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Tuesday, July 31, 2007

The case against supremacy

I've been thinking about this all day, intending to satiate myself with my own musings, however I think that the firestorm of outrage could use a little level-headedness. Not that the outrage is misguided, unexpected, or even inappropriate. I'm pretty outraged myself, but outrage does very little to ease my own need for understanding. Only rational thought can fan those flames.

Smart people are very good at rationalizing things, by the way. History is full of examples of smart people doing lots of things with lots of reasons. Reasons are one of the things humans are best at manufacturing, even though we are not as good at reasoning about them. We construct meaning for our own purposes very much in the same way that we eat or drink or breathe or sleep. We are built to do it even though it can be pretty difficult to accomplish at times. We can't help ourselves, and it's rather a helpful thing that we can't, too! It would be pretty horrible to live a life without any meaning, wouldn't you say?

Understanding that is the first step towards rationalizing your reasoning, whether you are trying to reason through thought, action, or emotion. (The latter is particularly difficult due to our particular neurological evolution, but possible nonetheless.) In other words, know that your reasons are meaningful only because you have given them meaning. If it were not for that, your life would be meaningless. It should not be a disheartening insight if you understand the empowering nature of such a statement.

But I digress. This is about the idea of supremacy, that one person, place, or thing (we'll call these options a noun, collectively) is superior to another, different noun. Here are a few examples of nouns that I've heard many people compare with one another throughout my lifetime:


  • Apples and oranges.

  • Glasses and contact lenses.

  • City dwellers and suburban dwellers.

  • Democrats and Republicans.

  • Americans and foreigners to Americans.

  • Men and women.

  • Heterosexual people and people who are not heterosexual.

  • Light-skinned people and dark-skinned people.

  • Jewish people and Christian people (and Muslim people and Hindu people and on and on and on).



Here's one funny thing about such comparisons, in case it wasn't clear to you from the list above: each set of nouns contains members which share an enormous number of characteristics. In my experience encountering comparisons intended to determine superiority, this rule of likeness has never been broken. Actually, I am eager for the day when it will be. On that day I will have met someone "truly" deranged.

Apples and oranges are both fruits, glasses and contact lenses are both corrective eye-wear, and (I did focus on the human comparisons purposefully) the rest are all humans. I have never heard an apple compared to a Jewish person, for example, nor have I heard a woman compared to a pair of glasses. Why? Well, naturally, it's because the comparison to determine superiority in a way people can get emotionally invested in requires the act of measuring both nouns against the perceived value of a common property.

That is to say, in order to determine that one thing is superior to the other and have people care about it, your measurement must measure a characterstic that both things have. If you instead measure a characteristic that only one of your member things have then no half-thinking or half-feeling person would give your comparison any meaningful meaning. (See what I did there? I went back to the meaning thing from the beginning of the entry. Remember that. It'll come up again, I promise.) What does it mean to make something meaningful? It means to give that opinion weight, to use it as the basis for your reasoning and the motivation behind your actions, whatever they may be.

There are some very smart people who use this argument to try and prove the idea of absolute superiority of one form or another, citing nuance or complexity to hide their absolutism. The previous link, in particular, leads to a man named Alexis's writings, who believes in the potential superiority of all women over men.

Alexis (who is very clearly superior in his intelligence when measured for such things by means of analyzing his grammar, punctuation, vocabulary, and the like), says the following—after a very long-winded but informational digression about the merits of apples over oranges or vice versa—about making such comparisons:

My point: accepting any measure as a guideline means that one option will not rate as high as the other option. And it is the measure that is argued, not the superiority of the two options. Statistically, by changing the measure you change the results.


Preceeded immediately by this (in my opinion very accurate) statement:

If we could ever get two people to agree on the subject of what measure could be used as a guideline.


This is, unfortunately and unsurprisingly, a circular argument. A measure of superiority without defining superiority of or in a specific something is not a persuasive argument because it is statistically (and otherwise) meaningless. (Oh, there it is again! Did you see it?)

To combat that very simple point, reasons are concocted. For example, the argument changes from an absolute statement "Women are superior to men" to a qualified statement "Women are potentially superior to men" to a theory "Women are potentially superior to men if they can be shown to be smarter/stronger/better/whatever" to a belief "Women who have been proven to be smarter/stronger/better/whatever are superior to men." Is it just me, or is it smelling a little One True Way® in here all of a sudden?

God bless our puny mortal souls and our meaningless lives. (Sorry, I couldn't help myself. The opportunity for satire is rather irresistable.)

The problem with all this is, I dearly hope, obvious by now (especially since the really smart female supremacists said it first, even if they may have missed the point a little): you're not going to get everyone to agree. The disagreements aren't about measures to use for determining one gender or sex's superiority over the other. They are about the idea that any one measure or collection of specific measures are an accurate depiction of unqualified superiority whether it is applied to gender, race, religion, or anything else.

I can disprove absolutist remarks stated as fact. I can't (and won't try to) disprove belief. Neither can they.

Wow. How anti-climactic. I know, I'm almost disappointed, too.

10 comments:

Richard said...

The important arguments in the female supremacy debate aren't about biology.

They are that women are somehow more ethical. These mostly derive from the lack of political power women have had historically. (And ignoring those that have had.) And ignore instances of malfeasance and incompetence when women have had political or corporate power. They are a willful distortion of actuality in an effort to achieve a sexual thrill.

Really I don't see much going on than men trying to justify their hardons with political philosophy.

(I ignore women who assert this partly from their potential conflict of interest and the fact that some of them find it quite profitable.)

maymay said...

The important arguments in the female supremacy debate aren't about biology.

Good point.

They are a willful distortion of actuality in an effort to achieve a sexual thrill.

I wish more people were just okay with getting sexual thrills. Trappings of this nature are unfounded reasons to justify an act that needs not be justified. Not to me, not to a government, and not to themselves in any way other than that which feels appropriate to them.

Which is, granted, sometimes in what I see as evil rhetoric.

Alexis said...

While there is little point in adding to this pissing contest, I feel I must clarify something. The post of mine that was linked here is the first of about twenty posts intended to formulate a complete argument; an argument which I myself have admitted is not wholly made. The various posts can be found on my blog between May and July of 2006. They offer evidence. I am still struggling with the conclusion.

Richard said...

Trappings of this nature are unfounded reasons to justify an act that needs not be justified.

Yep. Back in the 1960s someone would've chimed in with "sex is an existential act" or the like.

Sex is. While it is fun to explore the origins and sources of erotic love all that really matters is satisfying those longings in a sane way.

Generating tosh is mostly a sign of guilt or insecurity. Neither enhance the act or life. And are mostly propagated by people who have nothing.

maymay said...

Alexis,

You said: While there is little point in adding to this pissing contest, I feel I must clarify something. The post of mine that was linked here is the first of about twenty posts intended to formulate a complete argument; an argument which I myself have admitted is not wholly made.

I don't intend to be pissing on anything with this post (though I do sometimes intend to piss on snow in the winter because I enjoy doing so). This post of mine is a complete argument. I thought you'd rather enjoy the challenge I could hopefully offer. I disagree with you, but I don't disrespect you. You're actually one of the only people I've ever even remotely met that seems to think in the ways I do. I'm a little fascinated by you, I must admit, and fascinated at how you could have come to hold such diametrically opposed opinions as I do.

I am still struggling with the conclusion.

May I politely offer the suggestion that you consider the possibility that you are still struggling with the conclusion because the evidence you are gathering is, largely, inconsequential and irrelevent to your argument? It does not matter what biology, morality, or any other measure you can research may ultimately lead you to believe if you are still going to be stuck on the notion that the results of such research will lead to the conclusion of inherent unqualified superiority of one thing over another simply due to its nature.

That is a flaw in methodology, it is not a lack of research results.

maymay said...

Richard,

I was unfortunately not around for the 60's. Sounds like I might have had a smashing good time. :)

Richard said...

I was a little boy back then.

Now, the 1970s ...

No AIDS. Lots and lots of sex and drugs.

And even androgyny was appreciated.

Not that nowadays aren't nice. But STDs seem such nuisances. And nancy boys are a forgotten sexual ideal.

maymay said...

Not that nowadays aren't nice. But STDs seem such nuisances. And nancy boys are a forgotten sexual ideal.

I'll admit to being frightened by the STD fearmongering. I know they are real and scary, but some people are paranoid to the point of ineffective inhibition. Not to mention how insulting the prejudices against gay and bisexual men implied by so many health resources out there are. But that, too, is another post entirely.

Dizzy said...

A very interesting arugement, but I find myself disagreeing right at the end. Belief is merely an expression of things they think are true (and would come up with some justification if asked), but they want protected against reason and logic that might disprove it. It is more pertinent to say that you can easily disprove belief, however they shall not listen.

James

maymay said...

James "Dizzy":

"It is more pertinent to say that you can easily disprove belief, however they shall not listen."

One of the most useful definitions of belief I have ever encountered is this:

An attitude of acceptance or assent toward a proposition without the full intellectual knowledge required guaranteeing its truth.

There are many other definitions of a similar variety. The point of which is that disproving anything can only be done to people who listen. If they're not listening, I'm not going to be able to disprove anything to them.