Report from the field: Senior Scholar Marilyn Yalom

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Report from the field: Senior Scholar Marilyn Yalom

In response to the question, "What is a man?" published in "Sciences et Avenir"

by Marilyn Yalom on Friday, February 3, 2012 - 5:23pm

 Marilyn YalomShouldn’t the question be “What is a human being?” 

The use of “man” as a generic category for both males and females may have long precedence in English and French, but it also has distinct disadvantages. Masculine language and masculine images, when they are used to represent the whole human race, tend to conceal or distort the presence of girls and women. When girls see words like “man” or homo sapiens, or images like  Da Vinci’s “Vitruvian Man” and Rodin’s “Thinker,” they do not think of themselves.

The consequence of equating the "human" with the "male" can sometimes be very far-fetched. To take just one example, Freud's Oedipus complex postulated that every boy lives in awesome fear of castration and that every girl experiences penis-envy. This model of psychosexual development requires enormous contorsions for a female to develop into a mature sexual being.  Had Freud taken the female as prototype, he might have postulated a breast-envy theory for males, which would have been equally absurd.

The tendency to take “man as the measure of all things” (a formulation attributed to Protagoras) shows up in Linnaeus's eighteenth century nomenclature. Homo sapiens not only privileges the male biological sex, but also the "thinking" and "knowing" part of humans, the part always associated with men rather than with women. Linnaeus and his contemporaries followed a traditional sexual division by assigning women the domain of emotion, which was considered inconsistent with thinking and reason. Perhaps it is time for some ambitious naturalist to revise Linnaeus's entire classification system, but barring that, we ought to be able find ways to talk popularly about males and females without such a strong gender bias. 

I like Lacan's term "êtres parlants," which has the advantage of being sex-neutral. Certainly no one has ever accused women of lacking the gift of gab!  Etres parlants makes sense: speech was and still is the hallmark of the human, distinguishing us from all other members of the animal kingdom. Speech led to the alphabet and to writing, so that each generation could transmit to the next the sum of what it had learned. Even the mute can learn forms of communication based on language, which animals do not share.

And yet we do well to remember our kinship with animals. Like other mammals we are carried within a mother's body until birth.  Like mammals, we suckle at a mother's breast.  The link to mother is our earliest form of human connection and she, or a mother surrogate, plays a major role in the acquisition of language. Indeed, is not our first language the "mother tongue"? I do not discount the influence of fathers, grandparents, siblings, and others in this enterprise, but it is usually the connection to mother that lays the template for future human relationships.

As we move from childhood into adulthood, life becomes a dance between maintaining human ties and developing autonomy. Camus gets it exactly right when he says that we are both solitaire and solidaire--apart and apart of. Yet Western philosophers and other writers tend to emphasize solitaire over solidaire.  From Homer to Hemingway, the lone hero dominates Western mythology. Nietzsche, Heidegger, and Sartre have bequeathed to the contemporary mind a solipsistic vision of human beings locked within their inability to empathize with each other.  If the thinker were a mother, would she ascribe to this philosophy?   Edmée Mottini-Coulin thinks not. She points to pregnancy as “an ontological encounter of the other,” which allows mothers to transcend solipsism. Think female, and our vision of the human changes. I am not suggesting that we return to earth goddesses and matriarchal societies (which have rarely, if ever, existed), but that we include in our vision of the human that which is specifically female, as well as that which is specifically male.

Once the model for human becomes both female and male, the emphasis may shift away from competition, hostility, and war. The Freudian construct of inevitable conflict between father and son could give way to a construct of womanly nurturance and caring. Would this feminine emphasis be sufficient to keep male violence in check? We don’t yet know, since we have never lived in a female-dominated society, or even in a society where women and men share equal power.

Language, as our defining feature, demands that we use it carefully.  How we speak is who we are. I am not referring to the politically correct avoidance of racially or religiously charged slurs—though they count too—but rather about inclusion of the female in our speech, whenever possible.  Sometimes that effort leads to infelicitous neologisms or awkward phrases, such as “she and he” rather than “he” alone.  But you get used to them, and in the long run, you begin to think more inclusively.  In America, I have lived through a revolution in language that accompanied the sexual revolution, and I appreciate how changes in discourse validate women as members of the human race and as contributors to culture.

We are learning, very slowly it is true, to appreciate more fully the characteristics traditionally associated with women, such as parenting, caring, connection, and community, and to understand that they, too, are marks of the human.  These characteristics no longer belong exclusively to females. When I see, an American father carrying a baby in a front pack, or a French man pushing a stroller without the presence of his wife, the gender revolution becomes visible. Similarly, when I see an American woman in a soldier’s uniform, or a French woman archeologist in Werner Herzog’s haunting film, “Cave of Forgotten Dreams,” or a German woman presiding over an entire nation, my picture of the human is enlarged.   We must find a language to reflect these changes, words that capture the fluid potential for men and women to take on roles that would have been denied them in the past. 

If the male-associated traits of physical strength and aggression contributed significantly to the survival of humankind since our Paleolithic ancestors created the Chauvet cave paintings in Southern France, it may well be that the future depends more on the female-associated traits of empathy and nurturance.  Without them, we are in danger of killing off the human race, along with the countless animals and plants that have already disappeared from the earth.