I was in my mid-thirties when it suddenly occurred to me that I didn’t believe in much of anything. My conservative, religion-based idealism in high school, having given way to a liberal politically based idealism in college, had been thoroughly squelched by my disenchantment with what I had learned through my life experiences about both “God” and politics. Convinced that my only role was to survive financially and emotionally as a single mother—and to help my child to thrive—I formulated a principle for myself. It went like this: Anyone who is absolutely sure about anything in this world has simply not given the matter, whatever it is, enough thought.
I recognized the contradiction inherent in that principle–if I were sure about it, then I hadn’t given it enough thought. So I kept thinking, and I began searching for something to believe in. I tried yoga; I tried a career; I tried education and writing and a concept of a meaningful cosmos directed by a force I would not call “God.” I would have said that all of these things were significant and worthwhile, but I would not have said that I truly “believed” in them.
Some twenty years later, somewhat paradoxically, I find myself sitting in the lobby of a hotel in Dearborn, Michigan, where I am attending for the very first time the national conference of NOW—the National Organization for Women. It’s not that I have suddenly become a feminist; I’ve always been a feminist, though there were times when, turned off by the word, I thought it was enough to be a “humanist.” Even in my jaded post-idealistic period, I remained naïve.
I’m happy to say that I’m still naïve—naïve enough to bring thirty Wayne State University students to NOW along with me. Naïve enough, too, to wonder how I came to be able to do that because, inexplicably, I have ended up in a position of power.
Not that I over-estimate the power I exert as a Director of Women’s Studies or as a professor of classical rhetoric and feminism in an English Department, itself in a science- and technology-oriented research institution. Even my least feminist, least humanist ideas have to be couched in a scientistic* language to receive significant support. That’s a language, I might add, in which I do not believe.
But I do believe in language itself, if language can be said to have selfhood. As inadequate as it is, it’s all we really have that allows any of us—feminists, scientists, humanists, or any other “-ists”—to do something in the world. While I don’t believe in absolutely everything I’m hearing at NOW, I do believe in the inherent value in its having been said. To respond to the Zen paradox, if a tree falls in the forest I’m pretty sure it does make a sound, but if nobody hears it, it doesn’t make a difference.
* From the OED, just in case:
1. Characteristic of, or having the attributes of, a scientist. (Used depreciatively). rare.
1878 T. SINCLAIR Mount 105 ‘The more the worse’, is the fearful political fact of the coming time; and it will by and bye be seen that scientistic free-trade is responsible for it. 1892 Sat. Rev. 6 Aug. 160/1 The most conscientiously scientistic of scientists.
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