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Blog - Blogue

  • Equality vs. domination

    Friday, July 17, 2015
    Iva Apostolova

    Are men and women equal, or is one of the genders dominant? That’s the million dollar question, isn’t it?

    Before one can answer any question pertaining to men and women, and the nature of their social interactions, one has to be clear what the terms refer to. If nothing else, feminism has taught us that gender is a socially constructed, and therefore, malleable, category. Today, we talk about at least three genders: male, female, and transgender.

    But anatomically, there are set and obvious differences between men and women, right? Wrong. The recent media buzz surrounding the petition to strip Caitlyn Jenner, formerly known as Bruce Jenner, of her Olympic gold medal from 1976, has reminded us of something important. Anatomy is also a range. Part of the International Olympic Committee’s response to the petition was the fact that it has always been the case that there are athletes whose genetic makeup puts them somewhere in between what is otherwise perceived to be anatomically ‘male’ and ‘female’.  

    Simone de Beauvoir in her now classic 1949 text The Second Sex, cautioned strongly against the slip from the parochial and perfunctory ‘equal but different’ into the American segregation rhetoric of ‘equal but separate’ when analyzing man-woman relationship.

    Let’s also not forget that ‘equality’ has strong legal and political connotations and should be carefully examined before used as liberally as we tend to.

    So, instead of getting bogged down in terminological conundrum, could we, perhaps, think of equality in terms of co-operation among individuals who have to live together?

    What would a blog on gender equality be without a nod to a recent study of sorts?

    And there it is…

    The idea of gender-co-operation in the hunter-gatherer stage of development of homo sapiens, a stage which lasted for over 12 000 years, has captured the attention of anthropologists for some time now. Recent studies from London University College, combining observation of Pygmy tribes in Africa and Asia, together with computer analysis of the hypothesis, suggest that the family and community ties were, and still appear to be, far stronger and more stable in tribes where both partners had a say in the choice of a place to live. In this case, the tribe would surround itself with relatives from both partners’ sides, which, in turn, would build stronger bonds and contribute for a more harmonious existence, as opposed to tribes where one of the genders dominated. This would not only diversify the genetic pool, but also allow for the exchange of new ideas.

    Anthropology doesn’t have the last word, of course, but think about it: wouldn’t it make more sense that variety and diversity (fostered in a co-operative as opposed to confrontational and domineering environment) would eventually lead to progress? 

  • Do we understand others?

    Friday, June 26, 2015
    Iva Apostolova

    What happens when we communicate with one another? And can we say at the end of the conversation that we have truly understood the other person’s message?

    The later Wittgenstein famously proclaimed in his iconic Philosophical Investigations, ‘If a lion could talk, we could not understand him’ (§ 327). Buckets of ink have been spilled over what exactly Wittgenstein meant by it. Some claim what he had in mind had to do with not sharing the same linguistic space with the lion: we are not part of the lion’s language game and, respectively, form of life which requires understanding the speaker’s cultural context, among other things.

    But the interpretation of Wittgenstein’s dictum aside, it does make one wonder what happens when we speak. Where do words go? And what do we do with them? 

    One of the greatest philosophers of 20th century, a MI 6 employee during the war, and my personal favorite, John Austin, called language an act, a type of performance. We all know what happens when we describe things but what about when we apologize, ask for forgiveness, swear, or thank someone? How can we guarantee that the message, that is, not just the order of words but also the tone, intonation, etc., will carry over to our audience?

    Even worse: what happens when someone lies? Is it that, if I believe the lie, I have no comprehension of the words uttered by the speaker? Or is it that I do not, actually, understand the speaker herself? In other words, how am I to connect the dots between what one says to me at a given time, and what one has done or intends to do with those words?

    When we claim that we understand someone, what we claim, in essence, is that we have access to their thoughts, is it not? Now, the trouble with thoughts, as John Locke had noted long ago, is that we can’t simply lay them out for everyone to see. We need to tease them out and make them accessible to our interlocutor, even if that interlocutor is us. Arguments, particularly the formally structured ones, are such tools for extracting, predominantly, rational thoughts.

    But we are more often than not, not rational.

    So, what happens with our other thoughts?

    There is no direct or easy answer, of course, but the word on the street for the past few years has been that empathy is an invaluable tool to access one’s beliefs, thought processes, and motives for action. To empathize is, at the very least, to make a serious attempt at understanding what the other person is trying to do with her words.  

    To paraphrase Erich Fried’s poem:

    It is nonsense
    says reason
    It is what it is
    says empathy

    It is impossible
    says experience
    It is what it is 
    says empathy

    (Erich Fried, Was es ist)

    Erich Fried