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16 April, 2012

Educating Myself: Part 1001

Harry's eyes were very serious. "Hermione, you've told me a lot of times that I look down too much on other people. But if I expected too much of them - if I expected people to get things right - I really would hate them, then. Idealism aside, Hogwarts students don't actually know enough cognitive science to take responsibility for how their own minds work. It's not their fault they're crazy."
- Eliezer Yudkowsky, Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality

I have work that I'm avoiding, so in the meanwhile, here are two reminders of why I insist that, when it comes to human-caused atrocities, focusing on the people who dirtied their hands in person is insufficient. It's not enough to get up in arms about a given problem; if the goal is lasting improvement and the prevention of future problems, then systemic change will be necessary.

Much of the world's human rights abuses appear to be economically motivated, and North American consumers (e.g. me) are a major source of economic leverage. Collectively, everyone using basic goods and services, like grocery stores and gasoline, constitutes a driving force behind murders, behind torture. Today's reminders include corporate manifestations of colonialism and, in an article that I bumped into following up on the first, Chiquita's interactions with oil politics. I found both of these while detail-checking an article on Tiger Beatdown. Remember, it's not simply the case that a corporation -- such as Chiquita, formerly United Fruit -- is a monolithic, inhuman entity. Nor is it the case that the individuals comprising that corporation are monsters. Rather, we all live within a context that enables monstrous acts. That includes not only the people holding the guns, not only the wealthy people funding them, and not only the consumers making violence profitable, but those populations in interaction with our cognitive flaws and our social and economic pressures. [I find it impossible to write about one thing because all things are intertwined.]

I know it's disheartening to think of ourselves as our enemies, and it's not all our fault: the choice to harm another is always on the shoulders of the individual who made that choice. We who enable and motivate such choices, however, share that responsibility. That said, the information we need to make ethical choices is often obscured from us, and it's difficult to participate in this society without making choices every day that contribute to suffering at home and abroad. [Thus the HPMOR epigram.] But, if you feel disheartened, remember that sharing information and supporting organizations that are already working on these problems can help offset our less positive contributions.

U.S. imperialism is a real thing, but the fact that it's often carried out by economic interests rather than by governments as governments can obscure its existence. Remember, imperialism via commerce is an old story -- the East India Company had some nominal backing from the crown but might as well have been an empire in its own right. The heyday of the United Fruit company was mere decades ago, and it's a mistake to imagine that the phenomenon has ended. In the information age, companies have adapted to make their abuses invisible or to pawn them off onto third parties. With some companies, it's anyone's guess whether their owners and employees even know the extent of the devil's bargains they've made. Responding to apparent abuses is complicated, too: what workers in one place need may not be the same as workers in another.

A libertarian professor of mine stared at me as if I had two heads when I suggested that private companies are replacing governments as the locus of constraints on human freedoms, and I always remember that disbelief when I discuss corporate power. When I write on economics or politics, his mind provides the standard of proof to which I aspire. He might acknowledge a similar problem, though, under the name "crony capitalism" -- politicians working closely with companies to funnel money in the direction of their supporters, who then fund campaigns in turn.

In such a situation, surely it's inappropriate to discuss governments as being the site of power. Rather, because the capital itself is the means by which one engages with a high-profile election campaign, the means by which one acquires capital is the site of power. The government is merely the end result of that process: in the U.S., one does live in a republic, but only the most visible candidates stand a chance, and visibility is dependent on (among other factors) the capital that a candidate's supporters are able to throw being their initial advertising campaigns. One can also learn about individual politicians through news media, but because those are also corporate endeavors with a scant few owners, advertisement through the press amounts to a specific instance of the same phenomenon. The ultimate site of state power is therefore neither with voters nor with the structures of government but with the means that individuals use to acquire government positions: the money itself. It's not that corporations buy elections; it's that, without money, no-one knows your campaign exists in the first place. [Internet literacy may be one effective countermeasure, but only for people with the free time and ability to do research.]

Of course, money begets money, and too-great disparities in income inequality are not only self-perpetuating but also an upstream factor in an appallingly large number of problems. I've just discussed one: that, in an economy where it's possible for a handful of people to control amounts of capital astronomically greater than the population's median income, representative government gradually becomes a sham. Many people have studied the health consequences of neoliberal economics. Among the worst longterm problems, though -- I've said it before -- is education. Low-income families have trouble educating their children, especially in areas of great population density (a contextual factor that's easy for this forest-raised fellow to forget), which creates a cascade of disadvantages that hamper the ability of these young people to develop themselves and transcend the conditions in which they were born. Again, much of this comes back to information management. In population pimples, much as in the case of governments attempting to manage overlarge constituencies, it's increasingly difficult to keep track of mere reality: where money is going, who has done what, how accurate a given claim might be.

People are not born knowing how to navigate this world. Not only literacy and numeracy but also responsibility, rationality, and a motivation to think and act for oneself are essential skills if we hope to equip citizens to improve such a world. Given that children are in many respects the fundamental oppressed underclass, as anyone who's read a couple of Roald Dahl novels can attest,1 young people typically don't have the power (or perspective) necessary to secure proper educations for themselves. Fast forward to adulthood, and anyone who's working overtime just to put food on the table has proportionally less time not only to educate themselves but also to do the work necessary to be heard in this noisy world. Many people whose parents were poor are thus short-changed for life, and the existence of occasional rags-to-riches stories can't outweigh the story told by the numbers.2 They and we miss out on whatever they might have accomplished; if what I've said is true, it's an obvious consequence that, if a person's childhood funnels them into less than complete self-development, their children will also be in a bad starting position, and so the aggregate multigenerational consequences of severe income disparities in the absence of powerful uplifting education are ... well, H.G. Wells might have some things to say. I think it's valid to claim that, without high-quality universal education, autonomy and self-determination will slip out of view for disproportionate numbers of certain classes.

It's never just one thing, is it? No wonder I can't decide what job I should pursue: there's no one job that will let me fix all of this bullshit. Right, I was going to take Yudkowsky's implicit advice and work on that God complex. Oops. Too many fantasy novels, I guess.

Ok, I've punched the clock at work and here today. I have anime to watch. See you later.

1: I trust you'll apply contextual awareness; e.g., there are differences between a Matilda Wormwood and a Veruca Salt.

2: Sources for empirical information about income inequality and intergenerational social mobility include: Solon, 1992; Bowles, Gintis & Groves, 2005; Andrews & Leigh, 2009; but they're all necessarily out of date. By the time we have data on this generation, it'll be too late for anyone but a time traveler to act on it.

14 April, 2012

I've been trying to figure out, lately, how the hell to deal with education given the absurd complexity of the contexts from which my students hail and in which I find myself as an educator within a specific institution. Here's an educator talking about the fact that the width of social and financial disparities in a given society has a direct influence on (among other things) educational outcomes. He also goes on to discuss the scientific problem of studying human endeavors in a world of complexity and uncertainty -- the difficulty of working to be less wrong, in as many words -- and how difficult it can be to make predictions about what will be effective in education, including the false idol of standardized testing (a version of the concept/instrument distinction that I've spent a term discussing with students,1 with additional complexity from the human -- economic, political, personal -- problem that people fudge data to protect their own interests), "Because they had to make the number, not do the job right."

2011 Dec YEM - David Berliner, PhD, internationally-respected educational psychologist from SFU Education on Vimeo.

Education is a tricky subject. On the one hand, it's important to have some top-down influence: for one example that'll let me pretend there's a reason I'm posting this video to this particular blog, we need to prepare people to live in a world of difference, and if we give local school boards complete control, they'll perpetuate local problems. On the other hand, as mentioned in the closing moments of this video, the large-scale measures used when a state institution attempts to assess school performance are pseudoscientific: not only is the work-skill oriented rhetoric used to support math & science education a profound distraction from the fact that the ultimate role of public schools has always been to help us become engaged and responsible citizens (and perhaps a responsible person will be personally motivated to seek out math & science education, reducing the need for coercion in our primary schools), but the means used to assess performance are at such a remove from the complexity and diversity of individual students' experience as to be meaningless. I'd love to write more, but I've spent the day on things like this and need to go catch up on grading.

1: These articles might provide a starting point if you want to know what I mean when I talk about the distinction between concept and measurement and how this can be a problem in any and all sciences, but especially those with ambiguous targets such as psychological concepts, educational outcomes, or any concept not strictly identical with a physical object. Academic articles may be hard to find without access to certain databases or an absurd amount of disposable income, so here are not only the articles' titles but also links to places where they've been hosted online. If you can afford to pay for them or can access them directly through a group membership like those most universities offer their students, please do so; no doubt journals track access data, and these writers will be glad of the attention.

Baker & Hacker, "The Grammar of Psychology"

Essex & Smythe, "Between Numbers and Notions"

Jost & Gustafson: "Wittgenstein's Problem and the Methods of Psychology"

If you're curious about this issue within psychology specifically, I encourage you to pursue related papers by Michael Maraun.

24 March, 2012

Maybe Maimed: Polyamory's Superpower

Ah, I meant to post this a week ago! Here's a piece of writing that a non-primary love of mine sent me. Please, take some time to read this and think about it. I'm doing the same. I'll get back to you.

This keynote address from the recent Atlanta Poly Weekend offers a serious challenge to all poly people to practice a more consciously revolutionary style of relating. For a taste:

'In many of our experiences, the people with whom we have pre-existing relationships still claim certain “dibs” on us, and we claim certain “dibs” back, on them. In one way or another, especially in romantic entanglements, most of us are subtly told what to feel, told what to do, and told what to want. Even if a new person is welcomed into an existing relationship structure as an “equal,” it’s common to assume the pre-existing dyad’s relationship agreements are automatically enforceable on the new person, unless and until they are re-negotiated. However, for the most part, the polyamorous world considers this treatment of people acceptable because we were treated in much the same way and internalized the idea that “that’s the way you have relationships.”

'The essence of couple privilege is disrespect of individuals and individuals’ agency. Consider how the following statements are essentially disrespectful. What are the assumptions behind each of them? Do you remember having heard any of these when you were developing your polyamorous relationships?

“You’ll really like your metamour.”
“Before you get involved with someone else, you need to check in with me.”
“You need to get along with my other lovers.”
“You need to meet all the people I’m involved with.”
“What do you know? You haven’t met her!”
“We have an agreement that we only date as a couple.”

'...a metamoric relationship is a structure. It is not a form of intimacy, or closeness, or even a kind of “togetherness.”'

Maymay argues, to give you an insufficiently detailed synopsis, that the conversations poly people tend to have about our relationships obscure their operations in a way that winds up oppressing us -- especially oppressing people who are secondaries to all partners. Other, non-romantic, relationships can and do cause the same structural problem. He also argues that, because polyamory affords an opportunity for conversation about this problem -- polyamory's "superpower" -- the solutions we develop to overcome the problem can serve us elsewhere. The address offers tools for thought that can lead to better relationship anarchy practice.

Read the thing. It's good. It might make you question the way you operate, and it might make you inclined to take action in new ways.

18 March, 2012

Suits, Part II

From Lisa Schirch, The Failed Fantasy of Firepower:

'The fantasy of firepower rests on a faulty assumption that "evil" resides in a group of people that need to be killed in order to restore peace. A realist understands the civil wars in Libya, Syria and Uganda are far more complex than killing some 'bad guys." Like pouring toxic chemicals into an oil spill, the solution of pouring weapons into a civil war just doubles the agony for civilians and prolongs instability. ...

'Military victory rarely leads to democracy or peace. Victory only ends a tiny percentage of wars. Far more wars end by peace agreements and power sharing, with military forces used only in peacekeeping roles. The history of successful transitions from brutal regimes to democratic governments illustrates that nonviolent civil society-based movements, like the one in Egypt today, have been far more successful. Peaceful protests worked even against brutal dictators like Chile's Pinochet who for decades systematically tortured and killed any citizen who uttered a word against his iron fist. Violent rebel movements like the one in Syria are less likely to bring about positive change and result in more civilian deaths compared with nonviolent civilian movements, regardless of the level of repression against them. ...

'Instead of calling for airstrikes, call for an end to the weapons trade. Instead of falling for simplistic analysis of "good guys versus bad guys", look for a political process to address the root causes fueling violence. Instead of hoping for a quick solution, look for long term sustainability. Instead of just pointing fingers at these regimes, look at how Western policies in these regions have too often perpetuated rather than lessened violence.'

Schirch is making a more detailed, grounded, informed version of the rant I gave in my earlier post, "Suits". If you'd like to see the world change, treating the symptoms -- individual wars, individual warlords -- will do little in the long run. We'll have to do the intricate, complex, strenuous work of addressing root causes of violence and exploitation (many of which originate in affluent countries where, for example, economic leverage such as demand for raw materials or cheap labor produces incentives for violence and exploitation elsewhere; whose money do you think makes this fighting worthwhile, and which countries build the guns they use?) To read her original article and follow through to the evidence by which she makes her arguments, see The Failed Fantasy of Firepower here.

17 March, 2012

Poly Politics in the U.S. Public School System

Franklin Veaux apparently has a new article addressing polyamory and rules. (Since I started drafting this post in February, there's also been maymay's keynote address at Atlanta's Poly Weekend.) Many poly people like to craft a set of rules for themselves to make guidelines for relating in a style that may feel foreign. Says Veaux, "If a person loves you and cherishes you, and wants to do right by you, then it's not necessary to say ‘I forbid you to do thus-and-such’ or ‘I require you to do thus-and-such.’ All you really need to do is communicate what you need to feel taken care of, and your partner will choose to do things that take care of you, without being compelled to."1

I heard about this essay through this fantastic response at Modern Poly. The poster, Angi, picks up on Veaux's perhaps rhetorical conflation of anarchy with chaos, when the two are quite distinct, and follows through on his essay by pointing out that "we live in a society that organizes itself around the basic principle that human beings are only able to treat one another with kindness and respect if we are forced to do so. The structures of our criminal justice system, our work places, and even our schools are all predicated on the notion that people must have the threat of punishment in order to behave properly."

"For me," writes the author, "it feels inaccurate to label something as 'love' if it is not freely, enthusiastically, and consensually given. I choose freely to treat my partners with love and respect. And it matters a great deal to me to know that their love and respect for me are given freely, as well."

It's an awesome article, but for me, the keystone is a story about the author's child. "My eight-year-old daughter has recently begun attending a democratic free school. The kids determine their own behavioral guidelines, via consensus, at all-school meetings. ... What I find most striking, however, is their behavior. These kids have no threats of punishment. When a conflict arises, they can choose to talk it through with a peer mediator. Otherwise, they are governed only by their own mutual agreement to abide by community guidelines. And these children — given their autonomy and freedom — are kinder to and more respectful of one another than most people believe children are capable of being."

By contrast, note this list of 19 children unnecessarily arrested and brutalized by police officers in U.S. schools. Bonus points for counting how many of those kids -- among the subset of stories that aren't anonymous -- aren't white or are members of other frequently marginalized groups. Despite the article's title, this isn't "crazy" behavior: nominally sane, ordinary people are following their scripts, and the result is that our public schools are an apparatus of oppression. When one is young, oppression is in many ways normal: for a thoughtful introduction to the systemic nature of the problem, see John Bell's introduction to adultism.

I want to take this one step further and argue that this top-down, ageist, behavioral-control approach to rulemaking creates the situation we use to justify our rules. Angi characterizes the attitude in her piece: "If we took away a rigid legal system, common opinion says people would simply be running amok and committing heinous acts of violence against one another. If we gave factory workers any real autonomy, they would be sleeping on the job. If we gave children the ability to make their own decisions, they would sit and watch TV all day and never choose to learn anything at all." What I see as the critical difference between these situations and Angi's child's school is that the lazy or antisocial behaviors anticipated by legislative societies, even if they do exist, may be reactions to a system of imposed rules and emotionally invalidating social norms (exacerbated by situations in which, for example, the profit-motivated individuals in control of what's shown on TV choose to make cheap and uninspiring but gratifying material when, if people put enough thought and effort into their work rather than focusing on short-term profits, every show could be an Avatar).

Seeing the contrast between my experience and the behavior of these democratically raised children, who not only treat each other with the respect that I never saw from my school's bully culture but also, as Angi tells it, are conscientious about doing the work they've elected to assign themselves, I develop a hypothesis. If we, with the guidance of responsible, thoughtful mentors (including experienced fellow students), were the ones creating rules for our own behavior from childhood on, not only letting us practice the skills of negotiation, communication, and respect but also removing us from the situation of being forced to conform to a set of expectations imposed on us without justification, then a lack of a punishment apparatus would be less likely to result in harmful behavior. I argue that those behaviors are in large part, though not exclusively, a reaction against or a consequence of oppressive conditions in a society with high-profile narratives that place a high value, at least relative to some of the overtly oppressive regimes one might name, on individual expression and freedom.

There are counter-arguments. One has to account for findings suggesting that, for example, antisocial behaviors are correlated with unstructured leisure activities, while young people participating in highly structured activities tend to be in better harmony with their communities. Does this suggest that top-down control has the best social results? First, we need to ask whether that structure somehow causes or facilitates that more constructive behavior, or whether these teenagers -- who've already experienced years of education -- are already demonstrating a longterm deleterious effect of the top-down education model: an undernourished ability to self-impose structure. Remember also, if you're still concerned, that anarchy is not chaos: a reduction in top-down control is not synonymous with a reduction in structure. Instead, the structure becomes the fact of the communication-heavy, consent-based method itself.

I don't have experimental psychological or sociological data on anarchist/democratic schools, only the anecdotal case of the one Angi's daughter attends. All I have are a handful of articles arguing that education increases anti-authoritarian attitudes, but only with the right teachers; that a democratic education system may have been what enabled citizens of the USSR to resist the ruling regime; and that, in the United States, authoritarian attitudes are creeping into our public school system at a dangerous rate, which ought to reduce anti-authoritarian attitudes and increase complacency among coming generations, if the first paper is to be believed. None of these speak to the notion that externally imposed rule structures, as opposed to self-imposed rule structures, contribute to a disinclination or inability to self-impose structure (perhaps through making work extrinsically rewarding rather than encouraging people to do intrinsically rewarding work in class) or do less to discourage rulebreaking than would participation (as participation would enable students to try to change rules that don't work for them and to see the process through which they get created in the first place).

As it is, though, I can speak from my own experience growing up in an elementary school environment where I often struggled with authorities who either followed rules blindly or saw no reason to inform me of their decision-making process; certainly, students were directly involved in neither disciplinary decisions nor the initial rulemaking. Now as then, I strive to meet the demands of my situation, but the moment that I've met those demands, I often collapse: a moment of precious freedom! My chance to be myself! Such moments are rare and to be savored; I'm thus unlikely to do much work in that free time. And, in contrast to the external demands of productivity, "being myself" means not working. (I have noticed this changing for the better since I've entered graduate school.) My experience in high school was similar. We students had a direct hand in the school's Honor Code, its community and ethical framework (although seniors had a clearly privileged role in that process), but we did not have a hand in the curriculum or in discipline.

Let's not forget another problem: that having discipline externally imposed leaves people without a reason to learn self-discipline. I mentioned above that top-down imposition of rules and of assigned labor may damage the experience of learning as intrinsically valuable, instead making learning an extrinsic reward system and thus discouraging both self-education and self-directed work later in life. The most direct contrast I can offer is the badass self-motivated work ethic I see in many homeschooled friends. These friends of mine, who have always had a more individualized education and who have been personally involved in their own curricula, never stop astonishing me with both their drive and their can-do attitudes. They don't work for other people, either, or out of a socially imposed sense of productivity -- they do what they love, because they love it. Perhaps confounding variables exist and are to blame; also, my sample is absurdly small and biased toward people I like in the first place. One might use Google Scholar (or a paywalled article aggregator, if you're on a campus or can walk into a local university library) to investigate for oneself, unless one is too used to having information spoon-fed to one by teachers.2

Having been encouraged and involved instead of stifled and invalidated, these children have grown to rise and follow their own paths, setting a high standard and inspiring others along the way. One possible consequence of authoritarian schooling, in other words, is to severely undermine children's potential as self-motivated (and thus fulfilled and successful) individuals -- which, in an overpopulated and authoritarian world where leveraging collective power requires moving highly motivated groups against powerfully entrenched systems of control, undermines the freedom of future generations and our ability to know, care, and believe in our own agency enough to work against oppression on a global scale. If so, who knows how many potentially proactive people have been warped by this system?

Of course, one thing that most poly people have probably noticed is that a negotiation process takes time. If one is interested in a move toward a more consent-oriented, negotiation-based system that balances individual agency (and safety! -- anarchic democracy, not representative government or majority voting, would HAVE to be the rule to avoid perpetuation of any normative cruelties or ignorances the children bring with them from home) with community cohesion, one will have to contend with arguments about efficiency, productivity, economy -- one will have to contend with the idea that a person's value is related to their material and economic contributions, and that learning or personal growth are only justified by being in service of some productive end goal. (Citizenship doesn't show up in standardized test scores.) If one wants to engage in that conversation, one important place to start might be to listen to the experiences of (biomechanically or mentally) disabled individuals who've been marginalized based on, among other things, the difficulty of fitting such a person into existing apparatus of labor. One will also have to contend with the agricultural reality of our economy: y'all gotta work if y'all wanna eat, and if y'all want to support continued advances in medical science via both public funding and, on a more systemic level, societal division of labor ... and so on. In such an economy, it can be hard to make time for all of this interpersonal communication, as one is trying to earn a living. Perhaps this is among the reasons why consensus decision making isn't already prevalent in industrial societies, while government by consensus can be found in, for example, the Haudenosaunee (and scroll down for an essay an Onondaga/Mohawk law student). The amount of time and effort required for these negotiations also relates to my argument that we need to start when children are young: invite teenagers to the table in this model, and half of the people from my (highly selective, highly participatory, Honor Code based) high school will slouch through negotiations without saying a word, then go back to creating a culture in which casual bullying and teasing are so prevalent as to be make speaking out an act that feels like breaking a social contract. They may not have been a majority, but they just didn't care. Getting people involved when they're young fosters the sense that participation and political self-education are simply what one does.

As it becomes harder to justify our current top-down standardized education system and easier for nonsensical views to propagate, thus making it important for young people to be discerning, patient, and shrewd, I hope that people will realize that anti-authoritarian attitudes aren't just good for the rebels: they're good for society as a whole, because they produce responsible self-educators and thus better, more proactive global citizens. Moreover, self-motivated and autonomy-oriented attitudes are, of course, good for individuals (as long as we are careful to -- as a consensus model pushes us to do -- educate ourselves about the needs, perspectives, and experiences of others, which should lead to better empathy and more frequent freely made prosocial, anti-oppressive choices.) In a country where the individual is supposed to be the locus of civil rights and the easily forgotten civil responsibilities that go hand in hand with those freedoms, it's about time we started preparing people to live that way.

1: Veaux continues, "On the other hand, if your partner doesn't love and cherish you, and doesn't want to do right by you...well, no rule will save you.” I would add: or, they might love and cherish you but NOT choose to fulfill your every wish, in which case you get to make your own choices about whether that relationship still meets your needs, priorities, and boundaries. Love doesn't mean doing right by someone you love at your own expense, and I'm sure Franklin Veaux didn't mean to imply that love and wanting to do right give people the magical power to fulfill everyone's needs all the time. Sometimes, honest love means having the strength to say, "I can't".

2: See what I did there?

13 March, 2012


From award-winning blogger TransGriot, an example of a well-spoken Democrat who won't take any bullshit from his debate opponent: Maryland governor O'Malley speaks with Virginia governor McDonnell.

First, O'Malley heads off any nonsense with regards to economic arguments against Obama's administration. He doesn't distance himself from Obama, no doubt reading the wind to guess that Obama is going to have a second term, and guessing that Obama will have more visible successes during that next term. Then, he gets serious about attempts by conservatives to distract from other political problems by yanking at moral dumbfounding, rather than allowing social progress to take place with less controversy (and better role models), making room for in-depth, nuanced, intelligent debates about whatever other issues are on the table.

So, O'Malley's another southern white man in a suit, meaning that it's hard for me to condone the least pinch of trust for him, but his rhetoric makes for a good model.

Second, after have the guile and daring to say that "governor O'Malley's the only one with social issues at the top of his agenda," McDonnell makes a states rights argument on legal institutions structuring social institutions by majority vote, citing Virginia's ~60% majority vote to define marriage as being between one (I'm guessing cisgendered) man and one (likewise) woman (and when queer people are born in Virginia, do you fund their emigration? do you pay for their therapy after the bullying they'll face, do you hire bodyguards for them? or do you only care about individual rights when it's convenient?), but he also tips his hand to show the race card in discussing "Anglo-American" traditions in addition to the usual religious conviction arguments.

And then, FUCK OF ALL FUCKS, this joker argues that "intact two-parent [hetero] families", where by "intact" he means that any other family structure is missing something, like the body of an amputee, are empirically the best (by what standard? and I'm sure that any problems faced by children in those families couldn't possibly be due to outside social stigma or disparities in institutional support, no way1), and that any other families are the reason we are obliged to spend money on social services.

And when is a Republican -- or, hell, any politician -- going to point out that among the reasons we are spending a thousandfold more money on war than on taking care of people at home are that businesses and trade agreements in the U.S. are creating unstable economic conditions elsewhere; that, as in Afghanistan, international conflicts like those between the USA and the USSR created traumatic and unstable conditions in a host of less powerful regions; that, as in central America before and in Iraq just recently, businessmen within the US become politicians, make choices that destabilize other countries, and then, in the aftermath, hand out building contracts to US companies or replacing existing leaders with kleptocracies -- the time-honored "banana republic" maneuver -- to create new opportunities for profit, after which (like any high-profile politician) they can retire and grow wealthy on corporate "consultant" positions; that (as in the ongoing situation with Iran) we lead with threats rather than seeking understanding and peace ... not to mention the host of other issues decried by conservatives but created by the States, such as the immigration from Mexico spurred in part by the NAFTA-created damage to the Mexican economy.

Instead, THIS is the debate that we're having. WHAT THE FUCK, folks. What the fuck.

And that doesn't even delve into issues in the corporate realm apart from their relationships with the State, such as the way that advertisements focus on appearance and functionality rather than on sources of the goods or the ways in which everyday products that we support contribute to situations that we bemoan -- for example, see page 10 of this summary report (but don't stop there).

So, where are our priorities?

O'Malley is right about the Right: get them into office, and they will nail you hard at home and at work. He isn't speaking to the middle, though (there is no Left in the United States' national arena and hasn't been since before I was born) about the Dems' silence on these larger issues. To undermine the conservative ideologies that currently hold sway over so many of our minds in the States, and to prevent those ideologies from spreading to similarly less disadvantaged countries like our more reasonable but flagging neighbor Canada (also a perpetrator of imperialism at home, let's not forget), we need to make the conversations more complex. People need to seek access to the long version of every story, to seek access to data solid enough to let us judge for ourselves, and to care long enough to sustain our attention and reach proper conclusions. Otherwise, we are allowing ourselves to wreak havoc not only at home but also far afield. Something -- everything -- is broken, both at the end of the state and media and at the end of every individual citizen who isn't both outraged and speaking up about it.

If we're going to keep obeying the words written by suits in offices, then what I want -- what I need -- is a little faith in my institutions.

1: For example, the following papers find social stigma or violence by majority members to be a cause of psychological and other problems:

"How does sexual minority stigma “get under the skin”? A psychological mediation framework."

"LGBT Identity, Violence, and Social Justice: The Psychological Is Political."

"Voices from the heart: The developmental impact of a mother's lesbianism on her adolescent children."

"Wellness in Adult Gay Males: Examining the Impact of Internalized Homophobia, Self-Disclosure, and Self-Disclosure to Parents."


10 March, 2012

Did you know that when Barack Obama was eight or so, his family living in Indonesia, his mother hired a transgender cook and nanny named Evie? Evie's still alive -- by luck and by caution -- and she spoke with a reporter whose clumsily written article is full of illuminating information.

I learned this via A Bitch For Justice, as I learn so many things.

From the source article by Niniek Karmini, Associated Press:

Evie ... has endured a lifetime of taunts and beatings because of her identity. She describes how soldiers once shaved her long, black hair to the scalp and smashed out glowing cigarettes onto her hands and arms.

The turning point came when she found a transgender friend's bloated body floating in a backed-up sewage canal two decades ago. She grabbed all her girlie clothes in her arms and stuffed them into two big boxes. Half-used lipstick, powder, eye makeup — she gave them all away.

"I knew in my heart I was a woman, but I didn't want to die like that," says Evie, now 66.... "So I decided to just accept it. ... I've been living like this, a man, ever since."

...[Trans* people in Indonesia] have taken a much lower profile in recent years, following a series of attacks by Muslim hard-liners. And the country's highest Islamic body has decreed that they are required to live as they were born because each gender has obligations to fulfill, such as reproduction.1

"They must learn to accept their nature," says Ichwan Syam, a prominent Muslim cleric at the influential Indonesian Ulema Council. "If they are not willing to cure themselves medically and religiously" they have "to accept their fate to be ridiculed and harassed."

As the article will make plain, it's a problem specific neither to any one social institution nor to any one country. (Before we cast blame overseas, let's please clean up at home.) But, thanks to an accident of history, Evie is getting some press today; and, meanwhile, the man she helped to raise has made the absurdly accomplished Amanda Simpson the States' first openly trans presidential appointee.

1: I'm struck by the absurdity of valorizing reproduction when the world is already overpopulated. We should be treating childless people as role models.

09 March, 2012

Sexuality, Identity, and Category Construction: Wrap Up

And so, after weeks of revision, I launch another set of essays into the void.

I feel and think that this specific batch of essays deserves a bit of a disclaimer, and a TL:DR.

Too long? Didn't read? Let me summarize:

You know the things that one might think, as a child and as a privileged adult, are natural categories -- like not only gender but also sex? They are not. At best, they're heuristics. The labels that we use to describe difference? Sometimes, even those labels used by marginalized groups are handed down by the majority; and, even when they aren't, there is no perfect lexicon of difference. Only people who've been marginalized have any right to decide how to name themselves. (Here's a fun etymological story: "autonomy".) I am not a visible member of many marginalized groups -- Easy Rider aside, I did not die when I went to Texas with long hair; and, despite our being the bogeyman in slippery slope arguments about same sex marriage, nobody seems to be hunting down polyamorous people -- so I feel quite awkward writing to this issue, but I think that it's hugely important. So, I wrote anyway. Before I wrote, guess what I did? I did some research, I listened, and I asked, "What are people who are more affected by these problems than I saying?" Often, they're waving their banners high, especially in public conversations ... thus the frequency of my coda that, unless a label applies to you, you don't get to say who gets to use it.

Second: what would happen if we were to really push through on the idea of diversity and pluralism? What would happen if we were, as a society, to put our shoulders to the wheel and say, "Ok, autonomy will actually be our guiding principle, and the one norm we'll enforce will be to place value on acceptance and self-education about disadvantaged groups ... until no child has to grow up feeling worthless"? Would, as cultural conservatives argue, the fundamental structure of society as we know it really collapse?

Yes. It would. And that would be a victory.

Here's a pretty sweet article about International Women's Day, representations of diversity, and activism.

08 March, 2012

Sexuality, Identity, and Category Construction: Part III

Everything In Its Right Place

Via Sex Is Not The Enemy, I read Jessica Mack's piece at the Guardian in favor of representing diversity, arguing "that the concept of non-monogamy will be the biggest relationship issue we will grapple with in our time":

“Young women need to know that intimacy doesn't have to be a casualty of autonomy, and that sometimes it actually develops as a result. Just as young people need scientifically accurate sex education to keep them safe, so we need accurate relationship education to keep us sane. In order to move forward constructively, we need a multiplicity of relationship models to inspire and reassure us. We need trans couples on TV, we need non-monogamy champions, we need people married 40-plus years like my parents, and we need Stevie Nicks who, at 62, is purposefully single so that she can 'always be free'.”

In my last post, I wrote about how the categories we use to discuss sexuality come to us from a specific historical background, rather than being anything like natural categories, and argued that this causes problems.1 The objection one derives from Foucault seems to be that, whenever we accept the categorical terms created by or with reference to the norms of a hegemonic culture, we are allowing that dominant paradigm to dictate the terms in which our would-be radical action takes place. How can we have autonomy when we operate within a framework of internalized norms, such -- to harp on my favorite example -- as the concept that there are two sexes and that genders are necessarily paired with them? Having both acknowledged the importance of representing and speaking to difference and argued that these categories should be tossed out like so many bologna and mayo sandwiches left out in the sun on a summer's afternoon, starting with the idea of "normality", the following post asks a question in the context of

Individual Experience:

That is, where do we go from here? Maybe you see a narrative, a category, that fits you perfectly. Maybe not. Maybe you actually are going through a phase as you read this, and if so, then I hope you're comfortable considering that period of your life as no more or less valid and real than any other part. The world as it is leaves some questions on our doorsteps, though. Hell, right now I'm in a room full of people arguing, "Why do people ask me 'butch or femme', why do people have to ask?" "Like, you gotta pick?" Are you going to embrace an existing label and present yourself to the world that way? Are you going to name a new category and work to win recognition for it? (See, e.g., "polyamory" and notice how well that tactic has actually paid off thus far.) There are concrete advantages to working within an existing system. I'm not here to make you feel bad about making whatever choice you need to make. But, whether you do or don't embrace categorization, essentialism, or the idea that a trait's being natural is somehow a defense -- and against illogical people, it can be -- you have a sexuality or don't. How are you going to relate to that part of yourself, speaking socially? I'd like to argue that, especially if you have a partner or partners who can engage in this with you in the same spirit of inquiry, it might be rewarding to leave your expectations hanging on the doorknob with your tie.

Here's the trick. Having relationships without a script is complicated. Happily, there are some resources; I'm hoping that I fall in that category, too.

It's true, though, that as much as it might seem great to tear up all the scripts, that can leave the actors feeling pretty confused. It creates new problems: suddenly it's not just, "How do I do this right?" but also "What are we even going to do?" So, if one's goal is to explore one's personal sexuality without putting an assumption-shaped cage around it -- and, more importantly by my lights, if one is going to engage in a relationship with another person in a respectful manner that contributes to their self-realization, rather than expecting them to fix with a predetermined set of expectations -- that might take a lot of careful thought and mindful action. For me, it's entailed making frequent and consequential mistakes.

If you've lived inside a group for which standard scripts exist, maybe you've never had to ask these questions before. What does it look like, to try to escape assumptions and rescript our lives? From where I stand, it seems to take a lot of trust in one's partner, some practice at communication, and serious grounding in the knowledge that only you are basically awesome and this work isn't an imposition on your partner: it's just part of becoming an even more fulfilled version of yourself. It's part of deciding who you want to be and letting yourself flourish. So, if that's the work you choose to do ... it means being willing to be surprised, and being willing not to be surprised -- that is, willing to sacrifice some mystery for the sake of self-knowledge and of knowing a partner better, and for the sake of practicing and maintaining the communication itself. By choosing bravely to say, "This is what feels good for me right now," or, "That doesn't work for me right now;" by being willing to ask, "May I?" from a mindset where you can actually accept a "No" and just move on to some other enjoyable thing; and, especially if this is new for them, by communicating to your partner that it's safe for them to do the same; we can assume responsibility for our own sexualities, whatever they happen to be at that moment.

Out-Maneuvering Foucault

I'm pretty sure that Michel Foucault told me at a party one time (a thousand boiling lies, he died before I was born) that we construct our identities in large part in terms of, or in reaction against, the categories constructed by the people around us. I'm pretty sure that French academic is the very person who argued something along the lines that our experiences of our own identities -- our subjectivities -- are contingent on these externally imposed categories, perhaps moreso than on pure personal expression. Or am I thinking of Lacan? A small misunderstanding.

We can outmaneuver that problem, if we choose to make it a priority (and the consequences of identity politics lead me to argue that we should make it a major priority). What will that mean for us? Schools might need to move away from standardized curricula and include more explicit lessons about adopting others' perspectives, critical thinking, the genealogy of ideas, and mindful emotion regulation. Teaching people reasons to question and learn might also be a better way to nurture our natural curiosity, rather than expecting every student to excel at the same material when it's framed as a requirement. (Funny story: some people resent being told what to do -- children included -- and that's legitimate, especially in schools.) It means stewarding a more complex developmental environment in terms of interpersonal interaction, which means that it might be wise to get used to longer developmental periods. In other words, if our goal is to have a pluralistic world, we might have to let people take a long time to grow up.

In fact, do you know what I'm proud of? I'm not proud of having been born one way or another, but I am damn proud of having worked to figure out what I am, and of having worked to make connections with people who want to share that life with me, even as I do go through phases and make mistakes. I'm proud of the work I'm still doing to grow up.

From Foundational to Developmental

Maybe language labels can serve a developmental, rather than a foundational, purpose. When one is young, the world is a symbolic jungle, and we are not born knowing that there's a disconnect between a sign and what's signified. Having labels helps us to give name to parts of our experience that, otherwise, we might eventually notice -- I am not making a Sapir-Whorf argument, my dear linguists -- but which might happen much more quickly and painlessly if we have these words as tools for thought. I didn't realize that I was in an abusive relationship for years because I didn't have any bruises. I didn't realize that I had a romantic, but not a sexual, attachment to a certain male friend until after I left his company and spent time thinking about the orthogonality of those two categories. Having these categories can afford us the opportunity to recognize and give voice to our own experiences, which can help us to understand them. But you don't have to take my word for it. So, again, these labels are important -- but perhaps they're most important for individuals when we're young, and for societies when the group is in the process of fighting for public recognition.

Once we start to figure out that difference exists, while labels may give an easy shorthand for new acquaintances and for finding community, they may prove not to be necessary in our close relationships. If our circumstances change, we may discover new parts of ourselves, or we may change with the world around us, and letting go of our initial language choices need not mean letting go of ourselves.

Sometimes, it's frightening to speak parts of ourselves that are foreign to ourselves, and I'm well aware that not every person in a relationship has a partner who would be supportive in this kind of exploration. One might be afraid of losing a person one loves. Let's be honest: in a journey of self-discovery, one might discover unpleasant things: insecurities or fears that one would have to overcome in order to follow through on change. Airing those out might get ugly. But is someone who's too selfish to want to help you be you worth your time and attention, when you have so much self-knowledge and self-confidence to gain? Think carefully about your relationships; sometimes it's hard to see whether a relationship is unhealthy from inside it. And, on the brighter side: if you've been too tentative to mention something until now, you might be surprised by how supportive your lovers and friends turn out to be. A loving person will want to help you discover yourself.

All that is your decision, but you can tell how I lean. Thanks for reading, and I hope you're in a position to do your life the way that you think best. Remember: you are never alone, as long as you can reach out to someone who's been where you've been. And, if someone reaches out to you, I hope you'll be in a position to help.

By the way, I'd like to acknowledge how many of the links in this series go to Pervocracy. The author, Holly, is a brilliant person who really knows where her towel is.

1: Or, as I originally wrote that paragraph: "I talked about why valorization of and rigid adherence to constructed categories is a problem and waxed choleric about the hypothesis/historical reality that cultures with conflicting models of authority (e.g. hierarchical/patriarchal vs. communal or individual or matriarchal power, or versus traditions from a source other than the colonizing culture's canonical texts) have clashed in such a way that the colonizing culture marginalizes people who were a threat to their assumption of power, such that the culture's descendent -- e.g., the U.S. government as a descendent of European Christianity and empire -- might have the resulting marginalizing, disempowering identity categories smoothly and stealthily internalized." Because I don't know how to be concise.

07 March, 2012

Sexuality, Identity, and Category Construction: Part II

Where I End and You Begin.

In my last post, I presented the idea that categories like "gay", "male", "straight", and basically everything else, are not necessarily identical with natural categories, but are instead contingent on a certain roll of history's dice. That makes all kinds of problems for the "born this way" argument, but that argument was always a terrible one. Part II of the post cracks open a couple of categories (because I demand evidence from people, so I prefer to offer examples when I make a claim) and elaborates on why they are utter tosh and should be pretty much be tossed out into the compost like month-old lettuce. (Protip: I'm exaggerating, and I'm probably going to end up making a counterargument. So don't fret too much.)

For me, it's easiest to see both how these categories are false and how they're harmful when we look at gender. (Or you can skip this section and just read this article.) At any given place and era, there tend to be gender-based conventions, but these conventions change over time -- even within the culture of a given group. Pink used to be for little boys, and blue for little girls, in my culture's past, and you probably already know that skirts and long hair have been signals of masculinity at times, while in the culture that surrounds me, there are SO MANY DUDES with short hair. (Guys, what is the deal? Do you like it when people think you're in the military?) Unfortunately, I'm writing from within a culture where, although there have been plenty of different female tropes, I can't talk to the same extent about the great historical varieties in female norms because oppression is kind of a real thing: isn't great how you can be an innocent little girl, a sexy young woman, a mother, and then either wise, controlling, or completely ignored? (Protip #2: It's not that great for everyone.) I exaggerate, but only somewhat: as with men, there are heaps of both positive and negative tropes for women, but I'm less interested in tropes and more in seeing all people treated as complex humans.

Looking at a range of cultures definitely helps to expose the ubiquity of diversity. I'm especially keen to draw attention to the role of knowledgeable women in the various religions and cultures suppressed or consumed by Christianity and other cultural juggernauts with an investment in male power.1 Is it wrong of me to think that crushing knowledge, power, and difference in both rural, property-poor communities and individual knowledgeable or powerful women would have been goals of resource-rich patriarchal organizations like Church and Throne? I'm looking around and asking where the heck those pagans went. Hey Romans, did you see where they went? The Greeks whose culture you appropriated were pagans, right, and the Goths, or maybe the Vand-- wait, Romans? Oh. I guess that's what the Goths were up to.

...So hey, Christianity, you seen any of those pagans around? Oh no, you're too busy being appropriated by the power apparatus of the Roman Empire.

Digressions about gender politics and belief/power complexes aside, it's clear that there have been multiple masculinities and multiple femininities at various times and places, and even variation within a given time and place. No doubt part of that is born of necessity, given that birth control was unsafe or nonexistent in many places and times (making everyone's reproductive equipment of huge social importance -- that stuff could get you into TROUBLE!); now, however, that era is ending. It's clear also that there are in many cultures lines drawn along boundaries that are not binary. Now, take a look out the window and notice how people are socially (and in some cases legally, or violently, or pick-your-poison-ly) punished for not conforming to local gender norms. Look especially at children: childhood bullying, and complacency about bullying, are the soil in which shame-enforced conformity is planted and makes its hideous fungal blossom. How many of the women you know would wear a short skirt with unshaven legs? More than zero, I hope. How many would wear a bikini without thinking about their pubic hair? What do people say about a man who likes to shave his legs when he wears a skirt? How do young boys treat each other when they catch someone enjoying the wrong toys?

Are you noticing the thought control that's happening on the playground? Children are -- but they don't have enough context and experience to know that the bullies aren't right.

We haven't kept all of the medicalized categories from the Victorian era -- where is the Onanist these days, I ask you? -- but what we appear to have kept for long ages is a tendency to create categories, and to essentialize, even in our arguments for legitimacy -- that is, to say "This thing is a definitional (maybe even biologically determined) part of me, and you can't argue with that." In categories like gender, we can see how collections of traits can get lumped together in a single category and treated, perhaps because of this essentializing trend, as a unit (which is how we get problems like effeminate men suffering from homophobia and gay men suffering from misogyny). It's obvious after a little research that any given instance of those collected traits, any given culture's set of gender norms, is at least partially arbitrary, but that doesn't seem to stop the phenomenon. Compare the rhetorical positions that we've seen lately, like the fact that "just a phase" is on the dismissive side and "born this way" is used as a tactic to seek validation. These rhetorical moves expose an underlying assumption: that a trait's being essential to one's personality has a bearing on civil rights; that what is biologically determined is fixed at birth, as the excitement over "gay gene" studies suggests (Protip #3: that's an assumption, not an established fact: genes can express in different ways within a single person as one's situation changes); and that either being fixed/essential, being biologically determined and thus "not my choice", or both of those things together somehow validate a person's right to freedom of association. Given that line of argument, many people might infer that if a difference isn't natural, or if it isn't fixed and essential to a person, that difference is somehow less valid.

What if it is just a phase? What if one wants to get it on in a way that's associated with some existing category, but doesn't think that that category really fits in the long run? (Can you be a man who has sex with men and call yourself straight, or at least, not call yourself queer? What are the consequences of doing that?)

Here's one of my problems with any narrative that relies on the idea that sexual identity is an essential trait, or on the idea that what's natural is somehow more valid than what's chosen. Even if someone uses those tactics to make it safe to live one kind of life, to win validation for a new normative category and step inside the golden circle (c.f. same-sex marriage), those tactics perpetuate exactly the same problem that makes heteronormativity a problem in the first place. I mean, DUH, right, but apparently someone has to point this out to people because God lost the memo where we're supposed to be born knowing everything.2

It seems to me, in light of the experiences I've had thus far, that the root problem behind bullying, behind internalized psychological trauma, behind so much of the strife and questioning and pain that many of us experience while we try to fit in or to figure out why we can't, isn't the particular norms that our society has enshrined: it's at least in part the fact that there are any normative categories at all. The fact that sexuality is treated as an item of identity rather than as a thing that people can do or not do at their own discretion; the fact that people are creating categories for each other and that we consciously or unthinkingly impose our assumptions about what works for us onto other people; that is, in my opinion, the root of evil that we ought really to be pulling up. There's nothing wrong with the type of relationship that we call "straight"; the problem is that we call it "straight" in contrast to some Other way of life that's bent by comparison. When our understanding of sexuality is built on rigid categories, there will always be some individual experience that falls outside the categories' lines and seem bent out of line by comparison.

Now, coming again to the coda that ended my last post, here's the problem that puts me in a bind. There are so many categories of difference that have existed for ages but whose members have to teach people about their very existence. At least, when there's a category label, people have a way to begin conceptualizing that the difference can exist. And, when one has been pushed to the margins, having that name provides a banner around which to rally. What will be necessary if we want to use labels safely? If not for these labels, would marginalized groups be able to make themselves recognized in the first place?

Should anyone need to?

Put this on hold for now. To Be Continued in "Part III: Where Do We Go From Here?" Expect a parade. 76 bloody trombones.


1: I dare you to track down that citation. I double dog dare you. I dodecadolphin dare you!

2: jk, there's no God.3

3: Of course, that depends on your definitions. More on that later, when I come back to Paul and the appropriative Romans.4

4: That would be a great name for a rock band.

Edited to link to a woman's opinion on tropes about women, because I'm basically a dude, so.

06 March, 2012

Keep Talking

Via impromptuonedykedanceparty, over on the tumblrs:

Keir writes:

one of my least favourite things about tumblr is that there are people who complain about people who write social criticism. they say, “instead of complaining about it on tumblr, why don’t you go out and change it?”

i’m sorry, i wasn’t aware that one couldn’t blog about frustrations that they have about the world and work to change them at the same time. believe it or not, i’m not on tumblr all the time. i do have an internship where i work to show more diversity in the media. and blogging is activism, don’t fucking tell me it isn’t. many of the opinions i have today about social justice were first and foremost formed by blogs. i know that these people have an influence because they have had an influence on me. and fuck you for policing how i express myself and my frustrations, too.

it doesn’t even make sense to tell someone to change something without discussing it first. if you don’t discuss it first, if you don’t explain to people why it’s wrong and what could be done about it, how would you know how to go about fixing it? half the time people don’t realize there is a problem. writing it down, speaking it? those are the first steps.

you can’t fix a problem until you acknowledge it’s there.

i wonder if anyone ever said that about historians. they write down history all the time. we have to keep a record of our times if we want to know where we want to go and where we came from.

With that in mind, let me offer a list of places where those discussions are happening. I've was on a reading break from classes when I found that post; here's some of what I was reading.




Sexuality, Identity, and Category Construction: Part I

Just 'Cause You Feel It Doesn't Mean It's There.

A recent guest post by fannie on Alas! A Blog asked whether, insofar as it entails a move to buy in to marriage and to mainstream social structures rather than demanding that all dimensions of difference be recognized, the gay marriage movement is ultimately a conservative movement. The author and some commentators argue that, "rather than pushing to make flawed institutions and flawed ways of thinking about gender and sexual identity better, the push seems to be to keep flawed structures intact while allowing more people into these structures."

Lucky timing. I love that someone on a highly visible blog is discussing these issues, because I had just been drafting a post about the nature of this sort of problem. What I'd like to do now is, for those of us who are just absurdly curious, to lay out in detail one argument for how not only the marriage rights movement but also any political movement that relies on, as fannie put it, "arguments of the 'we’re just like you and we were born this way' type" is a half-baked means that leads to an incomplete end. Why is this argument effective, and how is it damaging? Why is this particular argument threatening to many people?


Back in high school, my friends and I would talk about how we didn't want to ascribe to any particular pigeonhole in terms of sexual identity; we'd say, "I'm not attracted to MEN or WOMEN, I'm attracted to individual people." That sounded great at the time, but, funny story here, somehow it didn't solve all of society's problems. Huh.

As I spread out the first tendrils of political awareness, I got invested in the rhetoric in the air at the time: people often recruited "I was born this way, so don't you tell me that it's unnatural!" for arguments around then, as I guess folks still do now. Plenty of people are aware of how using that in an argument about human rights is an example of what some people call the naturalistic fallacy, implicitly perpetuating the idea that whether a thing is natural is somehow connected to whether that thing is acceptable, but people choose to put research into the question nonetheless. Perhaps this started as a reaction against dogmatic religious speakers who, in an attempt to argue without reference to their first-choice source material, picked up "It's unnatural" as a new tactic. I guess there's also an appeal in the idea that people can't be blamed or punished for what isn't their choice, but in the same country where Lady Gaga recorded "Born This Way", the state is empowered to execute mentally ill people as criminals. Clearly, the legal system's actions are not consistent with a strictly intentional stance. It's worth noting that Christianity in specific already has a conceptual metaphor (or literal understanding) of having to be responsible for a flaw that isn't one's own fault: the concept of having to overcome original sin. Just file that away for later. And, just to complicate this even further, it's important to point out that the argument-from-biology might be part of the same public debate in which queer activists are engaged but might be coming from somewhere completely different.

Putting aside whether the essentialist/determinist argument makes sense on any level or not, I still thought, "Hey, let's check out these articles claiming to provide evidence for genetically determined sexual orientations!" Being involved in evolutionary biology and psychology, I got my hands on the primary literature. It became clear that, although there were patterns suggesting heritability, there was not yet a clear answer. But if sexuality is both intrinsic to one's identity and biologically fixed, then shouldn't whatever mechanism we discover be a straightforward one? After all, it's not as if we're dealing with a complicated subject matter.1

Although there is evidence for one or more strictly biological contributions to sexual orientation, I learned (mostly from Foucault) a lesson that I might have learned in high school: that the categories we use to discuss sexuality are not tied to some deep, universally recognized categories but are shaped by certain historical precursors. This knowledge has changed how I look at both sexuality and conversations about sexuality. Empowerment is great, so thank you Lady Gaga, but to me, it's important to look at the ways in which any given approach to this topic can influence the conclusions we reach, and at whether that might lead to less ideal circumstances in our own lives than we might otherwise be able to build. The following post is not old news for plenty of us (note the disclaimer/citation on that one <3), but it's an important point that I want represented on this archive.

Medicalization and Reductionism

Normally, I am a big fan of methodological reductionism, because hey, atoms exist and I am made of them, let's research the hell out of that shit. Maybe reductionism has been misapplied in certain ways, however, and with harmful consequences. One thing that can cause problems in an otherwise delightful romp through reductionist territory is when the categories one applies in studying a given thing are not natural categories.

One consequence of the surge in reductionist and rationalist thought in natural philosophy (which has become the natural sciences) is a legacy of essentialism in our discourse of sexuality. Foucault, for instance (and I know some folks object to Foucault, but your time will come as well), writes in The History of Sexuality about the transition from sex as a thing that one does to a thing that defines a person -- the difference between "I loved it when that businessman sodomized me!" and "I loved it when that sodomite businessed me!" Er, "businessed" isn't a verb, is it? I hope you take the point: that there have been times and places in which sexual behavior was decoupled from identity such that sex was a thing that one did, rather than sexuality being a thing that one had, and rather than "sexual identity" being a concept in any fashion whatsoever. Foucault points fingers at a few convergent trends, including both confessional culture and, more relevant to this post, medical attitudes toward sexuality and the psychology of sex. To get back to why this matters: how can we look for, for example, a "gay gene" when "homosexuality" may be a category that exists thanks to the way a few medical and psychological professionals in a certain historical and cultural context created their categories? And, just to bake your noodle/state the obvious, depending on your experience: how can "homosexuality" be a natural category when not only gender but sex itself is not a naturally binary category? It's pretty clear to see that there's a very real cultural phenomenon happening, but it's important to recognize that a real cultural category is not necessarily identical with any natural category. You dig? These conversations are happening elsewhere, too, as people ask whether there are necessarily detrimental effects when we label and circumscribe identity categories. At the same time, people are recognizing the importance of language for simply having the ability to communicate about one's experience in the first place. Hell, there's even an academic article on language and polyamory called "There Aren't Words For What We Do Or How We Feel So We Have To Make Them Up." No lie.

All told, these categories are doing a lot of work, but how solid are their foundations? The more we make divisions, the more we realize how woefully inadequate any set of divisions will be. But, since these divisions are being recognized and oppression and bullying are being applied along these lines, how can we afford to ignore them? Without having recognized and named our differences, would we even be having this conversation?

To Be Continued

1: NB: sarcasm.

04 March, 2012

Sunday Roundup

Here are some things that are terrible and some that might make your day. I don't always have time to do much reading, but this week, I've been somehow motivated by a looming assignment to poke around the Internet and stay aware. Now I'll post these for your perusal and comment and scamper off to my studies, minus one tool of procrastination.

There's an article by the author behind TransGriot placing a spotlight on African American trans trailblazers at EBONY.

By the way, if you're not convinced that representation of difference is important ("Oh, this just contributes to racial divisions!"), I direct you here: "Why I Don't Want to Talk About Race" and "Damn, Let Some Black Transpeople Get Some Positive Ink!"

From a blogger I discovered through TransGriot, a post about the tricky situation of being intimate with someone who has institutional power -- specifically, "I confess, I'd date a po-po". One of my best friends wanted to be a cop ... let me tell you, that made me uncomfortable for a long time, and I'm just a white person with long hair and a beard. If tie-die makes me feel like a target, I can only imagine how this writer feels -- oh wait, I don't have to imagine because I can listen to her instead.

From The Atlantic, Who is the aggressor in the culture wars? And, in a related post from the Good Men Project, a writer investigates "The New Bigotry" of reacting to ideology rather than investigating the origins of an opponent's stance. (Protip: this is not new.)

Speaking of culture wars, someone at Tiger Beatdown is writing about a ban on students' wearing clothing "not in keeping with a student’s gender" (because all that messy bullying could be avoided if people just stopped making a fuss and got in line -- do you have any idea how much time and effort it takes to deal with these little squirts and their scuffles?).

Next, how do I know that we live in a police state? Why am I not just unimpressed by the war on drugs but actually convinced that it's a paper-thin excuse for easy frame jobs and a reason to expand funding for the police force and the prison industry? Look at who's behind bars for what. Do you remember, back in 2009 or so, hearing about the Jena Six? They're free ... but that's not the end of the story.

In a vaguely related article, this time tied in with the current reactionary politics of reproduction that are enjoying a resurgence in the States, a nurse is being charged with murder for breastfeeding her newborn while taking pain medications, a choice she made on the advice of medical professionals. Despite a lack of evidence that these chemicals can even be passed through milk in significant amounts and a further lack of evidence that the medications would be harmful even if they were passed to an infant, Stephanie Green and other women are being prosecuted (and in several cases imprisoned) on the flimsiest of evidence as if they were abusive parents.

Remember how I mentioned Archie Comics two posts ago? At least they're showcasing gay characters, although probably in a culturally normative light (one of the characters is even in the military ... but, hell, so was one of my gay relatives; I'm not complaining much here. It's just Archie Comics.) Bonus points for someone actually using the "it's too complicated for children" argument -- I kinda thought that was a straw man people used in pro-diversity messages.

A look at the rhetoric and logic on both -- no, several -- sides in the tense Iran - Israel - United States situation. "The flaws of the different sets of policies employed by the different parties are like an avalanche of chickens coming home to roost. In the U.S. there seems to be a belief that the formula 'pressure on Iran equals concessions at the negotiation table' is open ended, i.e the more the better with no end in sight. The Israelis in turn try and top this by constantly reminding everyone that if Iran does not give in (totally if one is to believe the Israeli red line of zero enrichment) war is always a viable option. The Iranians in turn think their way to a strong negotiation position is to tell everyone how dangerous they are and thus in no mood or need for making concessions."

Having just looked at emotions and rhetoric in politics, here follow two links about emotion and the way it's treated rhetorically, each from Alas! A Blog: On Excess and On Anger.

Finally, some good news in advertising. Perhaps you know that Rush Limbaugh's radio show is the most popular commercial radio show in the U.S.A. (How is this possible? I can't believe I'm typing that.) This joker has said a lot of horrible things and probably a few reasonable ones, but recently, he crossed a new and special line when he said, "What does it say about the college co-ed Susan Fluke [that's Sandra Fluke, law student, age 30] who goes before a congressional committee and essentially says that she must be paid to have sex -- what does that make her? It makes her a slut, right? It makes her a prostitute. She wants to be paid to have sex. She's having so much sex she can't afford the contraception. She wants you and me and the taxpayers to pay her to have sex." If you can't see how many things are wrong with that statement, I'm not wasting my time on you: people have covered the human costs of that attitude, search engines exist, grow a pair (of prefrontal lobes) and educate yourself.

Here's the surprise: seven businesses (to date!) who have long been comfortable promoting their products at the expense of the people Rush Limbaugh's show harms and filling his pockets with their advertising dollars have now pulled their support from his show. Said the owner of Carbonite, "We hope that our action, along with the other advertisers who have already withdrawn their ads, will ultimately contribute to a more civilized public discourse.” Taking a stand on these issues at the cost of losing a large advertising audience is a meaningful sacrifice. Any advertiser should be ashamed to be associated with a person who chooses to engage in that kind of rhetoric, as should anyone purchasing from such a company and thus funneling your money toward Rush Limbaugh and the bullying and simplemindedness that his voice encourages. We could all learn from that example.

Read What You Need, Part III

Why write essays when one could say the same thing better with slam poetry?

Guante: Ten Responses to 'Man Up' (c.f. Miller Lite's ads)

Read What You Need, Part II

Part II: Reading Today's Messages

When you're reading something's content, you're only getting half of the story.

To understand something through and through, one has to take an evolutionary/developmental approach: where did this thing come from? When I see a product advertised, where did that material come from, and through whose hands has it passed -- is that reflected in the advertisement? What is reflected in this advertisement: what does it say about the presumed viewer, perhaps in the casting, the style, the music or the choice of words? Who stands to profit from this message, and are those people represented? Who stands to suffer from this message, and are they represented? Who is?

Here's a fun one: what premises do you have to accept to get behind a message? That can be a tricky one for movies, for books, for television. What systems of thought, behavior, or social norms are portrayed as legitimate in the message? As I've written on this blog before, too many television plotlines to count pivot on the premise that one must choose between two romantic partners. (Archie Comics would have folded decades ago if their universe allowed for polyamory.) Is anyone ignored, overlooked, or erased from this message? Is anyone bullied, ridiculed, or villainized, and for what reasons? How does this message influence the situation in which it occurs?

So, read what you need. You could just assess the content of a message, but if your goal is to avoid being manipulated, or to see whether a message is in keeping with the way you want to live, you might learn more by assessing the context.

Reference List:

Adbusters Magazine, a culture jamming hub

Performing a Close Reading

On Critical Reading of Media

Practically a case study in critical reading (and in why it matters) using fantasy as a focus: "Gee, I don't know how to research writing characters of color."

And, for some context, this is the key meme I'm transmitting: Critical Theory