some proper "eternal now"--then all this can be a touch confronting.

As this piece on gender and warfare illustrates nicely. Catholic writer Kenneth Livingstone makes some perceptive points on why the Islamic State finds it so easy to recruit young Muslim men from all over the globe. (This piece by Danish psychologist Nikolai Sennels provides a supporting perspective.) It is when Livingstone comments on his own society that his ignorance of the contingency of human social arrangements, his commitment to the "eternal now" of conservatism, becomes most striking.

Utterly precedented
He finds the US Army's acceptance of women and queer soldiers to be
unprecedented social experiments ...
Which is precisely what they are not. Many societies had female warriors. About one fifth of Scythian and Sarmatian warrior graves are of women. (Possibly, the source for the Greek legends of Amazons.) Out in the steppes, restricting fertility had value, since it took a lot of grass to support animals sufficient to support one human and grasslands could not be made larger or more productive by human effort, given the technology of the time. Moreover, the distances were vast and the herding-men were often absent from camp: it made sense to teach women to fight, if only to defend the camp and the children. Once you did that, using young women as scouts and archers in raiding parties, and even armies, was a natural step, which was taken.

Low-population-density societies often made the same decisions: hence warrior women being a feature of both Celtic and Germanic societies. So, no it is not "unprecedented" to have warrior women. Indeed, given that Celts, Germanics and Indo-Europeans generally are the source cultures for Britain, and those societies descending from them, it is part of the deeper history of Mr Livingstone's own cultural origins. Alfred the Great's daughter Æthelflæd, the Lady of the Mercians, was a noted war leader, for example. If, however, you live in an "eternal now", it will not even occur to you that such history exists or, indeed, is possible (except as an "unprecedented social experiment").

As for queer soldiers, since most human societies have not thought such matters to be of much significance, there have been plenty of queer soldiers in history. The Spanish, for example, recorded their startlement at finding "sodomite" warriors being both accepted and effective in Amerindian societies. (In accordance with their own understanding of higher morality, they burnt such as the stake if they captured them.) The Sacred Band of Thebes provides a particularly striking example of queer soldiers. The Greeks thought same-sex love interest so entirely compatible with the heroic warrior that localities would boast of which particular local young man was one of Heracles's lovers. While same-sex mentoring, including sexual relations, was an entirely accepted part of Spartan culture: particularly appositive, given that both kingly families claimed descent from Heracles.

That, under the influence of monotheism (despite much rationalising to the contrary, it had no other basis) Western armies banned same-sex relations between soldiers indicated that queer men were certainly willing to be soldiers. As, clearly, women were and are, if given the opportunity. The question comes back to what selection/control mechanisms were operating (and why).

Livingstone is too sophisticated to simply go for "women and queers being soldiers is icky" and so makes a somewhat different claim:
Well, yes, it can be a bit confusing when the person in charge of manhood training is a woman. It’s not a question of competency, it’s a question of gender roles.
Actually, no it is not. Being an effective warrior has no matching connection to gender roles, unless a society chooses to construct itself in that way. There is nothing in the human which requires that to be so.

Basically, Livingstone's claim is that (straight) boys can't cope if they have to share. Which is nonsense on stilts. The notion that Scythians, Sarmatians, Celts, Amerindians, Spartans etc were ineffective warriors because they fought with women and/or queers simply shows flagrant ignorance of history. But such ignorance is what the "eternal now" of conservatism so often proves to not only be based on, but to actively require.

Gang games
Middle Eastern oasis-herding--being far more localised--was different from steppe-herding in that it lacked incentives to arm women and was entirely compatible with their highly-controlled cloistering. The more women are blocked from participating in public life, or power-activities such as fighting, the more their standing in that society is weakened. It is no accident that women had much higher status in Celtic, Germanic and steppe-society than the Middle East. Nor is it likely an accident that women had higher status in the steppe-origin monotheism (Zoroastrianism) than they did in the Middle-Eastern origin monotheisms (Judaism, Christianity and Islam).
Hercules and Iolaus, with Eros between them, C4thBC.

In fact, the ability to utilise talents across its societies is one of the West's great advantages. Livingstone can see the male-gang aspect of Islam but, because he looks at gender and sexuality as part of an eternal now, as rooted in verities of human nature rather than the contingencies of history, he is blind to where the West's advantages lie. A fragile masculinity which cannot share, and so must be pandered to at the cost of the restriction of others, is not the basis of a resilient society. On the contrary, acceptance of the values of self-expression and tolerance of diversity are strongly correlated with better governance (and higher incomes). 

Understanding the past requires not imposing our own preconceptions on it. Hence archaeology is finding more evidence of women buried with weapons as archaeologists stopped insisting that  anyone buried with a weapon had to be a man. Lost in his "eternal now", Livingstone cannot see the present because he does not see the contingency of history, and so of social arrangements.

[Cross-posted at Skepticlawyer.]

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