The Rake’s Progress

We hold this truth to be self-evident, that people arrange themselves on a spectrum between nice and nasty according to their individual personalities and predilections, and not according to gender. The opportunities for practicing nastiness may vary, but every creature must make his or own choice between a fundamentally cooperative and benevolent approach to the world, or a fundamentally mean and predatory one. Among other things, living in a society means that these individual choices will be commented upon, and that individuals devoted to meanness and cruelty risk getting called on it.

One might think that this was so basic as to be beyond challenge, but one would then be wrong. The first step towards subverting this true knowledge is to refuse to talk about individuals. If, therefore, Mary-Jane has acted in a predatory fashion, it is in her interest that other people eschew any comment upon her specific actions, but instead confine themselves entirely to the collective level, that is, talk only about Men and Women. It is in Mary-Jane’s interest for people to believe that only the generalisations count, so that if the category of which she is a member, namely female, in general gets a rough deal, it is illegitimate to comment unfavourably upon her individual actions. Anyone objecting to what Mary-Jane did can then to have been deemed to have denied that women in general get a rough deal, or to have asserted that all women act like Mary-Jane, or some other general proposition that is clearly false. This makes it impossible to talk about the specific actions of Mary-Jane as an individual, which is what she needs to be the case.

Letting Mary-Jane get away with this is also in the interest of all other women; at the most basic level because if they scratch her back she may one day scratch theirs, and at another level because, in a circularity, the sinlessness of Mary-Jane, originally posited a priori, can be made to appear as empirical support for the sinlessness of all women.

Mary-Jane’s ultimate aim may not to do terribly bad things to other people; she may desire nothing more than immunity from criticism for the minor infractions that we all commit every day. She may merely desire what most other people desire in this age, namely undeserved self-esteem. If, on the other hand, she is a real predator, living at the expense of others, then this collective thinking, or collective narcissism, is the perfect smokescreen and accelerant.

When this is the case, the infection is irreversible. This is because, in order to get the full benefit, Mary Jane has to leave mainstream society and join a sub-community that can be relied on to defend and excuse whatever she takes it into her head to do. Such an affiliation has wide-reaching cognitive consequences. For example, she will now spend every waking hour thinking on the collective plane, about everything that is suffered by the category of which she is a member and everything wicked done by the category of which she is not a member. Now, certain things happen to a person when she thinks solely of her own categoryhood: for example tunnel vision, self-absorption and blindness to her own individual actions and their consequences in the real world. The map is confused with the terrain. And there is absolutely no incentive to leave.

Such an explanatory paradigm will be extremely welcome to any other woman who has reason to believe that she might one day stand in need of a little exculpation. This is why the phenomenon is so contagious: none of us act rightly all the time, and all of us have a need to think well of ourselves. If we are offered a cognitive paradigm that tells us that nothing is our fault, everything we do is right and proper and that anyone who objects to our actions is wicked, most of us will jump at it. The true mystery is not why some individuals eagerly enter the bubble, but why other individuals resist and continue to believe themselves flawed and fallible.

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