Listen, My Children...

Every Little Helps

Thursday, May 15, 2003

On Role Models

The esteemed Mr. Volokh writes:
while I'm not an expert on the psychological research surrounding this subject, my sense is that it's not inherently that hard for people to find role models who differ from them in race or sex. People are capable of being inspired by people who lived centuries before them, who spoke a completely different language, had a completely different ethnicity, and lived a completely different sort of life.

I'd second that. My mentor at Harvard is female, true, but is from a different continent, speaks a different native language, and has quite a different skin color. The Sanskritist I base my academic goals on and take inspiration from, in the way a young chemist would look to an older one for inspiration, is a man with entirely different political philosophy and life history. The Sanskritist I dream of working with is a male Sinhalese. There simply are very few female Sanskritists who are any good. It doesn't bother me that I have few females to look up to; in my opinion, your sex has no bearing on how you translate things.

Ethnicity seems to have some bearing -- one can, I hear, translate things in a very "Indian" way. (Don't ask me what it is; but I do assure you it won't sound like Salman Rushdie. And I assume it's not like the "translations" of Dayananda Sarasvati, who had Krishna travel to America in an electric boat.) But it's not impossible for someone who's not brown to write in any writing style; and it's certainly quite possible and frequent for brown people to translate in and approach the language from the preferred style of the west.

Christians for centuries have been urged to look to the historical figure of Jesus as an example of how to live. All modern Christians are temporally removed from him; nearly all are spacially and ethnically removed from him; pretty much all are linguistically removed; and half are not male. So what? Language can be learnt or translated; time appears not to be a problem, nor space, nor culture, as cultural references can be explained; skin color has been entirely done away with, with every race depicting Jesus as looking just like them; and the "women's bibles" that try to point out women to look up to don't sell very well. We don't seem having too much trouble drawing inspiration from stories of the life and teachings of Jesus. (We have trouble actually having the resolution to live by such an example, obviously; but we don't have too much trouble knowing basically how we had ought to live.)

But what of Mary? Women are the only people who can be mothers, so Catholics and High Church Episcopalians such as myself have embellished the story of Mary into a near-cult in order to have a model of the most godlike female life. Isn't that proof that you need role models of both sexes? Well, yes, but only if the men and women in whatever field role models are being put have necessarily different roles. Men and women scientists have, as far as I know, no necessary practical differences in their work. Men and women sociologists must conduct field research quite differently from each other in countries with strictly defined male and female spheres, so having a guide of one's own sex to look up to is quite helpful. Same thing with porn stars, I'm sure.

So, if men and women cannot do the same job, or if people of different races cannot do the same job, then different role models would be very useful for young people looking into said jobs. In literature, science, music, mathematics, construction work, or anything else where your race and sex has no bearing on what kind of work you are able to produce, I don't feel that you need a separate role model for each variety of person who might be interested.


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