12 Books of Christmas: Simulation and Simulacra

Recently I have become fascinated by the “Red Pill” movement and the “Alt-Right” – which is to say, almost Orwellian-newspeak terminology for misogyny and racism. There’s an awful lot of that going on at the moment, and I think everyone on my side of the aisle is a bit flummoxed about how to respond to some of the crazier things we read, especially because the sophistication of the presentation is getting very good. My hat is off to some of the authors peddling their wares on Breitbart News and a few other sites I’ve been browsing recently – they’re men, inevitably men, who really understand rhetoric and argument. If only they’d use their talents for good instead of evil, but as Xykon says on one of my favourite t-shirts “Evil: A Growth Industry”. Almost all of the articles I’ve read have had enough truth to lend them credibility, but enough spin to betray an “anti-liberal” agenda.

Engaging in an honest way with the tide of disingenuous propaganda would be pretty tiring. The article which struck me most forcibly a month or two back was an argument that universities should be capping the number of spaces for women in STEM courses – the author suggested 5-10% should be sufficient. A couple of weeks later a high-up in the Veterinarian Department at Massey Uni casually says a woman is worth 3/5 of a man, and suddenly it’s apparent just how vigorous the fight-back needs to be on these topics – but more importantly, it made me reevaluate what I was reading not as a dangerous political power play appealing to populist fear, but as a genuine statement of belief. That poor guy who thought 1 in 20 scientists and engineers should be women probably really believes that. I think that’s the key to understanding evangelicals voting for Trump – they’re so committed to their religious beliefs that it becomes the determining factor. It made me wonder what kind of undesirable side behaviours I’d accept from someone who promised to deliver the magic bullet on climate change.

It’s the kernels of truth buried in the propaganda which makes the “Red Pill” metaphor so palpable, so compelling. These movements reject the “main stream” version of reality to endorse an uncomfortable alternative. The problem is that, of course, this kind of semi-real semi-true highly-politicised “news” is pretty much as insubstantial as the rejected versions. When Neo takes the pill in the film, literally everything changes – but these “Red Pill” advocates are still operating in basically the same frameworks as they were before, with women as the problem instead of their 18th century equivalents getting hot under the collar about Jews.

The real tragedy is that we do need a movement to radically reorient our understanding of the world, perhaps starting with the fundamental realisation that all money is inherently un-real since it was decoupled from the Gold and Silver standards in the middle of the 20th century. That basic misunderstanding of what money is and how it works drives a huge range of problems, from requiring balanced budgets to austerity to quantitate easing to the very idea of a “War on Drugs” or a “War on Terrorism” – because they are both in some senses fundamentally economic problems. The example of hyperreality that is most tragic to me at the moment is the discussion about who controls the city of Aleppo. All that’s left of Aleppo is the idea, because all the infrastructure has been destroyed and now even the population is basically gone. Aleppo has been making the news for the past couple of weeks as a kind of spectre or, at worst, revenant.

I have begun to suspect that we got into this mess by not properly appreciating Socrates. Socrates’ big point was that he didn’t know anything, and by perpetually asking questions he proved that nobody else did either – but the one thing nobody will admit is that they’re ignorant. And if you don’t admit that you need information, of course you won’t go and find that information. Rather than inquiring ourselves, most of us are more than happy to take at face value the version of reality being offered by an expert. If you’re a right-winger, that means believing Milton Friedman, if you’re a lefty you probably believe Keynes – but believing either is to buy into their shared underlying paradigm that money actually exists in the first place.

The problem in a way is that when you begin to question everything, you won’t always like what you found. My emotional response to the idea that a female veterinarian is worth only some proportion of a male veterinarian was pretty scathing. It’s a kind of ridiculous assertion – right? The problem is that numbers have been produced subsequently that show over her career a woman will work something in the order of an average workweek of 38 hours, while a man will work a little under 45. That’s essentially an extra day, and it’s a fact which can’t easily slot into our theory of true gender equality. As Sherlock Holmes always says, you must have facts before you form theories, otherwise you will twist the facts to suit the theory and not the theory to suit the facts. In this case, it seems like both “sides” of the argument have come to the facts with a preconceived notion of the relative merit of men and women.

Without wanting to harp on about it, I really question the value of any of the metrics put forward for evaluating the gender disparity in terms of career performance. When I look at the various engineers who’ve worked for me, the two stand-outs are one man and one woman, but for completely different reasons. If I looked at any productivity metrics, the male would comfortably win – but purely because of the commercial environment he was in compared to the female. If I wanted to send someone to persuade a client of my company’s advantages and competence, I’d send the woman because she talks a much better game and presents better. Looking at all my colleagues over the years, I think I’d be pretty hard pressed to draw any firm conclusions on capability profiles if I tried to sort by gender, but the structural inequalities in my profession mean that women will always suffer in comparison to men whenever quantitative measures are used. It’s a question which has vexed me continually, and I don’t expect an easy answer. What I do expect is that if I try to start making those easy generalisations, either for the pure interchangeability of cogs in the engineering machine, or the superiority of one gender, it’s going to be a generalisation that completely disconnects the experience of engineering from any kind of reality.

And ultimately, I think that’s what I think refutes any of these reasonable-sounding kernel-of-truth position papers in Breitbart or from the other side in the Huffington Post. Gender, like money, is part of our society’s hyperreal construction and so needs to be challenged in a way that can reconnect with a fundamental reality before any theories can be made. A quota, either the regressive 5-10% suggested by Breitbart or the 50% favoured by Guardian readers, seems to me to have already failed to attack the more fundamental built-in assumptions that genders even have a meaning in this context. We need to ensure, broadly, that those people who’re good at maths and physics end up with the opportunity to be engineers. I suspect that would multiply the number of women in my profession many times over, where their gender is being unnecessarily and intrinsically used as a filter at some early stage of development because of this hyper-real gender construction that we’ve all grown up with. On the other hand, it might not – and that should be perfectly acceptable too, as long as we can genuinely understand what the real capacities and inclinations of “women” are.

For now, I think my manifesto means aggressively deconstructing gender stereotypes and actively engaging in cultivating a truly gender-blind educational and recruiting systems. The utopian vision is that we can create, probably for the first time, human beings that are informed by, but not constrained by, their gender identity. In the meantime, people who suggest that women are in any way lesser to men are merely proof to me that there’s a residual of the completely false world we’ve constructed to hide almost all aspects of reality from ourselves.

Baudrillard, Jean. Simulacra and Simulation. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1994.
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