What’s So Scary About Women? Introduction

In my last few blog posts I promised I would tackle a most difficult topic and that’s the misogyny embedded in many of our institutions. Well, that’s what I will do over the next few blog posts.

I’ve always liked to try to figure out how things work. When I was a kid I used to dissect and disassemble things all the time. I was forever curious about how things were made, especially mechanical things. Taking them apart was not usually too much of a problem, but to my father’s dismay, putting them back together was sometimes not so easy. My favourite targets were toys and motors but clocks really topped the list. As I got older and went away to a Catholic boarding school in Edmonton for high school, I still had a live curiosity but the priests were not too keen on seeing things taken apart and strewn here and there on campus. They were especially protective of the lab equipment. Looking back on it, I remember also having a keen interest in why people did things the way they did them. I had a hard time making sense of what I came to know as institutions (crystallized habits of thought and life). And, of course, figuring out why I had a penis and my sisters didn’t was top of mind. That said, I would never have dared, after turning 4, to bring up such a subject at dinner time. The disapproval would have been swift and sometimes mildly violent. I felt very early on that certain subjects were absolutely taboo. Still, lots of sniggering went on because we children weren’t yet completely indoctrinated. Of course, we learned a few anatomical things by playing doctor but it wasn’t easy to figure out the moral issues involved. The questions definitely outnumbered the answers in my first two decades of life on earth.

In my early twenties, after a serious sawmill accident, I had back surgery and wondered what to do next. Well, I went a little crazy for a while, smashed up a few cars, got drunk and stoned frequently but I had a couple of mentors that made a huge difference in my life. They prompted me to go to university. I applied to Simon Fraser University (SFU), but was rejected because my grades in high school were lousy so I attended Douglas College in New Westminster for two years, got an A average, had some great teachers and decided at that time to study sociology. On I went to SFU. That time of my life was super exciting and difficult too because of money, to be certain, but also because of sex. I couldn’t seem to get enough of it and too much of my energy went into pursuing it or worrying about not getting any. The sex drive for me was very powerful. It’s hard to concentrate under these conditions. I was clumsy and ridiculous like most of my friends and acquaintances around the subject of sex, but this was the early seventies for god’s sake. We would have been into some promiscuity and there was definitely some loosening of mores but we were mostly unsatisfied. But when all else failed, we always had some beer and weed to make us feel better. Still, I couldn’t help thinking about sex and women. I should now say sorry to all the women I was a dickhead to in those days. It wasn’t me, it was my gonads. Now that I’m 71 that drive, thankfully, is largely attenuated. Frankly, I don’t know how most of us get through our teen years. Our bodies are yelling at us YES and our damned superegos are blocking our genital paths to glory. Oh well, such is life. Eventually, I met Carolyn and that was that. We fit together nicely.

It took me a while to get settled into the academic life. For a long time I called myself a Marxist but I stopped doing that for the same reason that Marx pointed to French syndicalists in the late 1870s saying that if these people are Marxists then I’m not. I still find Marx’s analysis of history very compelling, but I I strayed from looking only at economic matters to studying schizophrenia (R.D. Laing, Thomas Szasz, etc), mental illness, depression (with which I’ve been on intimate terms with), crime, deviance, social solidarity, morality, Norbert Elias and other things. In my last couple of years teaching I taught a sociology course on love and sex. Given what I wrote above, this fit right to my curiosity bag. I got interested in pornography. What is it about porn that makes it such a lucrative business? It’s one of the top internet money makers( yes, people sniggered.) And, of course, I had a long standing interest in Ernest Becker’s work. You just have to check the archives on this blog to ascertain that. Becker’s book Escape From Evil has a lot to say about sex and about misogyny. In fact, Becker’s work is the foundation of my views on this topic.

So, in the next few blog posts I will address Becker’s work to start with, especially his emphasis on evil, animality and our institutional denial of death. Then I want to look more specifically at woman as temptress, as devil. I will follow that up with a look at language and women before turning to marriage and some of the other cultural institutions of sexual relations. Things may evolve as I go along. The order I present issues may change. Your comments might modify my approach too.

I must say, in concluding this introduction, that I, by no means, intend to glorify women and vilify men. We are all ‘guided’ in our actions by our social relations, our language, our sex, our gender, our economic interests, our egos, and a myriad of other factors. Morality plays a huge role although we barely ever mention it. We swim in a moral world but we seldom recognize it. Like fish who don’t know they swim in water, we are the last to recognize that we swim in a moral world. In this series of posts I’ll try to open up that moral world a bit so that we can see more deeply into want makes us tick as humans.

Craziness in Paris – A long term view.

I left off my last post writing that I would consider what we could do about incidents like the one  that shook Paris to the core on November 13th,

Pundits and commentators all over television and the web are suggesting possibilities for putting an end to extremist violence from bombing Syria to hell, killing all Muslims, getting more spiritual and following the word of God, thinking positive thoughts, getting at the Saudis for funding the Islamic State, and that’s only for starters. These kinds of events bring out the most outrageous ideas in us. Most ideas about doing away with extremist violence are fear-based to be sure, and they invariably target ‘the other’ and hardly ever involve changing our own ideas or behaviours.

Frankly, I don’t think that there is currently any way of stopping extremist violence regardless of where it arises and who the perpetrators might be.

The violence that was unleashed in Paris last Friday was an expression of deep-seated contradictions and conditions in our very own social relations, relations that are now evident all over the world. In our rush to secure our continued prosperity we accept that our governments need to protect the institutions and organizations we’ve come to recognize as the underpinnings of  our prosperity, that is business and private accumulation of wealth. This has been true for centuries. There is no need to recite the litany of violence and carnage that litters our history. The underlying conditions that accounted for the slaughter of French Protestants and peasant riots in the 16th Century have not materially changed. Before the rise to dominance of capitalist productive relations in Europe the wane of the social relations around what we call the Middle Ages produced disruption and dislocations unprecedented previously, especially when combined with the terrible consequences of the Black Death in the middle of the 15th Century. Actually, the Jews were considered responsible for the plague in some quarters and ‘large groups of them were massacred.’* Eventually people were torn away from the land they had occupied for centuries and forced into labour in cities, a process that escalated tremendously after the mid-18th Century. No, mass murder and destruction in human society are not new. Ironically, as Ernest Becker points out in Escape from Evil, most murderous rampages in history were perpetrated by people with the intention of eliminating evil, that is whatever they considered might hinder the prosperity and health they determine is their birthright.

In the absence of rational and reasonable explanations for ‘natural’ disasters or man-made ones like the recent massacres in Paris, Ankara, Beirut and elsewhere, people generally resort to fantasy or fantastical explanation. The veracity of claims of blame is a victim of the fear and loathing of ‘the other’, those sub-human beasts who dare to threaten our prosperity although with our economic imperialism, colonialism and the need for capital accumulation, we have felt perfectly justified in threatening theirs. Can we really believe that the population of Africa welcomed European conquerers during the partitioning of  the African continent between 1873 and 1896 among European powers determined to make business safe for exploitation wherever it chooses to extract raw materials or exploit cheap labour? Can we not see the connection between our colonialist exploitation of peoples all over the world and their sometimes violent opposition to said exploitation? When and how do people think the countries of the Middie East were created and by whom?

I don’t know what motivated the gunmen and bombers who chose to terrorize Paris last Friday.  One explanation I cannot accept is that they were mad or insane although I wouldn’t deny that in some cases there may have been elements of madness in their actions. Madness, according to many theorists among them Thomas Szasz and R.D. Laing, is socially constructed and is a label attached to people in certain contexts and situations where they ‘fail’ to conform to social norms like dissidents in the Soviet Union for instance.

I’m afraid that our individualistic explanations just don’t cut it when it comes to violence. What we are faced with in acts like those that occurred in Paris is the institutionalized acceptance of violence embedded in every aspect of our culture and social relations. We should not be surprised when we are faced with this kind of terror. In fact, I am surprised that it doesn’t happen more often.

No, I see no end to the murderous rampages that we experienced in Paris this past Friday, at least not until we completely revolutionize our social relations, especially those that create poverty and diminish people because of who they are, what they look like or believe or what ‘resources’ they may be sitting on. People will not be convinced by rational argument, either. They will react irrationally to any threat they perceive to themselves, their families, countries and the value systems that encompass them all. They define evil as anyone and anything that is ‘other’.

The only hope I have is that we may eventually come to think of evil as corporate concentration, environmental degradation and the impoverishment of vast numbers of people on this planet. I’m not holding my breath.

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*This quote is from Norbert Elias’ book What is Sociology? (New York: Columbia University), page 26

A third post relating to the Ernest Becker Legacy conference held at SFU earlier this month.

As promised this is the third post of my ruminations about the Becker conference.

[A sad aside: I took my time with this post because my trusty MacBook Pro that I bought in early 2011 decided life was not worth living anymore and pulled the plug on itself. So what to do? Buy another computer of course. Maybe later. What I did instead was pull the hard drive out of it and put it in its own stand-alone case. Now I can boot it from Carolyn’s computer just like it was my own aside from a few little glitches. It’s very slow though because it has to run through a USB port, We’ll fix that by increasing the ram in Carolyn’s computer and get it a new battery while we’re at it. Now Carolyn and I have to share a computer, sort of. I’m actually typing this on an old PowerBook G4 I had in my studio for pulling up photos for painting. It can’t handle a lot of new software including Chrome and Firefox, but it’s better than nothing and I can get my mail and do this. So that’s good. It won’t be good for the Cumberland Forest Society’s Trivia Night in a couple of weeks – I’m the quiz master and we need to drive a projector with new software. For that we’ll need my (ah..Carolyn’s) MacBook Pro with its new ram and battery. I actually amazed myself by how much I grieved over the loss of my computer. Thankfully, I was able to salvage it’s brain even if I had to let its heart go.]

I’ll restrict my comments here to the presentation by Andrew Feldmár. It was on Sunday morning, the last presentation of the conference. To be honest, I was a little hung over at the time but that was probably appropriate given the content of the  presentation. So Feldmár was a very popular professor in the psychology department at SFU for many years. He was there when I was first a student at SFU in 1972. I didn’t take any courses from him. I was kind of anti-psychology at the time. I’m much less so now. In fact, even at the time I read a lot of psychology and psycho-analytical writing. Still, it was generally reading on the critical side. I understand that psychology has its place in the world, but my perspective and that of a lot of my fellow grad students was that psychology’s focus on the individual was an ideological bow to the individualism characteristic of capitalism, the basic target of our collective criticism. Even more, we considered psychiatry, specifically, as an extension of the police in modern society, persecuting anyone not ‘towing the line’ of modern capitalist institutions. Feldmár shared our critique of psychiatry although I didn’t know that at the time.

In fact, Feldmár worked with one of the most famous critics of psychiatry, R.D. Laing, who worked in Britain and conducted a lot of experiments on the ontology of schizophrenia and other ‘mental illnesses’. Laing was a most impressive guy who virtually pissed off the entire body of psychiatry at the time. I’ve recently been re-reading his The Divided Self and continue to be impressed by his work. Of course, his ‘colleagues’ considered him a brash, arrogant rebel. All the more reason I would read his work. Laing as well as Thomas Szasz and others more recent like Peter Breggin argue that schizophrenia arises in certain individuals because of a confluence of genetic/biological predispositions and family dynamics. They argue that families and ‘society’ create schizophrenia and that it is not a disease per se, but is a dynamic set of relationships that become intolerable to the ‘patient’, In other words, families create schizophrenics, not an idea very popular with the families of schizophrenics. To be clear, Laing and Szasz did not feel that the families of schizophrenics were in any way malevolent, except in the sense that the people with the power in the family, generally the parents, would stand on very strict behavioural parameters for their children not allowing their children to develop their own sense of self and self-determination. Asking the parents of schizophrenics why they thought their children became ‘ill’, they determined that to a large extent, the parents felt that they had absolutely no responsibility for it arguing that they had provided their children with all the best life could offer them including love and acceptance.

In fact, the situation in the family, Laing finds, is highly complex, and is founded on a series of contradictory behaviours expected of the children by their parents. So how would Laing endeavour to ‘cure’ schizophrenia? Well, Laing used LSD very successfully to ‘shake up’ the patient in a way that allowed them to see their situation from a different perspective. A recent CBC Ideas program notes that using LSD in therapy resulted in a 50 to 90% success rate for certain ‘problems’ such as alcoholism and other mental illnesses. Andrew Feldmár, in his talk, discussed the use of psychedelic drugs in therapy and how successful it’s been in Laing’s experience and his own. Of course the ‘establishment’ opposition to the use of psychedelic drugs pretty much made the practice illegal and illegitimate although there’s been somewhat of a revival lately. Feldmár is a large part of this revival in his current work and hearing about it firsthand was amazing to say the least.

However, I don’t believe that Feldmár’s presentation lived up to its title, A Laingian/Psychedelic/Therapeutic Perspective on “The Denial of Death”. I don’t recall Feldmár talking a lot about Becker although Becker definitely leaned heavily on Laing and Szasz in the psychological aspects of his work. I would have appreciated a more direct outline of how Becker uses Laing and Szasz in his work. Becker never mentions psychedelics and therapy that I know of. I have to go back and look as some of his earlier works. I’ve focussed much more on Becker’s later works, The Denial of Death and Escape From Evil, for my own purposes. Like I said, I was a little hung over on Sunday morning, October 4th, when Feldmár made his presentation. If I’m misrepresenting him in any way here, I’d be happy to hear about it.

By the way, I’ve decided to write one more post on this topic. It’s not about the conference directly, but about an interaction I had with an old professor of mine and one of Becker’s colleagues at SFU. That will come next week.