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“Throughout human history” is the phrase I’m thinking about today, following on from grumbling about the “hardwired” metaphor.  This is another way to justify the status quo, and it’s often used to give a sheen of legitimacy in discussions about gender roles.  The Daily Mail’s story about why women like pink is a classic example – apparently women have preferred pink throughout human history because they had to identify berries in hunter-gatherer tribes.  The array of pink clothes, shoes, accessories, stationery, furnishings and cocktails in our society is apparently an expression of women’s primitive need to find the next bunch of juicy berries.

Slightly more surprisingly, the journalist and pollster Peter Kellner declared on Radio 4’s Beyond Westminster that the differences in the way men and women relate to politics can only be explained by the same pre-historic gender divisions.  Men are “hunter-gatherers” who have to be “risk-takers” to be successful, women are “home-makers”, who have always been “risk-avoiders” ever since they developed those roles in pre-historic times.

These arguments are, of course, completely vapid.  They were both dealt with by some thoughtful people who know more about this stuff than me: the blog at Birkbeck’s Centre for the Study of British Politics and Public Life pointed a few facts in Kellner’s direction, whilst the pink/berries question was dealt with by Jezebel and the Smithsonian Magazine in their varying styles.  The question here is not whether or not these accounts of our human origins and history are true, but how they works and why they’re so widespread.  Neither Kellner nor the Daily Mail journalist came up with the idea that gender differences can be explained by reference to supposed roles humans developed at the dawn of history.  They simply stuck the topic they were thinking about into a well-known narrative and found a justification for why it should always be this way.  Aside from being really irritating, I think these arguments about what we have been like “throughout human history” misuse the very idea of history in a couple of ways.

Firstly, such arguments invoke history’s authority, but they employ the techniques of myth.  Instead of asking what we know about the past and sifting through sources for evidence, they begin with the present.  Taking some observed fact about the world around us (girls often wear pink clothes, women vote differently to men) they produce a story about our distant ancestors which justifies it.  This is the historiographical mode of the Just So Stories, or the Greek myths.  Walter Ong’s work on linguistics records that in the 1900s the Gonja people of Ghana told traditional stories about the founder of their nation, Ndewura Jakpa, who had seven sons.  Each of these sons had inherited one of the seven areas into which the Gonja’s territority was divided.  Sixty years later, when the Gonja state had shifted its divisions, those stories had altered: Ndewura Jakpa now had only five sons, and the spare two had disappeared from history.  This isn’t an illegitimate way of telling a story, or an inaccurate attempt at documentary history, it’s an entirely different mode.  The purpose of myth isn’t to record a series of confusing and contradictory events so they can later be made sense of, it’s to justify the current state of affairs.

I bet there are much more interesting stories to be told about women’s voting patterns and the prevalence of pink in women’s and girls’ clothing.  Off-hand I’d think they might involve the Industrial Revolution, middle class gender roles shifting sometime in the eighteenth century and later being entrenched by the development of a “separate spheres” ideology, some sheep (because this is British history and sheep are always involved somehow), various campaigns for suffrage, the music halls (see above with the sheep) and something about the differences between organising nomadic and agrarian societies.[1]  But any such narratives would involve producing evidence and accounting for change, which myths don’t.  In mythical narratives the change – the kidnapping of Persephone, the stretching of the Elephant’s Child’s nose, the gathering of berries by the first women – takes place only once and long in the past.  After that, everything is the way it is.  Mythical thinking stops us seeing the world around us as a continuous process of development, and instead asks us to accept that things are hardwired like this.

Secondly these arguments demonstrate oddly low ambitions for history.  They don’t ask it to tell us anything we couldn’t find out by looking out of the window.  If the present is the only important focus for historical discussion, we wilfully ignore the swathes of historical evidence which might suggest that things have been different, and that they will change in the future.  The legal scholar Emily Bazelon has described the dissenting opinion as one of highpoints of US jurisprudence.  For her they provide a vital irritant in an apparently cohesive system of decided questions, stimulating future thinkers with ‘an articulation of the opposing viewpoint.  It reminds them that there wasn’t a consensus, that there’s another way to think about it.’  This is what we should be going to history for – a reminder that the world around us is not inevitable, nor natural, and hasn’t always been this way.  History should force us to justify ourselves in the face of its strangeness, not flatter us that we’re the pleasing culmination of everything which went before.[2]

Telling rubbish stories about berry-picking or voter-gatherers displays a cheap and lazy attitude to history.  But it also betrays an insecurity in us, an unwillingness to really examine the past in case it forces us to ask awkward questions about how things are now, and how they should be in the future.  If we accept the consolations of the past, we ought also to accept the challenges, which really can be found “throughout human history”.

[1] If anyone does know about the development of these things in history, do please leave a comment or drop me an email – I’d love to include some links.

[2] Oscar Wilde seems to have developed a similar attitude from his reading of Hegel.  His search for the shocking or outrageous in the past came from the same impulse as his need for witty paradoxes in his writing: a belief that only if the present was brought into collision with the past, particularly those bits it found uncomfortable, repulsive or dangerous, could a better future be produced.