Another reason for the CBC to go commercial-free

Okay, I know it's late, but I'm watching The Hour on Newsworld. (I don't have TV in my house, let alone Canadian TV -- so when I visit my mom, I like to catch up.)

And then, I saw this:

Is that really necessary? I think not.


Naomi Wolf on the Male Brain

Naomi Wolf's commentary on brains and gender today in the Globe and Mail makes it clear why essentialism is such risky business. As she writes:

Feminists understandably have often shied away from scientific evidence that challenges this critique of sex roles. After all, because biology-based arguments about gender difference have historically been used to justify women's subjugation, women have been reluctant to concede any innate difference, lest it be used against them.

But now a spate of scientific analyses, based on brain-imaging technology and new anthropological and evolutionary discoveries, suggests we may have had our heads in the sand, and that we must be willing to grapple with what seem to be at least some genuine, measurable differences between the sexes.

Wolf goes on to discuss work by Dr. Helen Fisher and Dr. Michael Gurian. On Fisher's work, Wolf writes:

... in her description of our evolution, Dr. Fisher notes that males who could tolerate long periods of silence (waiting for animals while in hunt mode) survived to pass on their genes, thus genetically selecting to prefer “space.” By contrast, females survived best by bonding with others and building community, since such groups were needed to gather roots, nuts and berries, while caring for small children.
Reading Dr. Fisher, one is more inclined to leave boys alone to challenge one another and test their environment, and to accept that, as she puts it, nature designed men and women to collaborate for survival. “Collaboration” implies free will and choice; even primate males do not succeed by dominating or controlling females. In her analysis, it serves everyone for men and women to share their sometimes different but often complementary strengths - a conclusion that seems reassuring, not oppressive.

Reassuring, maybe. And anecdotally, I might be inclined to agree that women are more verbal and more inclined to "build community" than men -- but then, I certainly know men (heterosexual men, even!) who will happily spend hours gossiping around a French press. It seems more useful to suggest that it serves everyone for people to share their "sometimes different but often complementary strengths", than it does to talk about this kind of complementarity as something that exists in a gender binary. Even if these differences are 'wired in' generally, they will certainly not hold true for all men, or all women. And even if these difference are 'wired in' generally, should we accept them as the basis for a functional society?

I don't know Fisher's work well, and I'm hesitant to characterize it based on a brief second-hand report. But I would have liked to see Wolf ask some more bigger questions here.

First, I'm not sure why she so eagerly reads and accepts the suggestion that we should take gender norms that presumably existed in hunter-gatherer societies as a basis for current childrearing practices. We simply don't live in that kind of society any more, and our "survival" no longer literally depends on the norms that she outlines. I can see a lot of benefit to encouraging girls to "challenge each other and test their environment", even if for that's somehow less 'instinctive' for them. If it's also true that it's harder for girls than boys to build muscle mass, would we tell them not to bother trying? (I suppose that we do, in some ways -- and that's simply not acceptable either.) Should we really consent to be constrained by our purported biology?

Second, it strikes me as flat-out weird that any current feminist thinker would not, in fact, ask if there's anything about current socialization of young girls that makes it seem that they have less instinctive interest in challenging their peers or testing their environments than do young boys. I'm not sure that it bears explaining, in fact, why young girls might be discourage from such "challenging" or "testing". It's a major lapse on Wolf's part not to address this basic issue.

When she discusses Gurian's work, however, Wolf's comments are even more disappointing:

Michael Gurian, a neurobiology consultant, takes this set of insights further. [...]

He even posits that the male brain can't “see” dust or laundry piling up as the female brain often can - which explains why men and women tend to perform household tasks in different ways. Men often can't hear women's lower tones, and their brains, unlike women's, have a “rest” state (sometimes, he is thinking about “nothing”). [...]

Somehow, all this is liberating rather than infuriating. So much that enrages women, or leads them to feel rejected or unheard, may not reflect men's conscious neglect or even sexism but simply their brains' wiring. According to Dr. Gurian, if women accept these biological differences and work around them in relationships, men respond with great appreciation and devotion (often expressed non-verbally).

So -- my response is pretty similar here. It seems that there's a very basic question about the influence of social norms on this 'brain wiring', or on the way that it gets expressed in behavior, needs to be asked here, and Wolf's not asking it. And then, really, how much are we willing to be constrained by our brain wiring? If it's less "instinctive" for men to handle particular household tasks, does that get them off the hook? Or, if those are still necessary tasks, is it imperative upon them to simply learn to handle them? We can't simply allow basic inequities in the division of domestic labour (and yes, that's what laundry is) to persist because men are fortuitously wired in a way that gets them off the hook. That's bad for everybody.

And again, of course, these differences don't fall cleanly across gender lines. I'll speak from experience here. I grew up in a household where, because of various issues in the family dynamic, I wasn't terribly well trained in basic housekeeping skills. And sometimes I really "don't see" clutter, dust, whatever. I'm working on it, slowly and systematically. Why? Not because I regard it as some kind of feminine imperative, but because I want to live in decent conditions, and because I don't want to drive the people I live with insane. Just as it's harder to learn a second language in adulthood -- because of changes in the plasticity of the brain! -- this is a much trickier set of skills to teach oneself as an adult. But you know, it can be done. I don't think it's unreasonable for people to expect this of me, and I don't think it's unreasonable for me to expect it from other people (be they family, roommates, or partners).

I think that legitimate research in evolutionary biology (as Helen Fisher's seems to be, from my other encounters with it) is fascinating, and potentially deeply revealing. But as individuals, as partners, as parents, or as teachers, we might actually do well not to be so 'reassured' by readings of this research that try to identify essential differences between the sexes. Instead, we might ask -- who do we want to be? Biology might be destiny to a point (and I don't believe that we can transcend it completely), but is it acceptable to use it as a collective excuse for perpetuating fundamental inequalities? Italic