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Human Nature as a social construct

Now, that some doctors are not only able but also willing to perform sex/life changing surgery, the subject has spawned a rather hot debate.

The ‘inputs’ being ‘sex’, ‘gender’ and ‘how each of us feels about it’.

Feels about what?

Well… this is the tricky part.
The what of the matter isn’t so simple…

There are so many things that might be felt here…

How each of us feels about the sex they have been born with.
How each of us feels about the gender role assigned to their particular sex by the particular culture into which they have been born.
How each of us feels about those who have enough courage/money to assume another gender/change their sex.

Please note that while neither the society nor the individuals have anything to do with the birth sex, both the society and the individuals are instrumental in shaping all those feelings.

Since sex/gender is too ‘hot’ right now, let me take a parallel road.

Many of my friends are glad when I invite them to dinner. To a home cooked dinner.
Their appreciation has driven me to improve my cooking skills, over time.
Yet in my culture, men are not supposed to cook – if they are not professionals, of course.
Which I’m not.
Yet very few people, if any at all, see anything strange here.
That being the social construct part.
On the other hand, cooking implies certain individual characteristics. For instance, I find it harder when my nose is running. I have to do it ‘mechanically’. It also demands a lot of patience and the ability to plan in advance. Not to mention the fact that one needs both hands.
My point being that cooking, and gender, is based on a certain physical configuration – both hands, a working nose – a certain state of mind AND a lot of study/social conditioning.

My real point being that every ‘social construct’ is based on ‘nature’.
Just as no builder will ever be able to build anything without ‘bricks’, no society will ever be able to build anything out of nothing.
And just as all builders have to adapt their plans to what they have at their disposal, all social constructs will be limited by ‘human nature’ – how ever adaptable and ingenuous it might be.

Now it’s the moment to remind you that other cultures have dealt differently with this matters. Driven by different kinds of necessity.

“It began hundreds of years ago, deep in the Albanian Alps—an unusual tradition where women, with limited options in life, took the oath of the burrnesha. A pledge to live as a man. To dress like a man, to work like a man, to assume the burdens and the liberties of a man. But these freedoms came with a price: The burrneshas also made a pledge of lifelong celibacy. Today these sworn virgins live on, but their numbers have dwindled. Many Albanians don’t even know they exist. What happens when the society that created you no longer needs you? And how do you live in the meantime?”


“In Samoa, gender identity is largely based on a person’s role in the family and if one family has numerous sons and no daughters, it’s not uncommon to raise one of the boys as a girl.

In fact, being a Fa’afaine or the practice of males adopting female gender roles and the attributes traditionally associated with women is deeply embedded in much of Polynesia.”


You’re not alone…

“Some Polynesian elders believe there are boys born with the “Fa’afafine spirit,” while others say it can be nurtured.”


Human nature has evolved considerably since we’ve climbed down the proverbial tree/been made in His own image.
Some of our ancestors used to eat their fellow human beings/the first brother had killed his sibling for profit while a sizeable proportion of the present humankind governs itself in a democratic manner.
No individual has ever been able to change, by themself, the human nature. Time and time again, this has been attempted in vain. Plato, Napoleon, Marx, Lenin, Hitler, Stalin…
Yet each of us can change their own persona. This is what Buddha and Jesus have been successfully teaching us.
This is how we’ve figured out that eating our brother might satiate our hunger for the time being but will never solve the problem. Feeding ourselves for the long run demands cooperation. It cannot be achieved through mindless/cut-throat competition.
As long as more and more of us understand this, we’ll have a fighting chance to survive. As a species.

Yesterday I had the opportunity to visit another salt mine, an active one this time,

My mother worked in the mining industry, my father in law was a miner almost all his life, my first job was in a factory building mining equipment, I went down another half a dozen mines before, both active and transformed into touristic attractions. I thought I had a fair imagine about what it means to be a miner.

In the mine I visited yesterday there was a small church, entirely carved in salt of course. On one of its walls the visitors can read:

“Afara-s doar chinuri si nevoi,
Aici, in mina-i Dumnezeu cu noi.”

(Out there, topside, nothing but trouble comes in sight.
Down here, deep into the mine, we have the Lord on our side.)

How deep into our souls do we need to dig in order to find our good nature?

And then I found this picture on Facebook:

I must clarify from the start that ‘yes we can’ sounds indeed more compelling but this is so only because ‘marketing’ has conditioned us to fall for ‘positive’ messages. ‘Yes we can!’ feels good because it implies that it is enough for us to set a goal and that goal will become accessible just because we declared it so. Very ‘American’ but also rather arrogant.

Besides that, how come that we are so sure that all things we have elevated to the rank of goal are worth pursuing?

On the other side of the barricade are the people who say there is no such thing as ‘progress’, that the advent of science and technology has done zilch to improve the human nature who has remained as sinful as ever.

Yes and no.

Science and technology are indeed nothing but innate tools, they cannot change anything by themselves. Human nature can change, for better or for worse, only under its own steam. It is the individual human being who is the ultimate decision maker about how those tools are going to be used.

There is another thing that needs clarifying. The sinful nature of the human being. In fact this notion is a purposefully distorted interpretation of a certain passage in the Bible:
 And the Lord God said, “The man has now become like one of us, knowing good and evil. He must not be allowed to reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life and eat, and live forever.””

As it becomes perfectly clear after reading that passage with an open mind, Adam and Eve were not banished from Eden because they disobeyed orders but because ‘they had learned to tell right from wrong’. This was not becoming sinful; it just means that from then on they had the ability to choose to behave badly. Or not. Having the ability to understated what is a sin does not necessarily mean that that sin will be committed.

So why banish them from the Paradise? First of all this is metaphor. The banishment was virtual, not real. Adam and Eve didn’t go anywhere, they only started doubting themselves and their judgments. Enough to loose one’s peace of mind. And rightfully so. As everybody knows people who have an exaggerated confidence in their own prowess are more inclined to making disastrous mistakes than people who are able to exercise a healthy dose of self control. And exactly this is the very reason for why God ‘expelled’ Adam and Eve from Eden (planted the seed of doubt into their soul): so that they’ll never have the opportunity to ‘eat from the tree of eternal life.’
Could you imagine what would happen if wrong choices would be able to last forever?

But how do people learn to behave? Through daily interactions with other people, of course. And the results of those interactions are ‘stored’ both in the individual memories of those directly involved but also in what is called ‘the collective memory’ of a group. Sociologists call that ‘culture’ and it influences individual behavior quite a lot. And that culture is also heavily influenced by the conditions in which individual interactions, those that accrue to eventually form cultural habits, take place.

Let me give you a practical example. I got my driver’s license quite late in life, I was 28 or 29 at that time, right after the fall of communism in Romania. (I had found a good job and I needed one in order to perform it properly so I took the exam and passed it). In those times the cars were rather few so the roads were relatively empty. This, correlated with the fact that policemen were treated with disrespect – they were still seen badly because in the previous regime they were used to suppress dissidence – and that after the so called ‘revolution’ had appeared quite a lot of rather aggressive ‘hot shots’ the manner of driving was chaotic to say the least. Nobody made any concession, no politeness, no nothing. But, I repeat, because the roads  were rather empty, accidents were relatively rare and bottlenecks practically inexistent.

A year or so after getting my license I had to drive to Istanbul. All my friends started to warn me ‘watch out, those Turks drive like madmen, you have to take care, etc., etc.’ I wasn’t exactly scared, in that year I had driven some 40 000 km (approx. 25 000 miles) so I wasn’t a novice anymore but still, I arrived there with more than a little apprehension.

Imagine my surprise when I realized that the Turkish drivers treat themselves with extreme consideration and foreigners with even more. OK, things were happening a lot more rapidly there but they were above all polite, something you almost couldn’t find on the Romanian roads at that time.

And it took me almost two days to understand that had they acted like the Romanian drivers acted at that time traffic would had halted in five minutes and the entire Istanbul would had become a huge bottleneck.

And you know what? Now, twenty years past, traffic in Bucharest has started to resemble the one in Istanbul at that time (I don’t know how it is now, I haven’t been there since, unfortunately). The not so surprisingly thing, for me at least, is that Romanian drivers have cleaned up their act considerably, at least inside the cities. And for good reason. Otherwise it would have been impossible to drive through the narrow and extremely busy streets we have to navigate. Things are not perfect – the Germans or the New Yorkers for instance are driving a lot nicer – but there is a huge improvement.

The point of this story is that most individuals will choose to make the right choice if and when they understands that it’s better to live and let live than to be a constant bully: sooner or later you’ll end up in very unpleasant situations.

And no, heavy handed policing isn’t enough, if the ‘guy in the street’ hasn’t reached ‘that’ level of understanding, if good behavior hasn’t become a cultural habit, people will have the tendency of misbehaving the very instant the policeman turns his head in the other direction. (Not to mention the fact that policemen come from the same community and share the same mentality)

So things can become better, progress is possible exactly because human nature is not inherently bad. Good individual choices coupled with strong interaction and a healthy dose of mutual respect can perform wonders.

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