Some brief notes on “Pure rationality”.

Recently a moderately prominent UK journalist wrote a blog stating that, as a member of “the left”, he was against abortion. As it was tweeted to 35,000 followers it caused somewhat of a storm, leading to accusations of “twitter mobs” and “dogma” flying right and left.  Another Angry Woman covered this issue extremely well here.

As is typical in these cases, the writer of the original article stated that he is open to “rational debate”, similar to discussions I have been part of in the past where many responses, particularly those by women, are labelled as “not sensible”.

“Purely rational” is always code for a debate to be set in ways that favour the privileged: it erects an “irrational” straw man, or in this case a “hysterical” straw woman in opposition. It is absolutely absurd to argue that one point of view does not factor emotions into decision making while one does; it is, with supreme irony, against all logic, as well as against all that science tells us about the brain, what we know about how human beings make decisions (rather than how they justify those to others), and most of what philosophy tells us about human experience. 

When one states that a debate must be “sensible” or “rational”, one is indeed setting out the linguistical battlefield in a way to favour privilege: that which society constructs as masculine, the upper middle class corpus of language, and so on. It favours those with power, in this case to enact laws which affect them in only the most passingly indirect of ways.

“Rational” assumes that one can know the totality of another’s experience, or that their experience is simply irrelevant. It is an expression of power, whether emotionally experienced as such or not; when disempowered by this ontological absurdity enforced as reality, one’s natural reaction is of course emotional in turn. Emotions are drives, and drives are influenced by culture and the structure of social relations; they do not happen in a vacuum.

It is not “illogical” or “post-structural” to state that one can only have limited knowledge of the universe, and that one cannot solve all problems by a-priori reasoning. Indeed, current scientific understanding points towards knowledge as  something which is conditional and difficult to attain, a vision of the universe that makes a great deal of sense given the thousands of years of human endeavour and inch-slow advancement of material culture which it has taken us to reach this point.

A “rational perspective” cannot be taken on with an effort of will, it must be carefully built out of attempts to un-learn unconscious biases as well as successful ways of resolving social conflict and hurt rather than leaving it one-sided, hidden, and un-resolved. It is a painful communal project of the willing, not the crusade of the lonely, gifted thinker.

And it is something which may ever be approached asymptotically, which will always remain tantalisingly out of reach.

Information is a precious thing. Indeed, the contribution of those who possess wombs is more valuable in a debate about wombs than that of those who do not. We would not make this argument about ice-fishing; it would be immediately apparent that a veteran fisher would know more than an untutored novice. Why, then, do we continue to let moribund rhetorical constructs about the nature of debate shape our thoughts, and so our relations with all those around us?

(In the course of formulating these thoughts, I was accused of causing an “unedifying spectacle” due to the reactions of others. For a few thoughts on the historical policing of guilt, innocence, and women who breach social norms, see this excellent post on Scolds, Lies, and Innocence. )

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