You are probably familiar with the Milgram Experiment. To give a short explanation, during the sixties, this guy called Milgram made an experiment by which people were taken off the street and were told by a person in a lab coat that they were part of the testing of another person who could be heard but was not visible (and who was actually a confederate). Every time that person gave a wrong answer, they were to be given electric shocks of increasing intensity which elicited screams of pain from the person tested and, eventually, would lead to death. The experiment was made in order to determine whether ordinary people would follow orders to kill others, and under what circumstances (partially motivated by the horrors of World War 2 and the Holocaust).
What was not studied, however, is the personality of the people who disobeyed and those who obeyed. A recent experiment was made to try to figure this out. And the results were rather interesting: agreeable, social people were more likely to obey orders to kill the subject, while anti-social, disagreeable people were more likely to disobey.
Do I like these results? Of course I do. As a lifelong anti-social, disagreeable person, I like to be told I’m more likely to be moral than other people, especially people (social, agreeable people) who tend to think I’m terrible. And people who are more social or agreeable may be reluctant in accepting the results, or may feel like they’re being attacked.
But I think there’s something deeper to talk about here beyond people’s personalities (which I think are fairly set in stone anyway). The dominant opinion about morality is that a person can only be moral if they follow the laws and mores of their society at that point in time. This position seems to be particularly prevalent in the United States, perhaps because of the higher level of fundamentalist religion. Christianity is, after all, very legalistic (and so are Judaism and Islam): its main concern is establishing rules of conduct for the individual, using God as the justification for the enforcement of those laws on everyone, believers and unbelievers alike. Christianity is not about showing us a new human potential or an ideal, but about repressing what is human in us (Christians say Jesus is the ideal, but it’s an ideal that is by definition unattainable).
There are logical problems with following our society’s laws and mores, and not the least of those is the whole relativism of the thing. Laws and mores change from century to century, and from place to place. It seems therefore entirely arbitrary to follow the laws and mores of our society at this precise time: why are those laws and those mores more desirable?
Anyhow, my greater point is that there are two basic views about morality: that humans are innately good (as many anti-authoritarians, such as myself, would propose) and that humans are innately evil (as pushed forward by most religious and authoritarian views). Now clearly I know there are more possibilities: one can believe in blank slate theory (although that has been largely discredited by science), or one can believe that humans are born with the possibilities for good and for evil.
The basic scientific information on this subject is that humans, like all primates, evolved as animals with a highly developed sociality. We also have scientific studies showing that even babies (way before they can understand or formulate moral principles) have a desire to help. Finally, we know that other primates also have moral traits which we usually attribute to humans (like fairness). Based on these, and other, lines of evidence, my conclusion is that some form of intuitionism must be true. We are born as fundamentally moral beings, with an internal moral compass.
What happens to us is that hierarchical social institutions constantly try to bend our moral compass to accommodate their values and principles. Most of us start our lives in a family institution, or some similar institution where adults control children’s lives. As a child, you learn pretty quickly that your values, your moral evaluations, are unwanted most of the time. You learn to follow what your parents think your values should be. This provides an opening for other hierarchies with even more devastating values to get into your brain, a lot of which are concerned with you hating or killing people who play for “another team,” like religion, sexism/racism, the military, and nationalism, or with exploiting one another, like sexism/racism, schools, capitalism and neo-liberalism. And the laws and mores of our society exist, in a large part, to support these institutions and their aims.
In our modern Western societies, there are two kinds of people who see themselves as non-conformists: fundamentalist Christians (who see themselves as rebelling against a sinful secular world) and radicals in some form or another (who see themselves as rebelling against the evil in our social institutions). Fundamentalist Christians, however, only “rebel” against institutions to the extent that they can conform to their own celestial dictatorship (to borrow Hitchens’ turn of phrase). As such, they are no more “non-conformists” than people who quit alcohol so they can take up smoking are “healthy.” They are non-conformists only to the average person who will not consider or even tolerate differing viewpoints.
When viewed from the perspective of conformity versus disobedience, the findings of that study are therefore not that surprising. What kind of people are most likely to go along with the mainstream view (which pursues the aims of our social institutions)? Agreeable and social people, of course. In order to be agreeable and social, you have to share a basic agreement with other people. You will get along better with other people if you are a liberal or a conservative, if you support your country, if you hate the kind of people your kind of people is supposed to hate, and like the kind of people your kind of people is supposed to like.
The anti-social attitude, at least from my personal experience, is not exactly opposed to getting along, but it is a rejection of compromise. I refuse to get along with anyone or any group if it means I have to compromise what I believe in. To many people, this makes me an asshole or a loser or a person who is otherwise aberrant, and I accept that. It’s difficult to be a social animal and to be anti-social at the same time. But the benefit is that I am more able to be myself, and to accept myself, than most people. There is comedy in the fact that people tell you to be yourself, but they never actually mean it. Anti-social people actually mean it.
It is no coincidence that radicals level their criticism against institutions, not against individuals. By and large, it is not individuals that are the problem, except insofar as they are led by institutions to believe in, and support, evil principles. People are moved by incentives. If you engineer a society so that the only way to be successful and happy is to exploit each other, and that people are indoctrinated to believe exploiting each other is the right thing to do, then people will exploit each other, not out of malice but out of the belief that they’re doing the right thing. And most people generally have no reason to reconsider their basic beliefs, because they are agreeable and agreeable people go with the flow.
Now, I am not saying that you can’t be a radical and be a social person at the same time, or an anti-social conformist, but I wouldn’t wish either of these personality types on anyone. They just seem like the worse of both worlds (although the former wouldn’t be too bad if you worked for some leftist non-profit or something).
Of course there are many rationalizations made to try to justify conformity. The one most often used is that what is ethical is not practical, for the individual or for society. But the question then arises: practical TO WHO? Surely an egalitarian society would be practical for 90% of the population, but it would definitely not be practical with the 10% composed of the power elite and those with the biggest fortunes. When they say something is “not practical,” what they mean is: it’s not practical for those in power, economic and political. It’s not practical for those who want to keep doing what we’ve been doing for the last sixty years. And their conformity is going to have us all killed. The Earth has become one gigantic Milgram Experiment. And we’re the subjects.
I’m sorry I keep harping on the topic of “agency,” as I’m sure few people have any interest in such a theoretical topic, but I think there’s still something left to say about it. I’ve talked enough about how the term is used, but I want to talk about the consequences of using this term.
What is the word “agency” really supporting, when it’s used against women? If “agency” is used to blame the victims of pornography, prostitution, and other forms of exploitation of women, as I’ve written before, then “agency” rhetoric is inherently patriarchal. What it supports is men’s entitlement of women’s bodies. The only connection between “agency” and actual freedom is that the women who have “agency” are free to say “yes” to being exploited by men, but they are not free to say “no.” We know this because the liberals who talk about “agency” attack women who fight against the exploitation of women and who argue for the freedom to say “no.” There are few things entitled men hate to hear more from a woman than “no.”
Human rights are only important for people who go against the status quo, because people who say and do the same things as everyone else don’t need protecting. In a similar way, if there is such a thing as “agency,” it must be in the freedom to say “no.” If there is such a thing as “agency” for women, then it must be in the desire to resist being exploited and objectified by men, in the desire to not be beaten down by a system made for men’s pleasure and entitlement. There is no “agency” in being exploited, in being told what to do with your body, in parroting the same arguments used by men to defend their entitlement.
People try to argue for this point by saying that, because “sex work” is illegal and considered marginal, women who engage in it are rebelling against social conventions. But these people confuse illegality with acceptability. Prostitution is illegal, but the concept that men are entitled to women’s bodies is the norm, is the conventional opinion, despite the illegality of some of the more extreme forms of entitlement. This is because we have two main views: the conservative view, that only one man is entitled to a woman’s body (her husband), and the liberal view, that all men are entitled to a woman’s body. Under the former view, prostitution is unacceptable because the women who prostitute themselves are opening themselves to other men instead of keeping to proper marriage and proper sex, which makes them guilty. To them, that’s too much entitlement. The conservatives, too, believe that men are entitled to women’s bodies, just in a different way (they certainly believe men are entitled to make laws about women’s bodies).
Prostitution, pornography, burlesque, raunch culture, BDSM and other kinks, none of that is revolutionary or goes against conventions because the concept that men are entitled to women’s bodies is not revolutionary and does not go against conventions. The only revolutionary act, the only act that goes against conventions, the only act that is truly rebellious, is to say: fuck anyone who believes that men are entitled to women’s bodies, either through marriage or through “sex work” and fuckability standards. Why don’t they call THAT “agency”? But no, they attack the women who say these things as being against other women’s “agency.”
How can one person’s freedom go against the freedom of another? How can one person’s resistance prevent another person’s resistance? When you formulate it like that, it doesn’t make much sense. If one person’s rights entail the destruction of another person’s rights, then one of these “rights” is not a real right. Likewise, if one person’s freedom goes against another person’s freedom, then there’s a problem of definition: one of these is not real freedom. In my view, the “freedom” to conform to social norms is not a real freedom.
I am not saying here that people should be blamed for conforming. I have nothing at all against people who wish to engage in these things. But we have a problem when that conformity (being in favor of “sex work,” advocating for the objectification of women) is reframed as freedom (being pro-“agency”), and when opponents of conformity (radicals) are portrayed as ultra-conformists (conservatives).
Radical feminists have never denied the agency of women under conditions of oppression. But radical feminists have located women’s agency, women’s making of choices, in resistance to those oppressive institutions, not in women’s assimilation to them. Nowhere in the more “nuanced” feminist liberal literature on choice is women’s resistance to pornography and surrogacy stressed as a sign of women’s agency. What about the agency of women who have testified about their abuse in pornography, risking exposure and ridicule, and often getting it? What about the ex-surrogates who choose to fight for themselves and their children in court, against the far greater economic, legal, and psychological advantages of the sperm donor? If we want to stress women’s agency, let’s look in the right places.