A response to Anthony Grayling

(This is in response to A. C. Grayling’s comments on this post. Read them first.)

Dear Prof. Grayling,

You are correct that not all of the things I find “wrong” with The Reason of Things are simple errors. Rather, they exist on a continuum from things no informed person would agree with to things I personally don’t agree with, the line between factual error and difference of opinion not always being an easy one to draw. (Since you asked where I’m “coming from ideologically,” this might be the right time to mention that I’m an atheist, a Darwinian, and an anti-solipsist, and that I come from a conservative Mormon background.)

There are also a few grammatical infelicities, which I might as well get out of the way first. “Peninsular” is apparently just a typo, so we’ll say no more about it. The other one that got my attention was “Pushkin’s grandfather was thought to be an African slave in Moscow,” which means that Pushkin’s grandfather’s contemporaries were under the impression that he was an African slave. If you want to say (as I presume you do) is that it is now thought that Pushkin’s grandfather was a slave, try “Pushkin’s grandfather is thought to have been an African slave in Moscow.” But these are, as you will no doubt agree, trivialities. On to more substantive issues.

Regarding kosher laws, the problem is not that you made a trivial error about the precise reason that pigs are unclean, but that you confidently put forth a theory about the origin of kosher laws without actually being familiar with said laws, the content of which seems to me to be inconsistent with your theory. Under kashrut, the following classes of animals are unclean:

  • all mammals except those that both chew their cud and have cloven hoofs
  • all aquatic animals except those that have both fins and scales
  • all insects except four species of locust
  • a laundry list of birds, including many birds of prey but otherwise following no obvious rule

The list of unclean birds does contain some zoological oddities, such as the bat and the hoopoe, but overall it’s hard to see this as a list of monsters. The insects are a case in point: kosher locusts are so similar to unkosher locusts that the rabbis can’t agree on precisely which four species Moses had in mind, and so to be safe all insects are treated as unkosher. Can a “monster” still be considered a monster when it’s so similar to a non-monstrous animal that even those hairsplitting rabbis can’t tell the difference? Also, as I mentioned before, many unkosher animals are perfectly ordinary and were not seen as horrible or unclean, even by the Jews, except in the dietary sense. Horses, lions, and eagles, in particular, are portrayed in the Bible, as in our own culture, as noble and admirable animals, not as monsters. But the Jews still thought, as we too think, that eating them would be a little icky.

Every culture has its traditions about “kosher” food, though in most cultures the taboos are informal and unspoken. The Jews are unusual only in their insistence on codifying the list of unclean animals and trying to reduce it to a few simple principles. Before “Moses” or whoever it was, their traditions about what’s okay to eat were probably just as haphazard as ours. Where I come from, for example, civilized people can eat pigs but not dogs, cattle but not horses, rabbits but not opossums, crabs but not spiders, muscle tissue but not digestive-tract tissue, and so on. Some animals are taboo because we see them as dirty, others because we see them primarily as pets or beasts of burden, and others for no particular reason that I can see; if for whatever reason you’re not exposed to a particular kind of meat as a child, you’ll probably grow up to find it disgusting, a mechanism that allows for a considerable amount of random “kosher drift.” It’s interesting, too, that it’s always meat that’s unkosher. I’ll try any fruit or vegetable I’m served without a second thought, even if I’ve never seen it before and have no idea what it is, but I always experience a little hesitance (and sometimes more than a little) when faced with an unfamiliar meat dish such as dog meat, duck’s blood, or silkworm pupae.

Regarding Japanese pornography, it’s possible that our disagreement boils down to differing definitions of porn, but I doubt that. (For me, erotica is a kind of art, while porn is basically just a masturbation aid. Is that similar to the distinction you make?) China, Japan, and many other Asian countries do have a strong tradition of erotic art which philistines might regard as mere pornography, and perhaps this is all you have been exposed to. I’m sure your innocence does you credit, but let me assure you that, in addition to erotic art, these countries also produce a great deal of simple pornography which is virtually indistinguishable from the Western variety. By that I mean it portrays sex in a graphic and often degrading manner, has no artistic pretensions, is sold in sleazy shops with no windows, and is considered “dirty” or “perverted” just as in the West. Despite what you say, Japanese porn is regarded as porn by the Japanese and labeled as such. (In fact, porn is technically illegal in Japan and subject to strict censorship, though of course such laws are difficult to enforce.) The Chinese also produce a great deal of pornography (see the Taiwanese film Wayward Cloud for a touching and humorous look at the Taiwanese porn industry), and they even have a history of suppressing erotic novels as pornographic (the Ming novel The Plum in the Golden Vase, banned for years but now considered a classic, is the Chinese counterpart to Lady Chatterley) — all without any help from the Abrahamic religions.

Incidentally, your essay also cites monasticism as a manifestation of a uniquely Abrahamic hostility towards sex, but of course the dharmic religions also have a strong monastic tradition. This is especially pronounced in Buddhism, and artworks with a Buddhist agenda, from the Ming novel Journey to the West to the modern Korean film Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter, and Spring, often outdo the Puritans themselves in their portrayal of sex as inherently dirty and corrupting.

Which brings us to the broader subject of sex and whether it is in need of control. Of course I don’t think you are actually in favor of rape or pedophilia. Nor am I necessarily opposed to the idea that many of the traditional sexual restraints imposed by the Abrahamic religions can and should be loosened a bit. What bothered me, rather, was your cavalier dismissal of the whole idea that sex ought to be controlled and limited, which you treated as a bizarre quirk meriting nothing more than a mixture of outrage and bemused curiosity, a good topic for etiological speculation but nothing we need to engage as a serious idea. That you hold the opinions that you do about sex is fine; but that you seem to take them as obviously true, that you seem not even to see the strength of the opposing position — that I find worrying.

The idea behind my reference to rape was that of course sex is in need of control. People may disagree over precisely how much control is necessary or reasonable, but sex is such a powerful force, both for good and for bad, that it should go without saying that some degree of control is necessary — because sometimes sex just is wrong, bad, and dirty. No matter how strong my urge to have sex with a given person, if she’s not willing to have sex with me, I control myself. If she’s a minor, I control myself. If there’s a strong risk of pregnancy and we are not in a position to become parents, I control myself. If she expects, even tacitly, a higher level of commitment than I am willing to give, I control myself. If I’ve promised loyalty to another woman and she’s not that woman, I control myself. If she’s promised loyalty to someone else, I control myself. Et cetera. I would go so far as to say that most people’s default relationship with their sexual urges is — and must be — one of control, because only a small minority of most people’s sexual urges are such that indulging them would be morally acceptable. Your dismissal of this whole line of thinking as beneath your notice makes you come across as an irresponsible thinker. (Of course it’s possible that your oracular pronouncements about sex are the end product of a long and rigorous process of thought to which I am not privy, but I know you only by your short essays, and that’s what I’m responding to.)

That’s about it, I guess. As you can see, “wrong so many times that I lost trust” doesn’t have to be all that many times, just as (according to a recent news article) it only takes a few typos on a resume to dramatically reduce one’s chances of being hired. The two clear errors — about kosher laws and pornography — were big ones, because you drew conclusions from these “facts” without having first checked them adequately. If I been less informed about those two fields, I would have trusted what you said and have gotten the wrong idea, and that realization led me to be more cautious about believing anything you said on topics about which I was less familiar. I nevertheless enjoyed and was stimulated by many of your essays. I especially liked your essay on autodidacts and your incisive take on Harold Bloom. And I perhaps should have paid more attention to your praise of Michael Hofmann as one who “in manifesting a willingness to be unreserved in praise but temperate in criticism … shows that [he] knows how much endeavour goes into writing, and how few rewards it usually gets.”

All the best,

Wm Jas


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