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Archive for the ‘feminism’ Category

To anyone who tries to observe accurately, men are clearly the privileged gender. However, this observation is likely to generate a hostile response from certain types of men, because they do not feel privileged. They have heard their right to privilege questioned, and seen their privilege somewhat diminished in the last few decades. The diminishment does not go nearly as far as it should, so far as I am concerned, but, because their privilege forms a major part of their identity, the change is resented out of all proportion to its effect. To far too many men, being male is a major part of their identity, which is particularly difficult because the traditional roles no longer work.

In the last century, traditional masculinity took two blows it has never recovered from. First, in North America and Europe, two generations were decimated several times over and warped by the loss of millions of men in the two World Wars. Some of the survivors returned home handicapped or suffering trauma, others eager to put their experiences behind them and become an economic success.

Neither of these attitudes made many of the survivors ideal role models for their children. As a result, several generations of men had to re-invent masculinity for themselves.

Lacking examples, many stalled in adolescence, which is often a time of exaggerated and over-simplified gender roles. Instead of learning responsibility for their dependents, the use of their physical strength for others, or any of the other expectations that could sometimes make the traditional masculine roles acceptable, they focused on the superficial – swearing, drinking, watching sports, and domination without responsibility.

In particular, as adolescents often do, they developed a negative identity, defining themselves primarily as not being women. A negative identity is always a shaky basis for anyone’s sense of self, but what made this identity particularly unstable was that the necessities of war time had also caused women’s roles to change as they actively helped the war efforts. The result was that the basis for many men’s identities shifted. Add the reduction of domestic work due to automation, and the liberalization of many laws, and by the 1960s, many women realized they no longer needed to depend on men.

Since male identity depended on a disappearing view of women, the change in the female gender role suddenly left many men with no sense of who they were – a problem that many men still struggle with today. Rather than adjusting to the changes, they prefer to lament them, evoking a view of traditional masculine roles that the men of the past would probably openly despise. Rather than learning from the example of feminists and starting to examine their own roles, they obsessively blamed women for destroying their sense of identity.

Those men who escaped these dead ends have done so mainly by building identities that are not based on their gender. Their senses of themselves are based on their accomplishments or sense of ethics. Rather than viewing themselves primarily as men, like feminists before them, such men have struggled to identify themselves as humans first, and to consider their biological sex as a detail only relevant in one part of their lives. Unlike the Men’s Rights Activists, they have tried to develop an adult sense of themselves, one that is self-contained and not dependent on women’s roles.

There are many advantages to this new definition of masculinity, not least of which is the possibility of actual friendships with women. However, to men who invested so much in a distortion of the past and in not being women, this new definition is unacceptable. They call men who adopt it effeminate, as though the old insult has any power over those whose identity is self-contained. The truth is, they have too much invested in their confusion and resentment to move beyond it into anything healthier.

They would rather condemn or attack, and assert their own psychosis than consider any other alternative – and, unfortunately, there is no easy way to make them re-evaluate themselves. A few learn flexibility as they realize that their wives and daughters benefit from feminism, but for the most part, they continue the confusion and the hurt by passing their perceptions on to other generations, condemning their own sons to a distorted and corrupt perception of themselves, ensuring that their self-inflicted misery will continue.

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“Mansplaining” is the portmanteau word coined by feminists for men’s tendency to lecture women – at length, on the obvious, and even on subjects on which the woman is an expert. Ever since I was alerted to mansplaining, I have noticed it several times a day, and it never fails to make me wince.

For one thing, mansplaining is an embarrassment, like an elderly relative who makes loud racist comments at a family dinner. Worse, it is an embarrassment that I am rarely in a position to divert or shut down. When I try, either I am labeled rude for interrupting, or the intervention flounders with my attempt to explain what is offensive, and ends up with me taking the blame for disturbing a social gathering.

Instead, I am left feeling the discomfort that the mansplaining man ought to feel for himself, but never does. The man goes on and on in a hectoring tone of voice, as often as not getting the facts wrong, impervious to interruption, and all the while leaning closer and closer to his victim, apparently under the impression that he has become endless fascinating to her.

Meanwhile, the woman tries to stay polite, interjecting a few vague words or a polite laugh that the man mistakes for interest. She is rarely able to turn the monologue into a discussion, because the man does not detect anything except the fact that he has audience. He never dreams that she has mostly tuned him out, because, in his world view, the main reason for her current existence is to make him feel important or charming – and, for the most part, cultural conventions back him up. And, just like when I try to intervene, any other response from her puts her in the wrong socially instead of him.

All this is so wrong on so many levels, that I am torn between moving out of earshot and leaning closer, morbidly fascinated that anyone could be so crass and unobservant as the mansplainer.

Yet that is not all that bothers me. I am what some people call a high verbal, and for many years I was a university instructor. Regardless of whether I am talking to a man or a woman, my interest in a discussion frequently causes me to interrupt as I become excited by an idea that has struck me, and I have to apologize frequently and back down to avoid monopolizing the conversation. This behavior is not helped by the fact that, as an instructor, I actually was the expert (at least most of the time), and partly paid for lecturing, although I usually tried to turn the lecture into a discussion after I conveyed a few basic facts.

Consequently, whenever I see a demonstration of mansplaining, I am apt to review my recent conversations, and wonder if I have been guilty of the same behavior that I am privately denouncing. Given the social norms between men and women, mansplaining can be appalling easy to commit, even when, intellectually, I am determined to avoid it.

Sometimes, I go so far as to ask a woman I am having a one-on-one conversation with if I am talking too much. However, that is not much help, because her social role is to reassure me, and even the most activist woman can sometimes fall into it. Although I am pleased when a woman tells me that I haven’t been dominating the conversation, or that I am a man who knows how to talk to women, I can never be sure she is not offering me a bit of conventional politeness, woman to man. In the end, I am left to my own self-observations. The result is that the mansplaining is not only boring a nearby woman (or sometimes women), but also leaving me full of self-doubt and self-accusation.

I grew to understand what mansplaining feels like to a woman when I published a book. The reviews were mostly upbeat, and the criticisms minor, but a few reviewers insisted on explaining why I should have done one thing or another. Had they asked, I could have told them I had considered their ideas months ago, and discarded them for well-founded reasons – but of course they never did ask. They simply expressed their opinions, and, like a mansplainer’s victim, I could say nothing without sounding ungracious myself. However, I did start wondering why there were not more instances of women lunging across restaurant tables, intent on mayhem with the cutlery, and I became more determined than ever not to be a mansplainer myself.

To me, a mansplainer is a Jungian Shadow, an embodiment of things I do not want to be or even have around me. Consequently, whenever I encounter one, I cannot help but react with distaste and self-doubt, hoping against hope that the situation will soon be over. Unfortunately, though, it almost never is.

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Today is Ada Lovelace Day, which honors the first computer programmer. The custom is to observe the day by writing about women you admire in the sciences or computing. This year, I have chosen to mention Cordelia Fine, whose book Delusions of Gender gave me a coherent argument for what I have always believed – that, contrary to the prevailing outlook the brains of men and women are largely the same.

I can’t remember a time I didn’t have this belief, but it received strong confirmation when I taught at university and dealt with several thousand students. However, it was Fine’s book that gave me the evidence and reasoned argument and turned the belief into an even deeper conviction.

To say the least, this conviction is a minority viewpoint. Modern alleged science is full of poorly designed research, and unsupported speculations about the differences between the sexes – to say nothing of Just So stories about pre-historic humans that are supposed to have implications for life today in the suburbs. All this mix is reported uncritically in the media to reinforce common stereotypes. Much of my pleasure in Delusions of Gender is Fine’s obvious delight in debunking such things with a combination of dry wit and thorough analysis, proving that most of the conclusions promoted by people like Simon Baron-Cohen (who actually reviewed the book), Leonard Sax, and John Gray are based on flawed experiments and is little more than a rationalization of conventional sexism – a logical fallacy based on an appeal to biological authority, although Fine never actually uses the term.

In particular, Fine discusses how differences in the organization of men’s and women’s brains are used as evidence that stereotypes about mental capacities. Her dissection is lengthy, but her basic point is simple: how does anyone know that the physical differences translate into behavioral differences and limitations? There is no mechanism for this translation – it is simply assumed. Yet, by contrast, when people are brain-damaged, and one part of the brain takes over the functions of another, nobody automatically assumes a similar translation. In the end, Fine condemns such views as the modern descendant of discredited views such as phrenology and cranial capacity as determinants of behavior. She calls this assumption “neuro-sexism.”

Fine also provides the answer I had been waiting for to those well-meaning parents who insist that gender must be biological, because their children are showing stereotypical behavior. Fine’s answer is that the reinforcement of stereotypes is unconscious, even among those who try to avoid them. In fact, stereotyping is so prevalent that expectant parents who learn the sex of their offspring before birth immediately start referring to him or her in traditional masculine and feminine ways. Under these circumstances, a biological explanation is unwarranted – it simply fits into people’s conventional ways of thinking.

Currently, the biological determinists prevail in our cultural, along with their sub-text that there is not much we can do about gender differences. By contrast, Fine makes the case for environmental differences, which means that change is possible. The first time I read Delusions of Grandeur, my reaction could be summarized as, “Finally!” and I continue to regard Fine as a voice of sanity. and scientific reasoning.

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Marriage is viewed uncomfortably by many feminists. For years, women placed themselves at a significant disadvantage when they married, and, even now, marrying means a constant battle against traditional assumptions. In fact, many would question if a feminist marriage – a marriage that attempts to practice gender equality, legal or common law – is even a possibility between a man and a woman.

I happen to be in a position to say that it is possible. One of the proudest boasts is that I practiced feminist marriage for thirty years, and with considerable success.

In fact, if my partner Trish had not died unexpectedly young, I would still be married today.

Much of my pride in the accomplishment I shared with Trish is that feminist marriage was hard work. No sooner had we married than people started treating us differently. Suddenly, we were much more acceptable to each other’s families. Friends who had known us for years assumed we would immediately settle down to having a family, and filling traditional roles.

Fortunately, neither of us was conventional enough to be heavily influenced by such expectations, but, all the same, resisting them often took more energy than we expected – although we did enjoy confounding those expectations whenever possibly. At times, we even took a gleeful satisfaction in educating people by going against those stereotypes.

For many couples who want to practice feminist marriage, division of domestic labor is the largest problem. Notoriously, many men cannot get in the habit of doing their share. For us, however, this was never much of a problem.

For one thing, my mother returned to work when I was late elementary school, so I was more prepared to take on my share of responsibilities than most men.

More importantly, by consulting our preferences and the patterns of our lives, we soon talked out any difference. I was a student when we married, and for much of our life together I worked freelance. Usually, I was home long before Trish, and, since I like cooking, having me in charge of meals was only sensible, especially if we were going to eat before eight or nine o’clock. Similarly, Trish did the driving, so maintaining the car fell largely to her. The tasks neither of us cared to do, we compromised on – for instance, Trish turned out to dislike doing the dishes less than I did, while I tolerated vacuuming better than she did. A few tasks, like doing the laundry, fell to whoever happened to need it done at a given moment.

We never found such decisions difficult, because both of us from the start had a commitment to living up to our ideals of a partnership. Part of that ideal was to talk about everything as frankly as possible, even what seemed obvious, just in case what seemed obvious to one of us was not obvious to the other. Early on, we each agreed as well that displays of temper were inappropriate toward the major person in our lives. As a result, we rarely argued – not because we never disagreed, but because we were committed to finding a civilized solution. Also, by the time we reached the point where we might have argued, we generally had long ago agreed how we would handle it.

Still, others’ assumptions were always there. When someone would note that our division of labor was non-traditional, we took to paraphrasing Lloyd Alexander, noting that while some work was called women’s and some was called men’s, the work itself never cared who did it. What mattered was that the work got done. Most of the time, the comment ended the discussion.

Of course, the expectations annoyed us. However, unlike modern feminists, who are fond of saying that their role is not to educate, we did take it upon ourselves to teach – or at least confound – whenever possible. When we were at a restaurant and the waiter handed me a sample of the wine, I would pass it to Trish to taste as well, and we would both discuss it before we both nodded acceptance. At the end of the meal, Trish would pay (not that it mattered, since the money came from the same credit union account). Sometimes, we would make a great Three Musketeers-like display of Trish holding the door for me, or presenting me with flowers on my birthday. These lessons might have been spoiled by the fact that both of us would end up giggling, but, we would quote Utah Phillips and say that people had to learn these things somewhere, and giggle more.

Once, we were sitting in the university pub, and I expressed the opinion that children probably benefited from having a parent at home. A woman who had come late to the conversation immediately accused me of sexism – then, with what I can only call a smile of vicious delight, instead of siding with her, Trish pointed out that I had stated earlier than I was expecting to arrange my life so that half the time I was the parent at home. As things happened, we never brought a pregnancy to term, but I did arrange my working life so that I could have been a hands-on parent.

Breaking these expectations was a way to get some of our own back on those who wanted us to act traditionally. Instead of exploding in anger or exasperation, we gave them a teachable moment (and ourselves a moment of amusement).

Our marriage was not a matter of us against the world. However, it had something of that flavor. You might say more accurately that it was our beliefs against the world’s, and that we were allies in a shared cause.

Yet, however our marriage is described, its success was undeniable. People meeting us after we had been together for twenty five years thought we were a new couple after seeing us together in public. At Trish’s memorial service, several speakers mentioned the strength of our marriage, and I took some comfort in hearing that several nieces considered us an example for them to live up to. So if you accuse me of filtering memories through nostalgia and grief, you are wrong.

What I have described was real enough, if rare, and we both realized how lucky we were to have it. Except we knew that luck had little to do with it. It was hard work and ideals that was responsible. To me, there is no question whatsoever: marriage in defiance of convention made me a better feminist, and what we built is one of the accomplishments of my life.

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Although I am committed to feminism, some of its advocates grab hold of strange ideas. For example, in their rejection of body-shaming, some praise acceptance of being overweight, ignoring the fact that it is unhealthy (although evidently, less so than anorexia). Not too long ago, you could also find those who, with no definite evidence, believed in the existence of a prehistoric matriarchy. More recently, some claim that the taking of selfies strengthen women’s self-confidence, and to object to selfies for any reason is a sign of secret hatred for women. By contrast, I would argue that selfies encourages women in traditional stereotypes, urging them to promote self-esteem instead of grounding them in self-confidence.

Erin Tatum gives a typical argument in favor of selfies. According to her “Selfies and Misogyny: The Importance of Selfies as Self-Love,” selfies matter because women take them for no justification except their own enjoyment. Instead of acting out what the fashion industry or the men in their lives tells them to – and usually feeling inadequate — selfies are a way for women to appreciate themselves and each other. Far from being narcissistic, selfies “provide girls with the means to create their own positive image of themselves, thereby severely diluting the impact of outside opinion. If your confidence comes from within, you can’t be controlled as easily.”

An obvious flaw of this argument is that, despite jokes about young women making duck faces in selfies, selfies are not particularly associated with women. For instance, when The Oatmeal discussed selfies, the one taking them was a man, and the one objecting to them is a woman . Under this circumstance, I have trouble seeing criticisms of selfies being a displaced attack on women.

Just as importantly, when Tatum and other defenders assert that selfies are not narcissistic, their words sound narcissistic. According to Tatum, for example, selfies are about self-love (which I presume is an accidental double-entendre, since it goes against what she says), they are “all about you;” and she ends by urging women to “embrace yourself with your selfie.” Even as Tatum argues, her choice of words creates the impression that selfies really are everything she claims they are not.

Even more obviously, although Tatum asserts that selfies are a way to break away from the demands of the fashion industry, I would argue that they are nothing more than an internalization of female stereotypes. Like a model on a runway, or a fashion spread in the paper, the message of selfies is that what is real about women is their exterior. When Tatum says that taking selfies is like playing dress-up, she unconsciously expresses exactly what makes me uneasy about selfies: they are infantalization of women, a reduction of them to their exteriors. In other words, their message is precisely that of consumerism, internalized, but no less dismissive of innate self-worth.

True, selfies might be considered an improvement in that they are not primarily about the male gaze. However, a lot of selfies are taken for men or end up in men’s hands, and are commented on by men on social media. Everything considered, selfies seem more of the same in the lightest of disguises.

When Tatum suggests that girls or women with low self-esteem can feel better about themselves by taking a selfie, she encourages exactly the same superficiality she denounces. “Selfies challenge the idea that you need a justification to be seen,” she writes in bold face, that what matters is feeling good about yourself – and not what you have actually done. By posting your selfies, you are claiming a part of other people’s time solely on the basis that you are you — and what could shallower than that?

This is the message that women have always been given, and it makes the enjoyment of selfies the precise opposite of the confidence that creates a self-actualized person. Instead of grounding women in accomplishment and maturity, selfies offer a foundation that is fragile because it is exterior to them, and easily shattered by an outside opinion.

If I have misgivings about selfies, it is not because I secretly hate women, but because I want better for them than more of the same. I believe women’s rights need to be based on an internalized confidence, an understanding of themselves – and that is something no selfie can ever hope to offer.

I admit that I do not usually think of selfies this way. In fact, usually I do not think of them at all. When I do, I lump them in with activities like watching sports or becoming involved with media fandom as silly but essentially harmless activities that people use to pass the time. But when people start claiming that selfies promote feminism, I start thinking that they are seriously under-estimating the persistence of the stereotypes of women, and how easily they adapt to the latest fads.

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Susan Faludi is famous for Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women, a detailed description of the hostile reaction to feminism during the 1980s. She is less well-known for Stiffed: The Betrayal of American Men,  her equally in-depth description of male gender roles in the mid-1990s. The reason for this discrepancy? She wrote Backlash as a mainstream feminist for whom the existence of male privilege was an unexamined given. By contrast, by the time she finished writing Stiffed she was an unorthodox feminist critical of the conventional view of male privilege.

In modern feminism,  male privilege is a major explanatory principle. Just as you might explain why objects fall to the ground by invoking gravity, so many feminists evoke male privilege for an explanation of almost anything that men do. For example, a man who makes a sexist remark is demonstrating their position of power over women. So is a catcaller or a rapist. In all these cases, evoking male privilege is all the explanation that is needed. There is no need to go deeper in male psychology, because referring to male privilege says all that is believed necessary.

By contrast, while researching and writing Stiffed, Faludi concluded from her observation that male privilege was only a partial explanation. As she interviewed men across the United States – particularly working class men – she noticed that, far from feeling powerful, many men had been feeling a lack of power since the end of World War Two, and lacked positive role models. Their sole exercise of privilege was their assumption that they could take out their uncertainty and frustration on women, whom they often blamed for their feeling of being trapped.

Faludi’s conclusions have distinct advantages over the conventional analysis of male privilege. For one thing, they are based on observation, not theory, so they carry more conviction. For another, they cast men as fellow victims of gender roles, a view that tends to break down the view of men as Other.

However, the most important aspect of Faludi’s conclusions is that, because they go deeper into the causes of sexism and misogyny, they suggest more productive ways of handling these behaviors.
This advantage became clear to me the other day at a Psychology Dinner meetup on the subject of modern feminism. A woman described how a young man, probably at a night club for the first time, was groping every woman he could reach, including her.

A conventional response would be to shout at him, or call for a bouncer; he was a man with an assumption of privilege. However, while such a response would get him to stop his immediate behavior, it would leave him resentful and more likely to continue his unacceptable behavior in a gesture of defiance.

However, instead of just shouting at him  – although she did that, too – the woman took him aside. Assuming his behavior was due to immaturity, she took it on herself to explain why it was unacceptable. She never saw him again, so she never knew how he responded in the long term, but, by seeing him as human and inexperienced rather that an exerciser of privilege, she at least open the way for him to learn something and modify his behavior. The woman had never read Faludi, but her assessment of the situation was very much like what she might have had if Faludi had inspired her.

Yet despite these advantages, Faludi’s perspective has been rejected and generally dismissed in many feminist circles. It is unorthodox, and it denies the self-righteousness and sense of superiority that evoking male privilege encourages. It is also more humane,  and therefore more difficult to maintain.

In a word, Faludi’s view is too new. It requires a rethinking that many feminists are reluctant to undertake. Instead, they reject it as being soft on sexism and misogyny, and stop thinking of it. Praising Faludi and accepting “backlash” into their vocabulary is one thing when her analysis is conventional, but being asked to critique their core analytical tools is another thing altogether, and completely unacceptable, regardless of the evidence.

Faludi’s response to this reception is that there are many types of feminism, and that questioning orthodoxy does not make her less of a feminist. But to me, the painful part is that mainstream feminism has rejected insights that might have deepened its members’ understanding, and made their analyses of society more detailed and effective. Faludi has been an important influence on my thinking about feminism,  and I regret that her second book was not as welcome as her first one among those who could make best use of her insights.

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When I was researching my master’s thesis, I became a Jungian. I didn’t plan to. But my subject was influenced by Jung, so I eventually read the complete works of Carl Jung. Often, I wondered if reading Jung in translation was any easier than reading him in German would be, but the experience left a major mark upon my thinking, especially about gender roles.

I must say that, as a person with artistic aspirations, I found Jung more sympathetic that I ever did Freud. Freud and his disciples usually make very clear that they are the experts, and that they know more about your unconscious than you do. By contrast, Jung considered artists as experts in symbolism, sometimes even as people he could learn from, and his respect made me more inclined to consider his perspectives.

Before long, the idea that people think and act largely in terms of symbols began to make sense to me. I questioned if all the archetypes were universal – although some, like the Mother and the Father probably were, but modern, often feminist, schools of Jungian thought included the possibility that some might be cultural, which made sense to me.

Either way, Jungian thought seemed to do more to map the unconscious than psychoanalysis ever did. The idea that symbols were how the unconscious expressed itself explains why rational argument so rarely changes anybody’s mind – there’s a basic translation problem between the conscious mind’s use of language, and the unconscious mind’s use of symbolism. Moreover, the idea that people project their unconscious symbols on to those around them helps to explain why misunderstanding is so commonplace – much of the time, people are reading from different scripts.

This model has been especially useful for me in understanding gender relations. For example, Jung suggested that one of the most influential archetypes for a man is the Anima, or the female version of himself. As much for symmetry as any other reason, he suggested that a woman is motivated by a similar archetype called the Animus, which is the male version of herself.

The Animus seems so much an after-thought in Jung’s writing that a widespread debate, especially among female Jungians, is whether the archetype exists. Realizing that men tend to define themselves in terms of not being a woman – in fact, to treat women as the archetype of the Shadow – I had no trouble in concluding that the Anima exists.

But the Animus? The evidence for that archetype seems much weaker. Some women go into mental contortions, even enduring abuse, to make themselves over in the image that men want, but – to many men’s intense dislike – women as a whole do not seem to define themselves as being the opposite of men. Men need women to tell them who they are, but women do not seem to need men to the same degree or in the same way.

For me, this difference explains the difficulty that many men have in accepting feminism. Because their identify depends on women’s roles, any change in women’s roles means that men’s own identity is under-mined. Already inclined to see women’s roles as mysterious and even sinister, they move easily to seeing any change as a threat – something that the Shadow is never far from being at the best of time.

To avoid this reaction, a man needs to reject the Anima and Shadow as an influence on his thinking. But the two archetypes are such a fundamental part of male thinking that rejection is difficult, and often impossible.

This reaction is one that most feminist theory seems to have largely overlooked. What Jungian theory suggests to me is that male hostility to feminism is generally not about the threat of a loss of privilege or power. Rather, it is about a loss of identity, about no longer having models to tell men who they are (or, to be more accurate, who they are not).

By contrast, women may not approach changes in gender roles easily. If nothing else, habit remains a strong motivation. But traditional gender roles have less to offer modern women than they do men, because less of their identity is based on not being men. Women may feel unsettled when they try to move beyond tradition, but the average woman is far less likely than men to feel that their entire sense of identity is being destroyed in the process.

What makes the situation all the harder is that, because the problems are played out symbolically, men are frequently unable to express what has happened. They may become angry, depressed, or abusive, but these reactions in themselves only indicate that something is wrong – and not what the exact problem is. At best, the number of men – or women – who understand their symbolic life is always going to be very few.

Jung is not the only way to this perception. In Stiffed!, Susan Faludi comes to a similar analysis simply by hearing the same problems over and over from the men she interviews. But my guide was Jung, and he remains – mistakes and all – one of the foundations of my thinking.

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