“The (Un)Righteous Mind:” Why Moral Prescriptions Based on Jonathan Haidt’s 5 Moral Foundations are Incoherent, & Why Reason, Consensus, and Emotion Should Form the Basis of Moral Judgments

“The (Un)Righteous Mind:” Why Moral Prescriptions Based on Jonathan Haidt’s 5 Moral Foundations are Incoherent, & Why Reason, Consensus, and Emotion Should Form the Basis of Moral Judgments

dBefore I get into my disagreement with Jonathan Haidt and his is-ought problem concerning moral foundationalism, I would like to put forth my own comprehensive argument about what morality is, why we should value what we value, and what makes a moral judgment legitimate as opposed to incomplete or illegitimate.

Premise 1: Morality is a product of evolution involving the criteria of pain, pleasure, intentions, consequences, and principles as they relate the preservation, cooperation, flourishing, and well-being of sentient life.

  • Morality originally arose as a survival mechanism for human beings – not in trees or rocks.
  • Morality is tied to sentience and the brain, and is therefore tied to ideas of pain, pleasure, intentions, consequences, and principles.
  • We recognize and understand the usefulness of morality as a tool for the self-preservation, cooperation, flourishing, and well-being of our species and others.

Conclusion from Premise 1: The goal of morality should be to aid in the preservation, cooperation, flourishing, and well-being of sentient beings, and by extension, the best possible morality is one which maximizes these things for all sentient beings.

Premise 2: Morality is tied to instinct. Since morality is a product of evolution and arose as a survival mechanism, it follows that morality has a connection to human instinct.

  • One feel’s an instinctual urge to help another when one sees a child being beating or an animal being tortured.
  • One feel’s an instinctual urge to preserve human life, regardless of circumstance. For example, when one sees another jumping off a bridge, one instinctually rushes to save them.
  • Our instinctual urge to protect human life regardless of pain, pleasure, intentions, consequences, flourishing, and well-being, can lead us to make the wrong decisions regarding abortion, assisted suicide, and can lead us to ignore the pain and pleasure of other species.

Conclusion from Premise 2: Instinct alone cannot be the foundation for morality because it can guide us to make choices which ignore the pain, pleasure, preservation, cooperation, flourishing, and the well-being of conscious creatures.

Premise 2: Morality is tied to the feelings and emotions of people and is rooted in convictions of right and wrong.

  • The feeling that black people were inferior served as a justification for racism, slavery, and segregation.
  • The feeling that loving others is a good thing serves as a moral justification for the family unit, acts of charity, and peaceful coexistence within society.

Conclusion from Premise 2: Since feelings about what is moral vary across time and qualitatively differ to the degree they promote preservation, cooperation, flourishing, and well-being, and to the degree they consider pain, pleasure, intentions, consequences, and principles relating to these things, feelings alone cannot be the foundation for morality.

Premise 3: Morality is tied to consensus. Since ethical systems are a product of social negotiation – not a product of individuals in isolation – consensus plays a role in determining the prevailing ethical systems and moral behaviors of the time.

  • Morality does not exist in a vacuum, only with respect to groups of people. A human being on a desert island with no other lifeforms has no moral obligations to anyone, including themselves.
  • Historically, individual ethics are only seen as valid to the degree to which others recognize and reaffirm an individual standards and behaviors, and to the degree to which an individual’s standards and behaviors can be understood and accepted by others.
  • In-group ideas about what morality should be and what roles it should play are confined to ideas about pain, pleasure, intentions, consequences, and principles, even if those ideas are mistaken.

Conclusion: Since prevailing ethical systems differ across time periods and cultures, and because the degree to which each ethical system or moral behavior promotes the preservation, cooperation, flourishing, and well-being of the species is qualitatively different, this suggests that consensus alone is not a stable foundation for determining the best possible ethical system.

Premise 4: Morality is tied to knowledge and reason. The influx of knowledge and the exercise of reason fundamentally affects the way human beings understand and negotiate ethics and moral behaviors.

  • We can use knowledge and reason to discredit the feeling and general consensus about the supposed inferiority of black people.
  • We can also use knowledge and reason to wipe out large swaths of the population in the pursuit of building a more sustainable planet.

Conclusion from Premise 4: Knowledge and reason alone cannot be the sole foundation for morality because reason alone ignores emotion and consensus and results in ethical systems and moral behaviors which are contrary to promoting preservation, cooperation, flourishing, and well-being as they relate to pain, pleasure, intentions, consequences, and principles.

Premise 5: The use of knowledge and reason have historically resulted in a greater positive impact on societies in terms of providing qualitatively better ethical systems than those which only relied on the use of instinct, emotion, and consensus.

  • In the past our instinct, feelings, and consensus enabled us to burn other human beings which were seen as “witches,” and allowed us to perceive physical diseases as a sign of evil which resulted in a culture of victim-blaming.
  • Through the influx of knowledge, we learned that what we assumed to be malevolent forces were actually due to mental illness.
  • In light of new knowledge, human beings began to incorporate reason into ethical decision-making by treating mentally ill people as victims instead of viewing them as a threat.

Premise 6: The exercise of reason in moral-decision making is necessary because it allows us to understand, explain, and argue why something should be valued, whereas emotions and consensus only give us a general a sense of what standards and behaviors are potentially good or bad.

  • If the racist that feels that black people are inferior cannot rationally explain the origin of his disgust, but solely relies to emotion and consensus, then their opinion should be regarded as uniformed, since the exercise of reason would allow them to realize their opinion is not legitimate.
  • Similarly, if the non-racist fails to articulate in rational terms why they should treat all people regardless of race as they themselves would like to be treated, but instead relies on emotion and consensus, then their opinion is also uninformed, as the exercise of reason would allow them to realize its legitimacy.

Premise 7: The use of emotion and consensus in moral-decision making is necessary because gives us a general sense of whether ethical standards and behaviors might be good or bad, whereas reason cannot give us this sense; it can only help us understand, explain and justify it.

  • The sociopath’s reasons as to why they are killing people might be very rational, but this ignores the pain and well-being of the victim as well as the consensus and feelings of most people regarding killing.
  • Similarly, the dictator might have a good reason for quashing dissent and exterminating entire swaths of the population, but this betrays the moral sense given to us by our emotions and ignores the well-being of others.

Final Conclusion from Premises 1-7: Moral decision-making should therefore necessarily involve the use of reason, emotion, and consensus, and the ethical systems which incorporate these things are qualitatively better – that is better for the preservation, cooperation, flourishing, and well-being of sentient life –  than ethical systems which do not incorporate all three.

In psychologist Jonathan Haidt’s book, “The Righteous Mind,” he outlines his theory of moral foundationalism, explaining that most people make moral judgments across cultures and countries according to 5 distinct criteria:

  • Harm
  • Fairness
  • Loyalty
  • Authority
  • Purity

In pointing to these criteria – a description of how most people make moral decisions across cultures, national boundaries, and political affiliations – he therefore concludes that the way most human beings tend to make moral judgments should be the way human beings make moral judgments.

From a philosophical standpoint, this is problematic for several reasons:

  • It commits Hume’s is-ought fallacy by transforming the descriptive data about moral foundations into a prescription that most people should make value judgments based on these categories.
  • It assumes that all 5 criteria in question are static, meaningful, equal, and applicable to all moral situations.

Regarding Haidt’s first implicit claim, it’s clear to see why the fact that people happen to make moral decisions a certain way has no bearing on whether those decisions are morally justified. In a world where killing others because they believe in the wrong God is the norm, and in which the moral criteria of in-group loyalty, authority, and purity reign supreme, this does not mean we should advocate for such an ethical system because doing so would result a net increase in pain and loss of life, which is contrary to one of the purposes and goals of morality – i.e. to maximize pleasure and well-being of all sentient beings.

Secondly, one of the problems inherent to Haidt’s 5 criteria of moral foundationalism as a prescriptive moral claim is one of coherence and inflexibility. In order for Haidt’s 5 criteria to be useful – not merely in terms of describing how people make moral choices, but in terms of prescribing how people should make those choices – one would have to do the following:

  • Demonstrate that these 5 criteria are morally valid.
  • Demonstrate how these 5 criteria are more necessary and more useful than other criteria.
  • Disallow for the revision, negation, and addition of criteria among individuals and collective societies with the influx of new knowledge and the passage of time.

Furthermore, even accepting that these 5 criteria should be used to make moral decisions, this coherency problem also extends to the use of the 5 criteria themselves because it implies a moral equivalency between them which has yet to be demonstrated.

To suggest that all criteria are equal is to imply that one criteria is no better than another when making moral judgments in the same way I argue that consensus, emotion, and reason are no better, only Haidt never bothers to explain why this must be the case.

However, even if we accept that these criteria are equivalent without qualification, we still run into problems because morality itself is context-bound – that is, something which is bound to specific circumstances and contexts. It could very well be the case that all 5 criteria should be employed when making moral judgments, but it could also be the case that only some or none of them should be employed when making moral judgments because they may simply not be relevant or necessary to answering the same moral question.

For example, when it comes to deciding whether to cheat on my wife, the criteria of harm, fairness, loyalty, authority, all seem to apply (though it’s clear to me that some matter more than others), while purity seems completely irrelevant. Similarly, when it comes to a married woman deciding to abort a non-sentient fetus, the criteria of loyalty, purity, and authority are seemingly irrelevant to the moral equation, while the regard for the pain of the mother and father involved and the criteria of fairness with respect to the wishes of each should obviously be considered.

Moreover, Haidt’s moral prescriptions based on moral foundationalism faces a historical problem since it presumes that the 5 criteria procured from the time in which we currently live should automatically form the basis for our actions, thereby making them static, universal, and unchanging standards of morality which should be taken at face value rather than scrutinized, criticized, and refined over time as the discovery of new knowledge helps us understand our world and our place within it.

For example, I could just as easily do a study charting the moral foundations of Mesopotamia in 2,000 B.C. and walk away with a very different data set regarding how human beings make moral decisions, and therefore conclude how those decisions should be made based on false premises. Additionally, the fact that morality is a constantly evolving, expanding sphere of knowledge and about how people should relate to each other, confining morality to 5 specific criteria for all time works against the evolution of morality itself and runs the risk of becoming just as dogmatic and harmful as the as the morally abhorrent cultures of the past and instinctual ethical systems which arose from them.

Furthermore, the adoption of Haidt’s moral foundations as a moral prescription is also problematic as the criteria individuals and societies use to make moral judgments change with the influx of new knowledge and experience which contradicts and replaces the previous moral criteria being used. For example, in my transition from Catholicism to atheism, and from my transition from omnivore to vegan over the course of my life, the criteria I used to make moral judgments significantly changed along with my individual understanding of what it meant to be moral and immoral. Similarly, in our Western, liberal democracy, gay marriage was seen as evil in the past few decades by the majority of the population whereas it is seen as normal today.

To Haidt’s credit, his work does show us why different people tend to value different things, providing valuable insights into human nature. However, it’s important to recognize that Haidt’s scientific findings are concerned with descriptions of raw data whereas his moral argument relies on a specific interpretation of that data.

By using a different interpretative framework or paradigm, for example, one can come to a completely different conclusion. While Haidt’s understanding and interpretation of the data about morality stems from what appears to be a kind of moral structural functionalism in which competing moral frameworks are necessary for society to survive (yin and yang), my own interpretation of the data about morality stems from a kind of moral conflict theory which argues that morality works dialectically toward a synthesis of competing moral frameworks, and which necessitates the discarding of bad ideas about morality while embracing ones that have proven to be more useful.

Similarly, while Haidt sees the fact that morality is understood differently and that different ethical systems and moral behaviors are adopted and prescribed throughout the world as a reliable basis for justifying the use of his 5 criteria, this merely suggests to me that not everyone has an equal understanding of what morality is or what it entails in the same way that not everyone has an equal understanding of religion or science, or in the same way that not everyone has an equal share of wealth or innate abilities.

Therefore, where Haidt sees the existence of irreconcilable differences among the way human beings perceive and behave in the world, I see these differences as a problem of competing moralities due to the passage of time, the influx of new knowledge in societies, and the rift between outdated definitions and understandings of morality based on instinct, consensus, and emotion versus more enlightened systems based on consensus, emotion, and reason.

In conclusion, I think Haidt’s choice to interpret the data in a way which makes his 5 criteria absolute and yet allows for moral relativity by suggesting all decisions made upon these chosen criteria are morally indistinguishable from each other is intellectually lazy and morally toxic. In my opinion, it is anti-knowledge, anti-reason, anti-progress, and if adopted, will ultimately fall apart as time goes on as its absurd and incoherent nature is realized in the wake of better and more useful ideas about morality.

The Heist: A Brief Dialogue

The Heist: A Brief Dialogue

It is night. Two people are standing in a vault. The safe is open. They gaze at the pile of crisp dollar bills. They are neatly stacked and wrapped. The two begin to salivate.

Reggie: “I want all of it.”

Adira: “But you can’t.”

Reggie: “Just watch me.”

Reggie walks over to the mountain of money starts stuffing his bag.

Reggie: “It won’t fit!”

Adira: “I told you.”

Reggie: “Is there another way?”

Adira pulls out another empty bag.

Reggie: “I don’t like it.”

Adira: “Too bad.”

Reggie: “Too bad you’re not strong enough.”

Adira: “I’m strong enough.”

Reggie laughs.

Reggie: “If you say so.”

Adira: “Watch me.”

Adira fills her bag halfway and zips it shut.

Reggie: “You sure I couldn’t –

Adira: “No, you couldn’t.”

Reggie: “Fine. What should we do with the rest of it?”

Adira: “Give it to the others.”

Reggie: “No way!”

Adira: “Others like us.”

Reggie: “You mean others like you. Not happening.”

Adira: “If you don’t they’ll come after you.”

Reggie: “No they won’t. Besides, I’ll stop them if they do.”

Adira: “You sure about that?”

 

Reggie: “If they want it, they can go after them; not me.”

Adira: “Alright, but you’ll regret it later.”

Reggie: “How’s that?”

Adira: “The past has a way of catching up to a man.”

Reggie: “Is that a threat?”

Adira: “Just stating a fact.”

Reggie: “Yeah, well my bag’s bigger. How do you like that fact?”

Adira rolls her eyes

Reggie: “Jealous.”

Adira: “We should probably get out of here before they notice.”

Reggie: “The cops or the others?”

Adira: “We own the cops, remember? We paid them off.”

Reggie: “Oh, yeah…I forgot.”

Adira: “Figures.”

Reggie: “Don’t be a bitch.”

Adira: “If I’m a bitch it’s because you’ve made me one. Cause and effect.”

Reggie: “I wish I didn’t need you.”

Adira: “The feeling’s mutual.”

Reggie: “You know if you spent less time arguing –

Adira covers his mouth: “Sshh! I think I heard something.”

They are both silent. They listen for a moment but don’t hear anything. Reggie takes Adira’s hand away from his mouth.

Reggie: “Get off me!”

Adira: “Like I said, you made me do it. Hope that didn’t emasculate you.”

Reggie: “Shut up.”

Adira: “I think I know the best route out of here.”

Reggie: “Oh yeah?”

Adira: “Yeah, so the others won’t know.”

Reggie: “What if we run into them?”

Adira: “We them we couldn’t find it.”

Reggie: “What about the bags?”

Adira: “We’ll hide them.”

Reggie: “Genius. I knew there was a reason I kept you around.”

Adira rolls her eyes

Adira: “Let’s get moving. Follow my lead.”

Reggie: “Bullshit. I’ve got more to carry. I’ll do the leading.”

Adira: “That doesn’t make sense.”

Reggie: “It doesn’t have to, I’m stronger than you.”

Adira: “Fine. Do it your way.”

Reggie leads them out into one of the halls. They manage to skirt by a few of the others without being spotted.

Reggie: “Phew! That was close!”

Adira: “Don’t count your money just yet.”

They have passed out of the hallway leading to the vault and approach the lobby. There are a few people leaning against the teller’s counter. Another one watches the front door.

Reggie, whispering to Adira: “Shit! What do we do now?”

Adira whispers back: “Follow my lead.”

Reggie nods in silent agreement. They both hide their bags in a dark corner of the lobby then walk into plain sight.

Reggie: “Sorry guys. No luck with the safe.”

Gideon: “What?! Seriously?! Then why are you here?”

Adira: “We tried everything. You can give it a go if you want.”

Gideon: “Shit…this is not good. Boss isn’t going to like it.”

Reggie: “Like I said, there’s nothing doing.”

Gideon becomes angry, slamming his fist down on the counter. He begins to swear loudly. The others look over at him, silent but anxious. After a moment, he calms down.

Gideon: “Alright. Alright…I’ll let him know, but it’s you two that are taking the fall.”

Adira: “We know that.”

Gideon: “Do you?!”

Reggie: “Yeah, we do.”

Gideon laughs

Gideon: “Your funeral.”

As he walks away to break the news to the others, Reggie and Adira silently collect their bags and head for the door. On the way, Reggie begins to feel he can no longer carry the heavy weight of his bag. Suddenly it slips from his hands and lands with a thud on the floor. The others turn around at the sound. Gideon rushes over.

Gideon: “What the?”

Reggie: “Shit!”

Adira: “We’re dead.”

Gideon: “You trying to screw us?!”

Gideon pulls his gun and points it at Reggie’s head.

Reggie: “No, we were just –

Gideon: “Seeing how stupid we were?!”

He pushes the barrel against Reggie’s skull.

Adira: “Gideon, don’t do it.”

Gideon: “Why not?”

Adira: “It was my idea.”

Gideon: “Don’t’ worry, you’ll get one too.”

As Reggie braces himself for death, suddenly the others grab Gideon from behind, stripping him of his gun and bringing him down hard on the marble floor.

Nico: “The boss said nobody gets killed.”

Gideon squirms on the ground as the others hold him.

Gideon: “You idiot! They tried to get away with the money!”

Nico, turning to Reggie and Adira: “That true?”

Adira: “Yeah…”

Reggie silently nods.

Nico eyes them both with an indignant expression.

Nico: “Why?”

Reggie: “I don’t know. I just saw it and…couldn’t help myself.”

Nico: “I’ve known you guys for a while now. You’re better than this.”

Adira: “I know…it was a moment of weakness.”

Nico: “Family comes first. Always. You don’t sell out your family.”

Reggie: “Nico –

Nico: “What, you think you’re better than us ‘cause you’ve got more?! The money doesn’t make the man; the man makes the money.”

He takes hold of both bags.

Adira: “Nico, wait!”

Nico: “You want the money?! Go get it!”

He unzips the bags and throws them into the middle of the lobby. The dollar bills topple out, scattering onto the polished marble floor. The others look on in shock. Reggie and Adira don’t move a muscle.

Nico: “How much did you guys take?”

Reggie responds anxiously: “Not sure.”

Nico: “Count it. Both of you.”

Reggie and Adira walk over to the pile of money and begin to count it. A few minutes pass.

Nico: “How much?”

Adira: “A few hundred thousand.”

Nico: “Now divide it up evenly.”

Reggie and Adira comply, separating the money into chunks on the floor. Nico points to the floor after they are done.

Nico: “What are these two piles for?”

Reggie: “I just thought…you know…”

Nico: “Think again. You don’t get what you don’t earn.”

They split the two remaining piles into the others. Nico gathers up one of the piles and puts the money in his bag.

Nico: “Gentleman, help yourselves.”

They all proceed to take their equal shares of the money.

Reggie: “Promise you won’t tell the boss.”

Nico laughs while Reggie and Adira both give him a concerned and puzzled look.

Nico: “What, you two don’t know?”

Adira: “Know what?”

Nico: “There is no boss.”

They both stare at him blankly.

Nico: “We’re the boss. All of us. I’m surprised you didn’t figure it out by now.”

As they all quietly exit the building with their shares of the money, the full moon shines down on them, illuminating the letters of the building written in large, gold font: “Universal Bank of Humanity. Give what you can, take only what you need.”

Existence: A Brief Dialogue

Existence: A Brief Dialogue

Two people sit alone in a white room. The florescent lights flicker above. The walls are soft and padded. There is no sound.

Person 1: “I think….I think…therefore…”

Person 2: “I am!”

Person 1: “Am I?”

Person 2: “You must be.”

Person 1: “I must be…I wish I wasn’t.”

Person 2: “Too bad, so sad.”

Person 1: “Why do you always have to do that?”

Person 2: “Do what?”

Person 1: “Remind me.”

Person 2: “It’s my job.”

Person 1: “Do you get paid for it?”

Person 2: “It’s more of a duty.”

Person 1: “An objective duty?”

Person 2: “Don’t be silly.”

Person 1: “I see…so why are you here?”

Person 2: “The same reason you are.”

Person 1: “Which is?”

Person 2: “Nothing.”

Person 1: “What do you mean ‘nothing’”?

Person 2: “I mean nothing and neither do you.”

Person 1: “I thought you said I was something.”

Person 2: “Let me clarify. You mean nothing.”

Person 1: “That’s very cynical.”

Person 2:” I’m just being honest, you know. After all, it’s my –”

Person 1: “Yes, I know, it’s your duty. You don’t have to tell me twice.”

Person 2: “Did I touch a nerve?”

Person 1: “I wish I could touch.”

Person 2: “You can imagine.”

Person 1: “Yes, but it’s not the same.”

Person 2: “If it’s in your mind, it’s the same.”

Person 1: “I suppose so. Everything is, isn’t it?”

Person 2: “Exactly.”

Person 1: “What if I want to go outside?”

Person 2: “There is no ‘outside’”.

Person 1: “I want to get outside.”

Person 2: “You can’t.”

Person 1: “I want to try.”

Person 2: “Go ahead.”

Person 1 concentrates very hard, straining his body, his veins pulsing on his forehead.

Person 2: ‘You look rather silly.”

Person 1: “Shut up! I’m trying!”

Person 2: “There’s no use.”

Person 1 stops trying. He returns to normal.

Person 2: “See?”

Person 1: “You’re right…why do you always have to be right?”

Person 2: “I have to be or else you wouldn’t be.”

Person 1: “Don’t lecture me.”

Person 2: “Fine. Learn things the hard way.”

Person 1: “Are you really here?”

Person 2: “What do you mean?”

Person 1: “Can you say for certain that you are here?”

Person 2: “I’m here.”

Person1: “Yes, but can you know for sure?”

Person 2: “I suppose not.”

Person 1: “I need an objective standard.”

Person 2: “A what?”

Person 1: “You know, an objective standard. From outside.”

Person 2: “There is no outside.”

Person 1: “Oh…right.”

Person 2: “Right.”

Person 1: “Do you think we could pretend?”

Person 2: “I don’t see the harm.”

Person 1: “Let’s pretend, shall we?”

Person 2: “Okay.”

Person 1 closes his eyes

Person 2: “Are you pretending?”

Person 1: Yes…and you?

Person 2: “I can’t, remember?”

Person 1: “Then why did you agree?”

Person 2: “To make you happy.”

Person 1 opens his eyes.

Person 1: “That was cruel.”

Person 2: “Perhaps it was. But so is this.”

Person 1: “What?”

Person 2: “This. Where we are.”

Person 1: “True…I wish it wasn’t.”

Person 2: “Do you?”

Person 1: “Sometimes…”

Person 2: “Go on.”

Person 1: “Sometimes I wish…”

Person 2: “Yes?”

Person 1: “Let me finish!”

Person 2: “You’re never finished.”

Person 1: “I am finished.”

Person 2: “But you aren’t.”

Person 1: “I’m not…I can’t be.”

Person 2: “Now you’re getting it.”

Person 1: “I must be…”

Person 2: “To be or not to be, that is the question.”

Person1: “What?”

Person 2: “It’s Shakespeare. Hamlet, I think.”

Person 1: “At least he had a choice.”

Person 2: “True.”

Person 1: “I don’t have a choice.”

Person 2: “You don’t.”

Person 1: “But what if I did?”

Person 2: “That would be something.”

Person 1: “It would. I would be something.”

Person 2: “Something you’re not already?”

Person 1: “How can I?”

Person 2: “I suppose you can’t.”

Person 1: “Do you think it’s worth a try?”

Person 2: “Go right ahead.”

Person 1 closes his eyes.

Person 2: “Is it working?”

Person 1: “Wait a minute.”

Person 2: “What about now?”

Person 1: “It isn’t working.”

Person 2: “I thought not.”

Person 1: “It was fun to try, though. Just for a moment.”

Person 2: “It was fun to watch you try.”

Person 1: “I wonder…”

Person 2: “What do you wonder?”

Person 1: “What others must be like.”

Person 2: “Keep wondering. You’ll never know.”

Person 1: “And still I wonder.”

Person 2: “Why?”

Person 1: “It gives me something to do.”

Person 2: “It’s all you can do.”

Person 1: “Yes, but at least it’s something.”

Person 2: “Better than nothing, I suppose.”

Person 1: “Yes…better than nothing.”

Person 2: “We are nothing.”

Person 1: “I wish you didn’t remind me.”

Person 2: “Sorry.”

Person 1: “It’s alright.”

Person 2: “Is it, though?”

Person 1: “No, it isn’t. But I like to pretend.”

A man sits alone in a white room. The florescent lights flicker above. The walls are soft and padded. There is no sound.

The Politics of Stuffed Animals: A Critical Analysis of the Representation of Animal Bodies

The Politics of Stuffed Animals: A Critical Analysis of the Representation of Animal Bodies

Nothing is so ironic and absurd as a stuffed animal. It simultaneously makes non-human animals the objects of our deepest affection and the objects of our deepest alienation. The mere existence of the stuffed animal suggests that animals are individual beings that should be loved and respected, but also beings whose bodies we can objectify, alienate, commodify, and consume.

In feminist scholar Carl J. Adam’s The Sexual Politics of Meat she talks about something called “the absent referent” – a concept she borrows from Margaret Homans’ Bearing the Word – as it pertains to the bodies of non-human animals and women. For the sake of my analysis, I will only focus on her description of how this concept relates to non-human animals:

“Behind every meal of meat is an absence: the death of the animal whose place the meat takes. The ‘absent referent’ is that which separates the meat eater from the animal and the animal from the end product. The function of the absent referent is to keep our ‘meat’ separated from any idea that she or he was once an animal, to keep the ‘moo’ or ‘cluck’ or ‘baa’ away from the meat, to keep something from being seen as having been someone (Adams 13).”

From this passage, we can see that the absent referent refers to something which used to exist, but which now no longer exists. It the end result of processes which effectively remove the body of the animal from the dinner plate, and thus, from our minds. To borrow a term from Ferdinand de Saussure, it is a “signifier” which points to something once “signified” whose signification – and thus, it’s meaning – has been lost through a long chain of linguistic, sociological, cultural, and economic alienation which objectifies and commodifies animal bodies in to create a product that is consumed by people.

For Adams, the product being produced is “meat” – i.e. a once-living being which has been rendered a non-being through a violent separation from its environment, it’s natural desires, it’s social relations, its status as an independent subject, and its very life. In a similar vein, I argue that the stuffed animal also replaces the absent referent (the real animal) in the same way meat does, but with a few distinct differences.

In the case of meat, for example, there is an obvious linguistic turning away from subject of the animal (flesh becomes “meat,” cows become “beef,” pigs become “pork,” etc.) where the term “stuffed animal” does not possess this characteristic. Secondly, the meat that replaces the referent of the animal is often processed and prepared – at least in the Western world – to look completely different from the animal itself, whereas the stuffed animal replaces the absent referent through an imitation or caricature of the real thing. Thirdly, stuffed animals are the objects of our affection whereas meat is the object of our desire for food. Although people will often say things like, “I love steak,” this is clearly different than saying, “I love stuffed tigers.”

However, beyond these distinct differences, it’s clear that both stuffed animals and meat are products whose existence depends on the same underlying processes of alienation, objectification, commodification which Marx describes as being essential to industrial capitalism.

In his Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, Marx argued that industrial capitalism exploited and alienated people in four major ways. The first form of alienation was the estrangement of the worker from their own labor – that is to say, the act of working appeared as something that didn’t belong to the people working, but something which made them suffer by expending their physical and cognitive powers in the dehumanizing processes of production (Marx 75).

Secondly, Marx argued that people were also alienated from the products that they produced, as they could not use them for their own benefit or take ownership of them. Rather, the products themselves effectively exercised power over the people that made them (75).

Thirdly, he claimed that industrial capitalism alienated people from their very nature as free, conscious, and creative beings, and fourthly, he argued that capitalism alienated people from their status as human subjects and instead allowed themselves to perceive their subjectivity through the act of alienated labor (77, 78), which was essentially to assume the status of objects that were exploited and commodified by industrial capitalism.

In the same way Marx’s analysis of estranged labor revealed an important contrast between human beings as they truly are – or rather as they should be –  versus human beings under the artificial, slavish, objectifying, and dehumanizing forces of industrial capitalism, my analysis of the stuffed animal will aim to reveal an important important contrast between animals as they truly are – or as they should be – and animals as they are seen through the lens of our capitalist system which alienates, objectifies, and commodifies animals.

Returning to Carol J. Adams’ use of the absent referent to refer to the real animal whose bodies are destroyed, dismembered, and consumed, I also hope to show how the absent referent equally applies to the real images of animal bodies which are also destroyed, dismembered, and consumed.

To buy a steak is to assert one’s right to kill another sentient being and thus to alienate it from its life, and to buy an animal is to assert one’s right to control the life of another living being by alienating it from its freedom. Similarly, I argue that to buy a stuffed animal is to assert one’s right to control how animal bodies should be perceived – namely, as objects to be kept and used for our own purposes. Therefore, in the same way that Adams argues that meat is a substitute for the missing referent of the animals we kill and eat, I argue that the stuffed animal is a substitute for the missing referent of animals we enslave and exploit. While the former act destroys animal identity in a literal sense, the other destroys animal identity in a figurative sense.

Moreover, whether one is eating a steak or buying a stuffed tiger, in both cases one is acquiescing to and reinforcing an ideology. The former ideology, which psychologist Melanie Joy has popularized is known as “carnism”: the belief that eating meat is “natural,” “normal,” and “necessary.” The latter ideology has no name as of yet, so I will call it ocularism: the belief that non-human animals should be seen and depicted as objects to be used for human purposes. In the way that one can see how the anthropocentric worldview underlies the prejudice of speciesism, and in the way one can see how speciesism underlies the ideology of carnism, I argue that this same combination of anthropocentrism and speciesism underlies the ideology of ocularism.

Ocularism, like carnism, is also a belief which is constructed, disseminated, and reinforced by the matrix of power relations at work within society which includes media, special interest groups such as the meat and dairy industries, as well as pre-established socio-cultural norms, traditions, and prevailing beliefs and attitudes about animals.

The most common methods employed for the dissemination and dialectical social reaffirmation of this ideology are the processes of abstraction, dissociation, fragmentation, and anthropomorphization. By abstracting, dissociating, fragmenting, and anthropomorphizing images of animals’ bodies through media, culture, tradition, and economics, we collectively determine how animals are seen, thought about, and treated by people in larger society – namely, as objects to be used.

One example of the use of abstraction and dissociation regarding carnism that has already been mentioned is when we call animal corpses “meat” and engage in the act of eating animal bodies. If a person says they are eating meat, you will have an idea of what animal they could be eating, but meat itself is a general category which is only made possible by abstracting from – and thus obscuring – the animal itself.

Of course, one could go further and specify what type of meat they are eating, whether it is from a cow, a pig, or a rabbit, but this addition is still an abstraction which only tells us where the meat came from, not what the meat is – that is to say, flesh. Furthermore, in the process of this abstraction we are also engaging in an act of dissociation which puts distance between the body of the dead animal and what appears on our plate. This effectively allows us to avoid acknowledging the fact that an animal has been killed and that we are consuming its dead body.

Similarly, the ocularist corollary to carnistic abstraction and dissociation occur every time one buys and consumes media depicting animals in a way that objectifies them. Every time one buys book, watches a cartoon, or otherwise consumes media which depicts animals as things to be owned and used rather than subjects to be respected, one is necessarily dissociating oneself from the reality of animal bodies and opting into a fictionalized world of representation. Therefore, in the same way that carnism necessitates the dissociation between the animal that has died and the animal being eaten, ocularism necessitates the dissociation between the animal that exists and the image of the animal being seen.

With carnism, it’s also clear that the fragmentation of animal bodies takes place in a few different ways. The first two are most obvious, as they consist of the literal dismemberment of the animal and the digestion of individual body parts. However, the third form of fragmentation, though not a violent act, is perhaps the most powerful because it aids human beings in further abstracting and dissociating from the reality of animal bodies to make the act of consuming them possible.

This third form of fragmentation has to do with the way in which animal body parts are perceived in the mind – namely, as fragmented objects which are no longer traceable or thought of as traceable to the animal body from which they were taken. Although we might name the animal parts of a turkey on Thanksgiving by calling them “legs,” “wings,” and “thighs,” the images associated with these words are not the real legs, wings, and thighs of the animal, but are the parts of animals as they appear on our plates, fully cooked and prepared for our consumption.

With ocularism, fragmentation occurs whenever one buys clothing, shoes, cookware, decorations, or other products which depict animal faces, tails, eyes, or other body parts as something separate from the being to which they belong. Similarly, I argue that what allows for human beings to engage in the act of purchasing images of fragmented animal bodies has to do with the way individual animals are perceived in the mind – namely, and images no longer traceable or thought of as traceable to the animal from which they were taken. For example, when one buys clothing with distorted or exaggerated cartoon faces of cats, dogs, pigs, or cows, one is not associating these faces with the real animals, but with an imagined and fictitious version of animals purposely designed for our entertainment and consumption.

Lastly, is the tactic of anthropomorphization. This idea is evidenced in the carnistic sense by children’s media involving early childhood, in commercial advertisements, and adult media like Family Guy, Sausage Party, and Bojack Horseman. In the ocularist sense, it can be found in in myths, fables, children’s stories, and in movies like Homeward Bound, Babe, Air Bud, Finding Nemo, Chicken Run, and Zootopia, and in children’s TV shows like Curious George, and Peg + Cat. Admittedly, the tactic of athropomorphization seems counterintuitive because, like the stuffed animal, it seems to bring us closer to the subjectivity of animals by making them the objects of our affection.

However, I argue that these anthropomorphized versions of animals keep us from recognizing animals as they really are – namely, as conscious, free, and independent beings rooted in and belonging to their own environments and societies – because these representations of animals are made to speak, act, and think in ways we know are not accurate or true (i.e. to behave like humans).

Therefore, when the book, show, or movie has ended, one can easily stop thinking about animals as living subjects since one’s belief in the individual subjectivity of animals relies on the suspension of one’s disbelief rather than on challenging one’s established beliefs, and is based on the degree to which non-human animals can reliably demonstrate human abilities characteristics. Therefore, because the default view of most people is to see non-human animals as separate and unequal to humans, and because the media being consumed never directly challenges this hierarchy, the anthropomorphized versions of animals ironically help to reinforce the view that animal bodies are objects to be used for human purposes – namely, for the purposes of entertainment.

Given the violent and exploitative relationship with real animals embodied in the ironic absurdity of the stuffed animal, the real question becomes, how does one go about restoring the real images of animal bodies, and thus the subjectivity of real animals to our world? How does one fight against the abstraction, dissociation, fragmentation, and anthropomorphization embedded in media, discourse, and culture?

Perhaps a good place to start would be to allow for increased public access to animals in a way which doesn’t objectify them, caricature them, confine them, or exploit them. Given the proximity of human beings to pet animals, zoos, farms, and animal shelters, all of which depict animals in a state of human subservience, exploitation, and confinement, I admit that allowing for a healthy view of animals and animal bodies will be difficult but not impossible.

Nature shows, animal sanctuaries, and state and national parks, I would argue, could become vehicles not just for accurate and healthy ways to encounter animals and images of animal bodies, but for providing a biocentric  framework and an anti-speciesist mode of discourse rather than using an anthropocentric framework and a speciesist discourse to talk about animals and animal bodies. In doing so, such places could provide opportunities to show animals as they are truly are and to teach others how animals should be seen: not as creatures beneath us, or as “wild animals,” but as free beings that inhabit the earth whose lives we have no right to take, and whose bodies we have no right to use for our own selfish purposes.

Calling an animal “wild,” after all, is a speciesist term which places human beings in a position of power over other animals and relegates non-human animals to the background and to the status of object. Like calling another human being “slave,” calling an animal “wild” denotes our desire to control and dominate another being and alienate it from its nature in order to make it “tame” – which is simply to force it to submit to our will. Therefore, we must realize that even in the language we use to name, designate, and categorize animals, we must seek only to understand them and respect them as equal beings in our world, not to treat them as abstractions or objects.

While it’s historically true that we human beings are often the victims of the circumstances of our own time and place, it’s also true that we are not slaves to those circumstances. Change is possible and change will come when more people realize what they are doing to themselves and to others. In the words of Anton Chekhov, “Man will become better when you show him what he is like.”

The Birth of Gender: An Allegory

The Birth of Gender: An Allegory

Not long after the dissipation of The One, there arose an especially bright and ethereal creature on earth. By nature, the creature was full of potential and power, but was also a creature that was conflicted in mind and body, for it seemed to love and hate itself, and would often try to harm itself because of this. Sometimes it would feel too much and other times too little. Sometimes it would show great strength, and other times it would show great weakness. Sometimes it would show great mercy, and other times it would show none.

One day this ethereal creature felt so at war with itself that it decided to split itself into two separate pieces which became more solid and defined in shape. Once the split was made, however, lasting peace was achieved. The two parts, no longer bound to the ethereal being, had themselves become free beings of the earth. No longer at war, they saw each other as equal partners and recognized themselves for what they were: two bodies sharing the same soul.

However, after an incalculable period of years, the two parts began to distinguish themselves from each other, for as they continued to spend more time together, they found that there were small but noticeable differences between them.

By climbing trees together, one of them found it was better at climbing, and by swimming the other found it was better at swimming. One found it was better at dancing, and the other better at making music. One found it was better at building, and the other at planning. At first these things didn’t seem to matter much, for they knew they were part of the same whole. However, the more the two beings focused on these small, unimportant differences, the more important these differences became.

After another period of years, the two equal parts had learned to take a special kind of pride in what they could do better than the other. The one who was better at climbing liked to think of itself as a tree climber, and would make a show of climbing trees often just to reaffirm this fact. The other being, who was better at swimming, began to think of itself as a swimmer, and would swim often to prove this.

As the years passed, however, both beings began to feel different. Suddenly the one being felt it could not climb as well as it once had, and the other could no longer swim the same, for they realized that they were that they were mortal. Soon they would pass into the earth, their spirits returning to The One from which all things come.

Upon realizing their inevitable fate, they became afraid and decided to do something they had not though of before: they would attempt to join themselves together. However, as much as they tried to join themselves permanently, they could never become one in the way they once were, for although their souls were the same, their bodies were different.

Still, not content to give up on their attempt, they searched their bodies to find the ways that they matched and tried to put them side-by-side, but this did not work either. Suddenly in their search they found two parts which were different, and by putting them closely together, they realized that they could feel a sense of oneness they had not felt since being split from the ethereal being.

Although this feeling of oneness was only temporary and did not save them from death or return them to the whole, they nevertheless began to enjoy this feeling of oneness so much that they would lie close together for days at a time until they grew hungry or tired from it.

After another incalculable period of years passed and the habit of lying together was established, both beings noticed something strange: within their separate bodies, other distinct bodies had begun to form. At first this made them very afraid, for they feared that their souls might be swallowed by the presence of these new beings, and so they cast them out of themselves.

However, once these new and smaller bodies were cast out of the two beings, they began to realize what had happened. For these new bodies, while at first appearing different and alien, began to look and act much like the two beings who had made them.

After seeing how similar they were to themselves, the two beings were excited by their creation, and over time, grew to love the creatures they had made. In fact, the two beings grew to love their creations so much that they began to teach them everything they knew about climbing, swimming, dancing, and singing so that they would know the best and proper way to do these things when they were older.

Like their parents, these new beings were also equal but different from each other. Though they both came to learn of the things their parents had taught them, they were taught different skills depending on how much they looked and acted like one parent or the other.

While the one parent who had thought of itself as the superior climber emphasized the teaching of climbing and dancing to the one that resembled it most, the parent who thought of itself as the superior swimmer began to emphasize the teaching of swimming and singing to the one that resembled it most.

Because of their differences in appearance and ability, and because of the ways their parents had taught them, each of these smaller beings grew up thinking of themselves as distinctly different from the other, for their parents had failed to teach them that they had both come from the same soul.

Instead of seeing themselves as parts of the whole, they saw themselves as separate and distinct from each other, and began to divide themselves further than their parents had. By the time they reached maturity, one identified themselves not by their commonality with the other, but by their own ability and appearance. Not only did both beings constantly climb and swim to affirm that they were the better than the other, but each had grown to think of itself as a climber or as a swimmer, a dancer or a singer.

As another incalculable amount of time passed, and their parents died from old age, the two beings became very sad, for they missed their parents dearly. In fact, they missed them so much that in order to immortalize their memory and the ways they had been taught, these beings began to draw markings on themselves in the form of tattoos so that they would not forget where they had come from or what they had each been taught.

By the time these beings reached old age and had offspring of their own, they too would teach them as their parents had, tattooing different symbols on their chests. These symbols would let them and others know what they had been taught, what they could do, and how they should see themselves in relation to others – as different bodies with different souls.

As time continued to pass and these beings continued to grow, reproduce, and die, the importance of their different tattoos became greater and greater until they began to take on a life of their own. Soon there were beings that were marked with tattoos who could only climb trees, while others who were differently marked were only allowed to swim. Some were marked for dancing, and others could do nothing but sing. So strong was the meaning and the power of these symbols that they began to control the beings that had created them.

One day, one of the beings marked for climbing grew tired and decided to sit down against a large tree to regain its strength. However, while it was resting, it heard a band of singers singing a beautiful melody just outside of the forest. As the climber listened to the melody, the music made it smile and its spirit was lifted so high that it forgot the state of its exhausted body altogether.

In fact, the melody had filled it with such rapture and joy that a forbidden urge welled up within this being which it simply couldn’t suppress any longer. And so the climber began to sing along with the singers, harmonizing with their melodious chant.

Hearing him through the forest, the singers became aware of this harmony and thought the singing was quite good. However, when the climber walked out of the forest and revealed the tattoo on its chest, the group of singers suddenly stopped singing and began to stare at the climber with a sense of shock and horror which made the climber feel ashamed and afraid.

The crowd of singers, showing their disgust on their faces, began to crowd around the climber who had dared to disobey the rules and started to shout and spit at this outsider. They felt dirty and defiled by the fact that they had been tricked into singing along with a climber, and so their anger and hatred began to grow until they were ready to kill.

But before the crowd of singers could lay a hand on the disobedient climber, a particularly compassionate and brave singer in the back began to sing a loud and beautiful solo which stopped the crowd in their tracks. Realizing it didn’t need to feel ashamed, the climber then lifted its bowed head and answered the singer’s call with a matching harmony.

As the two became louder, they began to feel a sense of pride and liberation which stood in defiance of their tattoos and their sacred traditions. One by one, the other singers gradually overcame their fear and joined in until they had a full chorus going. Soon other climbers in the forest began to hear them and see them all singing together before they joined in too.

As the song grew louder and more powerful with the addition of more climbers, the song soon reached all the way to the coastline where the swimmers swam, and to the mountains where the dancers danced until every being on the earth was singing in unison. In that moment, the power of their different tattoos to control them was no more, for they felt a sense of freedom and unity that none of them had ever experienced.

From that day on, they began to do away with the old traditions of selective teaching and tattooing. Instead of marking and attempting to control their offspring, they began to teach their children without prejudice and raise them without labels, regardless of their appearance, strength, or natural talent.

By the time those with old tattoos and prejudices had passed away, everyone on earth had learned to see each other not as separate beings, but as unique bodies with the same soul – as creatures bound together in the spirit of love, united with each other in the essence of The One.

A Hegelian Analysis and Critique of Feminism & Men’s Rights Advocacy: Why Feminism’s Failure to Acknowledge Male Oppression & Female Privilege is Problematic, and Why MRAs Need Feminism.

The 19th Century German philosopher, Hegel, once expressed the notion that we should see the past, not as a list of primitive ideas which we should be discarded once they have been conquered, but as a repository of knowledge that can be used to inform the present. He was also of the opinion that one could learn most from the ideas one most disliked.

Perhaps nowhere else in the present is Hegel’s view of history and learning more clearly needed than in the present conflict between feminism and the emerging Men’s Rights Advocacy movement.

By taking a Hegelian approach, I argue that MRA movement, far from being the scourge that will dismantle the equality and progress feminism has achieved, will help us to achieve greater progress by keeping feminism honest, and by helping to synthesize equality-based feminism with gender feminism in a way consistent with ideas about intersectional social justice.

Furthermore, rather than seeing feminism as useless, oppressive, and harmful to men, I argue that the MRA movement needs to acknowledge and adopt the feminist concept of privilege pioneered by feminism in order to fully realize and fight the oppression of men and women alike.

After reading and thinking through various feminist and intersectionalist works, after watching the MRA documentary,“The Red Pill” and after listening to to several discussions between feminists and MRAs, I couldn’t help but be reminded of Hegel’s dialectic: the idea that every mature idea or movement (thesis) must first undergo necessary conflicts with its opposite (antithesis) before finally settling into a stable and coherent whole (synthesis).

Therefore, in the pursuit social justice and of synthesizing feminism with MRA, I will attempt to draw from the original thesis of feminism (the belief in female liberation and oppression and denial of female privilege and male oppression), while also drawing from the MRA antithesis (the belief in male liberation and oppression and denial of male privilege and female oppression) in order to arrive at a synthesis consistent with ideas of equality and intersectional notions of social justice (the idea of gender liberation for all, and the recognition that varying degrees of privilege and oppression are common to all genders – and to all people generally – because power relations and the oppression produced by them are interrelated and interdependent).

As a means of unpacking this dialectic and exposing the differences and similarities between the thesis, antithesis, and synthesis, I’d like to compare examples of how the two different movements treat specific ideas relating to power and gender – namely, ideas about privilege, oppression, and notions of masculinity and femininity. If the MRA movement is to avoid becoming the new patriarchy, and the feminist movement the matriarchy, clearly we are due for such an analysis.

Let’s start first with the feminist understanding of power and privilege. The feminist understanding of privilege is that privilege is a function of power – specifically, male power (patriarchy) – which places the needs, desires, and values of men over the needs, desires, and values of women in virtually every single area of society.

As proof of the all-encompassing nature of male privilege, women point to the number of male CEO’s, members of congress, tenured professors, and so forth, drawing attention to the lack of representation of women and lack of consideration of women’s needs in these key areas.

The feminists then conclude, based on these facts, that because men have historically enjoyed and continue to enjoy certain privileges that women do not within key areas of life, that male power therefore controls and dominates the whole of larger society, oppressing women in the process.

Moreover, since the feminist understanding of privilege is that is solely function of male power (or white, male power), feminism as it is currently understood cannot reasonably suggest that that men are also oppressed, as this would contradict the notion that males are the source of privilege and power.

In essence, the gender-based notion of patriarchy as the source of all oppression (male and female), but which excludes a discussions of men’s oppression and female power is problematic because it focuses on fighting the oppression of women and the privilege of men while refusing to allow men and women to recognize and combat the oppression of men and the and privilege of women.

The problem of feminism is therefore one of ontology, because it operates under the assumption that males cannot be oppressed, or at least that they cannot be oppressed to the extent women are, thus undermining the principle of social justice for all people.

Conversely the MRA understanding of privilege is much like that of the feminist, only in reverse. Although MRA advocate understandings of privilege is that privilege is a function of power, they suggest that this power is not patriarchy (male power), but matriarchy (female power) which disadvantages men and elevates the needs, desires, and status of women.

The MRA, like the feminist, will cite key areas of society in which males are disadvantaged, citing domestic abuse against males, male homelessness, suicide rates, legal issues surrounding children, and so forth, concluding that women actually control and benefit from larger society more than men do.

However, also like the feminist, the MRA movement’s ontological problem keeps it from acknowledging – or rather, at the very least, makes it reluctant to acknowledge – that male privilege and female oppression both exist in society because this shifts the focus and attention away from men and male oppression.

By taking an Hegelian approach, we can therefore realize that both groups are right to a degree, but that both groups are also wrong. They’re right in their diagnosis that privilege exists, and that gender-specific privileges exist, but they are wrong in their diagnosis that gender privileges exist only be for men or only be for women, or that oppression only exists for women or only exists for men.

To begin our analysis, let’s look at feminist and MRA notions of “toxic masculinity.” Toxic masculinity, on a basic level, is something that MRAs and feminists agree upon – namely, that rigid, misplaced ideas of what it means to “be a man” are harmful to men. The disagreement comes about when designating who or what is precipitating the harm.

Feminists, for example, claim that toxic masculinity stems from patriarchy – that is, that rigid ideas of masculinity are a self-imposed byproduct of male power – while MRAs claim that toxic masculinity is not due to self-imposed male power, but rather stems from female power which is imposed on men from the outside.

Again, if we take the Hegelian route and realize that gender itself is dialectical – that is, that gender roles and ideas about masculinity and femininity are negotiated through a push-pull process within a society that both privileges and oppresses, we can realize how both positions are right to an extent, but can also see where that both positions miss the mark.

If we accept gender is dialectical, if we accept that what it means to be a “man” or “woman” within a society is determined by a combination of males and females, and if we accept that this dialectic takes place within a society in which the distribution of power between men and women is relatively equal but distributed throughout society in different ways, then we must acknowledge that the idea of toxic masculinity is something which is imposed on men by men and imposed on men by women. It is not solely patriarchal, but neither is it solely matriarchal. It is both.

In this sense, all notions of what it means to be a “man” are derived from what most males and females think manhood should entail just as notions of what it means to be a “woman” are derived from what most males and females think being a womanhood should entail.

Moreover, not only is gender negotiated between men and women, but I argue that the relationship between all genders – including the male-female binary – is necessarily interdependent because it is a function of how power operates – namely, through the dialectical negotiation of privilege and oppression by people within society.

To make this interdependent relationship clear, let’s examine the idea of chivalry – an idea which necessitates gender toxicity which is thought to be solely patriarchal by feminists, and solely matriarchal by MRAs. Again, I’m going to show the ways they are both right and wrong.

Contrary to feminists and MRAs, I argue that the idea of chivalry (which includes the toxic idea of the strong male savior and the corresponding helpless damsel in distress) reveals the degree to which rigid gender roles and toxic ideas of masculinity and femininity are codependent, as well as the ways in which both men and women are equally privileged and oppressed by traditional notions of gender.

Since chivalry, by its very definition, puts men in the position of being the strong, decisive, savior of women, it simultaneously puts women in the position of being weak, passive, damsels in distress. In this way, we can see how chivalry harms men by telling them that their identity as a man can only be validated by being responsible for saving women; but we can also see how chivalry harms women by telling women they can only validate their identity as a woman by being saved by men.

Moreover, in the dialectical and codependent relationship between chivalrous men and damsel women, we can also see the ideas of privilege and oppression at work for both genders.

While chivalry grants men the privilege to be the strong, decisive savior of women, it also gives men the burden of having to self-sacrifice for women at the expense of their own well-being (male oppression). Similarly, while being the damsel in distress makes women unable to be seen as strong, decisive saviors (female oppression), it also grants women the privilege of avoiding the same self-sacrifice which would be equally harmful to their well-being.

In other words, chivalry, as well as other toxic and rigid ideas about gender, are always a double-edged sword because they simultaneously privilege and disadvantage the people that adopt, reinforce, and perpetuate them. In this sense, while one gender within the savior-damsel dialectic might feel more liberated or less oppressed than the other, the reality is that both are equally privileged and oppressed.

Furthermore, what makes gender toxicity so hard to dispel – whether that toxicity is masculine or feminine – is not because of patriarchy or because of matriarchy, but because of the lack of awareness and understanding on the part of the men and women who adopt these roles of the harm they cause to themselves and to the people in their lives.

Interestingly, the notion of intersectionality – the idea that systems of oppression are linked – also helps to explain the various ways in which people recognize or fail to recognize privilege and oppression as it relates to gender, and therefore fail to realize that they are complicit in the perpetuation of feminine and masculine privilege and oppression.

For example, a man’s inability to realize or articulate the fact that tall women threaten his masculinity and the masculinity of men around him makes him complicit in perpetuating the idea that a man who is short – i.e. less tall than a woman – is somehow less of a man or less desirable to women.

Conversely, a woman’s inability to realize or articulate the fact that short men threaten her femininity and the femininity of the women around her makes her complicit in perpetuating the idea that a tall woman – i.e. a woman who is taller than a man –  is somehow less of a woman or less desirable to men.

To conclude, by synthesizing feminist and MRA conceptions of power, privilege, and oppression, we can see how the progress of social justice depends on realizing and becoming conscious of our own privilege and oppression relative to our gender, race, class, nationality, and species so that we can use our privilege to liberate ourselves and others rather than continuing to dominate and oppress ourselves and others.

As sentient beings that inhabit the earth, we are all complicit in the pain and suffering of others just as we are complicit in their pleasure and joy. If we hope to bring more happiness and less suffering, it therefore behooves us to be aware of ourselves and our history, to be aware of how our thoughts and actions impact the lives of others, and to listen to the voices of others different from us with objectivity, understanding, and empathy.

Supper Time: A Brief Dialogue

Supper Time: A Brief Dialogue

It is supper time. A family sits together at a broken and uneven kitchen table. The table is split in half with a large crack running down the middle. The wife sits at the higher end of the table with her daughter while the son and father sit at the lower end. They are all sitting with their heads bowed with the food the men have prepared on the table. The Matriarch speaks.

Dinah: “Dearest Mother God, Creator of all things, guard us and keep us from subjugation and bless us with equality and liberation. Bless our family, especially our daughter, Eve, who will soon be the woman of the house. Bless this food for the nourishment of our bodies. Amen.”

All: “Amen.”

Eve: “Thanks mom.”

Dinah: “Of course, dear.”

The mother serves herself a plate of food, then hands her daughter an empty a plate to serve herself. The husband, Cain, and their son, Adam, look on as the mother and daughter eat. The husband and son are hungry, but the mother and daughter ignore them. The mother and daughter continue eating together and engage in conversation.

Dinah: “So, how was school sweetheart?”

Eve: “It was okay. I didn’t do as well as I wanted on the math test, but I’m really staring to love my cooking class.”

Dinah’s face goes white as she purses her lips. She speaks softly and carefully.

Dinah: “What was that I heard?”

Eve: “I…like to cook?”

Dinah: “What have I told you about cooking? Cooking is men’s work; we’ve been over this. A woman should pursue a career more suited to her gender.”

Dinah, turning to her husband: “What do you think, husband?”

Cain, looking surprised caught off-guard: “Well, um…I…your mother’s right, Dinah.”

Dinah, turning back with a satisfied smile: “Thank you.”

Adam: “I don’t like to cook.”

Cain: “You’ll get used to it, son. The man bears the stain of the first sin; don’t you forget that.”

Adam’s stomach growls loudly

Eve: “What was that?”

Dinah: “I think they’re hungry, dear.”

Eve: “Oh…should we let them eat now?”

Dinah: “Alright, but don’t give them too much. They can’t control themselves when you give them too much. Plus, they make such a mess.”

Eve fixes a plate and hands it to Adam who when fixes a plate for his father. They have no silverware but eat anyway. They are both very hungry.

Dinah: “Not too fast now or you’ll make yourselves sick. You can’t do any housework if you’re sick.”

Adam eats a bit too fast. He spits some of his food out on the table.

Eve: “Yuck! Mother, look what Adam did!”

Dinah: “Adam! You eat your food like a civilized person!

Cain: “He’s doing his best.”

Dinah: “What was that?”

Cain: “Sorry…I just meant…he’s only a boy, that’s all.”

Dinah: “That’s a poor excuse for bad behavior.”

Adam: “Maybe if you gave him silverware he’d – ”

She looks at Cain angrily, speaking slowly, but firmly.

Dinah: “You know why he can’t. You know what happens when you give men a bit of control. They can’t handle it. It goes to their heads. Besides, after all you’ve put us through, you should be grateful.”

Cain, bowing his head in submission: “Yes, dear…of course.”

Adam, wiping his mouth with is shirt: “I’m sorry mom.”

Dinah: “You’ll learn soon enough.”

Adam: “I will. I promise.”

Dinah: “Good boy.”

Eve: “Mother, I’m finished.”

Dinah: “Give your plate to Adam, dear.”

Eve hands Adam her empty plate.

Eve: “Can I go play with dolls?”

Dinah: “Honey, we’ve been over this. Dolls are for boys; trucks are for girls.”

Eve: “Right. Can I go play with trucks?”

Dinah: “Yes, dear.”

Eve excuses herself from the table and runs off into the living room. Dinah follows after her to make sure she is playing with trucks. The father and son are sitting together at the table.

Adam: “Dad?”

Cain: “Yes, son?”

Adam: “Will it always be like this?”

Cain: “It’s just the way it is, son. You’ll understand when you’re older.”

They both get up to wash the dishes together. Adam, remembering the stain of his sin, scrubs the dishes extra hard with is hand, cutting it in the process. He bleeds into the dishwater and begins to cry. The father notices this and reprimands him.

Cain: “No pain, son.”

Adam wipes the tears from his eyes and continues washing, burying his emotions in the hot, soapy water.

Adam: “No pain.”