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Thread: The written word and the rise of patriarchy

  1. #1 The written word and the rise of patriarchy 
    Forum Masters Degree LuciDreaming's Avatar
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    So, I'm just reading Leonard Shlain's 'The Alphabet versus the Goddess' and I think he has a really interesting hypothesis. He is suggesting that the written word is the reason for the rise of patriarchy and misogyny and so far doing quite a good job of it.

    Prior to the alphabet (which apparently is defined as any writing system containing fewer than 30 characters), goddesses were the deities of choice across the civilisations of the time and written communication was in art form which was 'read' holistically. So for instance the early Egyptians (3100-2680BC) featured symbols for their female creators Nekhbet and Wadjet and the stories they were depicted in were formed of various symbols which could be read as a whole so you get the gist of the story at a glance (pattern recognition). And then the different symbols would tell various parts of the story temporally and are not necessarily depicted left to right. He suggests this kind of 'reading' exercises both hemispheres of the brain and utilises both rods and cones in the eye and is not an abstract venture ie the symbol for a dog looks like a dog.
    And importantly, there were images of goddesses and gods everywhere; carved statues, paintings etc and the religions centred around goddesses did not exclude gods and usually included them in the creation myths and always in other stories.

    He goes on to say that the advent of the alphabet which he credits to the Israelites and Hebrew is the real miracle occurring at Mount Sinai – not that god created the ten commandments but that they were written. Apart from writing being an abstract exercise for the brain with no connection between reality and the word ie you cant see a dog in the word dog, he suggests the commandments themselves are the most telling.
    It is the first time that a creator is invisible and the first commandment ‘I am the Lord thy god’ is the first time a god has chosen humans rather than the other way round. Previously humans chose which deities they worshipped and they varied enormously from region to region. But also it announces quite strongly ‘I am a man and I have no need for a woman to create this world’.

    The second commandment which strangely is more important than not committing murder is a proscription against making any likenesses of anything in heaven and earth – not just other deities but anything at all. Shaill considers the ban on representative art was because the Israelites perceived art to be a threat to the written word and an incidental ban on right brain pattern recognition.

    Which is reinforced by the third commandment of not taking the ‘lords name in vain’ – ie the written word is so important that the only word being banned is his name. As a worshipper cannot use images in his honour only words are available – a left brain abstract activity.

    Then he points to circumcision as a commitment to the lord and setting themselves apart from all other religions. On the face of it circumcision seems a pretty weird thing to do for a religion but Shaill points out it reinforces the exclusion of women making them accessories rather than having any importance in the creation and running of the world.

    Since I am only halfway into the book there could be more important points regarding writing that I have missed here but he is in essence saying so far that the written word is a left brained, abstract, linear activity whereas images are right brained, holistic and pattern recognition activities. He is also associating masculine traits with left brain and feminine traits with right brained activities. The advent of the written word allowed a patriarchal, monotheistic religion to arise and dominate, relegating women to the back seat.
    I realise its difficult to argue against a hypothesis if you havent actually read it but any views on this (based on my limited précis of course….)?


    Last edited by LuciDreaming; April 14th, 2014 at 01:06 AM. Reason: punctuation
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    Genius Duck Dywyddyr's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by LuciDreaming View Post
    He is also associating masculine traits with left brain and feminine traits with right brained activities.
    Hmm...

    The hardwired difference between male and female brains could explain why men are 'better at map reading' - Life & Style - The Independent
    http://www.the-scientist.com/?articl...d-Differently/

    The "right-brain/ left brain" thing has been debunked.

    He goes on to say that the advent of the alphabet which he credits to the Israelites and Hebrew is the real miracle occurring at Mount Sinai
    Oh.
    Except that Aramaic(?) - at the time - was an abjad, not an alphabet.
    By at least the 8th century BCE the Greeks borrowed the Phoenician alphabet and adapted it to their own language, creating in the process the first "true" alphabet.

    The Ten Commandments
    , also known as The Decalogue, are traditionally estimated to have been given around 1446 B.C. Others estimate a later date (i.e. 1290 B.C).

    Either way. the Ten Commandments as an alphabet aren't the first...


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    Forum Masters Degree LuciDreaming's Avatar
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    I'm not sure how your links show that his left/right brain hypothesis is wrong - they are showing that men and women think differently or not? I havent actually got time to read through them properly at the mo so will come back later.
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    Genius Duck Dywyddyr's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by LuciDreaming View Post
    I'm not sure how your links show that his left/right brain hypothesis is wrong - they are showing that men and women think differently or not? I havent actually got time to read through them properly at the mo so will come back later.
    Um, my links show that left brain = male/ right brain = female is wrong.
    The left brain/ right brain types of thinking were debunked some time ago, I thought you were aware of that. See here for example.
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    If his analysis relies on left brain versus right brain theories which also attribute the perceived differences to women and to men, he's got a very hard row to hoe.

    For all the differences that have been detected between men and women in brain function, the differences within the two groups are larger than the differences between the two groups.

    Left brain/ right brain differences themselves are still highly contested. This literature review A review of EEG, ERP, and neuroimaging studies ... [Psychol Bull. 2010] - PubMed - NCBI certainly casts lots of doubt on the idea. More easily read with this overview by Daniel Willingham. The Answer Sheet - Willingham: Left/right brain theory is bunk

    I don't have any relevant knowledge about reading or interpreting the relevant written languages.
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    Forum Masters Degree LuciDreaming's Avatar
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    Maybe I havent explained it right - his analysis partially rests on language residing mostly in the left brain (which it does) and pattern recognition mostly being right brained (which it is). I'll come back and have a look later when I've got time to read all your posts properly.
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    Genius Duck Dywyddyr's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by LuciDreaming View Post
    Maybe I havent explained it right - his analysis partially rests on language residing mostly in the left brain (which it does) and pattern recognition mostly being right brained (which it is).
    But goes further than that:
    Shlain argues that literacy reinforced the brain's linear, abstract, predominantly masculine left hemisphere at the expense of the holistic, iconic feminine right one.
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    As well as the left-brain/right-brain tosh (1) he clearly doesn't understand much about how writing systems work.

    Despite using a few ideograms, Egyptian (and Sumerian, Akkadian, Chinese, Japanese, Mayan) are phonetic writing systems. They have to be in order to be full writing systems capable of writing spoken language (2). So his arbitrary "30 character" cut off is meanignless. (And how would he fit Korean in with that.)

    There may be a correlation between the rise of writing systems and changes to male dominated society (if that actually happened) for other reasons. For example, writing developed in parallel with the rise of complex societies including cities. This was possible partly because the agricultural surplus meant that not everyone had to work in the fields, hunt, etc. Which meant that people were able to take up more specialised trades (metal worker, clothes maker, barber, scribe, cook, priest, ...). It may be that, for whatever cultural/psychological reasons, those who rose to power tended to be male and pushed their female rivals into menial positions (looking after children, doing the laundry, etc.)

    (1) Obviously the brain's functions are not distributed perfectly symmetrically but they are fully integrated.

    (2) See, for example: Visible Speech: The Diverse Oneness of Writing Systems, John DeFrancis, University of Hawaii Press, 1989, ISBN 0-8248-1207-7.
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    I wouldn’t go so far as to say that that science has debunked the idea that different hemispheres of the brain control different processes, only that the broader explanations about intuitive versus analytical thought based on these divisions are invalid.

    Split brain experiments have demonstrated that the different hemispheres do excel at different tasks. For example, the right hemisphere is poor at making certain kinds of inferences. When a split brain patient is shown the word “wood” he will point to the picture of a wood pile with his left hand. When shown the word match, he will point to the match stick. But when asked to identify a picture that represents a relationship between the two, he will not identify the picture of a burning wood pile, although his left hemisphere easily solves the problem. On the other hand, the left hemisphere makes other kinds of mistakes – it over infers or jumps to conclusions. In recalling words on a list that included “candy, sour, sugar, taste, heart, tooth, pie, eat” it will often falsely identify a word like “sweet” as being on the list, but not another word. The right hemisphere doesn’t make this mistake.


    There are other examples of differences between the hemispheres. The problem, I think, is how this type of research has been interpreted and used to explain much more complex mental activities, which actually employ both hemispheres, but is functionally different. In a book called “Thinking Fast and Slow” Daniel Kahneman compares two general types of thought processes that he calls “System One” and System Two.”

    System One tends be more automatic, much, much faster, intuitive, heuristic, and is greatly dependent on associative memory, recognition, including pattern recognition. System two is analytical, logical, algorithmic, slow, and requires deliberate, effortful and orderly concentration. (That might sound suspiciously like the right brain/left brain division, but they draw from both hemispheres, and he places language and spacial perception primarily in System one, not System Two. )


    Kahneman says that much of our thinking relies on System One, and System Two is used to monitor, or to analyze blatant violations of our System One expectations, or solve certain kinds of complex problems. But System Two requires a lot more concentration and effort, often at the expense of other mental activity. (If you’re walking with a friend, ask him to calculate 23x 78 in his head and he will almost certainly stop in his tracks. Why? When given a specific task requiring focus, such as count the number of times that certain objects appear, observers will fail to notice other things, even the man in the gorilla suit slowly strolling by in the background.)

    The sense that System Two is somehow "smarter" is based on the fact that it often does uncover the occasional mistake or biases of System One, and we also take for granted the complex processing of system one because it “feels” easy. System One is neurologically complex though, and by intuition, Kahnenman does not mean “touchy-feely” or anything mystical, and even credits things like the ability to recognize chess moves to System One.


    Whether one likes Kahneman’s model any better, I do think attempts to characterize male and females as more right or left brained, or even more intuitive or analytical, are questionable and stem mainly from ideas about women being more nurturing or emotionally expressive, as well as the historical inequalities in learning and education. To me the "women are right brained" theory even evokes Aristotle or St. Thomas Acquinas' belief that women were more animal like, and lacking in moral reason and rational intelligence.
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    Considering mammalian sexual dimorphism — antlered stags, massively powerful male gorillas, harem-forming male sea lions, etc — mammalian patriarchy seemed to develop through the need for defense, offense and breeding rights.
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    ^@DianeG; Thank you for mentioning the new Kahneman book. I have a first edition copy of "Judgement Under Uncertainty". I will certainly be obtaining a copy of "Thinking Fast and Slow".
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    Quote Originally Posted by LuciDreaming View Post
    Since I am only halfway into the book there could be more important points regarding writing that I have missed here but he is in essence saying so far that the written word is a left brained, abstract, linear activity whereas images are right brained, holistic and pattern recognition activities. He is also associating masculine traits with left brain and feminine traits with right brained activities. The advent of the written word allowed a patriarchal, monotheistic religion to arise and dominate, relegating women to the back seat.
    I'm not sure I get the gist of this hypothesis, and how this would lead to patriarchy. Is he saying men were better at reading and writing? That doesn't sound right. It seems to me they read and write just fine.
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    Considering mammalian sexual dimorphism — antlered stags, massively powerful male gorillas, harem-forming male sea lions, etc — mammalian patriarchy seemed to develop through the need for defense, offense and breeding rights.
    And then there are the cooperative bonobos, the matriarchal meerkats, the monogamous parental pairing wolves, the mothers and children here, mature males anywhere else arrangements of elephants and many cetaceans, and the single parent mothers meeting males only occasionally for mating in the bear, tiger, cheetah worlds - and all the varieties of sexual and family arrangements of other mammals that don't organise themselves into harems or have extreme sexual dimorphism.

    The idea that we should consider ourselves as being anything like other animals that organise themselves around a rutting season or the fear of males killing/eating the offspring is irrelevant . That's not how our sexual and infant rearing biology works in the first place.
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