Friday, July 27, 2012

Guest Post: Through the Eyes of an Ironman

My wife--a special ed teacher by day--has written an account of her experience competing in her first full Ironman (140.2 mile) triathlon this past weekend at Lake Placid. Since I've mentioned her efforts in a recent post, I thought I'd share on this blog what she's written about her experiences. it is: Through they eyes of an Ironman!

A friend recently told me that ironman takes all of your months of training and carefully laid race plans, smashes them to bits, and then hands them back to you in the form of a medal.  That could not be a more accurate description of my race.  :)

After a 4:00 a.m. wake up, I got ready, tried to eat something, gathered my things up, and headed to the transition area.  My bike and gear bags were all in order.  I dropped off my special needs bags, put on my wetsuit, told Eric goodbye, and headed for the swim start.  It was such a surreal experience to actually be in the moment I'd been imagining for so long! The excitement and anticipation of over 2800 athletes makes for an incredible atmosphere! I had no idea that I was about to have the best swim of my life.


The pros were called into the water and got to their start.  Then, they called for the rest of us to get in.  I went in right away knowing that being in the water would keep me calm.  (That made me smile, as I found my thoughts wandering back to my first triathlon start in 2010 when I was so terrified that I sat on the dock until the last possible moment.)  The plan for the swim was for me to start about halfway back and toward the right of the pack. This position is a little safer and keeps you from getting quite as beat up in the mass start.  As I waited floating in the water, I realized that only about 100 of us were actually gathering toward the start.  Most people had headed toward shallow water around the edges (I guess because they didn't want to float or tread?) As others began entering and trying to do the same thing, the crowd was being pushed back, and I could see that some swimmers were going to be trapped on the shore.  I didn't want that to happen, and I wanted to be in the water, so I just stayed where I was floating with a group of guys and a few girls for about 20 minutes.  We cheered the pros when they started.  I began moving back a little as the rest of the swimmers moved forward, but I still ended up fairly close to the front and much more to the left than intended. Then the cannon went off, and I was there -- in an ironman!

Chrissie Wellington has described the mass swim start as an all out brawl, and that is exactly what it feels like.  Being kicked, elbowed, hit, swam's all a part of the fun.  :)  As we angled in toward the swim line, I planned to stay a bit outside of the line to avoid the hardcore group.  Lake Placid has an underwater cable that stretches around the swim course.  I had been warned several times since arriving that the real brawl happened near that cable, because everyone wants to swim there so that they don't have to sight.  I swam hard to get to my spot before getting too beat up.  I was feeling pretty proud that I'd managed to hold my own with the tough swimmers long enough to get there.....when I looked down, and saw the cable right underneath me.  There was no way to get out, because everyone seemed to be swimming toward that spot.  It was like being trapped in a washing machine.  I realized that I had no choice but to swim there.  I really surprised myself by adapting to the madness.  I figured out who was kicking hard and narrowed my stroke when I was behind them to protect my head.  When elbows next to me were coming up hard, I breathed only to one side to protect my face.  I fought hard to stay on the cable line and not be pushed inside it.  The people inside would have to struggle to get around the buoys at the course turnaround.  In the end, I really only took two hard hits, and they weren't that bad.  After the first loop, as we ran along the shore, I noticed that I was still near a lot of the guys I'd started with, so I decided to hold that position.  But I did swim a bit farther out from the cable on the second loop.  The swim felt great and was over too soon -- always my favorite part.  I wouldn't know until halfway through the marathon that I'd made such good (for me) time.  One other interesting thing happened during the swim.  When I signed up for Lake Placid a year ago, I ordered a new Road ID bracelet.  On the message line, I had it say, "You are an Ironman!"  I looked at it all through my training to remind myself of the words I was working to hear.  It had the strongest velcro of anything I've ever seen.  As I made the first turn of the swim, it suddenly released from my wrist and floated to the bottom of Mirror Lake.  My immediate thought was that it was a good omen.  After today, I wouldn't have to work toward those words anymore.  I would hear them.  Fortunately, I didn't know at that point just how long it would be until I heard them...

T1 (first transition, from swim to bike) went by without a problem.  I didn't have a volunteer that time, but had no problem getting my bag, getting myself dressed, and grabbing my bike off the rack.  On the way out of transition, I saw my brother and sister-in-law and was able to say hi.  I climbed on the bike and was off.  The first loop was great!  I couldn't get the smile off of my face.  This was the part of the race I'd been the most scared of.  I've never ridden on hills like that and wasn't sure how I would do.  It was hard, and I was slower on the big hills, but I had expected that.  I even relaxed my plan of not exceeding 35 mph before braking on the downhills to not exceeding 40.  It was an absolutely beautiful ride through trees, ski slopes, rivers, and little towns.  After the first loop, I was able to see Eric and the kids cheering.  I was still feeling great.  I stopped briefly at special needs to refill my gels and took off again.  The second loop was harder, but not awful.  It was getting hot, and I had some foot cramps, but that's no shock.  My chain dropped twice, but I was able to fix it fairly quickly.  I did have to stop at port a potties a couple of times, but was relieved that my stomach troubles were nothing compared to what they usually are.  (That was definitely a part of the race plan that DID work!)  I took it easy on the second loop to rest up for the marathon -- especially the last uphill section. Overall, it was a little slower than planned, but a good bike.

I had a volunteer in T2 who was wonderful!  My wetsuit had chafed my arms horribly, and she bandaged them so that they wouldn't get worse during the run.  I was getting really excited at that point thinking that I might actually be able to come in around 14 or 14:30. I was very glad that my stomach issues were resolved so that I wouldn't have to worry about the abdominal cramps I always get on the run leg of triathlons.  I started off the first couple of miles at around a 9:30 pace.  That was faster than planned, so I slowed down a bit for the third mile.  After the third mile, I was slammed by the ab cramps again.  In fact, they were worse than they've ever been.  I walked for a bit trying to shake them off, but as soon as I ran, they came back and got worse.  It went on that way through the entire marathon.  I had to walk/run the entire thing, and by the end, I was at a shuffle. I was so disappointed that what had started out as such a phenomenal race for me was obviously going to end in a very different way.  I saw my family after the first loop which lifted my spirits a bit.  The second loop seemed absolutely endless.  The cramping never went away, I was exhausted, and I'd stopped being able to keep gels down after I started walking more.  The funny thing is that some of the most memorable moments of the day came during that loop.  I walked and ran with different people and learned about their stories.  We shared jokes with the volunteers, got frightened by a horse that snuffled out of pitch darkness, worried together over people being taken away on stretchers in the med carts.  My heart hurt for the many people who were still heading out as I came back in. We all knew that there was no way they were going to make the midnight cutoff, but they were still trying.  Finally, I was coming down the home stretch.  Mike Reilly was there, screaming and waving his towel like I've watched him do so many times on the live feed from my computer at home.  Only this time, he was high fiving ME!  I finally heard the words I'd been waiting for!


In the days since the race I have felt so many different emotions. I am humbled and touched by all of the people who left comments and messages that they were following me throughout the day.  I never imagined that so many people (outside of my triathlon friends) would care about the details of the race.  I have felt relieved, elated, disappointed, guilty.  In the end, I have settled on grateful.  I have had an opportunity to make a dream come true.  I have done things that I never dreamed possible.  I wish I could go back to the scared me at CapTex 2010 waiting on the dock and tell her she would be an ironman.  I wish I could go back to the unathletic me who decided suddenly 5 years ago that she'd like to learn to run and tell her that she would do marathons.  I wish I could go back to the 270 pound me of 13 years ago and tell her that someday her thyroid would have less power over her life and she'd be able to make changes.  I'd like to go back to the insecure me and tell her that she would be strong.  Of course, I can't do any of those things.  But I can tell my kids that there are no limits.  I can tell friends that their bodies will do more than they ever dreamed they could.  I can tell my students that it really is possible to reach a goal even when you don't know where to start and everyone around you is so much better at it than you are.  And when those old doubts creep up on me, and I feel powerless to change some situation that seems impossible, I can remind myself that at the end of the long, winding road, I was an ironman.


Thursday, July 26, 2012

Complementarianism without Hierarchy?

I got quite a bit of feedback--both on this blog and through other venues--from my responses to Jared Wilson's now infamous (and, apparently, removed) post endorsing Douglas Wilson's essentialization of male authority and female submission. Some of this feedback came from "complementarians" who wanted to make it clear that the Wilsons don't speak for them.

This feedback got me thinking about the prospects of a complementarian view of gender relations that eschews the Wilsons' obnoxious hierarchy. Can there be such a thing as "essentially different and complementary but equal"? The failure of "separate but equal" in the era of segregation makes me skeptical--but I think the question deserves a closer look. 

One complementarian, whom I'll call DR, responded most directly to my second post on this subject--about my relationship with my wife, who at the time was about to compete in an Ironman triathlon (and who has now successfully completed it!). His responses appeared in a Facebook discussion thread, in which he made it clear that, like me, he would cheer on his wife from the sidelines were she competing in such an event. In other words, he didn't think that I grasped the essence of complementarianism if I took this to be something complementarian men would necessarily be uncomfortable doing.

This, of course, raises a crucial question: What is the essence of complementarianism? When Christian men and women claim to be complementarians, what are they claiming if it doesn't involve hierarchy, if it's not about authority and submission?

It seems to me that it has to have something to do with gender roles. The claim has to be that there are essential differences between men and women-a "male nature" and a female one--that suit them to or call them to different roles in a relationship. There's just something about being a man that means that you, as the man, should do X in a relationship; and there's something about being a woman that means that you, as the woman, should do Y.

DR pushed this idea in the Facebook exchange by focusing on the role of defender: the man, as the physically stronger party in a marriage, has the responsibility to take on the role of defender against physical danger. DR broached this idea by commenting on a particular element of my Ironman Wife post, where I say the following:
My wife knows kickboxing. I don't. If we were threatened in the street, I know who I'd count on to defend us. Does this make me less of a man? Am I a failure as a husband because it would be presumptuous of me to "take care of and protect" the delicate flower that my wife is not? No. What it means is that the Wilson's vision of marriage is a really, really bad fit for the marriage that my wife and I have.
DR found this comment laughable, since "kick boxing is a sport, not a self defense skill. His wife would be destroyed if she tried to employ kick boxing to stop a mugging. It's an incredibly stupid statement to make." He went on to ask a series of questions that struck me as having the purpose of shaming the men in the discussion thread: "Which one takes the pain, or risks the life? The woman, the man, or both?"

It was clear what he took the answer to be. It is the role of men, in situations like this one, to defend their wives (and, when children were brought into the equation, to take the lead in fighting off the threat while, presumably, the wife herded the kids to safety). Through most of this, his comments were premised on the assumptions that (a) I was physically stronger and more powerful than my wife despite her stamina and (b) her kickboxing training would be useless in self-defense. I disavowed him of (a). My wife, when she entered the conversation, disavowed him of (b). Here's what she said:
Let's also clarify that the "kickboxing" was taught by a cop and included constant "attack" or "mugging" simulations. I will defend my kids if needed, to the best of my ability. And, frankly, I won't take the time to check on where my husband (or any other male) happens to be until after I'm done or dead.
Now let me say that I wouldn't abandon my wife in a situation in which we were threatened. Both of us would do what we could for each other. And--as I mentioned in the discussion thread--both of us would do whatever we could to keep our children safe, if they were also in danger. I'm just being realistic about the fact that my wife could do more if it came to blows. As the person who is bigger and stronger and who has self-defense oriented kick-boxing training, my wife would be far less likely to be "destroyed."

Here's the thing: There are generalities that can be made about men and women, but individual heterosexual relationships routinely defy these generalities in one way or another. Yes, men are typically bigger and stronger than women. The average height of a woman is lower than the average height of a man. The average muscle mass of women is less than the average muscle mass of men.

But complementarianism cannot rest on such averages when there are loads of individual relationships that deviate from the average. It makes no sense to say, "Husbands should defend their wives, because men are bigger and stronger and more aggressive in a dangerous situation," if in fact some wives are bigger and stronger and more aggressive than their husbands. If the reason for the gender role division rests on an average difference in physical qualities, one that admits of exceptions, then the role division should vary according to the physical qualities of the particular couple--usually the man takes the lead in defense, sometimes the woman. But then one simply doesn't have an essential gender role division at all. Each couple should negotiate their relationship on their own terms, based on the unique characteristics of the individuals involved, as opposed to conforming to some pre-established complementarian standard.

From "The better fighter should take the lead in defense, and the man is usually the better fighter," we cannot deduce "The man should always take the lead in defense."

In the Facebook discussion, DR both recognized this point and resisted it. Here's what he said:

If there's a situation where the choice is between your wife kicking some butt and remaining unscathed, vs. you stepping up and getting worked over, then yeah, have your wife step up. But that's hardly a real world scenario; any time anyone steps up to an aggressor they're putting themselves in some serious risk.

What about the situation in which either you're both going to be in danger of death or serious injury, or only one of you is while the other can make an escape? Or if you want to throw kids into the mix, either you both stay, and risk the kids getting hurt as well, or one of you steps up to at least slow the attackers down so that the other can escape with the kids?

My take would be first of all, practicality rules. If, let's say in your situation, because of your wife's superior athleticism, the possible results are A) she stays and holds them off long enough for you to get the kids to safety, but suffers serious injury herself, or B) you stay, but are unable to hold them off long enough, and your family does not escape and also suffers serious injury. In that case, I'd go with A.

But in a case where the husband and wife both have equal chances of holding off the attackers long enough for the rest of the family to escape, I'd say the husband always has the responsibility to to step up.
Here's where it gets interesting. DR is asking us to envision a situation where there is no factual difference to justify the role division. The husband and wife are equally well equipped to take on the role in question. DR argues that the man should, in that situation, be the one to take on the defender role--because of his maleness, apparently, even though by hypothesis his maleness in this case brings no special ability to adopt the role exceeding the abilities possessed by his spouse.

What becomes clear here is that, for DR, the role of defender is one that men have a moral duty to adopt in a way that women do not, simply because of their biological sex and apart from any greater capacity to fulfill this role. Or perhaps the idea is this: "Husband"--the role in  marriage occupied by a man--is a role that carries with it certain duties, duties that are different from those attaching to the "wife" role. Athough these are merely presumptive duties that can be overridden by pragmatic considerations of greater capacity or skill, the presumption is a strong one.  (I should note here that DR seemed to think that if children weren't involved, and whoever stepped up would risk serious injury while increasing the chances of the other to escape, the husband should step up even if the wife were the better fighter, because of his role-governed duty as defender).

So, perhaps, the wife has a role-governed duty, completely separate from her distinctive individual preferences and capacities, to take the lead as family caretaker--and making dinner falls under that presumptive duty. If the husband happens to be a superlative cook, this fact might override the presumptive duty. But otherwise, the role-governed presumption prevails.

At this point, gender role divisions have become completely unmoored from gender differences. It is no longer true that "male nature" and "female nature" complement one another in some special and essential way. Rather, the roles complement one another--but there is no longer even a pretense of the claim that the presumptive authority of the gender expectations rests in some distinctive, gender-based suitability for the respective roles. People are pressed into the respective roles regardless of their distinctive character traits, talents, and preferences--although, of course, "pragmatics" might override the presumptive authority of this pressure in extreme cases.

What are we to make of such differential gender-role expectations? Here's what I said to DR:
I don't disagree that my relationship dynamic isn't the norm. But one problem with complementarianism as I see it is that it essentializes generalities, thereby transforming exceptions to the usual into "perversions of nature"--and, in the process, discouraging exceptions to the usual even when those exceptions make sense (e.g., a man refuses to consider marrying a woman who is his physical superior in strength and defensive skills because he'd feel as if his "manhood" were being usurped in the relationship).

For me, practicality and character and personality should rule in determining relational patterns and "roles," as opposed to pre-determined gender roles. In a relationship, the one who is better at A takes the lead in A. (DR) ask(s), what if the partners are equals in defensive skills. But even then practicality rules. Two soldiers who are equals who confront a threat will make a decision of how to respond based on the contingencies of the situation, deciding which response has the best chance of generating the best result. Neither would accept an arrangement in which, by some predetermined fiat, one is expected to always let the other lay down his life for him. Both are prepared to lay down their lives for their comrade or the larger cause (e.g. the safety of the children) if that is what the situation demands.

There is an insidious pattern in patriarchy in which the the man, because he is expected to be the one to make the "ultimate" sacrifice (which he likely will never be called to make), expects the woman to make all sorts of "lesser" sacrifices (which she almost certainly WILL be called to make). I'm not saying this is the case with you (DR), but that it is a pattern of thinking which patriarchy encourages.
In other words, this brand of complementarianism pushes people into roles and choices that don't suit them (on pain of facing social stigma)--and, given the specifics of the classical gender role division, it also has a natural tendency to lead to an unequal dynamic between the sexes.

I would die for my family. But so would my wife. And for people who love one another, this is not just some sort of duty. It is a calling we feel within ourselves. There is no greater love than this--that we be willing to lay down our lives for our friends (or our husbands, or our wives). This calling is not felt only by men. Women feel it too. And we aren't doing women a favor by denying them in some general or systematic way the right to risk themselves for those they hold dear. Husbands don't have a monopoly on that sort of love. When they think they do and act accordingly, they condescend.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Progressive Religion: Indispensible for Social Progress

Over at AlterNet, Sara Robinson has written a compelling and eloquent essay on why the American progressive movement cannot hope to succeed in making real social progress without the help of the progressive religious community. I thought I'd share and comment here on a couple of highlights.

Robinson writes,
For most of human history...the task of imagining a different future and giving people the inspiration and courage to reach for it has been the primary role of religious prophets. (So has the job of warning the people that they're wandering into grave error or betraying their own values, and must change their ways or face disaster.) Religion is the native home of the prophetic voice -- the voice that calls people to transformative change. Throughout America's history, our most evocative political prophets -- both Roosevelts, all the Kennedys, Martin Luther King, Cesar Chavez, Van Jones, Barack Obama -- have invariably been people who spent a lot of time in the pews, learning to speak the kind of language that calls us to a better place.
This is one of the things that, in my judgment, the new atheists have most consistently neglected in their analysis of religion. Following the lead of sociologists of religion (such as Durkheim) who see religion primarily as a tool for social control and regulation, they have lost sight of the fact that some of the most important figures in the history of religion have been counter-cultural "prophets," that is, individuals who channeled a moral vision challenging the establishment and its beneficiaries.

What Jesus preached wasn't status quo religion. It wasn't an opiate of the masses. It wasn't primarily about getting people to conform to the standards of the community. It was, rather, about standing with those who were marginalized and against the privileged elites of the day; it was about speaking out for those who were oppressed by the dominant social system.

There can be no doubt that religion has served and continues to serve as a tool of social regulation. In a sense, Robinson makes this point herself when she discusses the power religion has to organize diverse people into a cohesive community willing to work together and make personal sacrifices for shared goals. But if we reduce religion to this dimension--if we lose sight of the prophetic tradition that shakes up society and challenges the status quo--we fail to fully understand religion even in its social dimension.

Another point that Robinson makes is that "over the course of American history, liberal religious faiths have been the primary promoter of progressive values throughout the culture -- and also the leading institution when it came time to inculcate our progressive sensibilities into the next generation. Many, if not most, progressives in America are progressive specifically because they believe that this is what their faith demands of them."

Again, the most vociferous anti-religious voices today seem to lose sight of the role that religious communities have played in cultivating the very values that the anti-religious themselves tend to espouse, the humanistic concern for all people, the separation of church and state, the commitment to gaining an unbiased understanding of how the world operates. It may well be true that conservative religious communities have been one of the biggest sources of resistance to these progressive values. But this is consistent with it being the case that liberal religion has been one of the primary inculcators of these values.

Indeed, were I not a Christian I would not be as adamant and committed in my support for gay rights as I am. In fighting for my gay and lesbian neighbors, I am motivated and energized by the love ethic that Jesus proclaimed so forcefully. If there is a reason I stand for same-sex marriage, it is because I take myself to be called by God, by the very font of creation, to love my neighbors as myself. And I cannot see how to do that if I am consistently marginalizing my gay and lesbian neighbors by denying them the right to participate in the bedrock social institution of our culture.

Robinson also highlights a point that I have been making for awhile: Free market capitalism, paired with the powerful and psychological nuanced tools available to advertisers and marketers, has been a driving force in magnifying consumption rates. In the absence of a counterbalancing force, capitalism would push us ever deeper into a materialist culture in which people look for happiness in the possession of things.  After all, people by more stuff when they think stuff is the source of happiness. And businesses thrive when people buy more stuff.

Where can we find a social force strong enough to help resist this inevitable tide of consumerism--a tide which is not only pushing us to the brink of environmental collapse but is systematically misdirecting humanity, leading them to keep looking for joy and meaning in more shoes or bigger TVs? How many of us pine for those college days when we didn't have a penny to our names...and then comfort ourselves by going shopping? Advertising has enormous power to speak to our hunter-gatherer brains, to convince us subconsciously (even while we consciously know better) that love is found in a bottle of Axe Body Spray and contentment is found in a Calgon bath.

In the face of this reality, Robinson reminds us that "progressive religion has always been America's most credible and aggressive front-line defender of non-market-based values against the onslaught of capitalism and greed." As she puts it,

...our liberal faith communities -- mainline Protestants and liberal Catholics, Jews and Quakers, Unitarian Universalists and the rising wave of reformist Muslims -- are the strongest remaining cultural forces left with the moral authority to insist that we have a duty to the poor, that democracy cannot survive without a commitment to justice, and that compassion is always a better survival strategy than competition.
I would add that progressive religious communities are the place that continues to remind us of something Aristotle stressed: Happiness is not found in stringing together as much pleasure as possible, regardless of what we take pleasure in. Rather, an essential part of happiness is finding pleasure in the right things. Because this is true, it matters how marketers and advertisers are using their power to shape our desires, to influence what we find pleasure in. It matters a lot. The more we can find pleasure in things that don't put us in competition with others for a shrinking pot of limited material resources, the better off all of us will be.

And religion teaches not only that we should care for the material needs of the poor, but that the best life isn't one of endless material consumption. Once our basic needs are met, what most enriches our lives isn't a bigger clothes closet or more gadgets, but more belly laughs, more hours in the company of loved ones, more time engaged in collaborative community projects, more spiritual seeking, more prayer and meditation, more compassion, more hope, more time spent feeding the hungry and clothing the naked. 

I think this message is true. And I think if we want this message to catch hold in the face of powerful market forces inculcating a contrary message with every resource at their disposal, we need progressive religious communities. We need them desperately. 

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Ironman Wife

The next time I will have a chance to check in on my blog will be next week. By that time my wife will have competed in her first Iron-distance triathlon, in Lake Placid, NY. For those of you who don't know, the Ironman triathlon begins with a 2.4 mile swim, followed by a 112 mile bike, followed by a marathon (26.2 miles). And yes, it's all in a row, all in one day. With time limits.

The journey to Lake Placid has been a transformative one for my wife and for those who love her. She did her first triathlon--Olympic distance--in 2010, and did her first half-Iron this past September. Since then she has been steadily training, building up her endurance and her strength and her speed. A few weeks back she did a hundred mile bike ride, got home, hopped in the shower, and went on with the day as if she'd been out mowing the lawn for an hour.

Not so many years ago, she'd never run around the block. She was a singer and actress (very good at both, by the way), not an athlete. Her native compassion moved her to train for a marathon with Team in Training (the most significant fundraising source for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society). She did her first marathon while nursing a stomach virus. She hadn't eaten the day before.  She finished, and then began training for the next.

My wife is strong. She is determined. She is stubborn. She reaches for and accomplishes what most others imagine to be impossible.

I am married to this woman, and I am proud of her. Proud to have her as a partner in life. Grateful that she is the person who stands beside me in raising our children.

Yesterday I posted about the views of marriage endorsed by Douglas Wilson and his acolyte, Jared Wilson. They think a husband/wife relationship is essentially hierarchical, that it is inescapably and inevitably about authority and submission (albeit, supposedly, a benign and caring authority and a joyous submission). They think egalitarianism is a lie. They think attempts at achieving egalitarian marriages lead to twisted forms of hierarchy--rape fantasies and the like.

I'm not sure what they'd say about my marriage to a soon-to-be Ironman triathlete. She is physically stronger than me. She does things I cannot fathom. But I'm not jealous. I'm proud of her. My manhood isn't threatened, because I don't buy into such a stupid, banal, and destructively straight-jacketing vision of gender relationships as the one that the Wilsons endorse. If I did, our marriage would collapse. As it is, our marriage grows.  

My wife knows kickboxing. I don't. If we were threatened in the street, I know who I'd count on to defend us. Does this make me less of a man? Am I a failure as a husband because it would be presumptuous of me to "take care of and protect" the delicate flower that my wife is not? No. What it means is that the Wilson's vision of marriage is a really, really bad fit for the marriage that my wife and I have. Th Wilsons try to absolutize. They try to demonize what doesn't fit. But the real demon is the effort to force diverse things into a singular mold.

I would never dream of demanding my wife's submission to me, nor would she imagine the reverse. We are partners. She didn't seek my permission to pursue her triathlon passion as if I were her lord and master. We talked about it as equal partners because of the financial costs and the time involved. And on Sunday, I will be cheering from the sidelines, just as she cheers me on when I pursue my passion for music and writing.

And believe it or not, none of this feels as if I'm repressing reality. Rather, it feels as if I'm embracing it. The patriarchal vision is about ego--about the desire to have a picture of intimacy that allows for the indulgence of one's ego (albeit in caring, condescendingly benevolent forms). To cheer on the successes of a determined woman who surpasses you, you have to release your ego.

And that, in the end, is what Jesus calls all of us to do. That is what love calls us to do.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

"Benign" Christian Patriarchy and 50 Shades of Grey: A Response to Jared Wilson

A few days ago at The Gospel Coalition's blog, Jared Wilson offered a critique of the bestselling erotic novel, 50 Shades of Grey--in the form of an extended quotation from Douglas Wilson's book Fidelity: What it Means to be a One-Woman Man.

The quoted passage, in essence, blames the "twisted" forms of domination and submission between men and women--including rape and sadomasochism--on our failure to accept the God-ordained domination/submission relationship that, supposedly, is part of the natural reality between men and women. Denying and suppressing this hierarchical relationship--the one supposedly endorsed in the Bible--leads to this hierarchy coming out in twisted and violent forms.

In other words, the pursuit of genuine equality between the sexes, the critique of fixed gender-role expectations and the requirement that men and women uniformly be shoe-horned into these roles and relationship structures regardless of the unique features of their personalities and relationships...all of this is, apparently, leading men to rape and abuse women rather than benevolently cherish and protect their precious submissive little feminine flowers.

It seems that lots of people were horrified by this message. Jared Wilson was perplexed by the horrified responses and so, today, offered a response.

His response was utterly inadequate. It certainly missed the problems that I have with his (and Douglas Wilson's) original message.

So what did Jared Wilson say? He corrected those who seemed think, mistakenly, that the quoted passages as in some way explicitly endorsing violence against women. In responding to those who found something misogynistic in Douglas Wilson's claim that the male/female sexual relationship is naturally about male "conquest" and "colonization," Jared Wilson quoted the other Wilson's response, which accused everyone making this charge of possessing "a poetic ear like three feet of tinfoil." He said some other things, too, but you get the point.

Neither Wilson seems to get it. So let me try my hand at explaining why the Wilsons' message is so horrifying. And while I could spend hours on the subject, I will limit myself to two features of the message that are particularly bothersome. One I will discuss at some length. The other I will treat only briefly.

1. The message treats gender egalitarianism as the problem and gender hierarchy as the solution, but it seems clear that the reverse is far more likely to be true.

Wilson and Wilson explicitly support the idea that the pursuit of egalitarianism in heterosexual partnerships is central to the problem of distorted and aggressive sexuality. Here's the money quote from Douglas Wilson:

In other words, however we try, the sexual act cannot be made into an egalitarian pleasuring party. A man penetrates, conquers, colonizes, plants. A woman receives, surrenders, accepts....But we cannot make gravity disappear just because we dislike it, and in the same way we find that our banished authority and submission comes back to us in pathological forms. This is what lies behind sexual “bondage and submission games,” along with very common rape fantasies. Men dream of being rapists, and women find themselves wistfully reading novels in which someone ravishes the “soon to be made willing” heroine. Those who deny they have any need for water at all will soon find themselves lusting after polluted water, but water nonetheless.

In other words, the Wilsons take it that the pursuit of gender equality amounts to repression of an inescapable reality, and that such repression leads, in Freudian fashion, to dysfunctional expressions of what has been repressed. Men rape because men need to have authority over their women, and when they are denied (presumably by the feminists and other supporters of gender equality) the opportunity to get this need met in the benign patriarchy of a head-of-household family, they're going to get it by fantasizing about raping women, or maybe by actually doing it.

Likewise, women who don't have the opportunity to submit to benevolent patriarchs are going to fantasize about being raped (and, dare we say, take risky actions that make themselves more vulnerable to the real thing, thus opening up the door to a whole new "Wilsonian" avenue for blaming rape victims?).

This is the message that makes me want to vomit.

Part of the problem is that this message assumes that the male desire to have authority over women is an essential part of the human condition as opposed to a culturally malleable one.

It isn't. A big part of the reason I know it isn't is because I don't personally have this desire. Somehow, being socialized by egalitarian Norwegian parents, I ended up not wanting to wield patriarchal authority, benevolent or otherwise, in my intimate relationships. I suppose the Wilsons will say I'm in denial--but that's easy to say. If I am in denial, it isn't a denial that has produced any bondage and submission games or dreams of being a rapist. It has, instead, generated a relationship with my spouse that is characterized by mutual respect and compassion and care, in which the relational dynamic isn't "authority and submission" but egalitarian partnership.

What do the Wilsons offer in support of their essentialist view of gender differences? Metaphors about sex. But do these metaphors simply describe the reality of sexuality, or do they create and nurture a certain perception of a reality that is far more malleable? What would our culture be like if we talked about sex in terms of the woman "enveloping" while the man is "enveloped"? The woman "consuming" while the man is "consumed"? Are these metaphors any less descriptive of the reality of sex? Isn't it more the case that the metaphors we use are cultural realities that help to shape what sex becomes?

In the face of this, I suppose the Wilsons may point to biological evidence that speaks to generalizable differences between human males and females on not just the physiological level but the psychological one. But what do these differences demonstrate, if anything?

Even if there may be some psychological generalizations that can be made about the human sexes--dispositions that are more frequent in one sex than the other because of biological differences--such generalizations are not universal. There are men and women who don't fit these generalizations, and who suffer when they are culturally expected to fit.

Furthermore, psychological dispositions are subject not only to cultural accentuation but also to cultural muting. Even if there is a tendency for the more testosterone-laden sex to be more aggressive when they don't get there way, what follows? A gender-role division that instructs women to submit to their husbands and tells men that they have the authority to get their way is a recipe for a relationship in which men consistently impose their wills and their wives consistently acquiesce. In other words, a relational template of this sort, if it is paired with a biological tendency for greater male aggressiveness, is likely to lead to a situation in which women's needs and interests will be consistently suppressed in favor of their husbands' preferences.

A gender pattern that affirms male authority and female submission makes it less likely, not more likely, that husbands will respect the needs of their intimate partners. It doesn't matter if endorsing that relationship pattern is paired with an injunction for men to be benign monarchs over their wives. Yes, such an injunction may soften the harmful effects of hierarchy; but it doesn't follow that the hierarchy doesn't have harmful effects. Kings who were invested with authority to rule, unconstrained by others with equal power to impose checks on that authority, would sometimes listen to the moral message that they should use their power benignly. But not always. After all, power corrupts, as they say.

Here's another way to think about it: In a world in which male authority and female submission is the cultural norm, women are more vulnerable to exploitation by their husbands. Many men are persons of good will who'll resist the temptation to exploit their wives; but in such a culture, women will be more dependent on the good will of their husbands because of their increased cultural vulnerability to exploitation. And if there is a biological tendency for men to be more aggressive in the pursuit of their desires, there will also be a temptation on the part of many men to take advantage of their wives' vulnerability.

Conservatives insist that falling prey to such temptation would be wrong, and that men have a duty to be benevolent patriarchs rather than abusive ones. But conservatives Christians like the Wilsons also believe in original sin. And we don't realistically deal with the reality of original sin by setting up social structures and institutions that increase the temptation to sin and make it easier to get away with it. Rather, we realistically confront our human propensity to fall prey to temptation by setting up conditions which make it easier to "avoid the near occasion of sin"  and harder to avoid overt negative consequences.

If we want those with a disposition towards domination and oppression not to dominate and oppress, we don't set up social institutions in which domination and oppression are made easier. We set up social institutions that discourage domination and oppression. We set up gender socialization that mutes tendencies to dominate and oppress and builds up the sense of self-worth and dignity required to stand up to oppression or walk away from oppressive situations when they arise. Getting drummed with the message, "Submit to your husbands," doesn't do that.

In other words, Wilson and Wilson have identified an important contributor to the problem of women's exploitation and oppression, and they have touted it as the solution. And they have put their finger on one of the chief remedies to women's exploitation and oppression--namely, the cultivation and nurture of a culture of gender equality that expects and encourages egalitarian intimate partnerships--and declared this to be the problem.

2. Wilson and Wilson are trying to hold everyone hostage to their view of gender relationships.

The other reason the Wilsons' message is so disturbing is that it amounts to an attempt to hold hostage everyone with views about human sexual relationships different from their own. It is one thing to demonstrate that denying a view has dangerous consequences. It is something else again to simply assert that it does, to a large extent in the teeth of evidence to the contrary, in the hope that fear of dangerous consequences will lead to conformity.

I don't know if the Wilsons were intentionally doing the latter--but they sure haven't done the former. And the effect comes much closer to the latter. Basically, the message seems to be this: "If you don't see things our way, then you are suppressing reality in a way that is magnifying the abusive exploitation of women." We'd better do things their way--resist our egalitarian impulses--or more women will be violated. If we don't toe the line and make sure we wrestle every relationship into the particular mold that they read into the Bible, then we have only ourselves to blame for the violence against women in the world.

As if rape were less common when patriarchy was the uncontested norm.

(For more about my own experience with an egalitarian relationship, see my next post.)

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Giving the Affordable Care Act ("Obamacare") a Human Face

My friend Tracy (a wonderful actress and church secretary) has an infectious laugh, a somewhat racy sense of humor, and a daughter with juvenile arthritis. Shortly after the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act, Tracy's family posted the following image of their daughter (along with the accompanying text) on Facebook:

The image went kind of viral. Earlier today, Addicting Info posted an article about Cassie, "The Face of Obamacare." The details of Cassie's story appear there.

I haven't said much about health care reform on this blog, in part because it is a complex topic about which I have little in the way of what might be called expertise. But here are a few things that seem pretty clear to me:

1. The most controversial aspect of the ACA is the so-called "mandate"--that is, the requirement that all Americans have a health insurance policy or pay a fine. This is the part of the ACA that Justice Roberts declared a tax. I think this is a fine way to look at it, even if Obama resisted calling it a tax for political reasons.

2. The mandate is an essential trade-off for the part of the ACA that most directly affects Cassie and her family--namely, the clause that precludes insurers from denying coverage based on pre-existing conditions. Were there no pre-existing conditions clause and no mandate, there'd be nothing keeping healthy individuals from just going without insurance until they get sick. So, we need one or the other: either there has to be some requirement that everyone have insurance if they can afford it (parts of the ACA are directed towards addressing those who can't afford it), or insurers will deny coverage for pre-existing conditions. Either the liberty of individuals to risk themselves in order to save some money has to be truncated, or the opportunity of people to get the coverage they need will inevitably be denied them. To have it both ways--unrestricted individual liberty to take risks and opportunity for the neediest to have their needs met--just isn't a realistic option. We have to choose. The question is whether we choose the liberty of all to risk going without health insurance or the liberty of all to get the health insurance they need.

3. If we favor the former, there are people who are going to suffer--people like Cassie. And her parents. And her siblings and all the others who love her. I don't like that result. I think about the fact that Cassie could easily have been one of my children. I think about the fact that Cassie is, in fact, the child of people I care about.

4. Also, if we favor the former our ERs will be filled to the gills with the uninsured who go there for all their medical needs when they become urgent enough (and hence are, more often than not, costlier than they might otherwise have been). This leads to increased medical costs for the rest of us--since the costs of treating the uninsured have to be recovered somehow. Viewed in this light, the health care mandate can be seen as a way to guarantee that everyone who can afford it does their share to pay for health care, rather than there being "free riders" that the rest of us end up paying for.

5. Favoring the former is routinely represented by ACA opponents as government tyranny because it is making demands on people, requiring that they buy something. The implication seems to be that favoring the latter respects liberty in a way that favoring the former does not. But as Cassie's story makes clear, her family faced serious truncations of liberty--imposed not by the government but by private insurance companies; companies who, out of an interest in maximizing profits, uniformly exercised their freedom to deny coverage such that Cassie's parents were denied the freedom to buy for their daughter what she so urgently needed.

6. What we have here is a choice about whose liberty is more important: the liberty of the healthy 30-something to risk going without insurance, to gamble that he won't get sick (a gamble that the rest of us pay for when he shows up at the ER with an infection that has gotten out of a control and takes expensive life-saving measures to cure); or the liberty of people like Cassie's parents to provide for their children the things that those children need in a way that doesn't bankrupt them.

7. What we have here is a choice between who is going to impose constraints on our freedom: the government, which is made up of elected representatives who are ultimately answerable to the public and are voted into office with a mandate to pursue the public good; or private companies, which exist to make profit and are answerable primarily to those for whom they are making that profit (e.g., stockholders).

I'm sure there are lots of problems with the ACA. It is a clunky and complicated piece of legislation aimed at trying to achieve what, it seems to me, could be far more elegantly achieved by moving to a system in which Medicare is extended to provide universal basic coverage paid for through taxation, and supplemental coverage is available through private insurers. Yes, there are surely problems with the ACA. But favoring a health insurance mandate for those who can afford it over a system in which people like Cassie find themselves unable to get insurance because of pre-existing conditions? That doesn't strike me as a problem with the ACA. That strikes me as one of its virtues.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

On the Minnesota Anti-Equality Amendment: 5 Wrong-Headed Arguments

In recent years, there have been numerous attempts to prevent same-sex couples from having equal access to civil (legal) marriage. One popular strategy has been to try to use ballot initiatives to revise state constitutions to define marriage as being "between one man and one woman." A measure of this sort passed here in Oklahoma a few years back, one was famously passed and then overturned in California, and another passed in North Carolina earlier this year.

In November, Minnesota will vote on a similar ballot measure. This one strikes close to home. My best friend, who is gay, lives in Minnesota. I have many close relatives there, including my cousin Jake, who is gay. If this measure passes, people I love will not merely be denied access to marriage. More seriously, the state will symbolically marginalize them.

Conservatives routinely point out that marriage is one of the bedrock institutions--perhaps the bedrock institution--of society. They're right. And to be excluded from participation in such a bedrock institution amounts to being told that you don't really fit, that you don't really have a place at the table. It's one thing to remain single by choice. It's something else to be forced into that choice because society declares that, by virtue of who you are, you have no right to take part in our culture's basic social unit.

So, why do people think this is a good idea?  To write discrimination and social marginalization into the very constitution of your state, you'd better have good arguments. I've heard many arguments, but are any of them any good? I want to consider here a few of the most popular and explain why I don't find them any good at all.

1. "It can't be marriage because marriage is by definition between one man and one woman. To call a same-sex relationship a marriage is like calling a car a duck."

This was a favorite argument of Rick Santorum on the campaign trail. The idea here is that "marriage" refers to a certain kind of thing, and that same-sex partnerships just aren't that kind of thing. Now I don't want to get into a lecture about the philosophy of language here, but it's important to note that terms are used in different ways. Not every term refers to just one very specific sort of thing.

I suppose we can all agree that "marriage" refers a relationship of some sort. But what sort? Well, actually, the answer to that has changed over time. In some times and places, the marital relationship has been mainly proprietary: a husband "owns" his wife, especially her sexuality, so that he has excusive rights to use her body for sex. From that standpoint, to insist on gender equality is to redefinied "marriage": if spouses are equal they can't have that kind of relationship. Does that mean that, since in the past marriage was proprietary, today's marriages aren't really marriages?

Of course not. Our concept of what sort of relationship can qualify as a marriage has changed. "Marriage" is the kind of term that can weather such changes, because it's a more flexible term than the name for a particular species of animal, such as "duck." 

So what sort of relationship do we have in mind today when we use the term "marriage"? Here's one common understanding: marriage is a relationship in which two people who love each other in a romantic way join their lives together into a committed, intimate, and enduring partnership in which they vow sexual fidelity and promise to care for one another even when times get tough.

Notice that this understanding doesn't include making babies. And that's important. Because we allow elderly people who can't have children to get married. And we allow infertile couples to get married. If a young bride-to-be has to have a radical hysterectomy three months before the big day, we don't demand that she and her fiance call off the wedding. They can still get married, because marriage is about a certain kind of relationship that the two of them can have even if babies will never be in the picture--a relationship characterized by love and fidelity and mutual care and partnership in life's joys and sorrows.

And guess what? Two men can have that kind of relationship. So can two women. And this point leads to the second bad argument against marriage equality, namely...

2. "If two men are allowed to get married, then pretty much anything goes. We'll have to let Farmer Joe marry his sheep."

Aside from being insulting to Farmer Joe, this argument is a classic case of the slippery slope fallacy. To put it bluntly, Farmer Joe can't have the kind of relationship described above with a sheep. If your reason for extending marriage rights to same-sex couples is that they can have the kind of relationship that heterosexual married couples have, then there is no slippery slope. Likewise, an adult can't have that kind of relationship with a child, so we don't have to worry about opening the door to pedophelic marriages. The slipper slope argument is just dumb, and most people know it.

So, are there any better arguments? How about this one:

3. "Marriage between one man and one woman is the way God wants it."

Really? How do you know? Because of how you interpret the Bible? If so, then it's because you read the Bible in a way different from the way I do, and because you attach a different sort of religious authority to the Bible than I do. Or maybe you ascribe to the Roman Catholic Church's development of natural law theory as applied to human sexuality. If so, I think this approach elevates natural law higher than the law of love in a way that doesn't reflect the priorities of Jesus. Maybe you disagree with that. Fine.

But that's the point. The idea that God wants things a certain way is a sectarian religious idea, based on a controversial worldview. We live in a society in which freedom of religion is constiutionally guaranteed, and in which the Constitution declares that there will be no establishment of religion by the government. That is, the government is not supposed to take sides in religious disagreements by, in effect, basing public policies on one religious community's convictions and then requiring that everyone else live by those policies. Your religious freedom--your freedom, for example, to refuse to marry same-sex couples in your church--depends on the kind of separation of church and state that prevents the government from imposing on all of us public policies that reflect the religious convictions of some.

Some people, however, argue that the majority can impose its values, whatever their source (religious or otherwise), at least sometimes. I agree. But the sometimes is important here--because the majority can't legitimately impose its values in ways that truncate the rights and equality of the minority. And this leads to the fourth argument I want to consider:

4. "Restricting marriage to heterosexual couples reflects the values of the majority of Americans, and there's nothing wrong with that so long as no one is being treated unequally under the law. And under the traditional laws, everyone has the same rights as everyone else to get married. They just have to follow the same rule, consistently applied, that it be to someone of the opposite sex. There is no discrimination here."

This argument is such a clunker that I wouldn't bother with it at all were it not for one simple fact: the argument was put forward in all seriousness by Minnesota Congresswoman Michele Bachmann while she was running for the Republican presidential nomination.

So why is this argument so bad? Because there is such a thing as sexual orientation. Most readers of this blog post are likely to be straight, so let me ask you this. Suppose there were a law that restricted marriage to same-sex couples. Now, you aren't even remotely attracted to members of the same sex, and you never will be. If you're in a loving relationship, it's with someone of the opposite sex. If you're not, then one day you might be--and it will be with someone of the opposite sex. It will never be with someone of the same sex. So, this law says that because of your sexual orientation, none of your romantic, loving relationships will ever enjoy the legal recognition and legal rights (more than a thousand federal benefits, by the way) that come with marriage. That's available only (on this hypothetical law) to your gay and lesbian neighbors.

You really want to say that this isn't legal discrimination? If, because of something outside your control, you are legally denied a social good (legal support and rights for your intimate partnerships) available to others...well, that's the very definition of legal discrimination.

And so we're led at last to one final argument:

5. "Legalizing same-sex marriage is bad for children."

But since I just recently attacked this argument here (and in a more philosophically rigorous but less accessible way here), I will simply say this: The children who are now being raised by same-sex couples would surely benefit from the stabilizing effects of marriage. Marriage, conservatives argue, provides the kind of loving and stable context ideal for raising children. They're right. And same-sex marriage will therefore be good for those children being raised by same-sex couples. And since I really don't think any children who would otherwise be raised by loving heterosexual couples are going to be dragged out of these homes and thrust into same-sex homes should same-sex marriage be legalized, I don't see how legalizing same-sex marriage could effect those kids. The other kinds of arguments rely on nothing but empty scare tactics that accuse gays and lesbians of being predators of children--and somehow suggest that access to marriage will be used as a weapon in their predatory schemes. Such arguments are nothing but empty and vicious slander, insulting to all the compassionate and decent gay and lesbian persons I know, and should be dismissed as such. 
Are there other arguments for writing marriage inequality into Minnesota's constitution? Yes. Some are worse than these. Some are offered with more extensive intellectual and scholarly sophistication--which means it takes a lot more work to figure out what the argument really is and how it should be evaluated. When I've made the attempts (such as here and here), I've found them to be unconvincing. But (unless I've missed something glaring--have I?) the five arguments above seem to more or less touch on the main reasons for opposing same-sex marriage offered in the public square.
If that's right, then the public square has little good reason to oppose same sex marriage...and Minnesotans should know what to do on voting day.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

One Philosopher's Manifesto

There is a difference between knowing an array of empirical facts and having wisdom (by which I roughly mean a sense, often hard to articulate, of how one ought to be in the world). Wisdom cannot be reduced to any collection of empirical facts. No scientific method can give it to us. Nevertheless, I believe that there is such a thing as a wise word.

There is a difference between accumulating all the knowledge that in theory can be confirmed by other observers, and understanding something about the meaning of it all. The former will never give us the latter. Nevertheless, I believe there is such a thing as a profound insight.

I believe that wisdom and insight are more likely to come to us when we open ourselves up to the manifold world that lies both before us and, if you will, behind and within us--when we pay attention quietly, contemplatively, without agendas or presuppositions, simply opening ourselves up to being touched and moved by the I-know-not-what that eludes the grasp of our usual concepts and modes of perception.

I believe that such contemplative openness is very hard to achieve, that few of us do it well and that none of us do it perfectly, and that often we think we are doing it even when we're not. And I believe that even when we are struck by wisdom or insight, something is inevitably lost in the effort to articulate it, to put it into language and so communicate it to others. There is a distortion and deterioration that becomes more serious the further removed we become from the original moment of insight. And as others pass on the insight, as with the children's game of whispered messages around a room, the original message can be changed, until all that remains is at best a surface resemblance.

I believe that some words which appear wise turn out not to be, and some apparent profundities are illusory--even when they come to us during our best attempts at contemplative openness. I believe that rigorous critical reflection can sometimes expose the illusion, by uncovering inner or outer contradictions. I think such critical assessment is essential but imperfect, and that there is no such thing as an infallible tool for discerning the difference between apparent and actual wisdom and insight. Nevertheless, I think there is such a difference.

I believe that despite the ambiguity and uncertainty, despite the absence of reliable methods of investigation and testing, we can muddle our way towards greater wisdom and insight. I believe that progress is possible even when it is rare, and hence that there is something we are groping towards, something against which our subjective efforts fail or succeed, even when we cannot tell how much failure or success we have achieved.

I believe it is coherent to hope that the effort is not ours alone, that the deepest and most ineffable truths are, if you will, reaching back towards us, trying to reel us in despite ourselves.

I am conscious of the disputability of each of these beliefs. I am aware that they are matters of belief, not knowledge. And I feel that to be true to them, I cannot treat them as beyond critique. Nevertheless, these beliefs sustain and shape my philosophical life.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Iris Murdoch on the Fact/Value Distinction

I had occasion this week to revisit some of Iris Murdoch's writings while working on a professional article, and I found myself meditating on the rich opening passage of her chapter on "Fact and Value" from Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals. The final remark of the passage--focusing on what she takes to be the work of the moral philosopher--struck me as particularly significant for my own work. And it was especially resonant in light of a complementary account of the aims of moral philosophy offered by Murdoch in an earlier essay, "Vision and Choice in Morality." Since her thoughts connect with issues that tend to inspire the regular readers of this blog, I share both passages here (with some elipses, simply because it would otherwise be a lot of typing). (Note that while Murdoch was not a naturalist, she was also not a theist. She ended up embracing something like a Platonic conception of "the Good" as the ground for morality as we encounter it.)

From Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals:

A misleading though attractive distinction is made by many thinkers between fact and (moral) value. Roughly, the purpose of the distinction (as it is used by Kant and Wittgenstein for instance) is to segregate value in order to keep it pure and untainted, not derived from or mixed with empirical facts. This move however, in time and as interpreted, may in effect result in a diminished, even perfunctory, account of morality, leading (with the increasing prestige of science) to a marginalisation of 'the ethical'...This originally well-intentioned segregation then ignores an obvious and importan aspect of human existence, the way in which almost all our concepts and activities involve evaluation. A post-Kantian theory of morals: survey the facts, then use your reason. But, in the majority of cases, a survey of the facts will itself involve moral discrimination...The moral point is that 'facts' are set up as such by human (that is moral) agents...In many familiar ways various values pervade and colour what we take to be the reality of our world....To say all this is not in any way to deny either science, empiricism or common-sense. The proposition that 'the cat is on the mat' is true, indicates a fact, if the cat is on the mat. A proper separation of fact and value, as a defence of morality, lies in the contention that moral value cannot be derived from fact. That is, our activity of moral discrimination cannot be explained as merely one natural instinct among others, or our 'good' identified with pleasure, or a will to live, or what the government says (etc.). The possession of a moral sense is uniquely human; morality is, in the human world, something unique, special, sui generis, 'as if it came to us from elsewhere'. It is an intimation of 'something higher'. The demand that we be virtuous. It is 'inescapable and fundamental'. The interpretation of such phrases, including less fancy versions of the same intuition, has been, and should be, a main activity of moral philosophers.

And then this from "Vision and Choice in Morality":

There are situations which are obscure and people who are incomprehensible, and the moral agent, as well as the artist, may find himself unable to describe something which in some sense he apprehends. Language has limitations and there are moments when, if it is to serve us, it has to be used creatively, and the effort may fail. We we consider here the role of language in illuminating situations, how insufficient seens the notion of linguistic moral philosophy as the elaboration of the evaluative-descriptive formula. From here we may see that the task of moral philosophers has been to extent, as poets may extend, the limits of the language, and enable it to illuminate regions of reality which were formerly dark.

In both passages, Murdoch finds a problem with the "evaluative-descriptive formula" according to which facts are the reality "out there" and value is nothing but the subjective act of commending this or that fact or possible fact. We have intimations that this way of representing matters, which flows so readily out of modernism and scientism, is inadequate to characterize our experience with morality and goodness. But we lack the language to do more than gesture to the nature of the inadequacy. To characterize morality more truly, we need to stretch our language in new ways. For Murdoch, concepts and conceptual schemes offer us new ways of seeing things. The trick is to explore alternative conceptual schemes, hoping to find one that "clicks into place" in a way that existing ones fail to do (the nagging sense of their inadequacy). And "where the attempt fails," Murdoch tells us, "the virtues of faith and hope have their place." 

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Rape, Murder, and Free Speech: Reflections on "Vaginagate."

Since my blog doesn’t run on deadlines--and since blogging has to take a back seat to professional responsibilities and parenting--I don’t always get to hot stories while they’re hot. I think this is likely a good thing, because when I let my thinking gestate for awhile I often find myself with more meaningful things to say--even if what I have to say may enjoy a smaller audience than it might have otherwise.

This is true of one of the hottest news items from a few weeks back, the one that earned the juicy name “Vaginagate.” I think this is one of the most interested stories of recent weeks, not because it was juicy (yes, I’ve said “juicy” twice now—get over it), but because it illuminates some very interesting features of our current political and cultural conflicts. And because, in a way, it's a story about stories.

Here are the facts in brief: In the Michigan House of Representatives, Democratic Rep. Lisa Brown spoke in opposition to a bill that would make abortions harder to procure—and concluded her remarks by saying, "I'm flattered you're all so concerned about my vagina. But no means no." (More details can be found here and here.)

As a result of this remark, she was barred from speaking on the house floor the following day (a colleague was also barred, for comments that mentioned vasectomies). One Republican Representative, Mike Callton, in defending the censure, stated that he found her remarks “so offensive, I don't even want to say it in front of women.”

The censure—not the original comment that inspired it, but the punitive response—generated widespread coverage and enormous discussion in social media. Early the following week,
a protest performance of The Vagina Monologues was staged on the steps of the Michigan Statehouse. Rep. Brown participated, along with the author of The Vagina Monologues, Eve Ensler, who flew in for the occasion.

Those are the most salient details of what happened—details that have been pieced together in various and competing ways. Some narratives on the left make it about prudishness in the face of technical language referencing sexual organs. Others, on the right, offer a narrative according to which the problem was not the use of the term "vagina," but Rep. Brown's blatant disrespect of her colleagues in suggesting that they had some kind of prurient and obsessive interest in her vagina.

Both stories may have something to them, but I don't think either one is the most interesting story, or the reason why this story captured so much attention. To me, what makes this story most interesting is that, as I suggested above, it's a story about stories. More precisely, it's a story about the competing abortion narratives we have in this country, and the difficulty that some partisans have of appreciating or taking seriously the narrative offered by the other side.

The right and the left have very different narratives about abortion and the effort to regulate it. On the right, abortion is construed as a form of homocide, and abortion regulations are attempts to protect unborn children from being killed. Since Roe v. Wade has made it impossible simply to outlaw the killing of unborn babies, conservative state legislators have sought ways to find a next-best alternative—ways of creating hurdles and constraints on the pursuit of abortion, thereby protecting the lives of vulnerable children. According to this narrative, abortion foes are engaged in an heroic struggle to save a vulnerable population from being killed in numbers rivaling the exterminations of the Holocaust.

The basis for equating abortion and homocide (even murder) is fairly straightforward: the assumption is that the fetus is not fundamentally different from a child. "Human life begins at conception"--or more precisely, the moral significance that the lives of children and adults enjoy begins at conception (or not long thereafter). And so there is a wrong done when a fetus's life is deliberately taken that is comparable to the wrong we all agree is done when a small child or baby is killed. The justifications for this view are varied, many bound up with controversial religious narratives; but even if these justifications are contested, the basic perspective from which abortion would be seen as murder is, I think, pretty clear. Most can understand it even if they don't accept it.

On the left, the moral significance of the fetus's life is far more ambiguous. Views about it vary. What isn't ambiguous is that a woman's body is involved, and her autonomy with respect to that body is at stake. Abortion regulations are construed as efforts to restrict bodily self-determination—the bodily self-determination of women in particular, and more profoundly with respect to their reproductive choices. And, of course, the paradigmatic example of violating a woman's bodily autonomy with respect to her reproductive choices is nothing other than rape. As such, abortion regulations are construed as akin to rape.

The basic idea--that abortion restrictions violate women's reproductive and bodily autonomy as rape does--should be familiar to most people. But the deeper theoretic underpinnings of this narrative--in feminist thought--are likely to be a bit less clear to general readers. So let me sketch it out as I understand it.

In feminist theory rape has routinely been construed as an especially overt expression of a broader pattern of women’s sexual subordination. Feminists argue that our culture has been powerfully shaped by patriarchy—an historic, systematic hierarchical division of society in which women have been relatively disempowered, both through overt social structures and through more subtle mechanisms such as gender-role socialization. And the chief purpose of this patriarchal system has been to maintain male proprietary control over women’s sexuality—where their “sexuality” includes their bodies as objects of sexual use, but also their power to serve as gestators and nurturers of the children that result from that sexual use.

In this patriarchal context, not all cases of forced sex qualify as rape. Forcible sex happens when either (a) a woman resists the patriarchal forces that are supposed to make her sexually available to the man who has acquired a proprietary claim on her sexuality (through the social conventions of patriarchy) or (b) a particular man who has been excluded from the benefits of patriarchal sexual access, either generally or with respect to a particular woman that he desires, seeks to claim his such access through threats of violence or physical coercion.

In the traditional patriarchal society, only the latter is construed as a transgression to which the label “rape” is treated as appropriate. As such, marital rape wasn’t even recognized as a category until very recently. And from the standpoint of patriarchy, when rape is recognized at all it is primarily construed as a transgression against other men: a man is taking a woman who, according to the rules of the patriarchal social contract, doesn’t rightfully belong to him. The biblical injunctions about rape, such as the one found in Deuteronomy 22:28-29, make sense in this context: A man who rapes an unpledged virgin can make up for his crime by paying off the father (who “owns” his daughter’s sexuality in trust until he gives her away to her future husband) and then marrying his victim and thereby becoming the husband to whom her sexuality rightly belongs.

But even though some forcible sex is considered a transgression, a number of feminist scholars (such as Catharine MacKinnon) argue that it is a transgression that actually serves a function in the system, reinforcing patriarchal control. Because there are rapists out there who are prepared to take any woman who isn’t protected by the proprietary claims of other men, it behooved women to find a good man who’ll take care of her. From my years of prison volunteer work, I know that physically vulnerable young men in prison will often submit to becoming the sexual property of a larger, stronger inmate in order to avoid more violent forms of violation. For at least some feminists, the specter of rape can, in a patriarchal culture, operate in something like that way.

What feminists argue is that this culture of patriarchy, while it has obviously been picked away at at transformed over the years, continues to have significant influence. Cultural patterns that have been established over many centuries can't be wholly undone in a few decades. And while the women’s movement has helped to weaken patriarchy's influence, it has also engendered a strong reactionary response from many of patriarchy's beneficiaries—men in positions of power whose sense of self-worth is bound up with the male privilege that patriarchy bestows.

The current efforts to regulate access to abortion are seen as part of this reactionary response. They're an attempt to re-exert overt dominion over women’s reproductive lives, to use the force of law to control women’s bodies in a symbolically powerful way. If not literally rape, then it is a clear analogue, bound up with the patriarchal oppression of women in the same way that rape is.

This, I think, is the broad narrative out of which Rep. Lisa Brown’s comments arose. And from this standpoint, I was particularly interested in the following piece from the news reports:

House Republicans say they didn't object to her saying "vagina." They said Brown compared the legislation to rape, violating House decorum. She denies the allegation.

"Her comments compared the support of legislation protecting women and life to rape, and I fully support Majority Floor Leader Jim Stamas’ decision to maintain professionalism and order on the House floor," GOP Rep. Lisa Posthumus Lyons, of Alto, said in a statement last week.

The reason for silencing Brown indicated here—the claim that she likened the proposed legislation to rape—seems to be far closer to the truth than the narratives that represent her censure as a bizarre sort of prudishness in the face of the word "vagina." Put another way, Republicans were offended by what Brown said because they correctly discerned what she meant to be accusing them of—and to the extent that Brown denied the charge, she was disingenuous. She may not have intended to say that what they were doing was literally rape. But she surely meant to use rape as a metaphor for what they were doing. She was invoking the broad feminist narrative sketched out above, a narrative which sees abortion regulations and rape as comparable patriarchal tools for controlling women’s sexuality. She saw the legislation as wrong, and wrong for the same general sorts of reasons that rape is wrong.

And she said as much, in a clever and forceful way. And the targets of her accusation were shocked and offended.That said, there is something deeply troubling about the silencing of Brown, especially if done for this reason. While the position she was articulating was controversial, it represents a perspective that surely ought to have a public voice in political deliberations about abortion laws. To silence a controversial political view just because it’s unpopular with the majority—just because, if correct, the view implies that the majority is guilty of a serious wrong—is a very serious breach of the spirit of free speech, even if doing so fell within the legal rights of those who censured Brown.

Imagine that an opponent of legal abortion, confronting legislation that would make abortions easier to procure, stood up in a state legislature and said the following:

"I appreciate that you don't want to be inconvenienced by the survival needs of innocent children, but murders of convenience are still murder. And the German legislators who voted to make the Holocaust easier were complicit in murder even if they never directly killed anyone."

Such a (hypothetical) legislator would be forcefully expressing the abortion narrative that prevails among many on the right. Those on the left may be shocked and offended by having the implications of that narrative articulated so baldly. But if freedom of speech means anything at all, it has to extend to speech expressing ideas that others find offensive. Popular speech doesn't need protecting. What needs protecting is the right to say unpopular things. Nothing is more unpopular, more likely to shock and offend, then an accusation of serious moral wrongdoing.

Of course, gratuitous public accusations of wrongdoing can be restricted as slanderous. But there is a difference between making a claim to the effect that Joe has performed such-and-such act, an act we all agree is seriously wrong, and offering a perspective from which something we all agree Joe has done amounts to a serious wrong. The former might be slanderous if unsupported by evidence. The latter is the sharing of a narrative perspective on what others are in fact doing. And it is precisely such narrative perspectives that guarantees of free speech are supposed to protect. If anything warrants protection, it is our right to weave together from the agreed facts a story that is likely to be unpopular with people in positions of power.

Clearly, this is what Rep. Brown was doing. With a few crisply chosen words she invoked a narrative which construed the actions of her fellow legislators as morally akin to rape. But maybe the legislators didn't get it. Maybe they thought she was literally accusing them, without evidence, of having a prurient interest in her vagina. Perhaps they didn't understand the feminist framework from which the rape comparison makes sense, and so they took her words as an utterly gratuitous and unwarranted attack on their integrity. Such a gratuitious accusation might qualify as a breach of decorum warranting censure.

But, of course, Brown’s comment wasn’t such a gratuitious accusation. It was a short-hand way of sharply invoking a viewpoint that, in a free society, should be part of our public conversation on abortion laws whether we agree with it or not. Could it really be the case that the Republicans in the Michigan House are so disconnected from feminist political theory that they lack the capacity to understand the reference? If this is true, then they silenced a political argument because they honestly mistook it for nothing but a personal insult.

If the Michigan House Republicans really perceived Brown’s comments as a gratuitous put-down without political content, it would seem that they lacked any kind of meaningful grasp on a defining narratives of the political left. They didn’t understand the story Brown was invoking, the story she was telling with a few potent words. If so, the message is that there is a profound disconnect between the narratives that shape political differences on the left and the right. Those on one side of the political divide just don't understand the stories being invoked by those on the other.

The alternative, it seems to me, is to view the Michigan House Republicans as deliberately using their power to restrict which narratives are allowed into a supposedly deliberative democratic process. Could they really care that little about freedom of speech? Neither story is especially appealing. In either case, political division has blocked the capacity of people to engage and wrestle with narratives at odds with their own.

And this, in the end, is why Vaginagate is so interesting to me: As I see it, it's a story about how our political polarization is impeding our capacity to engage thoughtfully and seriously with stories different from our own. The question is what to do about it.

Maybe part of the answer is that all of us need to think twice before we cleverly invoke, with a few sharp words, a narrative that our political opponents don't share. Maybe we shouldn't follow Sen. Brown's example. But that doesn't mean we should censure those who do.