Sentience and survival

We do not expect our species to exist forever, but it is unworthy of us to die lying to each other and ourselves.

Dorothy Dinnerstein Karen Malpede Naomi Miller Sarah Karl
6 May 2019, 7.57pm
Pixabay/Gerd Altmann. Pixabay license.

With its lucid and elegant prose, Dorothy Dinnerstein’s The Mermaid and the Minotaur had an electric effect when it was published in 1976, addressing the question that was driving a generation: women are despised by men and by women, Dinnerstein said, because women give birth and become the sole nurturers of infants. We have internalized a grotesque image of the female as the revered giver and the despised taker of life.

Dorothy’s solution to the misogynist dilemma this creates was practical: let men take an equal role in caring for babies and children. New generations will grow up feeling and committed to inherent equality, in full possession of both the nurturing and aggressive sides of themselves. To an extent, she has been proven correct. As more men become intimately involved in childrearing, sexism is chipped away generation by generation.

But another essential part of Dorothy’s argument - that which concerned our species’ ability to sustain a future on planet earth - got lost in the flurry of praise surrounding Mermaid and was never properly transmitted to the wider culture. Instead, her prescient fears about looming nuclear and ecological destruction lodged themselves among like-minded thinkers and activists in a vital part of the feminist movement called ‘ecofeminism.’

For the next decade, ecofeminists met together at conferences and in groups, protested, camped out and were arrested over the deployment of nuclear warheads to Europe, the greed of Wall Street, the destructiveness of the Pentagon, and capitalist-driven threats to animals, plants and the earth, while continuing to write, teach, rear children and develop our thoughts. This movement included Dorothy, Grace Paley and Barbara Deming, to name just a few of the women central to ecofeminism who are now dead.

For the rest of her too-short life, Dorothy, a cognitive psychologist by training, would struggle to surpass the wisdom in Mermaid by addressing a related but ever more vexing question: why we cannot see what we must see in order to survive. Sentience and Survival was to be the title of this unwritten book.

When she died in 1992, basketfuls of notes passed to Naomi Miller, her daughter, who worked to finish the book with Sarah Karl, a friend of both. What follows are extracts from the first essay in that manuscript, “Examining Human Sentience.” It gives a flavor of the power and relevance of Dorothy’s writing for the environmental and social justice movements of today.

Karen Malpede

"Sentience" is the synonym for "consciousness" or "awareness" which to me best connotes the embeddedness of [the] human mind in non-human nature. It expresses the continuity between our own and other animals' abilities to register and respond to events, and suggests the biological function of these abilities - their role in keeping a creature, and/or that creature's species, alive. It refers also to the continuity between [the] human mind's infant and adult modes of organization. It implies the fusion, moreover, of perceiving, remembering, thinking and feeling; and the interpenetration of articulate and inarticulate, and rational and non-rational, mental phenomena. It refers to a single process of which all these are aspects.

One of the centrally important ways in which we are different from other animals is that for humans, the relationship between awareness and survival has become, in the course of our evolution, more complex, due to the variety of tasks and environmental factors/truths we must attend to. Because we must be able to pay attention in a variety of ways, and to a large variety of things (what Mary Catherine Bateson refers to as "peripheral attention"), we have, as a species, learned to push aside some things we know in order to attend better to others without distraction.

But what is pushed aside sometimes becomes, unpredictably, critical to know for some other consideration we are suddenly confronted with - and we don't always have the desire or the psychological ability to reintegrate our awareness of this pushed-aside factor at the very time we may need it most. Learning to use our sentience with more precise intentionality - with more self-discipline, with more carefully considered purpose - may be the most central task that now confronts human mind.

One of these features of our situation is that [the] human mind's own products and inventions, and enactment of certain of its characteristic impulses, are on the verge now of annihilating the cumulatively self-created habitat, the old, deep, rich cultural-technological humus, in which [the] human mind itself is rooted. And if it occurs, this annihilation will include the wider, deeper, older and far less regenerable life-web within which homo sapiens is a brash, conceited guest, a cancer brainlessly killing its host.

The other feature of our situation with which we must come to terms is that each human individual who fails to embrace some share of our responsibility to prevent this world-murder is thereby helping, willy-nilly, to bring it about. We are no longer free to fiddle while Rome burns -the fire has gotten too large. We are no longer free to allow our human intelligence to be blindly driven by the maddened, frightened bull with whom we are continuous, but from whom we are also different. We must use our specifically-human kind of intelligence to preserve ourselves - with as much determination as we have used it for destruction. We must force ourselves to think about the unthinkable.

What this challenge says is "Listen to your heart!" It urges each human individual to bring on a confrontation between the side of her or his inner self that accepts the death of our reality [and] embraces it; and the side that rejects, rebels against, this early death. It calls upon us to feel/think out how deeply, on balance, we do now choose nothingness over life, or vice versa. It dares us to find the part of the self that hates the world and living as a human within it; and then to bring it face to face with the rest of our self. Because there is another part of us that is willing to put up with human life's ambiguities, terrors, nauseas and humiliations, its cruelties and mortal griefs, for the sake of the astonishments and splendors and delights; for the flexible range - from cosmic to cobweb-frail - of its insights and triumphs and comforts and skills; for its hilarity and its brilliance; for its animal poetry.

The suicide and murder we toy with now, furthermore, expresses an adolescent failure of nerve at the vision of this freedom, this responsibility; an adolescent rage at our mortal interdependence with each other, whom we do not necessarily love, in the absence of parental arbitration and protection. We are toying - as adolescents often do - with an assertion of our right and power to dispose of our own existence. But our species-wide enactment of this fit of infantile-omnipotent adolescent pique toys also with wider reality - which, like adolescents, we arrogantly regard as the mere furniture or backdrop of our own existence.

If anything can break through people's present stupefaction - short of the catastrophe for which they seem, entranced and self-deceived, to be waiting - it can only be some burst of self-insight into the reasons for the trance. There would need to be some self-confrontation of human sentience with its own evasion and cowardice, its own soft spots, self-deceits and unresolved ambivalence. Our sentience would need to self-diagnose its own failure, and embrace the function for which it presumably evolved: survival.

We do not expect our species to exist forever. But it is unworthy of us - and of what, collectively, we know we can become - to die in the way we're threatening to die: blindfolded, blustering, callow, lying to each other and ourselves.

Dorothy Dinnerstein

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