A Sympathy in Choice

‘As you are old and reverend, you should be wise.’ –so Shakespeare’s Goneril, King Lear’s evil daughter, advised her father. Her advice was deceptive -hostile, even- but there are times I feel that my judgement, too, has being unjustly impugned. Positions that I feel have been reasonably based and cogently argued, are attacked and maligned as if, because they dared to question the prevailing ethos, they are dangerous -or worse, should not even be heard. Should be retracted and the author forced to recant.

Some people are sensitive like that –so wrapped up in their own causes, they fear that anything similar, but more controversial, might detract from their not-yet successful endeavours. Understandable, perhaps, if they fail to thoroughly examine the merits and deficits of the other approach –refuse to consider how the one may complement the other, and vilify it to make those who would adopt it seem apostates.

Gender issues seem particularly vulnerable, maybe because they have recently been heavily exposed to public scrutiny. They are seen to be so fragile, that any attempts at critical analysis are often seen as foundational attacks, rather than efforts to better understand and underpin their framework. Comparisons are fraught, to be sure, but only when they can withstand the scrutiny of impartial examination, will they be accepted as mainstream -sufficiently natural to fade seamlessly into the Gestalt.

Of course, public confusion over terms (LGBTIQ, etc.), and the amalgamation of so many different communities of difference, makes easy and seamless acceptance perplexing for many who watch, bewildered from the edges, but progress is occurring nonetheless. Homosexuality, gay marriage, and adoption to gay couples are only the issues most recently being fast-tracked into conventional thinking. Not everybody agrees, of course, but then again what do we all agree on? Even religions and political parties still divide us.

But race (whatever that is) seems unduly stubborn. Despite the fact that DNA studies have consistently failed to demonstrate any genetic basis for racial categorizations, there seems to be an almost tribal requirement to allocate people into us and them –for othering, in sociology-speak. For seeking comfort and succour from those who most resemble us. Safety. Security. There is an assumed empathy in those who share the same assignation, an expected commonality of experience when compared with non-members. And there is not only an assumed history that unites, but also a presumed genealogy that ensures loyalty to whatever the group believes. Disavowal of what it does not.

And yet, it is a very social construct. What, for example, constitutes a valid pedigree? Any family membership in a group, no matter how far back in time, and whether or not it is inside the legal boundaries of wedlock? Or, suppose you do not look like your parents or their assumed grouping –or, conversely, you do, and yet were adopted? What if –more problematically, to be sure- you identify with another group, either because of outside influences, or a certainty within yourself, that you belong? What if you were mistakenly brought up as if you were a member, suffered along with it, saw the world through its eyes, but later discovered you had been adopted from another group? Does it make any difference? Are you somehow a less valuable member if you don’t carry the proper cards?

So, what if you decided you wanted to ‘be’ a member of another group –in the case in point, another ‘race’. Can one be transracial? And further, what might that mean? Does, ‘identifying’ with a ‘race’, qualify as anything? I have to say that I had never thought much about it until I came across an absolutely riveting article entitled In Defense of Transracialism, in the March 2017 edition of Hypatia, a journal of Feminist philosophy, written by Rebecca Tuvel, who teaches the philosophy of race and gender at Rhodes College.

I felt it was exceedingly well substantiated with cogent arguments, and compelling documentation, so I was dismayed when I discovered (in a piece from a different source: https://theconversation.com/i-wanna-be-white-can-we-change-race-78899?) that the article elicited ‘an open letter signed by hundreds of academics who demanded the journal retract the article.’ And further, that ‘the associate editors of the journal issued a long apology saying that the article should never have been published.’ I was only slightly mollified that the ‘Editorial Board responded with its own statement in support of the author’. The reaction of the academics merely underlined the unwillingness to entangle themselves in an equally scholastic attempt to explore the similarities between gender identification and the ability to racially identify. Tuvel suggests that there are many features in common, and although her argument is too long to easily summarize, I was willing to share her point of view by the end.

I suppose the most notorious case she discusses, is that of Rachel Dolezal, the former head of a local NAACP who was born to white parents but lived for many years as a black woman. ‘[…] Dolezal’s experience living with four adoptive black siblings since she was a young teenager coupled with her strong sense of dissociation from her biological parents, her later marriage to an African American man with whom she had a child, and her strong sense of familial connection to a black man named Albert Wilkerson, whom she calls “Dad,” all impacted her understanding of her own racial identity.’ That she did not officially qualify as ‘black’ and could therefore not possibly know what it meant to be black seemed unduly important to her detractors. Her duplicity alone disqualified her in many eyes and rendered her professed enthusiasm for her blackness a mockery. Invalid. White privilege…

Dolezal, became the unwilling focus of identity politics in which, perhaps understandably, the LGBTIQ community did not wish to become entwined. Any argument in her defense, it was suggested, does a disservice to the political context of transgender communities, and the violence of racism. And yet, in drawing parallels with those aspects of personal identity which are inherently fluid, Tuvel allows us to see that boundaries are also fickle, and over stretches of time, evanescent. Arbitrary. Even unstable.

But, loathe as I am to side with Shakespeare’s Claudius, and although taken out of context, there is something to his contention:

‘That we would do, we should do when we would, for this “would” changes and hath abatements and delays as many as there are tongues, are hands, are accidents. And then this “should” is like a spendthrift sigh that hurts by easing.

Thank you, Rebecca Tuvel; more than simply opening my eyes, you have opened my mind.


Within the Book and Volume of Thy Brain

Is it naive to mention that there is an almost magical bond between a mother and her baby? A bond that, while certainly not less in the father is, well, different? At first, I assumed it was probably related to the closeness of breast feeding –yes, the oxytocin and its effects on bonding, and the magic of skin-to-skin contact- but this seemed to be a very reductionist way of looking at it –a post hoc ergo propter hoc approach. No, the amount of head-swaying I would see, the purring of the sing-song words barely audible from across the room, the eye contact with the bundles in their arms… All this seemed more like the devotion of religious acolytes than could be reasonably reduced to simple biological cause and effect in the little carpeted area where my patients would sit, waiting for their postpartum checkups. I can’t help but think of Shakespeare: There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy, as Hamlet observed under admittedly different circumstances.

I mention this decidedly apostatic thinking because it occurred to me that some things are difficult to fit into a satisfyingly rational, or secular framework. Many years ago, I remember seeing a woman -Lorraine was her name, I think- who, my day-sheet informed me I had delivered 2 or 3 months previously. Anyway, she was coming in to discuss contraception and she had brought her little baby with her. I could see her sitting on the other side of the room talking and nodding rhythmically to the little tyke. Even from a distance, I could see they were locked in ocular embrace. Then, slowly, she reached into a bag at her feet and pulled out what seemed to be a large picture book. She nestled the baby in one arm and held the book open with the other hand so the baby could see it. From where I stood behind the front desk, I couldn’t really tell what pictures the baby saw, but she was naming what I suppose were animals, and whatever else came up from page to page.

Perhaps the baby was paying attention, but it seemed entirely too comfortable in her arms, and her voice far too much like a lullaby for it to keep its eyes open.

When her turn came to talk to me in the office, she told me that she’d noticed me watching her with the picture book.

“I’m a first grade teacher,” she said, showing me a collection of children’s drawings carefully pasted onto stiff pages and stapled into a folder. “And when the kids found out I was going to have a baby, they all decided to draw pictures for me to ‘read’ to it.” She drew little air quotes around the word. “And I thought, why not? It’s sort of like reading, isn’t it? The kids thought so, anyway…”

I have to confess that, although I always loved reading to my children, I enjoyed it more when they seemed to understand the words. When they reacted to my play-acting voice that attempted incarnation of the characters, painting the scene in words, pretending we could see the story. I enjoyed the immersion as much as they did, I suppose –we were the story, in a way. Each of us.

Now that I think of those times, I feel vaguely guilty that the experience was as much about me as it was about the child sitting beside me on the couch, or lying on her bed with saucered eyes in a room lit only by the lamp beside my chair. Each of us was as hungry as the other to discover what the words would tell us, our imaginations primed and insatiably curious as our minds watched the movie being played behind our eyes.

Sometimes, of course, I would read a book of their choosing, but both my son -and later my daughter- seemed to prefer it when I made up stories for them. No pictures –just verbal descriptions that neither of us could guess beforehand. Word riffs.

But Time moves on, and so does our knowledge of developing brains. It would seem that certain content, particular themes and even types of books, may be more helpful at different ages. I can’t say that it came as a surprise that infants, too, benefit from being bathed in words –it’s how vocabulary begins, after all. What I remain somewhat agnostic about, however, is that there might be a preferred order of progression. An article in the Smithsonian Magazine hoped to disavow me of this skepticism, however: https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/babys-brain-benefit-read-right-books-right-time

For example,  the author, Lisa Scott, Associate Professor in Psychology, University of Florida: ‘[…] found that when parents showed babies books with faces or objects that were individually named, they learn more, generalize what they learn to new situations and show more specialized brain responses. This is in contrast to books with no labels or books with the same generic label under each image in the book. Early learning in infancy was also associated with benefits four years later in childhood. […]These findings suggest that very young infants are able to use labels to learn about the world around them and that shared book reading is an effective tool for supporting development in the first year of life.’

I’m certainly not disputing the findings, nor offering any alternatives –I’m merely wondering whether or not it has that much of an effect on subsequent development of the child as it matures. As she points out earlier in the article, ‘Researchers see clear benefits of shared book reading for child development. Shared book reading with young children is good for language and cognitive development, increasing vocabulary and pre-reading skills and honing conceptual development. Shared book reading also likely enhances the quality of the parent-infant relationship by encouraging reciprocal interactions – the back-and-forth dance between parents and infants. Certainly not least of all, it gives infants and parents a consistent daily time to cuddle.

‘Recent research has found that both the quality and quantity of shared book reading in infancy predicted later childhood vocabulary, reading skills and name writing ability. In other words, the more books parents read, and the more time they’d spent reading, the greater the developmental benefits in their 4-year-old children.’

I suppose what I’m getting at is that perhaps the best message to get across to parents is the importance of reading to their child –interacting with the child- rather than getting them concerned that they’re not doing it the right way. That they’re using the wrong materials, or in the wrong order. Raising a child is hard enough at the best of times. Indeed, the author acknowledges this at the end of her piece: ‘It’s possible that books that include named characters simply increase the amount of parent talking. We know that talking to babies is important for their development. So parents of infants: Add shared book reading to your daily routines and name the characters in the books you read.’

But, then again, maybe this is just preaching to the converted. Mothers already know most of this –Lorraine did, at any rate.


The best laid schemes o’ Mice an’ Men Gang aft agley

Two steps forward and one step back –isn’t that  always the way with progress? Reward coupled with unintended consequences? The Industrial Revolution with worker exploitation? Nuclear power with the Bomb. Nothing, it seems, comes without a price. Even religion, the great leveller, once established brooks no rivals. Life itself, is a succession of survivors outcompeting the other contenders.

But simply to focus on the successes is to miss the important lessons to be learned from the failures. In biology the difference between winning and losing might hinge on a single change in a single gene, or more instructively, on an adaptation of an existing organ for another, more useful function in a different environment –an exaptation. Arms and hands for wings, in the case of bats, or for fins, in the cases of aquatic mammals like whales and dolphins.

In the early days after the discovery of X-rays, their ability to see through things was thought to be miraculous, and many possible uses were suggested. It was not until much later, after countless reports of cancers, burns, hair loss and worse, that the dangers of its careless use were acknowledged. Then, Phoenix-like, from the ashes of its many unwanted side-effects, grew carefully investigated treatments like irradiation for tumours, CT scans for internal visualizations, or fluoroscopy for placement of medical kit like stents, anti-embolism balloons, etc.

Unfortunately, even nowadays, the sundry complications of progress are often inadequately predicted in advance, probably because most things are multifaceted and changing one parameter has a knock-on effect on the others. Clearing forests for agriculture changes the animals that can survive in the changed ecosystem; monoculture to maximize demand for a particular variety of crop, say, increases the likelihood that the plants –previously diverse- may not be able to withstand the onslaught of a disease or infestation that would otherwise have only affected a small portion of their number. Evolution would normally have winnowed out the susceptibles, leaving only the resistant plants to reproduce. But all of this is Grade 9 biology, isn’t it?

What led me to think about this was an article in the Smithsonian Magazine discussing the effects of making friction matches on the women and children involved in their manufacture: https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/friction-matches-were-boon-those-lighting-firesnot-so-much-matchmakers-180967318/ – 6ZQ6WshMH2Ghpoys.03

‘Like many other poorly paid and tedious factory jobs in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, match makers were predominantly women and children, writes Killgrove [in an article for Mental Floss]. “Half the employees in this industry were kids who hadn’t even reached their teens. While working long hours indoors in a cramped, dark factory put these children at risk of contracting tuberculosis and getting rickets, matchstick making held a specific risk: phossy jaw.” This gruesome and debilitating condition was caused by inhaling white phosphorus fumes during those long hours at the factory. “Approximately 11 percent of those exposed to phosphorus fumes developed ‘phossy jaw’ about five years after initial exposure, on average”. The condition causes the bone in the jaw to die and teeth to decay, resulting in extreme suffering and sometimes the loss of the jaw. Although phossy jaw was far from the only side-effect of prolonged white phosphorus exposure, it became a visible symbol of the suffering caused by industrial chemicals in match plants.’
So much so, that by 1892, newspapers were investigating the problem. ‘“Historical records often compare sufferers of phossy jaw to people with leprosy because of their obvious physical disfigurement and the condition’s social stigma,” Killgrove writes. Eventually match makers stopped using white phosphorus in matches, and it was outlawed in the United States in 1910.’

Civilization is the steady accumulation of successes over failures. Trials and errors –mistakes which perhaps seem to have been largely anticipatable in retrospect- summate to useable compromises. It’s how a child learns; it’s how evolution learns.

But the point of this essay is not so much to highlight the exploitation of workers in the past as to suggest that there can be sociological as well as biological evolution. After all, the etymological root of the word is the Latin evolvere –to unfold.

Occupational Safety and Health -as a distinct discipline, at least- is a relatively recent development stemming from labour movements and their concern about worker safety in the wake of the Industrial Revolution. As Wikipedia explains it: ‘The Industrial Revolution was the transition to new manufacturing processes in the period from about 1760 to sometime between 1820 and 1840. This transition included going from hand production methods to machines, new chemical manufacturing and iron production processes, the increasing use of steam power, the development of machine tools and the rise of the factory system.’

Although this provided jobs and undoubtedly improved many aspects of living standards, the driving force was production, and in its early stages, had little regard for worker safety or health. Enter the labour movements in the early 19th century, along with great resistance to their demands. In many instances they were seen as antithetical to progress –antithetical to Capitalism, for that matter. And yet, in the fullness of time, the benefits of a healthy workforce to economic success evolved from an initial, grudging pretense of acceptance in some countries to a legal framework of protection in others.

There is certainly a long way to go along this path to be sure, and exploitation still seems a default that is all too easy to overlook. Especially since it is the poor and vulnerable who are usually the victims –people with little voice of their own, and even less power to resist.

But are things actually changing? Does knowledge of exploitation make a difference? We know slavery is still practiced; we know that refugees are still being brutalized and abused in places like Libya; women are still being kidnapped and sold into prostitution despite the best intentions of agencies like the World Health Organization.

So, do the gains experienced in some areas, offset the tragedies in others? We cannot appreciate the broad sweep of History in the few years we are allotted, and evolution –even social evolution- can be deceptive and disheartening. But remember the words of Khalil Gibran:

You are good when you walk to your goal firmly and with bold steps.
Yet you are not evil when you go thither limping.
Even those who limp go not backward.

I have to hope he saw something that I missed along the way…