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8 - There is No Justice in History
UNDERSTANDING HUMAN HISTORY IN THE millennia following the Agricultural Revolution boils down to a single question: how did humans organise themselves in mass-cooperation networks, when they lacked the biological instincts necessary to sustain such networks? The short answer is that humans created imagined orders and devised scripts. These two inventions filled the gaps left by our biological inheritance.
However, the appearance of these networks was, for many, a dubious blessing. The imagined orders sustaining these networks were neither neutral nor fair. They divided people into make-believe groups, arranged in a hierarchy. The upper levels enjoyed privileges and power, while the lower ones suffered from discrimination and oppression. Hammurabi’s Code, for example, established a pecking order of superiors, commoners and slaves. Superiors got all the good things in life. Commoners got what was left. Slaves got a beating if they complained.
Despite its proclamation of the equality of all men, the imagined order established by the Americans in 1776 also established a hierarchy. It created a hierarchy between men, who benefited from it, and women, whom it left disempowered. It created a hierarchy between whites, who enjoyed liberty, and blacks and American Indians, who were considered humans of a lesser type and therefore did not share in the equal rights of men. Many of those who signed the Declaration of Independence were slaveholders. They did not release their slaves upon signing the Declaration, nor did they consider themselves hypocrites. In their view, the rights of men had little to do with Negroes.
The American order also consecrated the hierarchy between rich and poor. Most Americans at that time had little problem with the inequality caused by wealthy parents passing their money and businesses on to their children. In their view, equality meant simply that the same laws applied to rich and poor. It had nothing to do with unemployment benefits, integrated education or health insurance. Liberty, too, carried very different connotations than it does today. In 1776, it did not mean that the disempowered (certainly not blacks or Indians or, God forbid, women) could gain and exercise power. It meant simply that the state could not, except in unusual circumstances, confiscate a citizen’s private property or tell him what to do with it. The American order thereby upheld the hierarchy of wealth, which some thought was mandated by God and others viewed as representing the immutable laws of nature. Nature, it was claimed, rewarded merit with wealth while penalising indolence.
All the above-mentioned distinctions – between free persons and slaves, between whites and blacks, between rich and poor – are rooted in fictions. (The hierarchy of men and women will be discussed later.) Yet it is an iron rule of history that every imagined hierarchy disavows its fictional origins and claims to be natural and inevitable. For instance, many people who have viewed the hierarchy of free persons and slaves as natural and correct have argued that slavery is not a human invention. Hammurabi saw it as ordained by the gods. Aristotle argued that slaves have a ‘slavish nature’ whereas free people have a ‘free nature’. Their status in society is merely a reflection of their innate nature.
Ask white supremacists about the racial hierarchy, and you are in for a pseudoscientific lecture concerning the biological differences between the races. You are likely to be told that there is something in Caucasian blood or genes that makes whites naturally more intelligent, moral and hardworking. Ask a diehard capitalist about the hierarchy of wealth, and you are likely to hear that it is the inevitable outcome of objective differences in abilities. The rich have more money, in this view, because they are more capable and diligent. No one should be bothered, then, if the wealthy get better health care, better education and better nutrition. The rich richly deserve every perk they enjoy.
Hindus who adhere to the caste system believe that cosmic forces have made one caste superior to another. According to a famous Hindu creation myth, the gods fashioned the world out of the body of a primeval being, the Purusa. The sun was created from the Purusa’s eye, the moon from the Purusa’s brain, the Brahmins (priests) from its mouth, the Kshatriyas (warriors) from its arms, the Vaishyas (peasants and merchants) from its thighs, and the Shudras (servants) from its legs. Accept this explanation and the sociopolitical differences between Brahmins and Shudras are as natural and eternal as the differences between the sun and the moon.1 The ancient Chinese believed that when the goddess Nü Wa created humans from earth, she kneaded aristocrats from fine yellow soil, whereas commoners were formed from brown mud.2 Yet, to the best of our understanding, these hierarchies are all the product of human imagination. Brahmins and Shudras were not really created by the gods from different body parts of a primeval being. Instead, the distinction between the two castes was created by laws and norms invented by humans in northern India about 3,000 years ago. Contrary to Aristotle, there is no known biological difference between slaves and free people. Human laws and norms have turned some people into slaves and others into masters. Between blacks and whites there are some objective biological differences, such as skin colour and hair type, but there is no evidence that the differences extend to intelligence or morality.
Most people claim that their social hierarchy is natural and just, while those of other societies are based on false and ridiculous criteria. Modern Westerners are taught to scoff at the idea of racial hierarchy. They are shocked by laws prohibiting blacks to live in white neighbourhoods, or to study in white schools, or to be treated in white hospitals. But the hierarchy of rich and poor – which mandates that rich people live in separate and more luxurious neighbourhoods, study in separate and more prestigious schools, and receive medical treatment in separate and better-equipped facilities – seems perfectly sensible to many Americans and Europeans. Yet it’s a proven fact that most rich people are rich for the simple reason that they were born into a rich family, while most poor people will remain poor throughout their lives simply because they were born into a poor family.
Unfortunately, complex human societies seem to require imagined hierarchies and unjust discrimination. Of course not all hierarchies are morally identical, and some societies suffered from more extreme types of discrimination than others, yet scholars know of no large society that has been able to dispense with discrimination altogether. Time and again people have created order in their societies by classifying the population into imagined categories, such as superiors, commoners and slaves; whites and blacks; patricians and plebeians; Brahmins and Shudras; or rich and poor. These categories have regulated relations between millions of humans by making some people legally, politically or socially superior to others.
Hierarchies serve an important function. They enable complete strangers to know how to treat one another without wasting the time and energy needed to become personally acquainted. In George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion, Henry Higgins doesn’t need to establish an intimate acquaintance with Eliza Doolittle in order to understand how he should relate to her. Just hearing her talk tells him that she is a member of the underclass with whom he can do as he wishes – for example, using her as a pawn in his bet to pass off a flower girl as a duchess. A modern Eliza working at a florist’s needs to know how much effort to put into selling roses and gladioli to the dozens of people who enter the shop each day. She can’t make a detailed enquiry into the tastes and wallets of each individual. Instead, she uses social cues – the way the person is dressed, his or her age, and if she’s not politically correct his skin colour. That is how she immediately distinguishes between the accounting-firm partner who’s likely to place a large order for expensive roses, and a messenger boy who can only afford a bunch of daisies.
Of course, differences in natural abilities also play a role in the formation of social distinctions. But such diversities of aptitudes and character are usually mediated through imagined hierarchies. This happens in two important ways. First and foremost, most abilities have to be nurtured and developed. Even if somebody is born with a particular talent, that talent will usually remain latent if it is not fostered, honed and exercised. Not all people get the same chance to cultivate and refine their abilities. Whether or not they have such an opportunity will usually depend on their place within their society’s imagined hierarchy. Harry Potter is a good example. Removed from his distinguished wizard family and brought up by ignorant muggles, he arrives at Hogwarts without any experience in magic. It takes him seven books to gain a firm command of his powers and knowledge of his unique abilities.
Second, even if people belonging to different classes develop exactly the same abilities, they are unlikely to enjoy equal success because they will have to play the game by different rules. If, in British-ruled India, an Untouchable, a Brahmin, a Catholic Irishman and a Protestant Englishman had somehow developed exactly the same business acumen, they still would not have had the same chance of becoming rich. The economic game was rigged by legal restrictions and unofficial glass ceilings.
The Vicious Circle
All societies are based on imagined hierarchies, but not necessarily on the same hierarchies. What accounts for the differences? Why did traditional Indian society classify people according to caste, Ottoman society according to religion, and American society according to race? In most cases the hierarchy originated as the result of a set of accidental historical circumstances and was then perpetuated and refined over many generations as different groups developed vested interests in it.
For instance, many scholars surmise that the Hindu caste system took shape when Indo-Aryan people invaded the Indian subcontinent about 3,000 years ago, subjugating the local population. The invaders established a stratified society, in which they – of course – occupied the leading positions (priests and warriors), leaving the natives to live as servants and slaves. The invaders, who were few in number, feared losing their privileged status and unique identity. To forestall this danger, they divided the population into castes, each of which was required to pursue a specific occupation or perform a specific role in society. Each had different legal status, privileges and duties. Mixing of castes – social interaction, marriage, even the sharing of meals – was prohibited. And the distinctions were not just legal – they became an inherent part of religious mythology and practice.
The rulers argued that the caste system reflected an eternal cosmic reality rather than a chance historical development. Concepts of purity and impurity were essential elements in Hindu religion, and they were harnessed to buttress the social pyramid. Pious Hindus were taught that contact with members of a different caste could pollute not only them personally, but society as a whole, and should therefore be abhorred. Such ideas are hardly unique to Hindus. Throughout history, and in almost all societies, concepts of pollution and purity have played a leading role in enforcing social and political divisions and have been exploited by numerous ruling classes to maintain their privileges. The fear of pollution is not a complete fabrication of priests and princes, however. It probably has its roots in biological survival mechanisms that make humans feel an instinctive revulsion towards potential disease carriers, such as sick persons and dead bodies. If you want to keep any human group isolated – women, Jews, Roma, gays, blacks – the best way to do it is convince everyone that these people are a source of pollution.
The Hindu caste system and its attendant laws of purity became deeply embedded in Indian culture. Long after the Indo-Aryan invasion was forgotten, Indians continued to believe in the caste system and to abhor the pollution caused by caste mixing. Castes were not immune to change. In fact, as time went by, large castes were divided into sub-castes. Eventually the original four castes turned into 3,000 different groupings called jati (literally ‘birth’). But this proliferation of castes did not change the basic principle of the system, according to which every person is born into a particular rank, and any infringement of its rules pollutes the person and society as a whole. A persons jati determines her profession, the food she can eat, her place of residence and her eligible marriage partners. Usually a person can marry only within his or her caste, and the resulting children inherit that status.
Whenever a new profession developed or a new group of people appeared on the scene, they had to be recognised as a caste in order to receive a legitimate place within Hindu society. Groups that failed to win recognition as a caste were, literally, outcasts – in this stratified society, they did not even occupy the lowest rung. They became known as Untouchables. They had to live apart from all other people and scrape together a living in humiliating and disgusting ways, such as sifting through garbage dumps for scrap material. Even members of the lowest caste avoided mingling with them, eating with them, touching them and certainly marrying them. In modern India, matters of marriage and work are still heavily influenced by the caste system, despite all attempts by the democratic government of India to break down such distinctions and convince Hindus that there is nothing polluting in caste mixing.3 Purity in America
A similar vicious circle perpetuated the racial hierarchy in modern America. From the sixteenth to the eighteenth century, the European conquerors imported millions of African slaves to work the mines and plantations of America. They chose to import slaves from Africa rather than from Europe or East Asia due to three circumstantial factors. Firstly, Africa was closer, so it was cheaper to import slaves from Senegal than from Vietnam.
Secondly, in Africa there already existed a well-developed slave trade (exporting slaves mainly to the Middle East), whereas in Europe slavery was very rare. It was obviously far easier to buy slaves in an existing market than to create a new one from scratch.
Thirdly, and most importantly, American plantations in places such as Virginia, Haiti and Brazil were plagued by malaria and yellow fever, which had originated in Africa. Africans had acquired over the generations a partial genetic immunity to these diseases, whereas Europeans were totally defenceless and died in droves. It was consequently wiser for a plantation owner to invest his money in an African slave than in a European slave or indentured labourer. Paradoxically, genetic superiority (in terms of immunity) translated into social inferiority: precisely because Africans were fitter in tropical climates than Europeans, they ended up as the slaves of European masters! Due to these circumstantial factors, the burgeoning new societies of America were to be divided into a ruling caste of white Europeans and a subjugated caste of black Africans.
But people don’t like to say that they keep slaves of a certain race or origin simply because it’s economically expedient. Like the Aryan conquerors of India, white Europeans in the Americas wanted to be seen not only as economically successful but also as pious, just and objective. Religious and scientific myths were pressed into service to justify this division. Theologians argued that Africans descend from Ham, son of Noah, saddled by his father with a curse that his offspring would be slaves. Biologists argued that blacks are less intelligent than whites and their moral sense less developed. Doctors alleged that blacks live in filth and spread diseases – in other words, they are a source of pollution.
These myths struck a chord in American culture, and in Western culture generally. They continued to exert their influence long after the conditions that created slavery had disappeared. In the early nineteenth century imperial Britain outlawed slavery and stopped the Atlantic slave trade, and in the decades that followed slavery was gradually outlawed throughout the American continent. Notably, this was the first and only time in history that slaveholding societies voluntarily abolished slavery. But, even though the slaves were freed, the racist myths that justified slavery persisted. Separation of the races was maintained by racist legislation and social custom.
The result was a self-reinforcing cycle of cause and effect, a vicious circle. Consider, for example, the southern United States immediately after the Civil War. In 1865 the Thirteenth Amendment to the US Constitution outlawed slavery and the Fourteenth Amendment mandated that citizenship and the equal protection of the law could not be denied on the basis of race. However, two centuries of slavery meant that most black families were far poorer and far less educated than most white families. A black person born in Alabama in 1865 thus had much less chance of getting a good education and a well-paid job than did his white neighbours. His children, born in the 1880S and 1890s, started life with the same disadvantage – they, too, were born to an uneducated, poor family.
But economic disadvantage was not the whole story. Alabama was also home to many poor whites who lacked the opportunities available to their better-off racial brothers and sisters. In addition, the Industrial Revolution and the waves of immigration made the United States an extremely fluid society, where rags could quickly turn into riches. If money was all that mattered, the sharp divide between the races should soon have blurred, not least through intermarriage.
But that did not happen. By 1865 whites, as well as many blacks, took it to be a simple matter of fact that blacks were less intelligent, more violent and s@xually dissolute, lazier and less concerned about personal cleanliness than whites. They were thus the agents of violence, theft, rape and disease – in other words, pollution. If a black Alabaman in 1895 miraculously managed to get a good education and then applied for a respectable job such as a bank teller, his odds of being accepted were far worse than those of an equally qualified white candidate. The stigma that labelled blacks as, by nature, unreliable, lazy and less intelligent conspired against him.
You might think that people would gradually understand that these stigmas were myth rather than fact and that blacks would be able, over time, to prove themselves just as competent, law-abiding and clean as whites. In fact, the opposite happened – these prejudices became more and more entrenched as time went by. Since all the best jobs were held by whites, it became easier to believe that blacks really are inferior. ‘Look,’ said the average white citizen, ‘blacks have been free for generations, yet there are almost no black professors, lawyers, doctors or even bank tellers. Isn’t that proof that blacks are simply less intelligent and hard-working?’ Trapped in this vicious circle, blacks were not hired for white-collar jobs because they were deemed unintelligent, and the proof of their inferiority was the paucity of blacks in white-collar jobs.
The vicious circle did not stop there. As anti-black stigmas grew stronger, they were translated into a system of ‘Jim Crow’ laws and norms that were meant to safeguard the racial order. Blacks were forbidden to vote in elections, to study in white schools, to buy in white stores, to eat in white restaurants, to sleep in white hotels. The justification for all of this was that blacks were foul, slothful and vicious, so whites had to be protected from them. Whites did not want to sleep in the same hotel as blacks or to eat in the same restaurant, for fear of diseases. They did not want their children learning in the same school as black children, for fear of brutality and bad influences. They did not want blacks voting in elections, since blacks were ignorant and immoral. These fears were substantiated by scientific studies that ‘proved’ that blacks were indeed less educated, that various diseases were more common among them, and that their crime rate was far higher (the studies ignored the fact that these ‘facts’ resulted from discrimination against blacks).
By the mid-twentieth century, segregation in the former Confederate states was probably worse than in the late nineteenth century. Clennon King, a black student who applied to the University of Mississippi in 1958, was forcefully committed to a mental asylum. The presiding judge ruled that a black person must surely be insane to think that he could be admitted to the University of Mississippi.
Nothing was as revolting to American southerners (and many northerners) as s@xual relations and marriage between black men and white women. s@x between the races became the greatest taboo and any violation, or suspected violation, was viewed as deserving immediate and summary punishment in the form of lynching. The Ku Klux Klan, a white supremacist secret society, perpetrated many such killings. They could have taught the Hindu Brahmins a thing or two about purity laws.
With time, the racism spread to more and more cultural arenas. American aesthetic culture was built around white standards of beauty. The physical attributes of the white race – for example light skin, fair and straight hair, a small upturned nose – came to be identified as beautiful. Typical black features – dark skin, dark and bushy hair, a flattened nose – were deemed ugly. These preconceptions ingrained the imagined hierarchy at an even deeper level of human consciousness.
Such vicious circles can go on for centuries and even millennia, perpetuating an imagined hierarchy that sprang from a chance historical occurrence. Unjust discrimination often gets worse, not better, with time. Money comes to money, and poverty to poverty. Education comes to education, and ignorance to ignorance. Those once victimised by history are likely to be victimised yet again. And those whom history has privileged are more likely to be privileged again.
Most sociopolitical hierarchies lack a logical or biological basis – they are nothing but the perpetuation of chance events supported by myths. That is one good reason to study history. If the division into blacks and whites or Brahmins and Shudras was grounded in biological realities – that is, if Brahmins really had better brains than Shudras – biology would be sufficient for understanding human society. Since the biological distinctions between different groups of Homo sapiens are, in fact, negligible, biology can’t explain the intricacies of Indian society or American racial dynamics. We can only understand those phenomena by studying the events, circumstances, and power relations that transformed figments of imagination into cruel – and very real – social structures.
He and She
Different societies adopt different kinds of imagined hierarchies. Race is very important to modern Americans but was relatively insignificant to medieval Muslims. Caste was a matter of life and death in medieval India, whereas in modern Europe it is practically non-existent. One hierarchy, however, has been of supreme importance in all known human societies: the hierarchy of gender. People everywhere have divided themselves into men and women. And almost everywhere men have got the better deal, at least since the Agricultural Revolution.
Some of the earliest Chinese texts are oracle bones, dating to 1200 BC, used to divine the future. On one was engraved the question: ‘Will Lady Hao’s childbearing be lucky?’ To which was written the reply: ‘If the child is born on a ding day, lucky; if on a geng day, vastly auspicious.’ However, Lady Hao was to give birth on a jiayin day. The text ends with the morose observation: ‘Three weeks and one day later, on jiayin day, the child was born. Not lucky. It was a girl.’4 More than 3,000 years later, when Communist China enacted the ‘one child’ policy, many Chinese families continued to regard the birth of a girl as a misfortune. Parents would occasionally abandon or murder newborn baby girls in order to have another shot at getting a boy.
In many societies women were simply the property of men, most often their fathers, husbands or brothers. Rape, in many legal systems, falls under property violation – in other words, the victim is not the woman who was raped but the male who owns her. This being the case, the legal remedy was the transfer of ownership – the rapist was required to pay a bride price to the woman’s father or brother, upon which she became the rapist’s property. The Bible decrees that ‘If a man meets a virgin who is not betrothed, and seizes her and lies with her, and they are found, then the man who lay with her shall give to the father of the young woman fifty shekels of silver, and she shall be his wife’ (Deuteronomy 22:28–9). The ancient Hebrews considered this a reasonable arrangement.
Raping a woman who did not belong to any man was not considered a crime at all, just as picking up a lost coin on a busy street is not considered theft. And if a husband raped his own wife, he had committed no crime. In fact, the idea that a husband could rape his wife was an oxymoron. To be a husband was to have full control of your wife’s s@xuality. To say that a husband ‘raped’ his wife was as illogical as saying that a man stole his own wallet. Such thinking was not confined to the ancient Middle East. As of 2006, there were still fifty-three countries where a husband could not be prosecuted for the rape of his wife. Even in Germany, rape laws were amended only in 1997 to create a legal category of marital rape.5 Is the division into men and women a product of the imagination, like the caste system in India and the racial system in America, or is it a natural division with deep biological roots? And if it is indeed a natural division, are there also biological explanations for the preference given to men over women?
Some of the cultural, legal and political disparities between men and women reflect the obvious biological differences between the s@xes. Childbearing has always been women’s job, because men don’t have wombs. Yet around this hard universal kernel, every society accumulated layer upon layer of cultural ideas and norms that have little to do with biology. Societies associate a host of attributes with masculinity and femininity that, for the most part, lack a firm biological basis.
For instance, in democratic Athens of the fifth century BC, an individual possessing a womb had no independent legal status and was forbidden to participate in popular assemblies or to be a judge. With few exceptions, such an individual could not benefit from a good education, nor engage in business or in philosophical discourse. None of Athens’ political leaders, none of its great philosophers, orators, artists or merchants had a womb. Does having a womb make a person unfit, biologically, for these professions? The ancient Athenians thought so. Modern Athenians disagree. In present-day Athens, women vote, are elected to public office, make speeches, design everything from jewellery to buildings to software, and go to university. Their wombs do not keep them from doing any of these things as successfully as men do. True, they are still under-represented in politics and business – only about 12 per cent of the members of Greece’s parliament are women. But there is no legal barrier to their participation in politics, and most modern Greeks think it is quite normal for a woman to serve in public office.
Many modern Greeks also think that an integral part of being a man is being s@xually attracted to women only, and having s@xual relations exclusively with the opposite s@x. They don’t see this as a cultural bias, but rather as a biological reality – relations between two people of the opposite s@x are natural, and between two people of the same s@x unnatural. In fact, though, Mother Nature does not mind if men are s@xually attracted to one another. It’s only human mothers steeped in particular cultures who make a scene if their son has a fling with the boy next door. The mother’s tantrums are not a biological imperative. A significant number of human cultures have viewed homos@xual relations as not only legitimate but even socially constructive, ancient Greece being the most notable example. The Iliad does not mention that Thetis had any objection to her son Achilles’ relations with Patroclus. Queen Olympias of Macedon was one of the most temperamental and forceful women of the ancient world, and even had her own husband, King Philip, assassinated. Yet she didn’t have a fit when her son, Alexander the Great, brought his lover Hephaestion home for dinner.
How can we distinguish what is biologically determined from what people merely try to justify through biological myths? A good rule of thumb is ‘Biology enables, Culture forbids.’ Biology is willing to tolerate a very wide spectrum of possibilities. It’s culture that obliges people to realise some possibilities while forbidding others. Biology enables women to have children – some cultures oblige women to realise this possibility. Biology enables men to enjoy s@x with one another – some cultures forbid them to realise this possibility.
Culture tends to argue that it forbids only that which is unnatural. But from a biological perspective, nothing is unnatural. Whatever is possible is by definition also natural. A truly unnatural behaviour, one that goes against the laws of nature, simply cannot exist, so it would need no prohibition. No culture has ever bothered to forbid men to photosynthesise, women to run faster than the speed of light, or negatively charged electrons to be attracted to each other.
In truth, our concepts ‘natural’ and unnatural’ are taken not from biology, but from Christian theology. The theological meaning of ‘natural’ is ‘in accordance with the intentions of the God who created nature’. Christian theologians argued that God created the human body, intending each limb and organ to serve a particular purpose. If we use our limbs and organs for the purpose envisioned by God, then it is a natural activity. To use them differently than God intends is unnatural. But evolution has no purpose. Organs have not evolved with a purpose, and the way they are used is in constant flux. There is not a single organ in the human body that only does the job its prototype did when it first appeared hundreds of millions of years ago. Organs evolve to perform a particular function, but once they exist, they can be adapted for other usages as well. Mouths, for example, appeared because the earliest multicellular organisms needed a way to take nutrients into their bodies. We still use our mouths for that purpose, but we also use them to kiss, speak and, if we are Rambo, to pull the pins out of hand grenades. Are any of these uses unnatural simply because our worm-like ancestors 600 million years ago didn’t do those things with their mouths?
Similarly, wings didn’t suddenly appear in all their aerodynamic glory. They developed from organs that served another purpose. According to one theory, insect wings evolved millions of years ago from body protrusions on flightless bugs. Bugs with bumps had a larger surface area than those without bumps, and this enabled them to absorb more sunlight and thus stay warmer. In a slow evolutionary process, these solar heaters grew larger. The same structure that was good for maximum sunlight absorption – lots of surface area, little weight – also, by coincidence, gave the insects a bit of a lift when they skipped and jumped. Those with bigger protrusions could skip and jump farther. Some insects started using the things to glide, and from there it was a small step to wings that could actually propel the bug through the air. Next time a mosquito buzzes in your ear, accuse her of unnatural behaviour. If she were well behaved and content with what God gave her, she’d use her wings only as solar panels.
The same sort of multitasking applies to our s@xual organs and behaviour. s@x first evolved for procreation and courtship rituals as a way of sizing up the fitness of a potential mate. But many animals now put both to use for a multitude of social purposes that have little to do with creating little copies of themselves. Chimpanzees, for example, use s@x to cement political alliances, establish intimacy and defuse tensions. Is that unnatural?
s@x and Gender
There is little sense, then, in arguing that the natural function of women is to give birth, or that homos@xuality is unnatural. Most of the laws, norms, rights and obligations that define manhood and womanhood reflect human imagination more than biological reality.
Biologically, humans are divided into males and females. A male Homo sapiens is one who has one X chromosome and one Y chromosome; a female is one with two Xs. But ‘man’ and woman’ name social, not biological, categories. While in the great majority of cases in most human societies men are males and women are females, the social terms carry a lot of baggage that has only a tenuous, if any, relationship to the biological terms. A man is not a Sapiens with particular biological qualities such as XY chromosomes, testicles and lots of testosterone. Rather, he fits into a particular slot in his society’s imagined human order. His culture’s myths assign him particular masculine roles (like engaging in politics), rights (like voting) and duties (like military service). Likewise, a woman is not a Sapiens with two X chromosomes, a womb and plenty of oestrogen. Rather, she is a female member of an imagined human order. The myths of her society assign her unique feminine roles (raising children), rights (protection against violence) and duties (obedience to her husband). Since myths, rather than biology, define the roles, rights and duties of men and women, the meaning of ‘manhood’ and ‘womanhood’ have varied immensely from one society to another.
To make things less confusing, scholars usually distinguish between ‘s@x’, which is a biological category, and ‘gender’, a cultural category. s@x is divided between males and females, and the qualities of this division are objective and have remained constant throughout history. Gender is divided between men and women (and some cultures recognise other categories). So-called ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ qualities are inter-subjective and undergo constant changes. For example, there are far-reaching differences in the behaviour, desires, dress and even body posture expected from women in classical Athens and women in modern Athens.6 s@x is child’s play; but gender is serious business. To get to be a member of the male s@x is the simplest thing in the world. You just need to be born with an X and a Y chromosome. To get to be a female is equally simple. A pair of X chromosomes will do it. In contrast, becoming a man or a woman is a very complicated and demanding undertaking. Since most masculine and feminine qualities are cultural rather than biological, no society automatically crowns each male a man, or every female a woman. Nor are these titles laurels that can be rested on once they are acquired. Males must prove their masculinity constantly, throughout their lives, from cradle to grave, in an endless series of rites and performances. And a woman’s work is never done – she must continually convince herself and others that she is feminine enough.
Success is not guaranteed. Males in particular live in constant dread of losing their claim to manhood. Throughout history, males have been willing to risk and even sacrifice their lives, just so that people will say ‘He’s a real man!’
What’s So Good About Men?
At least since the Agricultural Revolution, most human societies have been patriarchal societies that valued men more highly than women. No matter how a society defined ‘man’ and ‘woman’, to be a man was always better. Patriarchal societies educate men to think and act in a masculine way and women to think and act in a feminine way, punishing anyone who dares cross those boundaries. Yet they do not equally reward those who conform. Qualities considered masculine are more valued than those considered feminine, and members of a society who personify the feminine ideal get less than those who exemplify the masculine ideal. Fewer resources are invested in the health and education of women; they have fewer economic opportunities, less political power, and less freedom of movement. Gender is a race in which some of the runners compete only for the bronze medal.
True, a handful of women have made it to the alpha position, such as Cleopatra of Egypt, Empress Wu Zetian of China (c. AD 700) and Elizabeth I of England. Yet they are the exceptions that prove the rule. Throughout Elizabeth’s forty-five-year reign, all Members of Parliament were men, all officers in the Royal Navy and army were men, all judges and lawyers were men, all bishops and archbishops were men, all theologians and priests were men, all doctors and surgeons were men, all students and professors in all universities and colleges were men, all mayors and sheriffs were men, and almost all the writers, architects, poets, philosophers, painters, musicians and scientists were men.
Patriarchy has been the norm in almost all agricultural and industrial societies. It has tenaciously weathered political upheavals, social revolutions and economic transformations. Egypt, for example, was conquered numerous times over the centuries. Assyrians, Persians, Macedonians, Romans, Arabs, Mameluks, Turks and British occupied it – and its society always remained patriarchal. Egypt was governed by pharaonic law, Greek law, Roman law, Muslim law, Ottoman law and British law – and they all discriminated against people who were not ‘real men’.
Since patriarchy is so universal, it cannot be the product of some vicious circle that was kick-started by a chance occurrence. It is particularly noteworthy that even before 1492, most societies in both America and Afro-Asia were patriarchal, even though they had been out of contact for thousands of years. If patriarchy in Afro-Asia resulted from some chance occurrence, why were the Aztecs and Incas patriarchal? It is far more likely that even though the precise definition of ‘man’ and ‘woman’ varies between cultures, there is some universal biological reason why almost all cultures valued manhood over womanhood. We do not know what this reason is. There are plenty of theories, none of them convincing.
The most common theory points to the fact that men are stronger than women, and that they have used their greater physical power to force women into submission. A more subtle version of this claim argues that their strength allows men to monopolise tasks that demand hard manual labour, such as ploughing and harvesting. This gives them control of food production, which in turn translates into political clout.
There are two problems with this emphasis on muscle power. First, the statement that men are stronger than women’ is true only on average, and only with regard to certain types of strength. Women are generally more resistant to hunger, disease and fatigue than men. There are also many women who can run faster and lift heavier weights than many men. Furthermore, and most problematically for this theory, women have, throughout history, been excluded mainly from jobs that require little physical effort (such as the priesthood, law and politics), while engaging in hard manual labour in the fields, in crafts and in the household. If social power were divided in direct relation to physical strength or stamina, women should have got far more of it.
Even more importantly, there simply is no direct relation between physical strength and social power among humans. People in their sixties usually exercise power over people in their twenties, even though twentysomethings are much stronger than their elders. The typical plantation owner in Alabama in the mid-nineteenth century could have been wrestled to the ground in seconds by any of the slaves cultivating his cotton fields. Boxing matches were not used to select Egyptian pharaohs or Catholic popes. In forager societies, political dominance generally resides with the person possessing the best social skills rather than the most developed musculature. In organised crime, the big boss is not necessarily the strongest man. He is often an older man who very rarely uses his own fists; he gets younger and fitter men to do the dirty jobs for him. A guy who thinks that the way to take over the syndicate is to beat up the don is unlikely to live long enough to learn from his mistake. Even among chimpanzees, the alpha male wins his position by building a stable coalition with other males and females, not through mindless violence.
In fact, human history shows that there is often an inverse relation between physical prowess and social power. In most societies, it’s the lower classes who do the manual labour. This may reflect Homo sapiens position in the food chain. If all that counted were raw physical abilities, Sapiens would have found themselves on a middle rung of the ladder. But their mental and social skills placed them at the top. It is therefore only natural that the chain of power within the species will also be determined by mental and social abilities more than by brute force. It is therefore hard to believe that the most influential and most stable social hierarchy in history is founded on men’s ability physically to coerce women.
The Scum of Society
Another theory explains that masculine dominance results not from strength but from aggression. Millions of years of evolution have made men far more violent than women. Women can match men as far as hatred, greed and abuse are concerned, but when push comes to shove, the theory goes, men are more willing to engage in raw physical violence. This is why throughout history warfare has been a masculine prerogative.
In times of war, men’s control of the armed forces has made them the masters of civilian society, too. They then used their control of civilian society to fight more and more wars, and the greater the number of wars, the greater men’s control of society. This feedback loop explains both the ubiquity of war and the ubiquity of patriarchy.
Recent studies of the hormonal and cognitive systems of men and women strengthen the assumption that men indeed have more aggressive and violent tendencies, and are therefore, on average, better suited to serve as common soldiers. Yet granted that the common soldiers are all men, does it follow that the ones managing the war and enjoying its fruits must also be men? That makes no sense. It’s like assuming that because all the slaves cultivating cotton fields are black, plantation owners will be black as well. Just as an all-black workforce might be controlled by an all-white management, why couldn’t an all-male soldiery be controlled by an all-female or at least partly female government? In fact, in numerous societies throughout history, the top officers did not work their way up from the rank of private. Aristocrats, the wealthy and the educated were automatically assigned officer rank and never served a day in the ranks.
When the Duke of Wellington, Napoleon’s nemesis, enlisted in the British army at the age of eighteen, he was immediately commissioned as an officer. He didn’t think much of the plebeians under his command. ‘We have in the service the scum of the earth as common soldiers,’ he wrote to a fellow aristocrat during the wars against France. These common soldiers were usually recruited from among the very poorest, or from ethnic minorities (such as the Irish Catholics). Their chances of ascending the military ranks were negligible. The senior ranks were reserved for dukes, princes and kings. But why only for dukes, and not for duchesses?
The French Empire in Africa was established and defended by the sweat and blood of Senegalese, Algerians and working-class Frenchmen. The percentage of well-born Frenchmen within the ranks was negligible. Yet the percentage of well-born Frenchmen within the small elite that led the French army, ruled the empire and enjoyed its fruits was very high. Why just Frenchmen, and not French women?
In China there was a long tradition of subjugating the army to the civilian bureaucracy, so mandarins who had never held a sword often ran the wars. ‘You do not waste good iron to make nails,’ went a common Chinese saying, meaning that really talented people join the civil bureaucracy, not the army. Why, then, were all of these mandarins men?
One can’t reasonably argue that their physical weakness or low testosterone levels prevented women from being successful mandarins, generals and politicians. In order to manage a war, you surely need stamina, but not much physical strength or aggressiveness. Wars are not a pub brawl. They are very complex projects that require an extraordinary degree of organisation, cooperation and appeasement. The ability to maintain peace at home, acquire allies abroad, and understand what goes through the minds of other people (particularly your enemies) is usually the key to victory. Hence an aggressive brute is often the worst choice to run a war. Much better is a cooperative person who knows how to appease, how to manipulate and how to see things from different perspectives. This is the stuff empire-builders are made of. The militarily incompetent Augustus succeeded in establishing a stable imperial regime, achieving something that eluded both Julius Caesar and Alexander the Great, who were much better generals. Both his admiring contemporaries and modern historians often attribute this feat to his virtue of clementia – mildness and clemency.
Women are often stereotyped as better manipulators and appeasers than men, and are famed for their superior ability to see things from the perspective of others. If there’s any truth in these stereotypes, then women should have made excellent politicians and empire-builders, leaving the dirty work on the battlefields to testosterone-charged but simple-minded machos. Popular myths notwithstanding, this rarely happened in the real world. It is not at all clear why not.
A third type of biological explanation gives less importance to brute force and violence, and suggests that through millions of years of evolution, men and women evolved different survival and reproduction strategies. As men competed against each other for the opportunity to impregnate fertile women, an individual’s chances of reproduction depended above all on his ability to outperform and defeat other men. As time went by, the masculine genes that made it to the next generation were those belonging to the most ambitious, aggressive and competitive men.
A woman, on the other hand, had no problem finding a man willing to impregnate her. However, if she wanted her children to provide her with grandchildren, she needed to carry them in her womb for nine arduous months, and then nurture them for years. During that time she had fewer opportunities to obtain food, and required a lot of help. She needed a man. In order to ensure her own survival and the survival of her children, the woman had little choice but to agree to whatever conditions the man stipulated so that he would stick around and share some of the burden. As time went by, the feminine genes that made it to the next generation belonged to women who were submissive caretakers. Women who spent too much time fighting for power did not leave any of those powerful genes for future generations.
The result of these different survival strategies – so the theory goes – is that men have been programmed to be ambitious and competitive, and to excel in politics and business, whereas women have tended to move out of the way and dedicate their lives to raising children.
But this approach also seems to be belied by the empirical evidence. Particularly problematic is the assumption that women’s dependence on external help made them dependent on men, rather than on other women, and that male competitiveness made men socially dominant. There are many species of animals, such as elephants and bonobo chimpanzees, in which the dynamics between dependent females and competitive males results in a matriarchal society. Since females need external help, they are obliged to develop their social skills and learn how to cooperate and appease. They construct all-female social networks that help each member raise her children. Males, meanwhile, spend their time fighting and competing. Their social skills and social bonds remain underdeveloped. Bonobo and elephant societies are controlled by strong networks of cooperative females, while the self-centred and uncooperative males are pushed to the sidelines. Though bonobo females are weaker on average than the males, the females often gang up to beat males who overstep their limits.
If this is possible among bonobos and elephants, why not among Homo sapiens? Sapiens are relatively weak animals, whose advantage rests in their ability to cooperate in large numbers. If so, we should expect that dependent women, even if they are dependent on men, would use their superior social skills to cooperate to outmanoeuvre and manipulate aggressive, autonomous and self-centred men.
How did it happen that in the one species whose success depends above all on cooperation, individuals who are supposedly less cooperative (men) control individuals who are supposedly more cooperative (women)? At present, we have no good answer. Maybe the common assumptions are just wrong. Maybe males of the species Homo sapiens are characterised not by physical strength, aggressiveness and competitiveness, but rather by superior social skills and a greater tendency to cooperate. We just don’t know.
What we do know, however, is that during the last century gender roles have undergone a tremendous revolution. More and more societies today not only give men and women equal legal status, political rights and economic opportunities, but also completely rethink their most basic conceptions of gender and s@xuality. Though the gender gap is still significant, events have been moving at a breathtaking speed. At the beginning of the twentieth century the idea of giving voting rights to women was generally seen in the USA as outrageous; the prospect of a female cabinet secretary or Supreme Court justice was simply ridiculous; whereas homos@xuality was such a taboo subject that it could not even be openly discussed. At the beginning of the twenty-first century women’s voting rights are taken for granted; female cabinet secretaries are hardly a cause for comment; and in 2013 five US Supreme Court justices, three of them women, decided in favour of legalising same-s@x marriages (overruling the objections of four male justices).
These dramatic changes are precisely what makes the history of gender so bewildering. If, as is being demonstrated
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