A natural way to celebrate liberation in a new world was to smash up symbols of the old oppression. […] A much-venerated statue of the Virgin Mary in the Cathedral was denounced as a witch, uprooted and ducked in the river Dvina: since the wooden object floated, the evangelical revellers pronounced it guilty and burned it at Kubsberg, the customary place to punish witches.

– Diarmaid MacCulloch, The Reformation: A History (2003)


Imagine an arsonist who burns down a building, killing many of its inhabitants. When the people inside try to flee, he forces them back. Eventually, after many hours of this, he decides to help the people, both inside and outside the building, who are trying to put the fire out. Would we say of this arsonist, “Yes, he may have burned the building down and killed dozens of people, but what really matters is that he threw some water over the fire at the end?” That is akin to the argument of the apologists for empire.

– Kenan Malik, “The Great British Empire Debate”

What was astonishing to him was how people seemed to run out of their own being, run out of whatever the stuff was that made them who they were and, drained of themselves, turn into the sort of people they would once have felt sorry for. It was as though while their lives were rich and full they were secretly sick of themselves and couldn’t wait to dispose of their sanity and their health and all sense of proportion so as to get down to that other self, the true self, who was a wholly deluded fuckup.

– Philip Roth, American Pastoral (1997)

When making choices as to where to draw the boundaries around the Catholic faith, Catholics decided that laughter had been decisively tainted by the fact that it had been so popular among the gnostics. Christians of all varieties would henceforth generally treat laughter with extreme suspicion, particularly anywhere near the liturgy, but with a far wider reference than that. One Syrian word for a monk is abila, ‘mourner’. One of several Christian spiritual writers who sought to borrow respectability for their works by placing them under the name of the much-honoured fourth-century Syrian ascetic Ephrem insisted that Jesus had cried, but had never laughed; so ‘laughter is the beginning of the destruction of the soul’.

– Diarmaid MacCulloch, Silence: A Christian History (2013)

Some physiologists place the blame for misogyny and patriarchy squarely at the pedestal of male biochemistry. Homo sapiens’ extraordinarily high levels of testosterone, they point out, lie behind his domineering and sometimes cruel treatment of women. Testosterone builds muscle mass, increases strength and stamina, and fuels aggression. Men have as much as ten times more circulating testosterone than women do.

Testosterone shapes men’s attitudes toward the weak, timid, and cautious, because it makes them want to dominate those around them. This hormone weakens the bonds of attachment and love. Married men have lower levels than single men, and when a man divorces, it rises sharply. Men with high baseline levels of testosterone marry less frequently, are more likely to be abusive when they do, and are more likely to divorce. Some physiologists contend that misogyny is an insoluble problem because of this harsh biochemical fact of life.

Supporting the claim is the correlation between testosterone levels and a man’s attitude toward women. Men are the most misogynistic immediately following puberty. Generally, as men age and their testosterone levels fall, their disposition toward women improves. Some might say it is due to a man’s gaining experience; others would claim that his change of heart has more to do with his failing testicles.

– Leonard Shlain, Sex, Time, and Power: How Women’s Sexuality Shaped Human Evolution (2003)

Individual differences should be celebrated, but in the face of strong, common situational forces, individual differences shrink and are compressed. In such instances, behavioral scientists can predict what the majority of people will do knowing nothing about the particular people who comprise a group, only the nature of their behavioral context. It should be clear that not even the best psychology can predict how each and every individual will behave in a given situation; some degree of individual variance always exists that cannot be accounted for. Therefore, you may reject the lessons that we are about to learn as inapplicable to yourself; you are the special case, the special end of the tail of the normal distribution. However, know that you do so at the cost of being caught with your defenses down and your tail twisted.

– Philip Zimbardo, The Lucifer Effect: How Good People Turn Evil (2007)

SEPTIMUS: (Firmly) Back to Cleopatra.

THOMASINA: Is it Cleopatra?—I hate Cleopatra!

SEPTIMUS: You hate her? Why?

THOMASINA: Everything is turned to love with her. New love, absent love, lost love—I never knew a heroine that makes such noodles of our sex. It only needs a Roman general to drop anchor outside the window and away goes the empire like a christening mug into a pawn shop. If Queen Elizabeth had been a Ptolemy history would have been quite different—we would be admiring the pyramids of Rome and the great Sphinx of Verona.

SEPTIMUS: God save us.

THOMASINA: But instead, the Egyptian noodle made carnal embrace with the enemy who burned the great library of Alexandria without so much as a fine for all that is overdue. Oh, Septimus!—can you bear it? All the lost plays of the Athenians! Two hundred at least by Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides—thousands of poems—Aristotle’s own library brought to Egypt by the noodle’s ancestors! How can we sleep for grief?

– Tom Stoppard, Arcadia (1993)

For reasons we will probably never understand, Westerners and Easterners came up with different ways to give thanks to and get in contact with the ancestors. Some Westerners apparently thought that passing their relatives’ skulls around, filling buildings with bulls’ heads and pillars, and sacrificing people in them would do the trick; Easterners generally felt better about burying carved jade animals with their relatives, worshipping their tombs, and eventually beheading other people and throwing them in the grave too. Different strokes for different folks; but similar results.

– Ian Morris, Why the West Rules – for Now: The Patterns of History and What They Reveal about the Future (2011)

A biologist appropriately coined the word “estrus” by borrowing the Greek name for the stinging gadfly that harasses cattle. This large insect deposits its microscopic eggs under the beast’s tough hide. When the gadfly’s eggs mature into larvae, their squirming drives the host animal mad with itching. Sexual desire’s most apt metaphor is an itch that must be scratched. (The intense frictioning of human coitus is an exceedingly complicated form of scratching an itch.) The human female is the only mammalian species who we know for sure has lost estrus (or its equivalent). However, what she lost, he seems to have gained; a young male of the human species exhibits ample behavioral indicators signifying that he is in a state of full-blown “estrus” all the time.

– Leonard Shlain, Sex, Time, and Power: How Women’s Sexuality Shaped Human Evolution (2003)

Arguments about the need for national or cultural identity are often seen as being opposed to those about the need for mutual intelligibility. But this is misleading. It is perfectly possible to develop a situation in which intelligibility and identity happily co-exist. This situation is the familiar one of bilingualism – but a bilingualism where one of the languages within a speaker is the global language, providing access to the world community, and the other is a well-resourced regional language, providing access to a local community. The two functions can be seen as complementary, responding to different needs. And it is because the functions are so different that a world of linguistic diversity can in principle continue to exist in a world united by a common language.

– David Crystal, English as a Global Language (1997)