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of the knowledge of evil, and of the sexes

December 29, 2011

One of the staples of literature is speculation about good and evil.  One of the earliest stories describes, as the earliest temptation to evil, the very desire to gain knowledge of good and evil:

הַדַּעַת טוֹב וָרָע

τοῦ εἰδέναι γνωστὸν καλοῦ καὶ πονηροῦ

“of the knowledge of good and evil”

Shortly after this descriptive phrase, one reads from the second chapter of Genesis (or ΓΕΝΕΣΙΣ or בְּרֵאשִׁית) a first description of the created, biological difference between two sexes in humans.  To readers, this seems to be a narrative that foreshadows another related difference in the next chapter: the difference between how the two humans, of two sexes, the Adam and his wife, succomb to temptation and to evil.

As we all know, from this biblical story, there comes much religious and investigational-informational literature that focuses on knowing the difference between good and evil and between males and females.  Wikipediaists have conveniently begun to list “further developments” in the literatures of Judaism, Christianity, Gnosticism, Islam, and even science.  Elsewhere, there’s acknowledgment of a different origins tradition, the ancient Greek literature, in which the first created woman and the first known evil come together.  Likewise, there’s some description of the literature of the first Greek science of the female sex as different from males.

So what?  So what’s this got to do with my world today?

Well, for me, there are a couple of “so whats.”

First, I read bloggers such as Louisa Leontiades (i.e., “Founder of http://www.investment-impact.com. Part Greek. Geek. Woman”). And she’s acknowledging the literature.  But she’s challenging my fundamental knowledge of evil and good, of lack of compassion and ethics. She writes, “Two days ago, my blog lauded the ability to look at both sides of the story. That is still my belief. Compassion is an essential ingredient of my humanity.” She lauds and lambastes certain ways of thinking:

I am a great believer in many of Aristotle’s sayings (as far as anyone can be a believer in a figure of almost mythological proportions who was reputedly a misogynist!) and his examination of the virtues being a voluntary balance between two extremes. For example ‘bravery’ is a virtue and is the balance between rashness and cowardice. A brave man..(or woman!) ….
Aristotle was father to two – a girl and a boy. His philosophy is a cornerstone of the modern day justice system. I wonder how different it would have been though, if his own children had been threatened and his consequent actions undermined and discredited his own teachings? Would his philosophy and our justice system have been any different?

Second, my mother at dinner last evening tells me that she and my father have listened to an interview on the local public radio. She’s excited to tell me about it.  A scientist is putting “evil” and “empathy” in terms of cause and effect brain science.  It’s this interview with “University of Cambridge psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen… [on h]is recent book … The Science of Evil: On Empathy and the Origins of Cruelty.”  If you listen for yourself, then 12 minutes in you’ll hear interviewer Krys Boyd asking scientist Baron-Cohen why he focused on gender (and not certain other human features) in his research. If you go online to take his questionnaire for yourself, then you see that you must identify yourself first as either “Female” or “Male.” The scientist directs Boyd and us to another of his books, The Essential Difference: Male And Female Brains And The Truth About Autism. And his tested research hypothesis is that human male brains tend to be less compassionate, less “empathetic” than human female brains. (I must say that this is worth thinking about, and some of us blogging have done a little thinking and talking about it.)

So what do you know, and what do you think, and dare we consider “sides of the story”?

16 Comments leave one →
  1. December 29, 2011 12:28 pm

    Well, strangely enough, I was thinking about good and evil this morning. Something about those first psalms again: like 5:5 For you are not a God who delights in wickedness // evil is not your guest. Somewhere along the way someone asked – why is the story of the tree of the k of g and e not in the TNK much? But it is. It is in Job where the accuser has no place at the end of the book. It is in Psalms 111-112 where the last verse has no recurrence in the earlier part of the psalm. Evil is isolated. And the tree of life – lest we take from it and live forever – it too is pervasive, the tree of psalm 1, the beloved of the Song, and a few other places I won’t look up. These are random unsubstantiated thoughts, perhaps looking for integration where it need not be.

    About the sexes, it does seem to me that the women in my life are more tender-hearted than the men, and better organizers, but there is need in each case. I don’t think I could generalize with authority from my experience. Nor could I categorize a woman’s need separately from a man’s.

    I wonder these days if humanity is capable of overcoming its own evil. Not directly to do with sex, but indirectly, the men in power (Egypt, Syria, etc) are all moved by their desire to support and protect a power base. The systems that support them have the same motive. There is no give. Perhaps the extreme case of North Korea stands out – a million female mourners, a million standing male army. Is this evil? Absolutely – and on a grand scale even in its pathetic face.

    Evil is not your guest – hmmm – how will we find good here?

    Thanks for the conversations. Rare these days.

  2. December 29, 2011 12:52 pm

    Joan of Arc. Boudicca. Triệu Thị Trinh*. Salome. Margaret Thatcher. Unconvinced.

    (I finally got around to watching The Help on DVD, and it seems that the understanding of that movie is that black women are more empathetic than white women.)

    *memorable quote: “I’d like to ride storms, kill sharks in the open sea, drive out the aggressors, reconquer the country, undo the ties of serfdom, and never bend my back to be the concubine of whatever man.”

  3. December 29, 2011 1:45 pm

    Bob,
    Thanks for your insightful comments always. This statement is particularly astute: “I don’t think I could generalize with authority from my experience. Nor could I categorize a woman’s need separately from a man’s.” I do see, nonetheless, that you are looking at the Hebrew scriptures as giving valid statements about “evil” and “good” and “knowledge”; would you speculate with me, then, where the strict and precise and dogmatic separation of the sexes along the lines of such categories comes from? Isn’t it from people who want to maintain categories that allow them more power than the “other”?

    Theophrastus,
    Per your parenthetical observation: yes, the movie makers (screen writer and collaborating novel author, a man and a woman, neither a black woman) do seem to “understand” black women to be more empathetic. Ironically, black women critics by and large have many objections to the portrayals. It’s the “more empathetic than” comparisons that are key here, the essentializing by class, by race, by gender that are troublesome. Even your grouping of the likes of “Joan of Arc, Boudicca, Triệu Thị Trinh, Salome. Margaret Thatcher” by the features +female / -male and +evil / -good begins to deconstruct Baron-Cohen’s would-be scientific conclusions. Thank you. (By the way, my white parents during the Jim Crow era hired “help,” a black woman who took care of my siblings and me. What a legacy, huh? But as attitudes change and prejudices are exposed, the telling of the history and correct telling of the history of black women by black women remains very important and absolutely vital.)

  4. December 29, 2011 3:06 pm

    Theophrastus,

    Off topic (sort of) —

    Who has acted Margaret Thatcher best?

    http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/film/8311635/People-who-have-played-Margaret-Thatcher.html

    Will Meryl Streep do better?

  5. December 29, 2011 4:35 pm

    I have not seen a single one of the performances mentioned, so I can hardly compare. But if history is an oracle, Streep will earn both an Academy Award and Golden Globe nomination.

  6. Suzanne McCarthy permalink*
    December 29, 2011 5:22 pm

    I agree with Theo – Baren-Cohen’s notions do not impress me in any way. I could just as easily think of colour blindness, Down’s Syndrome or a host of other maladies as extreme male brain problems, and what good would that do? (I note also that he has mined Kimura.)

    On the one hand, if B-C’s notions were true, then men would not be allowed to make decisions at all, and one might think that feminists would welcome that outcome. But actually, it is all smoke and mirrors. I hope someone will kindly extract from B-C’s writing, the few things that do ring true and contribute to a further understanding of empathy and evil, and leave the rest of what he writes by the wayside.

    It is basically the case that whoever is in a position of less power, has to be more tuned in to other people. If you have no power, then you are constantly watching the person with power, so as to predict what will happen next. The person with power can decide what will happen next. He or she does not need to constantly monitor everyone else, just to get through the day.

  7. December 29, 2011 5:30 pm

    OK Kurk I think my extensive meandering on the good is ready for a read. I have responded to your question here. I required more than a chink in the wall for this comment 🙂

  8. December 30, 2011 8:33 am

    Theophrastus,
    I think you’re right in your prediction: Streep – who has won more Oscars and Golden Globe awards than any other man or woman – should portray the Iron Lady just fine. There was a day in some societies when only men were allowed to play the roles, even of women. Streep has noted differences, today, nonetheless: “It’s harder for a man to jump inside a woman character’s mind and imagine, ‘This could happen to me’ than it is for a woman to imagine herself as a male character” (Times of London). And in a commencement speech at Barnard, she goes on: “Men aren’t quite the Neanderthals they used to be. Things are changing now. And it’s in your generation that we’re seeing this. Men are adapting. They are adapting consciously and also without realizing it for the better of the whole group. They are changing their deepest prejudices to accept and to regard as normal things that their fathers would have found very very difficult and that their grandfathers would have abhorred.” Notice – LOL – that the only man who has played Margaret Thatcher is Steve Nallon, who used his voice and a puppet. 🙂

  9. December 30, 2011 8:41 am

    Suzanne,
    Thanks for your observations about Baron-Cohen’s so-called science, both here at this blog and at my blog Aristotle’s Feminist Subject. What I should have noted in my post here is that my mother was excited mainly to hear that empathy and evil may, in part, be hard wired in the brain. My father is becoming more and more compassionate toward people as he fights cancer, so we were all joking that maybe the tumors in his brain and the radiation to shrink them have had a social-psychological effect. It was all jokes and humor about that, but we all are grateful, seriously, for positive changes whatever the cause. Gender difference had been a huge issue for my family as I was growing up, and that was hardly ever positive for my mother. (Note, whenever I post on B-C, I always bring in Aristotle as if he’s his predecessor in the science of sure male/ female difference.)

  10. December 30, 2011 8:41 am

    Bob,
    Thanks for taking time. I’ve replied at your blog.

  11. Suzanne McCarthy permalink*
    December 30, 2011 10:54 am

    Kurk,

    I understand where you are coming from. In my experience, gender is just one dimension in considering personality. Although I have had quite a patriarchal church context, in my own family, there has been a tacit understanding that there are two personality types, one more focused academic, and the other geared to business. But this crosses gender boundaries – no relation. So, my siblings don’t think of gender and personality type as having any connection at all. You won’t hear us discussing the extreme male brain.

    Sadly, my mom became quite withdrawn when she had cancer. no jokes and humour. I am aware though that for many people, especially with support, it can be a time of real growth and clarity. I thnk it brings out the human in us.

    And Aristotle himself had much to say about being human, about friendship and literature. I especially like a recent quote on this blog about history being particular and poetry universal. I feel that there is a literature that is androgynous. Yes, there are any things about us that are different because of gender, but surely as we age, we must become more aware of ourselves as humans, more aware of what we have in common.

  12. December 30, 2011 3:52 pm

    A. O. Scott’s review of Iron Lady begins:

    The best thing about “The Iron Lady” may be that viewers going into the theater with strong views, pro or con, about its subject, the former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher, are likely to emerge in a state of greater ambivalence, even confusion. Those who know or care little about her will also be confused, but for different reasons.

  13. December 30, 2011 4:30 pm

    Suzanne,

    To me, on matters of how people use gender to “mark” and unnecessarily so, you are absolutely brilliant. I love how you combine academic rigor with the personal, won’t allow these to be separated easily, as if objectivity is something true of humans in general. It is. My education in feminisms has exposed me to much study of how “fe-male” is marked linguistically. “Subjectivity” is more marked too than objectivity. There’s an epistemology (a “science” of knowing, or sets of epistemologies) that people use to denigrate the “other,” especially when the other is “wo-man.” This is what I associate much with Aristotle (although I love how C.Z. Elgin, one of the world’s leading contemporary epistemologists, reminds us: “Aristotle, of course, was not named ‘Aristotle’; the name he went by had a different pronunciation and a different spelling”). No feminist, nor Aristotle either, has the right to label or mark a genre of writing or a human being “botched” without a penis as “feminine.” And the labelling, however, convenient too often creates an unnecessary higherarchy by which the labeller gets the upper hand. Hope that makes sense! So sorry to hear of the sadness around your mother’s cancer; it’s a horrible, wicked disease (and my wife, our daughter, my wife’s parents, and my father are yet all survivors); physicians and other healthcare workers, women and men, in the art and science of oncology medicine and surgery and radiation are our heros.

    Theophrastus,

    A. O. Scott is right I would guess, as he reviews the film, to suggest “‘The Iron Lady’ is, above all, the story of a widow and a half-abandoned mother.” But is Mr. Scott really fair in asking so rhetorically the following?

    Would the life of a male politician be rendered this way? Is this an unfair question? It seems to me that Ms. Lloyd and Ms. Morgan try to have it both ways, to celebrate their heroine as a feminist pioneer while showing her to be tragically unfulfilled according to traditional standards of feminine accomplishment.

    Not having seen the film yet, I can’t really judge well this first summary statement of his. But I will think a long time about his second statement I’ve quoted. My suspicions are that he hasn’t a clue what Lloyd and Morgan are after or whether he’s ever paid attention to a male-produced film about a male that might be doing what these women are wanting to do with their screenplay and movie.

  14. January 16, 2012 2:49 pm

    Looks like Meryl Streep as the Iron Lady wins the Golden Globes Award for best actress in a motion picture for 2011.

  15. January 16, 2012 8:07 pm

    You are a spoiler — I have yet to watch the award show! However, I am glad that Streep-Juggernaut has not been slowed down.

  16. January 17, 2012 7:19 am

    Oops; so sorry about that — well, you did predict the nomination if nothing more beyond that. Streep is amazing, even when she forgets her reading glasses.

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