19 June 2011

The Domonique Strauss-Kahn Affair, Civilizational Thinking, and the Western Illusion of Human Nature

When we study a particular way of thinking,  or conceptual schema, it is easiest to look for sites -- teaching texts or reference works -- where there is an exposition of the schema or way of thinking.  But what is at least as revealing is what people do with that schema or way of thinking: its social life, one might say.  To study this requires noting the schema's appearances out and about in the world.

It is for this reason that I am struck by the use of "civilizational thinking" in two different pieces from the New York Times about the Dominique Strauss-Kahn affair, both published on the 21st of May. 

The first excerpt is from an article about DSK's wife, Anne Sinclair, and it included observations from Elie Wiesel, who--the article tells us--"was a close friend of Ms. Sinclair and her first husband."  Expressing "sadness for Ms. Sinclair," the Times reported, Mr. Weisel invoked a "Talmudic saying": " 'No one is the owner of his instincts,' " and then added his own commentary: "But controlling them, that is civilization." 

The second excerpt is from an essay-like commentary that discussed the pattern--illustrated in the essay by DSK and Arnold Schwarzenegger--of powerful men behaving like "pigs," i.e., being "sexual predators."  Authored by Benedict Carey, a science and medicine reporter for the newspaper, the essay concluded:   "For most of human history, men have treated women much as they pleased, and powerful men routinely collected wives and lovers, feeling free to maim or kill those who offended. The social norms, criminal laws and progressive culture of the West evolved in part to check such abuses, and most men not only observe those rules but also, as the attitude surveys show, internalize them."

WHAT IS STRIKING HERE is that for both Weisel (a world historic figure) and Carey (a journeyman reporter), the DSK affair brings out the received notion, or schema, that bad behavior--in this instance, bad sexual behavior by men--is a part of nature, while goodness comes from nature's control by "civilization." 

It is worth noting the specific ways each figure expresses or offers this schema to the reader.  Weisel invokes nature by using the term "instincts"; Carey does so not with a word, but by asserting that male exploitation of women is the general rule in human history--thus identifying such exploitation as natural male conduct.  In regard to the force or structure that controls this beastly nature, Weisel speaks of "civilization," whereas Carey speaks of "the West" and, specifically, of the West's "progressive culture."  

By invoking this identity-category ("the West"), and specifically by using it as if it were the name for "civilization," Carey unintentionally makes his claims easier to dismiss than Weisel's.   To claim that "the West" has a distinctive--or even a consistent--record of constraining sexism is patent nonsense; by contrast, to claim that "civilization" has such a track record (as Weisel in effect suggests) is sufficently ungrounded to evade empirical challenge, just as it is sufficiently free of overt ethnocentrism to evade political scorn.

Yet, "civilization"--very much like "the West"--is a term that divides humanity into two primary and ranked components: the advanced and the backward, corresponding to "the West" and "the rest."  This is to say, Weisel's formulation is both more polite and more evasive, but really no different from Carey's in how it conceptualizes or interprets the world around us.

There are in this conceptualization or way of thinking two problems.  The first is the received practice of dividing human behavior up into separate components of what is "natural" and what is "social," thereby protecting--from both scrutiny and projects of reform--the specific social arrangements that foster the DSK's of our time and place.   The second is the corresponding notion that our own and related societies--be they the "civilized" ones or the "Western" ones, but always "ours" and not those of Others--are on a higher plane than others, a view that again protects recieved social arrangements from both scrutiny and projects of reform.

All of this is to say that these two commentaries on DSK are, as it were, rear-guard actions, providing cover for the established order.

the slow blog movement encourages

On the fallacy of the division of human conduct into separate natural and social components, see Marshall Sahlins's 2008 pamphlet, The Western Illusion of Human Nature .


  1. I encourage you to read the whole controversy over Men's Rights prompted by Dilbert creator Scott Adams. I don't think I fully know, or understand, the competing claims that issue raised, but it is interesting and very much on topic. (Google "dilbert blog men's rights" and you'll find what I mean)

    Would you change any of your conclusions if you knew DSK's was guilty? What if you knew he was innocent? It certainly looks less likely he is guilty now, although by no means is that certain.

  2. Hey Will,

    I have no specific knowledge what went on in the hotel room. And nothing in my argument hinges on whether DSK is, in a legal sense, guilty of a crime. My comment is about the representations of him and the affair. I certainly do not think that what has been revealed about his accuser establishes his innocencem btw.