Sunday, 15 July 2018

A Parable for Our Times


Once upon a time, there was a species that was too clever by half.  It had highly dextrous fore paws, was omnivorous and developed complex vocal communication. It was both a predator and the prey of predators.  It was highly social in nature and adaptable in all things, including reproduction. It was sexually dimorphic but moderately so, and initially it managed that biological fact without too much drama.

It had a big brain, which needed a big skull to accommodate it. It walked on its hind legs, which made giving birth difficult for the female so its offspring were born effectively premature and utterly dependent. It developed a sexual division of labour that was powerfully conditioned by a long gestation, and helpless offspring completely dependent on the milk of a lactating female – most often the female who gave birth to it.

At first – because maternity was a certainty and paternity was an opinion – familial descent was in the maternal line. Females stayed with their kin, their children became part of her family and their father (or male presumed to be) became part of her kinship group. Biological paternity did not matter all that much, it was the social responsibility that counted; and adverse effects of incest were controlled for through forms of exogenous marriage, ie males married out of the group.

Society was flat and egalitarian because they had to cooperate in order to survive. The needs of the group ruled.  Personal and family prestige or mana, was gained through the act of giving.  Behaviour that threatened the survival of the group was not tolerated. The most common form of punishment was banishment. Mostly those who were banished were aggressive or overly competitive males who would not accept the rules.

After being banished these males would either die or wander around killing stuff, feeling sorry for themselves, or fighting with each other.

The settled ones eventually worked out that keeping animals in captivity was safer and less energy intensive than hunting them, and growing crops yielded more than gathering. Farming became a thing.

 With farming came the production of more tools and more stuff and eventually the production of more than they needed - a surplus. And with a surplus came the question of what to do with it. One day someone had the good idea of swapping their group’s surplus with a neighbouring group for stuff they didn’t have. This increased communication and led to more stuff being produced. They were on a roll.  Trading became a thing.

Some of those who had been banished because of their aggression and refusal to accept the rules, saw this. They’d learned from the strategies that some other species used to survive – i.e. that you don’t have to hunt – you can just steal other species’ prey.  

They worked out that, where there was trading, there could be raiding. And they found they were very good at it.   So they raided the settled ones and took – not just livestock and tools and stuff  - but females.  And they killed all the males.

They killed so many males in fact that many, many years later when their even more clever but completely screwed up descendants discovered genetics and DNA, they found the genetic diversity of the male of the species had been hugely diminished by all that killing.

These males then formed their own groups in which descent was in the paternal line. Their female offspring became part of her husband’s family.  Sometimes she’d be one of several wives because there were more females than males due to all the killing.

Prestige and mana came to be acquired through the act of taking and later on, even the act of giving itself became an expression of power.  Charity became a thing.

They also worked out that there was an animal they could use to increase the speed and reach of their raids - a four legged, fleet footed, highly social herbivore. Horse riding became a thing.

And among these males were ones who were so good at the raiding and the killing that others in their group were frightened of them so they became leaders and they declared all that was stolen belonged to them.  Private property became a thing.

These individuals held their power through fear and by using all the stuff they stole to buy the services and loyalty of others.  And they bartered their female offspring to form allegiances with other powerful males. Strategic marriage became a thing.

Females’ authority was diminished even further and patriarchy was well on the way to becoming a thing because subordinate males, who had to defer to more powerful males, gratefully accepted power over females and offspring as a compensation for their subjugation.

Then came the question of what to do with all the stuff after death.  The leaders were so obsessed with their power and their stuff they couldn’t bear to leave it behind. So they invented an afterlife and had their stuff buried with them, sometimes even women, servants, dogs and horses.

Others realised that was a bit of a waste and wanted their sons to have it so that the male line and its wealth and power could be carried on.  But there was a problem - the old ‘paternity is an opinion’ problem - how to ensure your son really was your son.

Well, they’d been building the coffin for female authority for quite a while and this was to prove to be the final nail in the lid.  To absolutely ensure you’re the father - you have to lock up the mother - ie deny any other males access to her.  Physically sequestering a female is a bit of drag if you need her to work or if you’re off raiding and killing all the time, and it’s expensive if you have a lot of females you need to lock away.  

So what to do?  

Killing transgressors was always a popular option especially with public displays of extreme cruelty to act, both as a deterrent to others, and a salve for wounded male pride.  But that had its downsides and eventually someone had the bright idea of making it the divinely ordained duty of the female to be chaste before marriage and dutiful and obedient to the males in her life.

She faced not just punishment in the here and now for actual or presumed transgressions - but eternal damnation. It’s one thing to defy your father or your husband - it’s another thing entirely to defy gods who can punish you horribly forever.

Now, this was also where rape really started to become a thing.  Rape had long been an actual and symbolic expression of male power over females but with the importance of paternity as a certainty, it became an attack on the property rights of other males.

It all got a lot harder for the females when the males got the bright idea of doing away completely with female deities. 

Long before the rise of patrilineal descent and the emergence of an imbalance in power between the female and male, the members of this species had developed beliefs about supernatural powers that ordered the natural world - of which they were just one part.

In this belief system, the power of the female was strong and it retained some of that strength as the old beliefs gave way to ideas about the world being governed by a range of male and female deities, representing different aspects of life. The top job eventually went to a male deity but most pantheons remained pretty equally divided by sex and some of the female deities were powerful and had many followers.

That was the way of things until some leading males had another good idea, which proved great for them and a total disaster for the females.

The idea was that there was in fact only one god who was not only conceived of and described as male, His laws, as expressed via His chosen males, enshrined the dominance of male over female.

The inferior status of the female was declared to be the will of an all-powerful male deity.  Females’ acceptance of this was a duty to an absolutist god who, it must be said, was pretty gung-ho in the vengeance department.

A set of social roles and responsibilities and physical, emotional and intellectual attributes emerged, which formed a sort of prison of ideas that justified the ascription of a subordinate status to females and declared females’ productive labour to be of less value.
Gender became a thing.

It eventually came to pass that the male leaders developed their most sophisticated form of raiding yet – which depended on another clever prison of ideas – the right and the apparent freedom to sell one’s labour in a job market. Capitalism became a thing.

Female labour was worth less and females were often shut out of the job market entirely and her subsistence was deemed to be included in the rate paid to the husband which made her dependent and denied the role of female reproductive labour in enabling all production. 

You can see where this was heading - yes, yet more female subjugation. To cut a long story short, some of the females eventually rebelled and they all gained some equality in the form of formal and employment rights which some thought was an end to it all.  Sorted. 

Except it wasn’t. But that’s a story for another day. 

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