Mattering Maps, Misogyny, and Rebecca Goldstein

Rebecca Newberger Goldstein jacket photoAt the Secular Women 2 conference Rebecca Goldstein gave a phenomenal account of mattering maps, ” The Mattering Map: Religion, Humanism, and Moral Progress.”  Most importantly in the light of secularists can be misogynist pigs too (my phrase here) she started with a tentative account of her own. “I agonized over this talk. Should I publicly address the gender issue for the first time?” You can watch the video.

The talk is transcribed here if you wish to read it. She immediately asserts the omnipresence of misogyny.

In preparation for this talk, I polled some very prominent women and asked them if they ever feel that their gender undermines them professionally. Virtually all of them reported saying something in a discussion or meaning and being completely ignored–until the comment is picked up and reported by a man. Then, suddenly everyone jerks to attention.

Obviously it’s true that compared to more violent manifestations of misogyny, being ignored/interrupted/talked over is easy to dismiss because it’s an experience of privileged women. We privileged women can feel petty and ashamed voicing complaints about these things.

Psychologists call these experiences “microaggressions,” and they cite evidence that for women (and other marginalized groups), these small attacks take a greater toll than the more outright expressions of misogyny.

Derald Wing Sue, a researcher on microaggressions, says that it’s easier for marginalized people to deal with the more outright expressions of bigotry because there’s no guesswork involved. You can easily dismiss them as bigotry.

Late that night I was leaving the hotel when I saw Rebecca and talked with her for some time. I had met her previously at another CFI event some years before and had read her Spinoza book to great delight. I spent the best half hour or so in many years cruising her philosophy and finding much common ground. Noting the parallels she encouraged me to read her fiction The Mind-Body Problem, a fiction work for nonfiction readers and Incompleteness, the Proof and Paradox of Kurt Godel. Frankly, I found so much in common that if I were young and mobile I would travel to the school where she teaches merely to take a few courses.

As secularists with strong scientific orientations, we’ve concentrated almost exclusively on the way religions exploit the “will to believe.” We’ve used science to argue against this. And that’s important, but we’ve largely ignored another issue: the “will to matter.”

I first thought of this idea through one of my fictional characters. I was invested in being “rigorous” and these ideas seemed to lack rigor. My editor said, “I don’t really understand Renee [the character].” Renee, like me, was a rigorous philosopher. She started coming up with these ideas about “mattering.” We’re invested in “mattering” and will give up our lives to causes for the sake of “mattering.”

Her other idea was “the Mattering Map.” A person’s location on the Mattering Map is determined by what matters to them and their perception of people–who the somebodies and nobodies are, who the heroes are, who should never have been born. We differ on who we think the heroes are because we differ on what matters. If what matters is intelligence, then the heroes are the geniuses. (In fact, Renee, the character, married a genius and regretted it.)

In the Mind-Body book Renee marries a math genius because she feels she will gain by being close to genius. Though talented herself, brilliant even,  she can offer her beauty in exchange. Himmel, the genius is a pure, a prior mathematician where reality verification has nothing to do with the truth of the theory. It’s as clean a split as you can get. Genius as brain and beauty as body. He brings pure logic and she brings matter. The irony, his bullshit quotient is his absolute certainty of reincarnation which involves a set of ludicrous scene where we see the genius being an utter idiot evidencing every intellectual bias possible. Mattering for Renee is being close to genius. As a woman she is not allowed to be genius but by supporting genius she matters more.

Oddly enough mattering maps caught on as a means of codifying a person’s relationship of their importance to others. What matters to them and others.

The idea of the mattering map has become a working theoretical concept in certain areas of psychology. The idea of my fictional character has been incorporated into actual theoretical work! I Googled it and got tens of thousands of hits, more than I got for me.

Her point being that she doesn’t get as much credit as she would have if she were a man. She mentioned to me how strident logicians were angered that she, merely a Princeton Phd Philosopher, had the audacity to write about hard logic. More importantly the ongoing issue that women aren’t hard thinkers, they are body types.

The odd symmetry is that hard mathematicians, physicists, and others peak early in age and rarely accomplish much more after 40. About the same time women start losing their beauty. The stress of this mutual mattering exchange is its short tenure when you insist on impossibly high and unrealistic standards–or perhaps that intellectual creativity is as short lived as beauty.

The Harvard Business Review (Lowenstein) article begins.

We care deeply about what other people think of us, and as a result, mattering maps’ exert a powerful influence on our behavior. In principle, there is a mattering map for each person, each social environment and for society as a whole, and because each person typically belongs to more than one social group–workplace, family, friends-these groups and the mattering maps that apply to them often overlap. Mattering maps may be a source of misery for some, but given the realities of human nature, they cannot be avoided. The authors show that in the end, they enable both the greatest accomplishments of the human race when we compete to outdo one-another in things that are constructive, and our greatest follies when we compete over activities that are wasteful or destructive.

After providing a historical context for why mattering matters and how it arose from Ancient Greece as an axis to the present she concludes that it is these microagressions that do the most harm

Without sensitivity to the will to matter and how it gave rise to religion in the first place, we fail to understand the secular ethical progress to which we are the heirs, and upon which we wage an assault, macro or micro, every time we undermine a person’s sense that he or she matters.

The point is that you trust your friends and family. When they diss you as being unimportant, frivolous, or incompetent even if only by snide remarks the damage can be far greater than an outright aggressive act by another. Acid being thrown on school girls’ faces seems extreme and extremely more bigoted but for the American they are not close to that situation. They don’t expect positivity from an Islam extremist  aggressor. When friend or family disses you it cuts to the core because of established trust and bonds of caring. When they are torn the relationship strains and the meanness is not so easily dismissed. We expect more.

In The Mind-Body  Problem Renee loses her ability to matter to Himmel and he no longer matters to her because he has dissed her so many times and her beauty is no longer sufficient. Himmel then denies that she can even understand him and his great loss which is more important than her’s, overwhelming any possible mutual compassion.

It is impossible for me not to see much of this scenario as part of Goldstein, a brilliant philosopher, being married to a mathematician and then Stephen Pinker. How is even the most accomplished woman supposed to compete, matter, with a husband who is astronomical in the scientific chart? Is she Goldstein the great humanist or Pinker’s brilliant wife? Is mattering being accomplished on its own or supporting someone who is accomplished, or is it just a map without prejudice?

It is hard to not to see mattering as status, ego preservation, and competition to resource (pecking order). Yet, status is seen as a kind of pojntless competition where mattering is being important as a means of self worth. As social animals we need to feel we matter to others and to ourselves.

The book Science is Culture, edited by Adam Bly, Pinker and Goldstein interview each other in the dialog The Problems of Consciousness. You might not first suspect they are married but as the dialog progresses they switch ways of discussion. If they had dissed each other as some interviewees do, hmmm…

At the end of her talk Goldstein makes it clear that atheism cannot be absolved of social justice. For a long time now we have said atheism is just disbelief. It is clear that for the new atheists, the younger atheists, and liberation secularists morality is not merely a part of theism but essential to its definition.

I feel like I do understand reviled misogynist. I’ve had quite a few in my books. I’ve never created a character that I don’t in some sense sympathize with, understand what’s motivating them. I think the explanations for misogyny are fairly well-understood. How wonderful it must be to be born and think that everything is coming to you, and that even if you don’t matter very much, you can be sure that there are people who matter less than you. That’s why, again, social justice is the answer to all of these questions. One has to make all people feel like they matter and don’t need to put down some group to feel like they matter.

Jim Newman, bright and well

About Jim Newman

Jim Newman is a philosopher. When I was young I wondered what was the ultimate truth. How should I behave? What makes it all work? I was intensely curious to know what it all means. It was enlightening to realize there is no ultimate truth, but nevertheless sufficient and necessary turth, and that meaning was a meta analysis of living one’s life. In this sense my work has been living large. Living and experiencing life has made me learn many things. Building boats, motors, houses, electronics. Raising animals. Teaching. Writing. Photography. Drawing. Knitting. Sewing. Cooking. Music. Painting. Hiking. Aboriginal living skills. All material aspects of reality that seem irrelevant until you realize they allow you to experience more. My epiphany came when I read Christopher Hitchen’s “Letters to a Young Contrarian” and I felt vindicated in my many meals of sacred cow.
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