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Author Topic: Tradition, Culture, and the Utility of Oppression
Mandos
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posted 19 January 2005 11:54 AM      Profile for Mandos   Author's Homepage     Send New Private Message      Edit/Delete Post  Reply With Quote 
A lot of us approach the problems of liberation from the perspective of fundamental rights and justice. But in sexual matters in particular, social conservatives make the following argument: that many of the things considered oppression by various progressives (homophobia, gender segregation, even, really, certain kinds of racism) exist because they provided our ancestors a stable society. That tradition is not stupid and useless, even if we don't understand it.

So I want to ask the following question: were our ancestors mere stupid in practicing, and simply assuming as a matter of common sense, various behaviours that we now consider to be oppression? Is there any possibility that they had good reasons for discrimination and limiting behaviour, particularly sexual behaviours? And, worse, is there any possibility we would come to regret our destabilization and challenging of Basic Social Norms?


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brebis noire
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posted 19 January 2005 12:31 PM      Profile for brebis noire     Send New Private Message      Edit/Delete Post  Reply With Quote 
As in, "sexual repression is the glue that holds society together?"

Hm, I don't think this is an easy question to answer, but it is one that occupies a lot of my mindspace these days. I think that a lot of different societies throughout history have struggled with this, but more dramatic events like war and famine and disease have relegated sexuality and sexual practices to the background.

This question reminded me right away of a Globe article I read during the holidays, about the Mosuo people of southwestern China. Apparently, in this society, there is no such thing as marriagè; women and men live separate domestic lives, except for sexual relations, and the Mosuo generally believe that "the institution of marriage is an attack on the family." I was really impressed with the scope of the article - for one thing, I had thought that matriarchal societies were basically extinct.

Anyways, I don't want my post to be too long, but I do find it fascinating the way that organized religion has the overall effect of repressing human sexuality, and that it's coming on so strong today all over the world in various forms. It's either a massive conspiracy, or else we aren't really all that inventive and just continually copy methods and tactics that generate brutal or subtly oppressive power.


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aRoused
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posted 19 January 2005 12:32 PM      Profile for aRoused     Send New Private Message      Edit/Delete Post  Reply With Quote 
If that question came from a new poster, it could get taken as a troll line..

Two things immediately spring to my mind:

- First, there are myriad cultural adaptations scattered all over the world, and precious few constants between them. Homosexuality is natural and encouraged in some cultures, in others not. Women are accorded lower status in some cultures, others not. For any 'rule' of human behaviour, one can usually find some exception*, somewhere in the world, in a society that also functions just fine.
- Second, it's by no means clear exactly how much of this oppression was going on, doubly so outside of a modern historical framework. What I mean by this is that it's nigh-impossible to speculate, for example, about the treatment of homosexuals in the Ur III period in Mesopotamia because there is no mention made of them in any textual or artistic sources. The fact that something isn't seen or isn't described doesn't mean it wasn't prevalent or accepted. Also, the very legal strictures and taboos we might point to as evidence of oppression are problematic: you don't make a law against something if it isn't happening, and happening quite frequently. Whether you want to count that as oppression or tacit recognition that it's going on all the time coupled with a vain attempt by the authorities to clamp down on it, well, let's just say that without evidence it's being enforced, how are we to know? A simplified and non-confrontational example: Jaywalking is illegal, but the chances of you being ticketed for it are very slim. Are jaywalkers being 'oppressed' by there being a law against it? No, although the potential is there.

*The only one I can think of is the incest taboo, and even that varies in how widely it is applied. Even this seeming-universal of human behaviour fails beyond the level of a man marrying his mother or a daughter her father (and even that last one I'm not 100% about). In some societies your sister is a perfectly acceptable and valid choice for a spouse, and I don't just mean in Pharaonic Egypt, either.


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skdadl
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posted 19 January 2005 12:59 PM      Profile for skdadl     Send New Private Message      Edit/Delete Post  Reply With Quote 
Mandos, I understand why you are asking this question right now, and I have a modicum of sympathy for it, but right away I run into that claim (not necessarily yours, I recognize) that traditional forms of social organization offered societies more stability.

The longing for stability, I will grant, is an obvious and understandable desire of most of us humans everywhere and always. And there have been times and places -- this would be one -- where large numbers of people have been prosperous enough to pretend that their own old-fashioned ways really did create stability. I was brought up to believe that of my own culture, and until I was adult, I saw little to disturb the illusion.

I know much better now. I certainly no longer believe that old-fashioned North American Father Knows Best middle-class families were stable at all. I know that much of the time they produced moderate mental illness, sometimes horror, that continues yet -- and even so, the majority of people who once bought into that illusion will still defend it, even when they are hurting from it. An interesting problem.

To me, it is better to avoid the thin and insensitive critique of traditional cultures that I sense you are reacting to by remembering our own limitations and all-too-recent sins in order to discipline our civil-rights evangelism.

I met democratic ideals and I love them. I will not cease to testify to them, and on behalf of others as well. However, it is important to me to remember how pompous and condescending and spoiled and hypocritical we can sound when we make overcoming the defensive cultural practices of the past sound easy.

Do I fear democratic liberation?

In theory, no, and in practice mainly no either, because I have lived long enough to see astounding changes in social practices in my own culture, changes that many feared that yet turned out to be very easy to make and digest and adjust to.

In fact, many people have adjusted so fast that the history and depth of the changes seems in danger of being lost. My one fear is that many people will only ever half-grasp new ideals, and may apply them brutally. That has happened often in history. I think about that.


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Crippled_Newsie
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posted 19 January 2005 01:34 PM      Profile for Crippled_Newsie     Send New Private Message      Edit/Delete Post  Reply With Quote 
quote:
Originally posted by Mandos:
But in sexual matters in particular, social conservatives make the following argument: that many of the things considered oppression by various progressives (homophobia, gender segregation, even, really, certain kinds of racism) exist because they provided our ancestors a stable society. That tradition is not stupid and useless, even if we don't understand it.

So I want to ask the following question: were our ancestors mere stupid in practicing, and simply assuming as a matter of common sense, various behaviours that we now consider to be oppression?


One's answer to the above depends a great deal on whether one is speaking in the abstract, or whether the butt-end of that tradition of oppression affects one's everyday life and self-image.

It would be mad, for example, for a gay person to pull his punches on his socially conservative enemies because of a nagging notion that goes, "Golly, what if they're right about me?"


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Mandos
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posted 19 January 2005 01:39 PM      Profile for Mandos   Author's Homepage     Send New Private Message      Edit/Delete Post  Reply With Quote 
quote:
The longing for stability, I will grant, is an obvious and understandable desire of most of us humans everywhere and always. And there have been times and places -- this would be one -- where large numbers of people have been prosperous enough to pretend that their own old-fashioned ways really did create stability. I was brought up to believe that of my own culture, and until I was adult, I saw little to disturb the illusion.
By stability, I not only mean in the individual sense of family life, but in a wider, civilizational, tribal sense. ie, one implication of what I'm saying is the question of whether it's possible that widespread individual suffering and repression is required to sustain the continuity of a society.

In other words, I'm talking about equilibrium. I think it is possibly the fundamental issue that the economic and social right have in common: the claim that human society reaches equilibrium points that may be, in an abstract sort of way, unfair and unpleasant, but nonetheless dangerous to tamper with.

quote:
I know much better now. I certainly no longer believe that old-fashioned North American Father Knows Best middle-class families were stable at all. I know that much of the time they produced moderate mental illness, sometimes horror, that continues yet -- and even so, the majority of people who once bought into that illusion will still defend it, even when they are hurting from it. An interesting problem.
Because the believe that they are supporting it for the Greater Good. One tendency in progressive discussion of rights to to imagine that opponents of social progress do so out of some form of...mean-spiritedness or hypocrisy. This may be so in some cases, but I think there's a component of unselfish trepidation about the human future.

quote:
To me, it is better to avoid the thin and insensitive critique of traditional cultures that I sense you are reacting to by remembering our own limitations and all-too-recent sins in order to discipline our civil-rights evangelism.
You're right to suggest that the recent sharia discussions partially inspired me to start this thread. But I've been thinking about this for a long time now, before that became a babble issue. I've been thinking about it, because I don't believe that everyone who wants to stuff other people back into closets wants this because they are vicious, but because they think their defending something necessary.

My support of what you call democratic principles comes from a sense of sympathy. I imagine myself as a women who, perhaps, is denied the opportunity that I have been fortunate to have to develop some of my talents simply because of her sex. Because I would resent it if I were a woman, I support the idea that women should have the opportunity to develop their talents.

But some may call me softhearted. In indulging this sympathy for others, I endanger everyone else, they might accuse. How? Systems contain knowledge that may not be apparent to their individual components. So society may have been developed in a certain way that we may not realize and record, but happens to be the most stable way for it to exist. Are we wise enough to reengineer it?

[ 19 January 2005: Message edited by: Mandos ]


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Mandos
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posted 19 January 2005 01:48 PM      Profile for Mandos   Author's Homepage     Send New Private Message      Edit/Delete Post  Reply With Quote 
Another thing that inspires this line of thought is the observation (perhaps incorrect?) that some ancient cultures, like Athenian culture for instance, were a lot more conscious of the unfairness of their oppression of, say, women, but oppressed women unapologetically anyway.
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skdadl
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posted 19 January 2005 01:54 PM      Profile for skdadl     Send New Private Message      Edit/Delete Post  Reply With Quote 
Mandos, I disagree with you on two grounds, and this is the first:

quote:
Because the believe that they are supporting it for the Greater Good.

No. Not the people I know who still try to pretend that the middle-class nightmare of mid-C20 North America was in fact an idyll and is now Paradise Lost.

It wasn't and it isn't, and they aren't clinging to that illusion because they care about any Greater Good. They cling because they have been deeply indoctrinated into wanting things that they cannot have. Into believing that acquiring more will bring happiness. And above all, they fear that admitting to their private fears and shame and misery is in fact shameful, that anyone who does that will automatically be labelled a loser in our vicious culture, which is, in a way, a reasonable fear.

Maybe a majority of people have always believed that when they are victimized, the shame accrues to them, not to their victimizers. To me that seems perverse, but I think it is a habit of thought for which we can find multiple examples in every culture pretty quickly.

Earlier, I said that I disagreed with you on two grounds, Mandos. The second would be your closing reflection. I just reject that, Mandos. I see no reason to believe that. Why should I believe that? And why would you even advance the idea? What in human society has ever produced evidence that playing any social role is somehow innate in any of us? Human beings have always done the full range of possible things. I don't see any one form of social organization as evidence of anything innate.

I do see democracy as a desirable potential for us all.


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Mandos
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posted 19 January 2005 02:35 PM      Profile for Mandos   Author's Homepage     Send New Private Message      Edit/Delete Post  Reply With Quote 
quote:
No. Not the people I know who still try to pretend that the middle-class nightmare of mid-C20 North America was in fact an idyll and is now Paradise Lost.
Perhaps, but I find that some of the more prominent supporters of Paradise Lost, even if they believe this, also at least argue, if not believe, that what we are leading towards is something worse. For some reason.
quote:
Earlier, I said that I disagreed with you on two grounds, Mandos. The second would be your closing reflection. I just reject that, Mandos. I see no reason to believe that. Why should I believe that? And why would you even advance the idea? What in human society has ever produced evidence that playing any social role is somehow innate in any of us? Human beings have always done the full range of possible things. I don't see any one form of social organization as evidence of anything innate.
Because I don't believe that human beings have done, in terms of large-scale social organization, the "full range of possible things." And even if they have, it seems to me that in recorded history, some "ranges" of organizations vastly predominate over others.

The word "innate" is really very loaded. I avoid it, because people take it to mean that they are personally determined by it. I would never imply this, and the "full range of possible things" may well apply to individuals, but again with various things being disproportionately represented.

But what I would point out is this: global weather patterns suggest certain overall "stable" states and transitions. But air molecules, etc, don't individual exhibit behaviour that suggest these states directly. So why should humans and human societies be any different?


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brebis noire
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posted 19 January 2005 02:42 PM      Profile for brebis noire     Send New Private Message      Edit/Delete Post  Reply With Quote 
I agree with you skdadl, I also know many people who have that exact mindset, where they think that the post-WWII period was a golden age and everything has since gone downhill. These are the people who think that there are links between the rise of feminism and the downslide of the economy, or the increased visibility of homosexual culture and pedophilia and sexual violence against children.

Just offhand, one of the gentler(?) examples of this type of thinking is Lorna Dueck, who has an intermittent column in the Globe and Mail. I wouldn't ascribe any of the specific above ideas to her particularly, but the tone and the general direction are there. Painful to read, but instructive.

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catje
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posted 19 January 2005 09:10 PM      Profile for catje     Send New Private Message      Edit/Delete Post  Reply With Quote 
Long life and birth control.

I'll be brief because I think this is obvious, but it should also be said.

To take the anthropological tack- most previous societies have had it a lot harder than us in terms of surviving to a ripe old age. They also didn't have social security, which is where kids come in. As many as possible. Half of them won't make it through their childhoods, so pop out as many as you can to make sure that at least a few of them will survive to care for you in your dotage.

When that becomes such a central concern, the sort of behaviour that DOESN'T lead to going forth and multiplying-like homosexuality-becomes taboo or outlawed.

The Kosher and Halal laws were once very logical too.

Our current problems now are not too few children, but too many. Not brief lifespans, but some that may be so long they will place a huge drain on our pension plans. So grab the contraceptives of your choice and screw whoever you want, just don't have kids.


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aRoused
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posted 20 January 2005 07:58 AM      Profile for aRoused     Send New Private Message      Edit/Delete Post  Reply With Quote 
quote:
They also didn't have social security, which is where kids come in. As many as possible. Half of them won't make it through their childhoods, so pop out as many as you can to make sure that at least a few of them will survive to care for you in your dotage.

When that becomes such a central concern, the sort of behaviour that DOESN'T lead to going forth and multiplying-like homosexuality-becomes taboo or outlawed.


Except that's not what happens, quite a lot of the time. The (historical) societies banning homosexuality tended to be the ones operating more at the level of the state, where the State wanted (sotto voce) to have as many taxpayers and soldiers as possible. NB: Homosexuality in Greece and Rome was not an either-or proposition, and in both there was a strong social pressure at all levels of society to raise a family. Infanticide and long periods of breastfeeding to suppress ovulation are rife in small-scale societies, because in the absence of other means of birth control, unrestricted pregnancy would rapidly become a liability through producing too many children to feed and transport, slowing the band down. In some parts of New Guinea, sex between a husband and wife is taboo for as much as 300 days a year, possibly to cut down on the likelyhood of pregnancy. San women breastfeed for up to five years, probably for similar reasons.

The population boom arguably was linked to the development of agriculture, where children became less of a liability since they could help out from an earlier age. The notion of your kids being responsible for caring for you in old age is relatively modern, where in the past you could have fallen back on your extended family, or the entire local group you were living with.

quote:
Because I don't believe that human beings have done, in terms of large-scale social organization, the "full range of possible things." And even if they have, it seems to me that in recorded history, some "ranges" of organizations vastly predominate over others.

A fair point. Why don't we see more matriarchies, or more polyandries? Perhaps more apropos, why haven't as many of these societies survived to leave a record for us to find? I have an answer, or rather an instructor of mine put an answer to the class back in intro anthro, but it's nigh-sociobiological and I detest sociobiology as an explanation.

He argued that a primitive society where men and women were equal participants in activities like warfare would lose women (and hence reproductive ability) faster than one where only the men went out to fight. Thus socializing for male dominance is more adaptive to intergroup conflict and those that didn't, died out faster.

I don't buy this theory. But I've never been able to find a counter to it, either.


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