About 'Alpha+Good'

Alpha+Good (a bad wordplay on Orwell's "double plus good" and old machismo - I'm the realest after all) is a side project that belongs to 'Onklare taal' ('Unclear' or 'Unripe language'), the umbrella of several literary projects in Dutch.

This section is almost exclusively in English and comprises my ongoing thoughts on progress, gender, politics and various other social themes. Why is this in English why everything else in Dutch? Because I want to gun for a much wider audience here. Also, my literary English isn't good enough, otherwise I would always write in English.

Are you a little lost? This link will take you right back to my home page.

Friday, November 28, 2014

To other dudes in dating

There is always a distinct danger of preaching to the choir on blogs like this, but it never helps to spread the word, I suppose. In this particular post, I'd like to address my fellow (hetero) men who, like me, are users of online dating sites. I'm sure that we can commiserate on a few aspects that affect men the most on these sites: low response rates, lame responses in general, and people suddenly ghosting you for no real reason. It sucks and can be a blow to the morale. Online dating is not the easy way to Sexville or Lovetown that it purports to be.

With that out of the way, however, one reason why online dating can suck so much for guys, is a reason we owe wholly to ourselves: women get bombarded with messages every day. Guys seem to be locked in an invisible arms race to send out as many messages as possible, hoping something will stick. Until we break out of this pattern, that's an unfortunate fact we'll have to deal with. But it's not just the shotgun approach that hurts our chances, it's also the nature of the messages. Here's a handy list of things to keep in mind:

> If it isn't appropriate to say something to a stranger in public, it isn't going to be appropriate online, either. You don't strike up conversation with a woman you don't know at a bar by immediately asking if she's down to fuck. You don't whip out your cock. You don't start talking about a bizarre fetish.

> If you get no response to your message, leave it be. If you must, you could send a second message after some time, but after that, it's game over. Sending more is just being pushy and reeks of desperation or entitlement.

> If you get rejected, remain polite or say nothing. Guys sometimes complain that women can be very ambiguous in sending rejection signals, but that's because outright rejection turns some guys into aggressive douchebags who belittle women ("I wasn't interested in you anyway, you fat cow!") out of a sense of hurt pride. If you can't handle rejection, get your ass of the Internet and work on yourself.

I'm not a dating coach (and dating coaches are lame-ass guys who revel in intidimation, harassment and a good dose of awful gender essentialism, anyway) and I certainly wouldn't say I have a success formula down for getting awesome dates, because I'm a normal human being just like you, with assets and downsides. However, because I don't always want to couch any advice I give in negatives, here's a few positive pointers that will increase your response rates or at least set you up for a lucky strike:

> Have at least one clear picture of your face and one that more or less shows your figure. It's better to own up to who you are rather than hide your insecurities. A good picture can go a long way - don't settle for crappy bathroom selfies or photos under mega-harsh light.

> More about pictures: you don't need to showboat about the fact that you know other women, and use goofy poses or faces at your own risk. Also avoid the death stare straight in the lens. Vacation pictures and pet pictures seem to be perennial, and are rather safe, but certainly okay.

> Keep your communication short and to the point. Like I said, women have to wade through dozens of messages every day. If you write a position paper on how great of a guy you are, it's likely to go unread.

> Get a bit of a feel on the conversation to see when it's appropriate to ask her out. Some women may be willing to arrange a date after a single chat conversation or three messages back and forth, some are a bit less forthcoming.

> Don't state you are funny or intelligent: prove it. Make a good joke on your profile, or share your opinion on an amazing book you've read. Otherwise you're just filling in a D&D character sheet.

> Don't rely on stupid oneliners or template messages and indicate you've at least read her profile by referring to a common interest or something. In case the profile is bare-bones and just some data and pictures, I get that this is a lot harder, but it's worth a try.

> Keep your own profile not longer than 1.5 screen lengths. Much longer than that and you're going to come off crazy or overly convoluted. Very short may work if you're good at that. If not, about a screen length is ideal.

> Be interested and interesting. There's no harm in giving a nice and considerate compliment, and it's always good to have some interesting tidbit of knowledge or an interesting question up your sleeve.

> The point is not to pretend to be someone else, but own up to who you are and be the "best you". This isn't a job interview where you have to resort to some little white lies.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Letter to my past self

I honestly have no idea who reads this blog. I know it's being read because I see the numbers and figures, but I don't know who you are. Since I always stress that personal growth is a process and that you're not born armed and ready with all the knowledge about the world and how it works, I decided to think about what I would tell my past self, in the not-so-secret (but perhaps misguided) hopes it might ring true for some readers.

Dear 16-year-old me,

I'm writing to you from the future. It's the year 2014, and we still do not have flying cars, but the world hasn't ended either. In many unremarkable ways, it's similar to the world you're living in right now. In some ways, it's remarkably different. But I'm not here to entertain you with a vision of your future self's present.

I wanted to impart some advice on you that I could have used back then.

Don't listen to people who tell you you should let go of your anger and accept things the way they are, but make sure your anger is focused on the right culprits. Don't lash out at people who don't deserve it. It is seductive to make fun of people who occupy lower rungs on the social totem pole, but by mocking them, you become complicit in the structures you'd like to change.

Don't hold on to grudges and don't hold on to self-flagellation: the former is, as someone once said, drinking poison in hopes the other guy will die, and the latter is cutting off your nose to spite your own face.

Don't listen to people who claim to speak with common sense, but develop some of your own by experiencing things. Don't be afraid to try new things. You'll miss 100% of the shots you'll never take. If you fear embarassment and being made fun of because you're a sensitive person, you diminish yourself. Own up to who you are. It's okay to be a little awkward sometimes. In 15 years from now nobody's going to remember except you.

Although you can't see it right now in the cutthroat jungle that is secondary school, you are an incredibly privileged person - and one with the capacity for change. Not everyone is given that quality, but don't be too hard on yourself if you fail a personal goal. Your time is a limited resource, and so is your bodily constitution and your mental health. Don't lose track of that. You might be stronger than you give yourself credit for, but you'll never be as strong as you'd like to be.

You can't change the world, but you can bring about subtle shifts in your own happiness and the happiness of people you care for, which may influence wider society at large in the end. Some people will remain assholes for the rest of their life, but remember that the best revenge is to live happy, not to dedicate resources to make them even shittier people than they already are. Tone down on your impatience - that is really your very worst trait.

Life will get better. You'll unfortunately suffer through terrible relationships, but you'll also know what it feels like to be loved pretty much unconditionally. Don't set yourself up as a saviour for other people. Focus on sorting out yourself and drawing boundaries. Don't let people syphon away your good cheer and take advantage of your good nature because you like to feel validated.

Love and sex are not a race. People around you are just as confused as you are. You're not entitled to someone's affection for being nice or whatever. Girls are individuals and don't belong to a hivemind - society is constantly trying to pull wool over your eyes in this regard, but make no mistake, while they sometimes seem to like "assholes", in fact they feel drawn to self-confidence.

You'll never be everyone's taste, but there will be plenty of girls and women who will think you are good looking. Take advantage of the fact that in ten years from now, you'll be at your physical peak, and don't let insomnia or bad dietary habits ruin the fact that nature saw fit to give you a mostly able body.

Also you have asthma. That's the reason why you can never keep up in long-distance running and always end just in front of the fat guys and the ectoplasmic skeletons. Get it tested and get medication for it, instead of accidentally finding out you have it when you're 24.

Keep sticking up for people who have it worse than you do. Keep reading. Keep writing. Keep being curious. Keep a budget. Don't play too many video games. They're nice entertainment and build some skill sets, but they're also a time sink where the investment isn't worth the eventual reward.

If you must take drugs, always make absolutely sure you're doing the right dosage.

Do your best a little more in French class. Resist the urge to pick at scabs, as you get older they will heal more and more imperfectly. Learn to relax. Trust your instincts. As time passes, they will get honed ever more sharply, and they will mostly turn out to be 100% on the money.

With lots of love,
your older self

Thursday, October 09, 2014

Public service announcement

Updates will be at a slower pace in the coming months. Because of my involvement as a moderator of a Dutch-language feminist Facebook group, part-time site admin and blog contributor, my writing efforts for progressive politics will mostly be directed there, rather than here. I will still occasionally update, but it will be less frequently.

Wednesday, October 08, 2014

Rhetorics of progress (V): First aid during debates

Whichever way you turn it, tone is just as important in a message as the medium if you want to reach an audience. You'll speak differently with a minister than with your friends, for instance. To convince someone, it's always best to speak or write the way that will make that person most receptive.

However, tone has been used for decades to silence progressive movements, and feminism in particular. Opponents would allegedly listen if feminists were more 'reasonable' or 'didn't use such strong language'. These are usually excuses not to have to listen, or a one way street to the infamous 'smarm'. Put bluntly, someone who is smarmy will focus only on formalities and not content, and will often keep coming back back to useless non-statements.

This brings me to five defence mechanisms that I've come to identify a couple of years back in a big presentation on progressive thought. I think it might be useful to run down that list again to help people arm themselves against those mechanisms.

1. Denial

"I don't see the problem."
"You're making this up."
"It's not as bad as you think it is."

Knowledge and facts are the perfect antidote against denial. Thanks to the Internet, there are hundreds of sources available to prove feminist theses and clearly point out the issues. The plural of anecdote isn't data, but it may also help to refer to examples of everyday life for people who have trouble accepting feminism.

2. Shift

"Women's empowerment is bad for men."
"Muslim women have got it so much worse, though?"
"Workers' rights trump women's rights."

Some people seem to think that one group's success will always be to the detriment of another - which is not necessarily the case. Female suffrage didn't render men powerless. It's useful here to point to intersectionality and lead the discussion back to a common theme instead of falling for 'divide and conquer'-rhetoric, that today have resulted, for instance, in the fact that the white Flemish underclasses see the Muslim underclass as its opponent, while they in fact face a shared predicament.

3. Appropriation

"We are being oppressed, not you."
"But what about our problems?"
"When is it going to be International Men's Day?"

It's always useful to check whether the person who says this, may be making sense, but similar to the shift strategy, it's important to keep the discussion on topic. It may be rewarding to speak about proportionality here (e.g. relationship violence proportionally damages women more often and more severely). As a last point, it's useful to consider whether this isn't an argument in bad faith to legitimise certain forms of oppression, such as the victim role that religious extremists or MRAs often resort to.

4. Vilification

"The status quo is fine and those who challenge it are evil."
"You are màking this into a problem."
"Feminism has a sinistre agenda."

The backlash against feminism is sometimes rooted in the fear that a now oppressed class will behave like today's priviliged class. Be on your watch for straw men (like individual examples of extremists that have appropriated the feminist label), and don't shy away from a debate on good and bad moral values. It's also helpful to acknowledge anger without pouring oil on the fire, and lead the discussion back to a calmer place.

5. Violence

"Stupid cunt."
"You need to be put in your place."
"I'll beat you up."

Leave the discussion if possible, or remove the person from the debate. To lash out in equal measure is usually a bad idea and will often lead to escalation, unless you're left with no other option. It's not a bad idea to name and shame people who do this - if they are using their real name, for instance.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Rhetorics of progress (IV): I don't have to listen if you have nothing to say

Every once in a while, I will read someone lamenting how the Internet makes people wall themselves up in their own ideological bubble where few ideas that contradict this ideology seep in - and if they do so, it's through the already filtered reflexes of that very ideology. Never mind that I think people have always been this ideologically insular and prone to seek out peers with similar opinions, there is also something disingenious to this remark.

I mean, who could be against examining your personal convictions critically? It seems like a no-brainer, yet so few people seem to do it. But here's the thing: critical self-examination does not automatically involve inviting ideological opposites to the table. For example, white supremacists are among my ideological antipodes. I know what their arguments are like. I have nothing to gain from exposing myself to their hatred, except, I suppose, to learn what their argument du jour is and how much it is a crock of shit.

I do understand that some people are turned off by philosophical rigidity and the conviction that right- as well as left-wing zealots have that They Are Right, but the truth is not in the middle. Some people believe that the Earth is flat. That doesn't mean that we should all compromise and say the Earth is somewhat flat but also somewhat spherical. I'm all in favour of synthesising philosophical positions and eliminating false opposites wherever possible (e.g. that caring for the environment and a vibrant economy are somehow at odds), but some things cannot be reconciled, and some things are just false.

Invoking moderation and listening to other points of view is often abused as a part of smarm: focusing on the style rather than the arguments, prattling in a condescending tone about how people are too convinced of their points of view, while offering no arguments. It bypasses debate and nullifies it, precisely by insisting that we should listen to people who have nothing to offer. That in itself will draw the ire from self-appointed 'moderates', out of the misguided kumbaya-like belief that everyone can offer something in a debate.

In closing, I believe it is very important to remain self-critical and not become fixated on a particular viewpoint to the exclusion of evidence or logic to the contrary. But I also believe that I don't have to entertain or tolerate viewpoints whose argumentative significance is close to zero and has already been roundly refuted - climate change deniers, anti-vaxxers, religious fanatics, MRAs, and so on. I could do well without these points of view polluting debates, and will happily keep excluding them.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

The women who could be allies but are not (yet)

The recent surge of female groups against feminism is a curious thing, and one that leaves a lot of feminists and their allies befuddled, especially if the women behind antifeminist statements do not seem to be overly religious or motivated by a conservative agenda. Microtrends like this invariably open up old sores for me, too.

Hook, line and sinker

See, I totally understand why most men are apathetic at best towards feminism, and consequently don't spend a lot of time thinking about it, making it easy for them to become misinformed. I also don't lay the responsibility to be feminist at the feet of every woman. I understand that women who have been raised by conservative values will sometimes buy these hook, line and sinker, or that they might be simply misinformed as well.

But what raises my hackles is when I see or hear women speak out against feminism who, by all rights, already espouse and live by a lot of what feminism stands for. I'm talking about women who have struggled against sexual conservatism to express themselves, women who value having a career and resist the pressure to settle down and have babies, women who are unafraid to speak up and make their opinion known - women who have no qualms competing with men and who fight for their personal freedom.

Not some think piece

This is not some think piece where I will berate these women for not reading feminist theory, because it would be especially presumptuous of me - a man - to tell these women how they should be feminist. In fact, what has set some of these women against feminism is probably that they catalog conservative pressures to be a certain type of woman right along with the pressure they feel from some feminists to be a certain type of woman. Let me get back to that in my final points.

For the sake of argument, I'll try to explore three typical anti-feminist arguments that you hear from this particular type of woman who has a feeling of hostility towards feminists.

1. "I'm not against feminism per se, but..."

Let's get this one out of the way first. The assumption usually here is that feminism is a thing that has already served its purpose. This assumption is much more widespread among men, but it's a little myopic to say the least: it's not because you personally have rarely had experiences with street harrassment of haven't experienced sexual coercion or misogyny, that nobody else does, or worse, that it's victims' own fault.

2. "I don't need feminism because I love men"

Obviously feminism doesn't hate men, but wants to bring down patriarchy - a pervasive system that systematically and disproportionally empowers straight men, usually to the expense of everybody else.

I'm sure that women who say this have had great individual experiences with men, might have had caring fathers or cool brothers, and so on. But there's something that's nagging about this statement, which leads me to the next one:

3. "I'm not like those women"

In 'The Gender Delusion', neuroscientist Cordelia Fine noted research that the more women rise in a typically male hierarchy, the more they will start adopting values traditionally associated with masculinity. In a very recent article, Soraya Chemaly has noted this as well.

A perverse side effect of these masculine values - that ulimtately root in patriarchy - is that they relegate women to second tier status. So by adopting the dominant discourse of power, they start seeing (some) other women, or men seen as not conforming enough, as weak and less worthy.

Individual vs social

There is something disingenuous about this. It's one thing to say "I'm not interested in feminism because I don't believe women should be equal to men" (as religious conservatives would say), which is at least a consistent position. It's another thing to - often consciously - put feminism to practice as an individual but work against it on a social level.

So yeah, I feel slightly despondent when I see the next celebrity, accomplished woman or powerful role model express her preference for 'Real Men', pity her own gender as typically weak and emotional (or dabble in the old 'men are like this and women like that' fairytale), and generally use feminist accomplishments as a launching pad to perpetuate a status quo.

You mean they owe other women something?

To be owed something is a very thorny subject in feminism because it is reminiscent of some men who feel that women owe them sex, love or attention for no reason other than that these men want it, the woman's opinions be damned.

So no, this particular type of anti-feminist women doesn't owe feminism anything, but it would be nice if they could turn around to see the flaw in their thinking. Note that this is not me saying: "here's how you should behave", but "here's why I think you're wrong". Those are two different things.

Consistency is hard!

In a broader sense, it's a frank conversation that anyone should be having with themselves, including self-avowed feminists and progressives. Another good example is the generation of Baby Boomers who's built its career and fortune on the institutions they and their parents worked to make more meritocratic, yet is now shutting the door for everyone else. Or how some radical Islamic groups demand respect for their right to wear the headscarf (which is fine), yet deride any woman who doesn't as a slut.

Expecting total ideological consistency from an individual is probably unfair. It's very human to believe contradictory things or to act contrary to one's self-image and ethos. To demand perfection is to buy into the Nirvana fallacy. I'm just disappointed with a segment of women who would probably be great feminist role models (I'm not asking for activists) to be so vicious against the people who could be her natural allies.

Monday, July 07, 2014

Don't be 'That Guy'

I have always maintained that feminism must be both a theory and a practise. Practise without theory has no direction and may often end up doing feminism a disservice, while theory without practise accomplishes nothing but intellectual self-satisfaction.

How do you 'do' feminism then? Like, in daily life? And as a man? I've already written a few short tips (under the 'Minimal effort' title) that you can do to be a better ally even if you feel uncomfortable discussing or arguing in public.

Disregarding the question whether men can really be complete feminists because they are not women, there is much more that we can do to both help ourselves and help women. This includes a category of breaking with what I call 'That Guy'-behaviour that irritates me to no end among some men who claim to be supportive of feminism and its goals. So, don't be*:

That Guy who brushes off criticism by saying "but I mean well!"

Because he tries to be a good husband to Felicia and listens to the opinions of women around him moreso than his peers do, Patrick can't see what's wrong with advising women to not wear revealing outfits late at night in dodgy areas in the city. Instead of reflecting on what he might have done wrong, Patrick goes into defence mode, digs in his heels and keeps repeating he "means well" as if that is a magic mantra that will shield him from criticism.

That Guy who dismisses women's perspectives and feelings as part of the discussion.

George is a scientist with a keenly analytical mind. He enters a discussion on everyday sexism where a woman complains that salesmen always address her husband first or seem to assume that her husband will know more about the matter at hand. George launches into a discussion of why this salesman might assume that and will be frustrated about the 'anecdotism' of the woman with the story, completely ignoring his privilege of not having experienced any of her frustration on a personal level.

That Guy who thinks he's entitled to make sexist jokes because he "gets it".

Frank is abhorred by acid attacks on women in the Middle East and came out in support of stricter laws on sexual violence. He also realizes that in many ways, women still don't have it as good as most men. When someone then calls him out on casually referring to a celebrity as a "vacuous bimbo", he dismisses that criticism by saying that he can't possibly mean it that way.

That Guy who enters debates and wants to be heard despite not knowing a lot about the topic at hand.

In an ongoing discussion about underrepresentation of women in higher management, Robert pipes up with selfmade theories about how and why this is, despite never having really thought about this before. He disturbs the discussion and objects to being told to listen because he is very eager to share his opinion, although it is irrelevant.

That Guy who tells all the ladies to calm down.

A discussion is getting particularly heated, and Richard steps in to say that he finds the atmosphere too toxic and that people should calm down. Instead of trying to honestly understand why they are upset, he manages to turn the discussion against him, confirming his prejudice that feminism is being hijacked by "hysterical women".

That Guy who is "just asking questions".

James can't stay away from a good debate. In a discussion following a news story about sexual assault on a minor, he starts theorising about age of consent laws and bringing up the possibility that some minors might enjoy sex. In the outrage that follows, he fails to see that he's been acting pretty airily about a touchy subject that some may have personal histories with, and decides that feminists are bad at debating.

That Guy who lectures feminists about how to do feminism.

David is an experienced guy and socially progressive. He can't help but offering suggestions about the marketing strategy of feminism, its branding and its messaging, in ways that he believes would improve the movement, inevitably rousing anger in activists who have dedicated years to the cause, and ignoring that the root cause for the pushback against feminism is (usually) not their comm strategy, but society's sexist structures.

This list can be virtually endless, but I'll end on a few brief notes that extend beyond men who are already engaged in socially progressive movements in one way or another. As always, I'm aware that I may be preaching to the choir, but I want to demonstrate how easy it can really be to make a positive difference without becoming a full-blown activist.

So, allow me to present some quick parting shots. Don't be That Guy who:

... takes criticism of some male behaviour personally
... wants a cookie or a pat on the head for not being a horrible person
... pushes for sex although all physical, mental and even verbal cues say she doesn't want to
... decides to strike up random conversations with random women who are out alone at night - there are plenty of avenues to meet women where they don't already feel unsafe
... reduces gender to stupid stereotypes
... cat-calls, whistles, honks or jeers at women
... brings up issues that affect men only when the conversation is about women
... feels entitled to female attention
... calls other men gay, girls or pussies if they don't meet some arbitrary standard for masculinity
... is totally That Guy without realising it

* All of this may apply to some women as well, but I write mainly for men.

Sunday, May 04, 2014

Identity and truth

Quite recently, I was involved in a protracted discussion on identity following a Gawker article that highlighted a few of the more eccentric and reviled social justice corners of Tumblr. The question basically is: do people who believe that they are animals or mythical beings inhabiting a human body (otherkin), people who are convinced they were born the wrong 'race' or culture (transethnics) and people who feel they have a physical condition not reflected in their actual body (transdisabled) a place in the broader social justice movement, and why (not)?

My answer, in most cases*, is a resounding no. Let's unpack.

Identity is not a 'get out of jail free' card

The basic two arguments for inclusion that keep getting brought up are (1) who are you to deny someone's self-reported identity and (2) that this identity denial was broadly accepted until a few decades ago as an argument against transgendered people (and still is among TERFs**).

The problem with (1) is that what someone believes about themselves may not necessarily be true. Or are people who suffer from body dismorphic disorder 'transobese'? It seems dangerous to me to accept at face value identity concepts that are clearly problematic or may end up being harmful for the believer as well as their environment. I'm not required to believe people who claim to be Napoleon or the Son of God, even if they believe themselves to be the deceased French Emperor or Jesus Christ come again.

To frame this argument from a different perspective: on basis of rational thinking and logic, I think it is so unlikely that leprechauns exist that people who do believe in them shouldn't expect me to entertain their beliefs. I won't be hostile to them, either, as long as they don't cause harm, but the point with the Tumblr fringe is that they are causing harm to social justice, by playing right into the cards of reactionaries who love painting the entire social justice movement as a collective group therapy for the mentally ill and deranged.

Cosplay or illness?

As said in (2), the lines of reasoning above make some people uncomfortable because the same things were said - are still being said - about homosexuals or the transgendered. Yesterday's DSM disorder might be tomorrow's accepted identity. There's a flaw in this line of thinking, though. While the arguments are similar, the underlying roots of the condition are totally different. Human beings can come in a great variety of experiences in terms of gender and sex - it is all fundamentally part of the human condition. Being an animal is not (I'll get back to the other two groups soon). Men and women can plausibly, if often with difficulty, imagine what life as each other might be like, but what human can truly fathom what being an elephant, let alone a unicorn would be like?

Suppose that someone is convinced they are a wolf and wants to express this identity. From what I've seen around the Internet, most of these people still want to function in human society, drive cars, indeed surf the Internet, and so on. I'm sure there are many ways of being a wolf, but I've never heard of a wolf in the wild driving a car or ordering books on Amazon. In short, this strikes me more like nth-degree cosplay, or might even be similar to drag. There is nothing wrong with either, but it's not a functional identity concept on par with male/female or straight/gay - and everything plus and minus.

Now, if someone does go 'all out' and decides to start living like an animal, this quickly becomes very problematic for society as a whole, and this person may end up dying soon. Human stomachs are not meant to digest raw meat, and the human body can't survive without clothing and shelter during long winter nights in snowy woodlands. Undomesticated animals and humans don't tend to mix. Should society be prepared to let these people act out and risk death? I think this clearly falls within the boundaries of mental illness.

Transethnicity appropriation station

For transethnicity, one might bring up that this is still a part of the human experience I referred to earlier, and that while not easy to imagine life as part of a different culture or race (in the sense of race as a social construct), it is not impossible. I might even be very supportive of people who wished to move to a different part of the world to feel more at home and part of a culture they have a stronger individual connection with than their own.

However, in practise - again, my evidence is anecdotal - the same scenario seems to play out over and over again: the transethnic person in question reduces the target culture to a grab bag of stereotypes and seems more interested in fantasising about social acceptance than actually making the effort to learn about the culture in question. Claiming a transethnic identity to me seems like a lazy cop-out of this (under the assumption identities don't require proof), and again, more like drag and cosplay than anything else.

Transableism and Münchhausen

By far the most widely criticised group of the three, but paradoxically one with at least some amount of documented evidence beyond Tumblr say-so. Autonomous hand syndrome and BIID are but two examples of conditions that one might conceivably label as being 'trans' in nature, but have very harmful effects on the affected. The key here, as would be with the 100% 'living life as an animal' condition, is harm. Labeling it as an identity is not only dangerous because it trivialises the severity of such conditions, but it is also essentialising: sufferers from mental or physical illnesses don't like being reduced to their condition.

Apart from the essentalisation (which is also a huge factor in transethnicity), which is completely at odds with the intersectional social justice movement of today, there is also the appropriation of the visible pain and suffering of others. For example, people with cancer go through costly treatments, anxiety and pain - and that's if they are lucky. People who might claim to be affected with 'transcancer' have none of that suffering, but would feel entitled to the same sympathy. Indeed, I suspect that this is what drives people to make such claims, and if that's the case, we already have a name for that: Münchhausen Syndrome. At any rate, mental or physical illnesses are not identities, so that should be that.

Some closing words

In a distant future, perhaps we will have the technology to transform the human body into that of animals, or to upload cultural awereness directly into our brains. Today, we don't. And as I pointed out, two out of three groups described above run into a vast list of potentially harmful situations if they were to live out their self-perceived identity.

However, in most cases, it appears to me that it's a form of extreme cosplay - or in some cases, legitimate mental disorder - that combines with a sense of entitlement and social grief to form this unholy Tumblr trinity. Part of it is escapism: it's nicer to imagine life as a majestic animal or being accepted into a fantasy version of a culture than to face a socially bleak reality. And unfortunately, the rhetoric of social justice lends itself to be abused by those who not only refuse to get help or help themselves, but would want their social justice cosplay to be taken for legitimate. In that sense, there's an eerie similarity to MRA, which has the rhetorical trappings of a social justice movement, but none of its goals or underlying realities.

In closing, let's not overstate the existence of these fringe groups. They perhaps draw far more ire than they're worth, although that's easy to say for a privileged person like me. But, the key point is that we shouldn't allow campaigns to be derailed by them, nor have people seriously consider them as the advocates we would like to be represented by.

* In case of otherkin and transethnic people, I'm willing to make an exception for feral children or people who might have grown up in a totally different cultural enclave.

** Trans-exclusionary radical feminists.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Men at work (V)

What can we do?

No matter how many feminists will make similar analyses, they are all stillborn if we can’t get men to work against these stereotypes themselves. Many men already do, in one way or another, but lack knowledge of the deeper structures that underpin these notions. For example, reclaiming or rebranding things as ‘manly’ doesn’t work. It’s just shifting the problem. Neither does it work to talk about incorporating ‘feminine’ traits.

All of the items discussed above need not be typical of so many men. It’s important that some of us can take the first step, any step – whether it’s going against a stereotype among your friends that guys are always up for sex, or whether it’s encouraging friends to talk about how they feel. In many cases, you might be surprised to find that a lot of guys are also chafing under this cultural yoke, policed by pop culture in general and their true-believers (of either gender) in particular. But the power of these notions can fade if people stop subscribing to them and expose them for the bullshit they are.

It’s not just talk, it’s action as well. You can take a look at how you help raise your kids, or how you speak of or speak to women. In theory, it should be easier for us to help tear this structure down, because we are at the top. Men tend to listen more to other men. In practice, it won’t always be easy. It’s one thing to advise a friend not to believe that women who sleep around are sluts, it’s another to challenge a status quo among ourselves because in many ways, it’s so comfortable. But it hurts people every day, poisons relationships and friendships, and has a big part to play in how messed up society is. So – to work, men. We’ve got things to do.

Men at work (IV)

3. Men are the stronger sex

On average, men are physically larger and stronger than women. Part of this is genetic, of course - you can't will yourself to be taller - but it's also true that we put great stock in the strength or athletic ability of a man to determine his value. Boys are much more likely to be encouraged and incentivised to develop strength, build muscle and hone athletic skills. Again, this strength focus ties into the taboo on showing weakness or vulnerability, both on a physical and on an emotional level.

“Might makes right.”

Through movies, stories and pop culture, all too often we still teach boys that at least in some cases, aggression is a good way to resolve a conflict or reach a goal. While the days of street duels are behind us, this notion still has a lot of purchase, certainly under the guise of the man-as-protector. This is really not so innocent: perpetrators of lethal violence are almost always men.
  • Consequence for men: Greater chance of becoming aggressors and bullies as well as victims
  • Consequence for women: Greater likelihood of becoming victims of aggression

“Strength determines worth.”

While there are celebrated female sports icons, the field is still dominated by men (who also get paid the most). From steroid abuse in bodybuilding culture to the victim-blaming when men who are only famous for their strength or dexterity engage in questionable behaviour (hello Steubenville), it's all part of a toxic idea that men are worth more in society if they are physically strong.
  • Consequence for men: Absurd 'hiding in plain sight' hierarchy among men based on strength
  • Consequence for women: Professional female athletes often get their femininity questioned

“If it's for women, it's not worth it.”

This and the next point are a little more contentious. As is evident, the label 'feminine' is, in many cases, essentially a negative one, even if it is couched in benevolent terms, which is nothing more than a 'separate but equal' discourse that never challenges the status quo. However, as more women move into spheres previously strongly dominated by men, men start an exodus from those spheres and patriarchy lowers these spheres’ worth. Examples include teaching, the arts and many administrative tasks.
  • Consequences for men: Narrowing of 'acceptable' domains in life
  • Consequences for women: Moving into formerly male spheres doesn't increase their status, but decreases the status of the spheres they've moved into

“Learning is for weak men.”

There is certainly something like an intellectual macho. In fact, there are plenty of them to go round, with the age-old stereotype that men are supposedly more logical and good at science always at their fingertips. At the same time, this conflicts with another patriarchy-sanctioned view on masculinity that is vehemently anti-intellectual. This idea is on the rise again as in many Western countries, the majority of students in higher education are now women. The nuance and subtlety required to engage in complex thinking is interpreted wishy-washy, whereas supposedly ‘real men’ are expected to just know things and make black-and-white decisions.
  • Consequences for men: Ignorance is encouraged
  • Consequences for women: Denigration of the advances they've made in education parity

On to the closing remarks.

Men at work (III)

2. Men lack emotions

The convenient explanation for differences in emotional behaviour between men and women has always been one rooted in poorly understood research or outright pseudoscience. By denying that both genders are ruled by emotions just as much as they are ruled by rational thought, it gives way to the snippy little assaults from patriarchy-enabling but women-oriented media that sometimes portray men as emotional mutes, and adds to being male the status of being more 'rational', i.e. more competent and thus better at stuff.

“Men are bad at empathy.”

Bunk pseudoscience claims that women are better at gauging feelings in others because they focus more on how others feel. It's not hard to see that as a result of being taught to be nice and more family-oriented. Men, on the other hand, are taught no such things. They are taught to focus on ambition, getting ahead, and being competitive, traits that don’t dovetail well with empathy. This stereotype is dangerous on another level as well, because it gives sexual harassers the excuse of misreading signals.
  • Consequence for men: Underdeveloped empathy skills lead to selfish decision-making
  • Consequence for women: Difficulties in getting men to empathise with their plight

“Male emotions don’t really matter.”

It's not that our culture refuses to see that men have emotions, but they are certainly not discussed at length. Media devoted to women tends to focus a lot on feelings – life stories, friendships, relationships and family (this is not without its own problematic consequences) – whereas media devoted to men doesn’t. At any rate, this may leave men with underdeveloped emotional personalities who outsource emotional labour to the women around them.
  • Consequence for men: Forced detachment
  • Consequence for women: Some women get the additional burden of having to make sense of men's emotions on top of their own because men have never been taught to do it

“Men are not allowed to show emotion.”

Previous section touched upon it already, but it deserves its own discussion: a man who displays emotion is displaying weakness, lowering his status as the stable cornerstone of a traditional patriarchal family. I sense that there has even been a hardening in this field in the past decades. Two centuries ago, male poets and artists spoke freely about sensorial experiences and emotions in ways that would make a lot of modern men feel uncomfortable. An exception is anger, and this creates its own set of problems.
  • Consequence for men: Repressed emotions
  • Consequence for women: Being emotional is seen as a net negative because it's 'female'

On to part IV.

Men at work (II)

1. Men always desire sex

One of the biggest and most persistent notions in patriarchal society is that men supposedly think about sex every seven seconds. Not only is that idea preposterous, it's a damaging attitude that results in a couple of other widely-held beliefs.

“Men can't control their desires.”

This one is often brought up as the reason why women should not be wearing any revealing clothing, whether it's a short skirt in the West or something that isn't a wholesale tent in a particularly dire corner of the Middle East. Men, overcome with lust, would supposedly drop all civilization and let their dick do the thinking (and acting). Even if it were true, civilisation is all about rationality prevailing over base urges and instincts. A similar excuse is that men want to “spread their seed” in a drive to create as much offspring as possible. Since no one has ever observed a paleothic human being, this can’t even be proven, but the same reasoning applies. We’re taught from an early age to exercise restraint in almost every aspect of life, so it’s not like desire for sex should be this huge exception.

  • Consequence for men: A convenient excuse for infidelity, sexual abuse and harassment
  • Consequence for women: Getting the blamed for sexual assault

“All men are secretly rapists.”

Contrary to what antifeminists believe, it is patriarchy and not feminism that believes that all men are at least capable of rape (see above). Rapists themselves certainly believe it. It stems from the false idea that rape results from uncontrollable lust or miscommunication, while the real issue is violent domination. Unfortunately, we talk far too little about telling men not to rape and seek consent, but prefer telling potential victims to take cautionary measures.

  • Consequence for men: Passive acceptance that rapists are part of the male population
  • Consequence for women: Burden is shifted on them to avoid rape

“Men can't really be raped (unless by other men).”

One reason why men find it hard to speak about being sex abuse victims is because the traditional view of male sexuality holds that they're always "up for it" anyway, so they cannot possibly be raped in the traditional sense. Unless by another man. Then they are the bitch, i.e. they figuratively become women, which is telling of the status women occupy in traditional masculinity. Female-to-male rape is likely understudied, but unfortunately frequently only brought up by antifeminists to discredit awareness campaigns centring on sexual violence.

  • Consequence for men: Huge barrier to speak about sexual assault experiences
  • Consequence for women: Reinforcement of passive sex role, invisibility of female offenders
On to part III.

Men at work (I)

While it is seductive, it is ultimately pointless to get sucked into debates about how we should (re)define masculinity. I wrote about this before. I've also already briefly discussed male privilege as well as patriarchy’s essentialisation of men as primitive savages and how it damages us and our relationships with others.

This time, I want to head into a little more detail on how the things men are told in patriarchy hinder their development as human beings, with some far-reaching social repercussions. Some of these things may be contradictory, but then women are also no strange to getting trapped into contradictory expectations.

For non-regulars: patriarchy is a shorthand for the type of society that dominates most of the world. It is a society that mostly favours a particular class of people: straight, heterosexual fathers or potential fathers, and limits others. But of course, even this class does not escape patriarchy undamaged. Men are groomed for a position of domination, and this is really not without danger. Read on.

Part II.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Sex-positivism, -negativism and kinkshaming

A recurrent debate within feminist communities revolves around sex-positivism and sex-negativism. I'm aware that many people who support the latter don't like the term because it would imply that they hate sex or that their vision is just a rhetorical trick to make them sound like prudes. There are some similarities with the pornography debate, though arguably this topic is complex in other ways.

Sex as a revolutionary act

Most sex-positivists hold that anything that everyone has the right to seek out the sex they like, as long as all partners involved are (enthusiastically) consenting adults. This idea, especially as far as the liberation of women goes, is still super-revolutionary in a lot of ways, but has its share of opposition even within feminist communities, on top of opposition from traditional social structures in the form of slut-shaming, birth control limitation and sexual harrassment.

Sex-negativists, for lack of a better word, are concerned about patriarchal structures that adopt sexual liberation for their own benefit, e.g. mostly men who are all for a woman liking sex as long as it's the kind of sex they like, or the glorification of self-objectifying women to the detriment of women who enjoy other types of sex than being submissive/provocative.

Sex as a symbolic act

It's a valid concern, but one that can be addressed within sex-positivism as well. In fact, I hold that you can't be truly sex-positivist until you are comfortable with how diverse the sexual spectrum really is. In kink communities, this is summed up as 'Your kink is not my kink, and that's okay'. Also, let's not equate people who adopt superficial sex-positivist rhetoric with actual sex-positivists.

It gets trickier once you delve more deeply into the analysis of sex-negativism. For example, an argument I've seen as well - usually presented as a question - is that sex cannot be truly feminist if, in the majority of experiences, what it does is essentially replicating patriarchy in the bedroom. It views BDSM as a re-enactment of patriarchy (because most dominants are still men), and women who enjoy being the submissive partner or performing acts inspired by pornography as not contributing to feminism at best, and working against it at worst.

Language games

That argument may seem to have its merits, but it falls apart under closer scrutiny. For one, symbols mean different things in different contexts. Ludwig Wittgenstein spoke about 'language games', contexts that provide their own meaning and rules. The sign 'I' is letter in the English alphabet, but it is also the Roman numeral for 'one', depending on the context. 'No' is a perfectly clear indication of a boundary in flirtation, but in BDSM, its meaning may be 'yes', depending on what participants in a particular session or relationship have agreed.

Now, obviously symbols can carry double meanings and contexts definitely influence one another, otherwise we wouldn't have art or literature. But I hold that sufficiently self-conscious people can switch between contexts and realise that Symbol A does not stand for A in all of its contexts, or may even become anti-A. In this way, for instance, dirty talk does not promote slut-shaming, but subverts it.

The worst allies

Secondly, and more concerning, is that sexual preference is deeply tied with identity. Asking people to probe their sexual preferences - beyond the question of consent - is actually nothing more than old-fashioned kinkshaming. Do you ask gay people why they enjoy gay sex? Sexual preferences are usually formed rather early in life and before critical examination of gender roles in society gains much traction, and some of it may or may not be hardwired.

Sexual preferences can change, but they don't do so consciously. If sex-negativists wish to see a sexual landscape that carries over less symbols and acts inspired by patriarchy, the answer is certainly not to sanction only sex acts that are somehow sufficiently rife enough with egalitarian symbolism (also, how the hell do you even determine that). While sex-positivists should be on guard for patriarchal re-appropriation of liberation, sex-negativists have allies in circles that are arguably much worse: religious fundamentalists, some of whom think that sex acts that don't concern procreation should be punishable by death.

Full equals

Many people want to respect their partner as full equals, but discover they have kinky interests that seem to be at odds with this ideology. That's why sex-positivism can be such a boon to them, and helps them find healthy ways of getting the sex they like in a larger framework of meaningful consent and openness. With sex-negativism, I see none of this. It's a misguided approach to sexual preferences at best, and just another way of attempting to control people's sexuality at worst.

Thursday, February 06, 2014

Rhetorics of progress (III): Arrogance and condescension

Arrogance, and to a larger extent condescension, make people not want to listen to what you have to say. It might be tempting to tell someone off who clearly has no clue what they are going on about, but if you're honestly interested in changing that person's mind, being smug about it isn't going to help you. This a problem that most often occurs between people of different social classes.

Anti-intellectualism

It's easy to forget, for a sizable portion of an audience that has pursued higher education, that some people are not as educated and will react with hostility to words and concepts that they cannot understand. To these people, that might as well be abracadabra designed to pull wool over their eyes (and it some cases, it is!).

It's also true that some people are anti-intellectual in general, but that doesn't usually mean that they hate on smart individuals - they hate the strawman of the sanctimonious intellectual - per se.

Les extrèmes se touchent

In an effort to be heard and understood, some highly educated people bend over backwards to break down stuff in a simpler way, or adopt the style of the social class background of the person they're debating with. That is an even more terrible choice because it is inauthentic.

What's worse, except to really gullible people, it comes off as paternalistic and condescending: "watch me stoop to your petty level". It's one of the ultimate own-goals that an intellectual can make. By desperately not wanting to seem like an intellectual, they seem like a phony instead.

Can we do no good, then?

But what to do then? Is it not possible at all to strike the right balance if you're in a debate with someone not as educated / up to speed / at another level? Of course it is possible to do it right! Here are a few things that I consider to be good debate hygiene:
  1. Check what you say or write for unnecessary jargon. Nobody likes that, even if they are the right terms.
  2. It isn't arrogant to call someone out on a factual error, but only if it actually matters to the core debate.
  3. It's relevant to call someone out on arrogance or condescension, but don't make the same mistake while doing so.
  4. Use the voice you would normally use when debating with acquaintances.
  5. If you believe you're the more intelligent / mature person, act like it, don't point it out to them.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Rhetorics of progress (II): Logic alone won't get us anywhere

Having a good grasp on logic and epistemology is a huge advantage in any debate. It can be very frustrating if people use logical fallacies or non-sequiturs, although they can be seductive fallbacks. I won't list them here: this Wikipedia article does a very good job at explaining them.

But, while logic is incredibly useful in any context, it's not the only ally in a debate, not in the least when talking about the politics of progress. We all know that one person who keeps hammering data (or the lack thereof) and who conveniently ignores lived experiences. It's true that 'lived experience' doesn't count as a valid argument, but it is not completely invalid either. In identity politics, certainly, it matters a great deal.

That brings me to empathy. Adopting someone else's perspective may never be completely possible, and there's always a danger of shunting what is your understanding of another person's perspective into what you label as empathy, but all we can do is our best.

Demagogues on the right love portraying the left as faint-hearted in an essentially cruel and cold world, but what they call faint-hearted is actually an insistence on not dismissing anything but one square perspective.

For example, hounding a transgendered person for cold logic and facts when they want to talk about transphobia is not just counter-productive, but is as much part of the problem they want to discuss.

Consider this: someone is saying they're feeling sort of depressed. Do you take out the DSM manual and start going over all the checkboxes to ascertain they are actually depressed or were just using everyday exaggeration?

That brings me to a final point. Logic and the scientific method are a cornerstone of progress on many fronts and can serve you in all sorts of circumstances. Scepticism is extremely important, but in circumstances where people are not explicitly arguing for one of the other, it can be a real conversation killer. Especially if the discussion is not in a field you happen to be an expert in - then suspicion will quickly rise that you're arguing in bad faith, and if the discussion isn't dead already, that suspicion will surely kill it.