My Body in the Culture Wars

Susanna and the Elders by Rembrandt ca. 1650.

Hegel would say that culture wars occur where there are opposing claims to define the culture – have the final say, the last word – decide what determines “the absolute” for that culture. Depending on where you find yourself on such battlefields, you’ll regard your body’s possibilities differently.

Suppose, for example, you found yourself in a verbal combat with Donald Trump. Imagining yourself to be in an ordinary debate, you might hope to catch Trump asserting and denying the same thing (contradicting himself) or overlooking some fact that would refute one of his sweeping generalizations. Meanwhile, while you were thinking of moves in a normal argument, he would be ridiculing your height, your energy level, or – if you’re a woman – the chance that you’d be menstruating or not sufficiently attractive to be worth raping.

Anyone old enough to be reading this column has been carefully taught not to speak that way to anyone! If my inner child ever said such insulting words – even silently – she sure is out of practice by now.

It’s not that one’s frozen stupefaction can’t thaw in time to find some riposte. It’s that, to do so effectively, one must first realize that 

this combat isn’t verbal.

To begin with, try to intuit what any animal would sense instantly: where is my body? where is his body? what does my body know about the space he is filling? where are the holes in that space? what is the filled-in part of the space-of-his-body doing? suggesting? or about to do? Don’t cringe. Don’t cower. Don’t freeze. If you do, he’ll think he won. And he’ll be right.

Let’s move along to a higher level and a different kind of confrontation. Today I read an article titled “Vulnerability in America” by Jennie Lightweis-Goff. In the opening sentence, the writer informs her readers that her yoga teacher beheaded his girlfriend. I’ll omit the additional details. Most of the essay goes on to discuss how such crimes get rated from the point of view of the publicity and public interest that they draw. White victims score higher than victims of color, while black on black crimes get the lowest attention scores. When that phenomenon first came to light, it drew disapproval from the very media that was in the business of generating high viewer scores. The writer speculates that another factor likely augments media attention and viewer interest: public depravity. She also supposes that the publicity afforded such crimes has served to discourage women from asserting their recently-won legal rights to participate in the life — work and recreation — of society.

Along the way, we learn that the writer has had relationships with men that included some element of risk. At the end of the essay, we learn that the writer now teaches in a prison and cycles alone at night. Are you thinking what I’m thinking?  

The lesson I draw from this hodge podge of an essay is that, as W. B. Yeats says, 

The best lack all conviction, while the worst 

Are full of passionate intensity.

What convictions do I find lacking in “Vulnerability in America”? First, the conviction that murder is evil. It’s a point she raises only to disavow the term “evil.” Contra Lightweis-Goff, the act of murder is not “structural.” It’s not traceable to an indefinitely long chain of causes. It ought not to be done. The heart of the murderer ought to prohibit the murder. In the case that opens her essay, there are compounding factors that aggravate the evil. First, he murdered a woman who was close to him, which betrayed her trust and their intimacy. Second, the skill of a yoga teacher involves harmonizing the relations between mind and body. This murderer betrayed what appears to have been the very calling of his life. To fail to underscore these points and instead lead us through a phenomenology of depravity with pretend neutrality is to confuse the reader.  

The body language of confusion invites predators.

A book I just finished reading, While Time Remains by Yeonmi Park deals with other pitfalls on the champ de bataille of the culture wars. The author escaped from North Korea, which suffers under what is surely one of the worst regimes on our planet. She made her way through perils and brutal degradations almost beyond telling (though the journey is described in her previous book), and now lives as an American citizen. Her English is impeccable, her intelligence not easily befuddled and she strikes me as unusually observant and capable. She sees the country with fresh eyes and this makes her an interesting guide.   

She gets to the point of enrolling in Columbia College as a freshman, where she will take the required courses of the college’s core liberal arts program. “In the four years I ended up spending at Columbia, professors in the humanities frequently challenged us to demonstrate how woke we were. … Worse than a bad grade was to be labeled by one’s classmates a ‘SIX HIRB’: a sexist, intolerant xenophobic, homophobic, Islamophobic, racist bigot.” To say the least, this was disappointing, since she’d already spent her early years in North Korean classrooms showing how facilely she could echo the propaganda of her teachers in that tyrannical regime. To have to respond to analogous pressures here was as morally painful to endure as it was mentally easy to do.

(Though no comparable political pressures were applied in my grad school days at Columbia, I do remember taking Grad Record Exams in philosophy – either while or just before I enrolled there – and passing them with grades so high they were off-the-chart. How did I do that? Easy. The answers to the questions were multiple choice and they all looked wrong to me. I checked the front cover to see who wrote the exams in philosophy. Recognizing the names and the philosophical preferences attached to those names, I gave only the wrong answers preferred by those professors.) 

What do you want me to have done? Give the wrong answers they didn’t prefer? Get up and walk out?

Back to our remaining question: what is going on, body-wise and mind-wise, when a dissenter draws the notice of a mob? Well, it’s very much harder to disarm a hostile crowd than to do that with a single individual who refuses to argue fairly. Though I’ve seen it described and even watched it on video – brought about on a small scale by individuals who were visibly fearless – in most cases it’s not like confronting a single adversary with a body that belongs to him alone, which might be scanned. It’s not one girl looking at a few hornets. It’s a swarm.  

Here’s what I think: you keep your head down and just keep on keeping on. But for God’s sake — and above all —


About Abigail

Abigail Rosenthal is Professor Emerita of Philosophy, Brooklyn College of CUNY. She is the author of A Good Look at Evil, a Pulitzer Prize nominee, now available in an expanded, revised second edition and as an audiobook. Its thesis is that good people try to live out their stories while evil people aim to mess up good people’s stories. Her next book, Confessions of a Young Philosopher, forthcoming and illustrated, provides multiple illustrations from her own life. She writes a weekly column for her blog, “Dear Abbie: The Non-Advice Column” ( where she explains why women's lives are highly interesting. She’s the editor of the posthumously published Consolations of Philosophy: Hobbes’s Secret; Spinoza’s Way by her father, Henry M. Rosenthal. Some of her articles can be accessed at . She is married to Jerry L. Martin, also a philosopher. They live in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.
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