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06 February, 2012

Real Creatures Part II: People Are More Than Affordances

This picks up from the last post, in which I reviewed the too-little-known subject of affordance psychology and placed it in context with symbolic and physical accounts of reality. Today, to apply it.

What is polyamory? First, I'd ask, what is "polyamory"? It is a string of letters -- symbols -- representing a noise that apes make with our faces, representing a conception of a specific range of human behavior and experience that's in part created as a category by having been named. It is a term that affords the recognition of a certain range of thought and behavior as a coherent category, whereas before that range might have been seen as a collection of disparate individual actions. This gets really interesting when we look at how people react if someone tries to integrate polyamory with existing categories -- for example, marriage.

When the marriage equality movements began (first, shaking off the anti-miscegenation laws; now, working against the identification of marriage with traditional sex and gender constraints; just now beginning, the attempt to have the legal system recognize that dyadic marriage is only one type of marriage), it made big waves. People don't just treat this as a civil rights issue, a religious issue, or a personal issue. One SFU professor's study with two colleagues at Purdue suggests that support for same-sex marriage (as opposed to civil unions) is mediated by a phenomenon in which some heterosexual folks feel that their own identities are threatened by the possibility of redefining marriage.

Why would the actions of other people threaten one's identity in this way? Because redefining marriage threatens the categories that certain groups have constructed and through which some of us filter and understand our worlds. Restructuring the categories through which we interact with and experience the world entails restructuring the hooks between physical reality and symbolic reality -- I might want to argue that it means learning to see a different set of affordances. Changing the definition of marriage necessarily means, for some people, changing not only their idea of but their experience of both sex and gender in fundamental ways. That's not a small thing! It's a hugely important thing, though, especially when those symbolic categories don't actually reflect natural categories. Still, some people insist that we'll have to pull their categories from their cold, dead hands.

Where else is affordance psychology relevant to oppression? It seems to me that it's highly relevant to sexual objectification.

Not all affordances are equally salient at any given moment, for any given person. We are motivated by internal factors, and affordances are signals that something or someone is relevant to those internal motivations; so, when one motivation is more pressing than another, that influences one's primary experience of the world. Some people will have trouble eating food if there's a face on it, but other people might hardly notice while they scarf the thing down. Some people can't seem to help noticing attractive passers-by, while other people are busy checking whether it's safe to cross the street. You might notice, similarly, that looking at something that offers the possibility of satisfying a desire makes that desire more salient: have you ever not noticed your hunger until you smelled food, or not noticed that you were horny until you saw someone attractive? When one affordance is more salient than another, there's a reason.

I noticed the other night, while spending time with a friend I've gotten to know over the past several months, that my eyes kept wandering to her lips. It used to be the case that I felt great friendly affection toward this person and also thought, "It's interesting that sexual interest doesn't enter the picture at all. I wonder whether that'll change over time, as it has for other friends." Well, funny story: after having come to invest emotionally in this person, I started to perceive the opportunity latent in those lips for the good feelings I get from being kissed. To me, it seems that a change in my emotional landscape made one affordance float closer to the top of my awareness.

The bodies of the people around us afford all sorts of possibilities. I'd like to argue that, when we get distracted by attractive people, we're perceiving the opportunities that their bodies offer for the feelings we enjoy. It's important to emphasize that an affordance is a perceived physical opportunity: I am not say that I could just lean over and take advantage of a human being's body without permission. Sometimes perception of these physical possibilities is like with my friend: a possibility gradually comes to light because I have gotten invested, and that internal factor mediates which affordances I perceive. Other times, it's more obviously objectifying. You can imagine where that train of thought leads. In particular, imagine a young person whose sexual desires have just kicked in. Suddenly, assuming this person knows how sex works, certain parts of other people become WAY more salient.

So, how does this affordance-based argument highlight the fact that arguments like, "You should have seen what she was wearing, she was asking for it!" are total bullshit? Humans have highly recursive neural architecture. What does that mean? It means that we can think about what we're thinking about. Ultimately, it means that we can -- within limits, and with practice! -- learn to use our own thoughts to regulate the feelings we experience and which guide our behavior. A responsible person learns to act respectfully and to regulate overwhelming parts of one's emotions so that personhood becomes the most noticeable feature of the people around us; if that's a problem for you, I recommend training yourself to notice emotional displays on peoples' faces, because expressions are affordances for empathy.

Back in real life, though, here's the problem. If one grows up in such a way that treating people as sexual opportunities is celebrated by one's peers, one might never see a reason to learn those emotion regulation skills. One might go on through life for years, or forever, seeing certain people in terms of the sexual possibilities they offer. That would lead to a profoundly messed up society. Let me rephrase that: our society is profoundly messed up right now. Do I blame pornographers, do I blame salacious music videos, do I blame women in short skirts? Hell no. I blame systems of complacency and callousness: I blame failures of self-education and empathy. For sure, I blame our participation in cultures that marginalize or dehumanize some people and teach others that it's acceptable not to self-educate and not to empathize with those marginalized people. We humans are capable of watching something exploitative and recognizing it as such, and if watching sexy people is a goal, we're also capable of making sexy videos in a respectful way that emphasizes the humanity of the participants. Rather than blaming humans for human motivations, I suggest that what needs to change is anything that contributes to a lack of respect and empathy -- and I say this while recognizing that some individuals have serious trouble processing emotions (affordances are relative to an individual agent's perceptual and processing abilities, remember) and recognizing that people with such differences can be seriously respectful nonetheless, which highlights the irresponsibility of neurotypical folks who have the wired-for-emotion-recognition advantage and still contribute to disrespectful, dehumanizing systems.

People are more than opportunities for personal gratification. If affordance psychology is correct, then we perceive the physical world through the medium of the action opportunities it holds for us -- but we also have symbolic reality and recursive neural architecture at our service, allowing us to work up from direct perception to a more complex experience of the world. Likewise, we have the ability to self-monitor and to make judgments about how to deal with what we feel. We can and must take responsibility for our motivations and choices. If we care at all about the agency of other humans, about respecting individual freedom, about the experiences of other people, or even about wanting our lives to be our own business, then we have to learn to see ALL people as complete people.

Well, I'm I-blame-the-kyriarchy'd out for today, but I have a three-part post in the works that'll delve into category construction and identity politics. Reading it in light of affordance psychology might even be useful, and I hope you'll enjoy/be completely enraged by it.


  1. I don't have much to add to this--I just want to say that I really like this post, since it's the most eloquent and even-handed phrasing I've seen yet of how these systems work.

    I've been playing a Pathfinder game lately with some new people, and the group happens to be all straight men, and unfortunately it brought me into unpleasant contact for the first time in a very long time with what I can only describe as the "sausage club effect". I was ruminating on how that works, how people who aren't bad people and who I know don't have any difficulty treating women as people and not sex objects suddenly become this way, or even if they're really changing at all, and suddenly along comes this post in my GReader. :)

  2. Mickey: Hot damn. If I can write something this convoluted and still have it make enough sense that someone can make use of it IRL, I will sleep better at night for knowing that.