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Posts Tagged ‘Discrimination’

Normalization and the Norm

In PeaceAble, Politics on December 14, 2016 at 10:28 am

There seems to be some confusion out there about what we mean when we use the word “normalize,” and how that is related to the word “normal.” Allow me to clarify.

When we talk about normalizing a particular behavior or idea, we are not saying that the person exhibiting that behavior or expressing that idea is not “normal” in the common sense of that word. We aren’t, for example, saying that the person is deranged, or intellectually deficient, or pathological. Some might actually think those things, but that is a different discussion and I would appreciate it if you did not engage in that here.

We are, rather, using the word “normal” as the adjective form of the word “norm.” A norm is a behavior or idea that our culture or society tells us, in both subtle and more obvious ways, we should expect from each other. We are trained from early on to regard these things as “the way it is.” Now norms are not necessarily the most common or most acceptable or most likely behaviors or ideas, which is what the word normal usually suggests. For instance, American culture has, for its entire history, been dominated by the behaviors and ideas of straight (at least openly), male, Puritan/Christian (at least publicly), powerful warrior men. In other words, the straight, white, Puritan/Christian, powerful male warrior is the norm. And we are socialized to view the world from that perspective.

Now, there are, in fact, more women than men in the population; there are far more people among us more who have no more than modest power, and we are quickly discovering that LGBTQ+ people are much more numerous than we have been told and the non-white population may soon outnumber the white population. And any one time, the number of people who are veterans or serving in the armed forces is less than 15% of the population.  But that only states the demographics, not the norm. The norm remains primarily straight, white, Puritan/Christian, warrior men of power (especially economic). And that means, that despite our attempts to change things, the perspectives arising from that norm continue to pervade the society.

Distrust, bigotry, discrimination and disenfranchisement of people who do not represent that norm is “normal.” Misogyny, racism, homophobia, and the Christianization of society are “normal.” The dis-education and miseducation of those not part of the norm is “normal.” Using the very genuine fears of the working class, minorities, and women to divide the masses of people and thus more easily rule over them is “normal.” The idea that success is to be defined in terms of wealth is “normal.” The idea that everyone has the same opportunities to achieve that mythological thing we call the “American Dream” is “normal.” The idea that problems can be best resolved through force is “normal.”

Now we have tried over the years to change some of those things, but progress is always slow and still fragile, as the recent election demonstrates. The things we do to create greater equality for all, to promote justice and protect the rights of those who have less power to protect them for themselves,  and to seek more peaceable solutions to our problems, are called “normalization,” or “normative behaviors.” That is, they are things we do to create new norms that better reflect our diversity, our stated American ideals, our rights, privileges and responsibilities as members of society. But our social behaviors, our laws, our public images of ourselves in the media and our demographics all change more quickly than our norms do.

So electing a non-white President did not change the norm of whiteness as the perspective through which we see things. The Supreme Court decision on same-sex marriage, Roe-v-Wade, and the striking down of laws that would require the teaching of “Intelligent Design” in public school science classes, for a few examples, did not usher in a new secular norm. Women still have less access to power, non-whites and non-Christians are still marginalized, and it is still “normal” to proclaim one’s patriotism while waving the flag of a nation that went to war against the United States, and lost. We still think that the more firepower we have, the safer we are.

When we try to normalize something, we are trying to create it as a norm. We are saying that this behavior or this idea is to be expected, that it defines us as a society and a culture, that this is now the perspective from which we will evaluate and express our public and official actions.

So, what we are really seeing around us now is not the normalization of bigotry, of white supremacy, of male dominance and privilege in the affairs of the nation; we are seeing an attempt by that “normal” perspective to roll back the normalization of those things that threaten it. It is not the normalization of racism that threatens us, it is the de-normalization of diversity. It is not the normalization of misogyny, it is the de-normalization of the idea that the feminine is in all ways the equal of the masculine. It is not the normalization of xenophobia or homophobia or religious prejudice, it is the de-normalization of acceptance, tolerance, and cooperation. It is an attempt to say that who we are becomig is not who we are; an attempt to say that who we are is embodied in the worst of who we have been all along.

The Zero Sum Politics of Scarcity Consciousness

In PeaceAble, Politics on November 9, 2016 at 10:27 am

As I reflect on the reasons People are giving for electing Donald trump to the Presidency, a single theme emerges.

They mention foreign workers taking our jobs; they make reference to variations on the drugged-up, slut of a lazy welfare mother having kids and asking us to support her with our taxes; the unemployed and homeless who want us to take care of them instead of getting a job; the immigrants who are coming here with their customs and religions that they want to force on us; the foreign terrorists disguised as refugees who won’t agree to keep their wars in their own countries instead of coming here to harm us.

Now, all of these things have long been shown by hard evidence to be false, but I it’s not my intention here to argue about them. Instead I want to point out something they have in common that is not often talked about.

They are each a variation on a theme of personal ownership and public scarcity; the idea that any acquisition or benefit or bit of power someone else gets takes something away from me. And if I can strongly identify with a group of people like myself we can declare ourselves collectively robbed.

“If a “foreign” worker comes here and gets a job, that job actually belongs to me or someone like me and has been stolen.” The same thing holds true for someone of a previously disadvantaged group; “Black people are taking white people’s jobs.” “Women in the workforce are taking jobs away from men.”

“If gay people are allowed to marry, then my marriage is less special, less uniquely blessed; so I have been robbed of that blessing.” And, corollary to that is the idea that if same-sex relationships are normal and acceptable, then the natural normality and specialness of my heterosexual relationship are diminished.

“If God can be worshipped in a multitude of ways and all those ways express valid and meaningful understandings of and relationships with God; then I am being robbed of the special righteousness of my relationship with God.” This is the “if everyone is right then no one is right” argument.

And the next step in this reasoning process is that if someone is taking something away from me then that is an attack on me.

“When people say ‘Happy Holidays” it diminishes the specialness of my “Merry Christmas,” so that’s an attack on Christianity itself.”

Now the problems with these arguments should be obvious, but let me state them as clearly as I can.

First, your sense of ownership and entitlement is based on a myth grounded in unacknowledged privilege. Put simply, you don’t own what you think you own. They are what Thom Hartmann calls the “commons.” This isn’t your country any more or less than it is mine and everyone else’s, and I want things for it that are different from what you want, but my desires are no less valid or important than yours.

They aren’t your taxes, they’re mine, too; and some of the things you don’t want to spend them on are things that I do want, and vice-versa.

You don’t own any job; and the fact that you now have to compete for it with people you used to be able to exclude from the pool takes nothing from you except a privilege that is not yours to claim in the first place.

You don’t own marriage or any other social or legal contract between people that does not include you.

And you certainly don’t own God; to think that your truth is the only possible one is arrogance and self-righteousness that is especially ironic in a religion that supposedly teaches you to be humble and leave the righteousness to that God.

Secondly, there is actually no scarcity of most of these things. There is more than enough of being an American for all of us and a great many more.

There is a limited number of jobs, but that’s not the fault of the people who have them. Economists argue that a certain percentage of people need to be unemployed at all times or the economy will suffer. (A side note here: The wealthy don’t invest or start businesses in order to create jobs. They do it to create more wealth for themselves and jobs are seen as a cost of business, not a reason for it.)

There is plenty of love and marriage and sex to go around, and each marriage is equally special for its participants. My marriage does not diminish yours any more than yours diminishes mine. And any of the benefits I may get from my marriage, such as health insurance, clear inheritance of property, lower taxes and so forth, do not reduce the availability of those benefits for you.

And if you can’t allow that there is plenty of God to go around, then the god you believe in is not as great as you claim. Why does it not make sense that a truly universal and all-powerful deity would speak to different groups of people in the ways that they will best understand? Isn’t that part of why you now accept religious texts that are written in English rather than learning to read them in Aramaic or Greek?

America has become a culture filled with people who don’t want to share, don’t play well with others, and act out, throwing a tantrum whenever they don’t get their way.

And that is really what the rise of Donald Trump has given voice to.

And it is a cultural trait that affects us all, because virtually all of our most important cultural traditions reinforce it. Ask yourself if, in fact, you have to actively decide, against your instincts, to reach out to people you’ve been taught to fear, to show compassion to people who make you uncomfortable, perhaps even disgust you. Ask yourself if, in fact, you have an inventory of things that you are protective of and hesitate to share. Be honest. And if you are the normative group of the culture, by which I mean white Christian heterosexual men, then do you not find yourself having to think about the things you do that challenge the norms and privileges associated with that?

This is why we all need allies. The truth is that we are all in this together. And we will either make it work together or destroy it together.

The Treadmill and the Highway: Liberal, Progressive and the Relativity of Movement.

In No Particular Path on October 23, 2016 at 12:13 pm

All motion is relative.

And our experience of it is personal and related to how we perceive the fixed points against which it is measured.

A few years ago, as I was driving cross-country, I entered Utah on I-70, where a sign at the Colorado/Utah line warns that there will be no services for the next 106 miles. That is a truly frightening thought for a New Englander, but it was not the distance that I noticed while I was driving across Utah, but the lack of a sense of movement through it. The mountains that rise above the high plains are well in the distance, so they seem to move along with you as you go, like the moon. And the landscape up close is unchanging to the unfamiliar eye, which does not see that this bit of desert is subtly different from the one just passed ten minutes ago. The untrained eye sees the whole without being able to distinguish the parts; as the untrained ear hears all the beauty of a symphony without being able to distinguish the violins from the violas. I had no reference points for sensing movement. I had no idea how far I had gone because the environmental cues I rely on for determining progress were missing; there was too much sameness, it was all too vast, I was in the middle of the ocean trying to navigate by individual drops of water.

On the other hand, I have occasionally joked to friends who were working out on a treadmill that they were literally “going nowhere fast.” But here the problem isn’t vastness, but intimacy. On a treadmill, you are, of course, moving. It wouldn’t do you much good if you weren’t. But the reference points for that movement are almost all your own body. Your movement isn’t so much through space as within it. You’re not trying to get anywhere. In fact, the point is to create movement exactly where you are. Progress is measured internally, not externally. Heart rate, blood pressure, breath and the burning of calories are all kinds of movement. We have decided not to listen to the whole orchestra, but to pay specific attention to the oboes, the percussion, and the movement of the director’s baton.

Now, I am, obviously, I hope, building a metaphor here. Or at least an analogy.

I think of myself as a progressive. I prefer the term to the much-maligned “liberal” label. It seems to me that one can be a liberal as a kind of treadmill. It’s internal. I can believe things. I can be philosophical about it all. The movement is all my own. There is nothing inherently wrong about that, of course. As a liberal, I have to look at the world and process what I see in ways that will energize and strengthen parts of my perspective, such as my moral and ethical codes, my knowledge and understanding of ideas and events, my empathy for the experiences and perspectives of others, and my sense of place in the world. Unless I exercise these internal aspects of myself they may become unhealthy, calcified. I am a white sixty-nine-year-old, middle-class, American male, influenced by my culture and my environment. So if I do my best to understand and empathize with the experiences of women and people of color; other cultures and beliefs; and those caught in whirlpools of poverty, mal-education, and cultural oppression; and if I make the effort to see the special privilege of my color, my class, and my sex; then I can count that as progress, even if I cannot do more right now to change those things.

If I am a progressive, on the other hand, then I need to get off the treadmill occasionally and go run outside. I need to do things, not just think about them. But to do that I need broader points of reference against which to measure my progress. In a world where there is so much that might be changed; where there is poverty, hunger, oppression, and bigotry of all kinds; where there is rape and murder and abuse of all kinds; it can be hard not to feel as though we are getting nowhere fast. The mountains we are aching to reach always seem to move with us and ahead of us, and it’s hard to tell one tumbleweed from the next or the last. I can “adopt” a child in need or a whole village, but I cannot adopt the whole world without a sense of futility. I can send money to a GoFundMe effort that will buy one beautiful child a life-saving operation, but I can’t save them all. I can move from understanding and empathy to learning how to be an ally to women and people of color and all who have been “other-ed”, and to finding ways to use my privilege to eliminate that privilege, but bigotry and oppression and privilege will still be there.

The trick is to find a place between the highway and the treadmill. We each need to understand our own path, with its unique landmarks and signposts, with its own hills and valleys, so that we know how to measure our progress by where we are and what kind of movement we are trying for. We need to seek ways to strengthen our inner selves without losing sight of the need to actually get somewhere.

And we need to stop judging our progress by the standards of people on different paths than ours or by comparing one measure of progress to another. If life is ecological, then every action, however small, makes a difference. We can say to ourselves, “Today I will help this veteran in this way, and I can do this other thing to help this immigrant.” I can say that I understand that all lives matter, but today these particular lives need special attention. I can send five dollars to GoFundMe and five more to a large political movement. I can applaud the work of people who stand with the Lakotas against the pipeline, but know that my personal movement needs to be measure by dropping off a box of food to the local food pantry. I don’t need to choose between their importance, I only need to understand where I am on my path, what kind of distance I need to travel, and how I will know that I am moving.

There is a short video circulating on Facebook right now that illustrates the theory that the solar system is moving through the universe. The result is an image of the planets moving not in simple elliptical orbits, but in vast spirals through the cosmos. It’s a beautiful thing to contemplate, but it is impossible for most of us to observe or sense. If our solar system is going somewhere and carrying us with it, then where is it going except some relative next point, and where is it leaving from except wherever it is right now? And in the vastness of the universe, where everything is so distant that it seems to move with us or away from us, how do we measure our progress?

All that most of us can do is move through the smallness of the space we occupy physically, spiritually and cognitively. We must each strive to understand and diligently observe the measure of our own progress. And we must refrain from using our reference points to judge the progress of others. The snail’s pace is as admirable as the cheetah’s, as long as we understand that it isn’t a competition.

All movement is relative.

Of Big Dawgs and Bitches: The Hillary Identity

In Politics on July 28, 2016 at 11:40 pm

Hillary Clinton has an identity problem. After all of her decades in politics, after being First Lady of Arkansas and First lady of the United States, after being a U.S. Senator, after being the first female Secretary of State, after years of advocacy on a huge range of issues, even after being feted nationally after the first ever commencement speech by a graduating senior at Wellesley, during which she challenged a sitting U.S. Senator who was the guest of honor; people don’t really know her.

I think I may have figured out why.

Hillary Clinton grew up at a time when men who sought power, who had ego and ambition and drive to achieve great things were the Big Dawgs, an epithet often applied to her husband. Women who had the same attributes could never aspire to be anything more than Bitches.

And so they were.

Women like Hillary Clinton played the Big Dawgs’ game. They used whatever power they could get hold to carve out a place in a world that had been built by men to serve men. They married their way or slept their way, or bought their way; they said what was expected of them, they did what they had to in the public eye while they schemed and fought and lived and died in the shadow of men. And everyone who knew them knew that they were Bitches.

And here’s the thing. They knew it, too. And they were not only willing to be Bitches, they were proud of what they had accomplished. Think of one great feminine – or if you prefer, feminist – heroine who advanced the many causes of women in a male-dominant American culture who was not called a Bitch, not once, but many times. That was the price of standing up and standing out. You were a Bitch.

Think it’s changed? You’re not paying attention.

Nancy Pelosi is famous as a Bitch. Elizabeth Warren has been called a Bitch. That classy, elegant woman Michelle Obama has been called a Bitch for nothing more ambitious than suggesting that the nation should do more to ensure that even the poorest children should have access to good nutrition on a daily basis, and for doing it while being Black. Hillary Clinton has been a Bitch for most of her life. She has spent a lifetime building a career and a political destiny predicated on being the biggest, baddest Bitch in the room.

But times have changed. Having finally gotten to the point where she is poised to become the first woman ever to hold the office of President of the United States, she finds that people want her to be something else: a woman. After playing for more than four decades with the Big Dawgs, beating them at their own games, playing by their rules, she is told that she is disliked, not trusted, because she is too much of a Bitch. They want to see her softer side, her feminine side, whatever that means.

Male candidates parade their masculine. They are tough, strong, aggressive, they say what they are thinking, they bellow and belch and strut about with their cocks leading the way, and few ever ask if they could show a little softness, a little of their feminine side. They boast of their membership in the fraternity of Big Dawgs.

Maybe it’s time for the Bitches to rule. Stand up and shout it, “Damn right I’m a Bitch! And now is our time!”

But, in a tribute to the words of the old song, “I’ll never let you forget that I’m a woman.” Give Hillary a chance to be the woman – caring, nurturing, soft, feminine – that you want her to be. She can be all that and more. She always has been. Tell her, gently and respectfully, that you want more of her and she’ll do her best. But first acknowledge the value of her (and of all the Bitches who led the way before her) being a Bitch for so many years.

For the women of this country who need to believe that they may finally be taken seriously, that they may have a powerful voice, a seat at the table with the Big Dawgs (and not just any seat, but the one at the head of the table), who want to know that their place and their purpose and their value to society may never again be measured in comparison to the men they love, or the men they compete with; Hillary has a chance to give them that.

Enough with the Big Dawgs, barking and howling and strutting their stuff on all the stages of the world! If a woman is to finally be the President, let her be the biggest, baddest Bitch in the room. And let her bring in with her all that makes her a woman; because the feminine is what’s been missing for far too long.

That’s the challenge Hillary has to face now. She has shown that she can play with the Big Dawgs and beat them at their own game. Now she has to change the rules, make it her game, make it a woman’s game. If she can do that she could be a whole lot more than just the “first woman President.” She could be one of the great Presidents, no gender qualification needed.

 

The “Joke’s” On Us

In PeaceAble on February 29, 2016 at 9:56 am

It has always been true that a society’s entertainment is one of the primary voices of its cultural norms. As a society’s focus shifts, its popular music, movies, literature, television and advertising reflect that shift. The entertainment media reflect more often than they create the rise is certain attitudes and behaviors. When a society feels especially afraid, for instance, or defenseless against large, terrible, uncertain dangers, there will be a rise in super hero movies, in television shows about heroic police, and ads that use those fears to sell everything from home alarm systems to pharmaceuticals to bullet-proof backpacks; not to mention guns. Because normative cultural messages reflect shifts in how we see ourselves and reality, and because social media have become so prominent I the dissemination of those messages, I am disturbed by the appearance of certain memes on my Facebook feed. Two recent “humor” trends illustrate the problem, but they are only the tip of the iceberg.

The Blond “Joke”: I thought we had settled this 30 years ago. There is nothing inherent in being a young, blond female that makes you dumb. And there is no joke, whether basically funny or not, that is made funnier by making the central character a dumb blond female. Yet I keep seeing the “jokes” popping up as click bait. Many of them seem harmless enough in the few sentences visible before you click on them, but it quickly becomes apparent that the authors feel comfortable once again in using this sort of irrelevant, pointless and insulting image as a basis for “humor.”  At a moment in history when we have a woman as a front runner for election to the presidency we are also seeing a resurgence of attacks on women’s right and women’s health, and the return of the dumb blond female “joke.” This is not a coincidence.

The “Funny” Mexican: As Donald Trump has been fanning the flames of racism and xenophobia in his presidential campaign (and his success has led his rivals to head down the same pyromaniac path), I have been seeing a Facebook meme that consists of a picture of a grossly grinning “Mexican” in a clownishly stereotypical serape and broad-brimmed hat, with various punch lines about how “Mexicans” speak English. We are being told that it is once again okay to use racial and cultural stereotypes to get laughs at other people’s expense. Again, as we try to engage in a national conversation about immigration, this is not a coincidence.

The argument being made by those who post such things, of course, is that everyone is too easily offended, and they are not going to be “politically correct.” You can fertilize an 18-hole golf course with those arguments.

If we seem to be more easily offended it is simply because we are becoming more conscious of the offenses. Before people pointed out that blackface on white people was offensive, there were already people of color who were greatly offended. Long before the Washington Redskins were being told that their team name and mascot were offensive, there were already First Nations people who were greatly offended. Long before Reese Witherspoon was “Legally Blonde,” generations of young blond women had to endure the offensiveness of such jokes. The only reason the rest of us were not aware of these offenses is that those who were offended were also marginalized, discriminated against, and shut out of the cultural messaging that was creating, reflecting, and perpetuating the offenses.

“Political Incorrectness,” like religion, is a refuge for scoundrels. The truth is that political correctness is a Loch Ness Monster. There will always be people who will believe in it and others who will be sure they’ve seen it, but it probably doesn’t really exist. Asking that we, as a culture and as a society, not do pointless, insensitive things that are hurtful and offensive to others is not political correctness, it’s maturity. As individuals we are expected to grow out of certain behaviors. Things that are cute in a 5-year-old are disgusting and immature in a 30-year-old. A society that continues to think that stereotyping of entire groups of people, discrimination against the “other” of the day, and the perpetuation of racist, sexist, xenophobic images and ideas is funny isn’t “politically incorrect,” it’s immature.

Now let me ask you. Are you someone who has reposted these sorts of memes and materials? Did you do so because you found them funny? Are you now feeling uncomfortable and perhaps, dare I suggest it, offended? There are times when every one of us might be reasonably offended by something. There isn’t anything wrong with that. If I were poking you with a stick, you would be right to feel pain. And you will feel that pain even if I do not intend to be poking you and I am not aware that I am poking you. You aren’t being “too sensitive.” And if you tell me that I am causing you pain, you would be rightly angered if I kept poking you because I thought it was funny, and even angrier if I told you that it was your pain that was wrong, not my behavior and I refused to be “Painfully Correct.”

There seems to be a growing sense in this political season that being offensive is a sign of honesty, of “telling it like it is,” and “speaking one’s mind.” In reality, it is a sign that we are regressing culturally. And we are easily made complicit in this regression. When we long for simpler times when the stereotypes of non-white, non-male, non-heterosexual and/or foreign people were fair game; when the objects of our humor were expected to simply recognize that not being white, male, heterosexual or American was justification enough for us to make fun of them; when “I was just joking” was legitimate cover for our insensitivity and offensiveness; then what we are really missing is our own culturally normalized superiority.

And as I close this argument, let me say that I am equally disturbed by those who make jokes about Trump supporters or Tea Party supporters as “Southern Hicks” who hump sheep and marry their cousins; or any “humor” that reinforces the polarizing, prejudicial attitudes that keep us from finding common ground on the high ground rather than the low. We can make a point of not telling these kinds of jokes, not laughing at them when others do (not even politely), and speaking up in protest against them. We are all responsible for the voices that define and reflect our culture.

Five Reasons I’m a Feminist

In PeaceAble on January 28, 2016 at 3:15 pm
  1. Because claiming I’m a humanist isn’t enough.

Feminism is not a subset of humanism. And humanism is not an umbrella term that excuses me from taking a specific position of advocacy with regard to the particular needs and concerns of women. I can, and feel that I need to be both a humanist and a feminist. The former says that I value and honor the human experience in its many and varied manifestations. The  latter says that I recognize that there is, nonetheless, within that human experience a significant degree of inequality, inequity, discrimination, disenfranchisement, and abuse directed at more than half of humankind as a direct consequence of their sex and their gender; and if I genuinely value and honor the particular experience of women, I need to work to change those things.

 

  1. Because claiming that I am an ally isn’t enough.

When you are someone’s ally, you stand beside them, you fight with them against a common enemy. There is nothing wrong with that; though, as a male I might be more properly called a collaborator than an ally. But one is an ally for the “other.” Being an ally suggests that I will fight alongside you, but I am not like you. And that can only take you just so far. I will certainly be an ally for women. I will do what I can to further the causes of women in this culture and in the world; but feminism requires that I not only support those things that will benefit women. It also requires me to understand that I am not really separate from them or those causes. As an ally I can empathize. As a feminist I must identify. I must see that there is no “other.” We are all the “other.”

I cannot escape the fact that I am a man. I don’t want to escape it. My life’s experience is shaped by the perspectives and influenced by the privileges and responsibilities that that fact embodies. It is likely that, in trying to explain my feminism or practice it, I have gotten some of it wrong. I know that I have certainly at times gotten things wrong with respect to the women in my life and my relationships with them. Part of the task of being a feminist is to make the effort to become more aware of those things and sensitive to them; to work to change in myself what I would change in the culture.

 

  3. Because I know the difference between “feminine” and “female.”

Slightly more than half of us are females by biological birth. I have no idea what percentage are female by personal identification. I do know that no one is fully feminine or fully masculine. The qualities we associate with the feminine are not the same as being a male or a female. This matters because when we discriminate against women it is at least partly because we associate the female with the qualities we have chosen to identify culturally as feminine and we are devaluing those qualities.

When I identify as a feminist, I am saying that what we do to women, what harms or benefits them, what diminishes them or elevates them has the same impact on us all. To discriminate against women is to discriminate against that which is feminine in me. To devalue women is to devalue the feminine in me. To honor and celebrate and work for equality for women is to do the same for the feminine in me.

Ours is a male dominant, male normative culture. The male/masculine voice is the dominant voice of the culture. As a male, I benefit from the privilege that dominant voice gives me. It is my responsibility, therefore, to use that voice to change the culture where I see that it does not function for the best interests of all; and to encourage the elevation of the feminine voice to its rightful, equal, place.

 

  1. Because there is power in the words we use.

Language is important. When we talk, for instance, about the Academy Awards and there is a best actor and a best actress, we know which is the more important award, because the words themselves tell us that “actress” is the diminutive form of “actor.” But if we were to call them the “best female actor” and “best male actor” there is at least the opportunity to see them as equally valuable. An actor is simply one who acts, regardless of sex or gender; and designating separate awards for a female and a male simply recognizes that each brings something slightly different to the endeavor. When we allow the term “feminism” to be marginalized, to be made to seem as though it only represents a small, radical group, then we can also marginalize the very real problems faced uniquely by women. Claiming the title for oneself, therefore, constitutes a small, but important act of affirmation that those problems are real and in need of resolution.

I am a humanist. I am an ally. I am a feminist. Each describes some different aspect of who I am in the world. Being one does not preclude my being another. I am a feminist because the culture is masculinist. I will be a feminist until it is possible to be both in equal measure.

5. Because it’s personal.

I have had a mother and grandmothers. I have had wives and daughters and sisters and nieces. I love some amazing women. And I know that statistically far more of them than I am aware have been raped, abused, and harassed. All of them have suffered some kind of discrimination because they are women. I have seen the impact of these things in the women whose stories I know. I know that the pain this causes me is not even close to what it has caused them. I also have a brand new granddaughter and I want to see the systemic sexism and misogyny of our culture end, so that being a woman is no longer a disability or a danger.

What is it with Americans and Bathrooms? And Sex? And Bathrooms and Sex?

In PeaceAble on November 10, 2015 at 11:17 am

Remember the ERA? That was a simply stated proposal to amend the Constitution by adding the idea that: “Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex.” Somehow, the idea that a person’s biological sex should not be a barrier to full protection of the law became a discussion about bathrooms.

The ERA opponents convinced large portions of the populace that the amendment would require, not just allow but require, men and women to use the same bathrooms. At the same time. And the ERA, which was intended to pave the way for women to be protected equally under the law, had to be defeated to protect the womenfolk and, let’s not forget, the children. Now the same arguments are being used to deny transgender folk from using bathrooms that correspond to their gender.

What are we defending them from in both instances? Why, men, of course.

Think about that for a moment. We cannot do things to protect the rights of women and females because such laws would interfere with our ability to protect them from men. That’s right. Women and children need to be protected from men. And the only thing that can protect them is also men.

We have been raising generations of boys to believe that to be a man is to be powerful, being powerful is the same as being dangerous, and respect is the same as fear. This is the fundamental idea behind every militaristic, male-dominant cultural norm we are now struggling with.

The whole concept is rolled up in a neat package of “natural” or “God-given” law. Even people who claim that evolution is bunk and we are definitely not related to apes will proclaim that male-dominance in other species is proof that men are supposed to be in control and use their manly power to keep things together and ensure the survival of the species.

We cannot, of course, separate this natural dangerousness of the man from the fact of the male sex organ. It is more than a vessel for depositing semen and sperm into the vagina, it is a blunt instrument; a weapon for, literally, invasion and conquest. The consequences of this mind-set permeate our culture and poison our attempts to reach for equality, justice and fairness.

And the converse is also true. Power is seen as male. The female is weak. A woman who seeks power has to make it in a man’s world, be more like the men she has to compete with, learn how to wield the masculine; at which point she is open to the charge that she is not feminine enough. Michelle Obama shows off her muscular arms and expresses herself in powerful ways and she is called a dyke and a “tranny.” Hillary spends a political lifetime showing how tough she can be, how willing she is to loose the dogs of war; and may lose the presidency because she is seen as too much like the men we have been electing for the past 200 years.

Authority is seen as male, also, and that is why we are told to accept it as dangerous. Just do what the police officer tells you to. Everything would have been all right if you had just complied. Don’t question, don’t resist. You should know that it is dangerous and so deserve what happens to you.

The simile of the gun as phallus is real. Guns are rigid projections that ejaculate bullets. They are tools of invasion and conquest. They are powerful and dangerous and masculine.

But such power is not the same for everyone. Its special power is reserved for the privileged. A white man walking around with a gun is a patriot expressing his second amendment rights. He’s a good guy with a gun and we should be thankful that he is there because he is powerful and he will protect you against the danger posed by other guys with guns. A non-white man walking around with a gun is dangerous, a terrorist, a thug. He is the dangerous bad guy we need the good guy to protect us from. The power and the danger of the black male, which are to be feared, are rooted in the mythology of the black man’s physical and sexual prowess. The white man’s power is good because he is seen as civilized; the black man cannot escape his image as a savage in need of subjugation and control. If the black man is allowed his power then he becomes, perhaps, more powerful than the white man and more dangerous to the white man who fears not just his power but his savagery.

As a nation, we are woefully, and perhaps willfully, ignorant about the differences between sex and gender. And, it would seem, between sex as a biological trait and sex as a behavior. To be a male, biologically, is to be born with a distinct combination of chromosomes that cause the development of external genitalia. We can fairly easily identify certain physical traits that are male. But to be masculine is to exhibit certain behavioral traits, including traits of emotional and psychological behavior that society identifies as masculine. These are not universally or exclusively associated with being male, but the confusion exacerbates the problems.

Gay men are seen as dangerous because the object of their sexual desire is other men. We cannot get past the idea that sex is masculine and powerful, which necessitates the weak and feminine as its complement. We cannot conceive of two men in a relationship of equal power because we cannot conceive of a man and a woman in a relationship of equal power. The feminine is weak and someone has to be the woman; or what does it mean to be the male, the powerful one? We are not as bothered by two women being sexual because they are no threat to the power of the masculine; unless they are lesbians, which directly challenges the necessity of the masculine power in the relationship. One of them has to be the man, but how can she? She lacks the necessary equipment. Transgender women are dangerous as long as they retain their masculine sex organs, but no one is afraid that transgender men will infiltrate men’s rooms and be a danger to the biological males. Even if a transgender man has sex-change surgery, we can tell ourselves that it isn’t a “real” penis, so it isn’t really powerful or dangerous.

If we have any hope of developing a more peaceable world, of achieving greater equality and justice in all our institutions and relationships, we need to move away from this masculine model of power and develop a model that includes the feminine.

Bubble, Bubble, Toil and Trouble

In Politics on October 8, 2015 at 5:38 pm

Let’s talk about bubbles.

I have been seeing a lot of talk about bubbles lately. Washington legislators and their minions live in the bubble of Washington politics. The wealthy live in the bubble of their wealth and influence. Gun legislation opponents live in a bubble created by the NRA and right-wing media. Liberals live in a bicoastal bubble of intellectual elitism.

I have just read an interesting article (“Yes, I know the context of this t-shirt and yes, it is still ridiculous,” by Shaun King, published on Daily Kos), which takes Meryl Streep and the cast of the movie Suffragette to task for wearing promotional t-shirts with the words “I’d rather be a rebel than a slave.” The writer is not alone in criticizing the particular quotation as being insensitive. Many people see the juxtaposition of the ideas of rebel and slave as offensive. And there is some evidence that Emmeline Pankhurst, one of the leaders and a public face of the suffragette movement, considered the conditions of women in Great Britain at the time to be worse than African slavery in America. And there is outrage at seeing the t-shirts on white-privileged actors.

The t-shirts are part of the promotional campaign for Suffragette, a new film that chronicles the early struggle over women’s right to vote in Britain in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The t-shirt quote is part of a longer, well known quote from Pankhurst. She depicts the struggle as a revolution, women as an oppressed minority, and the choice as one between rebellion and continued oppression and servitude.

But it is the writer’s core argument that has got me thinking. He argues that the privileged white women in the cast live in a bubble created by their whiteness and their privilege and they need to understand that their words and actions have consequences outside of that bubble. He argues that the fact that a great many people assumed that the t-shirt was a statement about slavery made by privileged white women outweighs the importance of considering the actual context of the statement.

I have two criticisms of this line of argument. First, living in a bubble of one’s own experience, one’s own communities, one’s own culture, is a basic part of the human condition; and it is one that applies just as much to the author of the article as it does to his subjects. Second, if we remove context from our consideration of what something means, then we take away one of the most important clues for understanding, and we make language entirely personal. Put those together and the author is essentially arguing that every message I encounter means what I say it means from my perspective, and it is unnecessary for me to consider anyone else’s perspective in order that we might properly understand one another.

Successful communication requires some work from all parties to it. It is not only the responsibility of the speaker to ensure proper interpretation of the message. The listener has some responsibility as well. People don’t seem very willing lately to do that work or take that responsibility. We declare that we know what something means and that’s all there is to it. We cherry pick the Bible and the Constitution. We choose the context in which we have decided the meaning really lies and proclaim that as the only important context. The important thing is that we are right.

This is especially dangerous in the context of the current polarization we are experiencing around what seems to be every possible difference, large and small, that might possibly divide us. The danger is further fueled by a bumper-sticker/meme mentality that encourages us to respond to sound bites rather than to consider even complete sentences and certainly not extended conversation. We’re in a hurry to argue, a rush to confront; and no hurry at all to compromise, understand, or reason. From “the right to bear arms” to “religious freedom” to “socialism” to “one nation under God” and a thousand other shorthand expressions, we speak to one another as though our first reaction is the right one and nuance is unthinkable.

But context is not fixed by either the speaker or the listener. When we claim that this or that is the only proper context in which to consider something, then we deny the reality of the depth and breadth of human communication and experience.

Consider some possible contexts for what the slogan is saying.

What do the words themselves actually say?  Taken out of any context except their literal meaning, what is the problem with proclaiming that “It is better to be a rebel than a slave”? Does the idea itself offend you? Do you disagree with it? I doubt that any reasonable person would declare that it is better to be a slave than a rebel. Yet it is the reality of the oppressed that they don’t see that it is possible to rebel, because the oppressor has taken steps to prevent it. The oppressor knows that slavery is subject not to the slave’s unwillingness to rebel, but by how dangerous the oppressor has made that rebellion. Isn’t this quotation essentially the same as “Give me liberty or give me death”? When the oppressed see that rebellion is the better choice, then oppression is in danger.

The quote is specific to the real life events and persons the movie depicts. Emmeline Parkhurst apparently did say that; and she was specifically referring to the very real social, economic and political conditions affecting women at that time. Is it really fair to take it out of that context and apply to it the nuances of contemporary sensitivities? We can look back nearly any historical period, event or personality and find things to be offended by if we judge them by contemporary standards. But what does that serve? Was Pankhurst any less a progressive and courageous figure in her own time because she doesn’t have the consciousness of ours?

The current ubiquity of public and social media means that we cannot control our audiences. This slogan and the photos of the film’s actors wearing the t-shirts are clearly intended for mass distribution, so there is certainly a need to consider multiple audiences. The message is almost certainly going to create controversy somewhere. I think we can be predict almost without contradiction that there are some white people somewhere who think that the slogan itself and the controversy around it is an attack on white people. I am sure that there are people muttering about political correctness, and others thinking that the t-shirts would look great while they walk around open-carrying their AR-15s to protect themselves from the tyranny the government. In a diverse culture there will be diverse responses. Some perspectives will have more validity, more importance, and more resonance than others. And it is fair to argue that our own perspective should take precedence. But if we want others to respect our perspective, then we ought to show theirs the same respect; provided that it is honestly presented, reasonable, and not ill-intended.

Comparing one oppressed group’s struggle to another’s is a common rhetorical technique. You may certainly quibble with the simile, but the suffragette movement would arguably have been less successful if its leaders had compared women’s suffrage to something less dramatic. Would the impact have been the same of “It is better to be a rebel than . . . well, something certainly not as bad as African slavery in the Americas, but bad enough nonetheless”? Currently there are certainly far too many attempts among certain groups to make out that everything they don’t like is the same as Hitler and the Nazis, or to suggest that slavery really wasn’t that all that bad, or to conflate every social program with a communist conspiracy of some kind. But this quote doesn’t do that. It doesn’t diminish the horrors of slavery, it simply refers to the idea as a benchmark for how bad things were.

Slavery continues to exist in the world, and women are particular victims of it. From international sex trafficking to third world sweatshops, and even to the practices of some unscrupulous employers of undocumented workers in this country, slavery is a world-wide problem that needs to be addressed. The slogan might certainly have resonance for millions of oppressed people. No one group and no single culture owns slavery. It wasn’t invented for Africans, nor ended when the American slaves were emancipated. If we see the words in the context of the lives of those who suffer even today, do they not have contemporary resonance? Could the slogan not easily have been the battle cry of the Syrian rebels?

The people wearing the t-shirts are all privileged white women. Yes they are. And they’re promoting a movie about mostly white women who were not so privileged, led by white women who, in their own time were also privileged by the standards of their society. But these aren’t a group of ignorant, insensitive snobs. They all appear to be intelligent, progressive, thoughtful people. One could certainly talk with them about the potential for offense and the need for sensitivity. It is certainly not necessary to condemn or vilify them. And it’s counterproductive. Disadvantaged and historically oppressed groups have recently been very vocal about the need for members of privileged classes to come out as allies in the fight for equality and acceptance for non-whites, for LGBTQ persons, for rape victims, for trafficking victims, and the list goes on. Isn’t there a real danger that those alliances get more difficult if we substitute outrage for reason?

We are currently engaged in a deeply divided debate in this country about things like systemic racism in the economy, in law enforcement, in immigration policy and in political representation, to name just a few. At a time when #BlackLivesMatter is seen as militancy and anti-white or anti-police, there is certainly a reasonable argument to be made that a greater degree of sensitivity to the needs and concerns of minority communities is required. But just as #BlackLivesMatter is not a statement that no other lives also matter, this t-shirt slogan is not a statement that the issues raised by #BlackLivesMatter are trivial or that we don’t have to work to resolve them. The slogan can stand as a statement about the themes explored in the film; and also as a statement about current economic, racial, gender and other inequities; and as a general statement about the need to help people to rise up against oppression wherever it occurs.

Like everyone else, I am reading the slogan and writing the response from within the bubble of my own experience, and I am a white male. If we are going to seek genuine understanding and real solutions to the issues that divide us, don’t we need to first acknowledge the limitations of our own perspectives? My knowledge and my appreciation of the experience of non-whites in America are limited by my own white skin. I can empathize but never really identify. I will, probably more often than I know, say or do things that make sense to me, but will cause discomfort or offense in others. If I do, then I am more than happy to hear how they have been affected. But I want to hear about their experience of my words, not their judgments about me or my bubble.

The author of the article is, I infer, male. Shaun would be an unusual name for a female.   Some language in the article suggests to me that he is not a white man. Beyond that I know nothing about him except that he publishes his writing on Daily Kos, a liberal website. So what are the bubbles within which he lives? Clearly there are things that seem self-evident to me that might seem entirely wrong to him; and yet we would probably agree on eighty or ninety percent of the positions we might take on important issues of race, equity, privilege, media and messaging, and a host of others.

So, from the parts of our perspectives that we do not share, we disagree about this slogan and whether these women ought to be wearing it on their t-shirts. But I think that in the larger picture we will find that our need for each other in solving the real problems is more important than our rhetorical disagreement.

How To Tell If You’re Privileged In America

In PeaceAble on July 4, 2015 at 4:09 pm

(This may be the most uncomfortable thing I have written to date, and if it makes you uncomfortable as well, I apologize for that; but I hope you will stay to the end, regardless.)

There has been quite a bit of talk lately about privilege; and a lot of folks who have been privileged don’t necessarily understand what it means to say they’re privileged, so they don’t understand how other people can say that they are. Now, first of all, it’s important to understand that the privilege being talked about isn’t about any particular individual, it’s about classes of individuals who benefit in sometimes subtle and sometimes obvious ways from privilege they may not even recognize they have. So here is a list of basic rules you can refer to in order to decide if you are a member of a privileged class in America.

  1. You began to feel outraged and attacked as soon as you read the headline to this article, because you were sure it was going to be about you.

The truth is that most people who are privileged (as well as those who are prejudiced, though the two don’t necessarily go together) know at some level that they are privileged; but they are uncomfortable with the idea and don’t want it pointed out to them. The kind of privilege I’m talking about here isn’t earned, it’s inherited by those whose parents have it. We know how lucky we are not to have been born “the other,” but want it to be a good thing, not something for which we are criticized and attacked. But all this does is put us unnecessarily on the defensive and make it even more likely that we will be seen as uncaring, self-important, prejudiced and undeserving of the privileges we have.

  1. You have never needed to hyphenate your citizenship and no one else has ever done it for you.

In other words, you have a choice about your own identity. You can be simply an American; or you can choose to identify some other aspect to include, such as Irish or Italian or Polish. But you won’t have that identity superimposed over your American-ness by other people in order to classify you as somehow a different kind of American. You are the standard by which “the other” is measured and to which it is compared.

  1. If you accomplish something no one feels the need to qualify what you did by some unrelated detail.

You are the CEO of your company, not the female CEO or the African-American CEO; and no one even notices that there is anything missing. While it is true that if you do something others have done before you, you don’t get the chance to be the first, but at the same time there is no apparent surprise that you did it at all. And the barriers to your doing it are fewer and less systemic than those encountered by other people who don’t have your privilege.

4. You think that things you consider a right when you do them are a privilege if other people are allowed to do them.

Until the Supreme Court’s recent ruling about same-sex marriages, every straight person in America knew that they had a right to marry whomever they chose, based on whatever reasons they wished to use. They married to have children, or to get security, or to establish a social or even an economic bond. They married so as not to be lonely, or because it was expected of them. And they often married because they had a bond of love and sexual attraction with their intended spouse. But when same-sex couples asked for the same right, they were told that they were creating a “special privilege” to which they weren’t entitled.

  1. You think that “tradition” is an unassailable argument for continuing to do something.

This is actually a specific and very common logical fallacy. It is the argument that because something has always been, it is supposed to be and should continue. But that simply argues against all change and all progress. Tradition is always the argument of the status quo and the status quo is the creation of the privileged. Our culture is defined by norms that are defined by those with the most power and the most privilege, and when those norms begin to change, the powerful and privileged feel threatened. “Tradition” is a way of saying that regardless of the objective merit of a change it is outweighed by the need to keep doing it the old way. This also keeps us from simply no longer doing something that doesn’t work simply because “we need to do something” and this is what it’s always been.

6. You think that “privilege” means “never have any problems,” so you resent someone saying that you’re privileged.

Let’s face it, even within the privileged classes there are problems and not everyone is treated equally. Often this is because privilege is multi-layered. The very wealthy have access to privilege that others don’t have, for example; but poverty is more likely to be a problem, or a much greater problem, for those who also lack other privilege, especially as part of a class that they cannot choose to enter. It is possible to get rich through hard work or luck, but if you’re Asian-American (note the hyphenization mentioned above) you can’t stop being that. For some people it might be possible to hide an “otherness” for a while, but it exacts an enormous psychological toll and the risks involved when your “other” identity is discovered can be enormous.

  1. You think that “privilege,” means “always get your own way,” and you don’t; and when you don’t get your own way you don’t understand why not.

If you are a Christian in America today, you get to have the name of the god you believe in included in public life from the national motto to the nation’s money to the Pledge of Allegiance; and you can simultaneously claim that the term refers to some generic god while knowing that virtually everyone is imagining your god when they see it. As a result, it is easy to imagine that the god you worship is the nation’s god or ought to be, and when others stand up and say “no” to that, you feel attacked and disempowered; which is exactly the way non-Christians feel every time they are required to use the name of your god in a public way. One of the unintended consequences of Affirmative Action was that white people became convinced that every time they lost out on a job or a college placement to a non-white it was because of color alone, not other qualifications. But this assumed two things that weren’t true. The first was that the white applicant must be more qualified than the non-white, a claim that was made even by objectively less qualified people. The second was that they were only competing against the non-white. I once had someone tell me that he had failed to get into college because the system favored non-white applicants, even though the percentages of non-white applicants and acceptances werestill far below their representation among all applicants and the general population.

  1. You still don’t really understand why you can’t discriminate against others, but think it’s reverse discrimination when you’re told you have to stop doing it.

I once joked that it took white men hundreds of years to come to the conclusion that discrimination against others was wrong, but no time at all to agree that no one should ever do it to them. Affirmative action is not an assault on the rights of white people, but it is definitely an assault on their unquestioned privilege. If we say that a long history of discrimination has been a bad thing and we aren’t going to allow it to continue, we cannot just say that we will begin today and everything will be fine. What has gone before has created conditions that continue to create problems unless we correct for them. There is no reset button that erases the systemic effects of prejudice and the disempowerment, disenfranchisement, discrimination, violence and abuse that it caused. There were always consequences for those who were discriminated against, and the consequences of correcting for that are not anywhere near as terrible. Nothing that the privileged are being asked to suffer in order to give all people access to that privilege and those rights will ever amount to anything close to the suffering that the others endured.

  1. You have ever used the phrase “those people,” or something like it when an individual does something you don’t like, but when someone like you does something bad you rush in to proclaim that #notall(peoplelikeme) do it.

This is the confusion of the general with the personal. Most rapists are male and most victims are female. Stating this is not a condemnation of all males, but a recognition that women, in general, have to deal with something that men, in general, do not. It is also a recognition that the problem is one that all men have to confront if the situation is going to change. It is not enough to say that I, personally, am not a rapist; I also have to look at how I, as a male, in a male-dominant culture, have some responsibility for changing that culture. My maleness gives me privilege, and that privilege gives me power. I can use that power either as an ally or an impediment for change.

  1. You are a straight white male.

This is the toughest one for a lot of people, especially straight white males, and a lot of the other rules perhaps help to explain this one, but I’ll begin with some basics. Straight white male is the cultural norm in America. Everything is ultimately about you, both for good and for ill. Whatever anyone else does, it is compared to you. In spite of the fact that there are more people in this country who are not straight white males than are, most positions of power, wealth and influence are held by people like you. The laws reflect your needs more than the needs of others. Because people like you wrote the Constitution, it has had to be revised, amended and reinterpreted over the past 200+ years in order to specifically include and meet the needs of those who are not like you.

Plus: You get to be a hero for doing very little.

Are you a straight white American male? Want people to praise you and hold you up as a model of progressive thought? It’s simple. Write something self-deprecating in praise of women. Put on a rainbow-flag shirt and attend a Pride parade. Vote for a woman for congress or the presidency and tell everyone else to do the same. Proclaim yourself an ally and correct people who express prejudicial opinions. Or do what I’ve just done and explain just how self-aware you are about your privilege. It’s easy. The truth is that I am writing from the same privilege that I am describing and there’s nothing I can do about it except to acknowledge it. The privileged don’t actually deserve a lot of praise for doing things to extend that privilege to others. It’s really just the simple, decent, moral thing to do, and only the privileged can do it. The heroes are those who have fought for decades and centuries and longer to reach the point where the privileged can now have the additional privilege of being praised for simply offering to share that privilege. Don’t hate me for being a straight white male, but don’t make me a hero for it, either.

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