Monday, November 25, 2013

Femininity For Everyone Redux, Or, Men In Lipgloss Plz

Vorbereitungen für den Maskenball, by Otto Erdmann (1834–1905) (Düsseldorfer Auktionshaus) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
As I see it, the next big step forward for civilization is going to happen when men and boys can wear dresses, high heels, and lip gloss as part of normal everyday life.

Gender norms for men, they're like stuck in the dark ages. I mean, if anyone proposed returning to social norms in which women and girls could not wear pants, people would go nuts. So how is it that femininity for guys is still in the Oh-My-God-Get-Me-My-Inhaler category?

It seems the only frameworks we have these days for thinking about men with girlish styles is gayness, trans identities, or cross-dressing. But that's just weird. Being gay and being feminine are different things, and trans identities are about identifying in a certain way; the whole idea of being a feminine guy is being a guy and being feminine.

Cross-dressing comes closer, but it's not the same either. Being a feminine guy should include the possibility of throwing on a dress, or wearing girlish jewelry -- not as part of an elaborate project for a special occasion, but just because that's what you feel like wearing that day.

My guess --and here I really am conjecturing -- but my guess is that one reason femininity for guys has so little social acceptability has to do with the fact that two powerful but opposing forces hold femininity somehow in low esteem.

Most obviously, many anti-feminists have an interest in maintaining traditional gender roles. Their understanding of being a guy includes norms like "if you have a problem with that guy you should punch him." Many anti-feminists are also homophobes. For a man to wear pink nail polish is an obvious problem for these people. But it also seems part of anti-feminism to be down on femininity itself, to think that it's less good, or less important, and thus appropriately relegated to a sphere of relative unimportance -- women. 

But interestingly feminism has some problems with femininity as well. Femininity for women has been associated with those same traditional gender roles, so there are some obvious reasons for opposition. But femininity also gets a more general undeserved bad rap. It's somehow become associated with weakness, dependency, and a kind of degrading self-objectification, when it shouldn't be.

It's unfair to burden femininity in these ways. As I tried to gesture toward in this previous post, "vulnerability" is a better word -- and to be temporarily vulnerable to others can be a positive state for anyone: it's a state of openness and gentleness and sensitivity. It's only negative when people take advantage of and abuse the vulnerable. But that's not a problem with femininity. It's a problem with the rest of the world.

And indeed - it's a problem that would be mitigated by men embracing femininity. If men experienced the world sometimes from the point of view of wearing beautiful and fragile clothes, enjoying the creative play of make-up, needing an arm to hold as you make your way across a puddle in your nicest shoes -- not only could this be a source of pleasure for them, but don't you think it might make them better people?

This very interesting review of a book of photographs by a man interested in femininity raises some of these same issues. Author William Vollman is sometimes a tough adventure-oriented guy's guy. But he starts dressing up as a woman and finds in it something pleasurable in a complex way.

Among other things, he says that being "Dolores" gave him a chance to "love and take care of" himself: that instead of throwing on any old thing, he'd take pains to care for himself and care for his body.

And he also notices immediately that people can't deal with it.

"But his hobby has cost him friends, and he said he has 'a certain amount of fear and dread' about the book’s publication. 'A lot of friends who could always handle the prostitutes and the drugs felt that I had somehow degraded myself,' he said. 'The idea of stepping down from the dominant male class really disgusts a lot of people, including women.'"

It would seem that the problem with femininity is not that it's bad, but that it's so disrespected that to associate yourself with it is degrading.

I don't know how to start fighting for femininity for everyone. I'd suggest more open-ended norms for boys as children, but given that even the most moderate activities like painting your kids' nails seem to give people a heart-attack, it's not clear how that could even get started.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Babyhood, Motherhood, and the Fragility of Human Existence

Mary Cassatt, The Boating Party [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Did you read Ariel Levy's sad sad story in The New Yorker? If you didn't go here and read it. It's in front of the pay wall. Just out there waiting for you.

If you did, then you know the basic elements. As a reporter long committed to travel and adventure, Levy decides, after a long period of indecision, that she wants to have a child. She gets pregnant quickly and easily, and five or so months in, something goes terrible wrong. During a trip to Mongolia, alone in the bathroom of a hotel, Levy suddenly gives birth to a tiny human being who can't possibly live, and who dies soon after.

The later diagnosis is placental abruption. It's rare. It's not caused by anything in particular. It's just one of those things that sometimes happens.

Levy is crushed by her experience, and she can't put it out of her mind. She can't stop looking at her one cell phone photo of the baby, taken in the moments before they were both taken to the hospital, when they were together and both alive. She can't stop talking about what happened: to friends, strangers, horrified retail clerks.

And in the few days after I read her story, I couldn't put it out of my mind either. I kept thinking about Levy's description of being alone with the baby in the bathroom while he was alive, how he looked so perfect, like a very very small person, how she tried to convey to him a feeling of maternal warmth, a sense of things being OK because Mama is here, in the short time before he died.

At first, I obsessed about the incredible fragility and vulnerability of humans as shown through the short life of the baby. You sort of know how contingent things are, and how much has to go right in so many ways, in order for us to survive and be OK. But it's easy to just sort of forget. And then you read a story like that and you remember, WHAM.

Survival for us is not really a default thing, like Oh, As Long As Nothing Bad Happens It'll All Be OK. Many many things have to work properly for us to even come into existence. But how can this be? We humans are so awesome and special. How can our very existence also be subject to the whims of nature? I can't put the two things together in my mind and keep them there at the same time.

After a while, I started obsessing about the incredible fragility and vulnerability of humans as shown through the experience of Ariel Levy. The whole reproductive business, it is not a go-it-alone kind of activity. I'm struck by the fact that even though I have no children, I was able to identify immediately with her narrative. The state of being responsible for some tiny helpless creature is one that never seems that far away to me, even though it's never been my reality.

Maybe this is just one of those things about Growing Up Female. Think how mind-bending it is when you're a kid and someone explains to you that you're going to get your period every month, and what that is is the raw material that would make it possible for a new person to start growing, material that gets made anew and flushed out once a month, and that's just a thing that's going to be part of your life for years and years and years.

Jeez Louise. Among other things, if you get a bit careless with the birth control, drop the ball on the folic acid -- BAM! You've fucked up someone else's life. I still sort of can't wrap my mind around this either.

The freakout of the tiny being who needs you is obviously somewhere deep in my subconscious, because every couple of years or so I have a dream in which I have a baby, and in these dreams either 1) I am failing in some dramatic way and it's an insane nightmare or 2) the baby is born with the ability to talk and immediately starts criticizing me for Doing It Wrong. Yikes.

And I think this has had an impact on how I see people and their interrelationships: that is, I see them as fragile, interdependent, and mostly in great need of help and nurturing from other people.

Sometimes in my life as a philosopher I encounter people who see persons as independent individuals, navigating the world on their own terms.

I know and they know that there are humans for whom this can't possibly be true, because they're small, helpless, fragile and vulnerable. But I guess the difference between us is that what they see as the exception, I see as a pretty big part of what is going on.

They look at human life and see competence and independence  punctuated with moments of need.

Whereas to me, it's like, those times you manage to get it all together and you feel briefly like you're on top of the world and ready to take on all comers? Unless you're high on drugs, those moments are short, fleeting and maybe even illusory.

Monday, November 11, 2013

In the "It Gets Worse Dept.": Meritocracy is Workocracy

Wybrand Hendricks, Notary Köhne and his Clerk. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

I ask you: is or is not work out of control?

I feel like when people talk about the Great Work Problem, they sometimes structure their inquiry in terms of "What Happened? What Went Wrong?" Like, things were humming along -- oh, say in the mid-20th-century or something -- and then OOPS, something happened to make that era go away. The idea being that when we find out what those things are, we'll be back in zee business.

It's not so much that this is mistaken, I think, as that it gets the normality conditions reversed. I mean, it treats as normal and unsurprising -- as the default -- what was actually atypical and highly contingent. That is to say, any relaxed mood of the past (should such a thing ever really have existed) was a strange exception to an otherwise general rule: that meritocracy is workocracy.

By that I mean, of course, that a meritocracy leads to overwork. Everyone loves the idea of the meritocracy which brings to mind "the march of progress" and "fairness and justice" and other concepts named by 50 cent words. It's appealing because the idea of a meritocracy is that the good things go to the people that deserve them: if you do the job better, produce more and better stuff, make better deals, and so on, you'll get jobs and be promoted and whatever.

But as we're all taught by our elementary school teachers, by popular culture, and by the new Positive Thinking, accomplishment requires hard work. In a competitive meritocracy, the worker always gets the goods, and the one who works harder gets more of them. In fact, in some weird ways, the more successful and meritocratic the society, the worse this particular problem is. In a successful society, more jobs are meritocratic. And the more the rewards are fairly distributed on the basis of accomplishments rather than "promise" or "likability," the more working harder is the only way to prosper relative to your fellow citizens.

I hope you can see how it gets out of control. It's one thing if the person who works over lunch gets promoted over the person who doesn't. But where does it stop? If everyone were working late into the evening but knocked off at midnight, won't the guy working 'til 2:00 have an advantage?

I'm no expert on the exact forces that produced 5:00 martini hours in the fifties. What I am saying is that those forces had to be powerful -- enough so to temporarily dislodge the tight connection between meritocracy and workocracy.

Probably there are many things in play. But I think one of them might have to do with degrees of equality and inequality. If the differences in what you stand to gain by being promoted and more successful versus what you stand to lose for being a little behind are small, the person who enjoys spending time at home and with family will be rational to work less. But if what you stand to gain or lose is huge, even powerful desires for more home/recreation/family time might be trumped by the need to work harder.

This is especially so in a society like ours in which losing is ... really losing. If you're even relatively poor in our society (well, especially the US) the texture of your life is likely to be pretty sucky.

Furthermore, what is needed to remove yourself from the conditions of suckiness is not an absolute but rather a highly contextual matter: what things you need, and what things cost, is influenced by the choices -- and thus by the means -- of everyone around you.

For example, to live a middle class life these days you need a car and a computer and a smart phone. No one decided this; it happens because everyone else chose it. For many things, prices are profoundly impacted by what others are willing to spend. This is obvious for real estate: what determines house prices but what people are willing to pay for houses? But even for goods like TVs its true.

About ten years ago I noticed TVs were super-cheap -- a wide range, but you could get a new down-market one for about 50 dollars. Then a couple of years ago my mom's TV broke and we went shopping. Lo! Cathode-rays had gone the way of the Dodo. All TVs were flat screen. The cheapest? About 200 bucks. The moral of that story is that what-life-costs has to do with what-others-have, and if what-others-have is way more than you, you're screwed.

In an unequal meritocratic society, keeping up with the Joneses isn't a pasttime or a pathology, it's a requirement. And you know what that means. It means putting the kid to bed and spending the next few hours working.

Incidentally, events depicted by the brilliant Victorian novelist Trollope suggest that people in the 19th century saw workocracy coming. The clerks in Trollope's books work four hour days and complain constantly about how it's so difficult and they're working so hard. They see too, though, that the new attempt at meritocracy -- including standardized tests, credentials, and codified rules for who gets the job -- will lead to them generally having to work harder. What will happen to their gentlemanly hours-long club visits and spur of the moment trips to Italy? That's right: game over.

If I'm right that meritocracy is workocracy, the conditions for change are going to have to go beyond adopting new informal norms for how we operate. They'll have to involve some deeply different social structures and political commitments of the kind people don't want to hear about in a genteel blog post.

Monday, November 4, 2013

The "Health" Concept Is Dangerous Interpersonal Colonialism

The Surgeon Evgueni Vasilievich Pavlov in the Operating Theater, Ilya Repin [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

I am so sick of the word "health" being thrown around in normatively complex situations.

Normatively complex situations are those in which, because people are different, it's impossible to universalize what's good and bad for them. Which means normatively complex situations are pretty much, like, everything. When situations are normatively complex, trying to use a universal scale, as "health" does, is wrong: it's like interpersonal colonialism, saying your way just has to be the best way, because it's best. And yet, when it comes to "health," people just can't stop!

Example 1: Sexual health.
When it comes to sex, "health" has about the worst track record you can imagine. We all know the sad sad basic story: vaginal orgasms are "more mature" than clitoral ones, homosexuality is a disease, women are naturally monogamous, etc. etc.

It's easy to say "mistakes were made," but I think the problem goes deeper. News flash: people are different and are fulfilled and pleased by different things! Yet there's this relentless and ongoing attempt to say that some ways of doing it are just wrong. They're not a "healthy" sexuality. "Promiscuity and hook-up culture: good or bad?" Can't things be different for different people?

Example 2: Mental health.
Don't even get me started with mental health. First, duh, not all people are going to be made to feel OK by the same things. But it's worse than that, even, because not all people are even going to find the same kinds of things feel OK-for-them.

These days, it's like, if you find yourself made unhappy by the basic suburban, kids, car, work-life balance life set-up, if you can't make that work for you, everyone's mentally packing you off to the therapist -- or, well, probably now to the psychopharmacologist, but you know what I mean. There's this default of, "have you talked to someone about that"?

And the urge for consensus and universality is relentless. For example, there's this whole debate over whether repression is bad or good. Back in the day: bad. Then it was found that sometimes repression helped people get over things. So now it's like "repression, good or bad?!" Why can't some people need repression and other people need to talk things over?

Plus, why does everyone have to have the same kind of well-being?  What if you're high-strung, or very shy, a loner, or just a weirdo, and you're good with that? "Health" is like a trick word bringing in immediately that there's some relatively clear and straightforward way things are better and worse. But that's so implausible.

Example 3: Health.
You'd think "health" would be the one area where the use of the health concept would be unassailable, but in fact I think it's been a source of real problems.

Aren't you tired of the once-size-fits-all rhetoric of health? Low-fat or high-protein? What should each person weigh? How much exercise and how much? Why on earth assume there's a single answer that applies to all people? Why can't some people need a low-fat diet to feel good and others need a low-carb one?

And again, the problem goes beyond different means to ends -- important though that is. Because  health health, like sexual health and mental health, is not a unified thing, and so it's possible for people to make different judgments and accept different trade-offs. 

For instance, surely if a drug makes you feel kind of shitty but will make you live longer that is a matter of which people can have multiple reasonable preferences? And same for feeling hungry all the time in pursuit of longevity? Can't a person rationally choose pot smoking or sex with strangers, knowing these things will cause other problems?

Yet the medical establishment makes these trade-offs seem beyond the pale. We're not even allowed to have the conversation. They set out the treatment and the rules, and if you don't follow, you're "non-compliant."

Obviously, the concept of health has some real and important uses and I'm not suggesting doing away with the whole idea of some things being better and worse. I'm just saying that sometimes, what's good is highly relative to the individual.

But it's perfectly possible for someone to register that all is not well without appealing to health. A person whose anxiety is causing them pain and misery can easily express this dissatisfaction whether or not the anxiety is in the "non-healthy" category or range. So why not just go there directly?

That is, in some interactions, instead of a rhetoric of "healthy" and "unhealthy," why can't we just a rhetoric of how-you-doing?  "You doing OK?" "Something on your mind?" "Something not working for you?" "Can I help?"

See? Doesn't require any interpersonal colonialism at all.