Archive for the ‘Philosophical Meandering’ Category

I wandered over to KC Sheehan’s blog this morning and found this post about objective truth and the law.  It got me to thinking, since I had a recent discussion with my dad about moral relativism. So I thought I’d write a post about it.

objectivity vs. relativism is one of my favourite philosophical problems (along with free will and determinism, the mind/body problem, the existence of god(s), and other problems that lead me to agnostic stances). KC makes a good point about Ronald Dworkin’s argument, which he outlines as an analytic, logical argument between one of two options. This is kind of misguided binary between two and only two options/arguments(as so many things are in our world). As KC writes, his argument is of the variety “Idea A could mean B or C. If it means B then it entails D and E; if C then F and G.” She further writes that “To follow an argument like that I have to trust (or, at least, suspend my disbelief) that B and C really exhaust the possibilities for A, that a host of other ways of viewing the matter are not being silently excluded at each step of the analysis. But how can I trust the honesty (integrity?) and precision of the author who makes such a straw-bogeyman of the alternative (the singular alternative: “The latter view”) to the position he intends to argue?”

As for me on the topic of objectivity, I usually throw my hands up and say things like “who gets to decide the objective truth about anything?” and of course the answer always seems to be those in power, which isn’t good enough for me, and so I retain some degree of relativism in my belief system.

However, this doesn’t seem “right” to me. I struggle with relativism, primarily because I don’t care for the western imperialism in much of our legal and moral systems that negate and disregard non-western cultural experiences and the experiences of those with non-western historicities. The same goes for theocratic systems that put god before humanity – too much humanity is lost in systems that rely on (false?) notions of objectivity. Yet, some things do indeed seem to be objectively wrong, morally speaking. Like murder, and rape, and pedophilia, and abusing children, and abusing animals, and genital mutilation. I struggle with WHY I think these things are objectively wrong, and how much my own experience as a white heterosexual female politically-left able-bodied/minded middle-class agnostic vegetarian animal-lover feminist influences that. Some of these identifiers I have actively chosen as a result of beliefs I have developed through careful study and consideration; some I have had nothing to do with choosing for myself, but certainly do not remain uninvestigated, and some of which I retain (because I have no choice or do not desire to reject them) without ALL the usual trappings. How much of what has been encoded can ever really be shed or unlearned?

I would love to investigate from an anthropological point of view what sorts of acts (if any) are universally accepted as morally wrong (or morally good). Or perhaps there might be enough majority to declare universality. But what would an investigation like this mean for the legal systems in society? for cultural practices? in a non-diverse society? in a diverse society? Would we continue to assume a moral assimilationist position for all those of the non-dominant culture who immigrate or live within a particular cultural context? Would we have separate but parallel courts by which to judge criminal acts based on cultural standards of the accused? Would we consult with court systems in other countries when there is a discrepancy? Would we simply strike from the criminal code those acts that are not universally morally wrong? Just some thoughts that came to mind, where practicality might run up against cultural difference.

what is morally right in determining what is morally wrong?

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you know, the more I think about this false consciousness stuff, the more I think that where it applies most clearly is to the ruling class, those benefitting by social structures that oppress others. (I know, this isn’t a new insight and is represented in Marxist literature.) Internalized oppression is a phenomenon that isn’t to be taken lightly, which is kind of what this post is playing around with, but also important is to recognize that those who are benefitted by patriarchy, in this case, but also by other oppressive systems notably racism and heterosexism do not realize that they benefit, or that the structures are the way they are.

Jess’s comment on the false consciousness post brought this to mind for me whilst I was in the shower – I do my best thinking there, I swear to y’all! – about the guy who emailed me a couple months back resisting feminism so strongly and denying that women are still oppressed by gender roles. I think a lot of men simply don’t want to admit that they are privileged and benefit from the oppression of women. I also think a lot of men don’t recognize that we’re talking about social constructions that have occurred over hundreds and hundreds of years, and not a result of biology or natural selection or evolution. so false consciousness applies most directly to these people, I think, and also contributing to this is the liberal ideology that we all get to where we are based on our own abilities and merit and nothing else. so when rich white men look around and see an absence of women, of people of colour, of disabled people, of gay/lesbian/bi/trans people, they think there is something inherently superior about them, that they have worked hard and look at all those other white rich men who have worked hard and those lazy stupid “others” no matter how hard they work can never get to the same position because they are “naturally” and inherently inferior. The tokens who do make it up the ladder of success are used as evidence of the american dream – not as evidence of people in control of networks who decide a black woman would be good for ratings, for example… but for so many people, the american dream is nothing but a slap in the face as they struggle againt socially constructed barriers to success. It’s an insult, because the same system that tells us that anyone can do anything if they try hard enough rewards people based on luck – the luck of one’s gender, race, sexual preference, ability, etc. So the message spoken out the side of our society’s mouth is that some people will never really be successful because they don’t fit the mold. Those who do fit the mold simply are made to believe their hard work got them to where they are, and so are the tokens who use their own experience as fuel for the white capitalist patriarchy’s fire. But what does that say about those who can’t overcome socially constructed obstacles? It says: They are lazy, they are stupid, they want to fail, they “choose” the lives they have, they are undeserving of social assistance, they are unworthy of sympathy. Or, there is something wrong with them. It’s the way they were raise (blame the mother), it’s their religion, it’s the size of their brains, it’s because they are biologically inferior, their IQs are “naturally” lower. ETC.

Unearned privilege gets some people very far in the world without even having to try. Combine that with a culture that encourages their every effort and a system that supports them, and it sure does seem like they deserve what they get in life – and by contrast, we ALL deserve waht we get in life. Sounds like false consciousness to me. I think we’d be smart to acknowledge that.

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I’m sick of Darwin. I mean, Darwin was a genius, he devised our modern understanding of biology, and that’s great and all, but I’m sick of people using Darwin as proof of the end of biological development. You know, maybe Darwin wasn’t right about everything. Like the fact he basically ignored social homosexual behaviour in animals and focussed on sex as a purely biological function for the purposes of reproduction. I don’t think he meant for his theory to be taken to mean that we have stopped evolving, just as an explanation for how we’ve evolved thus far. Like the infamous argument about hunter/gatherer societies, and that humans evolved this way and so they must be stuck there somehow and that it proves men are superior to women in some twisted an inexplicable way. Maybe Darwin’s interpretation is fucked up, ever thought of that? Maybe women were actually revered as the bringers of life and were considered superior and so didn’t have to do all that hard work of catching animals.

Could/did Darwin predict that people would be evolving using non-organic materials, like those folks who are implanting computer chips into their arms so they can open their houses without using keys? (you know what I’m talking about, right?) Or technology like artifical parts that replace things like heart valves? And would he have predicted things like transplants using porcine and bovine parts? What did/would Darwin think of cyborgs? And why do people use Darwin to make believe that we have stopped evolving?

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Marc Andre passed along this article today, about a male lawyer in New Zealand who showed up to court today dressed in women’s clothing as a means of protest against the male-dominated judiciary. The lawyer, Rob Moodie, says:

“I will now, as a lawyer, be wearing women’s clothing… The deeper the cover-up, the prettier the frocks.”

I love these sorts of stunts! I applaud Mr. Moodie for his blatant message of anti-discrimination against women in the legal system. Mind you, his appearance in court was fighting a contempt charge brought against himself by a judge, so he’s not exactly fighting a feminist cause. But, this story came at a time as I was contemplating male feminists, or male pro-feminists. Can a man be a feminist?

In short, yes. Of course men can be feminists. All sorts of men support equality for women, and are active in promoting feminist causes, such as domestic violence, rape, media exploitation of women through pornography, equal pay, sexual harrassment, safe sex-trade, and reproductive freedom. Geo, another regular commentor here, was involved in a breakthrough men’s anti-rape group for many years, and he has been kind enough to share with me some great information on the subject.

Some feminists are exclusivist about their feminism, saying that men can never understand fully the problems and experiences particular to living inside a female body, and so cannot ever really be feminists. Others say that since men benefit from the patriarchy society is built upon, they can never be sincere and genuine in supporting change to the system. I disagree; this is to me a ridiculous argument. It is like saying that white people cannot really truly support racial equality or straight people cannot really support gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender/transsexual rights. Just because a person is embodied in a particular way doesn’t mean they can’t recognize injustice and work to end that injustice.

However, there is something important in what these feminists say. Men will never know what it is like to be a woman. Even if they dress up like a woman for the day, or for a week, or for a month, or for a year. It can be a life-altering and frame-breaking experience to do so, but underneath it all, there is always the knowledge that “I can whip it out at any time and prove that I’m a man.” (to be crass about it.) But seriously, there is always in the back of the mind of someone who is outwardly displaying oneself as something other than they are that the charade can be ended, and the power can shift back into place.  Now, I’m not talking about transsexual or transgendered people, for whom such an admission would be dangerous, and I’m not saying that people would easily understand why a man would want to dress up as a woman just for the experience. But, if a man doing so wanted to, it would be quite easy to regain his power – just go home and change, wash off the makeup, let the leg hair grow again, etc. Women don’t have that luxury. Power isn’t in what you wear. It’s in what’s between your legs – combined, of course, with skin colour, sexuality, economic status, level of ability, religious affiliation, etc.

Another problem for those wanting to support a movement to which they cannot hold personal lived experience, especially if they are members of the oppressing class, is that oppression is built into our social structures, and as such, it affects not just the oppressed, but also the oppressors. One of the best frame-breaking experiences I had about this was reading the essay White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack, by Peggy McIntosh. It showed clearly to my eyes evidence that I had been taught to ignore my privilege, and that by ignoring it, I was perpetuating the oppression of others. It’s a very powerful essay – if you have time, read it through.

This is why I fully support efforts to establish and maintain solidarity among oppressed groups. Solidarity movements usually involve the exclusion of people not belonging to the group. For feminists, it means excluding men. For black people, it means excluding white people, Asian people, Indian people, Latin people, etc. For homosexuals, it means excluding heterosexuals, and sometimes bisexuals. ETC. You get the idea. Many people it seems don’t understand the idea of solidarity efforts. They see “women’s only space” and they think that it is sexist because it’s excluding men, or they see Afro-centric schools and youth centres and say it’s racist for excluding whites… and worse, they see these efforts at solidarity as being “a step backwards” from equality.

Well, I disagree 100%. First of all, equality doesn’t exist. There is nothing to step back from. And if assimmilation hasn’t worked up until now, perhaps it’s time to abandon it. In my mind, equality doesn’t mean that all people are treated the same. The same as what, exactly? The same as white people, as men, as the oppressors? Doesn’t that mean there should be someone else under them to oppress? who will that be? Equality to me means celebrating what is unique and special about each person and respecting the differences that make each person so, no matter their social category. It means adopting an approach toward equality that doesn’t strip people of their identities. An assimilationist view of equality is a bit too much like Big Brother to me. And, how else can those identities be strengthened but through solidarity – building group strength and celebrating group culture without interference from dominating groups, whose privilege is often unconscious, but is still harmful? It’s wonderful to allow interested parties from other groups to learn and support from any camp is absolutely beneficial in the fight for an equality that celebrates diversity. But I think it very important to have spaces where people of a shared group can get together and talk, dance, laugh, learn, grow, and struggle – free from the invasive, curious eyes of those who belong to the oppressing class.

So, yes, men can be feminists. But they should be feminists who are always willing to defer to women in matters of lived experience. I also think that women should be actively seeking support from men for feminism and feminist causes. Since men are the ones in control of society on the whole, society can never change without the help of men. Now that I’ve said all of this, I’d love to know your thoughts, but I also want to ask a question: how can feminists best solicit men to join together with us?

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I happen to love the show Inside the Actor’s Studio. At the end of every episode, host James Lipton asks these 10 questions, the Bernard Pivot questionnaire. I have alwyas found the actors’ answers fascinating. I thought I’d take a turn at it.

  1. What is your favorite word? Passion.
  2. What is your least favorite word? Can’t. I hate to hear that one.
  3. What turns you on creatively, spiritually or emotionally? Zest for life.
  4. What turns you off? Arrogance. I know, it’s a fine line.
  5. What is your favorite curse word? Fuck.
  6. What sound or noise do you love? Laughter, the kind where you can hardly breathe. And rain. The sound of waves crashing.
  7. What sound or noise do you hate? Lawnmowers on Saturday morning. And bagpipes! God I hate bagpipes!
  8. What profession other than your own would you like to attempt? Interior Decorator. Writer. Musician.
  9. What profession would you not like to do? Anything math related. My brain doesn’t work that way. And under no circumstance would I want to be an undertaker.
  10. If Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates? I understand.

what are your answers?

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I found these questions over at The Girl With Moxie‘s blog. I have seen these questions over the years several times, so I thought, what the hey?What is your idea of perfect happiness?
To love and be loved in return.
What is your greatest fear?
That my life will pass without meaning.
Which historical figure do you most identify with?
Ghandi, who believed he could.
Which living person do you most admire?
Nelson Mandela. Stephen Lewis. My best friend Angel.
What is the trait you most deplore in yourself?
Self-doubt, and arrogance in always wanting to be right.
What is your greatest extravagance?
Probably my car. And shoes. And as much chocolate as I can possibly get.
What is your favorite journey?
The one I haven’t yet taken, to France and Italy, to Hawaii, to Egypt, to Greece, to Kenya.
What do you consider the most overrated virtue?
Monetary success. It isn’t really a virtue, but those who have it certainly think it is.
On what occasion do you lie?
When I think the truth will hurt.
Which living person do you most despise?
I try my best not to do so, but I would have to say George Bush.
What do you dislike most about your appearance?
My extra layer of padding around the middle.
Which words or phrases do you most overuse?
“I can’t” – once is too many times.
What is your greatest regret?
I usually regret allowing people to take advantage of me, but kindness and generosity is in my nature, and I can’t really consider it a fault – maybe a tragic flaw. I regret any time I have hurt someone.
What or who is the greatest love of your life?
Music. My friends. Knowledge. My dreams.
When and where were you happiest?
In New York, 1994 and 2004. In Toronto 2000. Right here, right now.
Which talent would you most like to have?
I would that I were a great artist, musician, painter.
What is your current state of mind?
If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?
My penchant for self-criticism and self-doubt.
If you could change one thing about your family, what would it be?
I would have brothers and sisters.
What do you consider your greatest achievement?
Going back to university after a 10 year absence and becoming an A student. Learning to be a better person. Learning to be comfortable with myself. Moving on.
If you were to die and come back as a person or thing, what do you think it would be?
A cat. They have the high life! Or maybe a great work of art, so I could bring joy to millions of people.
What is your most treasured possession?
It was my grandmother’s ring, but it was stolen about 4 years ago and never recovered. I was devastated.
What do you regard as the lowest depth of misery?
The loss of a loved one, and all the things you never said, never did.
Where would you like to live?
New York. Montreal. Paris. Hawaii. Rome. Tuscany.
What is your most marked characteristic?
A boyfriend once said it was my charisma. I think it is my intellect and my integrity.
What is the quality you most like in a man?
Integrity, honesty, fairness, passion, and kindness.
What is the quality you most like in a woman?
The same. Why should it be different?
What do you value most in your friends?
In addition to the above, loyalty, willingness to forgive, and an open heart.
Who are your favorite writers?
Shakespeare, Jane Austin, John Irving, Zora Neale Hurston.
Who is your favorite hero of fiction?
Atreyu from the Neverending Story. Peter Pan. Frodo. Hamlet. Elizabeth Barrett. Jane Eyre. Janie Crawford
Who are your heroes in real life?
Ghandi. Martin Luther King Jr. Nelson Mandela. Terry Fox. Eleanor Roosevelt. Anyone who has a dream and pursues it unfailingly.
What is it that you most dislike?
Hatred. War. Intolerance. Ignorance.
How would you like to die?
When I am very old, and I have done all I wish to do, in my sleep during a beautiful dream.
What is your motto?
I think I can, I think I can…

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In a timely fashion, one of my courses this term focussed for the first section on transsexuals. (I say timely because of the movie Transamerica, in which Felicity Huffman gives a great performance as a transsexual woman.) The text we read was called "Sex Change, Social Change" by Vivane Namaste, and her perspective is contrasting with much of the past literature on transsexuals written by feminists – even transsexual feminists. I'll explain more later.Transsexuals are people who do not identify with the gender role assigned to the biological sex with which they were born, and instead wish to be the other gender and sex. Most transsexuals undergo medical interventions, including hormone therapy and sex reassignment surgery, in order to become the other sex and gender. Transsexuals differ from transgendered people, who are not necessarily unhappy with their physical bodies, but who do not wish to express gender roles as they are assigned to their biological sex. Transgendered people often identify on a continuum of gender, from androgeny to cross-dressing, but do not necessarily undergo full sex reassignment surgical intervention. Note that transsexualism does not necessarily attach to sexuality: some transsexuals undergo sex reassignment and then have relationships that are homosexual (i.e., some men become women and are lesbian). Transsexualism has to do with not feeling at home in one's body and identify with being the other gender.

In feminist literature on transsexualism, transsexuals have been used as an example to show that gender is not a biological construct, but a social one. Because people exist who do not want to inhabit the gender role that has been assigned them because of their bodies at birth, feminists have pointed out that gender is not based on genitalia and is not natural and biological, but that gender is merely a role of a social design and implementation. Most feminists who write on the subject then go on to say gender is bad and should be abolished, and we should move to a more transgendered approach and be exactly how much of male or female or androgynous we want to be. Namaste claims this is a subversion of transsexualism, and that transsexual people are not interested in abolishing gender roles – they simply want to be the OTHER gender, and often in the most traditional way possible (transsexual women want to be WOMEN in the most feminine sense, and vice versa).

I won't go into all the arguments she presents in her book, because I found the book to be challenged in a few areas and I don't feel like explaining all the ins and outs of why I feel the way I do about it. Suffice to say, the book was extremely interesting and very thought-provoking and educational. I don't agree with much of what Namaste has to say theoretically, but she approaches the subject from a very practical viewpoint, and shows how transsexuals have been excluded and marginalized, and the day to day difficulties involved with transsexual life, from health care to prostitution to media representations (which are largely horrible and sensational – think Jerry Springer/Maury Povich) to getting a job or being allowed to volunteer (she gives an in-depth look at a legal human rights case brought against a rape crisis centre in BC because they refused to allow a transsexual woman to become a volunteer) to crime and legal issues (including things like not being permitted to legally change your sex on official records such as a drivers license or birth certificate until after sex reassignment surgery, which presents a problem for such things as having to show ID to pick up a registered mail package) to the problems of life in prison for transsexuals (how to get access to special health care services and where to place people at various points in their process of becoming the other sex – does a man with breasts, no facial hair, no adam's apple and a penis, or a woman with a beard and no breasts but a vagina, get placed get placed in a male or female institution).

It was very eye opening, because when you do identify with your gender that has been assigned on the basis of your sex at birth, you do not think about any of these things. It is never a problem to show picture ID. It is never a problem to belong to a society or space of any sort that is exclusive based on sex. You never have to explain your entire biological history on command, or explain the exact process you underwent to become embodied the way you are, and such ridiculously intimate questions like whether or not you can orgasm and how your mother felt about it all. You never have to explain to an employer that you are not a cross-dresser, but you identify as the opposite gender and are undergoing surgery in a very public process. You don't have to explain yourself to a psychiatrist, who diagnoses you with a mental disorder (Gender Dysphoria) that can only be cured through plastic surgery (figure that out!). You are not called a freak simply for leaving your house, and threatened with violence for dressing in the clothes you want to wear. You don't have to deal with being thrown out of your parents' home at a young age because of your gender identity and having no skills and no prospects and no money for the surgery you need (so many transsexual people at various stages turn to prostitution in order to pay for their lives). All these things are a problem for transsexual people, and this book was such a lesson to me.

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