The conservative side of social media has been all a-titter in reaction to an essay by Steph Yin in the New York Times, looking at the “downside” of humanity’s discovery of fire. One must almost wonder whether the deliberate strategy of the Left is to subvert parody by leaving no range of mockery more ridiculous than their reality. A short time ago, one could have won a debate by backing an opponent into a corner with no exit but to declare that mastery over fire was a politically incorrect means of oppression. Now we’re in an era of “let’s pretend” in which the game-ending question is, “What if this weren’t a ridiculous thing to say?”
To be fair, Yin’s essay is, for the most part, of the “reporting on the controversy” sort, mostly consisting of dry biological and anthropological theories, and the inducements to guffaw are mainly limited to this paragraph:
Negative cultural consequences came with fire, too — and continue to leave an imprint. Anthropologists have speculated that inhaling smoke led to the discovery of smoking. Humans have long used fire to modify their environment and burn carbon, practices that now have us in the throes of climate change. Fire is even tied to the rise of patriarchy — by allowing men to go out hunting while women stayed behind to cook by the fire, it spawned gender norms that still exist today.
One needn’t be but so well trained in dialectics to observe the essential dividing line, here. To progressives, “gender norms that still exist today” are an obvious “negative” (for reasons having essentially to do with emotion and immaturity), so anything that “spawned” them must have its dark side. In opposition, some conservatives, sure, hold to traditional gender norms unquestioningly, but in the modern context, the line to being conservative on this matter is crossed the moment one is willing to entertain the notion that traditional gender norms may not be negative, or even to ask seriously what criteria would help us to determine whether they are.
Reacting in The Federalist to the Times article, David Marcus notes that progressives’ problem is ultimately with the notion of civilization and the responsibility it brings:
The downside of discovering fire was described by the Greek poet Hesiod in the eighth century BC, in the Prometheus myth. It is similar to the downside of Eve eating the apple. Zeus would have provided everything for humanity, but after Prometheus stole fire mankind became responsible for itself. Consciousness and civilization are the downsides of discovering fire. It is meaningless to describe smoking and the creation of the patriarchy as downsides of fire because fire is a prerequisite for the concept of a downside, or consequence. …
This matter of choice versus predetermination is central to the progressive worldview. On every issue including sexual orientation, transsexuality, even drug and alcohol abuse, the virtue or fault is never in us or our choices. While the conservative or religious person sees free will with all of its challenges and tests, the progressive or atheist sees inescapable tendencies born of ancient ancestors rubbing sticks together.
Generally speaking, progressives are fine with theories that controlling fire led, over time, to the mutation of our very biology based on minute advantages that the mutations bestowed. People who gained some immunity to fire’s toxins had an advantage over those who didn’t, and so that immunity became part of our genetic code. Yet, the same progressives will refuse to entertain the possibility that sending the men out to do the hunting bestowed an advantage over sending the women, or that gender norms have evolved over millennia to give us maximal advantage.
That doesn’t mean that we should not or cannot transcend those norms where they are oppressive, but it does mean that gender norms are purposeful and not the negative that progressives proclaim. And that means there may be aspects of gender norms worth retaining.
Once we’ve crossed the bridge of that possibility (which progressives will insist puts us in the land of far-right bigotry), the discussion becomes how we determine what is worth retaining and then go about ensuring that it is retained while respecting individual freedom. Progressives cannot withstand people’s common sense assessment of these matters, so they endeavor to make the question impossible and thereby steal the victory. As I said: immaturity.
Marcus, however, is slightly off in his emphasis. The power fire brings isn’t the core of the Left’s loathing; the choice that it allows is.
I, for one, have great sympathy for one aesthetic tendency of the Left. I too have longed for the simpler times portrayed in the books I read or the shows I watch. At the same time, I’m aware that I could have that pleasant simplicity — probably with a greater degree of comfort than my ancestors — if I so chose. Unfortunately, the choice is obvious, and they don’t like it.
Given the option between returning to life ante ignem or accepting a certain amount of traditional Western culture, almost everybody (including progressives) would choose the latter. So, to perpetuate their preferred illusion, the Left would have us focus on the relatively minor discomforts of civilization rather than the existential hardship of the alternative so we can imagine that things could have turned out differently or (more to the point) that giving progressives power will enable them to fix the errors of God and man. And we’ll get to keep fire, to boot, having to give up only the freedom that originated with its use.