Thursday, May 29, 2008

What's So Bad About Safety Nets?

I have been thinking a lot about "safety nets," since I am spending time in a Scandanavian country that is clearly a welfare state.  And, by the way, it is not a bad thing for these Norwegians to be citizens of a welfare state.  We are in the midst of striking season. I joke not.  Many different industries pick this time of year to give it to the man--whether the man is the government or capitalists.  The day after we arrived, the airport went on strike  (what timing, eh?).  Right now many teachers are on strike and proudly wearing their !Streik! t-shirts.  

In any case, I thought about the phrase "safety net" today--a phrase that many feminists have consciously adopted to explain why welfare reform has been bad or other erosions of human rights protections in our own government.  The phrase popped into my mind as I was protecting Maddie from falling off the couch while she was playing this afternoon.  At every moment of her play I was keep a "safety net" in place, knowing full well she was likely to fall off the couch and hurt herself.

When the inevitable happened, and she almost fell backward except for my intervention, she quickly turned her nervous expression into a relieved smile.  And it occurred to me in that moment how problematic so much Republican anti-welfare state rhetoric is.  I thought to myself --what if I didn't catch her and let her fall. Would I have been a better parent?  Would I have shown her the consequences of her behavior and made sure that she would never again be so foolish as to put herself in a high risk situation with no safety net?  You can see how the analogies were developing in my mind.  

Why shouldn't we have national health care like the Scandanavians? Well, because people will take advantage of the entitlement and overuse the services and never learn to utilize only what they need.  Republicans don't see state sponsored services as "safety nets," but as opportunities for citizens to abuse resources and drain the state.  What if we took that attitude toward our young?  

Maybe the analogy is imperfect, but I think there is something to it. If you start to think of a welfare state as a safety net akin to how you make sure children don't needlessly hurt themselves when they are taking new risks or hell, just plain growing up.  Couldn't we see the state the same way? , i.e. nurturing and protecting us when we are young, caring for us when we are ill and elderly?  

I dunno. I personally like this system regardless of the strikes here and there.  You can't help but notice the attention to human welfare in this country and what a difference it makes.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Sanctimonious Fundies

My power cord to my computer broke a few days ago, which is why I haven't been able to post. The cost of replacing the power cord here in Norway is ridiculous, so I can only post when I am borrowing Za's computer. Sorry for the brief posting again.

Anyway, I have been reading Tom Perrotta's The Abstinence Teacher while I am here. One of the best aspects of this novel is the way that Perrotta makes the fundamentalist evangelical character Tim so likable. In fact, I found myself--at one point--being more annoyed with the sex-ed teacher.

What I have been thinking about a lot in relation to this book is the most annoying contradiction of fundamentalist evangelical Christianity: sanctimoniousness. What Perrotta does well is show how attractive this kind of Christianity this is to ex-junkie's, alcoholics, of other stripes of fuck ups. These types of churches aggressively go after the "fuck ups" and tell them that no matter what harm or misery they have caused themselves or others--whether it be cheating on a wife or killing a child in a drunk driving accident--they are wholly forgiven once they accept Jesus into their hearts. This has got to be quite a balm for those ridden with a great deal of shame. Total forgiveness. This is surely not something that many humans will give them.

And so, part of the recruitment process is a non-judgmental acceptance of fuck ups. They are taken into a community that cares for them. But, what does this community demand in return? Well, in part, that you become a sanctimonious prick, who denounces other "fuck ups." Or, that you condemn homosexuals or non-Christians.

It is this contradiction that really bugs me. They take people at their lowest--wipe their slates clean so to speak--and then send them out there to rechannel their shame into condemnation of others.

I think this same phenomena often happens in twelve step progams as well--but I don't think it is encouraged in those programs. The fact that it happens is more an effect of the psychology of addicts. They like to shift the blame onto others. Everyone else is to blame for why they are fucked up and furthermore, many ex-addicts--early on--see addiction everywhere and try to 12 step everyone around them. They do so with the same kind of sanctimonious attitude that I am perplexed by in the fundamentalist evangelical churches.

Anyway, I am curious about your thoughts on this one.

Friday, May 23, 2008

What Were You For?

This is the question that Nuala O'Faolain asks herself in reflecting on Terry Gross's question: how do you feel about the fact that you didn't have children? (Go listen to the interview immediately; I was mesmerized by her). O'Faolain suggests that it is much more difficult to work out the meaning of your life without children. I take her to be saying not that children automatically become the meaning of your life--that is, you haven't finally settled the question. I think that what she is saying is that the need to find the meaning of your life is less urgent if you have children.

One constructs a meaning of their life, regardless of whether or not they have children, and yet, for O'Faolain, you never answer the question, what was I for?

Is it true that having children and thereby entering into a new set of relationships to your partner, to your parents--who know become grandparents--and to your future self makes the existential need to ask "what was it all for?" less urgent?

I am dying to hear your thoughts. I haven't formulated my own yet.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Cool Factoids about Norway: 2

Ramps for strollers everywhere!

Bergen is about the size of downtown Boston with the geography of San Francisco. Steep hills and old cobblestone roads wrapped around the wharf. Today the Queen Victoria is right outside my window in the bay and it is huge.

I walked around town today with Maddie because it is an absolutely gorgeous day here. It is about 66 degrees and so, of course, everyone is carrying an ice cream cone, sun tanning in the parks or just walking around the main square.

Bergen is a city where people walk or ride their bikes everywhere. They also are out with the strollers everywhere. And, strollers are allowed into any and every store. To help the stroller set, like myself, get into many places or up stairs, they lay down these stroller ramps. It is ingenious!

These ramps are another indication that Norway is all about "family values." You know, as I write these pro-Norway posts, I wonder if I am fawning too much over Norway and not enough over the US?

P.S. Of course these ramps accomodate those in wheel chairs as well!

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Cool Factoids about Norway: 1

I think it is only fitting that I keep track here of the many cool things about Norway. So, for observation number one: Lots and lots of men here are wheeling their children around in strollers--and not accompaning their wives. It really struck me yesterday how cool and odd that is. Sure, I have seen men strolling their toddlers before--maybe on a weekend outing with the family or at the park. But here you see as many men as women strolling their children every day.

Part of this phenomenon can surely be credited to the generous paternity leave policies here in Norway. But this is certainly not the whole explanation for the daddy strollers. You see all sorts of men out and about with their kids too. It's not just hipster alternadad, but blue collar worker dads, business dads, football lover dads, dock worker dads . . . you name it.

I was noting this to our friend here and she started telling me about her male coworker, who took his paternity leave in Barcelona and broke the hearts of all the Spanish ladies as he strolled his young son around town. Spain is still too macho to stomach the stroller dad.

Why is it that American dads are still unlikely to be out and about with their children? Or, am I just being unfair?

Monday, May 19, 2008

Why I Think Kevin James Should be Rated TV-MA

I stumbled upon this entertaining Chris Matthews "interview" at Amanda's site. It illustrated something that I was already thinking a lot about in the last few days (especially after venturing in to watch some pundits and "talk shows" on the Democratic primary), namely, that the point of shows like Hardball or roundtable discussions on the Sunday News Programs is to provide a mouthpiece for committed, unwavering, ideologues to get their message out in the airwaves. When Chris Matthews invites both Kevin James (a typical wingnut shock jock) and Mark Green (a "liberal" talk radio person from Air America) to discuss or debate whether Bush's comments to the Knesset were a diss of Obama, he is not really creating the conditions for a give and take, civilized debate where the discussants may come to some agreement. No. Matthews and his ilk (even the Lehrer News Hour is guilty of this) are just giving equal time to opposing ideologues who want to talk louder or more offensively than the other guest in order to get their message heard. Sure. I am not saying anything really new here.

But, I was really thinking through this as I listened to a Tom Ashbrook show wherein he was discussing a book about internet security issues and brought on a policy dude from some think tank. I gave the policy dude the benefit of the doubt at first--thinking that he would offer some nice counterarguments or provide better context for the position. Essentially, what I expected from the policy dude was an analysis that I am used to hearing in Academia--wherein there is greater thoughtfulness about the issue (i.e. the history of the problem, why a single view of the issue misrepresents the phenomenon, what the effects of a policy are, what are the unintended consequences, what are alternative views, or how might we make friendly amendments to X view). This is the world I inhabit and I am grateful. I want to believe that the policy folks at most think tanks operate in the same paradigm as academics do. Some do.

But, by large, with the proliferation of right-of-center think tanks to counteract "academia," the news programs that should be a mode for helping the average informed citizen think better about a particular policy are really just winner-take-all-shout-down-the-opposition forums for commited ideologues. I know I keep using the word ideologue in this post, but that is really what is paraded in front of us these days on the boob tube. Hell, even in blogoland. Just once I would like to see a policy dude deviate from his or her talking points and actually dialogue.

Kevin James represents the worst of the ideologues out there: stupid and loud. But, there are far more nuanced and wonkier analysts at places like the Cato Institute or AEI. They sound utterly reasonable, subtle, intellectually honest--but if you listen to them long enough and watch how they function in debates, they never deviate from the core, founding principles of their Think Tank. Their only job is to get their particular ideological message out.

I watched this happen numerous times when I made the bad bad choice to date an analyst from the Cato Institute. Well, maybe it wasn't that bad since I learned a great deal about how this all works. But, what really freaked me out was that my policy dude boyfriend never turned off. Even in private conversations he would refuse to entertain a view that might threaten the core message of Cato: less government, free markets, maximal individualism. I spent months offering up counter arguments to his positions--some quite powerful--and never once did he say "you have a point there." Some of my positions he just dismissed outright. Others he would be a bit threatened by and then go to his boss who would find him some obscure article that would restore his worldview to him. My experience of arguing with policy dude was akin to arguing with the disciple maker dude on our campus turning our lost, smart, socially awkward undergraduates into mouthpieces for Intelligent Design: there is no counterargument that will lead him or his followers to revise their view. Rather, they marshal a bunch of arguments to either muddy the debate or obfuscate the counterargument.

I guess I don't see the point of this kind of public debate or discussion. I think it teaches really bad and uncivilized habits to our children: never consider revising your position when you encounter a powerful counterargument, never consider the possibility that your view or hypothesis is flawed, and, finally, never admit to what you don't know.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Relativism is the Stance of the Powerful

Greetings from Norway!

Za, Maddie and I spent the last two days traveling to Norway so he could do some work with a Norwegian collaborator. I am here mostly to walk around with Maddie and take in the culture of my mother's family. I must look pretty Norwegian because the minute I was off the plane, everyone, including the taxi driver kept speaking Norwegian to me. After I told him (twice) that I was American, he slipped back into Norwegian and then apologized and said I just looked so Norske. :)

While I was on the plane over here, I started re-reading Linda Gordon's Woman's Body, Women's Right: Birth Control in America and I was struck my a claim she makes in her introduction. I wish I could quote it directly, but I left the damn book on the plane. Anyway, after laying out the program of the book, she indirectly indicates that this book (especially since it was published in 1975) embraces the liberation politics of the women's movement. She also clarifies that she is a social historian and hence a class analysis is part of the methodology. Anyway, the line that made me stop and think was a claim that relativism and neutrality are luxuries of those in power.

I wanted to write about this here because I am curious what the rest of you think of this view. I took her to be describing the standpoint of the historian. I wonder if she would extend this view of neutrality to other investigations.

For years I have labored to convince students that relativism is a narcissistic stance. I basically stole that riff from SteveG In my experience, there are two camps of students who cling to relativism. The first camp defends relativism because they believe that it is the more inclusive and hence culturally sensitive stance to take as moral thinkers. I am not always sure where they develop this view? Is it in middle or high school when they have multi-cultural days? Is it something they pick up in social studies? Hard to say. But, what they do is make the move that the fact of cultural differences implies a normative stance: that we ought not judge others by our own moral principles or codes.

The second camp includes students who don't want to argue about morality or who don't want to have to defend their own moral views against others. If anyone ever tries to challenge them on a moral belief and they don't want to be morally judged or (more likely) develop a cogent defense of their views, they begin to embrace a moral view that "it's all relative." It is largely this camp of students that I believe Gordon is criticizing (although the first camp is not mutually exclusive from the latter).

In any case, the stolen speech I give on the harms of relativism is to show that embracing relativism is equivalent to saying that you don't have to take seriously another's view or bother to let your own view be challenged. SteveG's way of framing this problem is still largely in moral language: you are not treating the other as a "person" (the technical word for moral agent).

Linda Gordon, however, is making a political (more specifically, marxist) argument against relativism: those who adopt a relativistic moral stance are obviously those in power. They are the capitalists. They are the elite. They are those who do not need to worry that they will be mishandled by the police or justice system; they are those who do not need to worry about overt or covert discrimination for jobs; they are those with the means to be well educated; they are those with wealth.

I wonder if Gordon's analysis of relativism--as a moral stance adopted by the elite--makes sense of the worldview of my students at a SLAC? Or, might this be a common stance of Americans in general?


What do you think

Friday, May 09, 2008

Meme: Passion Quilt

I've been memed by SteveG! So soon after my reemergence into the blogosphere!

Here are the rules:

Post a picture or make/take/create your own that captures what YOU are most passionate for students to learn about.

Give your picture a short title.

Title your blog post "Meme: Passion Quilt."

Link back to this blog entry.

The caption for my image is embedded in the image: "I Came to Live Out Loud." Years ago, when I was first year graduate student, I bought a card from a hip store that had a quotation from Emile Zola: "If you asked me what I came into this world to do, I will tell you: I came to live out loud." I had that card posted about my computer all through graduate school and now it lives on my bulletin board in my office.

The phrase is more important to me than the image, frankly. I am passionate about inspiring my students to become the most interesting, engaged, and brave students possible. I want them to see the amazing opportunities that life offers and to seize them. I want them to live boldly so that they inspire others to do the same.

Now to tag some others:

Dead Dad
The History Enthusiast

Thursday, May 08, 2008

Disciplining Gender: The Pathology is not in Bradley

The first part of a fascinating series on gender identity and young children aired yesterday on All Things Considered. I am always drawn to these stories and, more importantly, the analyses of what could possibly be at work in a young child's desire to live as a different gender than he or she was born. What struck me in this report was the way in which one Gender Identity Disorder specialist justified his recommendations for how to treat a young boy. First some back story, the young boy preferred playing with girls, dressing up like a girl and playing with toys designed for girls, such as Barbies. The parents began to really become concerned when their son was badly hurt at a playground by older boys (age 10), who wanted to "punish" him for playing with Barbie dolls. (This is exactly the kind of gender disciplining that Foucault-inspired scholars point out to illustrate their work).

The mother became understandably distressed by this and resolved to take her son to Dr. Ken Zucker.

Bradley's school referred her to a psychologist in Toronto named Dr. Ken Zucker, who is considered an expert in gender identity issues. After several months of evaluation, Zucker came back with a diagnosis. Bradley, he said, had what Zucker called gender identity disorder.

Gender identity disorder is a label given to children who believe themselves to be born into the wrong biological body. This diagnostic label encompases a range of behaviors — and the label itself is controversial. But, in general, what characterizes children like Bradley is that they are more than just effeminate boys, or masculine girls, who are gay. These are children who genuinely believe they are girls even though they have a male body — or boys, even though they have a female body.

Zucker, who has worked with this population for close to 30 years, has a very specific method for treating these children. Whenever Zucker encounters a child younger than 10 with gender identity disorder, he tries to make the child comfortable with the sex he or she was born with.

So, to treat Bradley, Zucker explained to Carol that she and her husband would have to radically change their parenting. Bradley would no longer be allowed to spend time with girls. He would no longer be allowed to play with girlish toys or pretend that he was a female character. Zucker said that all of these activities were dangerous to a kid with gender identity disorder. He explained that unless Carol and her husband helped the child to change his behavior, as Bradley grew older, he likely would be rejected by both peer groups. Boys would find his feminine interests unappealing. Girls would want more boyish boys. Bradley would be an outcast.

Carol resolved to do her best. Still, these were huge changes. By the time Bradley started therapy he was almost 6 years old, and Carol had a house full of Barbie dolls and Polly Pockets. She now had to remove them. To cushion the blow, she didn't take the toys away all at once; she told Bradley that he could choose one or two toys a day.

"In the beginning, he didn't really care, because he'd picked stuff he didn't play with," Carol says. "But then it really got down to the last few."

As his pile of toys dwindled, Carol realized Bradley was hoarding. She would find female action figures stashed between couch pillows. Rainbow unicorns were hidden in the back of Bradley's closet. Bradley seemed at a loss, she said. They gave him male toys, but he chose not to play at all.

"He turned to coloring and drawing, and he just simply wouldn't play with anything. And he would color and draw for hours and hours and hours. And that would be all he did in a day," Carol says. "I think he was really lost. ... The whole way that he knew and understood how to play was just sort of, you know, removed from his house."

His drawings, however, also proved problematic. Bradley would populate his pictures with the toys and interests he no longer had access to — princesses with long flowing hair, fairies in elaborate dresses, rainbows of pink and purple and pale yellow. So, under Zucker's direction, Carol and her husband sought to change this as well.

"We would ask him, 'Can you draw a boy for us? Can you draw a boy in that picture?' ... And then he didn't really want us to see his drawings or watch him drawing because we would always say 'Can you draw a boy?'" Carol says. "And then finally after, I don't know, a month or two, he just said, 'Momma, I don't know how. ... I don't know how to draw a boy.'"

Carol says she finally sat down and showed him. From then on, Bradley drew boys as directed. Male figures with anemic caps of hair on their heads filled the pages of his sketchbook.

What is so disturbing about this therapy is that it resembles the movements to cure gay people of their homosexual tendencies. Hence, the message of this therapy is overtly normative: young boys should not want to be young girls. If young boys are indulged to act like young girls, they will be harmed physically by other boys. Zucker's therapy is an ode to the old school "you must be cruel to be kind" therapeutic model--to say the least. When I heard about Bradley's story, I couldn't help but think of a lovely and heartbreaking film, entitled Ma Vie en Rose, which depicts a young boy in the suburbs of Paris beginning to act like a girl and the punishment visited upon not only him, but his family.

Now to the specific analogy that Zucker uses to justify his approach:

Because [Diane] Ehrensaft sees transgenderism as akin to homosexuality, she says, she thinks Zucker's therapy — which seeks to condition children out of a transgender identity — is unethical.

But that isn't how Zucker sees it. Zucker says the homosexuality metaphor is wrong. He proposes another metaphor: racial identity disorder.

"Suppose you were a clinician and a 4-year-old black kid came into your office and said he wanted to be white. Would you go with that? ... I don't think we would," Zucker says.

If a black kid walked into a therapist's office saying he was really white, the goal of pretty much any therapist out there would be to make him try to feel more comfortable being black. They would assume his mistaken beliefs were the product of a dysfunctional environment — a dysfunctional family or a dysfunctional cultural environment that led him or her to engage in this wrongheaded and dangerous fantasy. This is how Zucker sees gender-disordered kids. He sees these behaviors primarily as a product of dysfunction.

The mistake the other side makes, Zucker argues, is that it views gender identity disorder primarily as a product of biology. This, Zucker says, is, "astonishingly naive and simplistic."

This analogy is well chosen and is powerful in persuading people--who don't further consider this--that there is something legitimate about Dr. Zucker's approach. He is also right to counter critics that gender identity is not solely an event of biology. I agree with him on that score, and yet, I draw such wholly different conclusions than he does about how to think about transsexualism.

The problem with his analogy--if we look closely at it--is that it assumes that there is something fixed, pure, or natural about race. What the analogy invites us to do is imagine that an unproblematic "black" boy comes into the office of a psychologist and demands to be altered, biologically, into a "white" boy. We think of someone like Michael Jackson and then . . . .voilĂ , we think of this young boy as ill. He is suffering from a dysfunctional culture--as Zucker points out--and so his desire to become "white" is a dysfunctional reaction to a racist culture that prizes whiteness over blackness.

And yet, look at what Zucker is assuming here: that racial identity never involves choice. He is playing on a unsophisticated cultural understanding of race as "black" or "white," and therefore overlooking the reality of "mixed raced" people or the fact that one's racial identity can so often be ambiguous (is he middle eastern? Latino? Asian?). The fact that we call someone "black" is indeed reflective of our pathological need to put people in neat boxes. Racial identity is as thoroughly a product of culture--institutions, practices, and ideas--as gender identity or sexual identity is. There is a biological component of race, but where we draw the line between one race and another is totally artificial and culturally constructed. We don't look for an underlying genetic signature--expressed phylogenetically--to demarcate "black" from "Asian" or "middle-eastern." Racial labels do not solely point out biological features. Quite simply, race and racial identity are cultural constructs.

And, so because race is far from straightforward or natural, Zucker's analogy belies his deeper need to maintain these all-too-culturally-constructed labels, i.e. "black people" are black, "white" people are white, "boys" are boys and "girls" are girls. His analogy plays on our more liberal sympathies that we should create a culture that values "black" boys as much as "white" boys, but it then uses this liberal sympathy for ends quite opposed to the humanitarian ones in the racial identity analogy. When we carry over the reasoning here, we are to see that boys should not become girls [if they are traumatized by a dysfunctional family (an overbearing father? or overly liberal gender-bending parents?) or a dysfunctional cultural environment (an overly rigid understanding of masculine traits? or, more likely, a overly androgynous culture that blurs the boundaries between appropriate masculine and feminine behavior)]. So what are we to do if little boys want to be little girls because they like feminine things and feminine behaviors more? Train it out of them and force them to face up to their given and natural identity as boys. Likewise, we should help "black" boys deal with their given and natural identity as "black."

Zucker's view completely takes choice out of racial and gender identity and it ignores the fluid nature of these identities. When we start thinking more clearly about how complex race and gender are: these identities are interactions between biology and culture and these categories are fluid and not categorical, then his racial identity analogy falls apart. Why couldn't a young black woman say that she doesn't want to be "black"? That wouldn't necessarily mean she wants to bleach her skin or pass as white. It could mean that she was rejecting certain cultural practices that are deemed black. It could mean she didn't want to be rigidly defined as a member of the group "black people." A psychologist, it seems to me, would really need to listen more closely to what she was saying than assume she was looking for a pathological way to cope with racism. Or, what if a woman who has a Syrian father and a Mexican woman --and looks Latina and reflects the cultural practices and manners of speech of young women in Latino communities, shows up in Zucker's office and says, "I don't want to be a Latina?" Surely the right answer is not: you are just responding unhealthily to a culture that is oppressive to Latinos.

Gender and racial identities are fluid, complex, interactive. What inspires Bradley above to play with Polly Pockets or delight in Pink is not just a dysfunctional cultural milieu that is blurring the boundaries between masculine and feminine. Nor is it just hormonal abnormalities. What is going on here is a complex negotiation that only highlights how fluid and complex gender and race are. Bradley defies our categories. He threatens other boys and worries his parents. But, the pathology is not in Bradley.

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Nothing Great in the World has been Accomplished without Passion

So speaks Hegel in his Reason in History: A General Introduction to the Philosophy of History. For as long as I can remember, I have been stirred by this portrait of what moves humanity forward and what is the engine of history. For Hegel and then after him Heidegger, great prescient individuals who passionately dedicate themselves to a novel way of living, being, acting or thinking about the world change the world. This is a read of history as the provenance of great individuals and therefore a style of writing history that is at odds with social history. The latter--social history or the view of history from economics--is far more in vogue these days. As a feminist and a liberal, I am glad that social history is far more respected than it was in the past. Surely history is not simply a story about the great (male) individuals of a nation.

And yet, I have always been attracted to the idea of great individuals who accomplish things with passion. I guess I am just thoroughly American. I am inspired by stories of triumph against unbelievable odds. My first project in graduate school was to work through Heidegger's notion of history. This semester, I found students drawn to Hegel's work with the same interest that I once had. I pushed one student to tell me why she like this idea of world historical individuals and, not surprisingly, she told me that it gave her hope that she too could be such an individual.

Do we all need to believe we can make that kind of mark on the world when we are young? Does it ever go away? Is it wrong to aspire to that kind of greatness? And, more importantly, if we still find ourselves drawn to Hegel's Philosophy of History, does that call into question our politics (as feminists or lefties?)

I imagine that the valorization of passionate and prescient individuals can be read as a kind of megalomania. The need to believe that a lowly person could accomplish such greatness is the product of too much narcissism. And yet, isn't it just true that nothing great in the world has been accomplished without passion?

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

"Punishment Doesn't Work"

That was a comment my friend made, who is currently earning a PhD in Psychology. She was specifically describing our prison system and explained that 50 years of research has demonstrated that punishment doesn't work. I don't know the literature that she is citing (I wish I did), but I want to use this claim as a departure for a meditation on how effective punishment is in our interpersonal relationships.

I am leaving to the side, for the moment, the parenting relationship. I think this is a far more complicated situation. But, I am going to assume, for the sake of this rant, that punishment is something different than teaching moral behavior through consequences. Maybe that is just a liberal repackaging of punishment, but whatever. There can be real substantive difference between punishment and making others aware of the consequences of their actions. If you think of the punishment entailed in imprisonment, then the difference between the two is clearer. Locking someone up--depriving them of their liberty--without any effort to rehabilitate is, according to my friend, totally ineffectual. The outcomes of this kind of prison system are not good.

Now I want to turn to interpersonal relationships. Does punishment ever work in our interpersonal relationships? If someone harms me and I punish them, does the punishment give me the outcome I am seeking? I don't know. I guess it depends on what we mean by punishment. What I have in mind is the following: the silent treatment, withdrawal of affection, ignoring, depriving of services/goods, guilt tripping, moralizing, yelling, and physical harm. This is not an exhaustive list, but what popped into my mind. Do any of these behaviors every result in a good outcome? If we punish others with these behaviors, does it change the dynamic of the relationship for the better? If not (which I suspect is the case), then why do we do it?

Part of the answer might lie in subterranean attitudes of American culture. We have high rhetoric of punishment of the wicked. Some of us were parented this way--most likely because our parents were reared by the punishment model. Punishment of criminals is an important political issue. Law and Order politicians are more successful than "touchy feely" rehabilitation politicians. And, then there is the animal satisfaction of lashing out, of "paying back," of causing misery to someone we perceive has harmed us.

The last motivation intrigues me. I think that when we punish others, we are acting more like my dog who tends to growl at me if I have accidentally stepped on him. He is hurt and he is going to growl as a means of letting me know that I have harmed him. He is not trying to change my behavior.

And yet, how many times do we justify our punishing behaviors as necessary means to improving our relationships. We want to make clear to the other they have "crossed a line" and so we smack them. But, it doesn't work, does it?

Monday, May 05, 2008

Gossipy Girls

Cinco de Mayo seems as good a day as any day to start up my blog again. Since I am moving way way north and hence will be out of daily contact with so many of my friends here, I need to keep this blog alive. Moreover, this blog is an outlet for me to work out ideas that would otherwise pass through my consciousness into oblivion. The blog is like a cyber-bulletin board where I can post notes to myself and if these ideas have any merit, pursue them later.

So, onto one of those insights. I was digging in the dirt yesterday, which is just the kind of activity that frees up my mind to wander and reflect on interactions with people or pursue questions that interest me. What spontaneously entered into my consciousness was my interactions with those people who like to talk with others but only about the inane details of their day.

You can see that by using the word "inane," I have already made clear that I am "uncomfortable" with those sorts of conversation. The discomfort manifests itself quite bodily. I get anxious when I think about social situations where I might be surrounded by heaps of people who might corner me and talk at me relentlessly about things that hold no interest for me. One of my worries is that I will start to yawn while they are speaking. Or that I will not find the right sort of phrases or responses to indicate that I am listening and interested. My mind will most likely wander onto other topics--errands I need to complete or work I need to finish.

When a topic such as this pops up it usually indicates to me that I need to reflect more on why I am so freaked out by being sucked into conversations with relentless talkers who engage in nothing but "idle talk." The phrase idle talk has many origins, but I am interested in two.

First, Martin Heidegger's criticism of a way of being with other people that is not authentic. What happens when we engage in idle talk with others is that we stop interpreting the world--which means laying bare the world in such a way that it reveals to us paths to pursue that coincide with our deepest creative impulses. For Heidegger, interpretation is an important faculty of human beings and is fundamentally connected to our "essence," which is to engage in projects (putting time and attention into turning a possibility into an actually). We are defined by our projects and those projects that reflect our own creative and thoughtful insights about the world are the preferable ones for Heidegger. Idle talk [Gerede] is a way of avoiding the more difficult labor of seeing into the world and its riches and choosing a path that allows us to bring into existence a way of life or artifacts that reflect our mindful reflection of the world and our capabilities.

I realize that everything I just wrote is incredibly abstract. It is hard to avoid abstract language when discussing philosophy, especially phenomenology. To make this thought less abstract: Heidegger is entreating us to be more thoughtful in our attitudes, projects, choices and relationships. When we speak with someone it should in some way be oriented toward helping us be more thoughtful about our lives. Our friendships with others are best knitted together by conversations that help us find what is most meaningful to pursue, what will help our communities thrive, what will help us care for the earth (which is the source of our inspiration and projects). In sum, to waste our conversations on idle talk is to avoid the more important work of living our life to fullest extent.

The second way in which I want to think about idle talk is in connection with gossip and slander (this is incipient in Heidegger's thought but never really developed). Idle talk is thoughtless conversation. It is conversation with no real objective, other than to disseminate gossip about other people. Idle talk easily devolves into mean spirited and moralizing conversations where we disapprove of other peoples' behavior. We mock how people raise their children, how they control their dogs, how they tend their yards, what they wear, what failings they have . . . you get the point. More often than not, this is the kind of conversation style associated with women.

And, while digging in the dirt and pulling out weeds yesterday, I started reflecting more on the kind of person I try to avoid socially--the relentless idle talker. It is a she. More specifically, it is a she who comes across as moralizing, bitter, or worse (for me) boring.

So what am I--the feminista--suppose to make of this attitude I hold toward gossipy women. Does it make me part of the cruel patriarchy that tends to prejudge most women as idle talkers, who have nothing of value to say other than to diminish others? Maybe. But, I like to think that my reaction to such people is more complicated.

While all of this was swirling in my mind, I went inside to watch a Masterpiece theater show. Of course it was a typical costume drama, set in the 19th Century in England. And, of course, there is a built in critique of gossipy women. And, during this show I thought back to Mary Wollstonecraft's A Vindication of the Rights of Women. She has an important insight into why so many women are idle gossipers--they aren't educated. But, this is less true now than it was in the late 18th Century. Something else is going on then that makes women (I know a lot of gossipy men too) fall prey to harmful gossip.

What is it? Education is obviously available to them. Women can study any subject their heart desires. Part of the answer must lie with the fact that women spend so much of their lives taking care of children and then their elderly parents. This kind of labor--if it is the sole labor one is engaged in--can take women so far out of the larger world. This is not necessarily true--since I did argue that being a mother can take you out into the world--but, nonetheless, it can happen. The intense work of caring for others--and especially little ones who are not yet engaged in the world in the way Heidegger exhorts us to be--can absorb all of one's thoughts and energy. One's identity can easily become inextricably bound up with their caring labor and so the need to maintain a sense that one is doing it well is profound.

That is the root of gossip--the need to assert one's importance in realms where labor is not rewarded or recognized. What is unfortunate, however, is gossip only leaves one feeling empty. When we gossip (and believe me--I am NO saint), we further wall ourselves up into a world where our sense of self is precariously dependent on the approval of others. When we gossip, we recognize how easily it is for others to do the same to us. When we gossip, we are really only highlighting our own deepest fears and failings. What we loathe in others is precisely what we loathe about ourselves.

So, the problem with idle talk and the fact that so many women seem to engage in it seems to be larger than individual failings (though that is at work too). It reveals to us that we are a community that does not value traditional women's labor in ways that provides for women to draw a real sense of self and accomplishment. It reveals that we continue to bifurcate our lives into the private and the public. And, finally it reveals to us that we all desperately need to be valued and loved.

I didn't actually mean to sum this up. I am probably wrong. I am probably missing important things here. Am I being too hard on women?