On anger, righteous and personal

Sometime I will write about righteousness more broadly, how deeply suspicious I am of righteousness after growing up in conservative Christianity, how troubled I am when I see its toxic aspects reflected in people I tend to agree with today. But it’s a big topic that I don’t feel ready to tackle today, so I want to look instead at the narrower subject of righteous anger.

Anger in general comes from a violation, a boundary crossing. It is a strike force against someone who did something they had no right to do. It is the body’s way of fiercely affirming that our boundaries must be guarded, that we deserve to receive good and not harm from people who come near us.

Some of us have been taught all our lives to suppress anger. We are taught to let our boundaries be invaded, to cede territory rather than make the invader unhappy or uncomfortable. We are taught to “forgive” before we’ve ever really claimed our hurt — in other words, we are taught that our hurts don’t matter and our boundaries don’t deserve defending. Learning to value and protect ourselves and learning how to be angry go hand in hand.

In my experience, anger is a two-pronged spear. One prong is “I have been hurt,” and the other is “a wrong has been done.” I’m not sure I’ve ever experienced anger that doesn’t contain at least a little of both of these, although the balance may swing hard in one direction or another. Even when the wrong is done to a stranger far distant — say, a family seeking asylum that’s been torn apart by a white supremacist government — I feel some direct, personal pain, because I am an empathetic person and because families matter to me. And even when the wrong done is very personal and probably entirely defensible — say, an ex taking a new partner to our favorite restaurant — there is a little piece of me that feels like, “that shouldn’t have happened, it’s not right.”

Righteous anger is the prong that says “a wrong has been done here.” For those of us who are taught that anger on our own behalf is not allowed, righteous anger is a more permissible alternative. You can’t defend your own boundaries or claim your own hurt, but you are allowed to be angry if an objective wrong has been done. You have to make sure you focus on the objective wrong, though, not on the hurt. Your hurts still don’t matter.

Righteous anger is vital and necessary. I don’t think social change could happen without it.  But I have also learned to be deeply suspicious of it, in myself and in other people, and the more close and personal a situation is, the more suspicious I am. Too often, righteous anger is a way to avoid tending to our personal hurts, or to maintain a sense of control over a narrative, or to distance ourselves from the possibility that we also have done wrong.

I’ll talk about the last two things later, since they’re both part of the way righteous anger — and righteousness in general — can be a power move. I want to spend more time now on the way that overdwelling on the “righteous” part of anger gets in the way of caring for our own hurts.

I already said that learning how to value and protect ourselves and learning to be angry go hand in hand. Specifically, learning to be angry on our own behalf is a part of the process. I can rage and rage that a wrong has been done, but until I voice to myself, “I have been hurt, and I am not okay with that,” I’m not going a step further toward valuing and protecting myself.

Invoking grand principles feels so much safer than suggesting that my own feelings and pain matter. If I say, “This thing was wrong!” they’re not going to respond with “Why should I care?” — and if they do, they’re clearly the asshole. If, on the other hand, I say “This thing hurt me!” then the possibility of “Why should I care?” becomes terrifyingly vivid. I’ve had plenty of people in my life hurt me and not care, so it’s not irrational of me to imagine that voicing my hurt will lead to nothing but dismissal, or worse.

Whether they care isn’t actually the point, though. It matters, and it especially matters if I’m deciding whether to let someone be close to me, but it isn’t the point. The point is that I care. It matters to me that I was hurt. That’s why I’m angry. That’s why I need my anger — to really feel that it matters. I can’t do that by offloading my hurt onto an abstract notion of justice. I have to keep it right there in my chest, so that my anger is doing what it’s meant to do — defending me.

Strong heart

Grief keeps coming for me this year. Over and over I’ve been hit with loss: different kinds, different reasons, all painful.

Also this year, I realized that I needed to learn to be fully present with my feelings or die. So when grief hits me, instead of evading it or crushing it down, I have been trying hard to sit with it, to let it move through me at its own pace. This takes discipline. I have a dozen strategies for diverting grief or stopping its flow, and it’s hard not to activate them when my heart feels like it’s being gripped in a vise and I can only breathe in little gasps that feel like stabs.

One thing I am learning is that my heart is strong. While I sit there gasping, thinking “I am actually not sure I can bear this,” my heart is steadily bearing it. It holds the pain and it endures. As I sit here now, on a peaceful day, that same center of feeling in my chest is at rest, undamaged. It holds pain like a sponge holds water, wringing out sobs and tears when it gets too full, and then absorbing more until there’s no more to soak up. And then it quietly returns to its original state.

I always think that I need to protect my body, to avoid pain. I think that pain is the same thing as damage, and try to shield my body even from feeling emotional pain. But this summer I have begun asking my body what she needs from me, and when I have asked in the grips of grief, the answer is never, “Save me from this.” It is, “Be with me through this.” Don’t run away. Don’t suppress.

When I push the grief away, I just move it to somewhere else in my body, a place that isn’t meant to absorb and release it.

And because there’s no way to evade a valid pain without lying, when I push the grief away I spin lies. I lie about what I really want, or about what the future will hold, or about the reality of the past. It becomes harder and harder to know and feel my actual needs and realities, and harder to connect to other people. Every attempt at closeness, every decision I make for my life, has to navigate around the brittle structure of illusions and evasions I’ve built to protect myself from pain.

I’m realizing slowly that none of this is necessary. I am very new to this, and I don’t know if there are limits or actual breaking conditions, but for now I am trying to trust that my heart is strong. It knows how to do this work of holding pain. Instead of tying myself in knots to protect it, I can sit and feel it, and thank it for its work.

Toxic Communities

Trigger warning for emotional abuse

This post over at Amusing Nonsense left a bitter taste in my mouth, but not because of anything he said. Word by word, everything he said seemed pretty accurate and made sense. It’s just that it was a defense of New Atheists, and my sister’s two abusive exes were the first New Atheists I ever met, and that association, for me, will probably always be there.

The comments over there are consistently excellent discussions. On that particular post, a recurring topic was whether or not atheists are in danger of falling into the same traps of groupthink and extremist, mindless passion as most other groups. I don’t think it’s a danger; it’s an inevitability, because I have never met a political subculture where some factions didn’t fall into this trap. Feminists, liberals, queer communities, social justice advocates… every one of these groups that I (proudly) belong to has also contained rather sizable groups of people who I just have to avoid because of horrible petty bullshit.

In all of these cases, I have heard defenses that a person’s feminism/atheism/Christianity/-ism of choice had nothing to do with their overall shittiness, and thus shouldn’t reflect on the group they are a part of. For the most part, I agree with this. Any sufficiently large group will contain some awful people, and the group as a whole shouldn’t necessarily be blamed for this. However, I want to go a little deeper.

When you have someone clever, mean spirited and engaged in some sort of movement, they can often find ways to twist an ideology to serve their own purpose. For example, a New Atheist behavior I frequently saw was using religion as an excuse to separate a newly-deconverted atheist from their former friends. Religious people often come from circles where nearly everyone they know is religious. Often some former friends will cut a friend who lost their faith off, but usually some people will be interested in maintaining a respectful friendship. New Atheists can shame a lowercase new atheist for still having religious ties, or belittle their remaining religious friends to their faces and take said friend’s offense as proof that they are intolerant of atheists and bad, bad people. This is a classic predator tactic; cut the victim from their former support network, so they have no one to help them and may even be completely dependent on the abuser. In certain politically idealistic communities, it is common to have a reflexively derisive attitude towards those unenlightened outsiders, so this kind of behavior may not even be noticed as unusual, while some shy newcomer is being harassed or even beaten up behind closed doors.

Again, this is not a problem of ALL NEW ATHEISTS ARE EVIL!!! It’s an example of how even a good idea can be twisted. (Good ideas like “atheists should be as free to be open about their lack of belief as Christians are about their having-of-belief, and also religion should either get out of the public sector or be willing to share the space with everybody. And that’s actually everybody, not ‘epic Nativity scene plus a menorah in a corner somewhere’ everybody.”) And the trouble is that while communities are great at recognizing abusive tactics when they are shrouded in an ideology that isn’t theirs, they are terrible at recognizing the exact same tactics when the language used is their own.

So what’s the solution to this? I don’t think there’s a perfect one that will eliminate this happening ever. That would be like expecting weeds to not show up in your garden. You can spread down some mulch to minimize it, but sooner or later something will pop up. The only solution is to be aware that it happens, even in your garden. If you’re somebody who has the power to weed, then make sure you check for weeds.

And for those who don’t have that power, let me tell you what I wish somebody had told me and my sister. If you like the ideals that get passed around in a group, but often find yourself feeling belittled, bullied and ignored, or if you’re not but you feel like you constantly have to live up to high standards of behavior in order to not be treated that way, that means you’re in one of those weedy subgroups. Leave. It’s okay. If these ideas are as awesome as you think they are, somewhere out there is a group where people live those ideals without being total assholes.

Kinds of introversion

I read a post recently that got me thinking about introversion and poly communication, and I’d like to write more about that soon, but on the way I started thinking about introversion as a trait. I grew up on classic Myers-Briggs personality type theory, and still find it often useful for understanding myself and others. Lately, introversion has been a fairly trendy topic, and I’ve seen a lot of people express feeling left out because they identify with some but not all of the things listed.

I’m not anti-label; I think labels are important and useful as we navigate a diverse world (and they’re most important for those whose identities tend to be unrecognized or misunderstood). As a pretty solid introvert by any definition, having that handle to understand myself by has been crucial for my emotional and social health. But it’s also important to recognize that every label is an approximation. Sometimes it’s useful to break things down into tinier, more nuanced pieces. And I think discussions of introversion would be helped if we recognized that “introversion” is really a cluster of traits that often go together, but not always. Reading an article that’s like, “As introverts, we [blah blah blah]” almost always creates a point of alienation as a self-identified introvert like me runs along and hits some description that just isn’t true.

So here’s a completely unscientific and off-the-top-of-my-head list of different introvert traits, any of which a self-described introvert may or may not have. I write it for my own reference, to remind myself that this thing I call introversion is more complex and variable than I tend to assume.

High need for alone time

Most people, at some point, feel the need to get away and be alone for a while. For some, this need is so small that their everyday routine (commute, shower time, bathroom time) fills it and they never really experience that “I have to get away by myself RIGHT NOW” feeling. On the other end, some people need hours or days by themselves to feel at their best. And for a lot of people it varies — for me, the more unhappy or stressed I am, the more alone time I need. Where you draw the cutoff for “this level of alone time makes someone an introvert” is arbitrary and pretty relative.

There’s also variance in what counts as alone time. For some people, sitting with a close friend or family member while they quietly work on their own things is enough to recharge and feel restored. Others need to be actually alone, with a closed door between themselves and other humans.

Low tolerance for big social time

This and the above are often linked in discussions, but they’re actually separate things. Somebody can need a lot of alone time but also be comfortable interacting in large groups for hours; someone can be stressed by large gatherings but also not often feel the craving to be actually alone. As with the need for alone time, this lives on a scale and the “introverson” cutoff is pretty arbitrary.

There are a lot of reasons that socializing in big groups can be stressful and un-fun, and a lot of them are going to be independent points below, so I’m not going to dig very deep into this for now.

Preference for few intimate relationships over many varied

I hate meeting people, but I love knowing people. It’s a struggle for me to get through the early stages of knowing somebody, where there’s small talk and group socializing, but I love nothing more than sitting down with someone I’m close to and talking about EVERYTHING. I assume that casual social interactions are fun and rewarding for other people, because they keep doing it, but I just don’t get it. Someone will have to write a post about extravert traits and explain it to me.

Anyway, a lot of introverts feel this way, and would rather spend time with a few close friends over and over, than continually meet new people or interact more casually with a large group of people. You can see how this fits tidily with the above traits, but I’ve definitely known people who have a strong preference for a few intimate relationships, while not having a strong need for alone time or aversion to big groups.

Internal processing

Some people like to think through feelings and problems on their own, and then discuss them once they’ve got a pretty good handle on their own thoughts. Others process by talking it through. We have a pretty hard time understanding each other. Again, I’ll leave it to an external processor to explain their side of things. For me, I kind of can’t think and talk at the same time. If I’m talking, it’s because it’s something I’ve thought about ahead of time (not always right before I open my mouth… it can be something I’ve devoted a lot of thought to previously.) I don’t know why this is… it just feels like the thinky part of my brain and the speaky part are completely different systems, and trying to run them in conjunction is way too complicated and difficult.

I’m not sure if this is a cause or a result of being an internal processor, but I also put a lot of weight on things that I say (and have to be reminded that I can’t always do the same with others.) I’m not sure I’ve ever said something I didn’t mean. I’ll revise my thoughts in light of previous information, but that phenomenon of blurting something out that I didn’t mean is completely alien to me, and I think to most internal processors.

I’ll have a lot to say about internal processing in the next post I want to write, so I’ll leave it there for now.

Reserved emotional expression

This one is close to internal processing, but distinct enough to deserve its own category. Some people have a lot of emotional output — they express their feelings quickly, fluidly, and often at high volume. Others keep a calm appearance in most emotional states, and are more likely to say how they’re feeling than show it. It’s not that they’re holding back (that’s a separate thing), it’s just that it doesn’t come naturally to them to emote visibly. There are a lot of cultural differences around emotional expression, so someone who’s reserved within their home culture might come across as very expressive in another. In general, though, being more reserved than is typical for your culture is often considered a trait of introversion.

Lower overstimulation threshhold

I’m really fascinated by matters of over- and under-stimulation, because I’ve been learning how much it affects my mental state in ways I’d never realized before. We all have a level of noise, light, and activity that feels energizing and positive to us, and a level higher than that that becomes extremely stressful to process. Where the threshhold is can vary a lot for a person based on their mood, stress, sleep deprivation, etc., but having a lower-than-average threshhold for overstimulation is often counted as an introvert trait.

For me, overstimulation is a huge piece of my large-group intolerance. My energy is sapped about five times faster in a noisy environment than a quiet one, regardless of the number of people. (Weirdly, a dim environment tends to sap my energy more than a brightly lit one. I haven’t yet found any insights to what that’s about.)

I’m not going to try to make this list exhaustive… in fact it’s pretty biased toward the introvert traits that I personally have, because those are the ones that come to my mind most easily. I’d love to hear from others about traits or aspects of introversion that belong on this list. What have you got for me?

Permission to be Human?

Let’s imagine you had a friend who was really into learning things and making the world a better place. Let’s suppose that friend happened upon some people who seemed to have some really important things figured out. So, in the interest of gaining knowledge and doing good things, your friend decided to hang out with those people for a while. Later, they came to you with some misgivings.

“I like what these people are saying, but there’s this one person who everybody looks to as the leader, and frankly, he’s mean. Like, he won’t just tell people he disagrees with them and why, he will also tell them they are shit, worthless, terrible human beings and they need to go die. Sometimes he says this to people who are solidly against him, but he will also say it to people who are basically on his side but disagree with him on a few issues. He will even say it to people who are making accidental newbie mistakes.”

Your reaction to that would probably be, “wow, that’s not okay.” If your friend told you they decided to bail on the group based simply on that, you would probably support that completely. You care about your friend. You don’t want them to be treated badly. Those don’t sound like good people to be around.

But let’s suppose your friend doesn’t want to do this. Suppose your friend still really thinks there is awesome stuff in this group, and would rather move away from that  particular section of it, hopefully into a place that is kinder and less toxic. If the ideas are good, that is true regardless of the behavior of the people preaching them, right? Isn’t it better to try to leave aside the bad and accept the good?

It’s a tall and difficult order, but a good thing to do if you can pull it off, so you wish your friend luck. Later on, you check in about how this project is going.

“Um, so-so,” they say. “On the one hand, I’m still learning a lot of good stuff. Also, I’ve found a lot of people who think the way I do, who think that guy from before was unreasonable and petty and mean, and they don’t listen to him either.”

You sense a but, so you supply it. “But….?”

“But he’s really, really far from the only one out there. I mean, people who talk like him are everywhere. I always have to be really careful and watch what I’m saying, because I never know when somebody is going to pounce on something I’ve said, maybe something that I had no idea was wrong, and they make me feel like total shit. And sometimes I think I didn’t deserve it in the first place, like I’m being misunderstood or maybe what they are saying isn’t quite right. But usually when this happens I can’t talk to them and get some clarity, because any questions are seen as confirmation that I’m just a bad person to begin with. Sometimes I say, ‘okay, thanks for educating me’ even if I don’t quite get it, because I want to get out of the conversation.”

“That really sucks.”

“Yeah. But I still feel like this group has good stuff to offer, both to me and the world in general. And I’m realizing some of this is just an inevitable part of how the world works. There are trolls in every group.”

“So you still want to consider yourself part of the group?”

“Yeah, I do.”

Okay then. Based on the things your friend has said, this group does have some good stuff to offer, and you’ve met some of the nicer members. They really are fantastic people. But you still worry a bit about your friend.

Then the day comes that your friend comes to you in tears. “I posted something online. I just saw some people talking about the live action Mulan movie, and how important it was that the cast be Asian, not whitewashed like The Last Airbender. I agreed with that and didn’t really have anything to add. But then some people started talking about how the actors absolutely must be Chinese, how some people being considered are Korean or Filipino or Japanese and that’s just the worst bullshit ever. I thought, ‘it would be pretty cool if the cast was Chinese, but I think it’s also possible that the actors who give the best auditions happen to be of a different Asian ethnicity, and if that happens it won’t be the end of the world. It will still be a step forward for diversity and a great opportunity for under recognized Asian actors.’ So I said as much. I was so afraid of how people would respond, it took me thirty minutes to write even though it was just a few lines, and I’m still shaking.”

“What happened?”

“Nothing yet. Maybe nobody will notice it. But it could get spread far, and I’m scared I’ll get slammed, even though I’m pretty sure I’m right. And you know what drives me crazy? Let’s say I’m totally wrong. It’s possible. I’m not infallible. But even if I am wrong, I am wrong about an incredibly minor issue, yet I fully expect someone to rip me to shreds.”

You already pretty much know what’s coming next, because you’ve heard these rants before, but your friend is still really worked up, so you let them go on.

“And you know what else? I’m mad that I’m hoping nobody notices. Because I want to be somebody who expresses my opinion and gets to participate in the discussions, but I’ve been really quiet for so long. I’ve been quiet because I’m afraid if I make a single mistake, somebody is going to pounce on me and tell everyone else to ignore me because I’m total worthless shit. I want to be able to say what’s on my mind. I want to be able to make mistakes and learn from them. When I make them and somebody points it out, I want to feel free to thank them but maybe not agree that it’s a mistake right away. I want to mull it over for a while, explore a few different angles, and then when I finally say ‘I was wrong’ be saying it because I really believe I was wrong, not because I was scared to say otherwise. I’m never going to be perfect, and I’d like that to be okay.”

When they finally wind down, you say, “write about it. Write all that down, and share it.”

“But they’re just going to say I’m trying to shut them down, that I’m using their anger as an excuse to silence them. Which is a real problem, and I fully support anyone’s right to feel angry, I’m just sick of looking over my shoulders for fear that opening my mouth will get me attacked. I don’t know how to explain the difference between those two things.”

“If its wrong for you to silence them for their anger, is it right for their anger to silence others? If you have a duty to respectfully listen to their beliefs, do they not have a duty to respectfully listen to others?”

Here’s probably a good time to de-mysticize the metaphor. I am the friend. I am also mostly the person listening to the friend. I’ve been having these conversations inside my head for years. In the last part, though, where the person listening is actually my boyfriend (I’m sorry, I swear I won’t become one of those bloggers who mentions their significant other in every single post, he’s just the source of that last quote and I had to credit him). The group is the nebulous entity known as social justice activists; those fabulous people who really do battle every day to improve the lives of everyone, to educate people about important and under-recognized issues, and who often demonstrate the best of human kindness in their day to day lives. And also all those trolls, many of whom have extremely large followings and have somehow turned a message as positive and edifying as “go educate yourself” into an ugly putdown. Many of them have gone through phases of being one or the other. They are human beings, after all.

I feel like posts like these usually end with a call to action and a detailed battle plan that will lead us all to Utopia. I’m not going to do that, because I don’t have a solution. I still think some of the problem is just human nature. Still, if there’s one thing I’ve learned from hanging out in social justice-y circles, its that if you assume a problem is just engrained in human nature, you will never fix it, but if you start a conversation you might find solutions that surpass your most optimistic expectations. I’m not the only person out there talking about this issue. I talked to another friend before posting this, and they later sent this to me. So I’m skeptical about this problem disappearing, but optimistic about it getting better.

In any case, solving the problem is not sole point of this post. The point of this post is quite selfish. The point is that I was scared to post the Mulan bit on Tumblr, and I’m scared to post this, and I don’t want to be someone who lets my own fear of others’ anger silence me.

The Colors of Words

My boyfriend and I just had a two hour debate over something we agreed about completely. “Sure, you need to be careful about what judgments you make, and how you treat people based on those judgments,” he would say, “but its still fair and inevitable to make some judgments, especially based on things people really have choices about, like the slogans on their T-shirts.”

“Sure, we all come to conclusions about each other, and when those are based on real choices, not things people have no control over, that is somewhat justifiable,” I would respond, “but you still need to be careful when making judgments, especially when those judgments affect how you treat someone.”

On and on, in a circle of exhausting agreements that still felt like a dispute.

When we both finally tired of playing Ring Around the Rosie, we eventually found the source of the argument. It was in the word “judge.” Like so many words, it carries the load of a few different meanings, and we were thinking of distinct ones as we spoke. We were committing a classic sin of debate; failing to properly define our terms.

According to the conventional narrative of how debates play out, that was supposed to resolve the problem. We were supposed to mutually redefine our terms and laugh about the error. Oddly enough, though, that didn’t happen. Even knowing what the problem was, we both struggled to use the word “judge” in the sense that the other meant it. We were both using the word in a somewhat limited sense, and neither of us could easily expand our definition.

Grant’s father was a judge. He listened to cases, had the opportunity to see both sides of an argument, deliberated on all sides, and came back with a consequence that was reasonable and appropriate. Over and over, throughout his life, Grant heard of judgement being delivered in that manner. When people tell him not to judge, it feels like telling him not to think, not to be fair, not to care about justice, not to come to any conclusions about anything. It makes him feel vilified when he has to make a decision and doesn’t have all the facts at hand, or all the time in the world to investigate them.

To me, though, judgment means Judgment Day. It means how dare you think for yourself, be raised in a religion that isn’t ours, make a mistake, wear too much lipstick. It is when Moses strikes a rock to get water from it, instead of only speaking to it, and God says he will die in the desert without ever entering the Promised Land. (Numbers 20:2-12) It means seeing someone with spiky blue hair and concluding they worship the devil, whether they know it or not. Judgment lets one mistake, one action, one facet of your complex being define you, and it removes any qualms you have over punishing someone, harshly, for that small thing.

For both of us, our associations with the word judge were intimate, personal and deep, and in order to end the argument we had to get away from it entirely and find a new word, “assess.” Its all right to make qualified, well evidenced assessments about a person, provided you are also fair in how you treat them and willing to revise those assessments as you get to know them better.

I think all of us have words like that, where the associations we have, based on the context in which we learned them, color their meanings. The dictionary can solve some definitional problems, but not all of them. Sometimes its on us to recognize our linguistic biases, acknowledge the rights of others to have their own, and meet each other halfway.

Orientation vs. identity: some thoughts on belief

When sexologists talk about sexual orientation, we often use some variation of the Orientation-Behavior-Identity model (OBI). The idea is that sexual orientation can be understood and discussed in three distinct aspects: a person’s identity, what they define themselves as, both publicly and privately; a person’s behavior, their actual sexual acts with different genders; and a person’s orientation, the natural bent of their attractions (which may or may not be innate or changeable, but which is much less subject to power of choice than the other two aspects.) It’s a helpful distinction, and clears up a lot of miscommunications about what it means to be “really” gay, het, or bi.

I wonder if a similar model would be useful for discussing religious belief. Is belief or unbelief in a deity (pick your favorite!) a choice? I would argue that at any given moment, a person does or does not believe in a particular deity. Analogous to the “orientation” piece of the OBI model, this is just a program that is running in your brain: you cannot choose to switch it on or off, although various paths you take in life may contribute to its running or shut it down. But it’s not subject to conscious, volitional will.

Then there is the “identity” component: whether you think of yourself as a theist, and usually a member of a particular religion, or not. This may or may not have anything to do with your belief orientation. There was a time in my life where I identified as a Christian although I no longer had the belief in God that I had in my earlier years. Similarly, anyone who identifies as an “atheist” because they are mad at God is not an atheist in the orientational sense: people who genuinely lack belief in a deity have nothing to be angry at.

Finally, there is the behavior component, which is independent of both orientation and identity. Attending church does not make you a Christian believer, nor do you have to call yourself a Christian to attend. And many people identify as members of a religion without engaging in any of the behaviors prescribed by that religion. Whether there are any behaviors that could be categorized as “atheistic” is an interesting question… I can’t think of any off the top of my head, although I can think of many that could be described as humanistic or skeptical.

What do you think? Useful categories for discussions of belief and unbelief?

Which kind of cheating is worse? And why?

A lot of us have seen the statistic that men, on the whole, worry more about sexual infidelity in relationships while women worry more about emotional infidelity. (I’m writing this real quick-like in the middle of studying, so I can’t be bothered to look up a citation… perhaps some commenter can oblige, or I’ll edit it in later.) This statistic is usually explained by the evo-psych theory that men’s great reproductive danger was being duped into raising another man’s genetic offspring, while a women’s great reproductive danger was losing her mate’s financial support for herself and her children.

This theory irks me for a number of reasons: the most rational being that it assumes that basically modern gendered family roles were present in the environment men and women evolved in. It assumes monogamous pair-bonding with the female dependent on the males’ support; if you’re having trouble imagining any other possibility, consider a small, close tribal community where resources are shared fairly equally among the whole tribe, as opposed to won and hoarded by a particular nuclear family unit. Consider an economy based largely on foraging, where women’s childbearing role would not hamper them from obtaining resources nearly as much as in a more labor-intensive agricultural economy. The “men evolved to be sexually jealous to ensure their hard-won resources nourished their own offspring” idea makes little sense if human brains evolved in such communities, as does “women evolved to be emotionally jealous to ensure their mates’ continued provision.”

An alternative theory is based on our culture’s intense conditioning of males and females around sexuality and emotion. Men are taught from an early age that being highly emotional is unacceptable. While women are allowed to cuddle and form intimate emotional bonds in many kinds of relationships (with family, with friends, with children), men’s sole source of both affectionate touch and emotional intimacy is in the sex act. For this reason, I think it’s often misleading to make a distinction between men’s sexual and emotional needs: very often the two are conflated, because our culture deems non-sexual emotional needs as “unmanly.”

From the women’s side, we are socialized to view male sexuality as rampant and uncontrollable: that a man will have sex every chance he gets, and with as many women as he can, is often viewed as natural and inevitable. And from that standpoint, it is likely to be much more forgivable. Men’s sexuality, in our culture, is cheap: easy to gain access to, and thus less valuable and less jealously guarded. Men’s emotional commitment and intimacy, on the other hand, is rare and difficult to obtain (see the above paragraph). Therefore for a woman’s male partner to give emotional intimacy to someone else is a much higher violation than for him to give sexual intimacy. (I use the word “give” as opposed to “share” deliberately: the idea that intimacy of either kind is a commodity is fundamental to the very idea of infidelity, so it seems logical to use that language even though it’s contrary to my own philosophy.)

In my view, our cultural constructions of gender, and particularly the severe suppression and distortion of male’s emotional selves, is entirely sufficient to explain the “women are more worried about emotional infidelity, men are more worried about sexual infidelity” statistic. Problematic and possibly counterfactual evo-psych theories are, in this case, superfluous.

Born this way: where the political meets the scientific

So grad school has really taken a toll on my blogging frequency, huh? The good news is, as I’m studying human sexuality, my posts, while rarer, will hopefully become meatier with evidence and informed opinion and suchlike.

So right now I’m doing preliminary research for a paper which is going to have something to do with the relation between sexual orientation and gender nonconformity in childhood. I still have three days before I need to come up with a coherent thesis, so it’s all terrain-exploration right now. I’ve been reading a sequence of books and articles, from the mid 70s to 2008, discussing the correlation between gender nonconformity in children and homosexual orientation in adults. There’s a correlation, did you know? A pretty darn strong one, apparently.

What is amazing to me, having read mostly political and philosophical writings on gender and orientation, is how dispassionately these researchers present their theories, findings, and analyses. In fact the difference between an article written in 1974 and one in 2008 is much smaller than I would have expected, given the profound social changes we’ve seen since then. It makes me appreciate science, even a “soft” science, for its commitment to evidence and impartial analysis — which is not to say that researchers are unbiased, but there is a world of difference between the language of people who are trying to understand something, and people who are trying to advocate for a particular outcome.

So, quick self-poll for all of you: is sexual orientation primarily determined before or after birth? Is a newborn baby’s future orientation already fixed, or will it be formed later in response to life circumstances? Social liberals are more likely to say that it’s innate; social conservatives more likely to say that it’s caused by post-birth events. I suspect this is more because people perceive “born this way” as an argument for tolerance: we tend to think it’s less acceptable to discriminate against people for inborn traits than for features developed later in life (which, presumably, they had more control over.)

This creates a somewhat sticky situation, though, as we have an unanswered scientific question (how is sexual orientation determined) with a strong political charge. And bad things happen when politics meet science. On the one side, political influence can inhibit or skew scientific research, and on the other, political movements can appropriate scientific findings and use them to appalling ends.

But I think the political interest in this scientific question is kind of stupid anyway. At first, “I was born this way” seems like a strong defense, but it’s really not. A sociopathic killer might have been born that way, but we don’t urge tolerance and advocate their freedom to carry out their homicidal urges just because they were born that way. (Someone could quotemine the shit out of me there, I realize.) “They can’t help it” is really rather a poor and patronizing defense for somebody’s behavior. The appropriate defense for gay rights is “Being gay does not harm society, nor is it wrong by any other moral standard I recognize.” Period, end of story. How someone got to be gay is irrelevant: their right to be gay stands on the fact that there’s nothing wrong with being gay. Arguments with those who disagree need to be fought on that ground.

The second anxiety people like me have toward the possibility that sexual orientation might be formed later in life is vulnerability to “reparative” therapy. Reparative therapy as it is currently practiced is abusive and ineffective, and the argument “you can’t change them, they were born that way” should be an effective argument against practicing it. But again, while belief that sexual orientation is malleable is a necessary condition for reparative therapy to be practiced and recommended, I don’t think that strong scientific evidence for the innateness of sexual orientation would stop the practice of reparative therapy entirely. Religion overrides science for lots of people; need I say more?

Ultimately, if orientation is primarily genetic, it opens the same kinds of fears about people trying to control their child’s orientation: by selective abortion or genetic manipulation, for example. As before, the root problem is not where orientation comes from, it’s people’s attitude toward it. No matter where orientation comes from, the question is not so much “could you change it?” but “why would you want to?”

Then we get into questions of social stigma and ease of life and possible reasons why a parent who didn’t have a moral problem with homosexuality would still want a child not to be gay, a question which has its own complicated factors, many of which are addressed in disability activism as well. If one of my commenters wants to jump on that, feel free, otherwise I might get to it another time. For now, I have a paper to research.

On reality

Six days ago, Shaun and I were sitting in a green room, and I said to him, “These people are all really nice to us… they seem to like us and to respect our ‘lifestyle.’ And I think they probably do like and respect us, because what’s not to like? But what’s bothering me is that even if they thought were were immature, immoral people who are destroying the fabric of America, I believe they’d be behaving in exactly the same way.”

After our appearance on the show, when we were roundly scolded by Father Albert and the audience, I said something very similar. “He probably does disapprove of us and think committed relationships should be exclusive and that we’re making destructive choices. But if I found out afterward that in his private life he thinks open relationships are terrific, I wouldn’t be a bit surprised.”

The whole time we were on the set, it was clear to me that everything was a performance. The words, the gestures, the attitudes… perhaps they agreed with the performer’s underlying feelings, but if so it was little more than coincidence. Everything was deliberate and dramatized, designed to produce an effect.

Shaun felt that Father Albert was cold and hostile to him; what I felt was that he was simply not present, with either of us. He was focused on his performance, and our presence there as human beings wasn’t really relevant. Much of the audience probably perceived him as warm and present, because he was playing to them. When he asked us a harsh question, he barely met our eyes.

When we got offstage, my impression of its all having been performance was solidified by the way everybody treated us. They were friendly, they were smiling, they were exactly the same in manner as they’d been before the show. You’d never know that we’d just been excoriated onstage. It wasn’t real, you see. We were stage villains, playing a part, and there was no more hostility between us and them than there is between actors playing Macbeth and MacDuff.

I haven’t said much about it here, but I hate and have always hated reality TV. I love fiction, I love drama, I love playing make-believe; but I have always suspected, and now I know, that dramatic “reality-based” television is the worst kind of lie. It is fiction pretending to be reality. Lies and truth are so intermingled as to be nearly indistinguishable.

We were told, the whole time leading up to our appearance onstage, that we were just there to tell our story. To explain our non-monogamous relationship and to tell people how and why it works for us. I am not naïve, so I was prepared for a surprise, but what’s bothering me now is that I don’t know, and probably never will know, exactly where the deception took place. Were Jen and Steph, the women I thought of as our “handlers,” misled by the producers? Were they simply flatly lying to us? Was there a change of plan at some point and a decision not to tell us? Did Father Albert go off-book? My guess is that they hadn’t decided until, say, late Thursday night or Friday morning exactly what angle they were going to take, and that having decided, they avoided telling us for one of many reasons. I don’t know, and it doesn’t really matter. But the fact that it doesn’t matter is strange to me. Usually when someone lies to me or conspires against me, it’s recognized by both of us that we are enemies. Here, it’s just the way they do business, so it doesn’t matter who exactly was doing the lying and conspiring.

The audience was nearly unanimously against us and booed and hissed at most of what we had to say, with one exception. I said at one point, “I don’t have to worry about Shaun looking at other women behind my back, because he’s doing it in front of my face.” At which the audience — largely composed of women — gave a collected “ohhh!” of recognition and understanding. I wish I could have explained myself further, because in retrospect many of them probably interpreted that statement as “I know he’s going to check out other women because he’s a man and all men are pigs, but I prefer the security of knowing what he’s thinking.” Which is not at all what I meant. What I meant was, “I know he’s going to check out other women because he’s human and being in love with one person does not automatically turn off your interest in other people… and I want to know him, as he is, not someone he pretends to be, even with the best of intentions. And his attractions, the women he finds beautiful, the pain of rejection and the joy of connection, are all part of who he is, and so I want to know these things too.” That’s what I’d have liked to say.

I hate reality TV because I love reality. Truth, pure and unfiltered, is probably unattainable to human minds, but I want to come as close to it as possible. I want to know the reality of Shaun’s mind and his heart, even the things that have the potential to make me jealous or insecure. I don’t at all regret going on the show, but in the week since I have almost wept with gratitude for the openness and sincerity of our relationship.