Protest, cynicism, and fake lakes

With the G8/G20 Summits happening nearby in Toronto/Muskoka, I know a few people who have gone to the protests, and I’m obviously seeing quite a bit of coverage in the news. And I feel, in some ways, like the 30-year-old I never thought I would be as I look at the whole thing with deep cynicism. It’s not that I was ever under the illusion that any of these protests represented a chance for revolutionary change or widespread rethinking of our ways of life. But I thought there was something to be said for the act of being there, of standing present to say that the way things are is unacceptable. It’s primarily been watching media coverage over the past few years that has pushed me further and further towards skepticism.

First of all, summit meetings of global leaders have stood in as standard opportunity protest fare for the past decade or so. The premise is that the leaders are there, the media is there, the counterpoint has to be there as well. But it’s become so much a part of the assumed backdrop of such events that they’re barely worth reporting on. I’ve actually seen very little coverage of protesters, and far more of the police presence that has been brought in to deal with the increased traffic volume in Toronto this week. Casual morning shows express gratitude for the police, who the hosts say are there to keep them safe. Shots of protesters themselves may be used almost as stock footage before cutting to commercial.

What people are saying has absolutely no presence here. There is no actual voice to this counterpoint. There is only one specific thing I’ve heard about that is upsetting people – the “fake lake” set up and paid for by the Canadian government to provide foreign media representatives with a taste of Northern Ontario natural beauty. The objection, of course, is to the taxpayer expense, originally rumoured to be a couple of million and now reported at $57,000. That change in price tag has not changed the attention paid to the story – “person on the street” interviews on more than one station this morning asked about reactions to and perceptions of the ‘fake lake’. The voices we hear say it’s cheesy or artificial-feeling, or that they wonder how that money could have been spent better, some taking the opportunity to object to the upcoming implementation of the harmonized sales tax, others making social justice points about poverty relief or government services.

Frankly, I couldn’t care less about the fake lake. Maybe I have some other thoughts somewhere about the general discourses on wasteful government spending and the ways in which somehow highly conservative attitudes about taxation and individualism can become so ubiquitous as to erase any actual discussion of what things do and what they cost, but the fake lake is not a particularly spectacular counterpoint, so I’llĀ  leave them steep a bit longer. But what I do care about is that this is the point of objection that we hear. This is the G8/G20 issue that I could mention to anyone on the street, and people would have something (probably negative) to say about it. The fake lake is casual, facile, overwhelmingly banal piece of small talk that is standing in as a distraction for actual politics, actual decision-making, actual protest, actual discussion. Increased securitization is expected, both by those who appreciate it and those who are terrified of it. Protests are expected, even though no protesting voices and positions are actually heard, as protesters essentially get labeled as little more than protester-brand 21st century consumers of ideas, opinions, concepts. The summits themselves will happen, leaders will discuss things, decisions – none of them particularly shocking or unexpected, all of them probably horrifying if you really think about the whole system of it – will be made (or rather, formalized through the spectacle, since most of the discussion has taken place behind the scenes among aides, assistants, and advisors). But the fake lake, that’s something we can talk about.

It’s really hard not to be cynical when you’re talking about a $57,000 fake fucking lake.


Is Evo-psych worth saving?

…in which I assert an extraordinary amount of arrogance in order to make sweeping judgments about an entire discipline of study.

The context, of course, is the blog-publication of yet another example of poorly constructed, poorly executed studies from which some rather impressively unimpressive conclusions (which, in turn, are held to disprove the theoretical and empirical claims of feminism while simultaneously misrepresenting and misunderstanding those claims) have been drawn. Elysia, guest blogging at Shapely Prose, and Amanda Hess cover the specifics on this one.

I confess that my knowledge of the academic discipline of evolutionary psychology is pretty much limited to the studies that are popularized, then linked and dismantled on feminist blogs, usually by feminists with extensive backgrounds in science, using explicitly scientific and often even evolutionary terminology and methodology (I have occasionally tried to find the studies themselves and read a bit from the academic journals in which they’re published). Elysia’s post is a particularly good example of this technique, since she is an evolutionary biologist. Throughout her article, she continually acknowledges the limitations of what she knows on this topic, as she is in a different discipline and has a rather different area of interest and expertise. Like most of the other examples I’ve seen of this kind of post, she emphasizes her openness to examples of high-quality scholarship in evolutionary psychology, even though she’s never actually seen any that, as she puts it, get the ‘evolutionary’ part right.

I’m not going to do that here. I will acknowledge that I am not, by any stretch of the imagination, an expert in evolution or even a scientist. I make no claim to understanding all – or really, any – of the nuanced mechanisms of natural selection or finer points of evolutionary theory. I know, understand, and appreciate it entirely in broad strokes. My little corner of academic expertise is language and the diverse socially constituted understandings thereof, and I would be ill-equipped to really address these kinds of studies on their own terms.

But really, I’m coming to believe that those terms are, in fact, the problem. The axiomatic premises from which the entire discipline operates are fundamentally and possibly irredeemably flawed. Those premises, as I understand them, are that human psychology, individual motivations and social actions can be best understood as arising out of evolutionary concerns. At some level, everything that I do – everything that all of us does – is based in our deep-seated desire to reproduce and to do so with the ‘best’ mate possible. And that’s hooey.

Critiques of specific studies often point towards the ways in which certain notions of desirability (which it doesn’t even take Anthropology 101 to recognize as highly culturally specific) are projected onto these analyses and the strange way they seem to take desire/expressions of desire to stand in for actual reproductive results. The frequent pattern of applying macro-chronic concepts to micro-chronic scales is often mentioned, and among other things that happens when you do that, this ultimately requires evolutionary psychologists to apply biological metaphors to social processes. There’s an unquestioned idea that not only do species evolve, so too do cultures.

The layers upon layers of problems with that assumption, from eugenics to the civilizing mission to modernization to uniform teleological trajectories of progress, are well-documented. Which is why it makes me deeply, sincerely sad that evolutionary psychology manages to situate itself within the academy. It seems to me like a way of wrapping up some extremely archaic, easily disproven, old school ideas from physical anthropology in a shiny, ultra-scientific package.

When I say the axioms of the discipline are hooey, mostly what I mean is that they set out to prove themselves. There’s no genuine intellectual curiosity here – there’s an assumption about the underlying motivation for everything (which comes down, basically, to sex), and all behavioural data absolutely must be interpreted so as to support the conclusion that this behaviour exists to make us have more sex/more babies/more viable babies, with no other variables or, really, variation possible. It’s circular reasoning, and it’s hooey.

It’s like the disciplines that studied some of these kinds of questions before – including, why yes, anthropology, among other things – started going in a direction that a certain subset of people didn’t like, so they set up their own club where they could keep talking in terms of ideas, theories, projections and maps that don’t translate all that well into the real world of diversity and complexity and variability. And our knowledge production system, with its rigid compartmentalization and authorization of specific ways of knowing about/talking about/thinking about certain things, lets this happen. Makes this happen.

Hooey, I say. But what do I know? I’m not an evolutionary psychologist.

And I wonder why people think of Africa as one country…

Okay, so the World Cup, which I’ve been watching – and enjoying on a new and deeply emotional level, much to my own surprise, actually – pretty constantly this week, is, of course, in South Africa. It’s the first time it’s ever been in Africa, and this is a big deal, and something to be celebrated.

But damn, it’s also an opportunity for reinscribing the discourses of ‘Africa’. I couldn’t tell you how many times I’ve recalled this passage from the wonderful “How to write about Africa” post:

In your text, treat Africa as if it were one country. It is hot and dusty with rolling grasslands and huge herds of animals and tall, thin people who are starving. Or it is hot and steamy with very short people who eat primates. Don’t get bogged down with precise descriptions. Africa is big: fifty-four countries, 900 million people who are too busy starving and dying and warring and emigrating to read your book. The continent is full of deserts, jungles, highlands, savannahs and many other things, but your reader doesn’t care about all that, so keep your descriptions romantic and evocative and unparticular.

The musical chant “It’s time for Africa”. The CBC halftime information segments “Revealing Africa” (which also invokes the sense of Africa as dark, hidden, incomprehensible, needing to be brought to the surface). The commentators’ attribution of the term ‘home soil’ to each of the participating African nations, despite the geographic, cultural, linguistic, social, and political distances among the six of them.

At one point, the commentator of one of the games actually said that South Africa has put more effort into their self-presentation during this World Cup than any other country he can remember, and explained this as relating to the host country’s knowledge that it was representing an entire continent. It’s that pattern of personal privilege – where only the Other is expected to represent her entire group, and a heterosexual white TAB North American middle/upper class male is presumed to be an individual representing only himself – writ on a national/continental scale.

When I was a TA for first year cultural anthropology last year, and students were assigned to write a research paper on some topic relating to a book dealing with themes of global poverty (primarily on whether this was really a universalizable concept in the first place), I got to the point of keeping a tally on a separate sheet of paper counting how many of my students somehow conceptualized Africa as a single country. One even referred, in a phrase riddled with ambiguities and non-sensicalities, to “the government of Africa”.

Dear CBC and World Cup commentators: You are not helping with the education of Canadian youth. You are making a substantial contribution to their ignorance, and not just because they’re watching soccer while they should be studying. Thank you.


Surprised by ignorance

Following a couple of back-links, I found myself reading this post that Chally wrote a few months ago at Feministe, and delving into the comment thread. And like many of the commenters, I’m finding myself surprised at my own surprise at the defensive ignorance of the privileged. Overall, I think the balance tips towards people who are supportive of Chally’s point – either because they are non-Usian, or because they manage to wrap their brains around what she’s trying to say by drawing on past experiences with non-USians or by extrapolating from privilege-based parallels.

Of those who disagree, then, it’s the vehemence of their voices that I find so surprising. It’s disappointing, but maybe not shocking, to see the prevalence of the ‘tone argument’ being used against a young non-white woman. So what I find more specifically surprising is the inability and/or outright unwillingness of USian commenters to consider the meaning of what she was trying to say. The sighing and frustration about the ‘ugly American’ stereotype they believe she is invoking, and their refusal to see beyond their own personal individual attempts to prove that they’re not like that. The invocation of US-internal cultural and experiential differences as though that were in any way relevant to chally’s point, but raised as though they absolutely obliterate her perspective here.

The thing is, the more I think about it, the more relevant her point feels, especially as it pertains to discussions of race. The example that comes to my mind is the extent to which, here in Canada, racialized experiences are imagined to mirror those in the US, only with a smaller Black population and an indirect history with slavery. My roommate, who is from Arizona, can’t quite wrap her head around why “African Canadians” is not really a preferred term for Black Canadians. As I understand it, this is at least partially because a significant proportion of Black people in this country have their recent personal and familial experience in the Caribbean, and “African Canadian” elides their relationship to those cultures and places, and that personal history. That’s not all there is to it, and that’s not the only group of Black Canadians, and of course it doesn’t even begin to cover the context of race relations in Canada, but the example is intended mainly to offer a differentiation from the US context. But US-centrism suggests that the way “African American” came to serve as an appropriate term for a particular population in their country should easily translate across the border. Just substitute in Canadian for American, and you’re good. The same lexical process is assumed to apply to “Native Canadians”, when the preference here is more likely to be First Nations, or Aboriginal, or Indigenous, depending somewhat on the context. It’s as though Canada is believed to be entirely interchangeable with the US (“America” in these lexical examples, which, as Chally points out, is a term with its own problems).

This isn’t about the American educational system and its failure to teach about other political structures, or other histories. It isn’t even about the ubiquity of US media in some places and the non-presence of media from elsewhere within the US, though those are all, to some extent, factors in the creation of this kind of privilege. It’s about a refusal to listen to what people say about their own experiences of racism, racialization and colonialism. It’s a desire to simplify and make non-US experiences fit in to a US-box, and the result is the erasure of other boxes. This isn’t a request for US-residents to remember the capitals of some other countries, or to learn the specific political and cultural histories that have shaped the current relationships within other countries. It’s a basic suggestion that it’s worthwhile to remember that those contexts are different, even and perhaps especially those who appear pretty similar on the surface.

That is, as they say, not rocket science, especially for social justice activists who purport to believe in the value of decentering dominant voices and recognizing the dangers of universalistic assumptions.

Referential truth doesn’t erase racism

Let’s see if I can write this quickly because I really should get back to the schoolwork that is currently making me feel a little spun in the head…

Background story: a Black student (the only one in her A/P class) was, as I understand it, transferred into a non-A/P, ‘lower’* educational classroom because her teacher found the smell of her hair product unbearable. The school believes this situation to be unacceptable and inappropriate, worthy of investigation, but not, of course, racist. Race, in fact, by their interpretation, was not a factor.

The discussion in comments on this article is interesting to me. Most of the commentors at SLOG disagree with the teacher’s actions, and several mock or raise strong doubts about the claims that race played no role in this decision. Others, however, turn the conversation into a “well-wait-a-minute” about the possible truth value of the teacher’s assertions. Even some of the ones who acknowledge the inappropriateness, and maybe even a racial undertone (it’s always a subconscious undertone), of the teacher’s action, hasten to add that sensitivities to scent really truly can have a serious impact on some people’s ability to function. Scrolling through the first 50-60 comments, this is one of the most significant themes of the conversation is about – asserting the reality of problematic scents, assessing the potential for this particular product to cause such scent-related issues for some people, and debating the likelihood that the teacher personally did or did not experience such a sensitivity to this product. As online commenters are wont to do in stories such as this one, these commenters set themselves up as the court of public opinion and establish the terms by which they would exonerate the teacher – for many, the proof of innocence would depend on documentary proof of scent sensitivities, and ideally, a pre-established arrangement within the workplace, with both administration and students, to avoid scents in the classroom.

The story, then, has become one that centres entirely on the referential truth-value of the teacher’s basic claim. Some of the commenters that do suggest there might be a racial component do so by arguing that when the teacher realized a problem, s/he selected the classroom “Other” as a target without knowing whether this student was the actual cause of the issue. But it’s 20 or 25 comments in before someone even manages to suggest that regardless of whether the teacher has this kind of problem, and regardless of whether it was, in fact, linked to this student’s hair product, these actions were unacceptable and very likely the product of deeply-held racialized assumptions and biases. I’m not going to go in to the long argument, but the basic point is that the facility with which the student was dismissed from the classroom suggests that the educator did not have her interests as primary focus and likely suspected that she didn’t really belong there in the first place. If you think otherwise, you problem solve in such a way that meets everyone’s needs. This is, as they say, not rocket science.

Because I’m starting to go into long, academic-y mode (which I should direct at my academics), I’ll just try to close quickly by noting that this is a common tactic in discussions about race – concentrate on the surface, look at the referentiality of the situation, treat it as an isolated and objectifiable, decontextualized interaction, and erase the discussion of how race (and other kinds of power imbalances) underlies and informs who does and says what. The truth value of the teacher’s scent claims actually have nothing to do with the story, but before we’re going to pay attention to the students’ interpretations of this interaction (if we ever really get to look at that), we’re going to set up solid positivistic criteria for determining whether the teacher is telling The Truth. And somehow, suddenly, yet again, we are Not Talking About Race.

*I’m generally hesitant to accept hierarchical relationships among types of education, which often differentiate between ‘academic’ and ‘applied’ or ‘trades-oriented’ and whatnot, thereby perpetuating a very specific kind of class structure that values certain kinds of skills, abilities and knowledges more than others. For the purposes of the situation at hand, however, being as I don’t fully know the context of such US educational distinctions, I’ll use the term from the article. I can’t help myself with the quotes, though.

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.

Meditations on insomnia

I’ve gone through some serious periods of insomnia in my life. When I lived in Edmonton at one point, I remember a span of about a month (or maybe it was shorter, a week or two that felt like it lasted a month) when the only time I slept was on the bus going to and from school. It was about a 45 minute bus ride each way, and because of where I got on, I always managed to get a seat next to a window, so I could lean my head against it and practically immediately just be asleep. Somehow, I also managed to wake up right before my stop every time, in both directions, even though my stop coming home was in the middle of a long straight stretch with no physical cues that would logically have woken me up at that point. I used to wish the buses ran all night long, so I could just get on them and ride around for a while until I had gotten some rest.

Whenever I get bouts of insomnia – now gloriously far apart and very rarely lasting more than a couple of days – I think of how much worse it was then, and I can’t imagine ever going back to that. I also think about how much my tolerance for insomnia has gone down, because after only two bad (not even completely sleepless) nights, I’m finding the basics of life overwhelming, I’m feeling more emotionally raw, and I’m finding it difficult to concentrate on things I’m trying to read.

People always ask me to seek out a reason for my inability to sleep. Sometimes they point to physical factors (mainly my caffeine intake, which, while rather impressive, generally stops by early afternoon), but more often, they seek out some underlying source of stress or anxiety that is distracting me. “What’s on your mind?”, they ask. I can usually dig out an answer to this question. I suspect, however, that I could do so regardless of whether I were having trouble sleeping, since it’s usually not something that is causing me blatant emotional turmoil or conscious mental strain. At any given point, though, you could ask me that question and I could think of something that might be construed as stressful or anxiety-inducing, be it something to do with school, family, relationship, financial, or just my general sense of well-being. Sometimes all of the above. But I don’t usually lie awake at night thinking about these concerns, or making lists in my head of all the things I need to get done over the next couple of days. I’ve had enough experience with insomnia to know that often there’s an easy solution to those kinds of sleep difficulties, so they don’t tend to reach the point of affecting me, at least not consciously.

If I were to describe what I’m thinking or feeling when I really become unable to sleep, the most common pattern is that I’m incredibly anxious about what will happen if I can’t sleep, can’t ever sleep (because in those moments, that night always feels like forever), and vaguely fearful about letting go and actually just falling asleep. It’s that latter feeling that strikes me as odd. I desperately want to sleep, but as I’m getting to the point of drifting off, my legs tense up and I catch myself.

One thing I always appreciated about Sandman comics was the scariness of Dream. Dream is scarier, even, than Death, who is actually quite refreshing and lighthearted. Comforting, even. She just did what she did and knew what she was. Dream was dark, and full of unknowns, and out of control in a way that Death never was. The boundary between there and here was too permeable, the rules of here sometimes applied, sometimes didn’t, the patterns would sometimes make sense and sometimes write themselves. I don’t know how much of that is in the comics, since I haven’t read them in years, but that’s how the image continues to strike me as I fight to sleep, and fight against sleep at the same time.