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Crazy

February 29, 2012 1 comment

I am an atheist.  As a fairly open and active atheist, I am exposed to a lot of arguments for, against, and about religion.  There is one particular idea that crops up in these arguments rather frequently that disturbs me, and unfortunately it comes from my own group.

My fellow atheists, I would like to talk to you about “crazy”.

The word crazy is a fairly common descriptor for just about anything a particular individual disagrees with or finds incomprehensible.  In the case of atheism, that would be religion, and there are two main ways I have seen religion and religious people described as crazy.  The first is a plain comparison between religious beliefs and mental illness, for example readers may be familiar with “The God Delusion”, and the other is more mindless: the speaker is simply accustomed to declaring things they don’t agree with to be “crazy” (which, again, is fairly common).  There are a number of things that are seriously wrong with this, and I am going to try to go through them in the order in which I think readers will care.

 

1) You sound like an idiot.

This is especially the case when you use “crazy” as an ad hominem attack, calling a religious person crazy rather than a religious idea.  When you describe anything as “crazy” what you are really saying is that you don’t have any legitimate arguments against it (this is always the case with ad hominem, so I’m just going to assume we’re calling ideas crazy from here on).  In a debate, you are signaling to your opponent that they have won, because you have nothing left to say.  “Crazy” is a cop-out here: it gives no information about what is wrong with the idea or doctrine in question.  Which is sad because many of the things I’ve seen described as “crazy” are actually serious problems—religiously motivated bigotry and terrorism, pro-life ideology, views of women and sexuality, etc.—that should be criticized for the things that are actually wrong with them.  I realize that there is no short hand way to talk about the problems with many of these issues, but in my mind that merely underlines the importance of those issues (and in any case, I am vehemently against arguments that can fit on a bumper sticker).  If you are going to criticize an idea, doctrine, or even a person, do so, but you have to actually criticize it.  “Crazy” is lazy.*

*that rhyme was entirely unintentional, I’m sorry.

 

2) You are misinterpreting both your opponent and “crazy”.

If a person decides that god has commanded them to blow themselves up and take a building full of people with them, that person is probably not crazy.  If a person believes that homosexuality is evil and that women are subservient to men because a religious text says so, that person is probably not crazy.  The vast majority of religious people, whether or not they subscribe to any of the fucked up ideas I have mentioned so far, are perfectly sane.  And if you are going to argue against religious doctrines or ideas, you need to acknowledge that.  When you call a religious person or idea “crazy”, you are dismissing them without really considering the full impact of the ideology.  These ideas have been thought through, reinforced within communities, and endlessly justified; they are not the result of mental imbalance or impairment and they need to be taken 100% seriously if they are to be combated, something you are not doing if you believe them to be “crazy”.

Let’s look at a real, medical definition of mental illness.  Mental illness is “Any of various conditions characterized by impairment of an individual’s normal cognitive, emotional, or behavioral functioning, and caused by social, psychological, biochemical, genetic, or other factors…” (American Heritage Dictionary)  The “impairment of functioning” part is the most important.  Unfortunately, the perception of mental illness in the general population is that crazy people are violent or malicious, when in reality someone with a mental illness is more of a danger to themselves than anyone else.  Someone with a mental illness may have difficulty with relationships, coping with stress, holding down a job, or basic self-care practices.  While most of the screwed-up ideas that are given religious justification are problematic in society, “crazy” is personal impairment that needs to be dealt with individually.  It is true that people can experience significant amounts of distress in relation to some religious doctrines, which could then qualify as mental illness of some sort, that does not make the doctrine itself “crazy”, only that specific experience of it.  The way that we deal with societal issues is very different from the way that someone would deal with a mental illness.

Calling a religious person or idea “crazy” shows a misunderstanding of the vast gulfs of difference between these two things, and that limits your ability to affectively deal with the doctrines that are actually problematic.

 

2.5) Religion is not schizophrenia.

I see this specific comparison often enough to give it its own section.  This seriously underlines the lack of understanding and general knowledge about mental illness.  The main reason for this is the miscasting of a religious idea or experience as a “delusion” or “hallucination”.  First of all, ecstatic experiences can be fairly easily induced in people who have no mental illness at all, so we do not need to posit a “crazy” explanation for religious experiences.  Secondly, belief in god is non-falsifiable (look it up if that term is unfamiliar to you), most delusions are blatantly and obviously false.  In fact, from the little reading I have done * people with schizophrenia can often distinguish between their delusions and there bona-fide religious or spiritual beliefs.  Also, delusions and hallucinations do not necessarily have to be distressing; I have heard of people with fairly benign delusions (believing that your record player affects the weather is not going to have a huge impairment on your day-to-day functioning—this example comes from a friend who spent some time in a psych ward and keeps in contact with some of the people he met there), and I have even heard of people with schizophrenia missing their hallucinations after they begin treatment (many mental illnesses are, after all, just coping mechanisms that have gone horribly wrong).

People are not brought up with a delusional belief, one is not raised to experience hallucinations. Once again we see that religion is a social phenomenon, while the mental illness it is compared to is personal.  I encourage readers to do a little basic research on schizophrenia and other mental illnesses to better understand the vast gulfs of difference between them and ideas that are simply incorrect or screwed up.

*I would like to stress very strongly at this point that I am not an expert in mental illness, I just read a lot of literature and blogs on the subject matter.  Take that as you will.

 

3) You are reinforcing the stigmatization of mental illness.

When you say that a particular thing is crazy, what you are really trying to express is that you don’t like it.  You are expressing your distaste by making a comparison to something else already considered negative.  It is a shorthand, and a fairly lazy one at that.  So saying “religion is crazy” is actually saying is “I take issue with religion and so I am going to equate it with this other thing that is stigmatized”.  It is exploiting the existing negative connotations given to mental illness in order to attack something totally unrelated.

The purpose behind fighting screwed up religiously motivated ideas and doctrines is to make people change their minds, religious beliefs are something that is chosen.  But mental illness is not chosen and can only be changed with a lot of work on the part of the individual (and an amount of outside support and possibly the aid of medication).  To equate mental illness with the chosen doctrines that you take issue with is to reinforce the idea that people with mental illnesses are dangerous and/or malicious.  In order to call anything you don’t like or agree with “crazy” you have to endorse the idea that crazy people are bad, and so does the person whose ideas you are calling crazy, resulting in  a double reinforcement of the stigma when that person reacts negatively.

Mental illness should be responded to with empathy and support, not censure, an effort you are unknowingly undermining whenever you refer to something you don’t like as “crazy”.

 

Even if you don’t care about any of that, and I realize that unfortunately many people will not, the use of “crazy” is not useful in a criticism of anything.  Just stop using it this way; it’s doing the opposite of helping in so many different directions it’s not even funny.

There’s no such thing as Gender Utopia

April 3, 2011 3 comments

So, I’d like to address this whole “transcending gender” thing that crops up from time to time in discussions on gender and transgendered people. It’s very weird to me and I need to puzzle it out a bit. I’ve heard two roughly similar versions of this idea, one from feminists and queer theorists and one from within the trans community.

The first is based on the idea that gender is socially constructed (well, both of them are, but this one stresses the construction vs. being a “performance” or whatever else characterization), specifically a construction that serves to oppress women and/or queer people. Gender is equated with the trappings of social roles, and the recognition that the social roles favor heterosexual men. So in this view the only way to throw of the shackles is to remove gender (i.e. the social roles). This one is a bit tricky to parse because, on the one hand, eradication of prescriptive social roles based on sex/gender/genitals/whatever IS at least part of what will remove oppression of women and sexual minorities, but on the other hand it completely ignores people’s self perception. There’s no evidence that I’ve seen that getting rid of social roles will get rid of gender. Look at groups of people who obviously don’t give a shit about socially acceptable gender roles–cross dressers, drag performers, genderfucks, anyone with a gender expression drastically different from the standard social stereotype–how many of them identify as men and women? More specifically, how many of them identify identically with how they are identified at birth (i.e. are cisgendered)? Most. Why should that be? If they’ve cast off the societal roles, why should they still have genders? Probably because there is more to gender than just the way one behaves. That’s not to say that gender=biology, that would be an oversimplification in and of itself, but it is my personal experience that gender has some intrinsic properties that cannot be escaped and I would assume that at least some other people have similar experiences. Plus, why should getting rid of something be the only way to fix problems? It is, in my mind, entirely possible to end gender/sex-based discrimination without getting rid of gender. The argument here seems to be that the only way to liberate women is to abolish them (and men as well, but still). It seems counter-intuitive to me. It really makes me wonder if the people espousing this idea have taken a close look at their own genders (maybe they have, but I honestly doubt they’d be so cavalier about getting rid of other people’s gender if they felt particularly invested in their own self-conception).

The second version, which is more insidious in my mind, is the one tossed around the genderqueer branch of the trans community. This again states that gender is oppressive, and that removing it will end all gender oppression. But more than that, it specifically declares that non-binary genders are the way of the future, that they are evolving out or that eventually everyone will have a non-binary gender and because of that we’ll live in a genderless genderfucking society. This is the idea that gave this post its name, because more extreme versions of it paint a picture of a magical world where every other person is a drag performer and everyone else is too busy being androgynous to bother with gender-specific clothing. It specifically states (as does the one above to a lesser extent) that non-binary genders are more radical and progressive, and thus better, than non-binary genders. This is one of the sources behind the ridiculous “transgender vs. transsexual” infighting that occurs in the community (the other source being “binary-only” ideas amongst some trans people, they kind of feed off each other). It bothers me immensely that a community that ostensibly takes “be yourself” as a primary maxim privileges certain self-expressions in this way: do whatever you want so long as it serves to “tear down the binary”, if who you are doesn’t look like it’s meeting that goal that you are at best trapped in the system and at worst actively keeping everyone else down. But what really frustrates me about this is that I don’t feel particularly like transcending anything, I like having a gender. Maybe this one doesn’t seek to eradicate my gender, given that I am non-binary identified, but I feel very strongly about my gender identity so even if it isn’t I shudder at asking anyone else to give up theirs either.

I think that instead of abolishing gender we should be working towards removing the value judgments placed on people’s genders, sexes, and gendered behavior*. Instead of trying to impose a gender-neutral androgynous society or “smash the binary” we should be seeking to expand the conceptions people have about gender.

And honestly, we will never have true gender liberation. With women perhaps, because there are roughly the same number of them as men we could get to a point where they are socially equal, but unless we give everyone born without a uterus a transplant then we still will have a source of extra burden placed on some people** (not that I think childbearing automatically disprivleges women, but pregnancy is something half the population will never have to think about and that isn’t insignificant). But with transgendered people and those with non-binary gender identities? Tiny minority, and all the baggage that comes with that. Even a population that is entirely accepting of non-binary genders and makes no assumption about other peoples’ identity will have issues when there is a strong majority (personally knowing people who are similar to you is one thing that I consider to be part of cis-privilege and isn’t something that’s going away unless we magically make there be more of us, for example).

I don’t believe that people espousing a “transcend gender” philosophy will meet their goals, and I don’t think that’s altogether a bad thing.

*I define this term to mean activities traditionally associated with gender, for example traits categorized as “masculine” or “feminine”, though not exclusive to those categories.
**I originally wrote women and then remembered that they aren’t the only ones who can be born with uteri, just that they make up the bulk of those people

You don’t get a month

January 19, 2011 Leave a comment

So, I’m back from my holiday hiatus, and I want to recount a discussion I had near the end of it. A pair of people I know very well had an argument with me over the existence of “X-minority-group history month/week” and pride days. This is something that has come up with them before and will again, so I’m hoping to consolidate my arguments for the future (I also don’t think that I really had my complete say in the argument, given how awkward I am in person).

I don’t remember how the discussion got onto this topic, but the crux of the issue was “why is there no white history month or straight pride marches?” Yeah, you’ve heard it before. I personally find it one of the more ignorant and absurd things that otherwise intelligent, well-meaning people spout on a regular basis. The argument itself fluctuates between “those minorities have things that we don’t” and “why do these things need to exist in the first place?”

So, I’m going to attempt to explain to you, in as best as I can, why this argument is crap.

The reason these things exist in the first place is to fight oppression. Marginalized groups are told by society that there is something wrong with them on a pretty much constant basis. The details vary from group to group, region to region, and even person to person, but for any given minority there is a group saying “you suck” that is given a fair amount of attention by society at large. Note of course that for many groups this is a severe oversimplification: for example, from what I’ve read by people who actually experience racism most of it comes from people who consider themselves to not be racist. And any variation of “you suck” can be very subtle (“I don’t think your lifestyle is one that’s appropriate for children to know about/be told about/have to think about but *of course* I don’t have a problem with it” is one I hear a lot in the media that’s pertinent to me). And when many of these days/weeks/months were implemented, things were worse than they are now.

So the point of these events are to counteract the “you suck” factor, preferably in a way that is obvious and available on some level to as many people from the relevant group as possible. Some of it is just plain old visibility. Some of it is educational in other ways, for example the history months (because really, beyond that one worksheet you filled out on King on MLK day, how often did black people in American history come up in your high school classes?). Because when you’re a member of a marginalized group, it’s nice to have a reminder that there are people out there just like you who are happy and successful, and quite frankly I don’t see the mainstream media doing much in that vein outside of talking about these specific events.

If you are not part of a marginalized group, this doesn’t really happen to you. People can’t argue that you are hurting society and still get taken seriously. The validity of your life is not a subject for debate. You are not consistently alienated from “normal” society because you *are* normal society. You don’t really need a pride march or a month in your honor because no one is telling you that you suck.

This is where, of course, it gets pointed out that “oh yes I get told I suck for being white/straight/male/whatever all the time!!!!!” This is the part where they bring up some fringe group that thinks that all straight people are evil and that one colored person who was rude to them in the store or whatever other proof they try to cite that they themselves are somehow the object of oppression here (as clearly evidenced by the fact that they don’t have a month). The example in the conversation I had was one person brought up that there had been posters in her high school claiming that all white people were racist and that all straight people were homophobic. Having never seen these posters (we didn’t go to high school in the same state or decade), I guess I can’t really know. But I’ve heard that concept before, that fighting oppression from a particular group or having a problem with a particular behavior is somehow saying that everyone from that group is horrible.

And then of course there’s the age old rebuttal to the “we don’t have a month” whine: Why don’t you make one, no one is stopping you. At this point in the conversation people insisted that yes there was. One person claimed that her attempts to instate an Anglo-Saxon pride thing in her high school was shut down because it was perceived as snarky and rude (being snarky and rude will get you that response). The other claimed that any attempts to do that would get stopped by the Political Correctness Nazis (his term). You know, the government agency that sends you to Being-Nice-to-People-schwitz when you say something offensive. This kind of devolved into what I like to call “those minorities are keeping us down”.

At some point during the conversation, someone mentioned that they didn’t even really care about getting their own pride event, they just didn’t see why other people got to have them when they didn’t. (This makes sense how?)

Then, of course, the whole argument stopped when it was brought up than any such event would be taken over by assholes (honestly, how long do you think it would take for “white history month” to become an official KKK holiday?).

So those are the reasons, in summary:
1-You don’t need one
2-You don’t really want one you just want to whine about other people having things you don’t have.
3-The people who are making everyone else’s pride events necessary would make everything horrible if you did it.

But mostly the first one.

repost: nerdy apple bottom “my son is gay”

November 3, 2010 1 comment

This post here is one of the most heartwarming things I’ve seen in a long time. In addition to being a lovely and refreshing peace from a loving parent, the mother in question makes some comments that I think are very telling:

“Seriously, WHO WOULD MAKE FUN OF A CHILD IN A COSTUME ON HALLOWEEN?” Said with true incredulity. This should be an obvious question, it was to her, but it wasn’t to the other mothers she spoke with. It wasn’t to me, but then I’ve dealt with the sort of people who would. But think about it, isn’t it the most ridiculous thing?

“The only people that seem to have a problem with it is their mothers.” Bullies learn bullshit from their parents. Plain and simple. Younger kids don’t blink at that sort of thing, but later on when their parents’ “values” have taken hold they have no problem shitting on their fellow classmates. I actually had a similar experience with this exact thing. When I was maybe six, I went over to a friend’s house in one of my sister’s dresses (walking distance, my parents didn’t even see what I was wearing). Friend thought it was a blast, mother flipped out and called mine. A year or two later that would have easily gotten me pummeled.

“But it also was heartbreaking to me that my sweet, kind-hearted five year old was right to be worried. He knew that there were people like A, B, and C. And he, at 5, was concerned about how they would perceive him and what would happen to him.” Because kids notice this stuff, and it sinks in deep pretty quickly.

“If a set of purple sparkly tights and a velvety dress is what makes my baby happy one night, then so be it. If he wants to carry a purse, or marry a man, or paint fingernails with his best girlfriend, then ok. My job as his mother is not to stifle that man that he will be, but to help him along his way. Mine is not to dictate what is ‘normal’ and what is not, but to help him become a good person.”

I just wanted to end on what I thought was the best part of the post. But it is all much better in context, so pop over and give nerdy apple bottom some love, she deserves it big time.

Stop being so offended

October 25, 2010 Leave a comment

So, normally I don’t pay bathroom graffiti much mind. There’s a lot of weird graffiti in bathrooms, heck, I’ve written some weird graffiti in bathrooms. But I saw something today that I think is worth commenting on, because it reflects an idea I’ve seen around a lot. Here’s how it went:

Someone wrote “faggot” on the stall door. Given the amount of failed washing and general fading that occurs in conjunction with bathroom graffiti, I’m not sure if the individual was directing this at another graffiti author or just writing it in general. It spawned a minor graffiti conversation; someone else wrote next to it “stop being so ignorant”, to which someone else responded “stop being so offended” (the actual end of the conversation was “GAY!”, but I don’t think that deserves much comment). The issue here is of course with the third piece of graffiti, much more so than with the original bit of writing that eventually led to it. This is a message sent out to many who take offense at, well, anything.

What’s going on here is this: The third person here is under the assumption that if you’re offended by something, it’s your fault. You are too uptight/”PC”/whiny/whatever. The thought process is that their right to free speech trumps everything, including your right to be treated with respect as a human being. Of course, the flip side of this is not permissible, you can’t exercise your right of free speech to ask someone to be nicer, or call them an asshole. You are required to just shut up and take it. Now, I’m all for free speech, I love it. It’s what allows us to criticize our leaders and society in general, allows us to have conversations that might be controversial or go against standard ideas/doctrine/tropes. Free speech allows places like this to exist. But I am of the opinion that free speech is not absolute. There’s a very good reason you’re not allowed to yell “fire” in a crowded mall. Safety is a very good reason to curb free speech (and, let’s face it, not being an asshole is a very good reason to self-censor as well).

Because slurs of every sort, when publicly displayed and unchallenged, are very dangerous. You may have heard of the recent rash of suicides by gay men that have been heavily publicized. You also may (or may not) have heard about the appalling statistics for trans suicides. And while seeing a single slur in a bathroom won’t do much damage, the fact is that they’re everywhere, and they exist as part of and overarching theme of dehumanization and oppression that expresses itself in ways large (harassment-induced suicide) and small (twits writing graffiti in mens rooms). The fact of the matter is that having a word that describes a group you are part of that also functions as a catch-all insult sucks. Being treated as a lesser human being, something that needs fixing or a good clock-cleaning*.

I’ve gone off on a tangent here, but my point is this: If you’ve said something that offends somebody, chances are that it was offensive. Someone offended by something you say is not being “whiny” or “oversensitive”, and downplaying their reaction is actually making you more of an asshole. Neither are they being “the PC police” (guess what, playing the victim when you’ve hurt someone also makes you more of an asshole). What’s actually happening here is someone is trying to take advantage of their privilege to silence someone without that privilege. What’s happening is also victim-blaming, in it’s most obtuse form: you wouldn’t be offended by things if you weren’t so easily offended. This particular instance may seem pretty minor, but when it crops up elsewhere it becomes clear that it’s not: encouraging queer people not to talk about our lives (“stop shoving it in my face”) or even keeping us from situations where they could discuss their experiences (“think of the children”) and actively blaming us for our own harassment (“if you didn’t insist on being different….”). That’s the mindset behind this graffiti. This is the mindset every time someone says “you’re just oversensitive” to someone who was just offended by something. “We don’t want to hear it, you don’t deserve a voice, the problem is with you not us.”

I don’t advocate legal restriction of using certain words. But I do advocate having serious conversations about them and their meanings and impacts. I advocate not being an asshole.

The unknown writer of this graffiti may not appreciate being called an asshole. My response would be that they should stop being so offended.

*for those who may not have encountered this term: it is slang for getting beaten up. I believe the “clock” is one’s face, and “cleaning” for some reason involves getting covered in mud, bruises and blood.

Social activism as opposed to legal

August 4, 2010 Leave a comment

A lot of attention is being given to proposed laws like ENDA, and by a lot of attention I mean attention by LGBT activists (I don’t watch the news often enough to determine if it’s being given much attention by anyone else). The primary focus of many LG(B) organizations seems to be legalization of same-sex marriage. I’m starting to wonder what such total concentration on the legal aspects may cost us.

See this from my perspective: While I currently have no job (poor economy, I live with my family in a small town far away from the university I attend making a steady job impossible, little job experience due to concentration on extracurriculars in high school, not exactly in my favor), if I did I would most certainly not be out at work, especially if I got that job in my aforementioned small town. It only takes one supervisor who is made uncomfortable by queerness (not even one who is particularly queer-phobic, just enough unease to put me under more scrutiny) to cost me my job. If ENDA were to pass, I would have to prove such discrimination in court. Unless my former boss had specifically said “I’m firing you because you are a queer/tranny/faggot” and someone else heard them, I could not possibly afford the legal battle (and only then because I could represent myself in the case of such obvious queer-phobia). ENDA may help some people, who are exposed to blatant queer-phobia and/or can afford to pay lawyers, assuming that local courts aren’t queer-phobic themselves (another reason my hypothetical legal battle would probably fail out here in the boonies), but in the end it just masks the real problem. It provides a legal route to recompense, but it doesn’t help people who are most likely to be affected in the first place. Only a reduction overall of queer-phobia and hatred will solve the issue.

As for the marriage issue, I’m probably biased in that I’ve had some very bad experiences with other people’s marriages (my family has a 100% divorce rate over two generations, and when the parents of a friend of mine got divorced restraining orders were involved). I have no desire personally to have any future breakups of mine involve mountains of paperwork, and don’t see the point in telling the government that I want to spend the rest of my life with someone. But I will say this: anti-gay-marriage activists are basing their message on the idea that there is only one legitimate kind of relationship. So, shouldn’t the fight be less about “we have this right” and more about “your basic premise is way off”?

I’m not saying these things aren’t good, they are. Legal victories are victories, but I think it’s unfortunate that those are the only kind of victories activist groups are looking for. Not only that, but legal change follows social change pretty predictably (if a little belatedly). Look at the civil rights movement: desegregation didn’t happen until enough white people woke up enough to say “hey, maybe we are being dumbfucks about this”. That’s why allies to the LGBT movement are so important, we’re a minority and that has some repercussions in terms of our legal and social power. And “separate isn’t equal” was attacking the ideology of racism as much as it was attacking segregation laws. In other words, desegregation didn’t happen until the ideology beneath it was eroded enough that the civil rights movement got the support it needed from the privileged majority (not to say that desegregation ended racism, that still has quite a ways to go).

Activist organizations DO have social programs; educational materials are distributed to hospitals, police forces, etc. But you don’t see anything like that making the front page on the NTCE website. That’s pretty much all ENDA, all the time. Laws are only as useful as the community or society’s willingness to enforce them. If we were to actually focus most of our energy (or at least a higher portion of it) on social change as opposed to legal change, not only would it be much easier to pass the protective laws we need, but eventually (someday waaaaay in the future) we won’t even need those protections. Organizations don’t even need to do anything different, just shift the priorities of certain projects.