Reality and Permanence

A couple of weeks ago, one of the blogs I read linked to a conservative blogger named Cassy Fiano in order to argue with some of her extremely tenuous points. After following the link, I found another piece of hers that I wanted to write something about, and left the blog open in a tab for a while until finally finding the time to write said something. As I was scrolling through her recent posts trying to find the one I wanted to comment on, I felt that familiar tension and frustration with internet discourse, which I used to respond to with outrage and sarcasm, and in which it is so incredibly difficult to deal with in any other way, at least for me.

Despite all that, I still can’t quite this particular post go. I confess that, having been spending far less time following political news than reading for school (and, frankly, slacking off and watching hockey), I haven’t seen that much commentary on the Gore separation. That said, even if I were only looking at Ms. Fiano’s analysis on its own terms, without any input from other media sources, a few points are striking to me. The first is the not unusual tone of gloating when people on the ‘other side’, politically, experience difficulty in their lives. This, I think, happens in online political discourse in general, rather than just being the product of right or left writers. The bravado, the keeping score (with reference to the Bushes’ marriage, as though somehow this one-on-one match can or should be judged on every life criteria and inevitably reveal the superiority of the Bush side), the gloating in victory. Frankly, Ms. Fiano strikes me as a very bad writer, so perhaps it’s unfair to use her to exemplify this phenomenon, but to me it just seems a particularly strong example of a disturbingly ubiquitous tendency.

The other points are more specific to the content of her article, rather than the tone. Based on the quotes she includes, I am absolutely amazed at her interpretation that the Gores or their public relations people are in any way suggesting that “Bush should have given up his presidential victory to save the Gore marriage”. I don’t see anyone saying any such thing. What I see is the suggestion that this extremely stressful, extremely difficult event in the lives of these two people had an ongoing, and insurmountable, negative effect on their relationship. That claim is not really about politics, even though it’s played out as a result of a political context. Why I want to make note of that is because it points towards an extremely immature refusal to see these politicians as anything but political game-players engaged in a zero-sum winner/loser game. Literally everything must be about sour grapes and about the desire to change the past. There’s a lack of humanity to this interpretation, and yes, a total lack of empathy. Because regardless of one’s political position on the rightness of wrongness of the 2000 Supreme Court decision that gave Bush the presidency, I find it difficult to imagine how the loser in a case that had such an undeniably enormous impact not only on his own life, but on his country and beyond, would not struggle to move on from that event and how those closest to him (also deeply affected in their own right) would not find it difficult to learn how to engage with him in this new reality.

But after that extraordinarily long addressing what were originally side points I intended to make, the main point that struck me was her belief that the Gores’ separation means that their healthy marriage has been “revealed to be fake”. Again, this is an extreme manifestation of the gloating and the bravado, but it’s also invoking an underlying (if immature) “common sense” idea that relationships are only ‘real’ if they end. As though years and even decades of happiness, mutual support, and partnership must have been fraudulent. Without even getting into the intentionality implied by using the word ‘fake’ (much stronger, I think, than something like a ‘mistake’, though not quite going all the way into emphasizing the marriage as a pretense or performance), this belief again requires the assumption that life operates as a zero-sum game of binaries.

When I separated from my ex, I thought of myself as having had a ‘failed marriage’. That’s really the only common expression with any kind of lexical force, and I still don’t really know what else to call it. At the same time, though, I wonder at what point a relationship becomes a ‘success’. By these common sense understandings, I wonder if it’s only when one partner dies, and if that’s the case, if it only counts after a certain number of years together. Failure is easy to mark and delineate. In something like this, success only happens and can only be known with certainty when everything is all over and no more eventualities and circumstances and twists in the story could come into play. The ‘yeah but’ in the ‘happily ever after’ that deconstructionist fairy tales tend to play with is a literary device that works on one level, but that hasn’t necessarily embedded itself in the narrative of ‘failure’ in the same way that it has of ‘closure and success’. My extremely brief marriage is perhaps a bad example of how I’m trying to see this, but my parents’ marriage, which ended after nearly three decades together, might be a better one. To call that a ‘failure’ strikes me as not just unsympathetic, but anti-sympathetic…it wasn’t, in the end, ‘permanent’, I guess, because it became untenable to continue within it. But it produced many things in their lives, in their children’s lives, in their friends’ and families’ lives. Thinking of a marriage as a concrete noun, an entity that lasts and endures, denies that it’s also an abstract force that does stuff. It’s a relationship between lives and in lives, and its ending doesn’t erase the years and decades in which it existed or all the extensions of relationships that it produced.

I’ve gone on far longer than I intended and am heading for progressively more abstract territory far far away from where I started, so I’ll just stop now and note that though I’m using my old “lessons in not being an asshole” category, my more recent phrase of choice has been an imitation of Jon Stewart admonishing various pundits to just “Be a Fucking Person”. Humanity is so hard sometimes.

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‘Sorrow’ and ‘Sorry’ are not the same thing

This is one of those topics about which I have so much to say that I end up feeling like I can’t say anything at all. This was a few weeks ago now, but being as I was only semi-present at that point I didn’t post anything, and also, it’s one of those topics that I don’t think deserves to be subjected to the whims of blog/news cycles that suggest there’s only something to say about it when a big important thing happens, and then it disappears again three days later.

CBC Story: Pope expresses ‘sorrow’ for abuse at residential schools.

The title Chrome Beach uses here pretty much sums up my reaction to this story, with an additional mention of the fact that one of the reasons that this is so insufficient is that even if this were an apology, the whole thing fails to take into account that the consequences of these actions are still being felt in very real ways, not to mention the violence, abuse and assimilationist tactics that haven’t even come close to stopping yet.

Sex and Drugs

This has probably been said somewhere already in the course of this recent discussion about new anti-sex work legislation in Britain, but I lack the time that would be required to ensure that I’m not repeating something.

Right off the top in that thread, one of the commenters who supports the new legislation brings up drug addiction with the following point:

It is recognised that violence, experience of abuse, poverty and drugs are at the root of street prostitution in Glasgow.  Women are involved in prostitution because of their need to fund drug use and because they have no other viable means of earning the amount of money which they require, through legitimate pursuits….Now, these issues don’t speak of autonomy or of exercising agency, they speak of abject poverty and disadvantage where other concerns aside, 95% of prostituted women in Glasgow are addicted to heroin.

She goes on to discuss the need for a complex, interconnected system of outreach and support for the multivariate social and economic issues that lead some women into dangerous sex work due to lack of (real or perceived) genuine alternatives. I should assume it’s obvious that I’m all for that.

But try as I might, in any of the comments that bring up poverty and drug abuse, I can’t see any argument that explains to me how this new legislation criminalizing the purchasers of sex work in certain contexts (if I understand the legalities correctly) will provide new options for these women. It seems only logical to suggest that it’s actually going to take options away, and anyone who has any understanding of drug addiction and desperation can immediately recognize that if you take one option away, there’s always another one that’s even less safe, even more soul-destroying, and even less profitable that you will become willing to stoop to if that’s what it takes.

I don’t understand why people think that legislation is really going to find ways to protect these women. Selling drugs is currently illegal, but drug addicts still find a way to buy them. You can victimize the purchaser/demonize the dealer in this situation just as you victimize the seller/demonize the purchaser in the sex work equation, if you like, but it doesn’t change the fact that “outside the law” is familiar territory for people you’re already describing as addicted to heroin. Making one more part of their transaction illegal isn’t really that scary. Many of the comments supporting this legislation seem to take a tone that suggests that criminalizing the purchase of sex will somehow result in sex work becoming less “socially acceptable” and that this decrease in acceptability will make people understand the plight of trafficked, poverty stricken, desperate, drug addicted women. Given the way people view drug addicts now – as criminals, as somehow fundamentally different from good, law-abiding, citizens like ourselves – I can’t imagine how that’s going to happen, exactly.

I’ve written before about the way drug addiction is deployed as a rhetorical strategy in these conversations. In sincerity, I think some of the women writing in support of this new legislation are demonstrating more real compassion and understanding than I alluded to in that earlier post. Still, I can’t help but feel that there’s something hollow in these statements, not least because it feels like they really miss the point about what addiction means, let alone about how the social relationships around it tend to work. I know these are women who are working/have worked with substance misuse and addiction, and I don’t question their concern…but I feel like there’s a fundamental link missing in the thought process, and if the real point is to help alleviate this kind of problem, a knee-jerk support for anything placing limits on sex work is a huge blind spot, imo.

The Violence of Forgetting

Today, November 20th, is Transgender Day of Remembrance. While I can get cynical and frustrated with November 11th ceremonies mourning and honouring those who died in “noble” wars, this remembering is different. Queen Emily and Little Light both have great, informative posts about what it is we’re talking about here, about the violence that is going ignored and about the emotional impact of all of that violence.

Although Little Light emphasizes that this is not about raising awareness or promoting a face of public acceptability, and although this day serves a particular, sacred function within the trans community, as a cissexual woman looking at the cissexual world, I can’t help but feel that “remembrance” is an incredibly inadequate term. Because in all honesty, it’s not so much that we’ve forgotten this kind of hatred and violence or the individuals who have suffered from it, it’s that we’ve systematically refused to notice their humanity in the first place.

There’s a violence to ignoring, to obscuring, to the peaceful maintenance of order and emphatic refusal to mention the “problems”, and it goes hand in hand with physical violence, dehumanization, intimidation and hatred. There’s a violence to invisibility. There’s a violence to forgetting.

Trust and Politics: I Believe Him

The past week or so, I’ve actually been around, with some time and some thoughts that I could have been blogging, but I just couldn’t bring myself to write when everybody in the tiny circle of my blogging world could think of nothing but the culmination of the past two years of perpetual election. I was going to hide until after talking about the election per se had become relatively passé, but it turns out, I kind of can’t.

I doubt I’m saying anything that hasn’t been said by many before, and better, but I’ve been seeing a lot of continued skepticism from some of the people around me. And you know, I’m under no illusions that now-president-elect Obama is any kind of radical leftist who will enact policies that will really fuck with corporate America or seriously revolutionize the status quo (which, in my world, are good things. Because I am a socialist, among other things). I’m also well aware of the limitations that are inherent in the office and the structure, and that there’s only so much one person can do from one seat, however powerful.

The whole campaign, listening to Obama speak has given me hope. Whatever else he is, the man has the capacity to inspire. To energize. To excite people. That shit matters. Having something to frame the fight around makes it possible to fight. I’m as frustrated and politically cynical as anybody, but the man is such a brilliant, skilled politician that I manage to forget all that. I believe him.

I was watching the results on NBC with some friends, and of course, after they came in, between McCain’s concession speech and Obama’s acceptance speech, Brian Williams et al were telling the narrative they had been handed for the Obama victory: Only in America. Anything is possible, but only in America. Many things will reignite my cynicism, and I have to confess, despite the circumstances, American exceptionalism is one of them. For one thing, only in America, what? Only in America can a black man be elected? Why yes, that is mighty gracious of you folks. Congratulations on not letting racism win. Again. This time. For now. Congratulations on taking the contrast between a mediocre politician who has run an exceptionally poor campaign and made it exceedingly clear that he has no real plan for dealing with the kinds of problems the US is facing right now and one of the most impressive leaders, brilliant rhetoricians, intelligent and skilled policy makers that has emerged on the world stage in a damn long time, and still ending up with a popular vote in the 50-50 range. Only in America can we…overcome everything that was fucked up about us? Well, it would have been nice if it could have been not fucked up in the first place, or if it hadn’t taken literally centuries, not to mention the fact that, obviously, it’s not anywhere near overcome yet, and oh yeah, plenty of other places in the world have been trying to do exactly that (South Africa comes to mind immediately). To be frank, it felt like NBC was giving the nation a giant cookie for the very basics in not being an asshole.

And I felt bad, because they brought out a congressman who had been seriously active in the civil rights struggle, and I found myself feeling cynical even at hearing him say these things, in that case because the line NBC was playing was that this battle is over. We can all pack up and go home, there’s no more fight to be fought. Inspirational? Hell yeah. Has something been overcome? You’re damn straight it has. This shit matters, I know it does. But at that point, NBC was setting the stage for us never to be able to talk about race again, because weren’t we there? It’s over. And I was cynical.

Then there was that speech. Yes we can. That absolute confidence, faith, and clarity of purpose. That refusal to pretend that any of this is easy. That constant focus on giving some direction. Going somewhere, and making damn sure that it’s forwards. He says “Yes, we can” and fuck, I believe him. I don’t believe any politicians. I don’t have a lot of trust for our political institutions, and I make my political choices accepting the reality of manipulation and near-constant bullshit from all sides. This guy? I believe him. I don’t agree with all of his positions, and he’s still far to the right of where I’d like my politics to sit. But I even believe him when he stands up there and says he wants to listen, especially when his consitutuents disagree with him. I even believe him when he raises the possibility of listening to the rest of the world.

Say what you will, but that shit matters. US friends: congratulations (I guess? What does one say about such a thing?). If you could please avoid starting to talk about 2012 for at least a year or so, I would really appreciate it.

Another Whole People Group Rendered Incapable of Agency

Germaine Greer’s feminist philosophy is, to say the least, problematic, and her track record on any other kind of anti-oppression work is absolute bollocks. We’ve been over here for a bit in our irrelevant little corner of the blogosphere talking about agency and how, when certain segments of the population talk about sex workers, it sounds an awful lot like they’re saying that the effect of past physical, emotional and sexual abuse, not to mention drug addiction or alcoholism, has rendered these women nearly brainless, helpless pawns tossed about in a sea of patriarchal fatalism, salvageable only by the kind hand of a feminism that understands that only the eradication of porn by way of a declaration of its suckiness that we’ll all sign before we move to our penetration-free island. And simultaneously, Germaine Greer is publishing very similar arguments in a pretty damn widely circulated publication, only this time, she’s talking about Australian Aborigines rendered powerless to not beat people by rage at their experience of racism.

See how that sounds an awful lot like sympathy? It’s understandable that people would feel rage if they’ve been victimized by an incredibly racist society, if they’ve experienced horrific abuse, both personal and systemic, and if they’ve watched those they love experience the same abuse. That rage needs to be acknowledged and respected and addressed. None of this healing shit is easy. And it’s not okay to send it violent forces that will perpetuate the cycles of racist violence under the guise of increasing vigilance with regard to spousal abuse, child abuse, and sexual violence.

But then, see how it also sounds an awful lot like saying that “these people” are beyond help, that their rage, their victim-status, their place in the cycle of violence, is now a given, an immutable reality, and well, given the circumstances, we can’t really expect much better of them? Call me crazy, but if you’re talking as though entire populations of people are incapable of making basic moral decisions, I don’t think, in practical terms, it makes all that much of a difference if you argue that it’s because of centuries of colonial violence or because of genetic inferiority, especially if you’re speaking in these fatalistic, completely solution-free terms. I’m not denying the impact of abuse on one’s psychological makeup, I’m not denying the existence of a rage that is destructive to self and other, and I’m certainly not denying the feelings of hopelessness, despair and yes, anger, that characterize addiction.

But none of that makes a human being stop being a human being and an attitude born of genuine compassion has to see that. It has to work from a place that considers how to get through the layers of destruction and rage and let that human being just truly be. It has to be collaborative and cooperative and in no way can it be condescending. If someone is playing out hir self-hate on the bodies of others or on hir own body (whether that be through self-mutilation, addiction, or sexual behaviour/work that really has become a trap or an expression of a complete lack of self-worth), that’s not okay. In my experience with people who have done any or all of those things because of that self-hate, on some level, they usually know that. There’s a word for those who say that the poor dear just can’t help it, things are just so bad for hir, sie has suffered so much – “enabler”. It doesn’t help, and it nearly inevitably includes the comforting ability of said enabler to continue to see hirself as superior, the other as almost…well, subhuman.

This agency thing matters. This agency thing is really this human thing, and whether it be Germaine Greer with her Pontius Pilate hand-washing routine or the various members of the blogosphere “save the whores” brigade, missing it means, flat out, that you are participating in dehumanization.

On Empathy

I’m hoping I can keep this one short, but, well, that might take a miracle. I’ve been continuing to swirl some thoughts around in my head about the use of activism as therapy (which was something I put on the list, like, four outrages ago), but I think I’m going to have to limit it to making this basic point about what empathy is and is not.

This is sparked largely by Ren’s gauntlet-throwdown, in turn fueled into being by the latest portion of Maggie Hays’ manifesto. Maggie includes the note that:

we [radical feminists] fully empathize with women in the sex industry.

From the American Heritage Dictionary:

em·pa·thy (n)

  1. Identification with and understanding of another’s situation, feelings, and motives. See synonyms at pity
  2. The attribution of one’s own feelings to an object

I initially expected to see a dictionary definition that looked more along the lines of what I found under “sympathy” (“Mutual understanding or affection arising from a relationship of affinity”), and while I’m still enough of a descriptive linguist to recognize that dictionaries don’t make meaning, meanings make dictionaries, this entry will suffice to help make my point, just from a different angle. Those definitions sort of reinforce the idea that empathy can almost have two directions – one in which the empathized-with defines the emotional trajectory, and one in which the empathizer does. The former requires patient listening, carefully putting yourself aside in order to really get at the reality of the other person’s situation, motives, emotions. The latter means you project your feelings onto a recipient (I’m going to be generous and avoid the temptation to read “object” in that definition in a non-grammatical context, because I don’t think it would be accurate given that it’s a dictionary and all).

I think empathy has been given an undeservedly good reputation these days, equated with unselfishness and compassion and loving kindness. I am, of course, in favour of compassion, though if I explained what I mean by that this would most certainly not be short. I basically think it’s a good idea to try to understand another person’s actions and motivations and to see them as a beast that also has feelings – really a radical thought, I know. But to “empathize completely” with a limited number of others? Well, first of all, that’s going to push a lot of your emotional energies into one particular channel (and therefore limit your ability to be compassionate towards those who don’t fall along that narrow, tunnel-vision stream), but second…that’s a little scary, actually, and kind of a lot like not recognizing what is you and what is not. Like I said a couple of months ago:

I often think about people who have boundary issues not just as people who have trouble maintaining their own or who are inclined to violate those of others, but as people who seem to actually lack the understanding of where you start and they end. Meaning they take on emotion that’s yours in ways that are just inappropriate, and becomes kinda controlling, and can be really overwhelming…

And now that we’ve reached the point of definitely not short at all, it was actually another comment by Ms. Maggie Hays that put me to mind of this earlier in the week (it’s worth reading in its entirety, to get the whole picture of where this “empathy” is coming from, but the choice quote):

I do hope you accept my hugs and apologies. I screwed up and I’m crying just now… I’ve screwed up and it’s truly distressing to me…
I know that you won’t believe me after all this but= please contact me any time you need comfort, I will be there.

(from this thread, bold emphasis mine). You know, I believe, in this case, that Maggie is empathizing – that she is taking all of her emotion and transferring it right onto this other person who was apparently upset by something she said. She’s blurred these boundary things so that instead of actually stopping and listening to the other person whose pain is so upsetting to her, she’s pushing out with her own distress about her own actions and her own screwing up. Personally, I would believe her offer to contact her if I were in need of comfort – I would believe that she would be there and respond, I just wouldn’t want her to, because this (per)version of “empathy” involves way too much of Maggie Hays’ emotions, and way too little of the emotions of those she is empathizing with.

I have family members who have done this during some of the most difficult periods of my life, including following sexual assault – I somehow found myself having to comfort them because the fact that they couldn’t/didn’t protect me was so painful, because it hurt them so much to see me in that kind of pain, because they didn’t know what they would do if I couldn’t be okay again. It’s not a sign of an emotionally healthy adult human being with a solid sense of self. I think there are some that have this conception that crying over the pain of another person (including pain that you maybe caused yourself) should ingratiate you to that person, should lead that person to think that you must really really care about hir, to marvel at and be thankful for the depth of your feelings, when…no. Really, it should (and often does) make the other person feel like you don’t really know how to deal with what’s happened to hir, you aren’t really prepared to be there in a way that is other-centred, and that you have boundary issues.

In that case, I definitely have an elsewhere to be.