Our generation did not invent political correctness, but we can fight it

Our generation did not invent political correctness, but we can fight it

Political correctness is not a new phenomenon. The fact is that many dangerous questions are currently walled off by the baby boomers who dominate our universities (and large sectors of the media). Today’s culture war likes to scapegoat young people for the rise of the illiberal Left, but the responsibility really lies with the generation who came before us.

Each one of us has the ability to generate a hypothesis. A hypothesis simply comes from asking a question about the world and then using our imaginations to answer it. Almost every advance in human history first came from a person willing to look at the world, or the status quo, from a different angle. But if questions and hypotheses are going to have any impact they must be articulated. Questions have to come out of our minds and into the world around us.

The problem with P.C. is that it constrains the questions that we feel we can ask both of ourselves, and our superiors. It allows orthodoxy to creep in (as it always does). There is, however, a continuing perception that arguments against P.C. are only made by those wishing to go around calling people racist or sexist names. The question is often asked: what exactly is wrong with P.C. if it makes us more civil? The short answer is nothing. If that were all P.C. were about, no-one would have a problem with it at all.

If P.C. meant that fewer ad hominem insults were used in public discourse, intellectuals across the board would support it. If it meant that individuals were not clapped in the stocks in sadistic public-shaming campaigns, P.C. would be progressive. But in practice, those who enforce P.C. standards seem to specialise almost exclusively in ad hominem attack. Twitter mobbing, which quite literally destroys people’s reputations and livelihoods, is the apotheosis of P.C. justice. There is nothing civil or redeeming about it.

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After the transformation of society brought by the 1960s, a cohort of sentimental liberals naturally flocked to academia. Many of them set up shop in the humanities and social sciences and spread both post-modernism and blank slate fundamentalism (the ideological resistance to biology, genetics and evolution) far and wide throughout the academy. These two mutually reinforcing ideologies have had a massive effect on scholarship and the wider culture.

It would be prudent for us to remember that of the young people who police language and thought on campus today, many have not yet left home; their privilege has effectively kept them in a state of intellectual neoteny. While the political movements that their parents were involved in were creative, aspirational and good-hearted, many of these movements have now ossified into the most brittle of orthodoxies. P.C. students on campus today are simply foot soldiers for their parents’ ideologies. And before we attack young people for being censorious and priggish, we should remember that this kafkaesque political baggage is what this generation has to bear.

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In 2005, when the president of Harvard, Larry Summers, hypothesised that women’s under-represention in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) might have something to do with men’s greater variance in IQ scores, his hypothesis was declared untenable. Touching on two taboos at the same time – intelligence research and sex differences – meant that he was met with the writhing apoplexy of the self-righteous mob. The scientific evidence was ignored, very few, even in the academy, defended his right to hypothesise, and he lost his presidency.

P.C. crusaders in the academy also have a long tradition of obstructing empirical work into sex differences. One psychologist repeatedly labels research looking at brain sex differences as “neurosexism” and “neurotrash”. And discouraging research into brain sex differences has very real consequences. In 2013, the drug administration of the U.S., the FDA, issued a statement instructing dosing for popular sleeping pills to be halved for women. Their decision implied that women had been overdosing on sleeping pills for nearly twenty years. Neuroscientists such as Larry Cahill, have described the situation as pitiful. P.C. dogma has stymied research into female neurobiology for years.

It is not my generation that is responsible for this kind of groupthink. Yes, original feminism was creative and brilliant in extending principles of humanism and universalism to women. But my generation were not bequeathed a political movement with an Enlightenment impulse. What we inherited was the intellectual equivalent of a dead carcass. Those of us born in or after the 1980s, who studied humanities at university, were told by our professors that “there is no universal truth”. We either dropped out – or became indoctrinated into a cult of epistemological nihilism. My generation did not bring the rot of post-modernism and blank slate fundamentalism into the academy. How dare the wider culture blame us for this. We are the generation left with liberal arts educations that have been trashed from the inside out.

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It might serve us to remember that the enforcers of dogmas today would have been the enforcers of dogmas yesterday. Those who went after Dr. Matt Taylor of the Rosetta Mission for his shirt, would have happily brought Galileo before the Inquisition – and they would have thought it was for his own good. Whether they are warriors for God, or warriors for Social Justice, the moral certainty of holier-than-thou crusaders tends to remain the same.

Today’s “Stepford Students” are indeed disconcerting. But we ought not forget where and with whom their belief system originated. The Old Guard will eventually leave their postings in the academy (and the media) and it is up to us to make sure they take their P.C. dogmas with them. Of course, the baby boomers have made wonderful contributions –in art, culture, technology and science – but we should feel free to leave their orthodoxies, taboos and political baggage behind.

We did not invent P.C. but we can fight it. The first step is to drop our parents’ blank slate ideologies, including post-modernism, into the dustbin of history. The second step is to start asking questions, even if they offend. The third step is to get them down on paper (or the computer screen) and circulate them with other heretics. We all have the ability to generate hypotheses, and hypotheses are the engine of progress.

Amanda Hess discovers women have control over their lives. Pop- feminists everywhere are confused

Amanda Hess discovers women have control over their lives. Pop- feminists everywhere are confused

A few months ago, pop-feminist Amanda Hess, wrote an Op-Ed in which she accused scientists of doing research that reflected their “masturbatory tendencies”. This month, she has spilled ink on science again, this time with another Op-Ed in Slate’s The XX Factor attempting to “debunk” the ovulatory-shift hypothesis.

Hess concludes her piece with the following words:

Women’s endocrine processes have officially taken a back seat to our  own mental and physical capacities to regulate our preferences and our cycles to better contribute to our societies.”

Yes. One would hope all human beings over a certain age, who are fortunate enough to not be brain-injured, or drug-addicted would be able to regulate certain biological processes. And contribute to society. But being unable to “regulate” “endocrine processes” is not what the ovulatory shift hypothesis is about.

The hypothesis holds that like all other primates, human females change their behaviour during oestrus. Specifically, it predicts that women, on average, will find high-testosterone and socially dominant men more attractive for short-term mating (one night stands) when fertile. The shifts, however, a theorised to be subtle. And of course, there are exceptions to the rule. The hypothesis also only predicts which men women will find attractive, not which men women will actually have sex with (something which a whole lot of other factors influence).

But the fact that women have the ability to regulate their biological processes, does not rule out the ovulatory shift hypothesis. That would be like saying that because some people are able to regulate their appetites, this “contradicts” the neurobiology of hunger. Women choose to act on their desires, just as men do.

Hess’s Op-Ed attempting to debunk the ovulatory shift hypothesis was based on a meta-analysis (a synthesis of data from multiple studies) that was published in March this year in Emotion Review. It was conducted by Wendy Wood and colleagues and found that the relationship between menstrual cycles and mating preference to be negligible. It was supposed to answer once and for all if women’s menstrual cycles really do affect their mating preferences. But it didn’t.

This is because another meta-analysis by Gilversleeve et al was also published this year which came to very different conclusions. Featured in psychology’s flagship journal Psychological Bulletin, this analysis found that ovulatory-shifts in mating preference were “robust,” and “without bias”. It has also been noted that the Wood et al meta-analysis did not distinguish between “short” and “long” term mating, in accordance with sexual strategies theory.

Presumably unaware of these complexities, Slate’s editors went on to publish their Op-Ed with the following title:

Study Finds That Women Aren’t Run by Their Periods. Scientists Everywhere Are Confused.

In part, the piece argued that because women have free-will, and are also culturally conditioned, ovulatory-shifts in mate preference are implausible. Again, just because women have the ability to override their impulses, doesn’t mean they don’t exist.

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Imagine choosing a meal to eat. Just because a person finds the combination of sugar and fat tasty, (it activates that reward centers of the brain), doesn’t mean that person eats cheesecake and ice-cream for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Not eating cheesecake or ice-cream for every meal could be partly due to cultural conditioning, partly due to self-control, and partly due to other factors.

The point is we make choices that override our innate preferences everyday. Having more information about our biology and psychology, does not lead one to be “ruled” by anything. On the contrary, it leads us to be more reflective, and more in control.

This is not the first time that psychological research has come under attack from Amanda Hess, or pop-feminists more widely. In a piece published last year, feminist writer Ruby Hamad made the bizarre comparison:

“Whereas once religion was used to control women and define their role and status in society, more and more, we are finding that science is being used in exactly the same fashion.”

If the pop-feminist worldview seems anti-intellectual and self-serving, that’s because it is. There is no pop-feminist writing championing women’s free will in the face of radical post-modern theories which deny female agency. The extremists of the feminist movement who characterise all heterosexual sex as “rape,” or portray women’s choices as “illusions” get off scot free.

In fact, pop-feminists have been duplicitous in attempting to convince an entire generation of impressionable, young, (mostly white, middle-class) women that they don’t have agency. Like astrologers before them, they ply readers who are prone to fatalism with their ideological fairytales. Instead of Mars aligning with Venus, the ‘Patriarchy’ colludes with ‘Hegemonic Masculinity’ to obstruct women’s ‘true’ destinies.

Yet despite all the rhetoric and hostility , I suspect that Hess and her ilk have known that women enjoy free-will in their lives all along. They just admit it when it suits them. The irony is that gaining insight into biological and psychological processes only enhances women’s capacity to live how they want to. It is sad that feminists feel they must protect women from that.

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See also:

Gildersleeve, K., Haselton, M. G., & Fales, M. R. (2014). Do Women’s Mate Preferences Change Across the Ovulatory Cycle? A Meta-Analytic Review. Psychological Bulletin, doi: 10.1037/a0035438

Ferguson, C. J. (2014). Comment: Why Meta-Analyses Rarely Resolve Ideological Debates. Emotion Review, 1–2. Retrieved from: http://www.christopherjferguson.com/Emotion%20Review.pdf

Wood, W., Kressel, L., Joshi, P. D., & Louie, B. (2014). Meta-analysis of menstrual cycle effects on women’s mate preferences. Emotion Review, 1-2.

The paradox of female happiness

The paradox of female happiness

Women are about 75 per cent more likely than men to report having recently suffered from depression. Women are also about 60 per cent more likely to report an anxiety disorder. These sharp discrepancies observed by Oxford professor Daniel Freeman, were found in eight of 12 nations from which statistics were taken. They also support a study which found that women reported higher levels of happiness than men in the 1960s but that this gender gap has now reversed. Why the change?

What does this mean when women are healthier, better educated, enjoy more economic freedom and more opportunities than we did 35 years ago? Since the 1960s it has become socially acceptable to leave unhappy marriages. The stigma that once existed around free expression of female sexuality has softened. Legislation is in place to protect women from sexual harassment. By many objective measures, women in the West have never been more liberated.

For all of this improvement many women are unhappy. Freeman, a clinical psychologist, noticed a gap in the literature on sex differences in mental health conditions and investigated national mental health surveys taken from the UK, US, Europe, Australia and New Zealand. He found that women are up to 40 per cent more likely than men to develop mental health disorders, with the sharpest discrepancies in depression and anxiety.

Freeman was careful to examine whether women were more likely to report health problems than men, or more willing than men to seek help. In The Stressed Sex, co-written with his brother Jason, and published by Oxford University Press, the authors conclude that while these factors may have an impact they cannot solely explain the differences found between the genders.

They show that while men suffer higher rates of substance abuse, ADHD and autism, women are bearing the brunt of emotional disorders, which are much more common, and rates of these conditions are on the rise. It appears that women’s mental health is in fact a “major public health issue”.

The causes of mental illness are complex. There is no single factor which sets one off, and psychologists will look at a range of variables in an attempt to understand etiology. Biological factors, thought processes and social structures are all involved. Thinking styles such as rumination are heavily implicated in anxiety and depression and genetics also play their role. But Freeman points out that the main contributing factor to the decline in women’s mental health could actually be stress.

Women make constant decisions about how to parcel out their time most efficiently. We have careers and children to juggle as well as relationships and domestic labour. Making a priority of one area always leaves another to be neglected (even just for a short time). Men too face these challenges, but for women it seems these trade-offs are pressure-cooked. The unending negotiation of conflicting life domains takes an emotional toll.

Interestingly, the findings of Freeman were foreshadowed four years ago in a watershed paper by the economists Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers, who found that women’s happiness has declined relative to men’s. Looking at data stretching over 35 years, across America and Europe, it was found that women reported higher levels of happiness in the 1960s and were happier relative to men. This gender gap has now reversed, with men the happier sex.

The decline in female subjective wellbeing was found to cut across both class and race and held true for women of all ages, with children and without.

The authors of this rather provocative study avoided providing glib answers to the questions their paper raised. But a decline in 35 years cannot be attributed to such things as genetics – the cause must be largely environmental. Some will say the decline is due to ongoing prejudices against women, structural barriers, and patriarchal oppression. Traditionalists might point out that today in many ways courtship and romance are ‘dead’. Perhaps men are enjoying license for irresponsibility and selfish behavior that was not so permissible in the past.

While these factors may contribute, it could simply be that women are liberated but stressed. More opportunities to succeed mean more opportunities to fail. Anxiety and depression often hit us when we feel as though we don’t measure up. And with so many domains to now excel in, we can’t be blamed for feeling less than adequate for not aspiring for excellence in all of them.

For all of the discussions about work/life balance, what is notably missed from the conversation are such things as self-care and leisure time. Important variables such as exercise, sleep, a healthy diet and social connectedness take a back seat to career and domestic labour in many women’s lives.

If happiness was found to be higher in women 35 years ago, those who speak on women’s behalf might want to rethink the feminist obsession with power, status and economic production. Advocates may want to reconsider the importance of other outcomes such as health and wellbeing. If women really are bearing the brunt of emotional disorders, we have some difficult truths to face up to in regards to why.