The Self-Reinforcing Binary

post by lucidfox · 2010-11-22T09:01:06.419Z · score: -1 (15 votes) · LW · GW · Legacy · 28 comments

I originally wrote this post for my own blog, but after discovering Less Wrong, I've thought that it might make sense to submit it here.

The late 20th - early 21st century have been rich with various concepts beginning with "post-". Postindustrial society, postmodernism, post-theism, postgenderism, posthumanism... The opinions on these, as well as the larger trends behind them all, are of course divided, but if anything, this only illustrates the point I'm trying to make.

I think that what happened is that as the barriers of communication fell down, as we learned more about different cultures and lifestyles, so did we realize that many social concepts formerly thought of as absolute and rigid actually weren't. It will take another generation, or perhaps more than one, just to process this very idea to its fullest. We have come to realize that concepts and ideas, real or fictional, live in the historical and cultural context of their creators, and can only be fully understood in a relative rather than absolute way. No matter how many times literary critics say "death of the author", you can't abstract away from the fact that George Orwell had the political trends of early-to-mid-20th century in mind when he wrote 1984, or that J.R.R. Tolkien's Catholic beliefs influenced the cosmology and tone of The Silmarillion and The Lord of the Rings.

Social ideas and norms are much the same way. Appeal to tradition, "it has always been that way", is just about the worst argument you can make when defending an existing social custom, right next to "God decrees so". Even if the God you believe in tells you that someone will go to Hell for the terrible, terrible moral crime of enjoying sex without the intent of procreation, it's not your business to try and "save" them. Just act yourself the way your beliefs dictate. Hence the "post-": not in the sense of rejection, but in the sense of outgrowing. A post-theistic society is not an atheistic society, but merely one that got over theism, a society where religion is a matter of personal choice rather than a shaping force in politics.

And yes, I realize that my own writing is influenced by my atheist bias, conscious and unconscious. While I cannot fully abstract from them, I can be made aware of them; let the unconscious become conscious.

So how does it all relate to the gender binary? Well, the way I see it, gender roles and religious dogmas have a lot in common — they are self-propagating memes. A good example to illustrate the problem is the origin of the Russian word for bear, "medved'". It literally meant "honey eater" in Old Slavic and was originally created as a euphemism, because the real name of the animal was taboo. However, over time, this fact was forgotten and "medved'" became the only known name, and thus itself considered something to be avoided by superstitious hunters. Religious fundamentalists take the words of their prophets and saints dropped here and there throughout their lives, often out of context, and declare them absolute, immutable truth. Proponents of the gender binary take emergent prejudices that shaped themselves due to a combination of circumstances, sometimes mind-bogglingly arbitrary, and declare them gospel. In any case, we are faced with codification, with social expectations and taboos shaped by minutae. It's like if a fictional character had their complexity stripped away and become defined by a single trait based on something they vaguely did in that one episode. Oh wait.

What originally prompted this post was a paragraph I saw while reading Andrew Rilstone commentary on some common themes and tropes in fiction, namely, the points made by Joseph Campbell's The Hero with a Thousand Faces (itself subjected to gospelization: while Campbell himself was only writing about common themes in a distinct kind of stories, some of his followers went so far as to claim that the structure he pointed out was inherent in every story ever written). After a series of posts making logical arguments, the latest of which contrasted stories where the hero returned home with a boon from the travels with stories where the hero reached their destination and stayed there, when I kept going "Yes, yes, that's exactly it!", I suddenly stumbled upon this non sequitur.

When I did literary theory at college, it was a truism that stories in which someone set forth to achieve something – stories which rushed headlong to a dramatic conclusion – were Male (and therefore bad). Stories which reached no final conclusion, which described a state of being, which cycled back to the beginning and achieved multiple climaxes were Female (and therefore good). The cleverer students, the ones with berets, went so far as to claim that the whole idea of stories – in fact the whole idea of writing in sentences -- was dangerously "phallocentric". But one does take the point that boys' stories like Moby Dick have beginnings, middles and ends in a way that girls' stories like Middlemarch really don't. The soap opera, which is all middle, is the female narrative form par excellence. You would search in vein for a monomyth in Coronation Street.

For a minute, I just blinked at the text in silence, trying to make any sense out of it. Wikipedia defines a truism as "a claim that is so obvious or self-evident as to be hardly worth mentioning, except as a reminder or as a rhetorical or literary device". In other words, the author took this piece of essentialist drivel for granted so much that he assumed everyone else shared it.

Which made me think: what, exactly, causes people to assign concepts to genders in such an utterly arbitrary fashion? The answer, I believe, lies in the pervasive, all-encompassing nature of the gender binary. The human society, we are taught from infancy, consists of men and women. We know - some of us, anyway - that it's merely an approximation in the same sense that Newtonian physics are an approximation of relativistic physics and the real world, one that is valid for most everyday uses but fails when we broaden the horizons of our knowledge. But the idea is tempting. After all, ideas, as Christopher Nolan helpfully points out, are the most persistent kind of infection known to humanity.

And as such, when we encounter a new kind of idea (in this case, a binary), it is tempting to explain it in the concept of another binary we know, even if the analogy makes no sense. The actual mapping is often hard to explain rationally. Ancient paganists knew about the day/night binary and their corresponding celestial bodies. As such, in many mythologies over the world, the gods or personifications of the Sun and the Moon are of different genders, but it varies which is which. On one hand, we have Helios and Selene, Apollo and Artemis; on the other, Sól and Máni, who no doubt inflienced Tolkien's Arien and Tilion.

Sometimes, it's not random. The earliest known examples of gender roles in prehistoric tribes, and such basic dichotomies as hard/soft, strong/weak, big/small, outward/inward, are probably influenced by real physical differences. From there, it kept fracturing, expanding since then. Perhaps many concepts declared "masculine" or "feminine" were not assigned randomly, but based on associations with existing concepts already sorted into the binary. The gender binary was not static, but, as pointed out, a fractal with internalized sexism (for example, while science itself is considered a "masculine" career, there are individual sciences perceived as predominantly masculine or feminine, etc.; even feminism itself could have contributed to such perceptions, if the "hairy-legged man-hater" stereotype is any indication). And not just a static fractal, but an ever-expanding, path-dependent chain of associations that solidified over time; what might first have been a helpful rhetorical device became unquestionable taboo.

What can be done to break this pattern? Feminism contributes to the reverse process of conflation, of removing gender association stigma from logically unrelated concepts. But a true breakdown of the binary, I believe, will only happen when people en masse change their fundamental patterns of thought, and cast off or at least become aware of implicit assumptions underlying their arguments and actions. It is in the nature of the human mind to think in opposites, but the process of exposing the context can move the mental opposites from socially harmful areas and place more focus on, say, personal beliefs, ethics, and political ideologies - ideas that people choose to accept instead of being assigned to them by virtue of birth. And then, perhaps, we can outgrow the labeling of just about everything as masculine or feminine; in other words, walk into a post-binary world.


Comments sorted by top scores.

comment by Emile · 2010-11-22T16:54:20.352Z · score: 7 (7 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Welcome to LessWrong!

Social ideas and norms are much the same way. Appeal to tradition, "it has always been that way", is just about the worst argument you can make when defending an existing social custom, right next to "God decrees so".

I disagree that this is the worse argument - I find that it's a decent argument, when expressed as "we don't know where this custom comes from or why it exists, therefore we should treat it with care until we do". The existence of a custom/social norm is weak evidence that it's a good thing for society.

comment by lucidfox · 2010-11-22T20:23:29.514Z · score: 1 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Even slavery?

comment by Oscar_Cunningham · 2010-11-22T20:33:48.663Z · score: 10 (14 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Well, yes. You can't tell if something is good or bad without looking at any evidence. And if the first bit of evidence you see is "slavery is traditional" that pushes the scales up a bit. Then you look at the other evidence and quickly the scales fall the other way.

comment by lucidfox · 2010-11-22T20:47:12.119Z · score: 0 (4 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

If a social custom is too old, I in fact consider it a more likely candidate for being discarded today. Our ancestors had access to less evidence and experience than we do, and all too often what seemed a good idea at that time, gets in the way now. Appeal to tradition is used as a curiosity-stopper - usually when the idea can't defend itself against progress on its own accord.

comment by Oscar_Cunningham · 2010-11-22T20:57:54.492Z · score: 8 (8 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Our ancestors had access to less evidence and experience than we do, and all too often what seemed a good idea at that time, gets in the way now. Appeal to tradition is used as a curiosity-stopper - usually when the idea can't defend itself against progress on its own accord.

I agree with this bit. But being an old tradition isn't evidence against a custom (even if most of the customs we should discard are old traditions). There are loads of old customs we don't question, simply because they're obviously true (like agreeing to use language to communicate).

comment by Vladimir_Nesov · 2010-11-22T20:29:26.348Z · score: 8 (8 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Why is slavery a salient example to you? Because you already know the answer, but that's not despite not considering the question.

comment by Emile · 2010-11-22T21:13:48.111Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Even slavery what? I didn't say traditional social norms were good, I said the existence of a traditional social norm was weak evidence of it's goodness. That doesn't mean other arguments can't be considered.

comment by Dues · 2014-09-28T20:53:20.826Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

"Even slavery?" Seems like an amusing comeback until you put it into the context of the societies where it originated. In the ancient world, food was often very scarce. If you went to war with a group of people and you kept them as prisoners, they would starve to death because 9 out of 10 people were involved in food production.

It's easy to say that slavery was a bad tradition now that we have a tradition that says 'slavery is always bad and evil', but let's say you found yourself in a hypothetical post apocalypse. If you were actually making a choice between slaughtering a rival band of survivors and putting them to work (basically slavery), are you sure that you wouldn't start a slavery tradition?

comment by cousin_it · 2010-11-22T16:12:12.074Z · score: 7 (9 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Well, the way I see it, gender roles and religious dogmas have a lot in common — they are self-propagating memes.

Most animals aren't smart enough to have memes like religion, but they have sex roles anyway, so "self-propagating memes" is unlikely to be the entire reason for gender roles in humans. This breaks the whole premise of your post.

Welcome to LessWrong!

comment by lucidfox · 2010-11-22T20:54:34.760Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Animals also have much more simply organized societies. Reproduce, feed and raise offspring, rinse and repeat. They have no analogue of the complex human culture with its multiple, non-obvious facets.

The seed of the human gender roles, as I mentioned, may well lie in the residual animal qualities retained in hunter-gatherer societies. The rest is memetic.

comment by cousin_it · 2010-11-22T21:13:23.581Z · score: 6 (6 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Yeah, I've already noticed that you hold this opinion, but I don't understand why. What's your evidence for the assertion that human gender roles are mostly memetic? For example, take the division of responsibility where the dad finds food while the mom takes care of kids. It would be a truly amazing coincidence if swans behaved this way for genetic reasons, but humans behaved the same way for a completely different set of reasons.

comment by lucidfox · 2010-11-22T21:17:26.235Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I didn't claim that this particular division was memetic - quite the contrary.

But the point of my post is that most such divisions are completely arbitrary and have nothing to do with our animal ancestry. Perhaps I should have been clearer and given some examples in the post. Short versus long hair, pants versus skirts, and blue versus pink are among the first few that come to my mind.

comment by DanArmak · 2010-11-22T21:33:44.980Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Indeed, pink vs. blue flipped within the last 100 years; while short vs. long hair used to signify something unrelated (noble vs. common status) in some societies. And neither is universal.

comment by cousin_it · 2010-11-22T21:28:12.735Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I agree that those are probably arbitrary/memetic. If such divisions are all your post talks about, then I apologize for misunderstanding.

comment by DanArmak · 2010-11-22T21:38:46.686Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Another thing that you should mention is that lots of languages grammatically divide all nouns into masculine and feminine, in a more or less arbitrary way. A lot of languages also force you to use the appropriate masculine or feminine case for all verbs and adverbs.

In Hebrew, my native language, there is simply no possible way of talking to or about a person without knowing that person's gender. Not even "how are you" or "nice to meet you". The language forces you to think about gender. That's one reason I don't expect people to stop thinking in gender-defined ways.

comment by jfm · 2010-11-23T18:43:54.537Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

You'd probably be well-served by having a look at Claude Levi-Strauss's "The Raw and the Cooked", which looks at quite a lot of binary oppositions (raw/cooked; nature/culture; female/male) in quite a few traditional societies, and how various binary oppositions get tied to the gender binary.

comment by Carinthium · 2010-11-22T09:35:40.857Z · score: 1 (5 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

1- In a hypothetical world where God actually existed, it would be an OBJECTIVE belief and thus it would be worth saving people. (Just as with people killing themselves with harmful drugs under almost all real circumstances)

2- Why are you quoting Inception as a film rather than giving an argument?

3- From what I've read of history, people only change "en masse" when a minority causes them too either by propaganda or imposing their beliefs from above.

4- Given that almost no ideas are explicitly labelled masculine or feminine in modern (English-speaking) culture, you are presumably either ignoring English-speaking culture or contending it is subconscious.

comment by lucidfox · 2010-11-22T14:00:36.877Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

4- Given that almost no ideas are explicitly labelled masculine or feminine in modern (English-speaking) culture, you are presumably either ignoring English-speaking culture or contending it is subconscious.

While I hope it will be true at some point in the future, saying this now would be wishful thinking when people get abused and assaulted daily for not conforming to so-called gender norms.

comment by Carinthium · 2010-11-22T23:41:10.326Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

1- Any actual examples in the Western world?

2- It is different to call everything masculine or feminine and to have gender norms- a culture can have one without the other.

comment by Perplexed · 2010-11-22T18:03:23.761Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

And people are often verbally abused for conforming to them. (I know that super-normal stimulus is a standard idea. Would it make sense to say that a male chauvinist pig is engaged in super-normal conformity?)

comment by JoshuaZ · 2010-11-22T17:49:02.735Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Some ideas are clearly associated with specific genders. To use one obvious example, ask people if they think of "war" as masculine or feminine. I'm pretty sure that most will answer masculine. I suspect that some form of Stroop interference test could quantify this more narrowly. Also, some words in English simply sound close to masculine names while other sound similar to feminine names, and I suspect that you'd get similar associations due to spreading activation.

comment by Carinthium · 2010-11-22T23:38:27.102Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Most people only think of war as masculine or feminine when asked, with the exception of traditionalists who might see it as "manly".

comment by lucidfox · 2010-11-22T21:23:12.664Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

On the subject of saving lives - while this is off topic, I feel it would be an interesting debate what to do with Heaven and Hell in a world where they demonstrably existed, and we had objective evidence for what would land people in either. I'm tempted to say that it would make sense for it to be left to personal choice to knowingly do things that would result in you going to Hell, but I haven't really given that issue much thought before you mentioned it. Hmm.

comment by David_Gerard · 2010-11-23T01:23:07.250Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

The new Iain M. Banks "Culture" novel Surface Detail is a fictional exploration of real Hells that some societies send people to.

comment by David_Gerard · 2010-11-22T13:27:37.236Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Given that almost no ideas are explicitly labelled masculine or feminine in modern (English-speaking) culture, you are presumably either ignoring English-speaking culture or contending it is subconscious.

You're not up on the current state of the cutting edge of postmodernist academia. It's a scary place for those who think reality exists.

(Postmodernism is not inherently rubbish - it is indeed a fantastically useful tool in criticism and understanding of human culture, and other human activities that might as well be culture. As Lucidfox points out, rather more is relative than most people assume, and postmodernism is useful in working out what that is. Any writer should IMO have a working familiarity with its tools. However, some proponents really don't realise that reality exists, and they end up slightly embarrassed.)

comment by Emile · 2010-11-22T16:45:54.562Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

If you're knowledgeable about postmodernism, it could be worthwhile to write a little "postmodernism for rationalists" intro. (in fact, hey, aren't you the guy from ... oh)

comment by lucidfox · 2010-11-22T20:49:36.099Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I'd like to read it, if only to clear the confusion about the myriad contradicting definitions of that term.

comment by David_Gerard · 2010-11-22T16:56:04.144Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I didn't write that article, but I did write the last paragraph of the intro :-)

I am tempted to rewrite it for RW, but I really am not expert enough on pomo to write it to the robustness it would require to survive on LW.