Wired That Way
Earlier this week, Canada’s top military man, Gen. Tom Lawson said a very, very bad thing in an interview about sexual misconduct in the Canadian military. He said that sexual harassment remains an issue in the military due to “biological wiring.” Oh dear.
And, of course, this comment kicked into motion the lynch mob that is trial by social media. There were immediate howls of righteous indignation, there were impassioned pleas from Canadian politicians decrying Lawson’s ignorant comments and demanding his immediate resignation, and a stream of commentary from all corners declaring that these kinds of ideas have no place in Canada in the year 2015! Gen. Lawson has been dutifully tarred and feathered and exposed as the misinformed neanderthal that he obviously is. The Internet can take a deep breath and be satisfied that it has restored moral order to the cosmos.
But what if we were to pause, just for a moment, and examine our outrage. I realize that being outraged is deliciously fun and, well, just what we do on the Internet, but what if we were entertain the possibility that Gen. Lawson wasn’t an outlandish idiot that deserved to be summarily written off, that he might even have picked up a sliver or two of insights over long decades spent leading other humans? What if we were to give him the benefit of the doubt and consider that, however silly his comment might sound, it could actually be gesturing toward something worth paying attention to?
I listened to the interview. Gen. Lawson’s comment was pretty dumb, and he has since admitted as much. But it’s interesting to note the question that his ill-fated “biological wiring” remark came in response to. Lawson was asked, How, in the year 2015, the military could still have men sexually imposing themselves upon women?!” As if, at this advanced stage of human history, in an, ahem, morally exemplary nation like Canada, such a thing ought to be unheard of! As if, in a hyper-sexualized context where rape culture is still alive and well (the story of Jian Ghomeshi leaps to mind), where women are still regularly portrayed in film and in popular music as little more than sexual objects, as if in the year 2015 the idea that men might have biological inclinations that might play a role in sexual aggression toward women was little more than a dusty relic of some misogynistic medieval past!
Into this framing of the question and in response to these implicit assumptions, Gen. Lawson had the temerity to suggest—awkwardly and ill-advisedly, to be sure—that perhaps basic human biology might have a role to play in the persistence of sexual aggression in the military. And now? Well, God help him!
Because the idea that we might be “wired” for sexual aggression, of course, goes against our preferred and deeply cherished narrative of biology being something that can be shaped according to our preferences and choosing. Even the most cursory familiarity with recent news bears this out. Biologically white, but wish you were black and self-identify as such? No problem. Born anatomically male (or female) but wish you were the other? No problem. Gender and race are, increasingly, construed as social constructions, endlessly pliable and eager to be pressed into the service of human choosing. Biology is always subservient to human will. Except when we want biology to be determinative. Issues of sexual orientation and how this ought to be expressed are, for example, frequently thought to be resolved once the biology card is played. Being “wired that way” is often the beginning and end of the conversation.
So it’s interesting how biology and being “wired that way” plays out in social discourse. Unsurprisingly, we’re not terribly consistent. About the only thing that we’re sure about is that whatever “wired that way” might mean, we’re pretty sure that it ought to bolster the opinions that we wish to defend and the deeply cherished views about ourselves that ground our identities. “Wired that way” is admissible as an explanation for things that are laudable or desirable, but never for their opposites.
The truth that most of us realize quite quickly when we actually pause to think about things for a second—when we resist the temptation to stampede on to social media to register our outrage whenever a sound-byte threatens the ways we are pleased to think about ourselves—is that everything about who we are and what we do is the product of both biology and social context.
We are wired for good things and for bad things. We are socialized into good things and bad things. Our social location acts upon our biological impulses, just as the ways we are “wired” affect how we engage with our contexts (the social context of the Internet, for example, acts upon our biological instincts toward tribalism and narcissism and the result is, well, Twitter 🙂 ). Some of our biological inclinations should be nurtured, while some ought to be repressed. This is simply what it is to be human.
Is “biological wiring” the (sole) cause for why there is sexual violence in the military (or anywhere else, for that matter)? No. “Biology made me do it” is about as sophisticated a response as “the devil made me do it.” But biology is certainly part of the story and it’s naive to pretend otherwise. It’s part of every human story.