All women are not angels

Recently, Zoë Bossiere raised some questions regarding male writers. For example—while referring to a character in Junot Diaz’s two collections of short stories, Drown and This Is How You Lose Her—she asks: Could a sexist character like Yunior have been written if not for the abuse the women in these men’s lives suffered?

“Maybe not,” she answers.

Maybe not. But just as easily, maybe.

We tend to forget that imagination is a fundamental aspect of literature and art. I find it hard to believe that all the Scandinavian women writing crime literature are murderers. I doubt that Gillian Flynn, author of “Gone Girl,” has killed her old boyfriend, or wants to. Stephen King is probably not wildly evil, or even all that mean. And Han Kang, who wrote “The Vegetarian,” might not be a vegetarian, or like to be painted naked by her sister’s husband, or even have a sister.

Bossiere goes on and ask, “Some might argue that these works [by men]contribute to the greater canon of literature, but in the era of #MeToo, how much is ‘good’ art actually worth?”

I personally feel that it is not worth s–t if someone deliberately suffers in the process. By suffering I do not mean that, say, children might suffer due to parental distraction or absentmindedness. I mean suffering in a violent and abusive way.

Yet, I agree with the Norwegian novelist Karl Ove Knausgård who has defended writers who “run up against the limit of what cannot, shall not, should not or must not be written”, arguing that every time an author “refuses to shy away”, the arbitrary nature of such limits is revealed.

It may be difficult for many to distinguish the writer from his or her work, but it is important to do so. When we too quickly equate a person’s work of fiction with the person him or herself, it shows more a lack of imagination than moral reasoning.

Readers of course have every right to become political consumers and stop reading books by writers whose actions may be reprehensible. But I know that not everyone is Mother Teresa or the Dalai Lama, and I can accept writers with flaws. I can read Jean Genet or Ulrike Meinhof (the brain behind the Baader-Meinhof Gang that operated in Germany in the 1970s), and not feel the urge to steal or kill. Sometimes the best literature can confuse us, nauseate us, show us our moral flaws as well as our ignorance.

Still, men should not be excused on the basis of their literary genius for what they do in real life. Never. The same goes for women. It is not chauvinistic in the slightest to state that all women are not angels, just as all men are not sexual predators. Writing this, however, feels like putting a rope around my neck, because gender issues, especially in the #MeToo era, have become so contentious. Today discussion of the topic is governed by a cowboy mentality, in which everyone shoots first and asks questions later.

For example, in today’s gender debate, some men and women treat one another as men and women—not as human beings. It’s as if gender gets in the way of an unbiased interpretation of what is happening. I think it’s important to acknowledge that all kinds of judgement—about right and wrong, true or false—require time, reflection, and analysis. Today, perhaps due to social media—especially Twitter—it’s easy to contribute blindly. There is a strong herd mentality on social media.

Do we take time to dwell, to reflect, to add perspective, to provide nuance? Or do we just blame? And when we blame, are we doing so out of instinct, out of some latent hatred? And do people—writers included—consider what kind of words they are using to blame other human beings? For example, the term misogynist has become so popular and broadly used that it soon will lose its meaning.

The philosopher Kate Manne defines misogyny as not about hatred toward women but about controlling and pushing women who challenge male dominance. The crucial aspect is how men and women challenge one another—that is, whether the dialogue conveys respect, trust, and equality. In the literary and academic world, people will often defend their ideas or positions. Sometimes people do this with respect and care, other times with hostility. Sometimes it’s women being hostile; sometimes it’s men. Sometimes hostility is due to vanity, arrogance, insecurity, or plain stupidity, and sometimes it’s due to men (or women) being afraid of losing their powerful positions to women—or other men.

A recent example is a recording of a Q and A session with writers Junot Diaz and Carmen Maria Machado, during which Machado describes Diaz as a misogynist and a bully. To me, this interpretation seems wrong, but according to Manne, it’s the potential victim who defines whether Diaz is securing his power or not. And then, of course, we can interpret Machado’s actions and words, words she probably—being a writer—chose deliberately. Nietzsche said thinking is interpretation. It’s an ongoing process, and I would be very careful about labeling Diaz misogynist only on this recording or Machado a liar. Which leaves us where? Perhaps we are witnessing a power game fueled by both historical and current frustration, irritation, and hate—a situation where fiction and nonfiction merge, a situation where we no longer read novels based on their literary qualities but morally on whether the character is a good human being.

In an essay published in The New Yorker, Toni Morrison writes: “The choices made by white men, who are prepared to abandon their humanity out of fear of black men and women, suggest the true horror of lost status.” In other words, perhaps many of the problems debated today are not only about gender but much more about power.

We tend to forget that all human beings are worth the same when we focus too much on gender, skin color, or socioeconomic status. I know there is good reason for doing so (cf. Morrison’s essay on white men); still, the challenge is to encounter the present moment with an open and neutral mind full of compassion.

In short, in this quest for living equally and respectfully together, I think it is crucial that we all keep our heads cool and our hearts warm.


“Panpsychism is as old as philosophy itself,” write editors Godehard Brüntrup and Ludwig Jaskolla in their introduction to the anthology Panpsychism: Contemporary Perspectives. The editors present panpsychism as an alternative to analytic philosophy of the mind. Perhaps for this reason, all the essays in this anthology tend to be rather analytical.

The word “panpsychicism” is—like many words describing Western philosophical concepts—Greek in origin. “Pan” means “throughout” or “everywhere,” whereas “psyche” means soul, consciousness, or mind. Therefore, the term “panpsychism” refers to the idea that consciousness is everywhere, or that “mental being is a fundamental and ubiquitous feature of the universe.”

Panpsychism includes commentary by 17 authors within 16 essays placed within four subjects: the logical place of panpsychism, the varieties of panpsychic ontologies, panpsychicism and the combination problem (i.e., “How can microphenomenal properties combine to yield macrophenomenal properties?”), and panpsychism and its alternatives. All these essays elaborate on and argue for the thesis that mind, or consciousness, is part of the world; that is, that it exists throughout the universe.

The anthology can be read as a reflection on the current state of this discipline. It’s not an introduction for newcomers; rather, it is aimed at readers with a good knowledge of philosophy and its terminology—from graduate students to philosophy researchers. Or, more precisely, it is a collection of essays that often debate with one another, which can make it a dense reading experience. The tones of the essays swing between humility (most of them) and pretention. For example, David J. Chalmers, who has two excellent essays in this volume, writes, “…I will present an argument for panpsychicism. Like most philosophical arguments, this argument is not entirely conclusive, but I think it gives reason to take the view seriously. Speaking for myself, I am by no means confident that panpsychicism is true, but I am also not confident that it is not true.” Brüntrup simply states, “I am not claiming that a version of panpsychism is true. But I am claiming that it might be.” On the other hand, Strawson writes, “I’ll state the four propositions first in German because I like the way they sound in German … I’m not going to argue for them, but I’ll provide a few glosses.”

In addition to providing an overview of panpsychism, this book provides excellent examples of how to argue logically. It is an interesting field; just imagine this thesis being debated by serious philosophers half a century ago. For anyone remotely interested in consciousness, experience, and subjectivity, this book is required reading.

I will give the reader a few summarizing examples without introducing too much of the complex conceptual framework. Many essays touch upon the concept of “radical emergence,” which states that consciousness emerges out of nothing. Here, proponents of panpsychism make a strong case against this assumption, basically saying that it is scientifically weak to propose that something emerges from nothing. Nihil fit ex nihilo, nothing comes from nothing; this is a thesis that was apparently first presented by Parmenides. The French philosopher Michel Serres has also written about the Roman poet Lucretius, who in De Rerum Natura wrote, “Nothing can be made from nothing – once we see that’s so / Already we are on the way to what we want to know.”

However, the problem with radical emergence is that it does not integrate consciousness in nature. “Many say that experience (consciousness) is a mystery. But what is mysterious?,” asks Strawson. He then clarifies that for him, it is mysterious to suggest that consciousness appears by adding unconscious particles together. Therefore, the logical conclusion is that these particles must have consciousness to begin with. Still, there are disagreements surrounding the idea that everything—from rocks to the Eiffel tower to goats—is conscious.

Another example comes from examining the development of consciousness in a way similar to the examination of the evolutionary development of the human body. Just think of the classic image depicting the evolution from ape to man/woman. The point is that over many years, evolution has worked with the material of the body, gradually developing features such as specialized fingers, including the human thumb, which allows modern humans to text each other. Did something similar happen with consciousness? Was it always there, only to be further and further developed?

A third example is a classical problem that the panpsychists debate: the dualism between the mental and the physical, or to put it even more simply, the mind-body problem. What is the relationship between our bodies and our minds, experiences, and thoughts? If panpsychicism is the best alternative to Cartesian dualism, then this metaphysical approach—that mind is everywhere—eliminates all hierarchies, including the hierarchies between humans and animals and the hierarchies in between humans, whether we speak of gender or race. If even rocks have minds, then perhaps we should show greater care for nature. For far too long, hierarchies—often based on nothing more than ignorance—have justified oppression. Again, think of how women, African-Americans, and homosexuals have suffered.

Panpsychicism has gained a lot of momentum in the last decade, mainly because neuroscience, psychology, biology, philosophy, and physics have failed to solve the riddle of consciousness. I also assume that it has gained popularity due to growing interest in Eastern philosophy, including mindfulness and Buddhism, in which everything is thought to be connected, and consciousness is seen as a sixth sense that allows us to experience this interconnectivity. Thus, to simply restate the argument, panpsychists do not believe that consciousness is created in the brain; instead, as the definition says, they argue that consciousness is everywhere. By “everywhere,” many of the theorists mean that consciousness is present in everything, from the tinniest particle (i.e., micro-consciousness) to human beings and animals (macro-consciousness).

As the editors correctly say, this anthology “focuses on the philosophical—strictly speaking metaphysical—arguments that have evolved from panpsychicism.” It is the foundations of panpsychism that are debated within this anthology.

Let me end with a quote from The Problems of Philosophy by Bertrand Russell, who writes, “Philosophy, though unable to tell us with certainty what is the true answer to the doubts which it raises, is able to suggest many possibilities which enlarge our thoughts and free them from the tyranny of custom. Thus, while diminishing our feeling or certainty as to what things are, it greatly increases our knowledge as to what they may be; it removes the somewhat arrogant dogmatism of those who never traveled into the region of liberating doubt, and it keeps alive our sense of wonder by showing familiar things in an unfamiliar aspect.”

While reading this anthology, I came to think of Russell’s comment about enlarging our thoughts and keeping our senses alive. I think this anthology succeeds in doing exactly that.

Review published in Metapsychology, Jun 29th 2017 (Volume 21, Issue 26).

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