Conformity

“Religious Liberty”

For some reason, I don’t know why, I am on the e-mail list for the National Organization for Marriage, the organization that opposes same-sex marriage. I know I did not sign up, and I can only assume someone else signed me up to influence my opinion?

In any case, today I decided to click through and take a look at a petition they are circulating asking their members to contact Jeff Sessions and encourage him “to protect the religious liberty rights of individuals and groups who hold traditional viewpoints on marriage, life, gender and similar issues.”

Now, the phrase “religious liberty rights” on its face would seem to mean the right of people to practice their religion without the government taking sides. So you can worship God as a literal judge who sits in the heavens, while I am free to “affirm and promote the interconnected web of life of which we are all a part.” You can practice religion by wearing a specific costume and doing a particular dance, and I can practice by reciting tales of my ancestors or praying five times a day.

But what this petition is requesting is not liberty in this sense, rather it is asking for the government to take sides and protect a specific set of religious beliefs and practices– they don’t want to protect everyone’s liberty, just the liberty “of individuals and groups who hold traditional viewpoints…” (If you would like to read my views on this notion of “tradition,” incidentally, do a search on that word, and you’ll find a number of old posts.)

This wording aside, an argument could be made that those who created the petition are not asking for their religion to be given preference over others. Fundamentalist Christians who take the Bible literally are a minority religion, after all, in spite of their loud voices. Christians in general make up almost 80% of our population, but most are not Fundamentalists. As I have mentioned here before, a poll done by a Christian organization showed that only 30% of self-identified Christians approach the Bible as the literal and inerrant word of God. So the case can be made that a religious minority is asking to be excused from certain aspects of civil society, as a pacifist Quaker might ask to be excused from participating in war. They will not impose their faith on others if we agree not to impose our values on them.

This point of view, however, is undercut by some of the comments posted on the petition’s page. The very first commenter expresses his or her concern that “My fear is that an Executive Order would also likely have to provide ‘religious protections’ to other religious groups…” This person was especially worried about the “Big Love” scenario, in which fundamentalist Mormons and Muslims would push for plural marriage.  (Plural marriage is, as it happens, quite well represented in the Bible.)

The result of the nightmare scenario of giving other religious groups the same freedom to opt out of mainstream law and practice is clear to the poster.  Plural marriage would be accepted and “the Muslims will be breeding like rats on the public dole until they gain enough numbers to subvert the US into an Islamic Republic under Shariah!” (They’re going to have to get busy, as Muslims currently make up .8 percent of the U.S. population.)

This should make it clear enough that the petition is not really about “liberty.” A second poster agreed that what we really need to do is to “start asserting our right to keep all people who do not want to assimilate to our way of life out of this country.”

Using the language of individualism and choice, these posters are asking to have their traditions, and only their traditions, enforced. They don’t want to just be left alone to practice their minority religion in peace, they want those of us who are not practitioners to assimilate or get out. They are asking for the right to define the “real America” as people like them.

 

 

 

Conditioned Like a Lab Animal

“To some degree, I was being conditioned like a lab animal against ambition.”-Catherine Nichols.

This quote, by author Catherine Nichols sums up in a more concise and personal way what I took hundreds of words to say in an essay about the different “happy ends” for stories aimed at men and women.

(Actually, I was tempted to shorten the quote so it read “…I was being conditioned like a lab animal against ambition,” but I decided that the hedging, equivocal version demonstrated its own point.)

The Guardian yesterday ran an article on Nichols essay for Jezebel in which she reported on the different level of success she had sending queries with a male pen name over her own name. Spoiler alert: George was taken much more seriously than Catherine.

What is particularly insidious, however, is how differently writing is perceived when it comes from the pen of a man or a woman and what story we–and men and women are equally guilty–expect the writer to tell.

Responses from agents to Catherine Nichols included comments such as “beautiful writing, but your main character isn’t very plucky, is she?”; responses to her male pseudonym, whom she imagined “as a sort of reptilian Michael Fassbender-looking guy, drinking whiskey and walking around train yards at night while I did the work”, were “polite and warm”, even when they were rejections, describing the work as “clever”, “well-constructed” and “exciting”.

I ran into this wall of expectation a couple of years ago when I was trying to find an agent for my novel Identity Theft and later when I was trying to get reviews for it. Identity Theft opens essentially like a romantic comedy in which you have a woman who longs for romance with an exciting and glamorous man and you have an unglamorous man who comes into her life through fate and a bit of deception.

A potential agent read the opening chapters, which introduce the characters, and felt that he knew exactly where the book would go. He was ready to represent what he viewed as a well-written version of the female story. The agent did not like my ending, which he had encountered only in the synopsis and outline. He did not realize that the book actually subverts the “love through deception” romantic comedy trope and turns into more of a thriller than a romantic comedy at its midpoint.

The agent was convinced based on the opening that there was only one right ending and that the female protagonist should end up living happily ever after with the unglamorous man. In the end I did make some changes to my original concept to make the work more in line with audience expectations, although I did not simply turn it into the romantic comedy the agent assumed it to be. Thus this quote from the Guardian article resonated with me:

“A small series of constraints can stop the writer before she’s ever worth writing about. Women in particular seem vulnerable in that middle stretch to having our work pruned back until it’s compact enough to fit inside a pink cover,” she believes.

After Identity Theft was published I booked a “virtual book tour” to promote it and one of the potential reviewers read about as far as the agent had and gave up on it because she deemed the book to be “predictable.” That is to say, she had guessed at where it was going, deemed the book “one of those” and decided she didn’t have to read any further. Reviewers who finished the book, whether they liked it or not, universally found the ending surprising.

This experience led me to think about reader expectations and gender and to conclude that there is a different happy end for “male” stories and for “female” stories and that there is a much larger social effect to this. Boys and men are being primed to do things in the world where as women are, as Nichols said, conditioned against ambition. In my essay two years ago, I used The Devil Wears Prada as an example.

In “The Devil Wears Prada,” the main character is dumped by her boyfriend because her demanding job does not allow her to devote enough attention to him. As an audience we are expected to take his side and to agree that she is going the wrong direction.

This same type of conflict is quite common in films with male protagonists. A man becomes obsessed with a mission of some kind– winning a legal case, catching a killer, saving the world from aliens– what have you. At some point he argues with his wife who feels he is shirking his family responsibilities. In this case, however, the audience is expected to understand that his mission is vitally important. We do not want him to decide that catching the killer isn’t that important after all in the greater scheme of things and that he should walk away to focus on his authentic emotional life. What generally happens, instead, is that against all odds, with no one backing him, the hero completes his mission winning the admiration of his wife in the process.

Prada is not an isolated example of the “female happy end” where the woman shuns worldly status. One of the most popular films of all times is “Titanic” in which bold and feisty Rose realizes that her upper class life is empty after she meets working class Jack Dawson on deck. She walks away from a life of riches and even throws a priceless gem into the sea.

The female protagonist has a happy end not when she has status in the world, but when she transcends the desire for status.

No one ever taught me this in so many words, but I learned it all the same. When I looked back at my own writing, I found that my early fiction, written when I was in high school and college, almost all fit the female happy end model. The female protagonist faced a difficult challenge and reached a resolution not by overcoming the odds and succeeding but by learning to accept herself just as she is. Success through self-esteem! In the real world, this leads to a culture in which we try to “empower” girls by making them feel good about themselves, whether they actually achieve anything or not.

As women, we are all “conditioned like lab animals against ambition.” There is no “to some degree” about it.

 

 

Living up to Specifications

“Life imitates Art fare more than Art imitates Life.”-Oscar Wilde, The Decay of Lying

When my father passed away, a little more than a decade ago now, I went through his papers– articles, correspondence, drafts– and compiled a book of quotations for friends and family. I had cause to revisit that collection again recently, and I came across this observation from a letter he wrote in 1990:

You know, for all my book learnin’, I have to say I’ve learned more about life from ordinary folks trying to muddle through. From a guy who specializes in military procurement, that means he develops tanks and airplanes and such to Army specifications, comes what I think is a truly insightful thought.  He said, “an old rule of thumb is if a weapon can’t do its job, find out what it can do and make that its job.”

In other words, let the thing — or the person — define what its job is. As simplistic as this sounds, it rarely happens. The norm is for “them” to define what’s important, and for the individual to attempt to live up to those mandated “specifications.”

This is certainly true. Rather than allow people’s talents and skills to present themselves and making use of them, we go looking for people to match job descriptions we create in advance.

But I would go further and say that it is not only in employment but in life that this is so. We start with stories about what life is supposed to be like, what goals we ought to have, what love is and friendship. There are stories about how you’re supposed to feel when you get an award of suffer a loss. We go along always comparing ourselves to these stories and seeing how we match up. Very few of us start with what we are and make that our life.

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.

Identity Fluid (Part II)

One of the main characters in my soon-to-be-released second novel Identity Theft (shameless plug: you can place an advance order via the “Identity Theft” link above) is an 80s pop star. Thus I have been a bit nostalgic about my musical loves past. (As some of my recent articles here will attest.)  Today I found myself with a sugar craving for “Karma Chameleon” which led me to check into what became of Culture Club (seems they’re back together and have a new single), which led me (as the internet tends to make you do) to various old interviews and articles about the band. This, in turn, led me back to my current thematic obsession– identity and the social categories we inhabit in life.

bandaclutureclub1Back in the days when I was selecting potential new fantasy boyfriends from among the bands on MTV Culture Club’s drummer Jon Moss (second from left) seemed to have a lot of potential. That is a long-winded way of saying that when I was 13, I thought he was cute. (You will have noticed by now that I probably had more than my fair share of rock star crushes.)

Anyway, I never dated Jon Moss. He was, instead, dating Boy George. After that significant union ended, he went on to marry a woman, have children and divorce. I was reading an article about an earlier Culture Club reunion around 1990 today, which I am afraid I was not able to find again to quote directly.  The main point, though, is that the writer of the piece was essentially slamming Moss for giving the impression that his four year relationship with George notwithstanding, he considered himself to be primarily heterosexual. More accurately, if I remember the article correctly, he seemed to be shying away from expanding his relationships and feelings into any identity label.

The writer of the article clearly thought the notion that Jon Moss could be anything but gay was laughable and worthy of scorn. This led me to wonder a number of things. For example, why the author believed he knew someone’s sexual orientation better than the individual himself, and why he cared how this particular musician chooses to describe or think about himself.

The reason this interests me is that my first novel, Angel, features a character who is surprised to discover he is attracted to another man. He, too, has a hard time with the various categories and labels.  He recognizes that he is the same man he has always been. He has always considered himself to be “straight” and nothing has changed about his essential nature. He has to admit, however, that given the circumstances the label no longer fits. Yet none of the other labels seem to fit how he feels about himself either.

Angel, of course, is fiction. But an interesting thing happened after the book came out. I’ve had a surprising number of “straight” people tell me that they related to Paul because they had experienced something similar. They’d felt at least one strong attraction to someone of their own gender. “Who hasn’t had that happen?” one friend asked me after reading the book. This is entirely anecdotal, of course, but I suspect that this phenomenon is much more common than we are led to believe.

A lot of people seem to be very uncomfortable with this notion. People are becoming much more fine with the idea that there are homosexuals and it is ok to be one.  Yet they like to have a nice clean line separating “us” from “them.”

“If you’ve had sex with someone of your own gender you are gay– just admit it.”

I do understand this. The assumption is that the only reason someone would deny being gay is shame. They want to encourage people to “own” the label, not to contribute to the notion that there is something wrong with being gay.

You will notice that people do not argue with people who call themselves “gay” if they have had sexual relationships with people of the opposite sex. You would not expect anyone to say, “You may be with a man now, but you were with a woman before. You’re straight. Just admit it.” No one thinks anyone would try to hide their heterosexuality.

I remember when Ricky Martin went on Oprah. He said that his relationships with women had been real, not for show, but that he did not consider himself to be bisexual. “I am a gay man.” This was met with applause from the audience. Why did they clap? Why did they express greater approval of the notion that he wanted to be identified as “gay” than being identified as “bisexual”? Is having the capacity to be attracted to the opposite sex in any degree considered “safer” than being entirely attracted one’s own?

This interests me because the way people tend to defend gay rights is by saying “it is not a choice.” This implies that if a person had any capacity at all to love someone of the opposite sex we think he should have to conform. We only tolerate it because we believe he can’t. Given this, shouldn’t “bisexual” be the less “safe” label? This would be a person who does “have a choice” and yet does not conform. It should theoretically be more brave for Ricky Martin to say “I am a bisexual man.” Yet I don’t think that would have been an applause line.

And so I continue to wonder– I do not have the answer– why it is that sexual orientation has become such an important part of our social identities? Why do people seem to need to know what category to put each other in? Why do some people become so uncomfortable when someone’s self description fails to match the categories they hold?

Do We Live in an Anti-Enthusiasm Culture?

I hate the expression “you have too much time on your hands.”

People usually use it after someone has shared something they put a lot of work into for the pure joy of creation. For example, a friend spent months creating a replica Spanish sailing galleon out of toothpicks. It is incredibly detailed, the windows open, the planks raise and lower, the cannons fire. His friend takes one look at it, shakes his head and says, “You have too much time on your hands.”

With one quick phrase all of that work is rendered ridiculous. the enthusiasm is dismissed.

The idea behind the phrase, I suppose, is that your time would be better spent engaged in some income producing enterprise. Yet you don’t hear people say “you have too much time on your hands” when someone describes what she watched on TV. It is not used for ordinary time wasting endeavors. It is only used for tasks that obviously required a great deal of time and devotion to complete– memorizing all of your favorite sports star’s stats, rebuilding an old car, organizing a collection, doing macrame. It is used to dismiss things done out of pure joy and enthusiasm.

Why do some people feel instinctively compelled to wet blanket other’s enthusiasms? Do they perhaps sense that they have had just as much time and have not done anything remotely as ambitious? Do they simply become uncomfortable with tasks that don’t fit neatly into their boxes of work and play? I don’t know.

Yet it seems undeniable that there is a strong current of anti-enthusiasmism in our culture. One place where it makes itself apparent is in the world of fandom. Being a fan is considered to be immature and laughable. Certain ethusiasms– going to Star Trek conventions or Comicons– are more likely to earn you a “Get a life” than others, for example, knowing all of the classical dancers who have performed the role of Giselle and the nuances of their performances.

There are books, records and movies that we call “guilty pleasures.” That means we’re enthusiastic about them, but are afraid that this pleasure is somehow at odds with the self-image we would like to project. We are defined by what we love. Enthusiasm for the wrong thing is somehow threatening to our social identities.

We tend to think of liking things as highly personal. “I know what I like.” The fact is most people don’t know what they like until they look around and see what other people like and what it is acceptable to like. Liking is social.

Did you know that one of the biggest causes of death in a plane crash is that people forget to save themselves? We naturally look to others to get cues as to how to react. In an unfamiliar situation, like being in a plane crash, many people are entirely immobilized. Their brains have no stored data on what to do. They look around to see what other people are doing. If they don’t see other people racing to get out they will stay in their seats and burn to death.

I am a bit ashamed to recount an episode from early in my high school career. I was (and am) terribly shy. I never expected guys to like me. But there was one boy who sat beside me in science class and we started joking with one another. We clicked right away, were great friends, and in short order there was an element of flirtation between us. It came to a crashing halt when an acquaintance showed me a cartoon drawing. It was a stick figure with spiky hair and a thick unibrow. (My friend had thick eyebrows that nearly came together in the middle.) “You know who this is?” She said and laughed. I got the message that this guy was not cool to like. My enthusiasm for him vanished and I chose another seat in science class.

I am pleased to say I do not do things quite like that any more. But I am not immune to wet blankets. When I share something with enthusiasm to be met with a blank stare and some version of “you have too much time on your hands,” I start to wonder if I was wrong, if the thing I loved was unworthy and my joy in it somehow embarassing.

I remember that Julia Cameron, author of The Artist’s Way, wrote a lot about people who instinctively wet blanket your enthusiasm.

“Name your W.B.’s for what they are,” she wrote, “Wet Blankets. Wrap yourself in something else– dry ones. Fluffy heated towels. Do not indulge or tolerate anyone who throws cold water in your direction.”

Good advice, I imagine. But easier said than done.