The only TDOR event I've attended was two years ago, at Portland State University. To the organizers' credit, Tobi Hill-Meyer was a featured speaker. But other than her speech and showing of her movie, there wasn't a whole lot in the program that was on-topic. What I remember most about the evening was the "genderqueer acrobatics" performance, featuring a number of mostly white youths in furry costumes, cavorting. It didn't seem appropriate for a memorial, any more than a dance party -- which is apparently happening tomorrow as part of more than one city's TDOR event -- is. Do white people jump for joy at the deaths of trans women of color? One might be left thinking so.
I think that part and parcel of this fundamental not getting it is the characterization of violence against trans women of color -- which makes up the overwhelming majority of reported violence against trans and gender-non-conforming people -- as "transphobic violence" or "violence against transgender people".
It's no such thing.
As people like Erica and Monica have already written about, violence against trans women of color is fundamentally violence against women -- specifically, those women who are most vulnerable due to the intersecting oppressions (such as race, poverty, and participation in sex work) they experience. Being trans makes a woman even more vulnerable to violence, because there is no place in the world where law enforcement has much, or any, motivation to investigate a violent crime against a trans woman, particularly a trans woman of color who's not wealthy. It's not that violence against trans women of color happens because of some special kind of violence that's different from run-of-the-mill violence against women because it's rooted in transphobia. It's more indirect: yes, trans women make easier targets, but to understand the real story you have to understand misogyny, racism, poverty -- in other words, the same issues that make cis women vulnerable to violence. Strangely enough, violence (to personify it) seems to be more respectful towards trans women's genders than are the trans men and cis women who often organize events like TDOR. While the latter group seems to need to construct a narrative of transphobia to explain violence against trans women -- so unable are they to see that men commit violence against trans women because they're women -- certain men show that they see trans women as women, by treating them in the same way they treat cis women: only more violent.
When trans men organizing TDOR celebrations talk about the suffering of "transgender people", when academics like Dean Spade make their entire careers off talking about the litany of ways in which "transgender people" are oppressed, they're being wildly misleading. Perhaps not intentionally, in most cases. But it still comes off as self-aggrandizing when college-educated white trans men (like myself!) talk about how they could be killed for being trans, when the worst thing they've ever experienced was someone looking at them funny in the men's room, once.
I don't mean to say that even the most privileged white trans men never face oppression for being trans. Health insurance companies are allowed to deny us needed medical care because we're trans, which affects all but the very richest of us. Many of us can't get government-issued identification that reflects our sexes correctly, which is humiliating if nothing else. I've personally known trans men who had trouble getting employment due to being perceived as trans men. I could go on, but I won't. There are issues that affect all, or almost all, trans people, regardless of their privilege along other axes. And no one should feel that those issues aren't important to work on just because someone, somewhere is suffering more.
So I am totally not opposed to someone working on health insurance discrimination in the US, for example, because that's the issue that moves them, even though having health insurance at all is a privilege many trans people lack. What's wrong, though, is erasing and distracting from the experiences of trans women facing intersecting oppressions by blurring the boundaries with the phrase "transgender people". That phrase groups together trans people who, in fact, profit from white supremacy and unequal distribution of incomes (hello, like me) with trans people who are being profited off, and implies a common set of interest where there is none. The same set of forces that means trans women of color often get the rawest deal even within a particular underclass is the set of forces that allows me to earn a very comfortable living by pressing buttons on a computer all day.
Therefore, for me -- or someone who resembles me -- to go on a stage tomorrow and talk about all the violence that "transgender people" suffer would be wrong. It would be self-aggrandizing. For me to pretend that there is something significant that makes me more similar to a trans woman of color doing sex work and living in poverty than I am to a white cis man running a well-funded Silicon Valley startup would be dishonest. And it would be hard not to see that as a cynical attempt for me to use dead women as instruments to advance a political agenda that -- because it serves the most privileged rather than the least -- isn't really about much other than a self-perpetuating machine of publicity and fundraising.
The rhetorical sleight of hand in grouping all trans people's experience together with the phrase "transgender people" is not just inaccurate and imprecise. It's actively harmful in a way that's very much like the use of "die cis scum" as a rallying cry for some white trans people. The ability to prioritize cis people's oppression of trans people as the most piercing injustice is a reflection of privilege: the privilege of being someone who expects to be in a position to dominate others, but is blocked from being in that position solely by being placed as transsexual and/or transgender. Just as seeing cis people as the only threat is a luxury for those who can rely on white trans people to have their back, garnering sympathy because one could be "killed for being trans" is a privilege reserved for those who can identify a unitary threat to their rightful place of privilege, a single reason why they can't live life at the very lowest difficulty setting.
Clearly, we white trans people (and the cis people who love us) need a common enemy to rally against. But because there's so little violence against us that could reasonably be called "transphobic" (there's a movie called "Boys Don't Cry" because it is indeed so rare for a white trans man to be attacked; if there was a movie about every trans woman of color who met a violent death, there could be an entire category for them on Netflix), it's hard for us to make our movement seem vivid enough to get people interested. Health insurance exclusion clauses, medical gatekeeping, and state bureaus of vital records that refuse to change gender markers on birth certificates are not exactly the stuff of which an attention-getting crusade for justice is made. But the answer isn't to steal stories from people whose lives have inherent value because they were, or are, who they are, as opposed to because a more socially privileged person can use them as an instrument.
What's the harm in all of this? Isn't it always good to raise awareness? But when a group like the Transgender Law Center gives an "Ambassador Award" to Chaz Bono, a man who told the New York Times that testosterone made him feel bored when women were talking, you have to wonder whether ameliorating misogyny matters to self-styled trans activists. (The same group saw it as a priority to help Bono file a legal name change, something that many trans people of more modest means do on their own, without help from a nonprofit.) I think there's a connection between how many groups that claim to be concerned with "LGBT rights", or even with "trans rights", serve mainly the most privileged, and the treatment of trans people's experience as unitary that's exemplified by TDOR and its accompanying rhetoric of "violence against transgender people". The result is a fundamental misdirection of resources. It's been pretty rigorously shown that trickle-down economics doesn't work, and I don't believe that trickle-down social justice works, either.
If it makes you feel good to watch candles being lit and listen to people who look like me mispronounce the last names of people who, well, don't, then it's possible that nothing I've just said will change that. I'm mainly writing this to sort out my thoughts. I've been wanting for a long time to do more than just write about trans activism, to get involved, but I've never been able to see a place to start that clearly does more good than harm. So maybe that's a sign that it would be more effective to work for health care and fair working conditions for everyone, cis people and trans people.
Like most such guides, this one will start out being relevant to everyone eligible to vote in the US, then quickly narrow itself to just California, then further narrow itself to Santa Clara County and then San José.
tl;dr: Californians, vote yes on 30, 34, 36 to fund education and abolish the death penalty and Three Strikes; no on 32 and 35 to stand up for labor unions and sex workers. San José people, vote yes on Measure D so we can have a decent minimum wage.
President: Barack Obama
You could argue that to vote for Obama is to vote for the killing of children, or that to vote for him is to vote for the protection for other children or even killing fewer children. Virtually all US presidents have called down death upon their fellow human beings. It is an immoral system.-- Rebecca Solnit
You don't have to participate in this system, but you do have to describe it and its complexities and contradictions accurately, and you do have to understand that when you choose not to participate, it better be for reasons more interesting than the cultivation of your own moral superiority, which is so often also the cultivation of recreational bitterness.
My tone here is different from my tone about Obama in 2008. Well, I'm four years older, but aren't we all? In retrospect, maybe I was naïve for seeing Obama as an anti-war candidate, but then again, he did end the war in Iraq. What's more, I have a lot more confidence in his willingness to end the war in Afghanistan than I do in Mittens, though it's not a sure thing.
As many people have pointed out, there's nothing particularly liberal or progressive about Obama's foreign policy. That is neither why I'm voting for him, nor enough to make me not vote for him. As many people have also pointed out, there also aren't a lot of huge differences between Obama and Romney vis-a-vis foreign policy. (Not that we know much that's specific about what Mittens' foreign policy would actually be.) We can probably count on both candidates to keep expanding the military-industrial complex, and yes, kill civilians and violate civil liberties.
On the other hand, there is a huge difference between the two candidates when it comes to women's rights and LGBT rights at home, and that matters. There is no way in hell you can say that there's no difference between Obama and Romney when it comes to reproductive choice. And since whoever gets elected will likely be able to appoint multiple Supreme Court justices, their views on abortion will matter for decades.
Likewise, as a trans person, I was able to get government-issued ID that reflects the sex that I am as a direct result of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton: in 2010, the State Department liberalized the rules for correcting sex markers on passports. I don't claim that's a huge thing, but it matters, and it wouldn't have happened under a Republican. If Obama is re-elected, maybe Social Security will fix their sex marker correction rules as well; I wouldn't hold my breath for a Romney administration to do that.
I am so, so tired of upper-middle-class white cis manarchists lecturing us all about how Obama and Romney are the same because predator drones. (I know that not everyone saying this is an upper-middle-class white cis manarchist, but I'm okay with people who have at least thought about reproductive rights still deciding they don't see a difference between the major party candidates.) The thing is, not voting, or voting third-party, won't save anyone from being killed by a predator drone. It won't prevent anyone from being tortured. All it does is display your radical cred. It's a deeply self-absorbed thing to do. What will happen if Romney wins is that women will get hurt, trans people will get hurt, queer people will get hurt. You can register that you are against that by voting for Obama.
If you're white, using concern about brown people abroad as an excuse to decline to vote for a candidate who is the better one for women, people of color, queer people, poor people, and just about any other disadvantage group in the US doesn't win you any anti-racist points. Actually, it just makes you look like a racist for holding President Obama to a higher standard than you would hold a white politician to. Did you really expect the guy to single-handedly dismantle the military-industrial complex? Do you realize how much flak he would get from Republicans for being weak on terrorism -- that a white president would never have to face -- if he had pushed harder against predator drones and torture? That's an issue not because his feelings would be hurt, but because he wouldn't have been re-elected and would have been replaced with a genuine warmonger.
I'm also guessing that the manarchists claiming that Obama and Romney are the same have never been denied health insurance because they had a pre-existing condition. I have been, and because of Obama, that will never happen to me again. This is not an abstract or theoretical concern for me.
So when I hear those privileged manarchists saying "don't vote for Obomney or Robama", I hear them saying that they don't give a fuck about women, or at least, not unless those women are so far away from them that supporting their rights won't threaten their own male privilege. I hear them saying that they don't give a fuck about poor people. And I hear them saying that they impose an unreasonably high standard of achievement for a Black president, one that is likely unachievable by anyone (much less a leader who is limited, who we've seen has already been limited, by others' willingness to destroy the entire country for the sake of stopping a Black man from leading effectively). I hear them saying that the only way in which national politics could conceivably (pun intended) affect their lives is insofar as having theoretical opinions about it affects how they feel about themselves, or how impressive others find them. Finally, I hear them saying that they actually don't care about anyone or anything outside themselves: that their priority is displaying their own supposed radicalism, reminding me that they're more radical than I am.
I am not holding my nose while voting to re-elect the President. I can criticize a group, or a person, and still support it, because my thinking isn't black-and-white. And I agree with Rebecca Solnit: "having marriage rights or discrimination protection or access to healthcare is not the lesser of two evils. If I vote for a Democrat, I do so in the hopes that fewer people will suffer, not in the belief that that option will eliminate suffering or bring us to anywhere near my goals or represent my values perfectly." I'm not voting to express myself. I'm voting to have an effect, and yes, my vote does matter even though I live in California. If you're a US voter, your vote matters no matter where you live. The popular vote matters for legitimacy as well as the electoral vote.
(If you're still voting for a third-party candidate regardless of anything I say? Please go vote for Jill Stein instead of horrible transphobic bigot Roseanne Barr.)
The rest of this is only directly relevant to you if you live in California.
US Senator: Abstain
Dianne Feinstein is a homophobic xenophobe. She's also highly likely to be re-elected, and there's no write-in option. (Any temptation I might have had to vote for her Republican opponent, Elizabeth Emken, was erased as soon as I read about her involvement with ableist movements to "help" autistic people by eliminating the.) So I'm not voting on this one.
( Ballot measures and even more boring stuff, oh my )
Is being trans a disability? Arguably so, under the ADA's definition of "disability":
"(1) a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more of the major life activities . . .; (2) a record of such impairment; or (3) being regarded as having such an impairment."
Even from the perspective of trans activists who believe the only unpleasant thing about being trans is the marginalization that we experience by cisnormative society (a perspective I don't share), being trans qualifies under clause (3): even trans people who don't believe they have a medical condition, don't believe that "gender dysphoria" or "gender identity disorder" are real things, and don't feel they require medical intervention are regarded as "impaired" by others. Under one definition, being trans means to have one's gender and/or sex not universally recognized as valid. That means that you are regarded as impaired in an area of life that most people consider essential (having a gender and sex that are concordant and unambiguous). So at least by the ADA's standards, being trans is a disability. I don't have a problem with that, since I don't feel the need to perpetuate ableism by holding myself as superior to and apart from people who have disabilities.
Since the ADA makes it illegal for health insurance companies (as well as health care providers) to discriminate on the basis of disability, you might wonder why a significant majority of group health insurance plans in the US (and every individual health insurance plan that I know of) have specific trans exclusion clauses in their policies, which exclude coverage for what is usually -- crudely and non-clinically -- referred to as "sex transformation" or "sex changes". Actually, these clauses exclude coverage for a variety of reconstructive surgeries (mostly on the genitals, chest, or face) when trans people are having them. Often, the policy covers the very same reconstructive surgery for cis people that's excluded for trans people: for example, breast reconstruction for cis women who have had mastectomies due to breast cancer is covered (this is required by federal law), while breast reconstruction for trans women is not.
So according to the ADA, isn't this blatantly illegal discrimination? Well, no, and for that, you can thank Republican senators (at the time) William Armstrong, Orrin Hatch, and Jesse Helms, all of who were involved in introducing a heinous amendment to the ADA:
At the end of the bill, add the following:
Under this act the term `disability' does not include `homosexuality,' `bisexuality,' `transvestism,' `pedophilia,' `transsexualism,' `exhibitionism,' `voyeurism,' `compulsive gambling,' `kleptomania,' or `pyromania,' `gender identity disorders,' current `psychoactive substance use disorders,' current `'psychoactive substance-induced organic mental disorders,' as defined by DSM-III-R which are not the result of medical treatment, or other sexual behavior disorders.'
If you read Hong's article, you can find some of the despicable things that Armstrong and Helms said on the Senate floor that led to the introduction of this amendment. As Hong points out, Armstrong and Helms made no attempt to hide that their antipathy for trans people, pyromaniacs, drug users, and so on had nothing to do with evidence or medical science. I can't help thinking about much more recent controversies over Republicans like Todd Akin, who also made medical claims (that cis women who experience rape can't become pregnant) that are completely contradicted by fact. It's hard not to think that there not only hasn't been progress in the past quarter-century, but that we've gone backwards. While Armstrong's and Helms' ignorant statements could maybe, maybe be excused by the lack of widespread knowledge about and experience with trans people, Akin lacked that excuse for his asinine statements about pregnancy -- not a marginal condition, but one experienced by up to half the human population.
Because nobody in the Senate really gave a shit about trans people (not that I have any reason to think that's changed), the Armstrong-Hatch amendment passed, and continues to be law today. There are other legal bases on which somebody who was denied insurance coverage just for being trans could challenge that decision, but without some significant effort to show that the Armstrong-Hatch amendment violates the Equal Protection clause of the Constitution, the ADA won't be one of them. Then again, it does violate the Equal Protection clause, so you'd think someone would get on that.
Hong's article is ten years old; since then, I've seen very little other writing that explored a potential ADA-based challenge to trans exclusion. Recently, groups like the National Center for Transgender Equality and the Transgender Law Center, as well as writers like Melissa Harris-Perry, have lauded how the Affordable Care Act (ACA) adds additional legal protections for trans people facing health care discrimination. However, I find these celebrations to be premature and totally misleading and harmful, since the ACA in no way addresses the core issue that trans people can be denied medical care that cis people get with no obstacles, simply because we belong to a socially stigmatized group. So long as social stigma affects the kind of health care I can access more than medical necessity does, I won't be celebrating.
Postscript: There's one thing I think Hong is totally off-base about: her assertion that trans kids shouldn't receive medical treatment. If her opinion were policy, at least one person I know probably wouldn't be alive today, and that would be bad, since I prefer her to be around. She seems to confuse reparative therapy for trans kids as practiced by Ken Zucker and supported by his pals entourage Ray Blanchard and J. Michael Bailey, cheerled by Anne Lawrence and Alice Domurat Dreger -- something that is absolutely harmful and unethical -- with treating trans kids by letting them be the gender they are. These two modalities are about as similar as antifreeze and ginger ale, but Hong seems to fall for the harmful misconception (allow me: cisconception?) that medical treatment for trans kids amounts to forcing gender roles on them. That couldn't be further from the truth, since denying medical treatment is an attempt to force a gender role on a trans child: the gender role the child was arbitrarily and coercively assigned at birth. When it comes to adults, though, I find Hong's arguments pretty sound (aside from some of the language -- like the self-contradictory phrase "biological gender" -- which reflects the standards of the time).
What astonished me was that no one had asked the churches if they wanted to be stared at like living museums. I wondered what would happen if a group of blue-jeaned blacks were to walk uninvited into a synagogue on Passover or St. Anthony's of Padua during high mass---just to peer, not pray. My feeling is that such activity would be seen as disrespectful, at the very least. Yet the aspect of disrespect, intrusion, seemed irrelevant to this well-educated, affable group of people. They deflected my observation with comments like "We just want to look," "No one will mind," and "There's no harm intended." As well-intentioned as they were, I was left with the impression that no one existed for them who could not be governed by their intentions. While acknowledging the lack of apparent malice in this behavior, I can't help thinking that it is a liability as much as a luxury to live without interaction. To live so completely impervious to one's impact on others is a fragile privilege, which over time relies not simply on the willingness but on the inability of others---in this case blacks---to make their displeasure heard.-- Patricia Williams, The Alchemy of Race and Rights
And that's why whenever someone tells you that you can't feel bad about the way in which they've hurt you, because "they would never hurt you intentionally", that is not a gesture of friendship or, in fact, of any kind of relationship other than one based on fundamentally unfair power dynamics. They are saying "You are governed by my intentions, merely because I have the power to coerce you into being so governed." They are committing an act of discursive violence.
I'm kind of perplexed at why a trans woman (or trans man, for that matter) would use "transgender" as a noun or imply that trans people "change their gender". But I hope that was due to bad editing.
The problem is that in the NY Times article (I read _She's Not There_, it was a long time ago, so I don't remember much), she's *not* just making a statement about herself. She's saying that transsexuals are "(individuals who change, or wish to change, their gender via medical intervention" -- not *her*. *All* transsexuals. To me, that's profoundly offensive, because I'm transsexual (not transgender), but I have never changed my gender, nor could I if I wanted to; rather, what makes me transsexual in public -- or, what I actually prefer terminologically, a man with a transsexual body -- is that I'm someone whose sex and gender are not universally accepted as valid. And what makes me transsexual in private is that I have a morphological sex, and a neurological sex -- just like everyone else -- but unlike most people, these two sexes aren't on the same side; so, "trans" (across) and not "cis" (on the same side).
(For the "public" definition, I credit Queen Emily at Questioning Transphobia: http://www.questioningtransphobia.com/
There is a new set of definitions going around that I like, but don't always use since it confuses people, that says that "transsexual" is more or less what I said above, but "transgender" refers to a person who has articulated more than one dialect of gender over the course of their life. So actually, what Boylan characterized as "transsexual" would then be "transgender"! Now, it's ok that she uses those definitions, but she should have been clear that definitions around trans terminology are controversial and in flux, and that she speaks for herself, not the entire community. It's unfortunate that every time a trans person opens their mouth, they have to prefix disclaimers like that, but it's reality, and what happens when they don't add disclaimers is that a very, very narrow sector of the trans community (trans women who are white and who at least pre-transition are socially and financially successful and who transition in their forties or later) ends up doing all the speaking for everyone.
Unfortunately, it's not obvious to everyone that everyone's lived experience is different -- somehow, it seems like the more marginalized you are, the more other people are willing to generalize about your experience. Nothing drives this point home like having one doctor ask you "How long have you felt like a man trapped in a woman's body?" (well, gee, I thought I was in my body -- if I'm in a woman's body, where is she and is she pissed off that I'm using it?) and another doctor ask you "Do you have sex like a boy or like a girl?" (the question-asker in the latter case was trans, and should have known better).
So it really can't hurt to say "but everyone's lived experience is different". Of course, what Boylan did with her questionable definitions was different than that -- she didn't just talk about herself while forgetting to say that she doesn't speak for everyone, she actually said something offensive and false about people who aren't her.
I also don't agree that "ever splintering identity politics" is limiting the civil rights advances that can be made. I get suspicious when people start using the phrase "identity politics", because mainstream politics is identity politics (the Tea Party is identity politics for white cis men who identity as heterosexual), but it normally doesn't get labelled that way. "Identity politics" really means "identity politics for people whose identities I think aren't too important", so it's kind of othering and it's term I tend not to use.
What I think is limiting the civil rights advances that can be made for trans people is that a lot of people hate and fear us and don't want us to have rights, because if trans people get rights, cis people lose the ability to feel better about themselves by virtue of being gender-normative.
I'm probably not communicating very well, because I've failed to communicate that my issues with Boylan's definitions aren't peripheral squabbles -- they are central to the trans liberation movement, and show how she's actually undermining it. I don't think her undermining is entirely unintentional, either. But I'll explain.
The fundamental struggle that people like me are fighting is against coercive assignment, for autonomous definition. (I'm borrowing that formulation from a friend, I didn't come up with it.) When Boylan says that people like me change our gender, she's saying that the genders we were coercively assigned at birth are real; that to be recognized for the genders we autonomously define ourselves as, we first have to submit to a process of "change". But I reject that -- the gender I was coercively assigned at birth was never real in the first place.
Every struggle in the trans liberation movement -- equal access to health care, employment rights, the deregulation of gender (i.e. getting that little 'M' or 'F' off your driver's license), and ending violence against us, to name a few -- relies on rejecting the cis world's attempts to coercively assign us. So we can never win by accepting terminology like that advanced by Boylan (and not only Boylan) -- if we accept that, we accept that we have no rights. We accept that what we were coercively assigned is what we *are*.
And if we accept that, we can't claim that we have the right to health care. How can we claim that if we're whimsical eccentrics trying to defy what we *truly* *are* (as opposed to people who have the right to live as who we are, like everyone else)? We can't claim that we have the right to employment, because if we're trying to "be a different gender", that's simply a whim that indicates our likely mental stability, and employers would be totally fair if they didn't employ us. We certainly can't claim that we have the right to have government-issued ID that reflects who we are, as then we're just talking about some fiction in our heads rather than the reality of what we were coercively assigned. Finally, we can't do anything to defend ourselves from violence because we can't say we're in a particularly oppressed class of people -- after all, under this regime, we're all free to stop trying to "change" reality (which is to say, the truths that were imposed on us by force) and be who we *really* are, which would free us from such violence.
So I don't take issue with Boylan over petty details. I take issue with her because she doesn't accept the same basic principles I do, and those basic principles are the foundation for any claim I have to civil rights. Unless this was all merely an editing error, she is not "my people", as people who make statements that deny that I am who I am are not "my people". And Ms. Boylan doesn't get to write off my struggles just because she's pretty, thin, transitioned after attaining financial and personal success while passing as her coercively assigned gender, and fits the standard narrative. That's why the NY Times picked her as a spokesperson for all of trans-kind, but it doesn't give her the authority to decide that everything that would actually make it possible for me to live my life is just a matter of petty "identity politics" (again, a silencing term).
If this isn't legible, I'm not sure what more I could say that would clear things up, but I do recommend the post I already linked to once (I think?) -- http://www.questioningtransphobia.com/
(Just one postscript -- I feel like it's misleading to characterize a disagreement between folks like Boylan who are happy with the existing definitions of sex and gender and simply want to modify them slightly to allow for a "change of gender", whatever that means, and folks like me who reject those definitions entirely as based on incoherent double standards, as "infighting". That implies that all parties in the debate have the same amount of power. But Boylan clearly has the upper hand here -- her views are much more satisfactory to the larger power structure, thus she's being published in the NY Times, where you aren't going to say the words of, say, Lisa Harney, Julia Serano, Talia Bettcher, or Viviane Namaste. So really, throwing around terms like "infighting" or "identity politics" is just another way of denying privilege.)
People cling far more tightly to their self-hatred than to their hate for others. They may get defensive upon being told that the socially approved acts of aggression they'd been committing all along were actually wrong (but I didn't know!), but they seem to find the news that their self-hatred isn't necessary to be utterly infuriating.
(Some other time I'll write my full-length defense of arguing on the Internet. But not tonight.)
I find this to be a great illustration of the meaning of the terms "tone argument" and "concern trolling". 23 years later, it seems ridiculous to us, the idea that the obvious truth "We are everywhere" could be seen as hostile or alienating, as something that could legitimately strengthen someone's learned homophobia rather than undermining it. When you make a similar suggestion now -- when you tell someone that they're turning off potential allies by being so angry, or that you don't have a problem with someone's way of demanding their rights but someone else might think they're being too (hostile, aggressive, blunt, sexually explicit, bitchy, demanding, strident, selfish, all of the other qualities that privileged people flaunt) -- can you consider how you're going to look 23 years from now, with the benefit of hindsight?
-- William Ryan, Equality
I agree, but I don't think he goes far enough. Gender is just one example of how low self-esteem and weak self-images are a resource to be exploited. One reason why the concept of self-esteem -- of teaching people that they have innate worth that isn't determined by their achievements, their personal wealth, their physical appearance, or how somebody else assesses them -- is such a radical one, such a dangerous one is that it's a threat to capitalism. People who love and accept themselves are less easily manipulated into channeling their self-hatred outwards into a vote for a radical right-wing politician who promises to make terrorists or child molesters or illegal immigrants die for your sins, or channeling their existential angst into credit card debt. It's better for the economy and the political power structure (not that those are different) if people don't have the inner resources to accept themselves without hating other people or spending money.
(If this is making you want to say, "But there isn't some big conspiracy out there to make people feel bad!", then you might want to think about whether you're willing to learn to extend the same skills you've learned about analyzing broader structures and patterns in math, logic, computer science, biology, or some other such field to analyze patterns that arise in societies and human behaviors (with no need for centralized, "conspiracy"-style planning) as well.)
I thought about the same idea while reading "Weight Science: Evaluating the Evidence for a Paradigm Shift" by Linda Bacon and Lucy Aphramor, a literature review of studies on the efficacy of weight loss in health outcomes that appeared in Nutrition Journal last month. Bacon and Aphramor use evidence to argue persuasively that contrary to an overwhelming body of conventional wisdom in US culture, there is actually no reason to believe that losing weight, if pursued as a goal for its own sake, will improve your health if you are overweight. The weight loss industry -- and, unfortunately, the medical professionals who serve as an arm of it -- relies on using shame and guilt to keep people dependent on "solutions" that will never solve either their real problems or their imagined problems. But shame and guilt don't cause fat people to lose weight *or* to get healthier -- in fact, shame and guilt make people *less* healthy, in concrete physical ways. We often hear that the "fat acceptance movement" is a bad idea because it's bad to "send a message" that it's okay to be fat. But that's a perspective that arises from a combination of self-hatred, fear, and anxiety: shaming people for being fat doesn't help them stop being fat and doesn't help them live longer or happier lives. In any case, the idea that being fat causes poor health outcomes is much more based on confusion between conformity to artificial (marketing-driven) beauty ideals and health than it is on data or evidence.
But the beauty ideals are important, because they keep the wheels of capitalism spinning. Shame and guilt are a profitable natural resource, and unlike many natural resources, they are infinitely renewable.
Keep hating yourselves, kids -- it keeps the economy strong!
Now suppose that I were to kick you in the balls repeatedly. I have reason to believe you would likely find that painful. But I can make it up to you! How about once you're recovered, you go ahead and kick me in the balls repeatedly? Go on, imagine it. Okay? Well, that didn't feel like much at all. I'm clearly impervious to being kicked in the balls, and that's clearly a reflection of my superior strength of character.
The only problem is that this is an unfair comparison, since my balls are made of silicone and kicking them would only serve to further cushion the blow that my already much-less-sensitive crotchal accoutrements would otherwise absorb. I'm not better than you because I'm less sensitive to a swift kick in the crotch -- I just don't have testicles, a lack that is hardly on my list of personal accomplishments and is in fact something I would change if I had any idea how.
Cis people often call trans people "oversensitive" or "easily offended" because they react to certain kinds of verbal attacks differently than a cis person would to the same comment. Of course, the person making such an attack does not always mean it to come off as aggressive, but since meaning is determined by the recipient of a message and not the sender, these comments are attacks nonetheless. For example, a cis person might call a trans person "oversensitive" because she reacts badly to being addressed with the wrong pronoun, and a cis person would just laugh or shrug it off. Or a cis person might say a trans person is "easily offended" and should "know what I mean" when he says "born female" to mean "assigned male at birth": when they say such a person is easily offended, they mean they react to such a comment more strongly than they would expect a cis person to react. Cis people stack the deck (they take advantage of their socially sanctioned privilege to define what a "normal" level of sensitivity is) and then complain when trans people won't play.
Like a swift kick to the crotchal region, verbal attacks are received differently depending on what, inside the recipient's body, takes the blow. A pair of testicles that you can't even see (when your victim has pants on) make the difference between a few moments of discomfort and a thoroughly ruined day. A collection of emotional baggage that you can't even see, comprising memories of, and learned reactions to, transphobic violence -- the kind of violence that hides behind words and makes its victim do all the dirty work -- makes the difference between a dickish comment that's laughed off and a dickish comment that ruins someone's trust in you and jeopardizes a relationship.
If I were to request adulation for what I characterized as thick skin developed through my own efforts, but is really a matter of (a certain kind of) luck, you'd rightly suggest I was disingenuous. So why is it a mark of good character to be "thick-skinned" and "not easily offended" when that really amounts to having had the good luck not to grow some brain structures that -- like your testicles, if applicable -- you don't think about all the time, but that make it difficult for you to regain your composure when someone stomps all over them? Why it's considered a virtue to not be "sensitive" -- that is, to be indifferent to other people's emotional states and responses -- and to be "thick-skinned" -- that is, to not care about your relationships with other people -- is another question as well. Why is "you're just being oversensitive" an all-purpose silencer, while "you're not being sensitive enough" gets you laughed at and called a castrating PC cunt (and then accused of oversensitivity when you don't like being reduced to the genitalia you're presumed to have)? But even if we take it as a given that apathy is a virtue, are virtues that accrue by accident of birth really so praiseworthy?
When you say that a trans person (or, you know, any person whose life is different from your own) is "oversensitive" because you are incapable of imagining their response to anything from a misplaced pronoun to a "Saturday Night Live" sketch dedicated to mocking and denying the humanity of a group of people to which they belong, you are really saying that it's easy to maintain a serene state of indifference to everything other than yourself. Easy when the rest of the world is indifferent to you, too -- and, just as easy when the rest of the world would prefer to see you dead.
You're saying that if it's harder for you to do something that's inherently more difficult than it is for someone else to do something easier, then the problem is that you're not trying hard enough.
And really, that takes balls.
"Alice": Dropout rates might be an interesting thing to study, but the simple lack of women in the field is also quite important, and is probably one of the strongest factors affecting the dropout rate. While that is merely conjecture, I would say that it fits well with my experience, and I believe it to be demonstrably true.
And a reply:
"Bob": This "they don't feel included" notion is harmful. The problem is not that someone doesn't feel included. The problem is that we're raising insecure people unnecessarily hung up on what other people will think of them. This should be fixed by raising children better. Not by changing the environments at our universities.
If someone raised their daughter (or son) in such a way that she (or he) discards a carrier simply because s/he feels unwelcome in that particular environment because of lack of other people sharing some physical feature, then they raised an insecure weakling who is overly concerned about what other people think of her/him.
Fuck that. We should not be baby-proofing our environment so that people with stupid irrational insecurities don't have their feelings hurt. We should focus on raising independent people, not on crippling university environments.
All I ever cared about is what I want to do. Other people? Well, why should they have a say in what I should do with my life. It seems ridiculous to me that someone would base their major decisions on what sports do people at the CS department play or what kind of dirty jokes they like
I find "Bob"'s comment (not his real name) to be a great example of a meme that people who want to deny the existence of oppressions and their role in them often employ. The basic template is: "[insert social problem here] wouldn't be a problem if those of you who it affects would just toughen up and learn to ignore it."
Of course, this statement is generally made by people who have never had to toughen up and learn to ignore the problem in question, because the problem isn't their problem.
Let's suppose, for the sake of argument, that it's possible for a group -- for example, women -- to learn to ignore a problem that affects them -- for example, institutional sexism that denies them career opportunities. And let's suppose, again, for the sake of argument, that ignoring the problem would make it go away. This seems a bit absurd in the context of being a graduate student where if you ignore the people who are potentially treating you in sexist ways, you can't do your job; also because sexist behavior is often subtle and hard for an individual to perceive directly. It usually bypasses your conscious mind and goes straight to making you feel inferior, all with no chance for you to decide to "be tough" and ignore it.
But maybe the argument is that every woman ought to be supremely tough and completely impervious to anyone else's best efforts to make them feel like less of a person? (Men are exempt from this imperative of insensitivity, of course, as evinced by any "pro-men's-rights" rant about how men are oppressed because they don't get to dictate the contents of their partners' uteruses, have as much condomless sex with fertile individuals as they'd like without paying child support, or... okay, I'm drawing a blank here, but I'm sure there are lots of other ways in which men are oppressed.) I'm not sure how a person would go about doing that (perhaps installing a punching bag in one's basement with a carefully mounted image of Lawrence Summers on it and practicing for 30 minutes a day?), but let's suppose it's possible.
What is "Bob" really saying, then? I think he's saying that the burden of ameliorating an oppression is on the people being oppressed, not the people doing the oppressing. Explaining away a problem by telling people that it wouldn't be a problem if they learned to ignore it explains nothing and solves nothing. It just shifts the emotional labor onto everybody except the people who are causing the problem -- the people who are in a position of power and privilege. And why should we accept that?
As always, Samuel Delany says it better than I can:
There are no sexist decisions to be made.
There are antisexist decisions to be made. And they require tremendous energy and self-scrutiny, as well as moral stamina in the face of the basic embarrassment campaign which is the tactic of those assured of their politically superior position. ("Don't you think you're being rather silly offering your pain as evidence that something I do so automatically and easily is wrong? Why, I bet it doesn't hurt half as much as you say. Perhaps it only hurts because you're struggling...?" This sort of political mystification, turning the logical arrows around inside verbal structures to render them empirically empty, and therefore useless ["It hurts because you don't like it", rather than "You don't like it because it hurts."] is just another version of the "my slave/my master" game.)
It is time for all people of conscience to call upon America to come back home. Come home, America. Omar Khayyam is right: 'The moving finger writes, and having writ moves on.' I call on Washington today. I call on every man and woman of good will all over America today. I call on the young men of America who must make a choice today to take a stand on this issue. Tomorrow may be too late. The book may close. And don't let anybody make you think that God chose America as his divine, messianic force to be a sort of policeman of the whole world. God has a way of standing before the nations with judgment, and it seems that I can hear God saying to America, 'You're too arrogant! And if you don't change your ways, I will rise up and break the backbone of your power, and I'll place it in the hands of a nation that doesn't even know my name. Be still and know that I'm God.'"
-- Martin Luther King, Jr., April 30, 1967
"Alice" just said something oppressive or dehumanizing in your presence. You know, maybe like calling you by a pronoun associated with the gender you are not, or using a word that's historically been used to describe people like you as a synonym for all that is wrong or misguided in the world. And then, mincing no words, you tell them how you really feel about that.
What usually happens is that Alice assures you she didn't really mean it, she didn't intend to cause you any harm, and she just didn't know there was anything wrong with what she just said. (Alternatively, she may go on to explain why what she just said wasn't wrong.)
What's the subtext in Alice's response? I think it has to do with power. When "Alice" says something hurtful, there are a few different courses of action. You could choose to never speak to her again, but let's suppose you want or need to continue the relationship. Then, another possibility is for her to do the work of seeing from a point of view she's not used to assuming (and which it may be more difficult for her to assume, as she may not want to think about what it's like to be a person like you), and understand why even though the words she used didn't mean anything to her, they are hurtful to someone like you. Or, you could save her the work by doing the work yourself of understanding why Alice is really a nice person and couldn't possibly have meant anything hateful or hurtful.
When Alice says "I really didn't mean it, I didn't intend to cause you any harm", she is asserting her privilege not to have to do any work; and that's where it comes in that usually, in these situations, Alice has a social status that is accorded some additional political credibility and prestige compared with your own. She gets to use that status to save herself the effort of considering the feelings of anyone who isn't as privileged as herself.
Get it? When you say, "You shouldn't be angry with me about that, because I didn't mean any harm," you are demanding that someone else do your emotional labor because you're too privileged to have to do so. And that is generally worse than the original thing you said, because while the original thing may have been unthinking, the response is a not-so-thinly veiled attempt to leverage one's superior political position. That, my friends, is busted. And is it what you really intend to say?
Yesterday, an apparent attempt to assassinate US Rep. Gabrielle Giffords left her gravely wounded and several other people dead. The accused, a young man named Jared Loughner, evokes the Time Cube guy for many of us who know our Internet crackpots. Of course, Loughner has not been convicted of any crime. But folks like him are quite convenient for the political cabal that marked a map of the US with gun-sights to denote the locations of Democrats who they wanted gone. If Loughner hadn't been born or hadn't grown up to be who he is, then the right wing (let's not waste adjectives like "radical" or "violent", as they're wholly redundant) would have to invent him. If you can blame an apparently unstable person and claim he acted unpredictably, you can escape responsibility for creating an environment of violent discourse that finds work for the idle hands of the unstable. The advantage of blaming acts of political violence on random, unstable people is that random, unstable people will always be with us. Hence, nothing need be done, and no guilt or blame assigned except to people who were marginal to begin with. The problem with that argument is that if it were sound, political violence would be just about equally common in every culture and at every historical moment, yet cross-cultural differences show that some cultures encourage erratic people to turn to violence, while others might steer them towards, say, collecting bus transfers. (It might make a difference whether it's easier to get a gun or a bus transfer, for one thing.)
I felt similarly after reading a Wall Street Journal article that a friend linked to, deliberately-provocatively titled "Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior". It's written charmingly and with a certain amount of irony. I admire the author, Amy Chua, for being willing to state controversial opinions in plain language that makes her intent clear, free from weasel words. I also think her opinions are wrong and destructive; not so much for how she describes raising her own daughters, but for the kinds of behavior she's rhetorically endorsing in other people.
I'm not really qualified to address whether there's something intrinsic about Chinese culture that produces what I'll call, along with Chua, "Chinese mothers". She acknowledges that various people who are not Chinese exemplify the same paradigm. My mother, who grew up in Indonesia with a Northern/Western European background, was one of them. I am qualified to talk about my life, and the effect that being raised with some of Chua's "Chinese mother" behavior characteristics had on it. So that's what I'm going to talk about.
(By the way, there is a discussion to be had here about racism, or about cultural generalizations, or about attributing personal pathologies to larger cultures or vice versa, or all of the above. But I'm focusing on something else in order to emphasize what I have experience with rather than to ignore racism.)
Do you ever read something in a non-fiction piece that makes you think that the author wouldn't believe you existed even if they met you, as they are so invested in a certain point of view and your own subjective experience undermines their point of view so much? So I did when I read this paragraph in Chua's article:
What Chinese parents understand is that nothing is fun until you're good at it. To get good at anything you have to work, and children on their own never want to work, which is why it is crucial to override their preferences. This often requires fortitude on the part of the parents because the child will resist; things are always hardest at the beginning, which is where Western parents tend to give up. But if done properly, the Chinese strategy produces a virtuous circle. Tenacious practice, practice, practice is crucial for excellence; rote repetition is underrated in America. Once a child starts to excel at something---whether it's math, piano, pitching or ballet---he or she gets praise, admiration and satisfaction. This builds confidence and makes the once not-fun activity fun. This in turn makes it easier for the parent to get the child to work even more.
Chua's claims here are so stunningly counter to my own life experience---and she states them with such certainty---that I nearly started to wonder whether I am just a figment of my own imagination. My mother, similarly to the "Chinese parents" Chua describes (among whom Chua counts herself), started me on violin lessons when I was three. I was finally allowed to switch to the cello when I was a few years older. Playing the violin was physically painful for me; the first hundred times or so that I said so, my mother ignored me, but eventually I was allowed to play the cello if I would continue with both instruments, and even later I was allowed to stop playing violin. My mother, and most of the music teachers I had that I can remember (there was a succession of them, especially I got older and showed less and less willingness to be present in mind as opposed to body), emphasized the value of "discipline" and would ask me why I didn't have any, when I was eight and nine and ten. I learned that "discipline" is a word adults use when they don't know how else to get you to do what they want you to do that serves their needs rather than your own. I had a teacher when I was 12 who was more honest than most. I said it hurt me to sit up straight while I played. He said, basically, that life was pain and you had to suffer to be great. (Later it turned out I had scoliosis.) I don't remember the joy or fun of playing an instrument being talked about much. I hated lessons and I hated practicing. My mother thought intonation was all-important, so both to stress that, and to make sure I couldn't escape, she would accompany me on the piano while I practiced. I don't mean that she would play the accompaniment part that the composer wrote for piano---she played the solo line in unison with me. So she got to set the tempo and I'd think about the book I wished was reading as my hands moved mechanically. The main thing I learned from enforced music practice is to get really, really good at doing one thing with my body while my mind was somewhere completely different. I learned that skill so well that I use it all the time even now that I'm thirty, involuntarily, whether I'm having sex or trying to listen to a lecture.
I never started to enjoy playing music, the way Chua claims all children will if they're coerced initially. Maybe that's because she's right about how you can't enjoy it unless you're really good at it, and maybe you can be passable---like I was---but not good if you're not paying any attention to what you're doing. The question remains as to how being forced to play could possibly ever have caused me to enjoy it, given that all evidence suggests I was either born with the kind of mind that doesn't allow me to take pleasure in something I'm being forced to do, or developed that kind of mind at a very young age because of the environment I was in.
I quit taking lessons a little bit before I started college, and although I played some chamber music in college, it was out of a hope that maybe it would magically start being fun. It wasn't. I stopped. That was eleven years ago. In the past two years, I tried again. I played in a community orchestra for a couple of months. Playing cello had become physically painful the way that violin once was, and I just couldn't make myself sit down and practice enough to feel good about what I was contributing to the orchestra. I quit. I tried singing, because that was something I was never coerced into as a kid (my mother didn't think as highly of voice as of instruments when it came to ways to make me someone she could use to impress people, I get the impression). That was more fun, but I still couldn't practice. When I tried, I felt the way I'd imagine a claustrophobic person feels if locked in an Amtrak restroom.
Being forced to practice for what in retrospect seems like hours a day (although it was probably more like half an hour or an hour) not only didn't give me the ability to do that freely as an adult, the way Chua claims it does. It destroyed my ability to do that, to enjoy playing music, and to some extent to enjoy listening to classical music. It makes me angry that although I still retain some technical skills that might make me a serviceable amateur player, the chance to use those skills for my own pleasure was taken away from me. I had to turn off the Spike Lee movie "Mo' Better Blues" after about five minutes because it shows the protagonist, a jazz musician, being bullied as a child by his mother into practicing the trumpet, then cuts directly into him giving a great performance as an adult, implying a causal relationship between coercion and excellence. That isn't my life: if coercion worked, I'd be the next Pablo Casals by now. (If you asked my mom why I'm not a successful musician now or even an adult who enjoys playing for fun, she'd probably tell you it's because I never had enough discipline.) And I suspect it isn't the life of any of my friends who are professional or serious amateur musicians, either. I suspect nobody could have stopped many of them from making music, on the contrary.
As an aside, it's interesting that Chua picks music as an example, because human beings have made music for about as long as we've been human beings, so far as I can tell, and contrary to the tale she spins in which no one ever enjoys music unless they're perfect at it and no one ever gets perfect at it without a bullying parent behind the chair, it seems to be something that you need violence to stop people from doing. Why have a number of repressive religious movements seen fit to proscribe music and dancing? You'd think it would be easy to keep people from doing something that requires that much preparation and discipline. You might as well say that kids will never enjoy peeing unless they're good at it, and that someone has to force them to be good at it. I wonder about the connection between a social climate in which her example looks reasonable, and the one in which we've been taught that nothing is valuable except that which we buy and pay for, so that we have to listen to recorded music produced by expert musicians rather than making music for ourselves. If that's the premise, it might look reasonable to conclude that becoming one of those experts is the only way to glean any happiness. What are people trying to sell you when they tell you that you can't satisfy your own needs, that (whether you're 5 or 85) pleasure isn't something you can create for yourself, but something that you have to depend on someone else to give you (whether they're a parent or an advertising agent)? But I digress.
The only things in life that I've ever truly enjoyed are things that nobody wanted me to do, nobody initially asked me to do, that in some cases my mother actively tried to stop me from doing: reading, writing, and computer science. She hated that I read all the time and would unscrew the light bulb from a walk-in closet in our apartment so I wouldn't hide in there reading late at night (I had bad insomnia as a kid, and she thought I should lie in bed awake rather than read). When I got interested in computer science, she kept telling me I should study neuroscience instead, because that's what she wanted to do. I got interested in computer science in the first place because I read about the Internet in books or magazines that I got from the library, so I got Internet access through classes I was taking, so I took an intro computer science class so I could understand hacker culture. While I had supportive teachers later on in college and grad school who encouraged me, nobody had to coerce or push me to get interested in it in the first place, and I have never been as enthusiastic and motivated about computer science (or anything, really) as I was in the first two years, before I matriculated, before I'd even been seriously evaluated on that work or paid to do it. I've never worked as hard on programming as a grad student or as a professional programmer as I did when I was 14-16 years old and doing it almost entirely for pleasure.
My point here is not to complain about what a rough life I had, because that would be the whining of a privileged youth. My point is that I'm dismayed that people like Chua are advocating harmful and borderline abusive parenting practices in a forum---the Wall Street Journal---such that some people will take her seriously. Moreover, my experience shows that her claims about what's good for all children cannot be substantiated.
Okay, well, you say, what is good for all children? All children are different, so there's no advice that will be helpful for raising all of them. So what's wrong with Chua giving her particular perspective? Let a thousand flowers bloom, right? What I think is harmful about Chua's perspective---and about the legitimacy that her position as a university professor writing in a highly respected publication, rather than just another mom on the playground, lends her---doesn't have to do much with music in particular, or any other of the pastimes people foist on their children. What I think is harmful is the hidden curriculum of the "Chinese mother", or of my own: the lesson that adults know what's best for you because you're a child, so you must let them do to you whatever they want. That's what kids really learn when they get told that adults get to decide how they spend their time and their life. An adult who uses their child to live out vicariously all the things they wanted to do when they were a kid themselves, or who uses their child as a status symbol to brag about to other adults (my kid won the concerto competition at age ten! Well, mine won the science fair when she was seven! Well, mine joined the NBA when he was four!) is using their child to satisfy their own needs, just as an adult who sexually abuses their child to satisfy their own needs is doing the same. The main difference is that the latter is illegal. And if you're a kid who's been taught to allow yourself to be used for one purpose, you'll also allow yourself to be used for the other, should anybody ever take advantage of the opportunity.
What other kinds of needs might an adult use their child to satisfy? Chua writes:
The fact is that Chinese parents can do things that would seem unimaginable---even legally actionable---to Westerners. Chinese mothers can say to their daughters, "Hey fatty---lose some weight."Chua goes on to write that being called a "fatty" is acceptable---nay, helpful---to Chinese daughters because it means that their parents see them as strong, rather than as weak: "They assume strength, not fragility, and as a result they behave very differently." Frankly, I find this statement mind-blowing. And this is the sentence that seems to inspire quite a bit of sympathy from young, American-born readers. You hear quite a bit about the alleged "self-esteem" movement, like you heard more recently about the movement to institute "death panels", in which children (which ones? We were never sure) were allegedly taught to believe in their innate self-worth---obviously, a terribly subversive thing. I hear quite a few of my peers blaming whatever's wrong with "the kids these days" on the idea that these kids allegedly believe that there is something inside them of worth that's not contingent on their achievements or on the approval of others. Apparently, name-calling is the healthy alternative to nurturing self-esteem. And what's the excuse for calling your kids names that you yourself were called when you were a child and too frightened to fight back (Chua herself talks proudly about calling her daughter "garbage" because she was called that by her parents when she was young)? The excuse is that you believe your kids are strong, strong enough to endure your abuse. It's a little like the argument I've heard some Christians use that God only inflicts pain and suffering on you because you're strong enough to endure it. Well, if there is a God, then that's a God with a limitless capacity to behave self-servingly. And when parents set themselves up like gods, they rely on nobody pointing out the conflict of interest inherent in telling you "I'm only hurting you because I believe you're so strong that I can't break you."
The ways in which this makes no sense are manifold. Among the same people who don't believe that people other than themselves should have self-esteem, the canard that children ought to "respect their parents' authority" is popular. Okay, so---you're teaching your child to respect your authority, which presumably entails taking what you say seriously. Yet at the same time, you call your child "garbage" or a "fatty" and... expect it'll just bounce right off them? Because they don't take you seriously, and thus don't respect your authority? What's with that?
The other problem with the concept of "treating your kids as if they are strong" is that its acceptance necessitates willful ignorance of the power disparity between parents and children. Again, there's some rather blatant doublethink involved, since the same people are saying in the next breath that parents get to use their power to determine that the kids should spend 3 hours a day practicing piano rather than having friends. But if you do acknowledge that the relationship between a child and their parent(s)---parents being the only people legally empowered to assault the child physically for any reason they choose, and being the only people legally required to see to the child's needs for food and shelter---is wildly unequal, then how in the hell can the stronger person in the relationship countenance treating the weaker person "as if they're strong"? I'm going to punch a kitten in the face because I like to treat kittens as if they're strong, not fragile; it doesn't matter that I weigh about 90 times more.
The conspiracy of silence in which Chua participates, and which psychologist Alice Miller (for example, in her book For Your Own Good) has written about, involves perpetuating this myth: What adults do to you is for your own good. Be grateful for it, and suck it up, cupcake. It's a politically useful myth. Kids who internalize it turn into obedient workers (bosses naturally replace parents) and into supporters of authoritarian politicians. They also tend to turn into bullying parents themselves. And the cycle goes on. But people like Chua aren't helping break it. Read Chua's essay while asking: "What is it doing for her to treat her children in all of the ways she describes?" This is a question she never seems to ask herself. But it's a question that would decenter her perspective and show that claiming that coercion is "for your own good" is the act of psychological coercion that enables all others.
There is a lot of noise about how one oughtn't to criticize how other people raise their kids. I, by the way, don't speak from experience raising a kid, but I do speak from experience having been raised, which gives me exactly as much credibility as anyone else. Anyway, the argument goes, "everybody has their own way of being a parent, and kids usually turn out fine, so it's all good." Well, many kids aren't fine. Some of us spend most of our lives dealing with depression, and some find that becoming an adult isn't enough to escape their childhoods and have to escape using the only method that's left to them. Even so, it's probably a good rule of thumb to avoid critiquing your friends' friends' parenting habits during dinner parties. But I believe that a person with a lot of middle-class credibility, like Chua, can actually influence what kinds of behaviors are considered acceptable. And I think that when she uses a bully pulpit (no pun intended) to advocate coercion, that contributes to an environment in which coercion is a socially acceptable tactic to deploy upon your children.
Chua herself talks about attending a party where some of her friends were horrified to learn she'd called her daughter "garbage". Like many such arguments, that one appears to have changed no one's mind, but aided by sources of cognitive authority like Chua's article, the next round of dinner-party arguments about parenting might do more than just keep yuppies off the streets. I do think that whether people in the mainstream media talk about---say---hitting your kids in a way that's approving, or disapproving, influences whether people hit their kids. It's not that parents read the manual first before making any decision about raising their kids---it's that as social animals, the approval or disapproval of our peers matters to us, whether it comes to how we treat our kids or whether we drink artisanal water. So I do not think that critiquing this article puts me in the same bucket as those ladies who talk about how if your baby isn't getting breastfed and wearing cloth diapers until it's five, you're a terrible parent. Ok?
Finally: I can imagine someone responding to this with, "well, Chua wasn't saying that the 'Chinese style' of parenting is better, she's just describing two different parenting cultures and the different sets of assumptions and actions involved in each." Perhaps so, although personally it's quite clear to me that she's advocating her way (just read the bit about the American daughter who felt horrible that her father called her beautiful and talented---it's interesting that Chua didn't look for any Chinese daughters to quote who are in therapy dealing with their mothers calling them "fatty"). But given the number of people who apparently read this article and came away nodding with approval for the "Chinese style"---even, in some cases, wishing they'd had parents like that!---I think that's a moot point. By expressing pride over having called her daughter "garbage" (and not spending a word interrogating herself about whether by using a word that her parents used against her when she was a child, she was using her daughter to satisfy her own psychological needs), Chua locates herself squarely in the Dan "Kids are sociopaths until you beat it out of them... metaphorically" Savage camp. It's the camp that gives aid and comfort to abusers in their quest to make more abusers. It's the camp of being worse than an abuser, because many abusers act in the thrall of their emotions and lack the ability to reflect on their own motivations intellectually. People like Savage and Chua do reflect on their own actions in the cool light of day, and decide to justify the path of violence, of emotional manipulation, of taking out your anger over how you were treated when you were small and powerless on a new set of small, powerless people, by rhetorically recasting selfishness as selflessness.
Won't somebody please, please think of the children? It's remarkable how often the question is asked and how rarely anyone actually does.
ETA: According to an SF Chronicle story, Chua feels the WSJ misrepresented her book by giving excerpts without context.
A Veteran is someone, who at one point in their life, wrote a blank check payable to the United States of America for an amount up to and including their life. That is beyond honor; there are far too many people in this country who no longer remember this fact.
If there were a way in which I could serve my country by writing a blank check payable for an amount up to and including my own life, but not including someone else's life -- the life of someone who did not consent to sacrifice their life for my country, and for whom the basic circumstances of survival might be incompatible with my country's agenda -- I would do it. But my moral beliefs do not allow me to swear that I would be willing to take a life -- because I would not. I cannot conceive of being able to look at myself in the mirror in the morning as a person who believes that I am sufficiently wise, sufficiently far-seeing to make the decision that taking another person's life is the right thing to do in the long run, that taking that life might save the life of someone else who I'll never see, or at least that the probability of saving that other person's life is sufficiently high to justify extinguishing this one. To me, being an actor in a system wherein we do those kinds of calculations on each other's right to exist would be immoral. I could never be sufficiently sure that I was killing for... justice? Freedom? Whatever it was, not to advance the economic interests of the power elite of my country. Given how many people have killed a human being believing, or hoping, that they were killing for freedom and justice, but who were actually killing in order to keep a defense contractor in Cristal -- I would not be able to say, straight-faced, that I was the one exception, that I wasn't like all those other killers. What would make me so different?
This is all kind of abstract, as I'm nearly 30, transsexual, and flat-footed; I may not be the last person who would get drafted if the de facto, economically propelled draft that's in effect in this country stopped providing enough cannon fodder, but I'd be pretty close to the last boy picked for the team. Even so, I hope you'll believe me when I say that if there was an obvious way to serve that didn't require me to promise to hurt anyone else, that didn't require me to be taught how to hurt other people without feeling bad about it, I would do it. But the shops don't close for Peace Corps Day.
Disasters, then, suggest what human nature essentially is: it's good. I can't do justice to her recounting of the kinds of community feeling that sprung up in areas affected by Katrina, but suffice it to say that while it is in some people's interests for you to believe that your fellow humans are essentially shitty (not you, of course, you're a great person, and should reward yourself for being great by purchasing a new 2011 model SUV) it's not in your interests to believe that. I liked the connections that she drew between the form of humanity that is revealed in disasters -- what she described as the re-awakening of civil society -- and the despair that capitalism and its accompanying privatization of every aspect of human life induce. People, she said, long for things beyond what capitalism has proven good at providing (at least to a few people) -- comfort, ease, safety. Those things are good up to a point, but what people really want is to be part of something beyond themselves, to be citizens, to participate in the lives of their communities. Those aspects of life have been nearly erased for a lot of Americans in the day-to-day, working meaningless jobs and being told there are no structures for you to find a place in other than family and romantic life -- the despair is so thick that a disaster, with its restoration of meaningful work and purpose, becomes welcome.
Another interesting point she made was that on 9/11/2001, the military proved itself to be completely useless; all of the military infrastructure, the supposedly highly trained experts at protecting US national security were completely unable to protect the country from attack. The only people who did prove themselves useful were the passengers on the plane that crashed in Pennsylvania. It made me think about how even self-professed liberals pay lots of lip service to the idea that of course we need armed forces to protect the country's security -- do they do anything that couldn't apparently be done by a bunch of out-of-shape, untrained random people on an airplane?
On the Internet I've run into a few survivalists -- folks who were convinced that as peak oil approached, it was important to get your shit (and more importantly, your guns) together as the era of scarce resources advanced and as other people would be lining up to fight you and take all your things. Solnit talked about how in the '60s, suburban Americans were encouraged to build private bomb shelters (along with the despair of privatization that went along with top-down-driven flight to the suburbs came a privatization of survival), and there were all these popular media images asking whether you would allow the neighbors into your bomb shelter, and nervous jokes about fighting it out with your friends for the last can of food. She said that most people who had the means to do it actually declined to build those bomb shelters, because most people didn't want to survive a nuclear war just to enjoy that kind of survival -- just to be forced into the position of having to deny sustenance or shelter to your friends and neighbors in order to preserve your own life. Most people quietly decided that survival wouldn't be worth it. Given a few people I've encountered who were really, really attached to the idea of surviving a disaster with their own lives and those of their family intact, but while actively maintaining the ability to fend off anyone else who tried to encroach (violently, if necessary), it makes me wonder just what is sensible.
Finally, in response to a question where she was asked "how do we access these hidden reserves of strength that humans have without a disaster having to happen?", she pointed out that people volunteer to do altruistic things all the time -- it's the shitty things that you have to pay them to do. "There are no volunteer programs to destroy the environment. Nobody goes to war for free. Nobody builds nuclear weapons out of charity," she said. I thought that was a strong point. Among my peer group, it seems pretty popular to believe that the masses of people are stupid, inconsiderate, potentially violent, and destructive. Not us, of course, we're cool. Politically, wars get justified by appealing to humanity's inherently violent nature. But (as Barbara Ehrenreich pointed out), if war is so ingrained into the essential nature of humans, why has conscription ever been necessary? Why would people try so hard to get out of serving in a war if bloodthirstiness is a defining quality of being human? What Solnit pointed out is that the things people choose to do for free, for the sake of satisfaction, are overwhelmingly, good, pro-social things; people do fucked-up things like building nuclear weapons because they're getting a paycheck.
So I'll be thinking about resistance: about resisting the Hobbesian characterization of human nature that gets sold to us by both liberals and conservatives, and about resisting the despair arising from privatization. I would also like to figure out how to resurrect public life without a disaster happening first. One thing I don't know the answer to is, given that people respond so well to disasters, and given that America is an ongoing disaster of poverty, racism, and structural violence, why so few people seem to be responding to that one.
tl;dr version: Take this opportunity to vote your conscience for House and Senate. Vote Kitzhaber for governor -- it's close. Vote Yes on State Measure 76, County Measures 26-114 and 26-118, and TriMet Measure 26-119 to fund parks, libraries, museums, and public transit -- you know, basically all the things government is capable of providing to make your life better. Vote Yes on Portland Measure 26-117 if you want someone to show up when your house is on fire. And for fuck's sake, whatever else you do, vote NO on 73 and tell all your friends to do the same.
I think he really gets it as to how the "epidemic of antigay bullying rhetoric" sucks the meaning out of what is -- as he says -- kids acting out the beliefs of their parents and the politicians they see on TV. Everyone is jumping in to say how "antigay bullying" is just like their own experiences getting bullied for being a nerd, for being a jock, for being -- I'm not kidding here -- white. And yes, kids can be utterly shitty to each other, because they're humans, and humans can be utterly shitty to each other, not to mention that kids have a less subtle palette than adults of ways of making others' lives miserable.
But the difference between "antigay bullying" and someone bullying you because you like to play Magic, or whatever, is that antigay bullying has an entire social structure that supports it, a structure made up of adults and authority figures. As Kim says elsewhere in the article, there is not that much difference between a school bully and Carl Paladino, except that people take Carl Paladino seriously. And, if we keep reducing homophobia to "bullying", they will continue doing so.
But for some gays and liberals shaken by [Tyler] Clementi's suicide, the complexities and unknowns don't seem to matter. It's convenient to make Ravi and Wei into little monsters singularly responsible for his death. In the words of Malcolm Lazin—the director of Equality Forum, a gay rights group calling for "murder by manslaughter" charges, a demand echoed on sympathetic blogs and Facebook pages—the duo's conduct was "willful and premeditated," an act so "shocking, malicious and heinous" that Ravi and Wei "had to know" it would be "emotionally explosive." Every one of these accusations is entirely speculative, a fact that you'd think Lazin, a former assistant US Attorney, would bear in mind before rounding up the firing squad.
In each of these cases, news reports focused almost exclusively on the bullies—other teenage kids—as the perpetrators in what's been dubbed "an epidemic of antigay bullying." In each of these cases, liberals and gays expressed dismay that the bullies weren't being charged with crimes. Few of the reports asked what home life was like for these gay teens or looked into what role teachers, schools and the community played in creating an environment where the only escape from such torment seemed to be death. And at least initially, too few drew the line to the messages mainstream adult America, especially its politicians, sends every day.... ....hateful utterances from the political class allow people to think of gays and lesbians as less than human, as deserving of contempt, assault, murder.
So when faced with something so painful and complicated as gay teen suicide, it's easier to go down the familiar path, to invoke the wrath of law and order, to create scapegoats out of child bullies who ape the denials and anxieties of adults, to blame it on technology or to pare down homophobia into a social menace called "antigay bullying" and then confine it within the borders of the schoolyard.
It's tougher, more uncertain work creating a world that loves queer kids, that wants them to live and thrive. But try—try as if someone's life depended on it. Imagine saying, I really wish my son turns out to be gay. Imagine hoping that your 2-year-old daughter grows up to be transgendered. Imagine not assuming the gender of your child's future prom date or spouse; imagine keeping that space blank or occupied by boys and girls of all types. Imagine petitioning your local board of education to hire more gay elementary school teachers.
Now imagine a world in which Tyler Clementi climbed up onto a ledge on the George Washington Bridge—and chose to climb back down instead. It's harder to do than you might think.
How to Get Our Democracy Back
He argues that the most important issue in the US right now is the insidious presence of corporate campaign contributions that effectively allow votes to be bought and sold. No, this isn't a new point, but Lessig argues for it with clarity and passion. The part I found most insightful:
Everyone inside this game recognizes that if the public saw too clearly that the driving force in Washington is campaign cash, the public might actually do something to change that. So every issue gets reframed as if it were really a question touching some deep (or not so deep) ideological question. Drug companies fund members, for example, to stop reforms that might actually test whether "me too" drugs are worth the money they cost. But the reforms get stopped by being framed as debates about "death panels" or "denying doctor choice" rather than the simple argument of cost-effectiveness that motivates the original reform. A very effective campaign succeeds in obscuring the source of conflict over major issues of reform with the pretense that it is ideology rather than campaign cash that divides us.[Emphasis added.]
I agree with Lessig that you have to fix the campaign financing system before you can fix much else. I suspect I might disagree with him in that I think the most fundamental problems are those that don't yield to such a solution (we might still find that even if we get into a situation where all individuals have an equal say in politics, many of those individuals will still be racist and will have an interest in framing poverty moralistically). Still, I think the article is worth overcoming all of our Internet-induced antipathy to anything that takes more than five minutes to read.