March 21, 2013

I Don't Like Labels Anymore

While we’re at it with naming stuff, I think I’ve decided I don’t like labelling myself anymore. I’m not sure I was ever super comfortable with it, but it’s becoming increasingly frustrating.

I’m not intending to come at this from a hipster, alternative, underground, ‘man, what are labels but shackles, man?’ angle, though that might well be what actually bothers me. I could call myself a ‘sceptic’, for example. But I think I’d prefer to say, ‘I like to be sceptical’ or ‘I believe in thinking sceptically about {x,y,z}’. The latter describes the way you do things and can be used in more specific circumstances; it’s less constrictive upon me as a person. The former phrasing invites a boxing in of my identity and character, allowing people to impress assumptions and expectations upon me. ‘You’re a sceptic, so you must be A and B and do C, D and E,’ people could say. Whether these people are wrong or right about the conclusions from my label is moot. The point is that is I say I’m a {whatever} I immediately force people’s brains to create an image of me and fit further observations of me to that image.

Furthermore, I’m not sure I feel complete enough as a person to identify as anything in particular. I’m forever learning and growing and changing and discovering. I’m not a sceptic because there are lots of circumstances in which I let my feelings lead my and surrender my disbelief and inquisition to them. Sometimes, this is a good thing: if I’m watching a blockbuster film, it’s a serene experience not to question why the hell everything is blowing up or how that ninja dodged a bullet. I’m not always a feminist because I still get easily trapped by biases, right there in my sneaky subconscious. I’ll always try to be feminist, but that’s a different story.

See, I’m an adjective man, me. I’d like to describe myself and my actions than give myself an identity.

Thinking about this further, this may actually be a product of low self-esteem than most of what I said above. Hold that thought.

The Power of Technical Language

Deputy Editor of the New Statesman, Helen Lewis said something interesting on the Pod Delusion this week. Speaking to James O’Malley about feminism she said that ‘intersectionality’ was a great idea, but that she hated the word.

Let’s quickly step back a moment. Intersectionality studies the overlap (or ‘intersections’, I guess) between all the minority groups; the idea of bringing intersectionality into feminism is to prevent it becoming a white, middle-class action. By understanding that discrimination and the fight for equality blends across racial, sexual and social classifications, people can become better and more informed about how to narrow the equality gap. I think it was Beth Presswood (GodlessBitches) who described the revelation as a rhetorical question (paraphrased): ‘if you were to stack up the different types of people: who has a more privileged position – a black man or a white woman?’

So, back to Helen Lewis (and I’m not actually responding to or rebutting Lewis, rather rebounding from a singular point she made). The point Lewis was making was that she believed words like ‘intersectionality’ are useful in that they describe a concept as yet uncollected, but the word itself remains in the domain of more rigorous debate. It’s useful to actual egalitarian thinkers when engaging in discussion but isolating to the layperson to whom you may be trying to open an understanding.
What’s this boils down to in a more general sense is – is technical language a barrier to discussion and introducing ideas?

I have an urge to answer ‘no’. This might be because I tend to approach things (if I’m interested) in an academic way and make the effort to explore and understand if I’m going to engage with a topic. So there may be some personal bias here, I’ll admit. But language and words are powerful gateway tools to understanding. The concept of intersectionality may take a little bit of introduction, but once I understood it, it was an incredible useful term. It describes quite a lot in seven syllables. If I was exploring  why there aren’t a lot of women in (say) architecture and someone told me to think more intersectionally, I would understand more immediately that whatever the issue was, it ran across several minorities. It’s made understanding other new words like ‘kierarchy’ much simpler, because kierarchy is just the intersectional form of patriarchy.

Introducing technical or academic language takes a little more time, but over the long term (even the length of a conversation) it allows you to make larger leaps forward, making secondary and tertiary concepts much more accessible. For example, I could spend ten minutes clearing up nuclear fusion and nuclear fission and then we could have a much more involved discussion about the ramifications of the difference fuel and reactor types. Without including people in your language you may never be able to allow them the deeper understanding that gives them the power to make decisions and form opinions in the future.

Granted, if you’ve got seven minutes on LBC to convey an idea in an interview (as Lewis described) then you don’t have the power to do that. I understand that. But I wouldn’t go as far as called the word ‘intersectionality’ and other academic language ‘terrible’. Oh, no.

March 19, 2013

Penises: Not my Cup of Tea for Some Reason

So, I was talking to this bisexual guy the other day and we happened to get chatting about sexuality in general. I can't remember how we got to that, but I'm sure it was an awesome segue.

He said, 'I don't know how you monosexuals do it; you're cutting your sexual opportunities in half,' or something to that effect. This dissolved into a mindfarty dialogue in which I started to wonder what the hell it was that made me attracted to women and not men. I mean, I do like a bosom. Anyone who knows me will tell you that, even if you don't ask. But is a bosom the only thing that pulls me towards women? Yes No.

I'm going to binerise gender a little bit here as my experience and exposure to the spectrum is limited to the point of negligable. I haven't forgotten those outside of that binary, I just have nothing meaningful to say at this point.

I had a long think about people I had been attracted to, whether or not that led to anything requited. These people are pretty much all women. But these women are scattered across a range of qualities, both physical and personal, and I was struggling to nail a predictable pattern to them. Other than the obvious quality of being able to sustain an interesting or entertaining conversation for more than two minutes is a good start - having common ground tends to make for better coupling - there really wasn't too much to go on. There certainly wasn't anything particularly 'feminine' about their common qualities other than their bodies in any sense that dragged their circle out of the overlap with my male friends. Sure, they'd wear make up and do womenly things, but their interests and expressions thereof were no different to my close male friends.

So is it just a bodily thing? If I took someone I totally fancied the pants off and body swapped them with a man, would I suddenly stop fancying them? I probably would. And that's weird, isn't it? I guess it's not weird in the evolutionary sense in which a heteronormative urge to procreate ends up being pretty useful at the species level. But we humans tend to think ourselves above our biology, smarter than our instincts and gutteral drives, don't we? I don't like the fact that something that simple can change everything for me; it puts me in the position of marionette, with biology working the strings. Am I not allowed to master my own order of attraction?

The further question is: how much of my sexuality is shaped by genetics and how much by societal structuring of sexuality (and heteronormativity)? Kenneth Miller's research with twins has shown that sexuality is influenced by genetics, but how much is left by our early exposure to what one should deem attractive or not? This is all unresearched waffling, of course, but you can see among all ages how people who follow contemporary trends and fashions tend to be viewed as more attractive than those out of step. Look at heartthrobs and sexy peoples as they were in the 80s - they look hilarious and would be near-undateable if they presented today as they did in that fashionably confused decade. Make-up, clothing, body size and hair all undulate from cool to laughable over the decades and centuries and our sense of what's attractive moves with it. So my question is - how much does sexuality tie in with this sense of 'expected attraction'?

I don't have any answers to this by the way, I just want to know why I don't want to touch a penis. I mean, another penis.