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Posts Tagged ‘psychology’

26 JULY, 2013

George Bernard Shaw on Marriage, the Oppression of Women, and the Hypocrisies of Monogamy

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“Promiscuity is a product of slavery and not of liberty.”

For Charles Darwin, matrimony was the victor of a careful and comical weighing of pros and cons; for Susan Sontag, “an institution committed to the dulling of the feelings”; for Charles and Ray Eames, a fairy tale of creative partnership; for Amelia Earhart, the product of medieval ideals which she was unwilling to endure; for Dan Savage, an institution that desperately needs remoralizing; for Edith Windsor and thousands like her, a cherished human right the denial of which is a death to every personal dignity and the granting of which cause for the highest public celebration.

This layered and often conflicted nature of marriage as a legal institution is what legendary Irish playwright and London School of Economics founder George Bernard Shaw (July 26, 1856–November 2, 1950) — who is the only person to have been awarded both a Nobel Prize in Literature and an Oscar, and who far more memorably once crashed his bicycle into Bertrand Russell’s — explores in his 1908 play Getting Married (public library; public domain), using the story of a family convening for a wedding as the springboard for his meditation on what’s wrong with marriage laws, the fundamental gender inequality on which they are based, the hypocrisies of monogamy, and, above all, why divorce laws desperately need to evolve.

Shaw writes in the preface to the play:

There is no subject on which more dangerous nonsense is talked and thought than marriage. If the mischief stopped at talking and thinking it would be bad enough; but it goes further, into disastrous anarchical action. Because our marriage law is inhuman and unreasonable to the point of downright abomination, the bolder and more rebellious spirits form illicit unions, defiantly sending cards round to their friends announcing what they have done. Young women come to me and ask me whether I think they ought to consent to marry the man they have decided to live with; and they are perplexed and astonished when I, who am supposed (heaven knows why!) to have the most advanced views attainable on the subject, urge them on no account to compromise themselves without the security of an authentic wedding ring. They cite the example of George Eliot, who formed an illicit union with Lewes. They quote a saying attributed to Nietzsche, that a married philosopher is ridiculous, though the men of their choice are not philosophers. When they finally give up the idea of reforming our marriage institutions by private enterprise and personal righteousness, and consent to be led to the Registry or even to the altar, they insist on first arriving at an explicit understanding that both parties are to be perfectly free to sip every flower and change every hour, as their fancy may dictate, in spite of the legal bond. I do not observe that their unions prove less monogamic than other people’s: rather the contrary, in fact; consequently, I do not know whether they make less fuss than ordinary people when either party claims the benefit of the treaty; but the existence of the treaty shows the same anarchical notion that the law can be set aside by any two private persons by the simple process of promising one another to ignore it.

“Love is like a fever which comes and goes quite independently of the will,” Stendhal wrote in his timeless essay on “crystallization” and how love works, and Shaw admonishes against using this very state of fever as the catalyst for something as serious, and as regulated by law and custom, as marriage:

The stupidity is only apparent: the service was really only an honest attempt to make the best of a commercial contract of property and slavery by subjecting it to some religious restraint and elevating it by some touch of poetry. But the actual result is that when two people are under the influence of the most violent, most insane, most delusive, and most transient of passions, they are required to swear that they will remain in that excited, abnormal, and exhausting condition continuously until death do them part. And though of course nobody expects them to do anything so impossible and so unwholesome, yet the law that regulates their relations, and the public opinion that regulates that law, is actually founded on the assumption that the marriage vow is not only feasible but beautiful and holy, and that if they are false to it, they deserve no sympathy and no relief.

Discussing the artificiality of monogamy as law rather than choice, Shaw argues:

Monogamy has a sentimental basis which is quite distinct from the political one of equal numbers of the sexes. Equal numbers in the sexes are quite compatible with a change of partners every day or every hour. Physically there is nothing to distinguish human society from the farm-yard except that children are more troublesome and costly than chickens and calves, and that men and women are not so completely enslaved as farm stock. Accordingly, the people whose conception of marriage is a farm-yard or slave-quarter conception are always more or less in a panic lest the slightest relaxation of the marriage laws should utterly demoralize society; whilst those to whom marriage is a matter of more highly evolved sentiments and needs (sometimes said to be distinctively human, though birds and animals in a state of freedom evince them quite as touchingly as we) are much more liberal, knowing as they do that monogamy will take care of itself provided the parties are free enough, and that promiscuity is a product of slavery and not of liberty.

Later, in a section titled “Hearth and Home,” he adds:

Home life as we understand it is no more natural to us than a cage is natural to a cockatoo. Its grave danger to the nation lies in its narrow views, its unnaturally sustained and spitefully jealous concupiscences, its petty tyrannies, its false social pretenses, its endless grudges and squabbles, its sacrifice of the boy’s future by setting him to earn money to help the family when he should be in training for his adult life (remember the boy Dickens and the blacking factory), and of the girl’s chances by making her a slave to sick or selfish parents, its unnatural packing into little brick boxes of little parcels of humanity of ill-assorted ages, with the old scolding or beating the young for behaving like young people, and the young hating and thwarting the old for behaving like old people, and all the other ills, mentionable and unmentionable, that arise from excessive segregation.

In a section titled “Marriage as a Magic Spell,” Shaw goes on to debunk the false promises of marriage as a transformative tool for the nature of the relationship:

The truth which people seem to overlook in this matter is that the marriage ceremony is quite useless as a magic spell for changing in an instant the nature of the relations of two human beings to one another. If a man marries a woman after three weeks acquaintance, and the day after meets a woman he has known for twenty years, he finds, sometimes to his own irrational surprise and his wife’s equally irrational indignation, that his wife is a stranger to him, and the other woman an old friend. Also, there is no hocus pocus that can possibly be devised with rings and veils and vows and benedictions that can fix either a man’s or woman’s affection for twenty minutes, much less twenty years. Even the most affectionate couples must have moments during which they are far more conscious of one another’s faults than of one another’s attractions.

But most poignant of all are Shaw’s insights in a section titled “The Economic Slavery of Women,” where he addresses the fundamental inequality upon which the institution, as originally designed, is built and the transactional trickeries and charades they engender:

One of the consequences of basing marriage on the considerations stated with cold abhorrence by Saint Paul in the seventh chapter of his epistle to the Corinthians, as being made necessary by the unlikeness of most men to himself, is that the sex slavery involved has become complicated by economic slavery; so that whilst the man defends marriage because he is really defending his pleasures, the woman is even more vehement on the same side because she is defending her only means of livelihood. To a woman without property or marketable talent a husband is more necessary than a master to a dog. There is nothing more wounding to our sense of human dignity than the husband hunting that begins in every family when the daughters become marriageable; but it is inevitable under existing circumstances; and the parents who refuse to engage in it are bad parents, though they may be superior individuals. The cubs of a humane tigress would starve; and the daughters of women who cannot bring themselves to devote several years of their lives to the pursuit of sons-in-law often have to expatiate their mother’s squeamishness by life-long celibacy and indigence. To ask a young man his intentions when you know he has no intentions, but is unable to deny that he has paid attentions; to threaten an action for breach of promise of marriage; to pretend that your daughter is a musician when she has with the greatest difficulty been coached into playing three piano-forte pieces which she loathes; to use your own mature charms to attract men to the house when your daughters have no aptitude for that department of sport; to coach them, when they have, in the arts by which men can be led to compromise themselves; and to keep all the skeletons carefully locked up in the family cupboard until the prey is duly hunted down and bagged: all this is a mother’s duty today; and a very revolting duty it is: one that disposes of the conventional assumption that it is in the faithful discharge of her home duties that a woman finds her self-respect. The truth is that family life will never be decent, much less ennobling, until this central horror of the dependence of women on men is done away with. At present it reduces the difference between marriage and prostitution to the difference between Trade Unionism and unorganized casual labor: a huge difference, no doubt, as to order and comfort, but not a difference in kind.

In a later section, titled “Labor Exchanges and the White Slavery,” Shaw adds:

Suppose, again, a woman presents herself at the Labor Exchange, and states her trade as that of a White Slave, meaning the unmentionable trade pursued by many thousands of women in all civilized cities. Will the Labor Exchange find employers for her? … [I]f it finds honest employment for her and for all the unemployed wives and mothers, it must find new places in the world for women; and in so doing it must achieve for them economic independence of men. And when this is done, can we feel sure that any woman will consent to be a wife and mother (not to mention the less respectable alternative) unless her position is made as eligible as that of the women for whom the Labor Exchanges are finding independent work? Will not many women now engaged in domestic work under circumstances which make it repugnant to them, abandon it and seek employment under other circumstances? As unhappiness in marriage is almost the only discomfort sufficiently irksome to induce a woman to break up her home, and economic dependence the only compulsion sufficiently stringent to force her to endure such unhappiness, the solution of the problem of finding independent employment for women may cause a great number of childless unhappy marriages to break up spontaneously, whether the marriage laws are altered or not. … We may expect, then, that marriages which are maintained by economic pressure alone will dissolve when that pressure is removed; and as all the parties to them will certainly not accept a celibate life, the law must sanction the dissolution in order to prevent a recurrence of the scandal which has moved the Government to appoint the Commission now sitting to investigate the marriage question: the scandal, that is, of a great number matter of the evils of our marriage law, to take care of the pence and let the pounds take care of themselves. The crimes and diseases of marriage will force themselves on public attention by their own virulence. I mention them here only because they reveal certain habits of thought and feeling with regard to marriage of which we must rid ourselves if we are to act sensibly when we take the necessary reforms in hand.

Shaw goes on to explore the importance of loosening marriage laws and making divorce more attainable, concluding:

When it comes to “conduct rendering life burdensome,” it is clear that no marriage is any longer indissoluble; and the sensible thing to do then is to grant divorce whenever it is desired, without asking why.

Complement Getting Married with Darwin’s delightful list of the pros and cons of marriage and Amelia Earhart’s remarkably progressive 1931 letter to her husband-to-be.

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25 JULY, 2013

How We Got “Please” and “Thank You”

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Why the line between politeness and bossiness is a linguistic mirage.

“A good thing to think about is what kind of face to make when you say please,” Ruth Krauss wrote in her magnificent final collaboration with Maurice Sendak. “That coat will be the last gift [your mother] gave you. You will regret the small thing you didn’t say for the rest of your life. Say thank you,” Cheryl Strayed counseled in her endlessly soul-stirring Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar. But how did these commonest of courtesies, “please” and “thank you,” actually originate? That’s precisely what anthropologist and activist David Graeber explores in one of the most absorbing semi-asides in his altogether illuminating Debt: The First 5,000 Years (public library):

Debt … is just an exchange that has not been brought to completion.

It follows that debt is strictly a creature of reciprocity and has little to do with other sorts of morality. . . . But isn”t that just the same old story, starting with the assumption that all human interactions must be, by definitions, forms of exchange, and then performing whatever mental somersaults are required to prove it?

No. All human interactions are not forms of exchange. Only some are. Exchange encourages a particular way of conceiving human relations. This is because exchange implies equality, but it also implies separation.

Graeber goes on to offer a counterexample via the history of two of our most common cultural habits of civility:

Consider the custom, in American society, of constantly saying “please” and “thank you.” To do so is often treated as basic morality: we are constantly chiding children for forgetting to do it, just as the moral guardians of our society — teachers and ministers, for instance — do to everybody else. We often assume that the habit is universal, but … it is not. Like so many of our everyday courtesies, it is a kind of democratization of what was once a habit of feudal deference: the insistence on treating absolutely everyone the way that one used only to have to treat a lord or similar hierarchical superior.

But not all such courtesies are meaningless echoes of bygone hierarchical structures:

Imagine we are on a crowded bus, looking for a seat. A fellow passenger moves her bag aside to clear one; we smile, or nod, or make some other little gesture of acknowledgment. Or perhaps we actually say “Thank you.” Such a gesture is simply a recognition of common humanity, we are acknowledging that the woman who had been blocking the seat is not a mere physical obstacle but a human being, and that we feel genuine gratitude toward someone we will likely never see again.

'Please' by Debbie Millman (1993)

Most fascinating of all, however, is the actual etymology of the two expressions:

The English “please” is short for “if you please,” “if it pleases you to do this” — it is the same in most European languages (French si il vous plait, Spanish por favor). Its literal meaning is “you are under no obligation to do this.” “Hand me the salt. Not that I am saying that you have to!” This is not true; there is a social obligation, and it would be almost impossible not to comply. But etiquette largely consists of the exchange of polite fictions (to use less polite language, lies). When you ask someone to pass the salt, you are also giving them an order; by attaching the word “please,” you are saying that it is not an order. But, in fact, it is.

In English, “thank you” derives from “think,” it originally meant, “I will remember what you did for me” — which is usually not true either — but in other languages (the Portuguese obrigado is a good example) the standard term follows the form of the English “much obliged” — it actually does means “I am in your debt.” The French merci is even more graphic: it derives from “mercy,” as in begging for mercy; by saying it you are symbolically placing yourself in your benefactor”s power — since a debtor is, after all, a criminal. Saying “you’re welcome,” or “it’s nothing” (French de rien, Spanish de nada) — the latter has at least the advantage of often being literally true — is a way of reassuring the one to whom one has passed the salt that you are not actually inscribing a debit in your imaginary moral account book. So is saying “my pleasure” — you are saying, “No, actually, it’s a credit, not a debit — you did me a favor because in asking me to pass the salt, you gave me the opportunity to do something I found rewarding in itself!” …

Noting that “tacit calculus of debt” is “not the quintessence of morality but the quintessence of middle-class morality,” Graeber points out that the history of these exchanges, whether meaningless or meaningful, is actually a surprisingly recent development:

The habit of always saying “please” and “thank you” first began to take hold during the commercial revolution of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries — among those very middle classes who were largely responsible for it. It is the language of bureaus, shops, and offices, and over the course of the last five hundred years it has spread across the world along with them. It is also merely one token of a much larger philosophy, a set of assumptions of what humans are and what they owe one another, that have by now become so deeply ingrained that we cannot see them.

Complement with Lord Chesterfield on the art of pleasing and the art of finding happiness in everyday gratitude.

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24 JULY, 2013

Amelia Earhart on Drive, Education, Religion, and Human Nature in Letters to Her Mother

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“The more one does the more one can do.”

When Amelia Earhart, born on July 24, 1897, disappeared over the Pacific on July 2, 1937, she left behind a legacy shrouded in legend, glory, and modern-day mythmaking. But whatever Amelia the public icon may have imparted, Amelia the private person brimmed with far more dimensional insight on life — on determination, on education, on religion, on human nature — which spills open in Letters from Amelia: An Intimate Portrait of Amelia Earhart (public library), the same fantastic volume that gave us her remarkably forward-thinking views on marriage.

Though she grew up in a troubled home, financially strained and with an alcoholic father, Amelia’s determination and independence were evident from an early age: In March of 1914, aged 17, she wrote in a letter to a school friend:

Of course I’m going to [Bryn Mawr] if I have to drive a grocery wagon to accumulate the cash.

Amelia Earhart, St. Paul, 1914.

Though she didn’t end up going to Bryn Mawr, Amelia was firmly set on getting an education and entered the Ogontz School, a junior college in Pennsylvania, in the fall of 1916. In October the following year, twenty-year-old Amelia writes her mother about having taken on an extraordinary amount of academic and extracurricular work — something she found stimulating rather than stressful, per her already typical determination:

I am taking Modern Drama Literature, German and German Literature outside. French three and five in which latter we are reading Eugénie Grandet. And Senior arithmetic and logic if I can. Besides reading a good deal and art, Bible, etc. etc.

I am elected to write the senior song, but you know the more one does the more one can do.

A few days later, she adds in another letter:

Despite my unusual activity I am very well organized to do more the more I do. You know what I mean. … I am not overdoing and all that is needed to bouncing health is plenty to eat and happiness. Consider me bursting, please.

In the fall of 1919, Amelia enrolled in Columbia University as a premed student. In a letter to her mother she sent from New York that year, Amelia expresses her views on the disconnect between religion and spirituality in a simple yet enormously eloquent way:

Don’t think for an instant I would ever become an atheist or even a doubter nor lose faith in the [Episcopalian] church’s teachings as a whole. That is impossible. But you must admit there is a great deal radically wrong in methods and teachings and results to-day. Probably no more than yesterday, but the present stands up and waves its paws at me and I see — can’t help it. It is not the clergy nor the church itself nor the people that are narrow, but the outside pressure that squeezes them into a routine.

But Amelia soon found her faith in the skies. In 1920, she fell in love with flying and the rest, as they say, is history. Eight years later, in June of 1928, as she was about to make her first transatlantic flight as a passenger, she wrote her mother in a telegram:

DONT WORRY STOP NO MATTER WHAT HAPPENS IT WILL HAVE BEEN WORTH THE TRYING STOP LOVE-A

Orville Wright and Amelia Earhart at Franklin Institute, Philadelphia, 1936

But despite her passion for the skies, Amelia always kept education, especially the education of women, a primary focus of her relentless dedication, lecturing in universities around the world and even inspiring a course in “household engineering” at Purdue University, where 1,000 of the 6,000 students were women. She also counseled young women on their careers. At Purdue, she advised graduating girls to try a certain job but not be afraid to make a change if they found something better, adding:

And if you should find that you are the first woman to feel an urge in that direction, what does it matter? Feel it and act on it just the same. It may turn out to be fun. And to me fun is the indispensable part of work.

(Appropriately, she titled her memoir The Fun Of It: Random Records of My Own Flying and of Women in Aviation.)

Arrival after solo transatlantic flight, Culmore, Ireland, 1932

But her most poignant words — a lament on the good and evil in human nature — come from a letter to her sister Muriel, who was trapped in an abusive marriage to an alcoholic gambler:

Adult human beings owe as much to themselves as to others, for by asserting individual rights, the baser natures of those who have them are held in check. That is often very hard to do. One hesitates to bring on a quarrel when it can be avoided by giving in. But perhaps one definite assertion will prevent the slow accumulation of a sense of superiority in a person who really should not claim superiority. Given a little power over another, little natures swell to hideous proportions. It is hopeless to watch a character change of this kind in one you have cared for — a few rows might have been less suffering in the long run.

She adds:

Human crises have a way of happening at inconvenient times.

A few months later, during her second attempt to fly around the world, Amelia disappeared over Howland Island in the central Pacific, never to be seen again.

Amelia Earhart. Self-portrait. Date uncertain.

In the afterword to Letters from Amelia, which is sadly out-of-print but luckily still available used and an absolute treasure in its entirety, editor Jean L. Backus captures the singular expansiveness of Amelia’s spirit with a few brilliantly chosen words:

Amelia Earhart was clear as glass and cloudy as milk at the same time, and she was marked for greatness. She rarely failed either in public or in private to live up to what she demanded of herself. She would not compromise with integrity, she did not quail before danger, and she brought honor by word and deed to her sex, her country, her kin, and herself.

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