Monday, April 12, 2010

Survival of the oppressive fittest

I don't really know much about Naomi Wolf, but I just happened across this quote of hers, which I had seen before and I think is fairly famous:
Dieting is the most potent political sedative in women’s history; a quietly mad population is a tractable one.
I think she kind of overstates her case with that "most" there, but aside from that minor quibble (one I really have no right to make, considering the frequency of my own case-overstating) it's an excellent observation. The need for women to adhere to unreachable and irrelevant standards of beauty is a huge obstacle to their achieving equality even in, say, the repressive exploitation of wage slavery, let alone any other aspect of life.

There is a particular argument that people commonly make against accurate descriptions of oppression in the form of Wolf's above (i.e., the form "this widely accepted fact of life in our society functions remarkably well to keep us from opposing or even noticing our own oppression"). When I saw this quote today it even lept, briefly, unbidden, to my mind, whereupon I had to exert an effort (a minimal effort, but an effort nonetheless) to banish it, which tells me it embedded deeply enough in my culture to be a part of my subconscious, which sucks. The argument goes something like this: "Oh come on. Do you really think there's there are a bunch of men sitting around in a room somewhere making the decision to inflict dieting on women just to keep them down?"

And, well. With this specific case there kind of is, considering that there's a beauty industry. So I guess that was a bad example. But even admitting this, many would make the argument "Well, maybe some women are affected that way, but it's not like anyone's doing it deliberately."

I have two thoughts about that.

First, intent doesn't matter. The effect does. The logic is similar to the common liberal "We're killing you for your own good" argument for war. Regardless of whether or not the people in charge of the beauty industry are sitting around in smokey back rooms twirling their mustaches and cackling about oppressing women, the fact remains that in real life women are oppressed by the things they do.

Second, and this is my main point regardless of how frickin' long it took me to get to it, you could see concepts like unattainable beauty as being the product of a process of Darwinian evolution. Human beings, moving around in their predictable/unpredictable ways, interacting and forming societies, inevitably create all kinds of ideas and cultural norms and aphorisms and expectations. These are often the specific creation of individuals that end up being popular, and also are often the result of mixing and matching all kind of pieces originating from different groups of people; either way, the rise to relevance is largely random.

But there are selective pressures. And in a capitalist, rigidly class-stratified culture like the one we've got, the overwhelmingly strongest of these pressures come from the interests of power. The big money system sees all these ideas percolating around. It sees some of them getting more popular. And it evaluates them for usefulness. Those that are useful--those that are immediately profitable, those which will perpetuate the system--get shitloads of money thrown at them. Those that are not do not or, worse, get money thrown at their opposites. In this way, the ideas that are useful to power survive and reproduce and spawn new ideas in new heads that are also useful to power, while those that are either useless or against power tend to die off before having much of an impact.

So it is that we have all these well-financed cultural messages telling women that they need to diet themselves into insanity, and spend an hour getting ready for work for every minute that a man spends doing the same. In this way women are driven to consume lots of products and to be unable to form useful opposition. Similarly, we're told over and over again by power that, say, money can't buy happiness and we're all much better off without it. And at the same time that poor people are poor because they're lazy. And at the same time that you should avoid looking poor by buying lots of expensive products. And so on and so on.

At the level of individuals, this mechanism mostly takes the form of people making marketing decisions based on what will keep them their own jobs. The ones who are good at picking the right ideas and trends to put money into keep their jobs long enough to keep doing it over and over again. And they do keep doing it, because in so doing they not only keep their jobs--they advance their careers. They know they have to advance their careers because there are a lot of well-financed messages telling them they have to. So, regardless of whether the smokey backrooms of villainy actually exist (and I believe that at least some of them do), the system knows how to perpetuate itself.


Quin said...

"the system knows how to perpetuate itself"

Or put less anthropomorphically and less pithily: any phenomenon that is a regular feature of a long-lasting system must be self-perpetuating. Otherwise, it couldn't have ever possibly become part of the system.

Saying that the system is self-perpetuating is very nearly tautological.

Salty said...

I always thought of governmental systems as being just like any other natural system. Despite all our bluster, humans are still animals and everything we do is still technically natural.

From this perspective, we see that there is an evolution taking place in governments. Their selection system is complex, involving revolutions, war, reform, and 10,000 other little things that sum together. The system is thus the product of how it responds to the selection system.

We have the "best" possible government, insofar as the government is best capable of defending itself from change. The system does not know how to perpetuate itself, (ask any politician, they're way too dumb to know what they're doing) it simply does.

Ethan said...

Quin, it is tautological, and as I reread this post this afternoon, I wondered if there was really any reason to have written it. But I think it is important to point out this function of the system, because we're so well-trained to see the system as invisible. I really like your supposedly less pithy expression of the concept, which condenses my 1000 or so words into two short paragraphs.

Salty, re your first paragraph, I tend to agree, though I also tend to think exactly the opposite somehow. Take for instance capitalist economics, which experts tend to view as immutable laws of nature but which are really the result of masses of people making choices that could be made differently. I think the (pretty definitely unreachable) solution to these problems lies in turning these laws of nature, these self-perpetuating systems, back into choices.

We have the "best" possible government, insofar as the government is best capable of defending itself from change. The system does not know how to perpetuate itself, (ask any politician, they're way too dumb to know what they're doing) it simply does.

The first sentence I love. The second sentence I think kind of contradicts itself; the fact that any given politician is too dumb to understand anything, which I agree with, is exactly what I'm saying is proof that the system knows how to perpetuate itself. Unless your objection is to the word "knows" which as Quin says is perhaps misleadingly anthropomorphic, in which case I 100% agree.

Salty said...

As per usual, any time I post on this blog, the comments demand further clarification. Damnit.

Ethan said...

What do you mean?!?!?!