Song On My Mind XII

Confession time: I have fallen into the addiction that is Hamilton the musical. Lin-Manuel Miranda and co have produced an astonishing work of art—more accurately, a series of small pieces of art—on the fascinating life of US founding father Alexander Hamilton.

It is bold, wondrous, uplifting and highly educational. With each re-listen I uncover more of the plots, themes and elements that Miranda has deftly weaved throughout the musical—love, war, friendship, rivalry, betrayal, fatherhood, loss, legacy, and more. This is a soundtrack that richly rewards multiple listens. It is crazy good. Here is an emblematic song that tells of Hamilton’s rise:

 

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Favourite Things of 2015

For my last post of 2015, I thought I’d summarise my favourite things of this year. In no particular order:

Movie – Star Wars: The Force Awakens

The movie that many people have been eagerly anticipating. I went in with high expectations and was not disappointed. If you go searching for them, you will find plenty of flaws with the movie’s plot, execution, its derivative nature, and so forth. However, you would also be missing the point. J.J. Abrams’ reboot packs a whole lot of pathos. It filled me with wonder. It made me feel. It was space operatic escapism at its best.

TV Show – Damages

I’m not a big TV-watcher, so this one basically wins by default. However, having recently binged on Season 1 with my wife, I think Damages deserves acclaim as a compelling legal thriller. The show follows the story of recent law graduate Ellen Parsons (Rose Byrne), who must navigate tricky legal, professional and personal waters as an associate at the law firm of Patty Hewes (Glenn Close). The characters are multidimensional and the plot twists relentlessly. As a former student of law I found the issues explored here—especially the nature of trust, ethical boundaries and what makes for an effective lawyer—to be engrossing, even if somewhat heavy-handed at times.

Album – 1989

Taylor Swift hooked me in with Shake It Off and I had to listen to the whole thing. I am extremely impressed with this album. Every song holds up on its own, even if it took a while for some of them to grow on me. 1989 makes me happy, and I’ve gone back to it again and again without any diminishment in joy.

Show – 1989 World Tour

Swift is the best entertainer in the world right now. It was a privilege to take part in the live spectacle.

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Book – Creativity, Inc.

Ed Catmull, President of Pixar and Walter Disney Animation Studios, wrote Creativity, Inc. to distill his experience on how to develop, nurture and sustain an organisation that produces top-notch creative work. As someone who is interested in the power of culture and psychology, this was a fascinating read.

Catmull has written an engaging and informative book on, as he put it, the noble endeavour of managing people. It also contains neat stories of how various Pixar films came to be, and also Catmull’s dealings with the irrepressible Steve Jobs.

Article – Unsustainable Liberalism

This article by Patrick J. Deneen was written in 2012 but I came across it recently. It is a long but worthwhile read on the contradictions of liberalism and how its unfettered growth leads to illiberalism. What I found most interesting is the idea that the contemporary Left and Right are both species of liberalism and are problematic in their own ways.

The Left wishes to carve out ever-more personal freedoms under the rubric of “if it doesn’t hurt anyone it should be permissible”, and using the power of the state to enforce them. The Right, as Deneen puts it, “embraces a market orthodoxy that places the choosing, autonomous individual at the center of its economic theory”, and seeks to expand the reach of the free-market in all human spheres. The result?

Both the left and the right effectively enact a pincer movement in which local associations and groups are engulfed by an expanding state and by the market, each moving toward singularity in each realm: one state and one market.

[The right] seeks to promote family values but denies that the market undermines many of the values that undergird family life. The left commends sexual liberation as the best avenue to achieve individual autonomy, while nonsensically condemning the immorality of a marketplace in which sex is the best sales pitch. The encompassing Leviathan daily attains more reality.

Fascinating stuff, and I hope to write more on this in the future.

App – Instapaper

I browse Twitter and the web daily to look for interesting stuff to read. Instapaper is invaluable in collecting them, synced across my devices and the browser, for later offline consumption. When my eyes could use a rest, there is also an option to speak the text. Neat.

Scientific Event – New Horizons Flyby of Pluto

On January 16, 2006, NASA launched the New Horizons probe on a mission to Pluto. After nine and a half years zipping through cold space, New Horizons flew past Pluto on July 14, 2015, forever transforming our image of the dwarf planet from a pixelated blob to breathtaking high resolution pictures. As with any good scientific endeavour, the data sent back so far raises as many questions as it answers about our understanding of this icy body.

Place – Château de Chenonceau

In the Loire Valley, on my honeymoon. A château over the water, surrounded by immaculate gardens. Magnificent.

 

Among the 76,000

I promise this will be the last post on Taylor Swift for a while. Last Saturday I saw her perform at ANZ Stadium in Sydney, the first Australian stop on her 1989 World Tour. It was a fantastic show. As someone who likes to observe things, I want to share my thoughts on the concert here.

Charm

After kicking things off with a glamorous rendition of Welcome to New York, Swift addressed the crowd with a simple “Hi, I’m Taylor”, accompanied by a beaming smile. Calculated? Certainly. Effective? For sure. The charm factor was off the charts.

Throughout the show Swift would get the crowd involved. Sometimes it would involve action—echoes, sing-alongs, arms in the air. Other times it was rhetorical, imploring us to come on a music journey with her. She took the time to say what a great audience it was, and to express her appreciation for making her album a success and for being present that night.

All photos taken with iPhone 5S.

All photos taken with the iPhone 5S.

Swift was real with the crowd. Here’s what she said in her introduction to the song Clean, which began with her remarking on how passionate and joyful the crowd was:

And let me tell you why that kind of behaviour makes me happy. Because that kind of behaviour is free, and uninhibited, and warm, and the way you’ve treated us is so open and welcoming. And, you know these days there are millions of ways for people to tell you—how to be. How to act in public. What’s cool, what’s not. What’s beautiful, what’s not. And it’s really easy to become completely preoccupied by the idea of trying to be cool. You have a lot of people who will try to make you feel like being cool, is being unaffected, and unexcited, and cynical, and chill. But you know what I think is better than being cool is being happy. And you seem really happy tonight Sydney. [Crowd cheers]

You know when someone criticises you, or says something behind your back, those words that they said about you, it’s like you feel like those words are written all over your face, all over you. And then, those words start to become echoes in your own mind. And then there’s a real risk that those words could become a part of how you see yourself. The moment that you realise that you are not the opinion of somebody who doesn’t know you, or care about you—that moment, when you realise that, it’s like you’re clean.

I think this is more than just a feel-good message. It’s a psychologically important message, especially for the mostly young and mostly female audience. A cynic would say she had crafted all these words in advance, to get the maximum emotional leverage. But I also think she’s being very genuine here. These words come from her own experiences and the (painful) lessons that she’s learnt.

Presence

Swift had incredible stage presence. I was sitting in the stands, so most of what I observed was derived from the big screens. I can only imagine what the effect was for those sitting up close.

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Swift has mastered the runway strut. She moved about the stage with purpose and grace. She has mastered the turn-back pose. She has mastered the hair flick. She has mastered the pause—to look around, soaking in the adulation of the crowd. She has mastered her smile, of which there are multiple variations (subtle, innocent, knowing, beaming, etc.) depending on the situation. She always had a sense of whimsy in her expressions and body language, which was fun and engaging. Her passion was infectious.

Needless to say, the outfits were great. Probably my favourite (and my wife would enthusiastically concur) was the pink two-piece light-up dress Swift wore for How You Get the Girl.

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Performance

I go to live shows not just to hear songs that I like, but to be entertained by an experience I can’t get by putting on my ear buds. I went in with very high expectations, and I was not disappointed.

Swift is multi-talented. In addition to the choreographed set pieces, she rotated comfortably between an acoustic guitar, an electric guitar, and the piano. She’s blossomed from a country music darling to a gifted stage performer.

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I loved the variation in music styles—from pop, to punk, to ballad, to rock, to stripped-back. Each live song captured the essence of the studio version and built further upon it. In particular, Swift’s rendition of the two popular songs from her Red album swayed my original opinion of them from annoyance to enjoyment. I Knew You Were Trouble was satisfyingly dark and moody, backed by foreboding strings. We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together was delivered punk rock style, with Swift working the electric guitar.

Atmosphere

Another dimension to my enjoyment of the show was the crowd. 76,000 adoring fans made the stadium come alive. At no point did the crowd become still or passive. The number of bums off seats was impressive, even for those who were really far away from the stage.

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As we entered the stadium, each person was given a rubber wristband with radio-controlled LEDs, as a “present from Taylor”. These were used to great effect, as the stadium became a roiling sea of white, blue, pink, purple and more, to punctuate the progression of each song.

Swift capped off the concert with Shake It Off, which brought together all the elements of lighting, video, band, dancers, smoke machines, rotating stage, and even fireworks. It was a worthy end to the world’s biggest star performing the best show around.

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What They Believe

I attended the Festival of Dangerous Ideas (FODI) earlier this month. FODI is an annual event hosted by the Sydney Opera House where leading thinkers around the world are invited to discuss and debate important ideas in the areas of politics, society, technology, philosophy, and more. In this post I want to share my thoughts on one of the panels I saw, “What I Believe”.

The format was a little weird, in that it wasn’t a discussion between participants on stage. Rather, the participants came in one at a time to give a ~10 minute talk on what they believe. Clearly this threw off Peter Doherty (Australian medical researcher and Nobel prize winner), who gave an entertaining but off-topic diatribe against anti-science sentiments. In any case, I came in to this panel with high expectations. Belief—that is, acceptance, trust, faith, confidence—carries special significance for how we live, and I was particularly interested to hear the perspectives of those who are non-religious. For the most part, I came out fairly disappointed.

Frank Brennan, Australian Jesuit priest and human rights lawyer, went first. He was the only speaker who was clearly associated with a religious denomination. However, Brennan was less overt about his own faith, which was a letdown. He mostly played it safe and stuck to moderate talking points. Listening to him talk about the dignity of human people, of Australia’s greatest moral challenge being how we govern our borders, and how notions of common good are as important as self-determination, I’m reminded again of how Christianity speaks to ideas that most secular people would assent to. These ideas got polite applauses from the educated, left-leaning, well-to-do audience.

Adrienne Truscott, a multi-talented American entertainer, was next. Her talk on what she believed was more like anti-belief, as she spent the bulk of it talking about her problems with organised religion. Fair enough. The general position of the audience was made very clear to me by their enthusiastic applause. What I found fascinating was the audience reaction to another speaker, Indigenous journalist and former politician Malarndirri McCarthy. At the beginning of her talk McCarthy recognised Aboriginal custodianship of the land and how the “spirits” of past Aboriginal women were with her at that moment. The audience once again applauded energetically. Just 10 minutes ago they were treated to an acerbic (and what must have been satisfying) takedown of the irrationality and ridiculousness of religion. Now they were clapping for spirits. What gives?

I think the answer lies in the qualifier organised. Truscott, and I suspect the audience (excepting the rabid atheists), does not have antipathy to the particular claims of any belief system. After all, that’s the secular way: “You can believe in whatever you want, as long as it doesn’t hurt anyone.” Rather, I think they have a problem with power, and the real and perceived abuses of that power. Christianity has been an institution for approximately two thousand years. In a nutshell, people and groups associated with Christianity have done really good things and also really bad things. These people and groups often have and sometimes still do exert influence over societies. For secular, educated people today, I think this could influence their thinking in the following non-exhaustive ways:

  • People tend to remember bad stuff more than good stuff, so they tend to view “the church” in a negative light.
  • For left-leaning people who are more sensitive to groups with relatively less power (e.g., minorities, women, etc.), institutions who seemingly have more power are viewed with suspicion
  • For people who just want to live however they want and don’t want to change, it’s useful to justify themselves by pointing to the bad stuff with organised religion.

For Christians I think this is both encouraging and discouraging. It is encouraging because I think people can still be receptive to the gospel message, untethered from the politics and practices of imperfect institutions. It is discouraging because secular people have been so engrained to think of Christianity as at best neutral, and frequently some shade of bad, that it is an uphill battle to shift their thinking.

Next up was AC Grayling, a British philosopher and one of the leaders of the New Atheism movement. I had high hopes that he would explain what he believes in an intelligent manner befitting a person of his standing. It would not be an overstatement to say that his talk was a profound disappointment.

Grayling starts off by rehashing what philosophy is about (1. What is the nature of reality, 2. What should we value). He then makes a logical jump (given his time constraints, I’ll give him a pass) that if there is only physical reality, then it is up to us (humans) to determine meaning and purpose. From there, he trots out stock standard utilitarianism, dressed up in fancy cosmic garb: Human consciousness is but a flicker in the history of the universe. If the totality of suffering outweighs the totality of pleasure, then the existence of the universe would have been a bad thing. If vice versa, then it is good. And therefore—and I’m not kidding, this is a direct quote—”It is our responsibility to be nice to one another.”

Really? That’s the best that he could do? OK, I understand he had limited time. But this was frankly so vapid I had to double check that he wasn’t trying to be humorous or ironic (I don’t think he was). “Being nice” is essentially a non-answer. How should I be kind? By what standard? Are there other worthy pursuits for humans other than being kind? If conflicts arise between these other pursuits and being kind, how should we resolve them?

Grayling’s formulation of utilitarianism is also problematic. Put aside the issue of how we measure pleasure and suffering. I think it is enormously unhelpful to think in aggregate terms of total pleasure versus total suffering over human existence. What if 51% had more pleasure on average and 49% had more suffering? Would you really say that this is a good outcome for humanity? What if there was 1% who had super-charged pleasure that outweighed the 99% who had fairly bad suffering on average? By Grayling’s standard this would be a good outcome. However, if we are to use utilitarianism, then I think it is more meaningful and worthwhile to take into account the pleasures and sufferings of individuals. I really expected more from this distinguished philosopher.

Up to this point I was quite unimpressed, with the exception of the entertaining Peter Doherty and his meandering but passionate defence of science. Helen Razer, Australian radio presenter and writer, was up next. She provided a welcome and refreshing change to the stolid fare before her. Razer’s sharp insights matched her strident tone and forceful delivery. She made two main points in her talk:

  1. Doubt is more valuable than any belief. She was careful to distinguish it from denial. Rather, for her doubt means to always question her beliefs, and to aspire to strip herself of beliefs.
  2. The optimistic belief that humans can change the world for the better is useless without action.

The second point in particular stood in marked contrast to previous speakers who, generally speaking, gave sugary platitudes about how they believed in the power of humans to overcome challenges, change the world, etc. It felt good to hear someone call them out on it. All the solidarity and sentimentality in the world will not bring back Aylan Kurdi, whose lifeless body had been recently reprinted and retweeted a million times for all to see. Razer was a contrarian, but not just for its own sake. She aimed to expose the shallowness and laziness of our “good” beliefs, which can disarm and satisfy us even when there is so much good that needs to be done.

Razer also made a point about the banality of good I had never considered before. First coined by Hannah Arendt, the banality of evil is now commonly understood to mean how evil can become normalised and be perpetrated in seemingly unremarkable, ordinary conditions. Razer posits that “the real terror of good is that it is also banal.” As I understand her, she means that doing good is quite unremarkable and does not match the lofty rhetoric of optimistic belief-peddlers—it is hard, repetitive, uninspiring, and difficult to notice. However, if we really want to make the world a better place, we should stop resting on our beliefs and start doing, one small action at a time.

Even for all the disappointment I endured, this was a worthy message to take home.*

* Jon Ronson was the final speaker, but his talk was so different that it’s worth addressing in a separate post.

On Political Correctness

It’s been another busy month, but there has been no shortage of good stuff to link to.

One article that has been doing the rounds is Jonathan Chait’s piece on political correctness. Chait defines political correctness in the article as:

[A] style of politics in which the more radical members of the left attempt to regulate political discourse by defining opposing views as bigoted and illegitimate … Today’s political correctness flourishes most consequentially on social media, where it enjoys a frisson of cool and vast new cultural reach.

Chait provides examples of speech and conduct that have been suppressed, dismissed and/or aggressively dealt with because they offend or are otherwise at odds with certain beliefs and ideals held by the left.* These beliefs and ideals often revolve around identity, such as gender, race and sexual orientation.

Broadly speaking, an animating goal for the left is equal treatment and respect for all groups. In particular, this entails advocacy on behalf of certain groups who have historically been marginalised, oppressed and deprived of power—for example, women, non-whites and LGBTs.

Chait makes the point that in their strident efforts to attain this goal, there are those on the left that act in ways that are decidedly antithetical to liberalism. This is not merely an intellectual problem—it is also detrimental for the left if people sympathetic to the movement do not provide self-reflection or criticism for fear of backlash, and those the movement seeks to appeal to are driven away by the coercive and overbearing culture.

Even if you don’t agree with everything (or anything) that I just outlined, keep an open mind and go read the piece.

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I’d like to add two observations in response to the article.

Firstly, it was both remarkable yet unsurprising that many of the heated disagreements with Chait settled on ad hominem attacks on his own (‘privileged’) identity. Chait even pre-empted this in his original article:

I am white and male, a fact that is certainly worth bearing in mind … If you consider this background and demographic information the very essence of my point of view, then there’s not much point in reading any further. But this pointlessness is exactly the point: Political correctness makes debate irrelevant and frequently impossible.

Rather than engaging with Chait’s examples and arguments, these critics basically proved his point by going straight for de-legitimisation based on his identity.

The broader observation to be made here is that, psychologically speaking, we all tend to see in and ascribe to others our own sensitivities and fears.

For certain people on the left who spend a significant amount of time and energy advocating for leftist issues, they tend to see the world in terms of oppression, grievance and identity. Criticism from an outsider is just another instance of illegitimate use of power. Any attempt at engagement by those in ‘privilege’ positions (white, male, hetero) can be dismissed as ‘whitesplaining’/‘mansplaining’/ ‘straightsplaining’.

Secondly, I think that this whole hubbub can be boiled down to one of priorities.

For the people Chait describes, the illiberal means justify the ends. The worthy goal of promoting an equalist agenda may entail the silencing of people opposed to that agenda. (For an example that I’ve written about, see the Brendan Reich episode).

Chait sees this as deeply problematic:

Liberals believe (or ought to believe) that social progress can continue while we maintain our traditional ideal of a free political marketplace where we can reason together as individuals. Political correctness challenges that bedrock liberal ideal. While politically less threatening than conservatism (the far right still commands far more power in American life), the p.c. left is actually more philosophically threatening. It is an undemocratic creed.

For Chait, his first priority is a commitment to a “free political marketplace” where an open exchange of ideas can take place. One can argue about the extent to which this is possible in practice given existing biases, power structures, etc., but I would side with Chait and consider that it is nevertheless a crucial goal to be striving for.

 

Finally, I want to point to an interesting response from Ross Douthat to Chait’s piece. Douthat argues that, contra Chait, political correctness is often not self-defeating and actually achieves the aims of its wielders. Indeed, “if your primary mission is to ensure that your definition of ‘expanded freedom’ triumphs, why wouldn’t you use the levers of coercion available to you?”

Douthat answers his own question by pointing to a deeper question—it is not just about who wins and who loses, but rather, even in victory, is the idea right or wrong? I think it’s a great analysis that is well worth quoting at length, with emphasis added:

The strongest answer, as I’ve tried to suggest before in debates about pluralism, has to rest in doubt as well as confidence: In a sense of humility about your own certainties, a knowledge that what looks like absolute progressive truth in one era does not always turn out to look that way in hindsight, and a willingness to extend a presumption of decency and good faith even to people whose ideas you think history will judge harshly. If you just say, “I believe in free debate because I’m certain than in free debate the good and right and true will eventually triumph, and I know that coercion will ultimately backfire,” you aren’t really giving the practical case for coercion its due. Better to say: “I believe in free debate because I know that my ideas about the good and right and true might actually be wrong (or at least be only partial truths that miss some bigger picture), and sometimes even reactionaries are proven right, and we have to leave the door open to that possibility.”

The problem with political correctness, in this sense, isn’t that it necessarily hurts the causes it claims to advance; sometimes it doesn’t, sometimes it just helps them win. It’s that like most systems of speech policing (which of course held sway in traditional societies as well) it excludes the possibility that those causes might be getting big things wrong, and thus it hurts the larger cause of truth.

I don’t think Chait would disagree with this, but I think it’s a slightly harder argument for him to make than me, because even though he’s (per his critics) a white male neoliberal sellout he’s also still basically a political progressive, with a Whiggish view of history somewhere in his bones. And then it’s a still-harder argument for him to address persuasively to those, further to his left, for whom the possibility that capital-H History might not be with them on all fronts strikes at the very heart of their self-conception and worldview.

Hence the easier-to-pitch claim that P.C. just doesn’t work, that it alienates potential allies, that it poorly serves its own ideas. Which indeed it does, at times. But when it doesn’t, when it works, the deeper problem remains: Sometimes the ideas themselves are wrong.

* For other examples, see this piece by Freddie deBoer, who is not a Chait fan.

Zero Dark Thirty is Mediocre and You Shouldn’t Bother With It

Pretty self-explanatory. This is one of those times where I look at Rotten Tomatoes and scratch my head. How did ZDT get 93%? More bafflingly, I can’t understand the reviewers’ effusive praise. It is not “exhilarating”. It is not “thrilling”. Most certainly it is not a “masterpiece”.

Here are some ways I can describe it:

  • Every major sequence is 50% too long
  • Random events that do not add anything to the story
  • Uneven pacing
  • Artificial suspense inserted like clockwork
  • Too. Many. Desk scenes.
  • Nothing about any of the characters that makes you want to care
  • Tries too hard to be “gritty” and “authentic”, ends up being emotionless and boring.

Consider Star Trek Into Darkness. It contained gaping plot holes. It had lots of eye-roll-worthy moments. It was a grievous departure from the spirit of the original series. But at least it was entertaining, combining the best ingredients of a mindless summer blockbuster. It doesn’t pretend to be anything else.

Zero Dark Thirty is ultimately an empty shell of a film. It has elicited strong reactions, both good and bad, partly because I think people are projecting their own thoughts and biases onto the fascinating and controversial subject matter. But a movie can be about something interesting and yet still be poorly made. Regardless of what you may think about the ethics of torture, or the degrading of our humanity, or America’s tarnished standing, or whatever, ZDT is confusing, dull and long.

If you haven’t seen it yet, don’t waste your time with it.

Thinking About Gender Equality

This is a topic that I am approaching with much trepidation, but is on my mind at the moment after listening to an interesting talk by feminist writer/commentator Chloe Angyal regarding rom-coms and what it can teach us about life and especially sexual dynamics. In a nutshell: recent rom-coms have featured a lot of male nudity (bear with me here), and this speaks to a broader cultural shift in which men are increasingly vulnerable and women are increasingly in control.*

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Jason Segel is not just nude. He is nakedly vulnerable.

Of course, any talk of the “End of Men” must be taken with a grain of salt, given the overwhelming presence of men in representative government (consider the recent kerfuffle over Tony Abbott’s cabinet) and other positions of influence, such as Fortune 500 CEOs and university faculty members. Indeed, the “gender gap” between men and women in terms of pay and representation in a multitude of industries is a key concern for feminists.

After Chloe’s talk, a friend of mine told me that he believed in equal representation — that there should be just as many women as men in positions of power (this is the definition of gender quality I will be using for the rest of this post). I disagreed with the practicality of this notion and murmured something about biological differences, but couldn’t come up with anything on the spot. Now that I’ve spent some more time thinking, I want to critically examine this idea of gender equality.

By the way, I want to preface all this by saying that of course I recognise the many injustices faced by women historically and presently, and I fully support efforts to rectify them. However, that’s different to the utopian view of gender equality. In my opinion it is not only impractical, but also undesirable.

Biological reality

Let’s start with some incontrovertible truths.

  1. Women are fertile and can attract the most desirable men within a finite window of time.
  2. Women are physically and psychologically equipped to be the best nurturers of their children.**

This biological reality is not pertinent early on. All throughout school, university and even the start of working life, equality of representation is possible because the biological imperative to meet a desirable partner and have children is not as keenly felt. Indeed, in traditionally prestigious fields like law and medicine, at many institutions there are now more women studying them than men.

As (Western) women gained more financial independence and as fertility treatment advanced in leaps and bounds, the biological imperative has been pushed back more and more. However, it still exists. Women who want to have children know they cannot put it off forever. Most mothers feel a maternal pull towards their children and are loath to spend extended periods of time away from them.

This is completely natural and understandable. And this is why parental leave is justifiably recognised as a crucial moderating force in the workplace — it allows women to fulfil their biological imperative without completely shafting their employment prospects. However, parental leave alone is not going to make things equal.

Two questions arise: How far should we (as a society) go to realise this goal? And what are the practical implications for women?

Decisions, decisions

Here is another incontrovertible truth: life is about tradeoffs. If you want to get good at anything, you have to spend time and effort that could go toward other things. Working overseas sounds really tempting, until you realise that it entails being separated from friends and family for long stretches of time. You know where I am going with this.

Women can’t have it all. They have to make life choices based on their life priorities.

This totally happens IRL. Not.

Many women make family their priority, so they subordinate career progression. This is one of the big reasons for the very stark statistics that we see. But what’s the alternative?

To achieve equal representation in government, company boards, etc, it means that a lot more women than is the case today must prioritise their own career advancement over bearing children. Now, some women willingly (as far as we can publicly tell…) remain childless and achieve great things. Others seemingly achieve incredible success while raising children at the same time. But this invariably happens through a combination of internal will and external support that do not apply to 99.99+% of the female population — they are the exceptions that prove the rule. I would wager that far more common are women who would love to pursue a successful career, but make the sometimes painful decision to “opt out” because they cannot prioritise it above motherhood.

The bottom line

The question of priorities is a deeply personal one. I admire women who make child-rearing their priority. Our society is much better for it. I also admire strong women who contribute to the political and corporate world in ways that men cannot. Either way, both are making sacrifices and tradeoffs.

Ultimately, my own view (ie, a moral and political one) comes down to what I consider to be more valuable on balance. I think that it is better for society that more children are raised by their mothers (ideally in a two-parent home) — especially in their formative early years — than to have a society where more women prioritise their career above all else, delay or give up having children, or otherwise be a guilty/stressed part-time mother.

You may not agree with my weighting, but this is what it comes down to. There’s a lot more work to be done in changing workplace practices and societal attitudes and so forth,*** but there’s only so far they can go. Being a politician or a captain of industry or a professor, etc, is unforgiving, relentless work. They can become more female-friendly, but they will never be fully compatible with a woman’s biological imperative. That’s just the way it is unfortunately.

The gender gap is as much a manifestation of biological realities and personal choices as it is about oppressive, misogynistic social structures. Gender equality is not going to occur in a vacuum. I think it is important for advocates to recognise and wrestle with this, not just giving full-throated support to a nice notion in the abstract that actually comes with significant real-world implications.

 

* Chloe also rightly points out that rom-coms almost never feature same-sex relationships. They’re not addressed in this post either; I leave them out not out of malice but rather ignorance — I don’t think that I’m qualified to write about them.

** Take this sentence at face value. I am not trying to insinuate anything else (eg, that fathers are less or not important).

*** For some great examples, check out Anne-Marie Slaughter’s thought-provoking article in The Atlantic.