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Archive for July, 2013

The Projection of Hate – Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, Rolling Stone and Right Wing Sex Panic

Posted in Editorials on July 19th, 2013
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Misogyny is a part of many right wing ideologies – religious fundamentalists and Red Pill/MRA/PUA types share it. And it strongly correlates with being generally politically conservative – if you look at the legislation agenda of the Republican party, it would seem that the only thing they care about is oppressing (women’s) sexuality.

One aspect of this worldview is the belief that the only thing that matters about a woman is her appearance. Religious men might cloak this in talking about a woman’s “ability to be a wife and mother” but often they simply mean her capacity as a sex object first and baby machine second. Red Pill types are far more blatant about this. Their constant drumbeat is that physical attraction is the only reason a man would be involved with a woman on any level. The generic Republican crowd expresses this when they insist that feminists are ugly, when they made a big deal about Sarah Palin being hot – to them how attractive you are is evidence of how well you conform to their ideas.

And no matter how poorly they react to a woman based on her appearance, they are more obsessed with women’s sexuality. Efforts to control it, either through sexist comments, legislating reproductive services or using “game” take up a lot of their time and attention. They are vigilant.

I think this explains some of the panic over the Rolling Stone cover featuring Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. There are several different reasons people are offended by the cover. I even empathize, a little bit with people who say that criminals shouldn’t get so much attention, that they shouldn’t be rock stars – that if they want infamy we should give them anonymity. But that’s not what I’m talking about.

Amanda Marcotte wrote about how people are totally losing their minds over the cognitive dissonance that a terrorist could be handsome. There are some people in the world who actually believe that real life is a fairy tale and that the good people are always good looking and the evil people are always ugly. And they can’t handle the cognitive dissonance.

But something else, I saw in the reactions to Marcotte on twitter was something far more sinister.

They are all filled with incoherent rage by the tweet:

The responses I’ve highlighted above don’t simply fall into the “don’t glamorize criminals” category or even the “obviously villains are ugly, SHUT UP THEY ARE!” category. This line of reasoning goes:

1. Amanda Marcotte said Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is handsome.
2. Therefore she thinks he’s a good person AND she wants to have sex with him.

It doesn’t really follow, at all. But I would say that this conclusion does fit in with their warped misogyny. Men who objectify every woman they meet are projecting that women must do the same; if a woman says a man is handsome, then she must feel about him the way he feels about attractive women…!

This also fits with their warped view of female sexuality and the “theory” of “hypergamy.” Many men are obsessed with why women like “bad boys” instead of “nice guys.” Simply stating that an evil man is handsome must be proof of some deeper attraction, they think. And here, right here on twitter is a woman, nay, a feminist – admitting it! She must be punished! Don’t let her get away!

It’s not pretty to look at. But there is so much of it to see.

Religion’s Optical Illustion

Posted in Editorials, Personal Essays on July 18th, 2013
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Vernal Falls, Yosemite California Image credit: Author

A friend forwarded to me this heartbreaking article about a young man who died of a drug overdose after “ex-gay” “reparative therapy” failed to make him straight.

This sentence jumped out at me:

“And since sexuality cannot be separated from the self, we had taught Ryan to hate himself. “

And it made me angry. Their ignorance and stubbornness and refusal to question their faith until it was too late resulted in the death of their son, although I’m sure that they know that.

I started thinking about what I have touched on before, that putting distance between myself and the church, only makes me angrier about the injustices and evils carried on in its name. And I think I finally understand why. I thought that distance in time, and in emotion and in physical space would calm me, and soothe my conscience. But the farther away that I get, the more damage I see to innocent people.

I imagine myself in a rowboat, pushing off from a small oceanfront cabin, built into the bottom of a hill. And as I row, I see that the hill is in fact a mountain. And no matter how far I row, I can’t see all of it at once. My distance is only serving to emphasize how big it really is. And I can only conceive of the mountain as it is today. I cannot truly imagine the span of it’s history across centuries. I row harder and harder, yet still it grows and grows. If I had a camera, I would not be able to zoom out far enough to capture it with any panoramic lens.

I do not know if it is possible to get so far away that it will appear to shrink.

Snarky Trumps Creepy

Posted in Personal Essays on July 16th, 2013
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So, Chris Brecheen’s post has inspired me to relate a story that happened almost ten years ago.

Some of the women in the comments of that post related stories about how they responded to creepy men or stuck up for women who were being harassed in public. So here’s mine.

It was spring of 2004, I was in my final semester of college and I was out having a beer with two friends – a man and a woman – we’ll call them Bob and Jane. We were in one of the “nice” bars in our college town which meant that the tables and chairs were in good repair, the wood finished walls were polished, the selection of beers was excellent and IDs were actually checked. As we went up to the bar for a drink, two clearly inebriated older men approached us. They were in their mid to late 40′s and wearing suits, with their ties and shirt buttons undone.

“Hey!” One said to Jane. “You’re awfully pretty, did you know that?”

I had no idea that sometimes movie cliches appeared in real life.

Jane looked down at her shoes. They continued, asking what she was studying, if she had a boyfriend. She gave quiet, one word answers. I was fuming at how upset they were making my friend. I started thinking about everything I wanted to say to them, but I wasn’t sure how to do it without embarrassing Jane further.

“Ugh, these guys.” Bob said. “Let’s just go to our table.”

We took our drinks and sat down, trying to ignore the obnoxious men.

About ten minutes later, they sat down at the table next to us.

“Hey you!” one of them said directly to me. “I’m sorry we ignored you before for your friend.” I could write a dissertation on the absurd misogyny of that statement, but I’ll let it go for now. “You’re not so bad yourself.” I rolled my eyes.

“Yeah,” said the other one. “I mean, what are two girls like you doing with a guy like him?” he pointed to Bob.

Something snapped in my head. I was done caring about appearing to be a nice girl.

I looked right at him and said, matter-of-factly “He’s really good in bed.”

There was a beat and then the two drunk dudes looked at each other with eyebrows raised and eyes widened. These assholes thought I was being serious. They muttered an incoherent apology and I think they even nodded respectfully towards Bob, who was trying not to laugh. They left us alone for the rest of the night.

I couldn’t believe that it worked, but it did, and that was when I learned to trust my inner smartass. Joy Nash said that “the secret to turning staircase wit into regular old every day wit is practice.” So, if you feel it’s safe to do so, let go of your need to be the nice girl. Let the devil on your shoulder out when you need her.

Just as in Chris Brecheen’s story it seems that creepy dudes have no sense of humor or irony. My ridiculous and silly comeback rang true in their worldview, even though I was only trying to be obnoxious. These men are extremely insecure which is also why you may risk violence in provoking them. Use your judgment when engaging them, but know that there’s not much to these guys but swagger and inadequacy.

Some Musings on the Psychology of Minecraft

Posted in Editorials on July 11th, 2013
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I’ve been playing a lot of Minecraft lately. It’s a fun game and it reminds me of The Legend of Zelda games I loved as a kid. Recently I started playing in multiplayer mode and something happened that made me think about they psychology of video games.

I know that one of the reasons video games are so pleasurable is that they give people rewards at quicker and more predictable rates thank other tasks. I can’t really say this is something that I think about consciously, but I do find myself having built a castle or mined some diamonds feeling like I have “accomplished something” when in reality, I haven’t. I just played a game. Leisure activities are necessary, but they aren’t a productive use of my time.

On Sunday I was exploring a cave in Minecraft and I was knocked into the very mineshaft I was looking for by some zombies. They jumped down and killed me. In Minecraft, if you aren’t playing in hardcore mode, you will “respawn” (restart) the game at a certain point, and all of the items/loot you were carrying with you will remain at the place you died for about five minutes. With literally nothing to lose, I sprinted back to the cave to find two zombies, one of which was wearing my armor! This is an often humorous aspect of the game. Zombies will pick up anything they find and try and use it against you. Previously I fought one off that was wielding a piece of rotting flesh that had been dropped by another zombie I had killed. On this occasion, I defeated them both with one of my shovels that they had not yet gotten to and retrieved my armor.

I paused for a moment, feeling kind of weird about re-equiping it. I felt grossed out because a zombie was just wearing it. Then I figured that it was now an extra special trophy of my victory over the zombies.

Then I thought about how this game has tapped into some pretty deep areas of my brain. Firstly I identify enough with my avatar that upon seeing an enemy NPC wearing “my armor” it I was startled, and amusedly indignant. There has been some research about why and how people identify with their video game avatars. It reminds me of the research about how the brain changes to think about a car one is driving. Some theorize that you start to perceive the car as a part of your body and that it changes your proprioception. There is evidence that people with bumper stickers on their car are more aggressive drivers. Similar to having a custom made avatar perhaps?

Second, I am so invested in this game that my innate mechanism for disgust was activated by the idea of my avatar wearing armor that a cartoonish zombie character was just “wearing.” I did have a brief feeling that I was the one putting on dirty clothes. Then I laughed at the idea of getting squicked out over pixels on a screen.

Our brains are more plastic than we may be comfortable admitting. And like Minecraft, almost infinitely moddable. Be careful what you do with yours.

There’s no going back.

Posted in Editorials on July 9th, 2013
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This post is adapted from a recent service I led at my Unitarian Universalist congregation. I gave the presentation with accompanying powerpoint slides, and have linked to relevant images in this post where appropriate.

The reading I gave before my sermon was from the Book of Genesis 3: 1-7

Now the serpent was more crafty than any of the wild animals the Lord God had made.
He said to the woman,
“Did God really say,
‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden’?”
The woman said to the serpent,
“We may eat fruit from the trees in the garden,
but God did say,
‘You must not eat fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the garden,
and you must not touch it,
or you will die.’”
“You will not certainly die,”
the serpent said to the woman.
“For God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will be opened,
and you will be like God,
knowing good and evil.”
When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye,
and also desirable for gaining wisdom,
she took some and ate it.
She also gave some to her husband,
who was with her,
and he ate it.
Then the eyes of both of them were opened

February 24, 2013 was Oscar Night. I settled in to watch the Academy Awards with some Chinese takeout and Twitter open on my iPhone. Seth MacFarlane was hosting the show, and I was soon appalled by his inane and sexist humor. No woman was spared, from those who disrobed in movies, to underage actresses he saw as targets for lecherous older movie stars – beat after beat came at the expense of women. Women who were victims of domestic violence or eating disorders, women who were sex workers, women he deemed too beautiful to have anything worthwhile to say, all became subjects of ridicule. I watched the feminists I knew on Twitter go through several stages – denial, then anger, and finally scathing satire.

I tweeted a few snarky comments of my own, and my enjoyment of the evening came more from blowing off steam about this chauvinist retro mess than the paltry excuse for comedy Hollywood was serving up. My mother and my brother didn’t get it. Why couldn’t I just brush it off or ignore how demeaning the humor was? This sermon is an attempt to explain.

Last summer I lead a service about the Unitarian Universalist idea that revelation is not sealed. As UUs we believe that there is no one holy book or source of information that contains all the answers to life’s questions. And in our search for truth and meaning, we have to admit that there is so much that we do not know. This is a huge responsibility. And this is part of what I mean when I say that there’s no going back. There are some things that we can come to know, that we can never not know again. Last summer, I drew a comparison to Eve and The Apple, and still today, I tend to side with Eve. I’d rather know than not know. In fact, later on in the Bible, in Isah 5:20 it is written,

Woe to those who call evil good and good evil

…And yet we were not supossed to know the difference in the first place.

In January, I spoke about the “Toolbox of Justice.” Social justice is like a toolbox, feminism, anti-racism and other struggles for human rights are not just political movements but ways to understand the world. We can use the ideas found in these movements both to create change and to recognize injustice in our daily lives. Once we understand that a word or an action is harmful to others, our conscience reminds us not to do it again. While some may remain ignorant about why a certain phrase is offensive, or how systemic injustice hurts people – once you know, there’s no going back – there is no excuse for passivity.

There is evidence for this idea embedded within our bodies.

The basal ganglia is a structure located in the base of our forebrain. Among other things, it is responsible for automaticity – the ability to do things deliberately but without much conscious thought. When people refer to something as “like riding a bike,” they are talking about something that can be controlled by this area of the brain. There are many things we can teach ourselves to do without much thought, walking, typing, knitting, even driving – if you have ever found yourself lost in thought and arriving safely at your destination but a bit startled that you don’t remember every turn on a familiar route, thank your basal ganglia. With even complex tasks, once we learn how to do them, we can never forget.

More abstractly, people have compared understanding the basic tenets of feminism to the 1999 Wachowski Brothers movie “The Matrix” starring Keanu Reaves.

And sometimes it feels that way. It did on Oscar night. I couldn’t ignore Seth Meyers sexist bonanza anymore than I could ignore a fire alarm or not turn around when someone calls my name. I can’t unfeminist myself, and I don’t think I would want to, most of the time.

But what does my experience have to do with anyone else? Just because I can’t go back does that mean that no one else can? I think there’s evidence that this is so.

Steven Pinker’s book The Better Angels of Our Nature posits that humanity has gotten less violent over time. Despite the horrors of the twentieth century, which was also the most well documented era in human history, wars in past centuries killed even greater percentages of the population than both World Wars did respectively. Slavery, torture and capital punishment have also declined over time as we have seen an increase in human rights worldwide. Pinker cites the enlightenment, widespread education and social movements like feminism as the cause of this decline in violence and cruelty. There is no reason to think that even though horrific acts still do occur that they are increasing or will increase in the future. Our society is becoming less violent, and signs point to it becoming more peaceful still, with studies of younger generations showing that young people today are less racist and more tolerant than ever before.

In fact, our popular entertainment relies on the fact that harmful and bigoted ideas of the past, are entirely alien to audiences today. This may be a bit too optimistic at times, but that doesn’t stop it from being a commonly used trope.

The movie Pleasantville explored the idea of how two teenagers living in the 1990′s would survive in a 1950′s tv sitcom. The provincial mores of the time were played both for comedy and shock value. However, the filmmakers were aware of the larger implications of this idea.

A more serious endeavor, AMC’s Mad Men plays the sexism, racism and homophobia of a 1960′s advertising agency straight, for dramatic effect. To identify with the female, gay or people of color characters on the show is often a lonely and desperate experience. But there would be little value in the great lengths taken to make the show realistic if our world had not undergone so many changes.

Alternately, the Star Trek television series and movies portray a future without poverty, or bigotry. Gene Roddenberry’s vision of utopia was flawed at times, but he sensed that social progress would only continue to march on into the future.

In real life, there are countless examples of how a small change in progress for human rights lead to bigger and bigger things. The integration of the United States military in 1948 was the first large scale attempt at racial desegregation in the US. Although it was met with resistance by some, it was a large victory for the African American Civil Rights Movement. And it set the stage for efforts to desegregate schools and other institutions. The experiences of white soldiers, serving alongside black soldiers contributed to changing ideas about race in America.

Harvey Milk, the first openly gay city supervisor of San Francisco California, famously encouraged his gay and lesbian friends and supporters to come out of the closet. He said, “Once and for all, break down the myths, destroy the lies and distortions. For your sake. For their sake. For the sake of the youngsters who are becoming scared.” He knew what social scientists would later prove statistically – that the number one indicator of a person’s support for the rights of Gender and Sexual Minorities was whether or not they knew an out GLBTQ person. Once someone knows that their family member, their friend, their co-worker or neighbor will face harm and discrimination, it’s enough to change their mind. There’s no going back.

UU Minister David McClean has spoken about this quotation by the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther Kind Jr.:

“The Arc of the Moral Universe Is Long, but It Bends Toward Justice”

Reverend McClean said that he believes that this is not just a profound and inspiring statement but something that is literally true – a natural law of the universe. I’m still considering this. Sometimes it feels like ignorance and hatred bog us down as if we were trying to run through deep mud. Sometimes we get distracted and confused that we lose sight of our goals and fight with each other in circles instead of for one another, shoulder to shoulder. But when panning out and looking at ourselves from decades or even centuries past, we can see a pattern. Time and social progress both move in one direction – forward.

I don’t know who will be hosting the next Academy Awards Ceremony. But unless they have a time machine, I’m hopeful that it can only get better.