Tag Archives: discourse

Questioning Equality

You’ll notice the red equal signs all over Facebook today. An example of resistance (as opposed to reform):


“Against Equality is an online archive, publishing, and arts collective focused on critiquing mainstream gay and lesbian politics. As queer thinkers, writers and artists, we are committed to dislodging the centrality of equality rhetoric and challenging the demand for inclusion in the institution of marriage, the US military, and the prison industrial complex via hate crimes legislation.”

I’m somewhat with it because I’m really pretty ‘meh’ about the necessity and value of marriage. But on the other hand I do think that if we’re going to have the idea/institution we ought to present it with at least a semblance of equality of opportunity. The other two issues seem similar – yes, we should reduce (or in some views eliminate) the military and drastically alter the prison system – but if we do not have the power to take these actions (because we must compromise in a democracy that includes the radical right) we ought at least strive for equality of opportunity. Maybe it’s just the name I have a problem with – against equality – instead of considering, questioning, critiquing and understanding society in our efforts to achieve equality of opportunity.

A more sexy approach

I watched this TED talk the other day:

Generally I thought this talk was good. She gives easily-identifiable examples and lands on next steps at the end, something many cultural studies people don’t do so well. I thought one of her suggestions was unreasonable, but we’ll come back to this. What inspired this post is that I made the mistake of looking at the comments below the video. One user, likely a young man, had been going back and forth with the other contributors. I’ll examine one comment of his:

“I agree somewhat – at least in the importance of being direct. It’s such a shame, then, that people like this C. Heldman would tell men that such behavior is ‘objectifying women’. She instead denies male sexuality and pushes this ‘nice guy’ attitude which doesn’t do anyone any good.

Men judge women on appearance, then we look at other things. That’s? not bad, it’s just the way we were built. Men should not be shamed into acting unnaturally just because it makes some women uncomfortable. IMO”

I’m not really clear what he’s talking about in the first part of the statement, but I think the second part is worth unpacking a bit. My first reaction is to disagree with him – not all men judge all women based on their appearance, but certainly many people get first impressions of one another. I’ve sometimes felt a little shameful in how I’ll spot physically attractive women out of the corner of my eye in a crowd and won’t pay the slightest bit of attention to others. I know this is primarily a socialized recognition but at times it feels almost instinctual – how fast and with how little information my mind manages to make these evaluations. It’s perhaps well-practiced. I can’t say I can subscribe to any notion of human nature (if anything it’s our “nature” to create our own ways of being to shape the world around us) but it’s not surprising he chooses to rely on this false discourse – “it’s just the way we were built” – by who? What evidence do we have that all men are ‘built’ in a way that makes them “judge women on appearance” ? I do assume he’s referring to primordial or carnal instincts and urges, not the assemblage of experiences and learned behaviors from which our identities are built. Suggesting that some biology controls us mostly or entirely alleviates any responsibility he might have for his own actions.

I was ready to dismiss his comment entirely until the very last sentence. “Men should not be shamed into acting unnaturally just because it makes women uncomfortable.” Again I’m not sure that there is such a thing as ‘naturally’ in this case, but let me put my own twist on this. I deal with some measure of guilt in my pursuit of romantic partners. No amount of feminist idealism is going to dramatically alter the hormonal component of attraction. I’ve certainly had the kinds of people I’m attracted to change over the years of my life, but this process has been gradual and not actively guided. The TED speaker may not be asking men to simply switch off the way they’re attracted to women like a light-switch (10:15 mark, her next steps) but I can certainly understand why this (presumably) young man might feel like that’s what she’s asking.

Try as I might I will likely never be attracted to overweight women. I could choose to date one, but I wouldn’t be able to successfully or responsibly have sex with a person who’s overweight (stated crudely, “I couldn’t get it up”). I know this preference is probably hurtful, on some level. But ultimately our social control can only go so far. Trying to rearrange what body types “society” reveres as attractive is just plain difficult – and it’s a process. Pointing out objectification and encouraging women to give up makeup and high heels and the like is absolutely necessary (and I actively push for these kinds of changes), but I’m not convinced it will change what body types most currently existing heterosexual men are attracted to. My children will grow up being encouraged to find women or men of many healthy body appearances attractive but this doesn’t solve the issue for myself or the guy who made this comment. This reality makes the speaker’s pitch feel considerably less satisfying or actionable – and can almost come off as the notion that in order to be feminist and stamp out objectification (hetero) men must stop being attracted to female bodies. Or, alternatively, that they must completely suppress or ignore their hormonal urges and first impressions and determine their attraction based purely on other things, like confidence or talents or power.

These days I’ve reached a sort of compromise – I police myself, trying to give equitable attention to women (and men) of many appearances and clearly never find myself in a relationship with women who don’t have real character and integrity. I’m not ready to advocate that we give up on finding bodies attractive. I think bodies are great, and while I don’t want to constantly objectify them I’m alright with people finding certain forms of them desirable. I doubt very much the speaker would object to suggesting healthy bodies should be recognized and valued. What’s more is that the strict cultural studies approach often grounds us too deeply in the negative. While we do need to point out the negative influences objectification of the female form has I think it’s worth taking other positive actions – complimenting women who don’t bother with high heels or encouraging women to look for and expect value on the basis of their opinions and assertions in the world around them.

In other words, let’s go with more positivity. Don’t tell (hetero) boys not to be attracted hot chicks (or to ignore that they’re hot), tell them to look for and encourage depth in women.

Internet Attention Span and Kony 2012

Remember that Kony 2012 video that got 6 million 88 million views?

Right so 4-20 rolled around and I was saddened to notice the news media appeared to publish more on pot smokers than the cover the night campaign. I did, however, observe some red cups spelling out the words on one of the overpasses running across 290 heading eastbound into Chicago, not far from UIC, which felt uplifting. I think at this point the criticisms of the film’s focus are well-known, and most of us here would agree that seeing to a self-sustained independent Africa isn’t going to have much to do with US special forces tracking down some crazy dude, but what I thought was worth point out here was the astronomical drop in attention for the topic as it has gone on. First up, is this girl’s response, which yielded ~4 million views:

Now, check the views (176k) on their response to some of the criticism:

It seems to me that there wasn’t much of a worthwhile dialogue about all of this, and if there was it took place amongst a small fraction of the people originally interested. In fact people have probably paid far more attention to 12 seconds of this poor guy’s emotional breakdown than issues like the real challenges Africa faces.

People make me sad sometimes.

Reconciling My Inner-BUT man

Contemplating average people: amicability, happiness, prejudice, concentric circles of concern, and a challenge.

So I’m in the midst of reading Saul Alinsky’s Reveille for Radicals, one of his most influential books . In the opening chapter he characterizes what he calls Mr. BUT in his answer to the quintessential question: What do most people say when you ask them if they like other people? Alinsky’s claim is that most people will reply “Sure, I like most other people, with a few exceptions” which I think is a fair prediction. He goes on to say, however, that when you start talking to this example “typical” person their list of people they don’t like will by far outnumber those they do. And he’s not even talking about “like” in the sense of who you might call friends, but really just general people. It is here where he unveils the grand straw man Mr. BUT, who would say something like “Oh of course I really love black people, BUT you know whenever there’s someone loud and obnoxious on the subway, it seems like they’re always black.” And this got me to thinking.

I don’t agree with him that the average person dislikes more people than they like, but I have a feeling this is my own optimistic projection operating again. I remember my roommate back in college once claimed that he thought the average person was unhappy (that is, most people are unhappy), and I was taken aback. Really? I thought. And as I started talking to people asking them this question, I began to realize that their answer really just mirrored if they, on average, were a happy person.

Anyway what Alinsky is really getting at here, is something worth turning on myself: prejudice. All of us “good-natured” privileged and educated liberals have a helping of Mr. BUT in us. I thought I’d take an opportunity to draw mine out, because I think it’s surprising. Alinsky’s Mr. BUT had resentment and dislikes for people of different religions, races, ethnicities, and more. I think my inner-BUT-man (yes, I know all of you people with a 14-year-old boy in you are laughing now, the language is unfortunate) has some really overt expressions and some subtle ones. Okay here we go.

1) Most anyone who really knows me has heard me complain up and down the wall about passive and apathetic people (or in times past, “the librarians”), but in recent years as I’ve existed in a department dominated by introverts I’ve realized that sometimes this is just tantamount to hating on the shy person, which isn’t very constructive. Sure, I’ve been hurt by my fair share of passive-aggressive people, probably in worse ways than most, but insulting or chastising these people and actions hasn’t really brought an end to them. In fact it’s encouraged the worst of them, and it has sometimes hurt the less intense people that I care deeply for.

2) The academic world is rife with rivalries. I’ve done a lot of saying things like “those cultural studies postmodernist people” or “those data-head people” in a dismissive fashion, often unfairly. The first group I often dislike more because they’re fixated on negativity, but really why make fun of people who are probably comprehensively unhappy? The second gang may at times seem cold, calculating and disconnected, but their lack of empathy or interest in social issues is probably a symptom of their own fear or ignorance, one that likely they haven’t come into in a malicious kind of way.

3) And then there’s the Christians. I just refer to them like that, as if the religion isn’t one of the most wildly diverse and complex ecologies out there. It’s downright stupid for me to transform some small extremist group into full-on representation and ignore all of the good Christians have turned loose in the world.

4) And I’m sure there are more. I’d ask readers to call me out, but that would be asking you to subscribe to my method of positive confrontational discourse (when you challenge me because we’re on the same side, building a better tomorrow), which many do not appreciate. My last prejudice I want to talk about next, because I’m not sure what to do about it.

All of this reminded me of theory I talk about from time to time, that’s not very unique or insightful, and yet has gotten me into a great deal of trouble. Here, a picture:


I sometimes call it concentric circles of concern, which apparently is a book on Amazon, and the name of the same idea as it appears on a Church website or two, according to our local expert Google. Anyway, the pitch is that most people care about the inner-most layer strongly. My roommate is this way, he’s good-natured, funny, and quite empathic at times, but quite introverted; he exhausts his social interaction needs quota at about 5 people. I think most people also expand out into the next two circles, which change composition as their life goes on, which of course makes sense. Some people don’t really have best friends (truthfully I sometimes think this is me), and many people (on a bad day I might claim introverts) don’t really care much for people in the acquaintance zone. And then there’s the last outer circle, which is what interests me. People who care, enough to act, about strangers they’ve never met. This might be environmentalists, for a counter-intuitive example, but also people like my sister, who worked with refugees for a year, or Tom Fairbank, who casually gets to know random homeless people and gives them his time and money in a compassionate way. I think there are also people who give their entire lives to random people they barely know, immersing themselves in places like the Peacecorps without really having anything in the inner-circles to fall back on.

In any event I have this tendency to really spill the haterade (prejudice) on people who don’t expand out to the outer layers. I don’t want to do this, the negativity is unhelpful. And yet at the same time I have no good way to push them out of their inner circle, other than by demonstrating my beliefs with my lifestyle. And this method, if it even is one, is certainly not satisfying or at all effective. I can’t even get past the opening questions sometimes, as asking a person “so why is it you litter?” or “why does voting not matter to you?” or “what turns you off to feminism?” often puts them on the offensive. And rightly so, I’m not just asking to know most of the time (the true dialogic), I’m asking to understand so I can negotiate a better solution. And this, of course, is one of the many reasons people don’t like me, which is mildly unhelpful when I try to act in a leadership or teaching capacity. But I’m unable to turn my back on the tremendous desire and duty to do my part in constructing a better world.

Am I looking for answers? Maybe brainstorms instead. Tom would of course tell me that the world is perfect and I should just appreciate what good we have, which would be warm and fuzzy for a second and then promptly make my life not worth living. With blissful inaction ruled out, what other strategies remain?

–Followup: It seems this diagram can be found all over the place in varied form. My favorite version is when they turn ‘strangers’ into markets.