Story behind the Passage
In one of my reading circles, we discussed Betty Friedan’s Feminine Mystique today. So, that is a straightforward story behind today’s choice, right? The thing that I thought about most while preparing the text is the issue of naming. Obviously, Friedan has become known as a the Second Wave feminist who stands for writing about “The Problem That Has No Name” — this is also the first chapter of her book. In the passage above, she describes one of he steps or rather defining moments that led to her writing of the book.
Actually, I do not care so much about the actual problem she was describing back then, at least not in what I am writing here today. I care about the “problem” of naming things. Especially in academia, people love naming things. Some argue it is necessary in order to study things. Others argue that it is necessary to measure things — both things go together, obviously. Yet others argue that it is necessary, since human brains need some organiziung mechanisms — which I agree with. Still others argue that naming gives people power. This latter aspect is something that I would like to highlight while at the same time doubting this power. To be honest, people who need to name things in order to feel powerful usually have no real power. But if they need that kind of practice, that is o.k. if it makes them happy. What made me extremely happy today was a story one of the participants in the circle shared with us today. There were no fancy terms, concepts, names in the story — just so much truth.
The story went like this: A rich family from a medium-rich country in Europe went to Africa (which, according to “Western” eyes, is the poor continent). There, they visited a traditional village in which people had just shifted to wearing clothes a while ago. When the family saw that there were still some people half-naked, their children started crying because they were so devastated about the “poverty” and the backward “state of civilization” which the tribal people, actually Bedouins, lived in. Now, these are my words that I am using to renarrate the story but that was how I understood it. So, the interesting conclusion of this family was to not “enlighten” the African tribe in any way. This could have confused them and caused unwanted needs and desires in them, so the story goes. At least, this is how the family members saw it.
Is this not such an exciting story?
Does it not tell us so much about the state of “Western” civilization?
Does it not truly highlight the cause of all misery and suffering?
As you might guess now, I am not talking about the kind of suffering people in the countryside in Africa suffer from. I am talking about the great talent rich people from he West have to make their lives unbearable. This is not because they lack any material things. To the contrary — they have all this, even more than enough. What they usually lack, or at least they often complain about it and studies confirm it, is happiness. This brings us right back to Friedan’s “Problem That Has No Name” and the state of middle class women in postwar America. Actually, the family in the story decribed above suffers from the same problem — they just have not realized it (yet).
“Suddenly they realized they all shared the same problem, the problem that has no name.” When I read the chapter again and while we were speaking today, I was reminded of Plato’s Cave analogy all the time. I cannot even remember anymore if I already wrote about it on this blog. Since it is so famous, you can Google it anywhere. So, I do not have to renarrate it. The simple point I want to make is that usually the people who think they have to pity others for their supposed poverty or backwardness are the ones sitting inside the cave — not outside. They are the ones who think that the material objects they are buying and the things they are learning and thinking about in fancy universities are the “truth.” Yes, they also reflect on the meaning of truth and they learn that there are different sophisticated approaches to reversing truths and deconstructing them. But mostly, they still believe that their truth is superior. Ultimately, this also means that, what they define as “happiness,” is what happiness really is all about in universal terms.
The “problem” is: They never asked the “others,” the locals, the tribal people.
The reason why I am relating this to the passage about Friedan’s insight into the Problem that Has No Name is that naming is such a powerful thing. You can see it all the time, also in women’s empowerment circles. Women meet, they discuss “problems,” they find a name for them that all others supposedly understand, and then the discussion goes on with the problem ultimately becoming bigger in their minds because of all the talk. Then they start saying things like “in our part of the world” and in “other parts of the world” and they also talk about concepts such as progress, rights, and freedom.
To be clear: All these concepts are very important and so are empowerment circles. But we should always keep in mind that these are just concepts — they are human-made names. If you believe that these words can actually reflect “reality,” that is fine. At least, then you have a clear and solid basis on which to build your life and form your values. All the other people who do not know these words or who do not even aspire to give their experiences names, will ultimately be inferior to you. This might be the case for the African tribespeople as well. They might never have wondered or talked about how “civilized” they might appear when wearing “Western-style” clothes. They might never have discussed “happiness” and “freedom.” The only thing is:
They might be happy without ever naming this status.
So, who is sitting in the cave? Is it the people discussing problems and writing books about it? Again, I want to highlight how much of a contribution Friedan’s book has made for the Feminist movement, no doubt. But we also need to remember that there is a “truth” out there that is beyond words and books. Hence, it is also accessible to people without book shelves and money to buy Louis Vuitton purses. I do believe that books can help you access this deeper knowledge. Still, I also have to emphasize that there are many other ways. And living close to nature and in harmony with it is one of these things. Just remember how many stressed urban dwellers now go on “mini adventures” to the mountains and pay thousands of Euros for organized nature retreats to experience what it means to sleep in a tent. Do you get it?
Yes, naming gives humans stability and things to talk about.
Feeling gives people a different perspective.
And experiencing life in the present moment wherever you are and whatever you are wearing without naming anything gives people happiness.
1) What is a “problem that has no name” for you these days?
2) How do you think about happiness in relation to material things?
3) If a siren went off, you had to escape to a bunker, and were only allowed to take one private item with you — what would this item be?