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How reading a book you disagree with sharpens your thinking

Whether it's Simon Baron-Cohen on female brains to Richard Dawkins patronising feminists, I'm glad I read (and hated) these books.

If I was ever going to instigate a purge of books containing ideas I find offensive, sexist or just plain incoherent, I know where I’d start: my own living room. Fact is, I’ve got loads of them. So much so that were I of a similar persuasion to those who recently attacked the volunteer-run Vancouver Women’s Library, I’d never leave the house.

Except I’d go way beyond spraying walls, throwing wine on books and intimidating anyone trying to get within reach of the written word. After all, surely no self-respecting feminist should own works such as The Rules for Dating, Fifty Shades of Grey and Thomas The Tank Engine: The Complete Collection. I ought to no-platform myself.

And yet I’m not about to do so, no matter how shameful some of my literary choices have been. Isn’t there value in encountering new ideas – even if one’s mind remains unchanged at the end? I would never have finished my PhD if I had excluded all of the books – most books, in fact – I found somewhat or even extremely sexist. Yet I learned from those books, just as I learned from the books that only seemed to confirm my own preconceptions. 

Here, for instance, are five of the books that a different me might have wanted banished from my bookshelves, but which, nonetheless, have changed thinking.   

1. Simon Baron-Cohen’s The Essential Difference

Reading books that don’t reflect your worldview can sharpen it. You may have a vague sense that an idea is wrong, but it’s only when you’ve seen it explained in full that you can say exactly why. Or you might have tried to tell yourself that although someone’s arguments seem incoherent, there must be some other layer that you’ve misunderstood. It’s only by plunging in and testing things out for yourself that you can lay any doubts to rest.

I bought The Essential Difference in the early noughties, when neurosexism was all the rage - only we didn’t call it that. It was, supposedly, The Science That Dared Not Speak Its Name. Yes, it may have felt – to women, at least - as though already one couldn’t move for boorish middle-aged men quoting from Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus and Why Men Don’t Listen And Women Can’t Read Maps in order to get out of doing the washing up, but according to Simon Baron-Cohen (a man, hence rational) this wasn’t the case. We all needed his claim that while “the female brain is predominantly hard-wired for empathy, the male brain is predominantly hard-wired for understanding and building systems,” too.

While Baron-Cohen’s selective use of research has been brilliantly taken apart by Cordelia Fine in Delusions Of Gender, you really have to read The Essential Difference to realise just how weak his extrapolations are. “Some people,” he complains, “say that even looking for sex differences reveals a sexist mind that is looking for ways to perpetuate the historical inequalities that women have suffered.” Well, to be fair, Simon, that generally has been the entire point of it.

But still, let’s be reasonable. Not everyone who looks for sex differences in the brain is the kind of person who calls women making jokes about men “sexist abuse” which “would never be tolerated if the subject of the joke was a woman, or was black, Jewish or gay.” Or who will use the mass rape of women by men during the Second World War as “sobering evidence for the theory that there are sex differences in empathy.” Or who proposes that the reason why “we often think of systems in the world of technology as ‘man-made’” is because “most of these were indeed invented by men.” Not every researcher into sex difference is quite so openly sexist. But Baron-Cohen is.   

The funniest thing is, even he doesn’t really believe this “essential difference” nonsense. Early on in the book he tells us that “not all men have the male brain, and not all women have the female brain.” It’s a the same thing feminists have been saying since forever, only refashioned in a way that makes it still okay to make sexist generalisations (and presumably because a book on Brain Type A and Brain Type B wouldn’t have sold).

If I hadn’t read this book, a part of me might always have worried that maybe – just maybe – there was something in it. But there isn’t.

And I know this for definite. I did the quiz at the end. Turns out my brain’s male, so no one’s allowed to argue with me.

Steve Biddulph’s Raising Boys

I didn’t actually purchase this book – I was given it for free – but if I hadn’t, I’d have felt obliged to at some point. Everything about it made me think it would be rubbish, but as a mother of three boys I felt I couldn’t dismiss it out of hand. Wouldn’t that have been selfishly putting my feminist principles before the needs of my own male offspring?

Well, no. It would not. Raising Boys is terrible (and to any mothers of boys out there feeling pressured to read it, don’t worry, I’ve done it so you don’t have to).

Raising Boys has not helped me to raise any actual boys (that’s what CBeebies is for). It has, however, helped me to put contemporary advice on gender into a broader historical context, not least because it overplays its hand. It is so damn obvious.

All those “helpful” tips people keep giving you, the hapless, ignorant, nose-wiping, all-too-female mother of boys? All that waffle about making sure your boys have strong male role models and rough-and-tumble play? It’s the same old nonsense that’s been used to undermine women, idealise male authority and naturalise male aggression for years.

In For Her Own Good (first published 19 years before Raising Boys), Barbara Ehrenreich and Deirdre English outline the way in which mid-twentieth century anxieties over a perceived loss of male authority led to the insistence that mother was “failing at her job”:

There was only one person to turn to now, and that was the long-neglected father. […]  But as the experts made abundantly clear, Dad was not being called home just to “help out.” He was needed to protect the children, and especially the sons. […] By returning to active duty in the home, a man could defend his children and at the same time regain his own endangered masculinity.

Compare this Biddulph telling male readers “you have to fight to be a real father to your kids” while warning mothers to “be careful that you don’t displace your husband.” Indeed, Biddulph is big on the idea that “men bring different things to parenting, things that are unique and irreplaceable.” He unwittingly echoes beliefs that Ehrenreich and English were already critiquing decades before him, when they sarcastically note how ”left to herself, Mom would produce emasculated males and equally Mom-ish females.  According to expert theory, only Dad could undo the damage and guide the boys toward manliness and the girls toward true womanliness. “

There is nothing original about Raising Boys, nor the plethora of boy-raising manuals that have followed in its wake. It only appears that way because we see the very idea of male involvement in childrearing as progressive, even when what is being called for is simply a reinforcement of stereotypes. 

Sexism reinvents itself. We know that already. But it’s also worth knowing that what can seem a reinvention can be nothing more than repetition.

Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion

I don’t believe in God. As someone who is frankly terrified of her own mortality, I’ve put a great deal of effort into becoming a believer, but the truth is, I just can’t. So really I thought The God Delusion would be a book with which I could get on board. Christ, was I wrong.

This book proved a disappointment almost on the same scale as Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams (which does not include a section helping to explain how the disco raccoons of Siberia are going to save us all from the worst effects of Brexit. Believe me, I’ve checked). Nonetheless, if ever there was a book needed to prove that your enemy’s enemy isn’t necessarily your friend, this is the one.

Dawkins is gleeful about blurring the lines between the rejection of religious dogma and the othering of individuals due to their faith. And witnessing him do this made me suddenly conscious that I’ve done this, too. Before reading The God Delusion I bristled at any criticism, for no other reason that I was (and remain) Team Atheist. Now I’d like to think I’m not so dogmatic.

And then there’s the sexism. Dawkins roars against the misogyny of others whenever it suits him, without ever deigning to recognise that that patriarchal religion is, well, a manifestation of patriarchy. The only time he ever takes a break from this is to patronise actual feminists (for instance, at one point he notes that “’Herstory’ is obviously ridiculous, if only because the ‘his’ in history has no etymological connection with the masculine pronoun.” Richard, mate, we know that. It’s what’s known as a pun. If you’d consulted with an actual linguist – instead of assuming that a scientist can write a whole book about science, theology, philosophy, sociology, history, linguistics, politics and geography without bothering to have any respect for any of those other disciplines, what with science being The Best – you’d already know this).

The God Delusion provides a real education in the theory and practice of white male liberalism, in men who pick up and drop the language of equality as and when it suits their arguments, further exploiting the very people they claim to defend. Jesus Christ himself wouldn’t stand for this nonsense.  

Which brings me to …

The Bible

For someone who doesn’t believe in God I own a lot of Bibles. What can I say? They come in handy.

One is currently supporting a sagging TV unit. Another, laid on its side, makes a useful bookend. As for the rest of them, some I even pick up and read.

As a child I used to ostentatiously pretend to read the Bible (or the first page of Genesis, over and over) in front of adults in the hope it would make me look virtuous. As an adult I’ve come to appreciate it far more in relation to literature, history and politics. I can’t say it’s a book I “agree with” – as has been pointed out time and time again, it doesn’t even agree with itself – but I still find it fascinating (apart from the boring bits dealing with who begat whom).  And even if, objectively speaking, our Lord Jesus Christ could be seen as more deluded than Richard Dawkins, the former is definitely more my kind of radical.

I can’t say I’ve read any of my bibles from cover to cover. Or even from one book to the end. Fortunately my partner, a fellow non-believer but also a medieval historian, has extensive knowledge of the good book. So much so that he once sent away a pair of Jehovah’s Witnesses who solemnly promised to get back to him once they too had consulted he passages he mentioned (to their credit, they did get back, only it was by sticking a note through the letterbox then quickly departing. They didn’t dare knock).  

Truly, knowledge is power.

Adrienne Rich’s Of Woman Born

Actually, I love this book. It’s just I thought I’d hate it. I mean, look at it! Mum stuff. Pages and pages and pages of mumsy mum stuff. Wasn’t the whole point of feminism to liberate women from all that? Why were second-wavers like Rich so obsessed with “motherhood as experience and institution”? After a hard day watching CBeebies and ignoring Steve Biddulph, why in God’s name would I want to read about that?

Yet when I finally did read Rich’s work – five months pregnant with my third child and decidedly dubious about the whole thing – it totally changed my way of seeing other women. Because the most important point Rich makes isn’t really about motherhood per se, but about the way in which reproduction shapes our view of all women.

“The mother,” writes Rich, “stands for the victim in ourselves, the unfree woman, the martyr. Our personalities seem dangerously to blur and overlap with our mothers’; and, in a desperate attempt to know where mother ends and daughter begins, we perform radical surgery.” There is a feminist impulse that seeks connection with women but there is also another, often far stronger, that seeks differentiation, to prove that one is different, and indeed better, than the archetypal woman one leaves in the past, the mother. Rich notes that it is “easier by far to hate and reject a mother outright than to see beyond her to the forces acting upon her.” Easier by far to think “urgh! I’m not reading that essentialist mumsy stuff!” than to examine other women’s, particularly older women’s, lives (Of Woman Born is, perhaps unsurprisingly, one of the books the Vancouver protesters want to see removed).

Thus ends this small sample of the “problematic” titles I own. I’d like to finish with a quote from the Matt Goss of Bros, who once sang the famous words “most of my friends were strangers when I met them.”  One imagines this was also true of his nemeses (especially Craig Logan, who managed to be both). But is it not also true of the books we read? You can’t really know a book until you’ve read it yourself. 

Unless it’s Raising Boys. Unless it’s that one. Believe me, you know enough. 

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.

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Social media tome #Republic questions the wisdom of crowds

Cass R Sunstein explores how insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Cass Sunstein, one of the leading public intellectuals in the United States and a former Obama administration official, has worried and written for more than 15 years about the effects of the internet and digital communications on democracy. This book, his third on the subject, tackles social media.

The heart of his argument lies in the cumulative, collective effect of what individuals do online. Networking, shopping, dating and activism are all transformed by the engine of opportunity that is the internet. But those new links and choices produce a malign side effect: “filter bubbles”, inside which like-minded people shut themselves off from opinions that might challenge their assumptions. Insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Sunstein’s organising principle is the ­difference between consumer and political sovereignty. The former promotes individual choice despite its possible consequences; the latter takes into account the needs of society as a whole. His inspiration is Jane Jacobs, the historian of US cities who celebrated, in poetic language, the benign and enriching effect on democracy of random encounters between citizens on pavements and in parks. How do we now reverse or dilute the polarisation driven by Facebook and Twitter?

The solutions Sunstein proposes for this very difficult problem are oddly tentative: websites stocked with challenging ideas and deliberative debates, voluntary self-regulation and “serendipity buttons”. He rightly stresses transparency: we know far too little about the algorithms that sift news for our attention on the networks. Facebook has talked about trying to show news that is “engaging” and “interesting”, without ever engaging in detailed public discussion of what these words mean. The disclosure requirements for social networks “require consideration”, Sunstein writes, without saying whether Facebook might have to be required legally to explain precisely how it routes news to almost two billion users.

Sunstein’s most interesting arguments are myth-busters. He questions the “wisdom of crowds”, while refraining from pointing out directly that the single strongest argument against this idea is the inequality of opinions. Not all opinions are equally valuable. He warily suggests what only a very few American voices have so far dared to say: that the First Amendment to the constitution, which guarantees a free press, should not be treated – as the courts have recently tended to do – as an equally strong protection for the freedom of all speech.

Sunstein is nostalgic for the media system and regulation of the past. I spent years working for a daily “general-interest” newspaper (the Times) and regret the decline of those outlets as much as he does, yet there is no reversing the technological and economic changes that have undermined them. It might have been a mistake to deregulate television in the United States, and killing the “fairness doctrine” might have had unforeseen effects, but that does not deal with the dilemmas thrown up by WhatsApp or Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter.

Users of these platforms face the problem of managing abundance. Writers such as Sunstein imply that people who lock themselves in filter bubbles are deplorably unable to break out of their informational isolation. But we all now live in bubbles that we design to make sense of the torrent of information flowing through our phones. Better-designed, heterogeneous bubbles include the unexpected and the challenging.

Yet the problem lies deeper than the quality of your bubble. Polarised societies can no longer agree on how to recognise the truth. Filter bubbles play a part, but so do a preference for emotion over reason, attacks on scientific fact from religion, decades of public emphasis on self-fulfilment, and a belief that political elites are stagnant and corrupt. Like many journalists, Sunstein treats the problem of a malfunctioning communications system as a supply-side matter: the information being generated and distributed ought to be better.

In the case of fake news, that is indisputable. But there is also a demand-side problem, one that hinges on the motives of those consuming information. If, inside their bubbles, people are not curious about alternative opinions, are indifferent to critical thinking and prefer stoking their dislike – of, say, Hillary Clinton – will they have even the slightest interest in venturing outside their comfort zone? Do we have a right to ignore the views of others, or an obligation to square up to them? Millions of Americans believe that one of the most important guarantees in their constitution is the right to be left alone – and that includes being left alone by the New York Times.

Sunstein does not venture far into this territory. He only hints that if we worry about what people know, we must also worry about what kinds of societies we build. Globalisation has reshaped communities, dismantling some and building others online, but the net effect has been to reduce deliberation and increase a tendency to press the “Like” button, or loathe opponents you can’t see or hear. The ability to debate civilly and well may depend on complex social chemistry and many ingredients – elite expertise, education, critical thinking, culture, law – but we need to be thinking about the best recipes. 

George Brock is the author of “Out of Print: Newspapers, Journalism and the Business of News in the Digital Age” (Kogan Page)

#Republic: Divided Democracy in the Age of Social Media
Cass R Sunstein
Princeton University Press, 328pp, £24.95​

George Brock is a former managing editor of The Times who is now head of journalism at City University in London.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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