The injonction to ‘Educate yourself’ is a marketing trick


What’s better than telling someone they need to educate themselves? It is the equivalent of people telling you to buy their book, watch their movie, follow their group. If people ask you to reach a certain conclusion, they want to influence you. Else they’d say “study physics and you’ll reach this conclusion”, because you know that’s a conclusion people will reach  because it has been vetted again and again.

It’s the difference between “here’s a bunch of books to read” and “you need to learn these conclusions or do these things”. The former keeps you free to disagree and to conclude what you want, the later asks you to perform whichever work is needed to reach a certain conclusion. It doesn’t remove errors, frailties, doubts, human limitations: we can not avoid it, unless we dip into totalitarian territory.

However, reaching that conclusion leaves us completely with a void and lots of questions. I used to read blogs, forums, comment sections, here all the famous concerned people tell me the truth as it stems from their inner experience. But if a 20 years-old with an internet pseudonym can know more about life everywhere, all the time, than me, how much am I worth? Not a lot, really not a lot.

So I went for the one source that women trust: the second sex by Simone de Beauvoir, and it was eye-opening. Some paragraphs described event by event what I had live, what I had thought (it helps that I come from French-speaking Switzerland and live in a similar culture to de Beauvoir). I put it down, thinking that maybe I had some worth after all, maybe I could both trust myself and put myself into question, reach for this “transcendance” that we should forget about because it is an outdated man’s idea, according to wise internet writers.

I digress: women have consistently thought about their situation, they have consistently worked in team with other women… And they have written books, alone at their table, to put into their own personal and free words what they thought. We dismiss them today: we should listen to these “voices” instead of cold paper from outdated women, we shouldn’t play the game of weighing a paper argument against someone’s live opinion. Beside, an old book doesn’t make money, an internet persona does.

So I started reading. First I read the “must-read” book proposed by the internet, and found their quality abysmal. I moved to the unknown, left-out selection of memoirs written by feminists, and to books which had an impact when they went out. I was stunned by the quality I found, the novelty, the self-reflection. Sure there’s some voodoo, some paranoia, some mean jabs (but which book doesn’t, really. And we never complain against a male author that he put an angry rant in his book. He is allowed to do that, not women).

I now want to promote these books, these ideas. If only to make you want to read them, at least to tell you: they exist, don’t believe those who tell you otherwise ! Don’t believe conclusions that conveniently make you listen/buy/follow the person telling you, without fact-checking.


Image: Nùria (detail)


How do we build a reliable relation to our emotions?


In my previous post, I explained how I used to feel visceral repulsion towards the strategy behind social relations that is game theory. Yet I still need and must rely on myself to navigate this world: I need to develop a healthy relationship to my emotions so that I may know how to react to them. The same problem applies to each person.

The marketing mantra “Trust yourself” sounds promising, easy, and individualistic. It can’t work for women, unless we want people to settle in what they wear taught to do and how they were taught to react. On the other hand, each person has desires and feelings, and they are the ones who must make decisions for themselves in the community if they are autonomous.

The situation is ambiguous: we are taught harmful or ineffective ways, yet can only rely on our imperfect selves to move forward. I do not have definite answer, but if game theory and science have taught me something, it is that we need to be acutely aware of our limitations so that we may take them into account, and weigh our goals in their light. When changing a behavior, we will eventually relapse. When facing a challenge, we will likely procrastinate, sabotage ourselves or avoid the situation. If we renounce to that knowledge, placing absolute faith in ourselves and others, we are bound to build unrealistic models and to see women’s actions as bound to fail.

We need to find ways to balance self-care, the immediate actions to soothe our feelings, with long-term care that includes strategic decisions, organisation and collaboration. While I see that discussions among women center almost exclusively on immediate personal care, long-term efforts are kept silent. We encourage women to spend “me-time” with nail polish and chocolate, we celebrate the victory of a female athlete, the discovery of a scientist. But we keep silent the years of work, sacrifices, planning and efforts that went into achieving that gold medal or that Nature publication. And when it comes to unknown women, we can’t go beyond recognizing the merits of the women who raised us.

We limit ourselves to a handful of works women can publicly do and be recognized for: child bearing, music, acting, modeling, public celebrity. A few women achieve a special status based on their contribution to the world (Marie Curie or Simone de Beauvoir). But for the rest of us, our work is at best part of our private domestic life, at worse a way in which we actively harm the domestic space we should be nurturing.


Image. F. Scaramella

Our gut reaction of disgust is controlling and limiting us


The first time I consciously questioned a personal occurence of moral disgust was after watching A Beautiful Mind with male science colleagues. The movie tells the story of John Nash, a brillant scientist who made fundamental contributions to game theory. In a scene, young Nash is at a bar with friends as they lust after a beautiful woman. Nash makes the argument that if they each try their luck for her, at most one of them will succeed. On the other hand, if they decide that no one goes for the most beautiful woman but each goes for one of her friends, several are likely to succeed, and the group outcome will be better. My colleagues loved the concept, while I felt that such a manipulation of social interactions was horrific: here they were, talking to women only in term of their chances of getting what they want (sex).

I today know that many men use outcome-based interactions with women, unceremoniously discarding the ones who won’t provide what they want. Yet, I had a strong disgust reaction to game theory, and thought that I would stay away from it, and remain in the domain of morally good ideas, where I would find plenty enough to do.

I believe I was wrong on three accounts. First, I refused to explore the full range of available possibilities before making an informed and strategic decision, thereby limiting myself. Second, I weakened myself by cutting myself off from a powerful tool that men and industries use. Three, however wrong game theory is, it describes parts of society and for that reason alone, shouldn’t be ignored: if I want to make an impact, I do not have enough spare power to afford my ignorance of such an important field of knowledge.

I no longer feel a gut reaction towards game theory. I can now see when someone uses it, and observe the power struggle taking place, as well as the eventual overpowering that someone with knowledge can have on someone without. For that reason, I think we should critically question our gut reactions: if they are indeed correct, we should find ethical arguments to support them, and a broad high-quality world of ideas discussing it, not only the words of supporters.


Image: P. Bibler (detail)