Pluralistic Ignorance

I learned some new jargon via Sociological Images. You may recall that a few years ago, while I was promoting my novel Angel, I came upon a study that showed that Christian ministers, as a group, believed they were more accepting of gay rights than their congregants. Christian church members, on the other hand, thought that they were more accepting of LGBT rights than their pastors. That is to say, each group wanted to come out as pro-gay rights, but was afraid the other party was not ready to make a change. The ministers were afraid they would alienate their congregations, the congregants were afraid of being out of step with the minister.

A few days ago Sociological Images reflected on the controversy surrounding the confederate flag and concluded that something similar has been at work in the South:

My guess is that what’s going on is not a sudden enlightenment or even much of a change in views about the flag. To me it looks more like the process of “pluralistic ignorance.” What these people changed was not their ideas about the Confederacy or racism but their ideas about other people’s ideas about these matters. With pluralistic ignorance (a term coined by Floyd Allport nearly a century ago) everyone wants X but thinks that nobody else does. Then some outside factor makes it possible for people to choose X, and everyone does. Everyone is surprised – “Gee, I thought all you guys wanted Y, not X .” It looks like a rapid change in opinion, but it’s not…

…With the support for letting that flag fade into history, it looks as though for a while now many Southerners may have been uncomfortable with the blatant racism of the Confederacy and the post-Reconstruction era. But because nobody voiced that discomfort, everyone thought that other Southerners still clung to the old mentality.

You can read the entire Sociological Images article here.

“What You Are Worth”

An article in Work in Progress, the blog of the American Sociological Association today asks “Are you paid what you are worth?”

It uses the example of London dog walkers, who make substantially more than the national average income, to argue that “…the relationship between jobs and pay is now governed by a new principle. The old days in which your pay was linked to the number of hours you clocked up, the skill required and the societal worth of the job are long over. Other factors play a bigger role in determining how much you are rewarded today. This is why we live in a world where the task of walking a millionaire’s dog through Hyde Park is considered more valuable than an NHS nurse…”

I wonder, however, when this golden era was supposed to be when income was a direct measure of the societal value we placed on an occupation. Does the fact that we pay sports stars more than firefighters really mean we “value” them more?

That people who serve the needs of the rich make more money than those who serve the rest of us– who are not rich– is hardly surprising. They have more money to throw around. Rather than being a new development, it seems as though it is a return to a very old tradition when the world was made up mostly of peasants and a few lucky souls survived quite well by serving the royalty. In the Downton Abbey era a lady’s maid or valet, by helping the elite dress themselves, could earn about what a village teacher would each year.

The mid-century experiment with a strong middle class could be the aberration. This is not a particularly comforting thought for the non-wealthy among us, of course.

My Novel is Growing Obsolete- And I am Glad

lauraleeauthor:

With the Supreme Court’s ruling on same sex marriage, it seemed an a propos time to repost this article on how my novel (about to be reissued in a second edition) has become a period piece in only four years.

Originally posted on :

Angel by Laura Lee A discussion on the news the other night made me realize that my novel, published in 2011, is already becoming obsolete– and I couldn’t be happier.  A panel was discussing how quickly the dominoes were falling when it comes to U.S. states recognizing same sex marriage. I thought about a now obsolete passage in Angel in which the two protagonists joke about the comparative merits of getting married in Massachusetts or Iowa, the two states that allowed such a thing when the book was written. “The ocean is sexier than corn,” Ian said.

In only three years, the novel has become  a period piece.

Writing the final version of the book in 2009 and 2010 I described a mainstream church with a congregation divided on the question of whether or not to accept a gay pastor.  At this time, there was a widespread view that Christianity and homosexuality were simply…

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God Spends Some of His Advertising Dollars to Promote Gay Rights

godNews from my home state of Michigan. Dearborn Heights has a new billboard. God wants the people of my state to know that he is totally cool with the LGBT population. It is a nice change of pace from his Georgia billboard campaign citing select passages of Leviticus.

The best part of the “God Loves Gays” message is that it appears on the same revolving electronic billboard put up by an anti-LGBT organization.

judgesThis billboard cites Matthew 19.5 in support of its position. This is one of my particular pet peeve Biblical arguments. In Matthew 19.5 Jesus is asked whether couples should be allowed to divorce. In order to read Jesus’s answer as a heterosexual commandment a reader needs to entirely ignore the context and focus only on the fact that he mentions “man” and “woman” coming together in marriage. I might have more sympathy for this interpretation if those who make the argument were a fraction as assertive in their insistence that divorce is a sin, which is, after all, the actual subject of the passage. The billboard doesn’t ask people to “restrain the judges” from issuing divorces or allowing second marriages.

You can read more about the “God Loves Gays” billboard at The Metro Times.

The Explosion of Their Own Myth of Fragile Womanhood

Guest posts are not a regular feature of this blog, but a few months ago I read an article on the site Women Writers, Women’s we_that_are_left_cover_artwork:Layout 1Books called Women and Myths in Storytelling.  I felt that the themes of Juliet Greenwood’s novel “We That Are Left” fit in very well with the regular themes of this blog and I asked her if she would be interested in writing a guest post. The historical novel deals with women who served on the front lines in World War I.

What struck me in particular was one line from the article: “What is most telling is that many of the men the women saved found it hard to deal with the explosion of their own myth of fragile womanhood in need of male guidance and protection…”

I must admit that I misread it when I first scanned the line thinking that it said that the women struggled with the explosion of their own myth of fragile womanhood. I found this intriguing because women as well as men are invested in maintaining certain cultural myths. Our sense of what it is to be feminine forms a bit of our own identities as women. Both men and women compare and contrast their individual identities to the mythic narratives. The ideals of identity, however, rarely match up with the messy reality of life. It turns out they never have.

So the women who fought in the Great War can be added to a long list of myth-busting women. As you will recall, I only recently learned that female writers outsold male-authored fiction in the 19th Century.  In the past year I learned from reading A Renegade History of the United States by Thaddeus Russell that women of early U.S. history did not all live lives of quiet domesticity.

Russell writes of the late 1700s “Women were extraordinarily free during this period, most strikingly in their ability and willingness to leave their husbands…for many segments of eighteenth-century society, marriage did not have to be permanent… Far more women chose not to marry at all during this period than at any time in the first two hundred years of the United States. Researchers estimate that at least one-quarter of women living in late colonial American cities were not married… Many women in the eighteenth century not only worked in what later became exclusively male occupations but also owned a great number of businesses that would soon be deemed grossly unfeminine…Historians have estimated that as many as half of all shops in early American cities were owned and operated by women…Most upper-class ‘society’ taverns barred women, and respectable women rarely drank in taverns, but fortunately, most taverns were low class and most women were not respectable.”

This is all getting quite long for an introduction to a guest post, so without further ado, I will let Juliet Greenwood tell you about her research:

The Myth of Fragile Womanhood by Juliet Greenwood

“What is most telling is that many of the men the women saved found it hard to deal with the explosion of their own myth of fragile womanhood in need of male guidance and protection.”

The thing that fascinated me most when I was researching the lives of women in the UK just before, and during, the First World War, was just how central the image of woman was to Edwardian society, colouring its view of how the world was, and naturally should be.

I was familiar with the image of women in Victorian novels, with their impossible skirts and lack of any independent life, but that seemed far back in history. Another time, another place. They do things differently there. But this was different. I come from a family of late starters, so my grandfather was married, and my father born, before women achieved the vote. A long time ago, but in the history of humankind, less than a breath away from where we are now. Touching distance.

The young men who went off to fight the First World War were raised on Boy’s Own adventures, full of daring do, fearless heroes saving the world and civilization (generally from foreigners and the lower orders), in which women appeared only to be saved, and to be the reason for saving civilization at all. Women were the Angel of the Hearth, the centre of the domestic sphere. They were physically fragile, intellectually weak. Their role was to produce the next generation of fine young men, and to be the quiet, supportive, modest (as in self-effacing) figure her husband needed after a long day saving the empire.

It was this image of the Angel of the Hearth that was often used against those unnatural women who longed for higher education, financial independence, or even the vote. Intellectual activity, it was argued, damaged a woman’s reproductive capacity, and unbalanced their fragile emotional state. In short, it was quite likely to send them unhinged. As for financial independence and the vote – well that was only desired by women too ugly, or too old, to attract a husband, as the anti-suffrage posters of the time loudly proclaimed.

What soon became clear, was that this image was outdated even before the Great War began. For one thing, women already outnumbered men, leaving increasing numbers of women needing to find a way of supporting themselves, and therefore working for a living as clerks and teachers, as well as in domestic service. Women were beginning to make gains, against all the odds, in obtaining university education (although not able to take degrees), and become skilled professionals, such as doctors. The advent of the bicycle, and the recognition that women benefitted from exercise, meant that women were more active. And of course some women had always been adventurers, climbing mountains, sailing up the Nile and the Congo and trekking across deserts. At home, women could be on councils and on the board of school governers, and middle and upper class women organised charitable works and ran large estates.

What was striking about the advent of war was that it brought this huge clash between this image of womanhood and the reality into sharp focus, one that, with the advent of photography, could no longer be denied. When women first volunteered their services as ambulance drivers, they were laughed at, but the necessity of war changed that. Women soon became nurses and ambulance drivers on the frontline, they set up field hospitals, kept the country going back at home. Some of the most interesting were the female spies, working behind enemy lines, gathering vital information, often collected from ordinary women in occupied France and Belgium, who counted out beans and knitted into garments the numbers of troops passing their villages. The irony was that it was the assumption that women were weak, cowardly, and non-too-bright, that offered a form of protection.

Where these two worlds clashed, was when these young women guided men separated from their units, or wounded, to safety. No wonder the men found the hardest thing was their total dependence on the language skills, the quick thinking, and the bravery of these ‘fragile’ flowers. Not to mention their physical prowess as they led them over the Alps to avoid border guards.

It was a shaking of a picture of the world, both for men and women, and although things have changed, it’s one that is still ongoing. The cult of the fragility of size zero, exchanging the dangerous crushing of the corset for the danger of the crumbling of malnourished bones, still presents an image at odds with the majority of women, who hold down jobs, while raising a family and juggling dreams and ambitions of their own. While James Bond (along with a parade of Hollywood heroes, some visibly well past retirement) is still the superhero, saving the world.

The image of man the hunter, man the warrior, is simple. It answers all the questions. The trouble is, it excludes the majority of the human race (of both sexes) who would rather not be either, thank you very much. It was the image that was used to argue that women didn’t need, or even want, the vote, even after Parliament (entirely made up of men) had twice democratically agreed that women should be given the right to vote. Many of those young women contributing to the war had been beaten up, sexually assaulted, tortured and abused in pursuit of their democratic rights in the face of this failure of democracy, while being informed roundly that they were acting out of ugliness and envy, and an incapacity to be a ‘real’ woman (as in weak, stupid and cowardly).

As I have been writing this post, outrage has been stirred in some quarters by the fact that in the new ‘Mad Max’ film a woman dares to bark orders at the hero, meaning that the feminists (as in ugly, envious and man-hating) have taken over, in a world gone mad.

Those incredibly brave, strong and resourceful young women, leading to safety the men whose worldview had just crumbled, must be smiling everso wryly. For the questions posed by their actions (conveniently forgotten, as is much of women’s history) are ones that still have not been answered – and still have the power to rock the world.

About JulietJuliet signing small

Juliet lives in a traditional Welsh quarryman’s cottage in North Wales, between Anglesey and the mountains of Snowdonia. As a child, Juliet always had her nose in a book. She wrote her first novel (an epic inspired by Rosemary Sutcliff and set in Saxon times) at the age of ten. After studying English at Lancaster University and King’s College, London, Juliet worked in a variety of jobs to support her writing, before finally fulfilling her ambition to become a published author.

As well as novels under her own name, Juliet writes serials and short stories for magazines as ‘Heather Pardoe’.

‘We That are Left’ was completed with the aid of a Literature Wales Bursary and was book of the Month for March 2014 for Waterstones Wales, The Books Council of Wales, and the National Museums of Wales. The kindle edition reached #4 in summer 2014.

If You Wrote the Ten Commandments

The Ten Commandments Board Game

The Ten Commandments Board Game

A friend of mine posted a link on Facebook to an article on a site called Addicting Info.  The headline was “Atheists Rewrite the Ten Commandments and They Are Much Better than the Originals.” The FB post went on to ask “What commandment would you create?”

I share the link to the Atheist commandments and leave it to you to decide if they are, in fact, “better than the originals.” But I did take up the challenge of what commandments I would write. Bearing in mind that this is something I came up with at 2 AM when I couldn’t sleep, here it is. My Decalogue:

1. Even if someone is really obnoxious and horrible and stands in opposition to everything you hold most dear, you’re not allowed to shoot him or blow him up and you definitely do not get to kill groups of random people because they’re in some way associated with a nation, organization, social class or ideology you dislike.
2. Always act with empathy and compassion.
3. When you fail to do this (and you will) try again.
4. If your religion or moral framework fails to produce results consistent with commandments 1 and 2 something is wrong. Start over.
5. To avoid unnecessary ennui and distress, don’t ask “what is the meaning of life?” ask “what can I do with this life?”
6. While you are filling your life, remember to pause to appreciate the beautiful, the artistic, the mysterious and the transcendent. They matter.
7. Do not forget that you have blind spots that interfere with your ability to successfully complete commandment #2. Correct for them. (This is a long term project.)
8. Value your community but be careful not to create outcasts.
9. You have a responsibility not to perpetuate injustice in the name of just getting along.
10. Do not presume you are omniscient and know what God wants. Do not speak for God.

Identity and Caitlyn Jenner

I’m sure you were wondering, “Yes, but what does Laura Lee have to say about Caitlyn Jenner.”

Several months before Caitlyn Jenner broke the Internet with a tweet about her Vanity Fair cover, a friend of mine, much more quietly, said goodbye to her old male identity. Although she had transitioned in her social life, she was still a man in her work life and decided to use her retirement as the opportunity to live entirely in her new identity. She wrote that she was surprised at the emotions she felt in letting that male self go. It felt like mourning a death, she said.

Most of us have some experience of transitioning from one “identity” to another, at least metaphorically. My first (unsuccessful and unpublished) novel was called “The Birth of What’s Living” an allusion to an Arlo Guthrie lyric “The death of what’s dead is the birth of what’s living.” At the time I was dealing with burning out on a career in radio, and giving up on the idea of myself as a radio announcer. People take on new identities when they marry, have children, change jobs, immigrate to a new country, change religion.

But it strikes me that we do not really consider any of these changes to be a complete change of personal identity in the way we view gender. We generally believe you can be one gender or the other but not both, and each is seen as an entirely different type of person from the other. There is the pronoun trouble that comes with gender ambiguity. The entire language is structured (although not as much as some other languages are) in a way that distinguishes male people from female people.

A change in gender involves a change in name because we have men’s names and women’s names. There are a few other life changes that also come with new names. Sometimes when people join different religious orders they adopt a new name to signal a change in identity. When a woman gets married she usually sheds her maiden name in favor of her husband’s. Yet we don’t really think of the married woman or the convert as being an entirely different person from what she was before.

In the video above and in the tweet announcing the media debutante ball, Jenner ends up talking about herself– both now and before– in the third person. “Can’t wait for you to get to know her/me.” The male Jenner and the female Jenner are presented as entirely different people. I can’t think of any other aspect of identity that is quite like that.

For that reason I have always found gender particularly interesting as a window into what an identity is in general. The etymology of the word “identity” is sameness or oneness and it refers to that which is continuous, the essence of an individual that remains the same throughout life. If this is truly the definition of identity then neither Bruce nor Caitlyn should be Jenner’s “identity.” The identity would be the unchanged. Yet identity really is a relationship between people. The community, at least a certain percentage of it, has to acknowledge the self you claim. Otherwise you’re considered mad.

So what is the essence of Caitlyn Jenner exactly and how can others recognize it? It is not simply a dress, a hair-style, a photo shoot, a new name.Yet those outer aspects are ways of demonstrating what she feels is that essence. We telegraph who we are through presentation and symbols constantly and largely without giving it a lot of conscious thought.

Those who are close to her would recognize the sameness of Jenner as Bruce and as Caitlyn more than people like me and you who view this stranger through the lens of the media. We are more impressed by the difference. Does it follow then that part of being an intimate friend is knowing someone’s true identity? (Or at least knowing a bit more of it than acquaintances do?)

When I went to look up the Jenner tweet in order to link to it, I couldn’t help but notice that the first comment at the moment comes from someone who wishes that Jenner would find Jesus Christ and turn away from the devil.  The commenter says that he/she will “keep praying” for Jenner. (This will not be the top comment by the time you read this, the responses are coming in so rapidly.)

I felt compelled to talk about this “I will pray for you” language. If you actually believe that someone needs God’s help and that prayer has the power to help– there is no reason to announce that you are praying.

Saying “I will pray for you” is a way for the person standing in judgment to continue to think of himself, and ostensibly to present himself,  as loving and concerned while the actual message he is conveying is “I am morally superior to you.”

My message to the commenter: Pray if you want. Pray silently.