Thursday, March 27, 2008

Can a Woman Experience Male Privilege? and other questions on "Growing Up Genderless"

Although I managed to find something familiar in almost every one of the pieces anthologized in Women from Another Planet?, the one that resonated the most with me was Jane Meyerding's essay "Growing Up Genderless." Even the title grabbed me, because I felt I had grown up genderless, too, and wanted to see if she described the same sorts of things that I would.

Meyerding seems to have been gifted with greater social awareness at younger ages than I ever was, and it shows in her recollections of childhood. Her memories of grade school primarily involve bafflement at the mysterious doings of her classmates, whereas mine tend to be montages of sensory impressions, mostly color and shapes, and a few flashes of imaginary adventures, whether of my own invention or from books I was reading. Indeed, it's to this profound solipsism that I ascribe my general sense of having been a happy child.

One thing Meyerding describes that I also experienced is a sense of disconnection from her own body, to the extent of not really knowing what she looked like:
I can give you statistics --- height, approximate weight, hair length and color --- but I do not have the kind of relationship with my physical self that would allow me to participate in the female commitment to "doing the best with what you've got."
I never learned to see my body as a woman's body in the sense that a woman's body is an actor in socio-sexual relations. My body is the support structure for me ... (if) it has a gender, that gender lives on the outside, not in here where it would make a difference to how I feel or see the world.

In my own childhood, I experienced much the same kind of nebulous self-image. For me, that meant I was whatever I decided to imagine myself as, whether that was a dinosaur or a horse or a fox or a boy or whatever.

Meyerding also describes seeing "Woman" as a group to which she couldn't belong, a separate species she could study from afar. (Boys baffled her too, but since she was theoretically a girl, she devoted more mental energy to understanding girls). I have to say, I identify with this too. I went further than she did --- she thought of herself as neither female nor male, while I adopted masculinity as my own. My friends have historically been mostly male, largely because boys were more likely to share my interests, and more likely to socialize on terms that I could understand. Girls' discourse always seemed shallow and content-free to me, which I now recognize is because it was so rich in the nonverbal cues and vocal intonations that I can't perceive. I became a hard-core weightlifter in high school and college to masculinize my body, the achievement of which goal had the paradoxical effect of making me more open to femininity. I grew my hair out long, made jewelry and wore long skirts. Much later, I came to identify as a feminist. I'm still not sure whether I can say I experienced male privilege, although I was certainly blind to the social expectations of women, did not meet them, and arrogated numerous male prerogatives to myself (which I continue to do, as long as I step on no one's rights in so doing).

I question whether I (a woman) can have experienced male privilege for the same reason I question whether Meyerding or I really did "grow up genderless." Gender is not just lived reality, it's also a category other people sort you into. On some level, you can't escape awareness of gender. I may have believed myself to be all manner of things, even to the point that, drawing pictures of myself with my family, I'd draw a dinosaur, but somehow I always knew I was also a girl. However much I questioned the extent to which "girl" described me, there was no question that it was the label that would be applied to me. Similarly, as a child Meyerding somehow knows that it is girls, and not boys, that she must study and emulate. We were privileged by our limited awareness of gender, but some level of gender-consciousness infiltrated even our highly resistant minds. And both of us, as adult women, can describe in great detail the ideal "feminine" role that society expects us to play. So I would amend the phrase to say we didn't grow up genderless so much as we grew up weakly gendered, in contrast to the very strongly gendered society around us.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Is Bullying a Feature of Our Culture, or a Bug?

This started as a comment near the end of this thread at Pandagon (which was itself a reaction to this article from the New York Times):

I wonder if the work of Alice Miller might not be relevant here, especially WRT the tendency of those in power to side with the bullies, and also WRT the endemic nature of bullying in our culture. The truisms about cycles of violence and people learning abusive behavior from their abusive home lives don’t go far enough. Like ginmar says, there’s no epidemic of abused women taking out their frustrations on weaker targets. (I imagine that if there were, we’d be hearing all about it, what with the international repository for hypocritical misogyny that is the mass media). But I think that, for people to change from being the victims of abuse to being its perpetrators, some additional steps need to be taken. Somehow, you have to distance yourself from victimhood, whether by identifying with your abuser ("It made me stronger/taught me to be a man," that sort of thing), forgetting what it was really like ("Just ignore it and it will go away") or blaming the victim ("You must have done something to provoke them/Why didn’t you stand up for yourself?").

Some commenters tried to anchor bullying (and the encouragement of bullying by the adults who are supposed to be stopping it) in humanity's primate roots. While there is probably something to that (primates are highly social animals, with complex dominance hierarchies), I also think much of it is cultural. Humans differ from chimpanzees in the extent to which we learn by imitation, which may explain the greater degree of cultural sophistication we have attained. But this very faculty for imitation and social learning probably also contributes to our brutal treatment of nonconformists.

No, I think the motivations we are looking for aren't primarily evolutionary at all, but cultural. We live in a profoundly unequal society, with clear "winners" and "losers," and in which the governing philosophy of one of the two major parties is that merely being a "winner" is a sign of moral and social worth, and serves as its own justification for everything you do to become one. Furthermore, because we are apes, and are therefore more tribal than rational, our workplaces and political power structures are often organized around social ties rather than objective merit. Few people actively stand against bullies because so many of us identify with them. Either we are them in different contexts, or we wish we could be them.

By contrast, very few people want to identify with the victim. Adults might minimize the damage of what they're experiencing (claiming everyone is bullied, it's no big deal, and "When I was your age, I learned to fight back!"-style victim-blaming), or deliver a patently insincere speech on the virtues of nonviolently ignoring the bully (which serves to isolate the victim by portraying the speechifying adult as somehow above the entire question of bullying). In the first instance, the adult is identifying with the bully by claiming that bullying is either a good thing or unavoidable, and the victim is wrong for failing to deal with it. Even in the second instance, where bullying is at least assumed to be a bad thing, the adult distances himself or herself from the victim by erecting a sort of wall of sanctimony between them. The adult who clings to such obvious platitudes is clearly one who has never had to deal with these issues in his or her own life! I think a great deal of our society's refusal to deal with the problem of bullying on a large scale derives from our collective unwillingness to acknowledge our own (or our children's) victimhood. In an unequal society, one of the most demoralizing thoughts that can strike a person is the thought that they might not be one of the "winners."

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Active But Odd: Imagination in AS Girls

Throughout my life, and especially in childhood, I've been an almost exact match for the typical Aspie. I was a "little professor," given to collecting huge amounts of information on obscure subjects, more comfortable conversing with adults than with other children, learning to speak earlier and more formally than other kids, even if I also reversed pronouns and made up words. But there was also one area in which I was emphatically not the typical autistic child, which I begin to suspect is shared by a lot of women and girls: I had a wildly overactive imagination.

I loved to pretend. I kept dozens of stuffed animals and Barbie dolls, naming them, imbuing them with unique personalities and making up convoluted life histories for each of them. I wrote and illustrated stories with recurring characters, making little booklets out of construction paper. I hand-sewed dresses for all my dolls, and also cut their hair. My bedroom had a monster for every shadowy place, but I never feared them because the biggest and baddest monster (a blue allosaurus named Alomar, who lived under the bed) was my friend. Over the course of my childhood, I believed myself to be, among other things, a horse, a triceratops, Woody from "Toy Story," and Tigger from "Winnie the Pooh."

This kind of imaginative richness is also evident in this New York Times Magazine piece on autistic girls, and in Women from Another Planet?. From the Times piece, quotes from autism researchers Catherine Lord, David Skuse and Simon Baron-Cohen on how autistic girls' interests differ from boys':

Contrary to the Asperger’s stereotype, Caitlyn struggles in math but tests in the highly gifted range in reading and writing. This is another sex difference that Lord sees among her patients. "I don’t have any real data, but a lot of high-functioning girls are real readers ... they like fantasies and the 'Baby-Sitters' series," she says.
"Girls with autism are rarely fascinated with numbers and rarely have stores of arcane knowledge, and this is reflected in the interests of females in the general population," Skuse explains.
A psychology professor and director of the Autism Research Centre at Cambridge University, Baron-Cohen has characterized autism as a condition of the "extreme male brain." His research shows that in the general population men are more likely than women to score low on a test of empathy and high on a test of recognizing rules and patterns, or "systemizing." ... Baron-Cohen says that he believes that autistic girls are strong systemizers. That quality may manifest itself in letters rather than numbers.

The girls profiled in that piece show the same kind of intricate fantasy life and artistic creativity that I have: Caitlyn writes Harry Potter fan fiction and is planning an eight-part series about a werewolf, and Ash makes dolls and scupltures out of whatever materials she can find. Similarly, the authors of Women from Another Planet? tell of childhoods largely spent in vivid inner worlds, which they often brought into adulthood as intensely felt spirituality or a passion for art or writing. Indeed, many of them chose to write poetry for their contribution. That was probably the biggest thing that surprised me about the book: the wide range of styles and genres represented. There were poems (of which some rhymed and some were free verse), essays on a topic, personal recollections, dialogues and even an explication of a poem the author had written years earlier.

A theme that keeps coming up in Women from Another Planet? is the more diffuse notion of "aliveness" that the autistic women have. Because they never learned to zero in on human voices and faces, they hypothesize, they never learned to confine their attention to humans and thus, they experience the whole world as joyously, busily alive where most people see an inanimate backdrop for human lives. I have strong memories of doing this myself: when I was little I had no conception of "man-made" things. I thought roads grew along the ground like the runners of crabgrass or strawberry plants, and I thought houses grew up from the ground like trees, sending down roots in the form of basements.

Daina Krumins's essay "Coming Alive in a World of Texture" touches on a lot of this:
It seems that when most people think of something being alive they really mean, kind of human. Almost as if the thing would express human thoughts if it could. This is a mistake scientists seem to be making when studying dolphins. They show the dolphin an object --- a box, for example --- and the dolphin makes a sound, and they assume that the sound means box. But maybe not. Maybe it means the way the water swirls around the box, or how the box changes the color of the light, or ... anything.

There's also a snippet of dialogue from the chapter "Differences" that deals with this heightened sense of aliveness:
MM: I think that some of us not only have our five senses on high, but also our sixth sense: that we do not draw a line between animate and inanimate beings, that they all have soul to us.
Daina: As a child, everything was somewhat alive to me. Perhaps the face-processing tendency that most NTs have enables them early on to distinguish what is alive and what isn't, and what is human and what isn't.
Ava: Or maybe what is and isn't alive, is just another assumption that NTs make. So for the NT child, either because of the strength of those attachments to faces and the accompanying social world, or through some coincidental developmental process, the aliveness of the sensory world fades.
This has expanded somewhat beyond what I'd intended to talk about, but given the prominence of imaginative play and experience in my life, in the lives of the girls in the Times article (and all of Catherine Lord's young female patients, apparently) and in the lives and beliefs of the women in Women from Another Planet?, it would seem advisable to qualify the "impaired imaginative play" diagnostic criterion as one that may only be applicable to boys.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Two Venn Diagrams

This article appeared on the editorial page of today's Kansas City Star. I don't have much to say about it, frankly --- I don't know or care about David Mamet and the article itself is kind of insipid. There is one (small) passage that I saw fit to respond to, though:

"Yes," we might say to ourselves, "it certainly does seem that history has vindicated those warmongering right-wingers who opposed the Soviet Union. And really, in secret, one must admit that women and men are pretty fundamentally different. It does seem true, as well, that government programs manifestly worsen the problems they're designed to solve, whereas freedom in markets and ideas always seems strangely to improve things. ... But that doesn't mean I'm a conservative! Conservatives are mean, racist, sexist, greedy -- and they hate gay people, who are an artist's colleagues and friends! I'm nothing like that." (Emphasis mine).
I've come across this particular conservative retort to feminism in a lot of other places: they're fine with equality in theory, but those crazy feminists keep insisting that women and men are exactly the same, which is clearly absurd!

To whomever might be tempted to use that line of argument, I present these two Venn diagrams. The first one represents the typical conservative view of the relation between men and women:
Separate spheres, separate realms of experience, with only a small token region in the middle where the two can come together and understand each other. This is in keeping with the Hobbesian underpinnings of conservatism, where people are generally looking out for #1 and are prepared to screw anyone over to further their own ends. In this universe, marriage isn't a lifelong friendship and shared commitment as much as it is a contract that binds two otherwise antagonistic parties together and keeps them honest. Women use marriage to barter sex to men in exchange for fidelity and security. The unspoken assumption is, if women and men didn't need each other (for completely separate, nonoverlapping reasons, naturally), they'd either shun each other or be eternally at war.

Now, contrast that gloomy picture with the liberal, feminist view of men and women:

See? It's hardly necessary to hold that women and men are absolutely interchangeable to be a feminist; you just accept that women and men are both human, and as such share basic human needs and human rights. That's all we're saying.

The One Right Way to Be, and other lies my culture told me

I'm most of the way through Bob Minor's Scared Straight: Why It's So Hard to Accept Gay People and Why It's So Hard to Be Human, and it's a lot more densely packed with ideas than I had been expecting. It's also one of those books that interacts in unexpected ways with everything else you're reading at the time, making you revisit the things you noticed in those books in greater detail and with more of an eye to social context. (Yay helical thinking!)

From the title, I thought this book would be mostly about overcoming homophobia, but that's only a small part of it. Much of the book is dedicated to explaining and critiquing gender roles, and looking at homophobia as one of many pressures on people to stay inside those roles. He also argues that these roles serve to cut people off from each other, and from their own full humanity. Some examples:

  • strict controls on which emotions are acceptable for each gender to express (e.g., men don't express fear or uncertainty, women don't express anger)
  • male peer pressure to maintain masculinity (which no man can embody perfectly all the time)
  • pressure on women to be attractive to men, and to prioritize pleasing men above fulfilling their own dreams or ambitions
  • fear of being thought gay discourages deep same-sex friendships
  • construction of "opposite" genders (e.g., Men from Mars and Women from Venus, or pop evolutionary psychology) discourages authentic male-female communication
  • ritualized His and Hers dating scripts ("getting laid," "scoring" vs. finding potential husbands, avoiding slut, prude labels) that are inherently conflicting
  • equating intimacy with sexual intercourse ("sex" = PIV, nothing else counts)
All of these work to cut off most of the available channels for human connection, giving everyone a certain basal level of desperation they bring to dating. The latter three bullet points also work to put an inordinate amount of pressure on sex and romance to fill all of men's and women's emotional and social needs, which they can't do. Too often, people blame their partners, themselves or the opposite (or same) sex in general for their failure to find a truly fulfilling relationship, without questioning why it is that one relationship is supposed to meet all their needs anyway. (I also think this goes a long way toward explaining our culture's schizophrenic, love/hate attitude toward sex --- whether we're using it to sell widgets or denouncing it from pulpits and presidential podia, we still see it as this idealized thing, endowed with emotional power and resonance far out of proportion to what it is). Minor's analogy is that these unspoken cultural assumptions are like water, through which we swim like fish. We might differ among ourselves over the best way to swim, or have different arrangments of fins, but few of us point out that the water isn't the only place to live.

Minor's detailed explication of all these cultural prejudices brought to mind my earlier impressions of The Speed of Dark, where I remarked on the rigid, constraining definition of "normal" that pervaded Moon's fictional future society. Her protagonist, Lou, is hyper-aware of all the ways in which he falls short of that normalcy, and this awareness leads him to be somewhat stingy with his confidence. (He keeps it hidden from most people that he listens to classical music, he won't tell his therapist that he fences, he's afraid of his police-officer neighbor). He is also aware of the double standard to which he is subject: as an autistic person in a time when autism has been practically abolished by genetic engineering (he and his coworkers represent the last generation to have autistic members), he knows his behaviors attract scrutiny that "normal" people's don't, even when they are largely the same behaviors. (Is pacing the floor or twiddling a pen called "stimming" if your boss is doing it?) In much the same vein, the authors of Women from Another Planet? describe spending years of their lives and untold amounts of mental energy trying to mimic "normal" interaction. One woman describes hoping that if she could learn the "mechanics" of socialization, other people would open up to her, and her disappointment and puzzlement when that never happened. Another describes the "moral judgment" heaped upon people who just don't conform:
It's like very social people are viewed as being better potential students, better potential employees, and better people in general. Even though it's not true. The worst part for me was when I bought into this nonsense. I thought I must be some kind of terrible person to be this way, and I was always looking for a way to get better.

It seems to me like what Minor describes with respect to gender and what Moon and Kearns et al. describe with respect to social skills and odd behavior are all part of the same thing: the idea that, of all the vast, mind-blowing diversity of human behavior, only a narrow slice is "normal," "healthy" and "natural." All deviations are to be considered suspect, if not downright pathological. Daniel Quinn anchors this attitude in the mythology of Western culture, this idea of "One Right Way to Live," in his Ishmael trilogy. It has played a role throughout the history of our culture, in the spread of missionary religions like Christianity and Islam, and the rise of global empires and, later, the expansion of capitalism. Writ small or large, this intolerance of more than one way to live impoverishes us all.

Saturday, March 8, 2008

On Patriarchal Medicine: The Intersection of Feminist Critique and Anti-Vaccine Crackpottery

While browsing through the archives at Women's Space (a wonderful radical feminist blog, you should definitely check it out) I came across this post, which seems to give credence to the idea that vaccines cause autism. The first comment, from Ballastexistenz, does a great job of showing the inadequacy of that hypothesis (and the long history of bogus explanations being concocted to account for autistic regression), so I won't spend much time on that here.

No, what I'd like to comment on is the idea of "patriarchal medicine," and what is or is not opposed to it. In the comments at Women's Space, patriarchal medicine is equated with all of modern medicine as we know it. I don't think this is quite right. While there are aspects of modern, Western medicine that are patriarchal (the hierarchical, impersonal nature of the doctor-patient relationship; the historical exclusion of women from the medical profession; the overreliance of modern medicine on expensive, high-tech medications produced by pharmaceutical corporations; unneccessary surgical and pharmacological intervention in normal childbirth --- those are right off the top of my head, I'm sure the list can be extended), the central principle by which modern medicine operates (empiricism) is the same principle that guided the wise-women healers who preceded it. Indeed, in For Her Own Good: Two Centuries of the Experts' Advice to Women, Barbara Ehrenreich and Deirdre English make the case that the university-educated doctors who started (forcibly) horning in on the wise women's territory in the Middle Ages did a much poorer job of treating patients because their educations were based on ancient Greek and Roman texts, while the wise women had generations of empirical data on which remedies worked and which didn't to draw from.

An argument can be made that the empiricism the wise women practiced was of a different type than the kind valued by modern medicine: the wise women would have ministered to a small local community of a few families, and would have known each person intimately, while modern medicine relies on large-scale epidemiological studies and clinical trials. With the former method, you come to know a lot about the people within your small sample; their tolerances, their reactions, their baseline. You might not know as much about the range of possible effects a given remedy might have, since you have only your small group of people on whom to test it. But with your intimate knowledge of these people and their history (going back generations), you probably won't have as much need to test things on them. Though, with the changing nature of society (mobile populations, world travel etc.), more and more local populations are getting exposed to new kinds of sicknesses, which makes the larger scale of modern medicine more practical within our large-scale society. The fact remains, though, that these two approaches are more related than you might think. They're both based on evidence and experimentation; they differ mainly in the scale on which they are practiced and the attitude of the doctor toward the patient. To my mind, what makes medicine patriarchal is not the reliance on fancy equipment or expensive medications so much as it is the gulf between doctor and patient. If you believe your eight-year university education makes you infallible, and you think there's little of value your patients can tell you about their own experiences or histories, then even if you prescribe only herbal teas and massage you're still practicing Patriarchal Medicine.