Liberal self-criticism

I frequently come across interesting articles and blog posts that trigger a desire to write, to explore for myself the issues they raise. This week, a long train journey gave me a rare opportunity to actually do so.

These two articles were posted on social media by friends of mine recently:
Ayaan to Liberals: Get Your Priorities Straight
The New Intolerance of Student Activism

The interview in the first article mainly focuses on Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s views on reforming Islam. I’m particularly interested in what she says about western liberals being too politically correct: refusing to criticise foreign systems of oppression (such as sharia laws), in an apparently mistaken belief that it would be wrong to impose their cultural paradigms and conceptions of freedom on others around the world. They prefer instead to nit-pick the supposedly relatively trivial problems in their own societies.

I don’t really recognise this picture of a liberalism of excessive humility. I recently ruffled a few feathers in an online Sunday Assembly forum by daring to suggest that atheism as a “movement” had some issues with sexism, ableism and other ways of marginalising people. Apparently rationality is immune to such things and it is, frankly, disloyal of me to suggest otherwise. ;)

Clearly I am one of those Ayaan would criticise. She asserts that the oppression faced by various marginalised groups in the US is pretty minimal compared to what these groups face elsewhere, and focusing on it feeds a victim mentality. For example, feminism has done its job, and the issues faced by women in the west now amount to nothing more than an argument about who does the dishes.

The second article, in a similar defence of western society’s progress, accuses student activists of making mountains out of molehills after their university refused any longer to officially discourage cultural appropriation at Halloween. The writer argues that these students are upset not because of real marginalisation but because they have been sold an ideology of victimhood. That the way out of a sense of disempowerment is to stop reinforcing it by talking about it:

“Here’s one of the ways that white men at Yale are most privileged of all: When a white male student at an elite college says that he feels disempowered, the first impulse of the campus left is to show him the extent of his power and privilege. When any other students say they feel disempowered, the campus left’s impulse is to validate their statements. This does a huge disservice to everyone except white male students.”

Is this true? I think it depends on whether there is some significant, unacknowledged power differential, of which those who are privileged by that differential are blissfully unaware. If so, then surely it does need to be called out and addressed. Unconscious attitudes can’t be changed just by pretending they are not there.

Is it possible that people cling unhelpfully to a victim status? Yes. It’s possible for anyone to feel victimised in some way, and of course in excess it can be hugely problematic. But I’m not sure it makes sense to demand that a person’s disproportionate reaction is cut down to size before being willing to listen to them – willing to understand what needs to be understood. Especially since without that full understanding, it is not possible to judge what is and isn’t a disproportionate reaction anyway.

A counter to Ayaan’s rosy view of the west might say that we have chopped the most ugly tip of the iceberg off: at least women, gay people, and ethnic minorities all have appropriate legal rights now, and more physical safety than before. But the iceberg remains. The cultural ideas and attitudes resulting from the legacy of domination of one group over another are stubborn, despite society believing that it has fully moved on. They still cause real pain and real disadvantage, and the threat of worse things reappearing is ever-present.

It’s all about perspective. Maybe it’s not very helpful to loudly demand other cultures chop the tip off their own iceberg, when not only does that lack the humility of recognising that we have a long way to go ourselves (and that we don’t exactly have a great track record of exporting brilliant ideas to the rest of the world), but also, it may just reinforce another power differential – the one that gives the western voice such volume in the world anyway…

Posted in feminism, Humanism, moral issues, social justice, Sunday Assembly | Tagged , | 1 Comment


I just read “The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking” by Oliver Burkemann. It presented several different counter-intuitive paths to happiness, having first discussed the limitations and ineffectiveness of a lot of the “positive thinking” cult.

One of these paths was Stoicism. I had never come across this philosophy before, but it sounded like my kind of thing! Stoicism advocates mulling over the “worst that could happen” – and sometimes even seeking out feared experiences – because often when examined closely and realistically, that worst is not the true disaster we initially fear. Rather than seeking reassurance that the worst won’t happen, comfort and security is found through being able to truly accept the possibility of it happening.

This doesn’t mean being indifferent to whatever happens – a bad outcome is still something to try and avoid, up to a point – it’s just about having a realistic and proportionate view of things, which for some reason seems to require a bit of effort. A lot of the time, when we seek happiness, we’re actually just seeking pleasure / avoiding displeasure, and ignoring the deeper ways in which happiness can come about.

It reminded me of the research on lottery winners and paraplegics, which suggested happiness levels don’t follow expected patterns, and big changes in circumstances might even have no long-term effect on happiness. What does all this mean for seeking happiness, for oneself or others?

It’s difficult to define the true “best” when sometimes the worst brings gifts that the best cannot. Perhaps it’s stupid to even think so one-dimensionally. Happiness is a big, weird, complex thing. And happiness is only one part of a good life; its presence in a slum does not make a slum a good thing.


Posted in philosophy, suffering | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Delusions of Gender: neurosexism

[This is the 6th of a series of posts discussing the book ‘Delusions of Gender’ by Cordelia Fine – finally getting around to finishing off the series!]

In part 2 of the book, Cordelia Fine critiques the neuroscience of sex differences. I didn’t find the neuroscience part as interesting and understandable as the earlier psychology and social science-based discussions, but it deserves a blog post for completeness’ sake – so here is a pretty brief summary, based around quotations from the book. Her criticisms of the science include the following points:

  • A simple consequence of statistical sampling is “that even if males and females, overall, respond the same way on a task, five percent of studies investigating this question will throw up a ‘significant’ difference between the sexes by chance.” And, of course, studies that show a difference that seems to correspond to some popular, stereotyped notions are much more likely to be published than those that show the boring result of no sex difference at all.
  • “…there’s plenty of scope for spurious findings of sex differences in neuroimaging research. … because imaging is so expensive, a small number of participants is the rule rather than the exception, and small neuroimaging studies may be especially unreliable, because nuisance variables (like breathing rate and caffeine intake, or even menstrual cycle in women) can dramatically change the imaging signal without having any effect on behaviour.”
  • “… neuroimagers are now finding that reported sex differences in brain activation haven’t been put to adequate statistical testing, or can come and go depending on how the analysis is done, or can fail to generalise to a distinct but similar task within a second group of men and women, or that the kind of analyses used to establish sex differences in brain activation can also ‘discover’ brain activation differences between randomly created groups (matched on sex, performance and obvious demographic characteristics). For all these reasons, it’s critical not to place too much faith in a single study that shows sex differences”
  • Dodgy science used in a waffly, hand-waving manner to back up popular stereotypes is an even worse distortion of the truth: “why stick to language and visuospatial skills when, as certain academics have shown us, any gender stereotype can be pinned to sex differences in hemisphere use, in impressively scientific-sounding fashion? For instance, what began as women’s supposedly more bilateral language skills quickly transformed into the basis of womanly intuition and multitasking skills while, as John Gray explains in Why Mars and Venus Collide, men’s more localised brain activity even explains their propensity to forget to buy milk.”
  • There is a “problem with interpreting sex differences in the brain: what do they actually mean for differences in the mind? … the obscurity of the relationship between brain structure and psychological function means that just-so stories can be all too easily written and rewritten.”
  • Brain functions are continually influenced and shaped by culture and other aspects of the environment. This is a kind of feedback loop whereby our brains influence the environment and the environments influences our brains right back, and this “seems to strip the word ‘hardwiring’ of much useful meaning.”

The overall picture of gender science is one of continual, embarrassingly reluctant, revision:

“… speculating about sex differences from the frontiers of science is not a job for the faint-hearted who hate to get it wrong. So far, the items on that list of brain differences that are thought to explain the gender status quo have always, in the end, been crossed off. But before this happens, speculation becomes elevated to the status of fact, especially in the hands of some popular writers. Once in the public domain these supposed facts about male and female brains become part of the culture, often lingering on well past their best-by dates. Here, they reinforce and legitimate the gender stereotypes that interact with our minds, helping to create the very gender inequalities that the neuroscientific claims seek to explain.”

Posted in 'Delusions of Gender', gender, science | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Lists, goals, and expectations

I’m a pretty organised person these days. I have not just one to-do list but several. I use various systems to help me stay on top of things. I regularly spend a bit of time overviewing and prioritising my current tasks.

The problem is, while recording things on a list initially lowers my stress levels as I can feel assured they won’t be forgotten, the list itself can then be a stressful thing. It is designed to be a simple memory aid but once it is written, it can become tyrannical, demanding; the items it contains are reasons never to feel comfortable. There is a compulsion to clear the list as soon as possible.

Situations lose all nuance when represented by a list. They become an exercise in beating the clock, a dimensionless series of pass/fail “tests”. The reward of ticking things off becomes far too large a part of the motivation.

I don’t know if this is just me. I do know that I am particularly averse to setbacks and failures; perhaps that plays into it. I can’t seem to keep my expectations under control, either.

I can recognise that I am more organised than the average person. But I never think I am productive enough. If I’m focussed on Sunday Assembly then I’m neglecting my career; if I’m focussed on my career then I’m failing to make time for creativity; if I’m writing blogs or playing guitar then I’m letting the home improvements slide; and so on. I am doing bits of everything I want to do, but it never seems enough.

When judging my own progress, I seem to view each “project” in my life (and perhaps that’s a problematic word!) as if it were the only thing I was doing. I compare myself to others who’ve gone much further than me, without remembering that the activities and interests that I’ve pursued are actually quite a diverse collection.

And then I recognise that my expectations are ridiculous, but it doesn’t make me feel much better, because then I just wish there were more hours in a day so I could do everything I want to do! Somehow I am not prepared to surrender to realism.

And I think there’s more to it than just being a passionate person. There is an ever-present undercurrent of striving to be worthy; to avoid the shame that I associate with things I haven’t got around to doing. For some reason I feel the need to whip myself into shape with lists and goals and projects.

Being deliberate in this way is not entirely a bad thing – I certainly have accomplished more because of it, and that is satisfying. But there is too much stress attached and it’s not making me feel happy a lot of the time. The best times happen when I lose myself in what I’m doing, and am no longer aware of the deliberation.

The most surprising instance of this has been DIY – something I expected to be a chore. Something about the physicality of it, working with my hands, working muscles I didn’t know existed, seems to snap me out of the overly cerebral mode I normally operate in, and it feels like a rest for my head. When it’s going well, at least! ;) Sunday Assembly organising, on the other hand, never feels like that. It is a big trigger for my compulsive organising trait and this has resulted in such heavy involvement that I’ve drifted into the role of Chair. I am giving it up in September.

I would really like to feel more comfortable with things not yet done. That’s not something I can put on a to-do list, but it is something I’d like to work on.

Posted in personal reflection, self-improvement | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment


I was once an angry atheist, for a fairly brief period. Maybe a year or so. It came with finally giving up religion, after a long struggle with it; regretting the energy I’d wasted on it, and seeing it as mostly a backwards and harmful thing.

I can’t help but notice I seem to be in a similar phase now, only it’s an “angry feminist” phase. Once again, I’ve stepped out of a world view I’d held since childhood, which I now see as insidious, and I feel compelled to talk everyone else out of it too. It’s strange: in becoming atheist and feminist, there is a sense in which I’m catching up with the rest of my society – only to find I overshoot, and become “unusual” once again, in how seriously I take these things. Most people will say they believe in gender equality, but will not see engagement rings or slimming clubs as oppressive vessels of patriarchy. It must be nice to be so laid back, I must say!

Atheism no longer interests me much, and although I have not resumed belief in any gods, I don’t identify with the atheist, humanist or rationalist “labels”.

At one point, scientific thinking looked to me like salvation from the tyranny of religion, superstition and all that is misleading. It seemed to prize humility, and to resist the reverence of anyone or any idea as infallible.

But the more I hear “scientific” reasoning reinforcing long-standing inequities, such as sexism and ableism, reducing complex issues to naive simplifications that say more about the social standing of the scientist than anything else… The more I listen to men (like Dawkins and Harris) too blind to their own privilege to entertain that they could possibly be wrong and have something to learn by listening to other people… The more disillusioned and angry I become. This has gone hand-in-hand with the development of my feminism. One anger has superseded another.

After the Tim Hunt debacle, it was disappointing, but not really surprising, to see so many male scientists arguing that he should have been reinstated at UCL. Anyone who thinks the kind of “jokes” he made are acceptable has absolutely no understanding of the problems facing women in science. And this is people who are supposed to be intelligent.

The inception of science has been a great human innovation and will always have the potential to do a lot of good. But at the moment I’m more interested in the problems for which science does not have the answers.

I’m trying to sit with my anger, knowing that the worst of it too will likely pass, although I don’t yet know what that passing will look like. I think there is much to be rightfully angry about, in religion and in patriarchy and in so many other of the interlinked web of social systems in which we live. But there is a sharpness there that perhaps has something to teach me about myself.

I guess it’s an outward expression of an inner harshness with myself. I’m frustrated that I’ve been held back by the internalised beliefs I’ve come to reject. I’m ashamed of who I’ve been, and where I’ve got to by being that person. I see myself as a failure, or a casualty. It makes me angry.

I want to embrace my work-in-progress self, who is trying her best. I want that to be enough.

Posted in feminism, gender, Humanism, is religion good or bad for you?, moral issues, personal reflection, science, social justice | Tagged , , | 1 Comment


I’m sort of sick of the word “feminism.” If I had my way, we’d replace it with something less gender-specific, like “caregiverism.” That’s ugly, I know. We’d have to come up with something better. But “feminist,” to me, falls short of the meaning that Adichie describes in the clip played by Beyoncé: “the social, political, and economic equality of the sexes.” We won’t achieve that kind of equality just by telling girls they, too, can be ambitious, as Adichie does. We have to go much deeper. We have to make it unacceptable to denigrate the work of care, which means challenging a hierarchy of values that goes back at least to the Ancient Greeks.

Feminists should become caregiverists as a way of establishing that the invisibility and unprotected status of caregivers is by no means only a women’s issue. … Work-life balance (that odious euphemism!) must also be seen as part of a larger structural problem. Limiting work hours used to be one of the great causes of the labor movement; even as the working day has grown longer and longer, this issue has dropped off the agenda—for many reasons … Nonetheless, without this broader perspective, we tend to think of our solutions to the problem of undone domestic labor as personal dilemmas—opting out, opting in—rather than as Hobson’s choices imposed on us by a shrinking amount of time available to do chores.


There are also some articles on feminist economics that seem to take a similar stance, at Women in Scotland’s Economy (I must admit I have not read them properly yet).

I think these ideas are important. Caregiving is hugely undervalued. “Success” is too narrowly defined, and feminism should not be about getting women to the top so they, too, can dominate and exploit others.

But I’ve been struggling a bit to reconcile this with a sense I have that caregiving should be less gendered than it is, too. If caregiving could be valued more, why would it still matter which gender did more of it?

I think it matters, partly because the dominance of any one gender in a particular area of life / field of work can lead to exaggerated gender traits and problematic behaviour. This is seen in overly competitive, overly confident or reckless behaviours in fields like banking, big business and science; and it is seen in perfectionism around “mothering” or housework to the point of being consumed by mindless drudgery and neglect of the self.

And it matters partly because the idea that women are more nurturing than men is doing harm. There are plenty of men and women who value caregiving within the family so highly that they believe it’s best done as a full-time job – almost always done by the woman, and of course, unpaid; although it could be argued that women are compensated for the lost earnings in the event of a divorce, through a settlement. But research suggests that mothers working and children attending nurseries (part-time, especially) is probably better for both than staying at home full-time (cited in Jessica Valenti, “Why Have Kids?”). And the world outside the home definitely needs women’s talents. (Would we want Mhairi Black chained to a kitchen sink in a few years’ time?) Am I denigrating caregiving by saying these things? Or am I denigrating a genderised form of it that is merely designed, by patriarchy, to keep women down?

Besides, it’s unlikely we will really value caregiving more highly until men start doing more of it.

Posted in feminism, gender, politics, social justice | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

Some political thoughts

I think it’s been a while since a UK general election generated this much high feeling in so many people. This week saw the UK turn mostly blue (Conservative) over the border, and almost completely yellow (Scottish National Party) here – two sides of the political spectrum dominating at two ends of the country.

None of the major UK-wide parties were offering a real challenge to the neoliberal public spending cuts that seem to have become orthodoxy in Westminster. So, Scots voted in droves for the anti-austerity SNP, galvanised by last year’s referendum in which 45% of the population voted to leave the UK – many of whom were motivated by precisely these apparent ideological differences between North and South.

The geographic division only seems to be getting stronger; right-wing representations of so-called Scottish “nationalism” during this election have probably helped push voters in England towards the Tories. And now we all have to live with the results.

In the past months I’ve been reading introductory books on capitalism, socialism, markets, neoliberalism, Marx, capitalist realism… trying to understand history, trying to find some believable formula for a happy world or country. I think there is plenty we can learn from our experience so far, but haven’t yet: for example, that a market-based system achieves large-scale coordination better than any central planner could ever have the information to do; but that it is essentially a complex system, like tectonic plates or the climate, and as such it is prone to large-scale extreme events – crises, in other words. Many seem not to realise financial crashes are an inherent part of a capitalist system (and of course, certain politicians are all too keen to exploit that ignorance and blame them instead on government overspending). The extent of austerity and neoliberalisation is correlated with worse economic performance – that is an empirical finding we can take note of, and runs counter to what most people seem to believe. Unbridled capitalism reliably produces a hugely unequal power-law distribution of wealth – power laws being another hallmark of complexity (the distribution of fault sizes in the Earth’s crust is another example: loads of tiny ones, a few really huge ones, and all sizes in-between); and inequality is bad news, since it is correlated with a whole host of social problems across the board.

But does debt-financed public spending (i.e. Keynesianism) reliably help a market-based economy out of a slump? The answer from history seems to be, “maybe”. Sometimes it seems to have helped, sometimes it seems not to have. It’s one thing to make general statements characterising a system; it’s another to make specific predictions about what will happen if one strategy or another is adopted by a government in a particular time and place. It would probably be a lot easier to have political consensus if incontrovertible predictions were possible. All opinions are – in large part – faith. (Perhaps this is why politics is just as divisive as religion?)

It seems to me that if we want to live happy and healthy lives in a market-based economic system, we need the complexity of the market to be bracketed by strong social institutions that prevent the elite at the top wielding excessive power, that protect us from the worst of the economic earthquakes, that temper the incessant and unsustainable “growth” imperative, and that constantly seek to re-level the playing field – globally as well as nationally. The trouble is, capitalism will always by its very nature create an elite class, and achieving a counter-balance to their class power is an uphill struggle and any balance difficult to sustain. Countries that do it best have a long history of doing so; and even they struggle to maintain it in the very long term.

One difficulty is that the elite have always had the resources at their disposal to convince the masses into voting against their own class interests. And there is always a spurious reason to be found for the pain. The rise of far-right anti-immigration parties such as the UK Independence Party (UKIP) is a logical consequence of the disaffection of the masses coupled with their lack of understanding of its structural causes. In UKIP people find an outlet for the same frustrations that have turned so many Scottish voters to the SNP; the difference is in where the blame is placed for the way things are going: on lenient policies that let too many foreigners in, or on the neoliberal policies that make conditions so hard for the poor – locally and globally.

But we live in an age where it is easier than ever to make yourself heard, to connect with others, to form groups, to become educated. Media, in the larger sense, is much more democratic than it’s ever been – and we’ve probably only just scratched the surface of how this can be utilised. Perhaps things are not as hopeless as they seem.

Posted in politics, science, social justice | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment