Archive for March, 2010

The Meaning of Work

Unemployment is a torment for several reasons. First and most obvious is the absence of money, which moves from an initial restraint with social activities to a genuine fear of not being able to pay bills or buy groceries once savings are used up.

Secondly, there is the social stigma, an assumption that one is being lazy or choosy, or the more irritating envy of the employed, as if one is not a job-seeker but a person of leisure, taking in all the sights and cultural activities on offer or idly drinking elaborate coffee-based beverages while catching up on ones reading.

Thirdly, there is the internal concern of a lack of value. Whether one is a member of a capitalist society or a socialist utopia, individual worth is tied into what one can contribute. A career suggests not just being of use, but a purpose, a developing skill set with a concurrent increase in value to that society. Without even a job, there is a sense that one is both a burden to a community and inherently lacking in worth.

In searching for work, one is faced with another concern – meaning. Even with intense competition for every available position, the perpetual application process draws focus to our desire to have work that is meaningful to us in some way.

I remember as a child being told that I could be or do anything I wanted, if I just put my mind to it. This is a big lie. But it’s a lie that stays; it makes every job that doesn’t appeal to my sensibilities or offer an intellectual challenge seem like a waste. As much as I need money, part of me still objects to the idea of doing something I don’t want to do. It seems horrific to spend life working on something we don’t find important, squeezing in meaning on the weekends or over vacations.


Amis’ Sister: Depression and Religion

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The Guardian points to a statement Martin Amis made in an article in the National, a paper in Abu Dhabi about his sister Sally, who died ten years ago, in which he says:

“To this day I have this wish – she was always religious and she converted to Catholicism. I wish she had converted to Islam. She might still be alive because of the continence of Islam, the austerity, the demands it makes on you. I just sort of helplessly think it every now and then. She would only be 56 now and she’d still be here.

“She might have had a chance. She would have had to embrace it earlier than she embraced Catholicism. She was such an uncontrollable girl that there was even talk of her joining the army when she was 17 or 18 because we all sensed that she needed a really tight structure, an ésprit de corps of shared belief. Islam in its way gives you that, a collectivity that she could have been a part of, which incidentally forbade alcohol and premarital sex.”

Now, the article is an interview with Amis, unsurprisingly about his writing, his latest novel and other writing projects, and the negative press he seems to accumulate. The bit about his sister comes up in discussion of The Pregnant Widow, as he says that she is the only real person on which one of his characters is entirely based. The interview then goes on to discuss his oft-repeated statements about Islamism, not to be confused with your average, everyday, non-homicidal Islam, and ad hominem attacks that appear in the press, and, briefly, his home life.

The comment about his sister is made in passing, and is probably meant to express a simple wish that his sister had found something, anything, that would make her feel like her mind and body were worthy of respectful treatment.

That said, it is a problematic idea. Aside from making a false distinction between the rules of orthodox interpretations of Catholicism and Islam, it also implies that what his sister needed was someone to tell her what to do. These religions are considered oppressive because they devalue women; they do not ‘incidentally’ forbid anything, the rules comes from a very particular perspective. Pre-marital sex is proscribed because it is considered damaging to society and the soul: all sex is bad for you, but without God-approved monogamy, it is even worse. Clothing that covers the skin and shape of the female body is considered necessary for the sake of ‘modesty’, to protect men from sinful lust and women from, I suppose, a lack of humility. Alcohol is forbidden is Islam because it makes one ‘forgetful of God and prayer’, i.e. more likely to sin.

These restrictions would not alleviate depression, which Amis implies is the cause behind Sally’s alcoholism and promiscuity. What is interesting is that rather than wish that she had, say, been able to get successful treatment for alcoholism and depression, he wishes upon her a systematic behavioral and theistic practice. Essentially, he wishes for an undeniable parent figure, the belief in which would prohibit her self-harming behaviors, while incidentally underscoring a rather patriarchal, sex-unfriendly world view.

Depression is notoriously difficult to treat, though social attitudes towards it and available treatments have improved dramatically over the past couple of decades. Promiscuity is not, of course, necessarily negative behavior; it is only problematic when it is an indication of feelings of worthlessness and an attempt to keep and maintain approval.

The rules of organized religion are based on a series of assumptions, often including the devaluation of women, superiority of men, and viewing sex as dangerous. Faith, not rules, might give depressed people hope – indeed, a kind of christianity-lite is part of the successful Alcoholics Anonymous programme – it requires a surrender to and trust in a ‘greater power’.

Even if she had adhered to a belief system in which she neither had sex nor drank, the underlying problem would still be there, and she would, in all likelihood, find another way to hurt herself.

In the book, as the character based on Sally does unsuccessfully go through various psychiatric and institutional attempts to recover, we can assume that the real Sally probably did as well. In this case, then, Amis’ desire isn’t so much that she subscribed to Islam (or a stricter version of Catholicism), but that she would have found some belief stronger than her own negative feeling, or a straight-forward Deus Ex Machina that would cure her.

Homophobia and Rape

[picapp align=”center” wrap=”false” link=”term=gays+in+the+military&iid=2214077″ src=”7/a/7/e/92.jpg?adImageId=11188097&imageId=2214077″ width=”500″ height=”325″ /] In this article, Dahlia Lithwick looks at legal beagle and philosopher Martha Nussbaum’s book From Disgust to Humanity, about the status of gays in America – where the legal system interacts with (thankfully changing) public opinion.

The “language of disgust” within the social and political arguments struck me as related to the current and historic state of heterosexual norms and assumptions.

Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council warned Larry King if gay soldiers could serve in the military, “we might have to return to the draft” because other soldiers would refuse to serve. Perkins noted that he had showered together with 80 other men during his own time in the military, and he’d feel threatened by a gay man showering there with him.

Is it possible that the fear associated with gay marriage and gays in the military taps into the presumption that men are sexually aggressive and that our society permits this aggression in heterosexual interactions because hey, women get raped? As soon as the mentality that presupposes that is faced with the idea of gay men, possibly at a physical advantage over the fearful straight (?) man/men around them, would have social permission to enact the same sort of aggressive sexual posture, they are put in the same position of women in society.

Are all men rapists? Of course not, but women have to entertain the possibility for their own safety. Creating legal and social permissiveness for homosexuality upsets a sexual power balance that everyone was sort of okay with, since men weren’t ever presupposed to be victims to the same extent that women are.

As she [Nussbaum] traces the genesis of the fear and disgust American feel toward homosexuals, she describes what she calls “projective disgust”—the magical thinking that allows us to believe that things that disgust us (i.e., male homosexuality) are contagious and that heterosexual sex is somehow better and less messy than it really is. So the reason male (as opposed to female) homosexual sex is ultimately experienced as so revolting and so terrifying, Nussbaum contends, is that it is viscerally threatening; it raises the possibility of being penetrated and violated. The very “gaze of a homosexual male is seen as contaminating because it says ‘you can be penetrated.’ “

(my emphasis)

There are those who believe that all men, if they were assured of there being no negative repercussions, would rape. In this case, then, the same people would suppose that gay men would, again, assuming an absence of punishment or social stigma, do the same. Actions to prevent gay marriage or gays in the military aren’t about the ‘sanctity’ of marriage or military coherance, it’s about maintaining social and legal strictures against the kind of freedom to rape than straight men currently have.

Is it legal? No. But are they going to get caught? Probably not – the woman will probably not report it (60% of rapes are not reported to the police), if she does, her wardrobe and sexual history will be used against her, and punishment is usually pretty meager (e.g. On campus, where serial rapists are allowed to continue their studies and face no legal reprisals).

Imagine if this same predatory assumption and social liberty were applied to gay men. Men might be raped. Can’t have that, now, can we? We might have to start taking rape a little more seriously as a crime against a person, rather than some hysterical women who were probably asking for it in the first place.

Obviously I don’t think homosexual men are predatory rapists, nor do I think there is any justification for inhibiting their liberty to work, live, marry, or serve in the military if they so choose.

My point is that in taking apart the fear and disgust Nussbaum talks about, we can see the sexism underlying the homophobia. And perhaps in drawing attention to it, we can start to treat the threat of “penetration” as universal, rather than a woman’s problem.


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Sexism is bad for everyone.

Why? Because everyone has a sex, and the stereotypes accepted and perpetuated apply to men and women, with negative repercussions for all.

The rampant and offensive results of sexism for women are amply documented and discussed elsewhere (feministing, feministe, F-word, et al.); at the moment, I have been thinking about the subtler and less seemingly ‘negative’ aspects of the stereotypes at the root of sexism, and how it affects (hetero, though it probably holds true in the LGBT communities, too) romantic and sexual interactions.

Although the ongoing sexual revolution has promoted the sexual freedom of women, in accessing and expressing their desires, gaining access to contraception, and the increasing (though ever-fraught, as with the current debate over hook-up culture) acceptance of these liberties, stereotypes about sexual desires and roles remain present and damaging, even among those enlightened pro-sex, pro-choice, pro-contraception types who should know better.

For example, this terribly offensive video is meant to encourage women to use contraception – not because they and their sexual partner might not be ready for children or due to the risk of STDs, but because, apparently, the men by whom they might be impregnated are coarse, misogynistic, immature, insensitive, and generally obnoxious cads.

To portray men this way is insulting. It also suggests that women making the decision to have sex with men are gullible and completely ignorant of their character.

It falls into the logical nullity of the most basic form of sexist thinking – men are walking penises with no thought other than sexual gratification (and swift escape), and women are commitment-craving baby machines.

Diluted, this manner of thinking can make its way into even the most sensible and respectful of relationships. Women, embracing their sexuality within a social milieu that suddenly celebrates it (Cosmo, Sex and the City, etc – the validity of these as vehicles for sexual normalcy is obviously problematic), are astonished to find that men don’t, actually, want to have sex all the time.

Moreover, women are offended when they attempt to initiate a romp to be met with a polite but firm negative. Suddenly they doubt whether this person finds them attractive, and wonder if they are going to leave them, or have already sought gratification elsewhere. Especially since the media that celebrate their sexuality also insist that their value in relationship is largely a factor of their appearance and sexual attractiveness.

Why do they think this? Because the sexually insatiable male is an accepted stereotype: the male is meant to be constantly sexually interested and available.

If men want sex as often as possible with women, and this man does not presently want to have sex, therefore he no longer finds this woman attractive, possibly does not even see her as a woman (for the stereotype also includes an implied ‘any port in a storm’), and therefore does not value her, or is impotent (id est, is not a man).

If anyone takes a moment to think about it, they will recognize that this false syllogism is beneath their sudden insecurity, and that men are as susceptible to fatigue, stress, inebriation, headache, or simple lack of arousal as women, and this is a reflection not of impotence or disinterest, but of life of an individual in the world.

It is virtually impossible to imagine a partnership wherein both parties have perfectly synchronized libidos. The thoughtful and polite thing to do if rebuffed is to back off without reproach. But when so much in our culture insists upon sex as the be all and end all of conversation between the sexes, it is difficult to maintain a logical outlook.

Sexism is just one of the many isms that get in the way of fair and compassionate human interaction, by creating false expectations (of oneself and others) and encouraging subsequent judgments.

To quote Ferris Bueller: -Ism’s in my opinion are not good. A person should not believe in an -ism, he should believe in himself.

This would, of course, also apply to feminism, but then, every feminist wants a world where Bueller’s paean to individuality is a given, where everyone is regarded as an individual and not labeled as belonging to a particular group with an associated cloud of character traits.


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