As they try to change their worlds, pt I

25 08 2013

I may have been a bit brusque in stating “nobody cares about you”.

I did add the qualifier that “nobody” means “those who don’t know you”, but even with that dilution, it was too strong a statement: there are people who do genuinely care about strangers, and that there may exist a widespread (if minimal) sympathy amongst the members of our species suggests that, yes, many of us do care—however minimally—about one another.

The real problem with that statement, however, was that it bundled together too many dynamics, not all of which go together. So, to haul out that nifty word-tool of my grad school years, let’s unpack those bundled dynamics, shall we?

1. Changes are not conspiracies. I’d guessed that “the fear of incipient repression could be found among any group which sees its superior status threatened”—that is, that changes in society which are meant to benefit an out-group can be seen by some in the in-group as primarily an attack on the in-group. Thus, those in favor of queer rights and same-sex marriage are seen as less interested in preserving themselves than in destroying others.

I read the blogs at The American Conservative (Rod Dreher regularly and others semi-regularly) and pop over to Christianity Today a couple of times a week, and it is common for some bloggers and commenters alike to see legal and cultural changes as either harbingers of complete societal collapse and/or portents of a future in which all “true” Christians are targeted for oppression; some see the extension of anti-discrimination laws (e.g., no business may refuse to serve a same-sex couple simply because they are gay) or the enforcement of laws of general applicability (e.g., secular businesses run by religious people are not exempt from the contraception provisions of the Affordable Care Act) as evidence of anti-Christian oppression today.

Someone like me sees changes in the structure of the law and shifts in cultural perceptions of minorities (of whatever sort) as part of a by-no-means-straightforward amalgam of overt and organized political action, artistic presentations, elite intellectual debates, media representations, everyday experiences, and, of course, material conditions and economic forces. As such, while changes can have intensely personal meanings, they are not personal per se, but are instead changes in the rules which affect everyone.

Consider the 1965 Supreme Court ruling, Griswold v. Connecticut, which overturned a state law prohibiting contraceptive use for married couple. State attacks on contraception went back decades, although by the time the pill was developed (in the 1950s), contraception was not only legal but embraced in many states. Griswold (and later, Eisenstadt v. Baird), simply toppled an opposition which had long since dwindled. Contraceptive use became the norm.

Were Griswold and Eisenstadt an attack on Catholicism? Anti-Catholic sentiment, however much it had dwindled since the 19th century, was still prevalent in this country, and that the Catholic Church was officially against contraception was known; to strike down bans on contraception could be seen as evidence of contempt for Catholicism—as, indeed some have seen and continue to see it today.

The Court rulings, however, depended upon a (still-contested) finding of a right to privacy in the Constitution. There was nothing which required the Church to change its own doctrine; these cases simply took away a series of state-sponsored supports* for that doctrine. The Church would be free to inveigh against barrier and chemical  methods of birth control, but they could no longer rely on state law to help them to enforce their opposition.

(*That a state happened to have anti-contraception laws didn’t mean that they passed them to support Catholicism; regardless of intent, however, they had the effect of doing so.)

Due to these rulings as well as to other cultural changes, the Church clearly lost, not only authority but also status. Catholics were not prevented from believing that artificial birth control was bad nor were they required to use it, but their anti-contraceptive position was taken to apply only to Catholics themselves (and not all of them accepted the official position) and was otherwise accorded no greater weight than any other position on the matter. The ground shifted, and in a way which put Catholics authorities on the same level as any other authority: they no longer had special status.

To those who lose such status, the loss is almost certainly personally felt, but that one feels it personally does not mean it was meant personally. The ground underneath everyone’s feet shifted, not just those officials and members of the Catholic Church. and that the Church was unhappy with the quake does not mean the quake was directed at them.

~~~

There’s more than this, of course, but let’s take it slow: haste did me in, last time.





The rest is silence

9 06 2013

Say nothing.

I am, as you may have guessed, a talker, someone who always has something to say and almost always knows how to say it. I can be quite obnoxious—always something to say—but also useful in social situations. And as a professor who glances at rather than reads her notes, the ability to float words into air comes in handy.

Like a lot of talkers, I can be unnerved by spaces without sounds. I almost always have the radio on, and in class I’ve had to force myself after tossing out a question to wait one, two, three or more beats for a student to grab it, rather than reeling it back in immediately. I’m a pushy broad who has to restrain herself not always to push so hard, to give time to the laconic to make themselves heard.

Yet whether despite or because of that need for words, I know the force of silence.

When I was an undergrad I went into therapy, briefly, with a psych resident, J. She was. . . fine, I guess, but I was pissed off and messed up and deeply, deeply ambivalent about therapy. I was abashed at my need to talk to someone, so—I could see this only in hindsight—cast about for any reason not to talk.

J. gave me that reason.

Not on purpose, of course. It’s just that she had this rule that she would follow no matter what: the client had to start the conversation. Well.

The first coupla’ sessions I’d wait a bit, and then start in. J. would follow up, but too often in that Interviewing-101 kind of way.

Me: I’m just, I’m always worried what people are thinking of me, like I’m doing something wrong.

J: So you’re feeling kind of judged, huh?

(I don’t know if that’s exactly what I said, but I do remember, for whatever memory is worth, her saying that exact phrase back to me.)

It got worse from there. There was a large plant next to the loveseat on which I sat, and while I could see J. concentrating the hell on me as she shifted from one attentive position to another in her office chair, I’d  lean back, finger the leaves of that plant. And say nothing. Five minutes. Ten minutes. By our later sessions, I was silent for 20, maybe even 30 minutes.

Did I mention that, because she was a resident under supervision, all of our sessions were taped?

I was an asshole, and while some of the jerk things I did while I was messed up were due to my being messed up, this wasn’t one of them. I knew I was being an asshole, knew that she’d have to go back to her supervisor with that half-blank tape—knew that by not talking I had power over her—and I enjoyed it. You gotta rule about who talks first? Yeah, well, here’s what you can do with that rule!

I did, finally, put an end to it all. I don’t remember if I thought, Okay, quit being a jerk or This ain’t working or some other mashup of decency and practicality, but I knew that this particular therapeutic relationship was stillborn.

The ambivalence over therapy remained, even throughout two good, if difficult, therapeutic relationships (as well as a number of abortive ones), but in those good relationships I tried not to be an asshole, tried (not always successfully) not to use silence as a weapon. I did more often use it as a shield, but in a decent therapeutic relationship you learn—well, I learned—that the person sitting attentively a few feet away from you might just want to help, and that the best way for that attentively-sitting person to help is to tell her how you need help.

And thus the ambivalence, all the way through: The need beyond desire to tell, and not tell, on myself. Was it revelation or betrayal? The urgency of that question faded, but never entirely went away.

All of this is a verrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrry long prelude to my own disquiet with the social admonition to reveal oneself. Now that I’m no longer so neurotic that I worry much about what people think of me—mainly because I folks have better things to do than think of me—I wonder about the social pressure to display oneself, be it on Facebook or Foursquare or whatever. If you don’t know me, what should it matter that I’m not visible to you? (And if you do know me, well, there are other ways to get in contact with me.)

Most folks I know who are on Facebook like it because it’s a great way to connect with or keep up on friends, and thus don’t really get my unease with the platform. It’s just a. . . thing, nothing more.

I don’t see it that way, of course. Yes, on one level it is just a thing, just a handy tool to stay on top of relationships, but on other levels it’s a signal of your interest in others, a scripted performance of oneself, a marker of one’s willingness to go along with social expectations, and, of course, a vast database for a corporation to mine for profit. To choose not to participate is to set oneself apart as an object of suspicion.

Think that’s too much? I don’t want to hang too much on example, but. . . I’m going to hang a lot on this interchange between Farhad Manjoo & Emily Yoffe on Slate:

Farhad: . . .That question came up in the context of a debate about online dating. I said that if you’re going to set up a date with someone and you can’t find anything about them on Facebook… I’d extend that to other social networks. If you can’t find a photo of them and there’s no photo on the dating site either, then you should be suspicious. That person seems to be trying to hide something.

Emily: We’re all trying to hide something, Farhad.

Farhad: Well, the person might be married or have a girlfriend, or in some ways trying to hide their activities. I don’t think it’s a slam-dunk case. I don’t think that’s necessarily the situation, but I would be a little bit suspicious.

But to the letter writer’s question beyond dating, I think that it’s better to have a social networking profile for a couple reasons. You are taking control of your online life then.

[. . .]

And if you don’t have [an online presence], I think people will judge you based on that. . . .

I’ve looked at the numbers for Facebook. If you look at the demographics, it’s not like only young people have Facebook. It pretty much cuts across most demographic lines, and from what I can tell, also socioeconomic lines. They have a billion people around the world. Lots of people are on Facebook and I think you’re kind of judged now, for better or worse, if you don’t. [emph added]

Manjoo is a tech fanboy who is puzzled by any criticism of tech which is not about glitches or efficiency—he does not get the concept of social-techno-coercion—and thus ought not be considered a general representative of all social media users.

But he ain’t alone, either. Consider Senator Lindsay Graham’s response to concerns about the NSA’s vacuum-cleaner approach to electronic information: “I don’t have anything to worry about because I’m not talking to terrorists.”

And there it is: If you have nothing to hide, you shouldn’t be afraid to show—with the barely concealed implication, If you don’t show, you must have something to hide.

Do I have something to hide? Like Emily Yoffe, I’m of the belief that “We’re all trying to hide something”, that it’s normal to keep a few things to oneself and not something which has to be justified.

It’s also normal to want to share oneself, not to hide away everything. Even as I’m a non-Facebooker, I am a blogger, and I call and text friends and colleagues and regularly go out in public. I’m a private person in society, someone who believes one ought to be able to be both private and social as she sees fit.

 

To bring this back around, not all or even most of my political beliefs can be traced in any direct way to my personal experiences, but my views on privacy and sociality are most definitely jacked into something deep inside of me. Even as I write that “I’m a private person in society” I fret over the tension contained within that assertion, wonder if it is possible to be both without betraying either the private or social side of me.

In the end, I think I ought to be the one who decides whether to speak, or not. More than that, the conditions under which I choose to speak ought not unduly pressure me one way or the other. I get that there will always be some pressure, but there should be freedom, too.

And if not, well, I like to talk, but if you tell me I have to talk, I’ll enjoy your frustration as I lean back, and say nothing.