In “The Evolution of God,” author Robert Wright notes that ancient, primitive peoples had no word for religion or the religious experience. “If you asked hunter-gatherers what their religion is, they wouldn’t know what you were talking about. The kinds of beliefs and rituals we label ‘religious’ are so tightly interwoven into their everyday thought and action that they don’t have a word for them.” That is, it’s not as though “religious” thought and action were not part of their day-to-day existence; rather, their religious practices were inseparable from that existence. Wright goes on to note that Ancient Hebrew, the language of the vast majority of the Old Testament, likewise had no word for religion. Asking a pre-exile Semite if he was religious would be something like asking a 19th Century farmer if his produce was organic.
It’s easy to take a glance at history and snicker at their simplemindedness. But the fact is, we have similar forms of blindness all around us. The psychologist Jonathan Haidt spent a considerable amount of time studying the question, “What makes people vote Republican?” Haidt rejected Freudian-era thinking about conservatism stemming from strict parenting and personal insecurities. “Now that we can map the brains, genes, and unconscious attitudes of conservatives,” Haidt said, “we have refined our diagnosis: conservatism is a partially heritable personality trait that predisposes some people to be cognitively inflexible, fond of hierarchy, and inordinately afraid of uncertainty, change, and death.”
Michael Shermer, the famous skeptic, cries foul. Behind Haidt’s question, Shermer notes, is the assumption that “because Democrats are so indisputably right and Republicans so unquestionably wrong, conservatism must be a mental disease.” This kind of an assumption is a poor place to begin a scientific inquiry. Shermer continues, “The liberal bias in academia is so entrenched that it becomes the political water through which the liberal fish swim – they don’t even notice it.” (It should be noted that Shermer is a self-described libertarian who voted third-party in the 2000 election and for John Kerry in 2004.) When a certain point of view is so “tightly interwoven” into your “everyday thought and action,” it’s not surprising that the assumptions of that point of view go completely unchallenged.
Shermer points to a study done by NYU psychologist John Jost that alleged that conservatives suffer from “uncertainty avoidance,” “need for order, structure, closure,” and “dogmatism, intolerance of ambiguity,” all of which leads to “resistance to change” and “endorsement of inequality.” Says Shermer, “It is not the data of these scientists I am challenging so much as it is the characterizations on which the data were collected. We could just as easily characterize Democrats and liberals as suffering from a host of equally malevolent mental states…. Once you set up the adjectives …it’s easy to collect the data that support them.” For example, although the psychologist Drew Westen claims in “The Political Brain” that liberals are “generous to a fault” while conservatives are stingy or “heartless,” though in reality (at least, according to Shermer), conservatives are “much more generous than liberals, giving 30 percent more money (even when controlled for income), donating more blood, and logging more volunteer hours.”
Even the neuroscientist (and, again, noted skeptic) Sam Harris couldn’t resist calling out some of the biased assumptions behind these forms of questions. “In a recent study of moral reasoning,” Harris writes, “subjects were asked to judge whether it was morally correct to sacrifice the life of one person to save one hundred, while being given subtle clues as to the races of the people involved. Conservatives proved less biased by race than liberals and, therefore, more even-handed.” According to the study, liberals would sacrifice one white person in order to save 100 non-whites but not, as Harris notes, the other way around. Conservatives tended to respond the same way for both scenarios: they would sacrifice one life for 100, irrespective of race. “Observations of this sort are useful in revealing the biasing effect of ideology—even the ideology of fairness.”
All of that is a tedious and self-indulgent preamble to a greater and unrelated point.
One afternoon a little more than a year ago, I was walking east on Washington Avenue in downtown Minneapolis. A pedal pub was approaching, filled entirely with women (it appeared to be a bachelorette party). One of them took note of me and catcalled. Amused and ego-inflated, I posted the story to Facebook, noting, “I don’t know what you ladies are complaining about. That was awesome!” I got a lot of feedback from that comment, and that feedback and the subsequent conversations on the topics of unwanted attention and rape culture slowly opened my eyes to the fact that there are real and prevalent elements of sexism and subjugation in our culture.
Creating a word for practices and rituals – religion – allowed people to separate it from the mundane elements of existence. Likewise, acknowledging bias in academia allows us to apprehend a better understanding of our world and, more specifically, our motivations to act in certain ways. Amelia Shroyer, when writing about rape and rape culture, entreats us to similarly think of word choices and vocabulary as a way to revolutionize our understanding of this topic. “Language is a small step, but a profound one,” she writes. “Be an ally to rape survivors. Expand your vocabulary.” Shroyer had rape jokes and flippant exaggeration in mind when she was writing, but my point stands: when we can meaningfully describe our unconscious behaviors – and the effects those actions have on society at large – we enable ourselves to become more conscientious about them.
I found myself reading through Straight White Boys Texting yesterday and patting myself on the back for never being so egregious or overt. “I will never again be embarrassed by a text I’ve sent,” I thought to myself …and repeated aloud to the people around me. But in my self-congratulation, I overlooked that fact that subtle forms of sexism are often more insidious than the obvious ones. There is, after all, a small grain of merit in the fact that the men behind those text messages are treating women the way they wished women would treat them (albeit in one of the more twisted, terrible ways one could embrace that ethic).
I don’t make unwanted sexual advances towards women – either in person or on through any form of electronic communication. But that is only praiseworthy if my attitude towards women is elevated above my actions. If I avoid that behavior out of fear of reprisal, all along nursing a sense of sexual entitlement, then I am not only a creep but a coward on top of it. That is nothing to take pride in.
The burden of becoming aware of rape culture is to be as honest with myself as I can muster. What attitudes and biases can I purge from my life? How am I being an active burden to the women in my life? It’s lucky for fish that they aren’t aware of the water through which they swim. Humans have the wonderful privilege to influence our environment and the terrifying burden to make that environment better for the people around us. Fortunately, as Shroyer reminded us, we can begin with language. I hope we find the right words to help us on our way.