Men, Women and the Chain of Suspicion

My latest article, originally published at The Good Men Project.

In his book, The Dark Forest, Chinese sci-fi author Liu Cixin writes of first contact between intergalactic civilizations and the problems that can ensue. Liu introduces the speculative academic discipline of “cosmic sociology,” which seeks to understand the dynamics that can exist between different worlds. Cosmic sociology is based on a first axiom of “survival is the primary need of civilization” and goes on to explore what Liu describes as the “chain of suspicion”: both function as an interesting thinking tool to explore what is happening in gender politics at the moment.

The chain of suspicion works thus, with each civilization looking upon the other: “If you think I’m benevolent, that’s not a reason to feel safe, because according to the first axiom, a benevolent civilization can’t predict that any other civilization is benevolent. You don’t know whether I think you’re benevolent or malicious. Next, even if you know that I think you’re benevolent, and I also know that you think that I’m benevolent, I don’t know what you think about what I think about what you’re thinking about me.” As Liu states, even at two or three levels, the chain of suspicion is convoluted, and the logic can go on indefinitely. The chain of suspicion ultimately means each civilization will probably seek to destroy the other. What does this have to do with gender politics?

Without coming over too Men are From Mars, Women Are from Venus, the civilizations represent men and women, or, more accurately, the two political positions that many men and women increasingly find themselves being pushed into. Liu goes on to state that the chain of suspicion is, “unrelated to the civilization’s own morality and social structure” and that “regardless of whether civilizations are internally benevolent or malicious, when they enter the web formed by chains of suspicion, they’re all identical.” In other words, even if these shorthand civilizations of “men” and “women” are themselves benevolent, the dynamic of the chain of suspicion drives them to become malicious.

This is a rather grim prognosis for gender relations. It suggests that even if women can look at men and state, “yes, we understand that most men have good intentions, but…,” and even if men can look at women and state, “yes, we understand that most women have good intentions, but…” and even if both men and women know that both men and women are mostly good, they nevertheless seek destruction of the other.

Something like this is going on in the #MeToo phenomenon. Men are mostly good, and both men and women generally know it. But individual acts of abuse (albeit many, many individual acts of abuse) have created a great deal of suspicion that makes it hard for the benevolent civilization that is women to see men as benevolent. Similarly, women are mostly good, and both men and women generally know it. But individual acts of misrepresentation of all men as abusers have created a great deal of suspicion that makes it hard for the benevolent civilization that is men to see women as benevolent. (Note: I am not drawing an equivalency here, for women have certainly experienced a greater injustice, but the net effect is the same chain of suspicion.)

However, if we go back to Liu we find an important caveat: the chain of suspicion is “something that you don’t see on Earth. Humanity’s shared species, cultural similarities, interconnected ecosystem, and close distances means that, in this environment, the chain of suspicion will only extend a level or two before it’s resolved through communication.” Good news!

Of course, the reality is that men are not from Mars and women are not from Venus. We are not two species eyeing each another across the vacuum of space. We are the tightly-knit single civilization that is humanity and, according to Liu, should be able to resolve the chain of suspicion through communication. It is worth remembering this in the current environment, because it appears as if we are indeed stumbling through a dark forest. Instead of mutual destruction, let’s seek mutuality, and move forward to a more sustainable future for everyone.