Posts Tagged ‘culture’

The lies we tell

Recently the New York Times posted an article titled The Kids Who Beat Autism. (Predictably, ASAN is questioning both the possibility of ‘recovery’ and the desirability of it.) I’ve mentioned before how I felt lied to as a child by the idea that the best way to make friends is to “just be yourself”, and this story and the reaction to it highlights why.

See, “just be yourself” is good advice–you can’t make a true friendship if you’re pretending to be someone you’re not, and self-acceptance is healthier than self-loathing. And I’m sure that all the people who give such advice truly mean it. Culturally, though, it only seems to be held as good advice for people who are sufficiently normal, which would also be the group of people least needing such reassurances. For those of us who are too different, that’s not how it seems to work. Instead those differences become something to label, treat, fix so that we can be more like other people. We get told to be ourselves just as much as anyone else–but the way we’re treated tells us that being who we are is not acceptable.

There are times when differences do need to be addressed because they are causing problems in our lives. The question, though, is what is the best way to temper or eliminate those challenges. Sometimes the work is something we have to do ourselves. Sometimes, the work is best shared or done at a structural or cultural level–it is far more reasonable to install a ramp than to ask a wheelchair user to navigate a flight of stairs, for example. And sometimes the only challenge is that those differences highlight that we are different. A lot has been said in the autism community about attempts to eliminate stimming, which frequently causes no problems other than the fact that other people notice and are uncomfortable with it. Or (lack of) eye contact, which is a very culture-specific demand to begin with. Why should anything be done about something so superficial? The problem is that often most or all of the work is demanded to be dealt with at the individual level, putting all the onus on the person who already has it hardest and sometimes bringing no benefit to that person at a personal cost.

As a culture we talk a lot about being tolerant of individual differences. In practice though, difference is often considered unacceptable. Instead of asking people who are struggling to spend precious effort on being “normal”, how much better would things be if we were actually as accepting of difference as we say we should be?

Selfishness, Survival and the Sith Empire

Note: While this post uses a question of personal theology as a jumping off point, at its core it is not a theological post and I hope that everyone will find it worth reading regardless of their personal belief system.

I’ve been thinking a bit about God’s plan for humanity lately. I firmly believe that our purpose here on Earth is self-improvement, both as individuals and as a species. That belief does raise something of a question, though, in that, is there another path towards perfection? Could a species develop along individualist lines, rather than communal ones, and attain the same goal? The more I think about it, the less I think that’s possible, and my primary example of why comes from Star Wars.

There’s something of a truism in fiction that good is hampered by its need to be good, while evil can exist without the restraints of needing to worry about collateral damage. This is a trope frequently found in superhero fiction, where the villain will often set up a situations where the hero must choose between saving innocents and catching the villain. Usually this ends with the hero choosing the former, leaving the villain free to raise havoc another day and provide the writers loose ends to write new narratives with. But that’s a very individual narrative–a single or small group of villains versus a single or small group of heroes. The Sith Empire of the Star Wars extended universe provides something of a different tale. The Sith creed is based on personal pursuit of power, selfishness, and the idea that the strong survive. And in terms of pure power, the Empire is probably much stronger than the Republic. If they ever brought the full force of their military might against the Republic, they’d most likely win quite easily.

The problem is that the siths’ strength as individuals is their weakness as a collective. Much of their strategy and power is turned not against their enemies but each other, as various sith jockey for power and position. A lack of ability to work together is the least of their problems–much time and care needs to be taken to both shore up one’s own position as well as to undermine the position of others, much to the chagrin of the regular military who see their strength wasted, weakened, or outright destroyed as a result of the political machinations of the sith. The weak suffer under this system, being lucky to simply survive, but the strong are hampered as well. A dishonest individual in a group of honest ones can easily work things to hir advantage, but a group of dishonest individuals act as checks on each other, holding both individuals and the group back as effort that could be used in constructive ways is redirected against other members of the group.

I’ve written about my issues with the ‘rugged individualist’ philosophy before. A large part of my problems with it comes from how it ignores those without power, hurting most those who can do the least about it. But it also holds us back collectively. While the Sith Empire is something of an extreme example, with individuals constantly undermining each other, even passively not working together is a hindrance. When security is not assured, one must spend extra effort to provide it for oneself. Instead of building structures that help everyone rise to their potential, individuals are forced to put in extra effort to build the supports that are lacking, without those supports even being available to the next person. Social supports help individuals, but it also helps society by shifting focus away from avoiding the worst to attaining the best.

My childhood was messed up

You ever go back to something that you loved as a kid–book, movie, etc.–and find your adult self wondering, what the frick?

Last week provided me one of those moments when I managed to find some old Looney Tunes on TV. Like most people, I grew up watching and loving these cartoons. One of my favourite ones was Pepe LePew, seeing that poor cat trying and failing to avoid him, with him being blissfully oblivious to her obvious disinterest in him (nevermind that she was, you know, a cat and not a skunk). I know I found them quite amusing as a child, which today disturbs me almost as much as the cartoon itself. Because as an adult, I can’t see that as anything other than sexual harassment. My fond memories found themselves intertwined with a sickening “who the hell thought this was appropriate for children?” reaction.

Not that today’s media is necessarily any better. Twilight gets hit hard with criticism largely because of its popularity, but with good reason, and rather than being a comedy, it goes one step further by making the dysfunctional romances (and lets face it, pretty much all of the romances are messed up in one way or another, between sneaking into a girl’s room, falling for a newborn and the good old “he hurt me but I still love him” scenario) seem romantic. If we’re laughing or sighing at these things in fiction, we’re probably going to have similar reactions when we come across them in real life, trivializing serious boundary issues and safety concerns. And these aren’t aberrations, they’re par for the course in the media we consume. Love doesn’t conquer all, especially when your partner is controlling or abusive, and being persistently pursued by a guy isn’t funny, it’s at best annoying and at worst scary and dangerous. But these are the messages we receive starting from childhood, and they leave us completely unprepared to deal with anything other than the textbook ideal relationship where you’re madly in love and are never in conflict. You know, the types of relationships that pretty much never happen in real life.

Being a Bad Feminist

Feminism seems to struggle with the difference between individual actions and cultural forces–that is to say, that it has trouble with the difference between tearing down cultural norms that oppress without also tearing down individuals for their choices. Admittedly, the two are not wholly separate. One’s choices are usually influenced to some degree by the biases our culture has instilled in us, and those choices combine with the choices others make to affect the culture we live in. What this means is that often there is pressure–sometimes external, sometimes self-inflicted–to avoid certain things because they reinforce the very things we’re trying to eliminate. Which leads us to things like the parent who won’t let hir daughter play with dolls, the stay-at-home mom who is maligned for not working, and the discussion over whether Slave Leia cosplays are empowering or objectifying.

The other factor that comes into play is the tendency people have to see things in all-or-nothing terms. Criticize something for having objectionable qualities and watch fans come out of the woodwork, howling like you just kicked their puppy. Or you might be criticized yourself for enjoying it. Often it seems like there’s no middle ground–you either like all aspects of something or you avoid it. There’s little room to enjoy something for some qualities while also being aware of places where it could be improved.

As a geek, this leaves a lot of room for me to feel stuck. If I was to avoid everything that was objectionable, I’d have to avoid most of the things I enjoy, because so much of the media and culture is misogynistic or steeped in male privilege. So instead I get to enjoy things that have (sometimes very) problematic aspects to them. Another person might call these ‘guilty pleasures’. I don’t, because frankly I refuse to feel guilty about it–most of the time it even works. The good aspects simply outweigh the bad ones for me, and I’m not going to apologize for liking those good qualities. That doesn’t stop me from being aware of the bad aspects though. It just means they’re not bad enough to turn me off completely.

Maybe this makes me a bad feminist. I don’t know. But I learned years ago that doing things based on what other people tell me to do is a recipe for regret, and whatever that makes me, I plan to own it.

Taking hostages

So, if you haven’t already heard, Susan G. Komen For The Cure has probably sunk itself this past week, after a move to no longer provide funding to Planned Parenthood has caused all sorts of reasons to no longer support SGK to surface (not to mention adding another one to the list). This seems to be a common tactic from the right wing–they coerce people and organisations into not providing support for those they deem ‘bad’, either financially or through other means. The BS that abortion providers have to deal with is ample proof of this, but sadly it goes far beyond that. The debt ceiling, healthcare reform…the focus isn’t on doing good, but on not doing ill.

As a result, they try to hold good works hostage by withholding support until they get what they want. It’s a giant game of chicken, with lives and livelihoods on the line. Sometimes it feels like a cliche TV show where the bad guys get one over on the heroes by creating a situation where they can either stop the evildoers or save innocents, but not both.

And there is no compromising with these people . The kind of person who would threaten something they support (assuming, of course, that they actually support it, which is often in doubt–thank you Rugged Individualism and Good Christian Values) over something they don’t can’t be compromised with. Trying is a waste of effort that would be better used elsewhere.

I really wish I understood these people. I mean, intellectually, I do–I get the logic and values and whatnot. But I don’t understand a mindset that would allow others to suffer when something could be done about it.

Point of Pride

If you’re female, you’ve most likely heard this line. (I don’t know if males get it as well, but women and girls most certainly do)–that taking care of your appearance shows that you value yourself. It’s a frustrating line, because it implies that women who don’t take great care to maintain their appearance don’t value themselves (as opposed to, say, valuing themselves enough to not feel the need to put in the amount of effort required to maintain an ‘acceptable’ appearance). It also tends to reinforce certain standards of beauty. For example, larger women may hear this line as a way of pressuring them to lose weight.

I’m not about to suggest that women shouldn’t take care of their looks, because as long as they’re doing it for themselves, I really don’t care. Some women do feel better about themselves when they try to look their best, and it can be a matter of pride for them.

On the other hand, some of us just don’t care that much.

The problem, however, is that often women aren’t pressured to do it for themselves as much as for others–either we wind up doing so to get other women off our backs, or to be attractive to males. (There are of course some times when tidying up ones appearance is a good idea–job interviews come to mind). Sociological images posted a vintage ad that reinforces the latter type of expectation. Women are encouraged to buy good pantyhose to maintain their appearance in this ad, but it is aimed at doing so SOLELY for the benefit of the males in their lives. As a married woman myself, I would be foolish to say that women should never take into consideration what makes their significant others happy–it is certainly something I frequently take into consideration. But women are generally encouraged to ALWAYS be thinking of others. This comes to an extreme in some fundamentalist Christian circles with the JOY principle (Jesus first, Others second, Yourself last–or as some would argue, Yourself never), but it is an undercurrent of the general culture as well. This pressure to dress certain ways (or wear makeup, or lose weight) is only one iteration of that, although a fairly problematic one as it also contributes to the objectification of women.

Some women do take pride in maintaining their appearance, but the point of pride (in anything) isn’t to show others how you feel about yourself.  The point of pride is to boost your self-esteem so that you don’t need external reinforcement.

Defining normal

Two years ago my worst fear was confirmed.

I’d been having troubles involving some friends of mine. This wasn’t new–for this group, yes, but it was part of a recurring pattern that I’d noticed over the years.  I’d thought I had finally managed to break free of it, but clearly I was wrong. I realized I needed help if I was going to break the cycle, and was referred to a behavioural therapist. After a few sessions, she diagnosed me with Asperger’s Syndrome (a form of autism).

This fit some things I already knew in the worst way possible.  Everyone wants to be normal, and I’m no exception. I’d had various minor troubles in the past, but I always told myself that if I just tried harder things would work out. This broke that illusion for me. I wasn’t normal. I was abnormal. I was weird. I was broken. Something truly was wrong with me.

As much as we try to tell ourselves that we prize diversity, we don’t. Just try it–go outside and do something harmless but unusual.  I’ll wait. *taps foot* Back already? The police what? Oh, well…anyways, you just experienced what I’ve dealt with my whole life. We all feel pressure to be ‘normal’, from the clothes we wear to the jobs we take to the words we use. Sometimes we can be different and get away with it to a degree–we’re labeled as ‘quirky’. Other times we become social pariahs. If we’re not what society decides is normal we’re told to change, and the more we ‘resist’ (if being unable to comply counts as resisting) the less anyone wants to do with us.

So this diagnosis was a frightening thing for me.  I wanted to resist it, but I also wanted to learn more. So I started looking. And what I found was more people like me. People who have dealt with the same things in life I have. People who are just as confused, if not more so, than I am. People who have never been able to ‘fit in’.

I also found people comforting each other, relaying experiences, giving advice. And more than that, I found people who refused to be labeled as ‘broken’. They were different and wanted to be respected for that. They wanted society to learn to work with them and their differences rather than requiring that they conform to it’s standards. I was no longer alone–there was a large community of people like me, people who accepted themselves as who they are and who wanted society to walk the walk of being accepting of differences.

After a while, I was no longer scared. I was different–I’d long known that–but I wasn’t broken. There was nothing wrong with me. I’d already learned to accept myself for who I was, and being diagnosed didn’t change that. I was still me, but I’d gained a framework to work within. I had a new way to look at myself, that took the bits and pieces that felt out of place and gave them a place to reside. I became better able to understand myself, how I related to others and how they related to me. Instead of fear, the diagnosis brought me comfort.

And after a while, I started to feel…normal.