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How the NPR / Scientific American story on Men and the Environment Exemplifies the Fate of Humanities and Gender Studies in the Public Square

On December 30, 2017, NPR ran a story about a write-up for Scientific American that a marketing professor did on his research into the reasons men are less likely to engage in environmental activity than women.  His earth-shattering conclusion was that men think that caring for the environment is not manly.  His recommendation was to market caring for the environment as more manly.

I want to suggest that what happened here points to three different issues facing the academy concerning humanities scholarship.  First, research outside of the humanities often fails to see the ways that the humanities have contributed to the field of knowledge under discussion and so treats its own insights as original and is impoverished for ignoring the long history and consideration of these questions in the humanities.  Second, more specifically, gender studies fails to be treated as a discipline or a form of study that produces original research that people making claims about gender should be aware of.  As a result, people make overdetermined and weighted claims without even understanding their significance and implications.  Third, when people who are in positions with more access to the public present their work as if it is original when the claims have been made at great length the difficulty at crying foul, at suggesting that this research is derivative and not well-researched, points to the difficult the humanities have in being recognized as a producer of knowledge.

An article has been circulating on social media with the provocative title, “There is No Case for the Humanities.”  The thesis seems to be that the problem is that the humanities are asked to make a case for themselves, to show their utility, when the humanities should be studied for themselves.  I’m all for that.  But I think the humanities might be a case of a good that is both desireable for its own sake and for the ends it can help achieve.  The problem is that the humanities are largely ignored as being a source of the production of knowledge and therefore, its insights are largely ignored and then reached as if they are unique to social science, which then claims to have produced worthwhile knowledge and therein robbed from humanities the recognition that it produced that knowledge.

The Scientific American article made stunning discoveries, such as, “Ironically, although men are often considered to be less sensitive than women, they seem to be particularly sensitive when it comes to perceptions of their gender identity.”  Feminist theory has long talked about how gender difference is a matter of power.  Men and masculinity are construed as the position of power, and threats to their masculinity then become construed as displacing them from a position of power.  Feminist theory explains how to be considered a woman is considered bad because it means to be considered subordinate.  It is not ironic at all that men are sensitive about this.  Such sensitivity has long been observed in the ways that men aggressively protect their identity not only as masculine but as straight. As Jane Ward argues in Not Gaystraightness becomes about the privilege and power that is associated with being normal, more than about who you like and what you do with your body parts.  Men are sensitive to being viewed as feminine because that might construe them as the weaker less authoritative gender as well as suggest that they are not straight, where straightness is about men’s capacity “to get” women.  My point is, gender studies and feminist theory is all over this.  Theorizing out of these experiences is its bread and butter.  But this marketing professor who is clearly working in gender studies does not bother to consider whether theory has something to offer him.

My first concern is that this comes out of a general disregard for the knowledge produced in the humanities, specifically in gender studies and feminist theory.  But my second concern is that this particular question–on how men view the environment as feminine and taking care of it as feminine–has been specifically addressed by feminist theorists, including those who find this exact problem in the way the Greeks set up masculine gods in the form of the Olympian pantheon and Zeus in particular to replaces the Sybil and Gaia–mother earth–all the way up to ecofeminists beginning in the 1970s.  Acting as if this work is nonexistent and producing new research that claims to have made gains and new arguments is well, a very masculine way to treat feminine labor.

In their 1993 essay, “Ecofeminism: Global Justice and Planetary Health,” Greta Gaard and Lori Gruen argue that a certain way of viewing the earth as inert matter to be exploited following the Scientific Revolution alongside the commodification of common resources under capitalism leads to a division of the world between nature and culture.  Such a division can be traced to social contract theorists, and even to ancient Greek thinkers.  On this view, nature is in the service of progress and history and so can and should be transformed for the sake of such progress.  History makers are those who can transform and overcome nature.  Any resistance the natural world gives to this project is to be resisted.  Ecofeminists have argued that women have long been associated with nature and men with culture, and that nature has long been construed as feminine, especially in the sense of that which needs to be controlled by and in service to men.  Ecofeminists have done considerable work to trace these sentiments in the history of philosophy and scientific thinking.  My current book project looks at how form and matter in Aristotle have been co-opted for this view of the world, and how a reconsideration of material in Aristotle might help resist this binary hierarchical view of nature to reason and of female to male.

This problem brings me to my third point.  This professor wrote an article in the Scientific American that he presented as original insights when these insights have been reached by people studying feminist theory and gender studies for decades.  It would seem that a scholar should be responsible to know the literature on the subject he discusses.  It would seem that good scholarly practice requires a consideration of such work even if it outside one’s chosen discipline.  This kind of study and the write-up and reporting in the more popular media present as original research conclusions that have been reached and pretty well established by a whole field.  In this one report, the humanities have been disregarded as fields of knowledge production, the specific knowledge of gender studies has been completely ignored, and a scholar of marketing has been lauded for research that is in no way original.

But if the humanities are not considered sources of knowledge production, then the research they have produced to make this case–that men treat the environment in a particular way based on certain investments they have in masculinity–can not be plagiarized because it is not itself knowledge.  It only becomes knowledge, it would seem, when someone outside the humanities says it.

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