Twenty years ago, I was walking home from teaching a class on the Genevan philosopher, Jean-Jacques Rousseau. The college where I taught was located on the Plateau (an area of Montreal that almost no longer exists). During my walk, I passed by Rachel Avenue and the viaduct, which branched off north towards Marie-Anne, a quiet side street. I was sorting through my thoughts during my walk. Having talked in front of a group of students was both exciting and helped generate ideas. Teaching made me understand a subject differently, new avenues, unexpected links and interesting examples arose. But when we acquire ideas, it’s like acquiring to objects, we need a place to store them.
The theme of the class was about sexism found in the texts of our illustrious thinkers. Rousseau in particular, was an example of good faith sexism. He asserted that men and women are similar in all aspects. Except there’s a but, that procreation and animality obliges. The physiological distinctions between men and women, notes the terrible child of the Enlightenment, creates psychological differences that can be observed, which we are obliged to admit.
Man Is Male at Times
The reasoning goes as follows: a woman is female all her life by consequence, because she must care for a child. According to the Genevan, a man is only responsible for his ability to provide for chance encounters. This observation leads to a cascade of obligations for the nurturing mother. Having the task of raising her offspring, she must be gentle and attentive, be like this and like that, and hence this and that. A whole logic of the sexes emerges under Rousseau’s pen, which I caricature, to the great pleasure of my young female listeners.
Never did Rousseau (perhaps in the top ten of the Guinness Book of World Records for the number of children left in the care of public assistance) think that fatherhood could entail any obligation whatsoever (other than monetary, which, moreover, was what modern justice thought for a long time). The snag is that this subjection to the education of children is not a (only) physiological fact but a social condition: mother at home. Now, there are day-care centers and women work, and hence many men stay home.
What would Rousseau have thought of strip clubs?
Me Tarzan, You Jane
Walking deep in reflection, I came across a young mother who was patiently explaining to her uncooperative son why he needs to go to an appointment. The kid’s logic is simple: I don’t like it, I don’t have to go. No need to waste time reasoning with him, a traditional father would have thought. You have to do it, that’s life. Stop crying and follow me. But with love and patience, the mother forces the son to reason. Softness and attention, as much as arguments, calm the child. He ends up questioning. If it’s being explained, he might actually understand.
While I observe this very feminine art of patience, a young man walks by in the opposite direction. He calls his dog using raw words and with harsh leash strokes (a behavior that has since mostly disappeared). It made me smile. Could it be that Rousseau was right?
It was then that the logic of the cave came to me.
The one time I spontaneously refused to help my father, I got a slap in the face. Yet he was no more violent than anyone else. Less, in fact. When I would occasionally travel with my father, he would take the opportunity to tell me about the places we visited and the people he knew. He would transfer his expertise of the territory (far from the cave) to me. My mother would stay home (in the cave and its surroundings), as did the vast majority of the women in traditional relationships at the time. When I arrived home, the conclusion was obvious: if males and females depend on each other for procreation and the education of children, the lack of technology has forced us into a specialization of tasks according to gender. Without this absolute priority, humans would not have survived the 700 centuries of prehistory. In short, all the so-called sexist characteristics are moulded over time, depending on the terrain and climate.
Other times, other customs, it is said.
(to be continued)