Sunday, March 24, 2013

Further adventures in abusing the notion of respect

Previously I wrote about how it's incorrect to say that you respect women if that respect is contingent on their dressing and behaving according to your notions of modesty.

It's also incorrect to say that you respect people while maintaining that for them to have children is "child abuse":
Francis is still a conservative choice, but has taught the ‘importance of respecting gay individuals’. 
However he strongly opposed same-sex marriage legislation introduced in 2010 by the Argentine government, calling it a 'destructive attack on God's plan'. 
In a letter to the monasteries of Buenos Aires, he wrote: ‘Let's not be naive, we're not talking about a simple political battle; it is a destructive pretension against the plan of God. 
‘We are not talking about a mere bill, but rather a machination of the Father of Lies that seeks to confuse and deceive the children of God.’ 
In the past, he has also called the adoption of gay couples child abuse, saying it was discrimination against children.
You know what's really child abuse? Child abuse. The kind which has been covered up and gone unnoticed and unpunished, time and time again, within the Catholic church. I wonder how many children of gay parents would like to slap the leader of 1.2 billion Catholics for asserting that the existence of their family unit is equivalent to an actual crime committed against countless children by people under the auspices of his institution over so many years.

Father of Lies, indeed.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Shame, sexism, and soft bigotry

So last month I wrote about the difference between the feelings of guilt and shame, and what they address. I noted that they're not synonymous, actually work quite differently, and that one is far more productive than the other-- that, actually, one may be necessary (albeit sometimes incorrectly applied) while the other is almost always counter-productive. And this, I said, is because guilt is a "what you did" emotion while shame is a "who you are" emotion. It's the difference between our behavior and identity-- you have considerably more control over the former than you do over the latter, and therefore a feeling of guilt over something you did that was wrong is a much better (more productive) emotion than the feeling of shame over who/what you are.

And I didn't make this point specifically, but obviously this distinction also matters because who/what people are generally isn't wrong.  It can certainly be unfortunate, for both the person and those around him/her, but it's not wrong in the sense of being something it's appropriate to blame a person for and be angry about it. Right? Any kind of illness or mental disorder, for example, we recognize as part of what a person is, not something they did. And however problematic it can be, we certainly don't blame them for it because we recognize that they didn't cause themselves to have that condition, and they can't just will it to go away. Recognition of a person's lack of control over something goes a long way toward holding us back from blame and anger. The problem just comes in when we assume they have more control over it than they actually do-- that's how we turn "who you are" into "what you did." We make things which were unintentional deliberate. We exclude exculpatory circumstances and context. Instead of guilting, we shame.

And we do it all the time.

I've been a fan of Brene Brown since I saw her TED talk on shame and vulnerability, and I particularly like this recent blog post in which she talks about shame in the context of teen pregnancy (to argue that public shaming is not, amazingly, the way to go about fixing the problem). She says:
Here’s the rub:
Shame diminishes our capacity for empathy.
Shame corrodes the very part of us that believes we are capable of change. . . 
I define shame as “the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging.” Along with many other shame researchers, I’ve come to the conclusion that shame is much more likely to be the source of dangerous, destructive, and hurtful behaviors than it is to be the solution.  
It is human nature, not just the nature of liberals (as Reeves argues), to want to feel affirmed and valued. When we experience shame, we feel disconnected and desperate for belonging and recognition. It’s when we feel shame or the fear of shame that we are more likely to engage in self-destructive behaviors, to attack or humiliate others, or to stay quiet when we see someone who needs our help.
"Shame corrodes the very part of us that believes we are capable of change" goes to the heart of the "what you did"/"who you are" distinction because the difference between the two is more of a continuum than a binary. The more capable you are of changing something, of doing something differently by the sheer desire to do it, the more of a "what you did" it is rather than a "who you are." Your identity is a mire-- you're pretty much stuck with/in it, while things in the action category are fluid and fast, and obviously there's a lot of room in between. What shaming does is address the identity and portray it negatively, and in the process it inspires hopelessness, despair and resignation. As Brown says, it makes attempting to change seem futile and even silly, and the result can be a shutting down of the ability to empathize which encourages judgment of and attacks on others. It's bad news all around, really.

Now I want to talk about how that applies to bigotry-- specifically, soft bigotry.

We know from Jay Smooth that one of the problems in conversations about bigotry is that when you try to tell someone that they sound bigoted, what they almost inevitably hear is that they are bigoted (and, it goes without saying, that's what they hear if you start out by saying that they are bigoted). Your "what you did" statements get turned into "who you are" statements, because nobody wants-- okay, most people don't want-- to believe they're bigoted. And that's not only understandable but pretty fair, because most people aren't bigots. That does not, however, stop everyday, normal, well-intentioned non-bigots from saying and doing bigoted things, all the time. This could be called soft bigotry, and by that I'm not referring specifically to the soft bigotry of low expectations but rather a tacit, non-reflective bigotry that tends to arise from a combination of ignorance and our possibly inborn tendency to be more comfortable around and empathize with people who are more similar and familiar to us. You know, the kind of prejudice that tends to solidify as people get older and "set in their ways" (read: more mired in their identity).

You could call these people "soft bigots," or you could be nicer about it and say that they have some unreflective and unacknowledged privilege, or you could say that they just haven't given much of any thought to why people who aren't like them are not worse, but may be worse off, of because of it. What I'm trying to get at, really, are the thousand or so different ways in which your everyday average person may display some astonishing prejudice without ever thinking of him/herself as bigoted or even ever being called such by others. After all, they don't hate blacks/Hispanics/gays/women/foreigners/Jews/atheists/Muslims/etc., they know, view them with a certain amount of mistrust. Think of them as different-- not standard, not normal, because not like me. Such a person would be gobsmacked if the word "bigotry" passes your lips/keyboard in reference to him, and read/hear it as a dire accusation. Which, let's be fair, it often is.
OBJECTION! know...obvious reasons!
For example, there was an awesome discussion in the comments when PZ Myers posted the "excellent dad hacks Donkey Kong so his daughter can play as Pauline" story on Pharyngula. By "awesome," I don't mean lengthy (though it was that) but rather productive, because even if there were a couple of stalwarts who absolutely refused to believe that a) there's anything wrong in the slightest with a history of video games in which time, after time, any female character is a non-playable goal for your (male) character to rescue, and b) anyone who says otherwise is not accusing everyone who loves or makes video games of being raging misogynists, there were also a bunch of very smart commenters dedicatedly explaining why this view is, in fact...problematic.

And some of these people were left wondering, by the end of the thread (read: when everyone gets mentally exhausted), why the stalwarts kept speaking as if "bigotry must be deliberate." Why, over and over again, the stalwarts kept emphasizing that Donkey Kong was made many years ago, and taken in isolation it's not like a very simple story of "Jump Man rescues girl from gorilla" is really that harmful, and it would be ridiculous to say that this suggests any widespread misogyny on the part of Nintendo developers-- then or now. All of which is true. True, and beside the point.

  1. Those who accuse others of soft bigotry who care about fairness and accuracy will do their best to clarify that it is, in fact (non-reflective, non-deliberate, what-you-did-not-who-you-are) soft bigotry we're talking about, and 
  2. Those who are accused of soft bigotry can, if tensions are not too high, and if this message is communicated clearly enough, gracefully acknowledge the misstep (for that's what it is) and experience guilt for it rather than shame, express regret, learn from the experience, and move on. And that is, I'd like to think, the optimal result. 
Note the reference to guilt rather than shame and the low-tension discussion. The higher the profile, the higher the stakes, the higher the tension. You get the idea.

So I think this is how we can apply an understanding of the relative value of guilt and shame to bigotry, specifically the "soft" kind which is so much more pernicious than any of the antics of the WBC or KKK. It's probably better, to that end, not to actually call it bigotry. Not because it isn't, but because the goal is to get at "what you did" and labels invariably end up poking at the "who you are." There's no fail-safe way to prevent being interpreted as doing that, but there are ways to communicate which make it less likely. It seems, then, that those are the best approaches to take.

Friday, March 22, 2013

Look at you, all flaunting your autonomy

Women are not entitled to respect when they walk around without a [hijab]. They are to blame for it when they are attacked.
said an imam from Denmark, Shahid Mehdi, who was arrested in Malmo, Sweden for reportedly exposing himself to a woman in a park. When I read about this, I sarcastically asked if the Steubenville rape victim would have been protected if only she'd been wearing a hijab, or if she would still have been sexually assaulted and then blamed for her own attack.

Not raping someone-- not exposing yourself to her, not threatening her-- seems like an odd concept of "respect." There many people I don't respect at all, but to whom I somehow manage to avoid doing any of these things. It actually seems like instead, if conforming to your desires for how a "proper" woman, a lady, should dress and behave herself are conditions for you not attacking her, not harassing her, not slinging sexual epithets like "cunt" or "whore" in her direction, that's not exactly respect. That's more like forbearance. Congratulations, you look and behave how I'd like you to, so I'll hold off on the physical assault and slut-shaming. Don't you feel valued?

Because demanding such things in order for you to behave like a decent human being is the opposite of respect, isn't it? If you actually respected women, you wouldn't try to control them. You wouldn't make such demands. You would support, embrace, exult in their ability to dress, behave, and conduct their sex lives as they choose. When they are attacked, you would condemn the attackers, and you would never be the attacker. You would extend this empathy toward women in general, and reserve loss of respect for individuals as you would in any other case-- when that individual behaves in ways which are actually immoral, and not just "unladylike" or "slutty" or whatever term you prefer to tell women how to be women.

That's what respect is. And it's not that hard...really.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Demystifying "premarital"

Sex advice show Savage U (hated by Idaho legislators)
As Idaho lawmakers take a symbolic stand (was there ever was a more useless stand, or a more wasteful use of taxpayer money?) against premarital sex by "urging the Federal government and the FCC to prohibit the portrayal, even implied, or even the discussion of premarital sex on TV between 6am and 10pm," I think some demystification is in order.

Yes, it would be a gross violation of freedom of speech for such a ban to take effect. No question (I saw the suggestion that more liberal-leaning members of the Idaho legislature propose banning the depiction of guns on TV, and we could see "how fast it would take these Republicans to discover the First Amendment").
Yes, it's ironic that such a ban would prevent educational discussion of safer sex, along with presumably any depiction or discussion of extramarital sex, which would make it difficult for news programs to discuss the many sex scandals of politicians (usually Republican...hmm, maybe this ban is making more and more sense). Oh, and also-- soap operas. A lot of those take place between 6am and 10pm, don't they?

But what I really want to talk about is this notion of "premarital sex," and why it supposedly shouldn't be depicted or discussed. The vast majority of Americans have had or will have sex outside of marriage, including presumably the majority of Idaho lawmakers trying to prevent TV from so much as talking about it. And I use the word "outside" there because the word "premarital" is, or should be considered at this point, ridiculous. Think of the implications with regard to this particular "symbolic stand":

  • Could unmarried characters on TV shows get around this provision by simply declaring their intent to spend the rest of their lives unmarried before getting it on (or talking about getting it on)? 
  • Is depiction of married TV characters having sex, however explicit or raunchy, a-okay then?
  • What about gay sex? Is depiction or discussion of that just fine, since all gay sex is outside of marriage-- in Idaho, at least? And isn't it weird to think about calling it "premarital" in that context? Like the "pre" means "before it's legal for me to get married (and I've been an adult for years)"?

I'm 35, and have never been married. At what point does my sex stop being "premarital," if ever? Would Idaho prefer that my sexual activities never be depicted or discussed on television? (Of course I would prefer that, but actually making it illegal seems like, you know, a bit of overkill.) And yes, I'm an exception in that regard-- most Americans do get married. But they get married at different points, usually well past the age of majority, and (again) most of them have sex prior to the point at which they get married. Sometimes long before. So what is the point of pretending otherwise? Isn't it lazy-- wait, not just lazy but harmful-- to make marriage some kind of benchmark at which sex becomes suddenly permissible and the actual real-world concerns that necessitate having sex safely-- unwanted pregnancy and disease-- suddenly vanish?

Because they don't.

Marriage is many things. It is a legal contract between two people (and their god, if that's what they believe). It is a commitment to share life and love, joys and grief, together. It is, basically, whatever these partners (at this point, since polygamy isn't legal at the moment) decide to make it, and they can make it something amazing. But three things they can't make it for themselves, much less for every married couple, are 1) a prophylactic, 2) a fail-safe monogamous arrangement, or 3) a mature, non-abusive, psychologically healthy relationship. Marriage doesn't stop unwanted pregnancy, it doesn't stop transmission of disease, and it doesn't stop rape, manipulation, cheating, or any other kind of negative behavior by one's partner. To pretend otherwise is to lie.

To that extent, talking about premarital sex is also a lie. It suggests that a person's life can be divided into two periods-- premarital and marital (and presumably post-marital, if your spouse dies or if you get divorced, as half the population does), and the period before marriage is when sex is wrong, bad, dangerous, etc. This is, strangely, how some people who oppose same-sex marriage so vociferously have actually created the very problem they argue against. It goes something like this:
  1. Sex outside of marriage is dangerous and bad.
  2. Gays, not being married (because of course they can't get married), can only have sex outside of marriage. 
  3. Therefore gays have dangerous, bad sex. 
  4. Therefore we can't let gays get married, because their sex is dangerous and bad. 
Yes, seriously.

So how about we do something radical, and decide that there's no such thing as "premarital"? That marriage is not an inevitability, it's not permanent, and it's not a guarantee against the things you need to worry about, sexually, when you're not married? Because realistically, there are no such things. Not, that is, unless you think that things like being disallowed from visiting your partner and making medical decisions for him/her while in hospital counts as a sexual concern. Not unless you think that being able to keep your partner in the country after immigrating because they're your partner counts as a sexual concern. Not unless you think that tax benefits associated with marriage are sexual concerns. 

Let this post not be interpreted as an argument against marriage-- it undoubtedly has benefits, emotional and pragmatic, and I'm not saying otherwise. I'm just saying that it's not a finish line. You don't get to run run run run and virtuously, dedicatedly, remain celibate until that magical point when you get to dress in white (if female) or a tux (if male) and leap through the tape stretched across the point where you no longer have to care about your reproductive and sexual needs because they weren't taken care of before and they are and forever. 

Nope. Not even if you do, eventually, get married.'s a thought. Let's drop the concern about "premarital sex," and be concerned about unsafe sex. Problematic sex. Non-consensual sex. 

And let's not hide it. Let's talk about it, because we all-- if we're honest-- are doing it, or have done it, or will do it.

Are you listening, Idaho?

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Thoughts on the first Tropes vs. Women video

So the first Feminist Frequency Tropes vs. Women video has been posted, and I was very excited to see it. I was not disappointed. If you haven't seen it yet, have a watch:

What we have here is a thorough, polished bit of media analysis with obvious effort and expense put toward editing, research, design, and production generally. If the rest of the video series is like this, it's so worth having helped fund the Kickstarter. Even if it wasn't like this, it would be worth it-- I contributed because I saw so much value in doing the project in the first place, so the fact that it's being done so well is icing on the cake so far as I'm concerned.

This video is the first part of a discussion on the "damsel in distress" trope, in which the female character is taken from the hero in some way-- by being literally kidnapped, or possessed, or otherwise removed and her rescue made a goal for our (male) hero to accomplish. Anita Sarkeesian spends some time talking about how this trope has appeared in film before moving to video games, so that it's clear this trope isn't something video games invented-- it existed long before they did, but video games tell stories like movies and other media tell stories, so it's not at all unexpected that the same tropes which show up in other media would appear in video games as well. Sarkeesian gives many examples of games in which this trope is employed-- the sequence of heroine after heroine calling out for help after/while being kidnapped is particularly effective-- and focuses on a couple of situations in particular to talk about how how the game's story came to be structured that way.

Still from the ToM test video
Now, if you read my blog regularly, you know that I'm all about agency. It's more than an interest; it's a borderline obsession. Video games are interesting to me because I enjoy playing them and have since I was a kid, but they're also endlessly fascinating psychologically because I love to see how people who can depict agency any way they want-- video game designers-- end up doing so in practice. A well-known psychological test for theory of mind-- the ability to recognize others as having thoughts, intentions, and emotions and comprehend what they are-- is to show the subject a video involving geometric shapes on a screen moving around in a way that suggests, to a person with a normally functioning theory of mind, a story about agents. What the subject sees are a larger triangle and a smaller triangle moving in and out of a square shape, but this sequence is commonly interpreted as two figures-- two agents-- interacting, with one "deliberately" "blocking" the other from "leaving" the "confined space." Autism researcher Uta Frith explains it here. That's us applying our theory of mind to the images on the screen, making them characters.

Combat. Pictured: two tanks in fierce (but slow) battle.
If you're old enough to have played video games on the Atari 2600, you're quite familiar with geometric shapes being presented as having agency. Two of the favorites played in my house as a kid were Combat and Adventure, the former being a series of different games played between two people operating planes or tanks and trying to kill each other, and the latter being a single-player game in which you are a hero who attempts to take a chalice from a castle while killing dragons with a sword. Or, according to what actually appears on the screen, a square which can become attached to an arrow which changes the shape of three differently colored patterns. Even though these games weren't realistic in the slightest, it only took a few seconds of manipulating the joystick to figure out what shape on the screen was "you." You pushed the joystick in a particular direction, and looked for which shape on the screen was moving in that direction. That was you. Even though the shape looked nothing like you, or indeed looking like nothing in existence, you knew by its behavior that this was your representation on the screen. Your agent.

Adventure. Pictured: the chalice, a dragon,
a sword, and you (really).
The thing about the damsel in distress trope is that it takes the female character away-- she's removed from the story, effectively, by being turned into a goal. We see her be captured; we see her cry out for help; we see her locked up, and maybe we see the villain torture her a bit, perhaps in view of the hero so he can have that added impetus to spring into action and save her. She's locked in a tower, tied to the railroad tracks, in the grip of a giant ape scaling the Empire State Building, etc. She is, for all intents and purpose, incapacitated. Her job to is to look pretty and wait to be saved, while occasionally perhaps struggling and/or yelping in fear. She is a non-agent. She's doing nothing, going nowhere.

It's common enough to hear complaints about this trope-- it's a central feature in fairy tales, and there's a cool children's book called The Paper Bag Princess, now on its 25th anniversary, which subverts it completely. The notion of the woman always needing to be saved from something, and falling for her savior--- what if Snow White, as it turns out, just wasn't that into Prince Charming?-- is actually more than a trope; it's the most tired of tired cliches. But when it shows up in a video game, it's a little different. And, I think, a lot worse, because when the damsel in distress is the focus of a video game story, it's a story in which you, as player, are the protagonist. You control the central character of the story, the hero who must save the damsel in order to win the day, and the damsel is a thing to be won-- literally. She's a non-being, an NPC (non-player character), made of pixels and memory, and reaching her is the object of the game. Not only is she being treated as a non-agent; she is a non-agent, whereas you are not. You have goals and thoughts and feelings, as both player and character, and you are almost invariably playing a man. A straight man, presumably, because gay men don't give a damn about kidnapped princesses.

I'm not sure if it was happenstance that just as the Damsels in Distress video came out, I started seeing people tweet and post about this parent whose three year old daughter wanted to play Pauline, the kidnapped heroine in Donkey Kong, rescuing Jump Man (aka Mario) instead of the other way around, so her father hacked the game to make it possible. You can see the result at that link; there's a video. He says
Two days ago, she asked me if she could play as the girl and save Mario. She’s played as Princess Toadstool in Super Mario Bros. 2 and naturally just assumed she could do the same in Donkey Kong. I told her we couldn’t in that particular Mario game, she seemed really bummed out by that. So what else am I supposed to do? Now I’m up at midnight hacking the ROM, replacing Mario with Pauline.
Donkey Kong, as you know if you've watched the DiD video already, is one of the games discussed there in pretty significant detail. It's awesome that this father had to skills to actually re-make the game his daughter loved in order to make the protagonist a girl saving a boy rather than the other way around, which is something most parents obviously wouldn't have a clue how to do and probably wouldn't trouble themselves about to begin with. I'm guessing most parents would reply "Sorry dear, but that's not how this game works" and that would be the end of it. So this story has caught on like wildfire because of the extraordinary lengths this man went to in order to make his daughter happy, and it just happens to be the case that the thing his daughter wanted was to play herself in a video game (or at least, to play someone more like herself than Jump Man/Mario).

Or does it?

In some of the heated discussion that has already taken place about the DiD video, I've seen people argue that it shouldn't matter whether the character you're playing in a video game is at all like you and therefore there's nothing wrong with the damsel in distress trope, which is a bit like saying that it doesn't matter whether the "under God" part of the Pledge of Allegiance is religiously significant or not, and therefore you'd better not take it out, so help me, goddammit! Clearly it does matter, or the model in which the player's character is male and the object of the game is to rescue a female NPC wouldn't be so angrily defended. The player doth protest too much, and all that.

But I don't think that most of us who do see a problem with it want to simply swap the roles around like in Donkey Kong and make all video games about female heroines saving dudes in distress-- Sarkeesian sure doesn't suggest that, and it doesn't sound like an improvement on things to me. Of course it would be better to have more opportunities to play a female character as the protagonist, and there has been some significant improvement in that area in terms of at least making it possible for the player to have a choice about his/her character's gender in character creation at the beginning. But really, it doesn't seem like we suffer very much as video game players by not being able to play a character that resembles us closely-- not if we're just fine playing a square who fights dragons using an arrow. Rather, the problem with the damsel in distress trope in games is the fact that there is gender, and for half of us the gender isn't ours, and can't be ours. It's clearly possible for the game to allow us to play as female, and yet it doesn't. Instead it compels us to play a (straight) male character while dangling a female character in our faces and saying "You can't be her. You can only save her. We assume that's all you'd want to do, anyway."

That's the rub.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Skeptics of Oz

Skeptics of Oz is a free skeptical conference held in Wichita, Kansas, this year on March 16-17 at Wichita State University's CAC Theater. Here's the Facebook page. Here's the line-up of speakers:

Looking forward to it.

Monday, March 4, 2013

Sexy old lady

I don't generally do this, but I just want to write a blog post to gush about another blog post-- this one, by Greta Christina, about an episode of Project Runway in which the contestants, fashion designers, were asked to design an outfit for an older female client.

Now, I'm not watching Project Runway this season. I used to-- even have a couple of seasons on DVD-- mainly because I love Tom and Lorenzo's recaps of it. Their recaps kept me watching the show way past when I would've grown tired of it otherwise. Because I like a competitive reality show, but even more do I like a blog ripping on a competitive reality show. And boy, do they rip. But I got bored eventually and started seeing other reality shows on the know how it goes (these days I watch Face Off, Top Chef, and Ink Master). See, I just...don't know much about fashion. And don't care to, really. I care about style, but the words "trendy" or "in season" to me mean "thing you're going to spend a load of money on and then never be able to wear again," and I don't have the time-- or budget-- for that. So if I'm going to buy something stylish, it had better be stylish forever. Or at least for the next twenty years or so. You know?

Anyway, a common challenge to have on Project Runway is the so-called "real woman" challenge, in which these relatively unknown and in some cases novice fashion designers are asked to switch gears from designing party dresses out of candy or garbage (or both) for size 0 models and switch to something a little more down to earth-- clothing for a specific client, who has tastes and is...something other than a size 0 model. The first time it was just non-models in their 20's. Sometimes it's children. Once it was women who wanted to recycle their wedding gowns, so the gowns provided the only material the designer was allowed to work with. Once it was women who had lost a substantial amount of weight, and wanted to show off their new figures. This time it was old ladies.

Now, I use that term with all due reverence. I do, after all, aspire to be an old lady myself. An awesome old lady. So I have an interest in a group of fashion designers listening to a group of specific old ladies describing what they want to wear, and trying to approximate that. And what Greta Christina has to say about it all is just...perfect. To wit:
I’ve written before about how hard it is to say “sexy older woman” in the metaphorical language of fashion… not because the words and grammar aren’t there, but because our culture considers the very concept of “sexy woman over fifty” to be nonsense. I’ve written before about the whole question of what it even means to be “age appropriate” in the first place, and whether the very notion is ageist and oppressive, or whether it’s a way to express love and respect for your age, or whether it’s some of both. And as a fifty-one year old woman who cares deeply about fashion and sex and feminism and ageism… this is not an abstract point for me. This is a paradox I live every day of my life in. It sometimes drives me up a tree that I started getting seriously interested in fashion in my late forties, right when fashion was losing interest in me. (Of course, as someone who was fat for much of her adult life, fashion has never been all that interested in me… so there’s that.) 
And since “age and fashion” is so loaded, not just because of how fashion is designed, but because of how fashion is criticized, I want to spend more time than usual this week talking, not just about the designs, but about the judging.
See what I mean? Now go read the whole thing.

Haunted socks

In which Pat Robertson advises someone who frequently buys second-hand clothing that she should "rebuke any spirits that happen to have attached themselves to those clothes" lest there be any demons who might have become connected to them via the prayers of a witch, as he heard had happened once in the Philippines:

Okay, first let's all remember Frazer's rules of sympathetic magic: similarity, and contact/contagion. The rule of similarity entails that an object may take on properties of another object by virtue of being very like the original object in appearance ("like produces like"); whereas the rule of contact/contagion entails that the object takes on these properties by virtue of having been in contact with the previous object, long after the contact has ended. These rules appear to be intuitive, and take effect in various ways. For example, a person might be disgusted by a brownie that resembles a turd, and refuse to eat it (similarity), or refuse to drink from a glass that once contained a cockroach, regardless of how thoroughly or frequently it has been washed since (contact/contagion). We intuit that properties transfer in ways that they actually don't, which produces some understandable (since we share intuitions) but illogical (since they're not actually based on anything) conclusions about what it's okay for us to look like, consume, or otherwise associate with.

The notion that negative spirits, or demons, are behind this association-- that they are, in fact, the association itself-- is just one step further, really. The religious step. Because religion puts agency behind everything. Most importantly, it puts agency behind what is important to us. What we value. What we feel. What frightens us. What we love. If you demanded that I define religion for you, I would...probably do so a lot more readily than a lot of people who study religion academically. But my definition would go something like "A practice of systematically placing non-human but human-like agency behind our most important intuitions." That's a little more elaborate than Stewart Guthrie's "systematized anthropomorphism" and also more specific than and contrary to Pascal Boyer's minimally counter-intuitive concepts, because Boyer thinks that traits such as invisibility and non-corporeality are counter-intuitive notions about an agent. I think they're intuitive. I think that we perceive invisible, non-corporeal agency all of the time and probably have evolved to do so, and that demon-infested clothing is just one tiny, apparently ridiculous* but not actually unique or even very unusual manifestation of this tendency.

I'm looking forward to reading Robert McCauley's book Why Religion is Natural and Science is Not, because I'm interested to hear his take on a now common refrain among cognitive scientists of religion, which is that perceiving agency in the world around us, behind unusual but significant events, behind our existence itself, is all-too-human even for the most secular of us. But subjecting supposed facts to rigorous testing and objective examination really isn't-- we are certainly quite capable of it, but it has to be learned. This is no longer an alarming hypothesis to me, and in fact it would take quite a lot of evidence to convince me that it's not true. But the alarm really seems to stem from a notion that the intuitive is somewhere inherently more trustworthy, more insightful (see "women's intuition") and the counter-intuitive wrong, while nothing could be further from the truth. Intuitions exist for reasons, but after all, those reasons are not necessarily ours.

*Ridiculous, I think, because of the mundane subject matter. Not even the most materialist of us would be surprised to hear that someone associates supernatural agency with, say, an amulet or a relic. We might not believe it ourselves, but we're familiar with the concept. Clothing from Goodwill, by contrast, is about as ordinary as it gets, so Robertson suggesting that demons might be attached to it sounds as superficial and weird as praying for a good parking space. But if there are supernatural agents out there who are interested in our lives, the postulate that Robertson accepts and many if not most religious people do as well, why should this interest not extend to such things as parking spots and laundry? 

Sunday, March 3, 2013

We saw your tortured discussion about sex and humor

Mockery, generally speaking, is a punishment. Right? We admire people who can laugh at themselves, but generally don't expect them to when they're the butt of a joke, unless they actually did something stupid and/or wrong. If wrong, you can take a "my bad" approach and mock yourself as a means of apology. If stupid, you can join others in laughing at those things you do which you might laugh at if someone else did them. It shows a sense of self-awareness and grace.

If you didn't do something stupid, however, and are made the butt of a joke anyway, it's hard to laugh at yourself. Not impossible, but difficult. It requires special circumstances-- the joke needs to come from people you trust, whom you can be absolutely sure mean no harm by it. Ideally from other people who are the butt of the same joke they're telling. It shows a sense of irony.

If you've ever been bullied, though, you might know what it's like to laugh at yourself when you're the butt of the joke and the joke isn't told by friends. When the people telling the joke are absolutely not sharing the target with you, but if you don't laugh along with them, things will get worse for you. Your refusal to take part in your own mockery will be taken as an act of aggression, and so you capitulate, George McFly-style, just to get them to stop and perhaps grow bored and pick some other target. In a less tense situation this can even function to make you no longer the target, and you can join the mockers by pretending that you're more like them than whatever group they're mocking, the group to which you actually belong. Ha ha, I'm not like one of those sensitive members of Group X who don't appreciate it when you make fun of us in a way we all have heard 3,000 times before! It's hilarious to hear you mindlessly repeat stereotypes that disparage my group, and therefore me by virtue of my membership in it! Hey, I can take a joke...

So anyway, about Seth McFarlane's jokes at the Oscars, particularly the "We Saw Your Boobs" song.... was the catalyst for a good conversation, right?
  • A chance to see how people really understand what it means to have a laugh at someone else's expense, and how who it is and how you're laughing plays into it. 
  • A chance to see a virtual parade of people who aren't members of the groups being mocked state authoritatively that members of those groups have no business being offended by it. 
  • A chance to see people claim that if people laugh at something, that's objective proof that it's funny-- and therefore acceptable. A chance to see people take the opportunity to sniff at the hypocrisy of Americans who watch Family Guy and yet were offended by the show's creator making similar jokes on stage at a formal movie awards event watched by around a hundred million (no, not a billion) people-- because presumably anyone who was offended by the jokes watches and unequivocally enjoys Family Guy. 
  • A chance to see people declare that all who were bothered by the joke are liberals, because conservatives have a sense of humor and are aware that making fun of minority groups is a fine thing to do.
  • A chance to to get a glimpse at peoples' internal mental rules about when it is or isn't okay to joke about minorities: "Offensive" jokes (meaning, jokes that offend others, but not the speaker) are okay, but only in private where no members of the group being mocked are present. If you can find a representative of the group being mocked who says s/he is fine with it, then the joke isn't offensive. Seth McFarlane is otherwise a great guy (hey, he won the Humanist of the Year award), therefore anyone offended by his jokes is being unfair by impugning his motives. Great guys don't tell racist/sexist jokes. And so on. One of my favorites was in this comment thread on Greta Christina's blog (you should read the post itself, as well as the entirety of the thread if you have the time), where it was argued that not every comedian can be a genius like Louis CK (who occasionally jokes about racism and sexism), so it's not fair to come down on the poor non-geniuses like McFarlane who are simply guilty of making jokes that fail. Apparently if you're trying to be funny but are not terribly bright,  racism and sexism are your only options.* And hey, if you didn't actually use any bigoted slurs in the joke, who's to say that it was actually bigoted at all?
Well, Miri at Brute Reason took a stab at answering that question, and came up with this:
If you believe MacFarlane, and others who think like him, sex is a sort of competition between men and women. Whenever women engage sexually with men–for instance, by appearing topless in a movie that is viewed by men–the man “wins” and the woman “loses.” In the video, the women whose boobs MacFarlane says he saw are portrayed as shocked or embarrassed, whereas Jennifer Lawrence, whose boobs MacFarlane notes that we have not seen, is shown to be celebrating.
Yep. It was intended to be a "gotcha," and pointing out that an actress was topless in a movie is not a "gotcha." She is not gotten. Generally speaking, or when her nudity appears as part of a scenario in which her character was sexually assaulted, as in many of the examples the song uses. Making fun of or generally thinking less of actresses who have appeared nude in movies is a variation on plain ol' slut-shaming, and slut-shaming is-- wait for it-- sexist.
At least one person found the humor in MacFarlane's opening skit: Best Actress in a Leading Role winner Jennifer Lawrence, 22. "I loved the boob song," the Silver Linings Playbook star told reporters after her big win. "I thought [Seth MacFarlane] was great!"
Of course you did. Get back to us once you have done a nude scene, and your name becomes part of the song along with Scarlett Johansson, who didn't do any nude scenes but ended up mentioned anyway because of some cell phone photos that were leaked.

"But it was a joke!"  Oh, come on.

"But he was the butt of the was intended to mock juvenile guys who think that way about topless actress!" Oh really? Then why aren't men the ones complaining, perceiving themselves as the target? Right, because they're not. The joke was presented as being an example of crassness, but the audience is invited to join in in being crass, not look down on it.

Adam Wilson's take is awesome:
Isn't it time for American men to start playing it cool? 
I'm not just talking about beach behavior. Playing it cool extends to all realms of human interaction. Not attracted to Lena Dunham? Why write an aggressive blog post complaining about her offensively imperfect body, and how it's unfair that it's always Lena that gets naked and not Alison Williams, when you could simply play it cool. There's a reason Alison Williams never takes her top off, and it's not just because she's secretly a robot like her dad. Alison's seen your blog posts; she doesn't want that kind of scrutiny on her body. Actresses are human beings. The things we say about them on the Internet does affect them. Think of Emilia Clarke, who plays Daenerys Targaryen in HBO's Game of Thrones. Clarke spent almost the entirety of the first season topless, frolicking in bathtubs and at brothels. But after hundreds of Tumblr users began to chronicle the movements of Clarke's breasts with the appetite of amateur meteorologists, Clarke decided to keep her clothes on in season two. 
There's a reason why the sexual revolution didn't work out in America—it was too much for American men to handle. Embarrassed by their adolescent astonishment, they tried to stay in control by treating sexually enlightened women like lepers. And whenever it seems that forward progress is being made on this front, some Seth MacFarlane arrives, childishly pointing, and chanting "boobies." Shut up Seth, you're ruining it for the rest of us.

Kevin Gisi created a music video called We Saw Your Junk, which is fun but not exactly consolation. 

*No, I'm certainly not going to deny that it's easy to make bigoted jokes. Stereotypes are prime joke fodder, because everybody is at least familiar with them and most people employ them. That doesn't mean that relying on them is anything but lazy, or that there's literally nothing else to joke about. 


"To escape criticism: do nothing, say nothing, be nothing." -- Elbert Hubbard
"To escape criticism for being a woman: don't be a woman." -- Me