Monsters and Madwomen (Just Another Day at Reiter’s Block)

We’re crazy for links this month at Reiter’s Block!

At the multi-author blog Feminism and Religion, Laura Shannon, an expert on traditional women’s ritual dances, recovers intriguing background information on two fearsome females of Greek mythology in “Medusa and Athena: Ancient Allies in Healing Women’s Trauma”. The story we know best, from the 1st century CE poet Ovid, pits them against each other. Beautiful Medusa is raped in Athena’s temple; the goddess is offended and turns her into a monster, then helps the male hero Perseus behead her.

Shannon contends that this patriarchal reinterpretation covers up an earlier tradition in which Athena, her mother Metis, and Medusa were three faces of the same goddess of wisdom and healing, “aspects of an ancient triple Goddess corresponding respectively to the new, full, and dark phases of the moon…Their many common elements include snakes, wings, a formidable appearance, fierce eyes and powerful gaze.” Male-dominated traditions emphasized Athena’s warlike qualities, but she was also a figure “of healing, of wisdom, of protection and self-defense, of craft and culture, of the olive tree–which can have great significance for all those healing from trauma.” This tantalizingly brief essay is excerpted from Shannon’s piece in the anthology Revisioning Medusa: from Monster to Divine Wisdom (Gladys Livingstone, Trista Hendren and Pat Daley, eds.), forthcoming from The Girl God, a publisher of feminist spirituality books for children and adults.

Over at the blog of sci-fi publisher Tor Books, author Theodora Goss surveys literature for “Five Monsters That Explore Gender, Sexuality, and Race”, from Victorian lesbian vampire Carmilla to Octavia Butler’s human-alien hybrid Lilith.

What is a monster, anyway? We tend to associate the monstrous with the ugly, evil, or frightening, but there’s a more sophisticated way of thinking about these creatures. In On Monsters: An Unnatural History of Our Worst Fears, Stephen T. Asma argues that monsters are examples of “categorical mismatch.” We like to organize reality into easily understandable categories: you are either male or female, human or animal, living or dead. When something or someone crosses those boundaries, it makes us uncomfortable: that’s when we label it as monstrous. That kind of labeling can be dangerous, because it can allow us to deny someone’s humanity. But the idea of the monstrous can also be powerful. If you’re a woman, it can be a subversive act to think of yourself as Medusa, with snakes for hair, turning men to stone.

Asma points out that the word “monster” comes from the Latin root “monere,” meaning to warn. In other words, monsters always have some sort of message for us.

Goss’s latest book is The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter, a Victorian-era paranormal murder mystery featuring the daughters of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and other female victims of mad scientists’ experiments, including my personal obsession, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s lovely and poisonous Beatrice Rappaccini. My 1,000-book wishlist just got a little longer.

With the ascension of the Orange Chucklefuck to our nation’s highest office, we can’t expect much relief from the mental illness “diagnosis” rhetoric that progressives deployed during the 2016 campaign. At Eidolon, an online journal of scholarly writing about Classics for a popular audience, Jessica Wright explains in “Crazy Talk” that calling our ideological opponents mad has a long and coercive history. Wright is a historian at the University of Southern California studying theories of the brain and mental illness in antiquity.

What is the effect of the “crazy” talk that permeates our public forums and our political discourse? We have a very long history of using words such as “crazy” and “mad” in casual polemic. The Greek orator Demosthenes used the word mania sixteen times in his extant speeches, and never to offer a “medical” diagnosis. Some two-and-a-half centuries later, Cicero employed the Latin word insania and its related verb insanire on over seventy occasions.

Authors such as these were the models of polite speech and rhetoric throughout the Roman Empire, and were enormously influential in literary culture and education in modern Europe and its imperial reach. As Caroline Winterer has shown, Greek and Latin models were fundamental to political oratory in antebellum America. Frederick Douglass, as David W. Blight has described, studied rhetoric from a book called The Columbian Orator, which included extracts (translated and imagined) from Greco-Roman oratory…

…Our penchant for casual diagnosis does not stem from political oratory alone. The discourse of crazy was fundamental to early Christian texts, especially heresiological catalogues, polemical pamphlets, and sermons, all of which were arguably more influential even than Cicero during late antiquity and the medieval period. Terms for mental disorders were commonly used to undermine one’s opponent and to situate oneself as an authority on others’ moral health…

Phrenitis was an illness popular in early Christian polemic, especially in the writings of the bishop Augustine of Hippo, who diagnosed phrenitis over forty times in his religious opponents, including pagans, Jews, and Manichaeans. In Augustine’s work, as in the writings of contemporary preachers such as John Chrysostom, Theodoret of Cyrrhus, and Peter Chrysologus — phrenitis served as a metaphor or a model for illness of the soul. That is, in early Christian terms, the failure to be saved. Phrenitis stood in for the delusion, the loss of self-control, and the threat of death that Christian authors associated with alternative religious paradigms. With salvation understood as the only form of health, rejection of salvation could not but be understood as symptomatic of disease…

…Phrenitis provided a model for a spiritual illness that presented among its symptoms the experience of spiritual strength. As such, it was integral to Augustine’s anti-Jewish polemic, since it explained why the Jewish people might believe themselves to enjoy a positive relationship with God.

The no-win logic of spiritual/political madness is an authoritarian trap. The more you protest, the more your strengths will be twisted into symptoms–cool logic as sociopathy, emotional pleas as hysteria, self-preservation as noncompliance. A modern comedy or horror film scene in an asylum would be incomplete without the stock figure of the paranoid patient desperately asserting that he’s not really crazy, his distress contrasted with the calm of the men in white coats. We’re so easily fooled into mistaking privilege for sanity.

Preachers such as Augustine commonly represented themselves as physicians of the soul —a conceit borrowed from ancient philosophy — but phrenitis enabled them to leverage a new kind of authority. To borrow an example from Plutarch, a preacher might compare sin to gout in order to persuade his congregants of the importance of spiritual care. When a preacher diagnosed sin as phrenitis, however, it meant that he thought his patient was beyond persuasion, and needed rather to be coerced. More than once, Augustine explains punitive actions against religious opponents as a form of treatment or restraint commonly applied to those suffering from mental illness.

Augustine justifies intervention in the religious and political lives of his opponents on the grounds that he is a physician of the soul, and that their religious difference is symptomatic of an organic mental disorder, an illness of the brain. This rhetorical move diminished his opponents’ authority to speak for themselves: phrenitis offered a model for therapeutic intervention in a context where the patient refused treatment. Psychiatric invective became a powerful tool for establishing the authority of one religious perspective and practice over another. Even though Augustine’s diagnosis was “merely” metaphorical, he intended it to have real-world effects.

Wright cites contemporary examples of psychiatric diagnoses being mis-applied against marginalized groups. For example, during the backlash against the Civil Rights Movement, the psychiatric establishment redefined schizophrenia to discredit and criminalize black men:

Jonathan Metzl in his book The Protest Psychosis…shows how schizophrenia transformed, during the Civil Rights era, from an illness characterized by weakness and depression and associated primarily with white patients (especially isolated housewives) to a diagnosis of aggression and paranoia, disproportionately applied to African-American men. Within the frame of Civil Rights protests, Metzl argues, violent actions (including self-defence) could be interpreted as the unpredictable outburst of the schizophrenic, while the identification of structural inequality was interpreted as paranoia, and the denial of one’s own sickness as delusion. Asylums for the “criminally insane” saw a steep rise in the population of African-American men, who were contained through sedatives in doses now considered extraordinarily high. Fifty years later, African-American men continue to be disproportionately diagnosed with the disease, which continues to be associated with violence and aggression. With the merciless irony characteristic of structures of injustice, the system of mass incarceration that has evolved over the intervening decades in fact minimizes the mental health resources available to incarcerated populations, criminalizing mental illnesses, even as it medicalizes “deviant” behaviours.

Thus, when we use “crazy talk” to oppose our resident fascist demagogue, we’re not just being politically incorrect. We’re actually reinforcing the authoritarianism that we fear.

Autistic Pride Day: Everything Is Alive

June 18 is Autistic Pride Day, a celebration pioneered in 2005 by the advocacy group Aspies for Freedom. Visit their site to join chat rooms on neurodiversity and activism. Autistic Pride Day affirms the unique strengths and talents of people on the spectrum. It aims to persuade neurotypical society that autism is a natural human variation that doesn’t need curing.

If you’re seeing an overlap with LGBTQ Pride, which we also celebrate this month, that’s no coincidence. Some of the coercive behavioral therapies still widely used to force Aspie kids to “act normal” are derived from the discredited practices of Christian ex-gay therapy. These connections are detailed by C.S. Wyatt at The Autistic Me in his 2011 post “ABA and NARTH” and CinderMcDonald’s 2014 Daily Kos column “Autism Acceptance Doesn’t Seem So Radical to Me”, among many other sources.

In my last autism-themed post, I cited a blogger who said it was an Aspie trait to empathize with objects–not, as the stereotype goes, to the exclusion of empathizing with people, but rather as a kind of emotional hyper-awareness. Now I’ve found another autistic blogger, Mel Baggs, who writes about our quasi-mystical personality type eloquently on hir Tumblr site With a Smooth Round Stone. (Mel identifies as genderless and uses sie/hir pronouns; hir other disability-themed blog is Ballastexistenz.) Discussing headcanon autistic representation in the Young Wizards book series, Mel says:

Of course the YW-universe tendency for literally everything to be alive on some level is one reason I love it so much.  That’s how I see the literal, everyday universe we live in.  And I see it that way because I’m autistic, because I’m a specific type of autistic person who tends naturally towards what some people call animism but I’m very hesitant to give a label to, especially given the ways “animism” has been used in the past.

Basically, whenever I have learned about “animism”, it’s been in the context of “this is what primitive religions do before they learn to be more advanced” and it makes me very angry.  Also I’ve never seen “animism” used in a way that really gave meaning to the way a culture saw the world around them, and I’ve seen it used to obscure meaning.  Which is why I don’t call myself an animist, even though in English it’s the closest word to some aspects of how I see the world.

Also people who tell me that thinking everything is alive is anthropomorphism, can shove their anthropomorphism up their collective asses.  Everything is alive in its own unique way that has nothing to do with human thoughts and feelings, and everything to do with each thing having its own unique way of being in the world, totally independent of humans.  This goes both for traditionally animate and traditionally inanimate things.  My recognizing the aliveness of things does not mean I think they’re similar to me.  In fact, to recognize that things are alive, you have to be able to step out of the way and stop using yourself as a mirror to measure the rest of the world by.

Yes I’m still pissed at a blogger I otherwise liked, who when I posted a post about how I saw things as alive, posted a long condescending discussion of anthropomorphism and animism and how both are primitive and childlike at best, and how that’s all I was doing, nothing special, nothing meaningful, nothing unique, nothing important.  Just things that we can pin down with tidy words and tuck them away into boxes and forget about them because we already know our viewpoint is the superior one.

I’d love to find good sociological studies of Aspies’ religious beliefs and affiliations and how they differ from the mainstream. My guess is that a lot of us cluster around the rationalist/atheist end of the distribution, with logic like this: “Nobody here actually believes that crackers turn into the body of a guy who died and came to life and was also God, and I don’t see the point of saying that I do, just to get along socially.” And another lot, in which I am included, wind up in paganism or the most mystical denominations of traditional religions, because: “Well, obviously the Real Presence of Christ is in the host, because it’s in everything!” (Hmm, was Gerard Manley Hopkins one of us? “The world is charged with the grandeur of God…”)

We’re probably under-represented in mainstream churches, where conformity to unspoken social norms of dress, body language, gender roles, and personal interests is more important than whatever doctrines we profess, and everyone pretends that the reverse is true–how maddening! There’s also the issue of churches not being accessible and welcoming to people with sensory processing disorder and neurodivergent communication styles, as this Interactive Autism Network article describes:

Melinda Jones Ault Ph.D., a professor at University of Kentucky, looked around her own place of worship and wondered where the people with disabilities were. A longtime special educator, she said, “I knew they were out there.” So she began studying the experiences of parents who have a child with a disability, including autism.

Her research team found that a third of the 416 parents surveyed had changed their place of worship due to a lack of inclusion or welcome, and 46 percent refrained from participating in an activity because their child was not included or welcomed.

John Elder Robison has written a number of books and articles about living with autism. (He’s also the brother of Augusten Burroughs, of Running With Scissors fame.) In this 2014 Psychology Today column, he ponders why modern Aspies are more likely to reject organized religion, and speculates that some of the greats of Western religious history were actually on the spectrum. On the one hand, many beliefs don’t seem logical to literal thinkers, but on the other, in a pre-scientific world, religious practices provided the order and predictability that most of us crave. That was surely a big factor in my early attraction to orthodoxy. Conservative churches promised clear, explicit, predictable behavioral norms around the confusing subject of sex and romance, as well as a socially acceptable container for the magical thinking that my secular intellectual peers disdained as childish or crazy. Robison says:

As an autistic adult, I have never been what you’d call religious, but I’ve always thought of myself as spiritual.  I never thought of my religious beliefs as being shaped by autism, but a conversation five years ago made me rethink that.  Catherine Caldwell-Harris – a psychology professor at Boston University – approached me after a talk I did at MIT.  She was doing a study of autism and its influence on religious belief, and her findings were shaping up to be very interesting.

According to her study, autistic people today are much more likely to reject organized religion in favor of their own independently constructed belief system, just as we are more likely to be agnostics or atheists.  You can read the study here:

http://csjarchive.cogsci.rpi.edu/proceedings/2011/papers/0782/paper0782.pdf

Note that the study relies heavily on autism tests and categorizations developed by Simon Baron-Cohen, which some Aspie activists and bloggers believe are sexist and underrate our capacity for empathy. See, for instance, this 2016 post on autism pseudo-science by Emma at Lemon Peel. The “high-functioning” label used in the study is also problematic, as Dani Alexis explains at Autistic Academic.

Neurodiversity implies a challenge to Christianity’s claim to universality. If we believe in the traditional all-powerful designer God, we must either see the autistic mindset as a deviation to be fixed, and go down the same abusive road as compulsory heterosexuality; or accept that God designed some people to be unreceptive to the appeal of “a personal relationship with Jesus”! Either way, you can see why churches have trouble being autism-accessible. Conservative churches pitch salvation, liberal ones pitch community, but the shared premise is that everyone is hard-wired to need their product, whether we know it or not. Whereas in fact, some folks may have the kind of brain that doesn’t pick up the signals of a personal divine presence in the world, or doesn’t need to anthropomorphize their sense of the sublime. And other folks may already be so tuned in to the immanent divine that the institutional intermediary is confining and distracting.

Empathy and Gender Rebellion: More Aspie Links

Readers, I’m giving you a bonus links roundup this month because I’ve found some great new blogs about feminism, social justice, and the autism spectrum. Am I empathetic or what?

But seriously, I’ve been thinking a lot about the interplay among gender identity/performance, the emotional labor expected from women, and the stereotype that Aspies lack empathy. Because we neurodiverse folks have to analyze social expectations instead of mimicking them unconsciously, we have a special vantage point to notice when those expectations are unreasonable. Maybe society’s definition of empathy is problematic, and we are “failing” at something that women and femmes shouldn’t have to succeed at.

For some of us, this leads to the syllogism: “If women are supposed to do X, and I can’t/won’t do that, I must not be a woman.” Discovery of queerness, or missed opportunity to challenge patriarchal sex roles? I don’t think there’s a universal answer. Besides, they’re not mutually exclusive: you can be transmasculine or enby and fight misogyny. If it makes you feel relieved to consider that “I’m not a woman” could be true, you’re probably trans. If it makes you feel depressed, then maybe not. We have this idea that trans-ness is bad and should be a last resort when our problems can’t be solved by drafting us into current political battles. Aside from dudebros looking to pick a fight on Twitter, people are not still asking “Are you really a lesbian or do you just hate patriarchy?” Yet the older generation of lesbian-feminists (to whom I am grateful for many things, don’t get me wrong) are prone to second-guess gender identity exactly the way they were once invalidated about sexual orientation by straight feminists. The background refrain is one that Aspies know too well: “But have you really tried to be normal?”

If you’d like to read more on this topic, or share your experiences, Sparrow M.M. Rose has started a new blog, Transtistic, for folks to discuss the intersection of genderqueer and neuroqueer. Rose is a transmasculine author and autism activist whose main blog is Unstrange Mind.

When you’re interacting with or observing a neurodiverse woman/femme, also consider the likelihood that their seeming detachment is actually shutdown because of hyper-empathy. Just like sensory input, emotional input can be hard for us to filter out selectively. Naturally this is also true for non-femme Apsies, but perhaps more common or more acute for us because we were socialized as female, which trained us to absorb this input whether we could handle it or not. Male socialization gives a person more of a free pass to be oblivious to others’ feelings, if that’s how he’s inclined.

Emma at Lemon Peel and Dani Alexis at Autistic Academic co-wrote an incisive series in 2015 deconstructing a list of “25 tips” for female partners of Aspie men, the upshot of which was, don’t confuse autism with being a dick. Emma argues, “Ignoring the direct, unambiguous messages that women give them, and acting entitled to their bodies and affection, are not things that an autistic man would do because he is autistic, they are things he would do because that is how our society socializes men to treat women.” Not only does it give Aspies a bad name to conflate our behavior with general man-baby-ness, it primes Aspie women for abuse, because being partnered with a man–any man–starts to feel like the cure for our insecurity about not hitting “normal” developmental milestones in relationships.

When you teach boys and young men (autistic or otherwise) that anyone who fails to accommodate their needs is a bad person, and then turn around and teach girls and women (autistic or otherwise) that they aren’t allowed to have needs, you are helping make sure that we will continue to live in a world where women are constantly blamed for their own sexual assault, and where men are trained to be so worried about their masculinity that they are unable to admit that they have hurt others, or that others hurt them. And autistic people are supremely vulnerable to this kind of manipulation and socialization, in part because these kinds of stories and lessons about “adulthood” and “independence” fill our lives, and are not in any way limited to the sphere of relationships and dating.

When you have lived, for so many years, according to lists of behaviors, rules, and skills that you’ve been told you must do in order to deserve safety, sustenance, love, and self-determination, it sometimes is easier to feel safe (for a moment, for a day, maybe). But these lists of “rules” are always coupled with the–conscious or subconscious–knowledge that the only reason people had to tell you these rules in the first place is because you suck at following them. This is how your pain and your punishment are justified: there were rules, and you did not follow them, and the only way to teach you to follow the rules is to punish you when you break them.

Dani’s post “Emotional Labor, Gender, and the Erasure of Autistic Women” theorizes that autism is under-diagnosed and under-supported in people who aren’t cis men, because girls are more heavily pressured to make the effort to fake neurotypical social functioning (i.e. functioning according to patriarchal demands of availability, unselfishness, and pleasantness).

…autism in general and Asperger syndrome in particular are portrayed as deficits in emotional labor, specifically.  The DSM-IV criteria for Asperger Syndrome (which differ from the criteria for autism only in their willingness to allow for a broader range of features in speech development) specifically target certain differences, difficulties, or absences in expected displays of emotional labor:

  • marked impairments in the use of multiple nonverbal behaviors such as eye-to-eye gaze, facial expression, body posture, and gestures to regulate social interaction,
  • failure to develop peer relationships appropriate to developmental level,
  • a lack of spontaneous seeking to share enjoyment, interest or achievements with other people (e.g. by a lack of showing, bringing, or pointing out objects of interest to other people)
  • lack of social or emotional reciprocity.

The last criteria in this section, “lack of social or emotional reciprocity,” is a demand for emotional labor, full stop.  Emotional reciprocity is the one thing all forms of emotional labor have in common.  The other three are more specific examples of emotional labor: using nonverbals that make the other person feel noticed and attended to, energy invested in “appropriate” relationships, and “sharing” (the ambiguous construction “of interest to other people” in the list of examples, implying “of interest to the patient, pointed out to other people” and “of interest to the other person”, is particularly telling)…

…we “miss” autistic girls and women in diagnosis because girls are taught and socialized, from birth, to perform emotional labor.  When the diagnostic criteria for autism spectrum disorder still emphasize deficits in emotional labor, clinicians are looking for lack – not for difference, which is more likely to appear in girls who have been socialized to perform emotional-labor rituals without being given any insight as to their meaning or purpose.

I truly saw myself in this post from April, “Autism’s Love”, at the blog Autism and Expectations (the thoughts of a late-diagnosed autistic woman). She’s reviewing a talk by Susan Kruse, whose research suggests that

…our brains light up in the same way for objects as they do for people. Rather than proving that Autistics see people as unemotionally as they do objects, Susan suggests that it proves the opposite. It proves the great love we have for things as well as people.

The blogger observes that she has extreme empathy for stuff–especially pre-loved, dinged-up, tag sale stuff, or odds and ends that most people might throw away. My storage room hoard of old math papers from 1985 proves our similarity! As a child, I would usually buy the toy that was a little bit irregular or damaged, because what if nobody else loved it? I have trouble discarding worn-out clothes because it feels disrespectful towards their faithful service to my body. The advent of clothing recycling drop boxes makes this easier, finally. So does cellphone photography. I can virtually hoard things that embody memories for me, without having to keep them lying around. The blogger writes:

It turns out that I am twice-cursed. Cursed by an upbringing that taught me to always ask, “But what if one day you need three inches of string/an empty yoghurt pot/this scrap of fabric?”, alongside a deep love for ‘things’ and a problem-solving brain that will find a logical space for them in my life…

…[But] No matter how much I love things, clutter makes me unhappy. It fills me with thoughts and variables and agitations. The choices spiral and fishnet and catch me up in their tangled web. Sticky as sap, they cling to me. Weigh me down. Make the world a little heavier to trudge through.

There is a lightness in letting things go to the right places. There is a lightness in saying goodbye at the right time. Knowing I have the choice. Knowing it is me choosing.

My philosophy in life has always been that when things or people leave it, for whatever reason, that doesn’t mean they are gone. No one can take away their past presence from you…I did not need to people-my-things to make them loveable, I was already connected to the world.

For the best of feminist and queer Aspie Twitter, follow @amysequenzia, @autselfadvocacy, @autism_women, @eremitpurpur, @rsocialskills, @theoriesofminds, @erabrand, @flappyhourcast, @riotheatherrr, @barkingsycamore, and @autpress. This latest post by Dani Alexis also has a list of blogs for newly diagnosed or self-diagnosed adults to start getting the hang of autistic culture and find the right community.

June Links Roundup: Reclaiming Ugliness

I identify most with the Feminine when She is monstrous.

Forget those flirtatious princesses with little-girl bodies. Give me fat octopus drag queen Ursula the Sea Witch, rape survivor Medusa, skull-stomping goddess Kali with her ecstatic thirsty tongue and dozen limbs. I like romantic walks along the beach at sunset while Cthulhu rises from the ocean. (Preferably in the winter.) When people criticize Barbie for having an unrealistic female form, I laugh; you better believe it, she’s a seven-foot-tall babe who could put your eye out with her perfectly pointed foot.

Now, I do have many parts, with different ages and genders, so there is one who loves rosebuds and sparkly necklaces and kittens. But she is six years old, and this is not the kind of world where she can walk around outside alone.

I have a new mantra for living in a society that indoctrinates us with shame and judgment. Adapt as needed to your circumstances. Each day I look in the mirror and say, with as much glee as I can muster:

I’m fat, I’m queer, and I’m crazy!

Embracing queerness–that is, dropping the effort to be “female”–has opened up all sorts of interesting investigations about habitual patterns of movement in my body, as well as the interpretive filters I unconsciously put over the image in the mirror. It’s almost cliché by now to point out that fat-phobia connects with the sexist backlash against women taking up space. Yet so many otherwise liberal women keep fat-shaming themselves and others, because our gender markers have inequality built in. When we see a big person with expansive, relaxed body movements, we struggle to recognize her as feminine, and therefore attractive. But now that I have been trying to walk more “like a man”–longer, confident steps, with feet and knees turning out slightly to the sides–I’ve found that the foot balance problems identified by my Feldenkrais bodywork teacher have eased up. And I haven’t even worn high heels since the early 2000s!

“Crazy” means that I have PTSD, sensory processing disorder and some other Aspie traits, and an imaginative world that is more vivid and important to me than a lot of meatspace relationships. Feminists have reclaimed madness, like fatness, as feminine excess disapproved by society: a “hysterical” intensity of feelings. Mine is not so chaotic. For me, it’s about not fitting in, seeing what others don’t see, openly taking time for emotional self-care, and not hiding the fact that my priorities are unusual. My shame around craziness is the fear that I will be so absorbed in my inner experiences that I’ll lose social self-consciousness and do something conspicuously embarrassing. This takes us back to femininity and its concomitant demand for 24-7 awareness that you are being looked at, so you’d better be easy on the eyes.

Role Monsters, Jess Zimmerman’s new series at the online lit mag Catapult, says to hell with that. “Being a monster is harder than being a hero,” she writes pointedly in the first installment, about harpies as a symbol of men’s fear of female ambition. But it’s the second essay, “What If We Cultivated Our Ugliness? or: The Monstrous Beauty of Medusa”, that made me cry and cheer.

Before I shaved my head…I had never thumbed my nose quite so drastically at beauty. Fat women often rely on other markers of femininity to edge us into the visible spectrum: flowing hair, smooth skin, expansive cleavage. I’d been weird-looking and tough in my early twenties, but at some point I’d drifted into trying to please people with my presentation, to fit in, to hover around staring at the mark even though I’d never hit it. Hacking into my hair felt as transgressive as carelessly sporting a bad complexion, which I also had at the time. I was wrecking my tenuous connection to beauty, crumpling it up and throwing it away.

I looked great with my haircut, but “great” in the sense of “a vast and incalculable thing.” I definitely didn’t look pretty; I looked further than ever from “pretty,” more than ever like a weird hulking creature instead of a girl. But the haircut also made everything else that was wrong about me—my fat, my heavy bones, my combat boots—fall into place and finally make sense. I wasn’t missing the mark after all; the mark was irrelevant for me. I could make a new mark.

When she was younger, Zimmerman says, she went by the Internet username Medusa, a creature so ugly you literally couldn’t look at her. Now she appreciates the power in the symbol that once represented her low self-esteem.

I didn’t know there was a difference between “not beautiful” and “ugly.” I thought that my failure to meet basic standards of femininity and prettiness meant I was repulsive.
But ugliness is something greater and stronger and stranger than mere non-beauty. It’s not an absence, but a new force, unpredictable and unrestrained. Beauty has rules and symmetry; ugliness does not. Helen of Troy’s face might have launched a thousand ships, but one look from Medusa could have sent them all to the bottom, weighted down with a crew of stones.

According to the Greek myth, Medusa was actually once so beautiful that the sea-god Poseidon desired her. He raped her in Athena’s temple, and the goddess punished the mortal victim–not the god, naturally!– for this sacrilege by turning her into a monster. Zimmerman muses:

Medusa lost her beauty—or rather, it was taken from her. Beauty is always something you can lose. Women’s beauty is seen as something separate from us, something we owe but never own: We are its stewards, not its beneficiaries. We tend it like a garden where we do not live.

Oh, but ugliness—ugliness is always yours. Almost everyone has some innate kernel of grotesquerie; even fashion models (I’ve heard) tend to look a bit strange and froggish in person, having been gifted with naturally level faces that pool light luminously instead of breaking it into shards. And everyone has the ability to mine their ugliness, to emphasize and magnify it, to distort even those parts of themselves that fall within acceptable bounds.

Where beauty is narrow and constrained, ugliness is an entire galaxy, a myriad of sparkling paths that lurch crazily away from the ideal. There are so few ways to look perfect, but there are thousands of ways to look monstrous, surprising, upsetting, outlandish, or odd. Thousands of stories to tell in dozens of languages: the languages of strong features or weak chins, the languages of garish makeup and weird haircuts and startling clothes, fat and bony and hairy languages, the languages of any kind of beauty that’s not white. Nose languages, eyebrow languages, piercing and tattoo languages, languages of blemish and birthmark and scar. When you give up trying to declare yourself acceptable, there are so many new things to say.

For another variation on the feminist theme of “Don’t play a rigged game”, consider this creative midrash on one of the Hebrew Bible’s disturbing tales of parental abuse and violence against women. Fred Clark is a progressive Christian ex-evangelical who blogs as Slacktivist. In this 2012 post, “Regarding Jephthah’s Daughter”, he considers different ways commentators have tried to make this story more palatable. In Judges 11, the Hebrew commander Jepthah vows that if God grants him victory over the Ammonites, he will sacrifice as a burnt-offering whoever first comes out of his house to meet him. Like the father in “Beauty and the Beast”, Jephthah was probably expecting that it would be an animal, not his own daughter. So he had to kill her.

Or did he? Clark contrasts the way the evangelical church taught the story, which assumed that the vow was binding, and the commentaries in the Jewish Encyclopedia, where the rabbis were pretty clear that Yahweh is not a Beast. According to Jewish tradition, Jephthah’s pride, his embarrassment at having made a rash and invalid vow, or (at best) his ignorance kept him from doing the right thing and asking the temple priest to annul his promise. It should have been obvious that God would not respect, let alone enforce, a vow to commit murder. Clark writes:

I don’t recall ever hearing a Sunday sermon on the story of Jephthah, but I probably heard a half-dozen Sunday school or Bible class lessons, and all of them pointed to this as the moral of this immoral story: Don’t make rash vows, because you will be bound by them just like Jephthah was.

And that’s monstrous — almost as horrifying as the original story. Those well-meaning Sunday school teachers all assumed, as Jephthah did, that he was absolutely bound by his vow, no matter what. And thus they all repeated Jephthah’s error — assuming that such vows and rules might somehow matter more than the life of Jephthah’s daughter.

That seems to me to be precisely the opposite of what this brutal little story actually illustrates. It shows us the lethal ignorance and sinful pride of remaining “inflexible.” The story of Jephthah is the story of everyone who decides that vows and codes and rules must be absolute. That way of thinking always ends in death.

While we’re on the subject of critiquing conservative Christianity, ex-evangelical writer Chris Stroop’s blog Not Your Mission Field features incisive articles and interviews about spiritual abuse, right-wing politics, and how they overlap. In a post from May 3, he warns us progressives about the no-true-Scotsman fallacy: “About Those Trump Voters for God? Stop Calling Them ‘Fake Christians'”. Both liberals and anti-Trump religious conservatives have been arguing that the president’s evangelical supporters are Christian in name only. While it’s understandable that believers don’t want to give Tan Dumplord power to define their faith, Stroop says that the battle to define “true” Christianity according to our political or theological preferences is unwinnable:

A modest proposition: while defining Trumpist Christians as “fake Christians” might feel good to the people who understand Trump support as a violation of their Christian values, this categorization is inaccurate from any empirical perspective. In other words, what represents “true” or “pure” Christianity (or Islam or Judaism, etc.) can only be debated within the discourse of the religion in question, that discourse being inevitably multivalent, tension-ridden, and subject to reinterpretation and internal contestation. Arguing over interpretation is part and parcel of text-based monotheisms. Put more simply, theologians and believers get to debate what the “pure” form of a given religion is; no one else does. However, there are no universally accepted grounds they can appeal to on which their contradictory metaphysical claims can be adjudicated, which means that, empirically, there is no such thing as a singular, timeless “pure” form of any religion.

Untenable, too, is the very American, but not especially Biblical, drive to separate pure religious motivations from self-serving political ones.

…[G]iven that these conservative Christians understand their drive to take dominion as a theological imperative, why should we understand their religious worldview and goals as only “ideology,” at the expense of “real” religion?… [For many commentators] the evident answer is that “ideology” is religion they don’t like, and “religion” is religion they do. This is intellectually sloppy…

The temptation to believe these things is powerful. Many of us want religion to be inherently good, and it can make for feel-good politics to reject fundamentalism as “fake” religion. But it is not. Religion is not anymore inherently good than it is inherently bad.

As a survivor of oppressive Christianity, I feel erased by claims that the Christianity I grew up with was not “real.” Let me tell you, I experienced myself as intensely religious well into my 20s, and I do not appreciate it when the Balmers and Goldbergs of the world tell me I was not “really religious” after all. Also as a result of my religious PTSD, I am naturally inclined to the position that organized religion, on the upshot, does more harm than good. I admit this may be my confirmation bias, and this claim would be very difficult if not impossible to demonstrate for the whole course of human history (although it is worth noting that the Abrahamic faiths have served as powerful vehicles for the propagation of patriarchy). The more salient point to my argument here is that harmful practices carried out in a religious context, as religious imperatives, do not stop being “really religious” just because they are harmful. This belief is nothing but wishful thinking and/or political expediency, even if many intelligent people cling to it, having failed to check their own confirmation bias on this point.

Moreover, whether we agree with it or not, Trump-ism is rooted in a worldview that many devout and religiously well-educated Christians have found support for in the Bible. It’s not the only worldview you can get out of Scripture, but it’s firmly rooted there.

The latest Pew data have revealed that it is precisely the most frequently churchgoing white Evangelicals who are currently most supportive of #SoCalledPresident, so you can give up what was literally a #FakeNews narrative concocted by a mainstream media that simply refuses to face the extent of white Evangelical illiberalism. The Evangelicals who voted for Trump are the kind who in many cases send their children to Christian schools or homeschool them, who memorize Bible verses, and who practice daily “quiet time,” that is, a period they spend praying and reading a devotional gloss on scripture or the Bible itself. We must face facts: this group is a Christian community.

When these Christians read the Bible, what do they get out of it? For starters, they appeal to the narrative of the fall and the doctrine of original sin to support an extremely dark view of human nature, the kind of paranoid view that imagines any number of “inherently lustful” men might put on dresses and claim to be transgender in order to spy on women in bathrooms, even though there is zero evidence that this ever occurs (while the medical community’s consensus on the validity of transgenderism is unequivocal). This extremely dark view of human nature leads to a sense that fallible human beings must be subjected to strict discipline or moral and social chaos will result, which in turn serves as “justification” for these Christians’ willingness to use coercive law in order to enforce on all moral norms that are not shared by all and that have no secular justification…This reading of the Bible leads to a sense that only Christians can be expected to behave morally at all, and comes with a concomitant rejection of pluralism (on which see this Twitter thread)…

…These conservative Christians, with their dark view of human nature, also find in scripture typologies through which to understand the world in terms of Providence and apocalyptic prophecy. This leads to what I call a “politics of Providentialism,” which entails reading the will of God into history and current events. Often it involves “recognizing” divine “blessings” and “punishments,” which believers of this sort insist can be applied not only to individuals, but also collectively to nations. One of the walls in my Christian elementary school was emblazoned with the phrase, “Blessed is the nation whose God is the LORD,” the first part of Psalm 33:12.

While the psalmist was referring to the covenant between God and ancient Israel, many contemporary American Christians believe the same type of relationship to exist between God and the United States of America. Thus they argue that if the U.S. “sins” by, say, removing officially sanctioned prayer from public schools, legalizing abortion, and/or legalizing same-sex marriage or passing transgender non-discrimination protections, God may punish the nation with some sort of catastrophe, or at least allow catastrophe to befall the nation by removing the “hedge of protection” with which God supposedly surrounds us when our nation is “obedient” to him (this version of God is always a him).

“But,” you will object, “How can such people claim to follow Christ and at the same time seek to deprive fellow Americans of healthcare and social support?”Many such conservative Christians would argue this is not what they are doing. Believing, as they do, in the inherent and indeed extreme corruption of human nature, and having a deep suspicion that such corruption will be expressed in a high degree in the secular state, which we can make into an idol if we’re not careful, they will argue that individual Christians and churches, and not the government, should provide for the needy. (Yes, this is utopian.)  Some go further, either taking the road of the prosperity Gospel, in which health and material success are signs of God’s favor, or arguing, through an extreme interpretation of the Calvinist concepts of “total depravity” and “limited atonement,” that Christians are only to take care of other Christians. I don’t find any of this to be in the spirit of the Gospel as I read it, but nevertheless it is “real” Christianity.

As I’ve shared in recent months on this blog (e.g. here and here), continuing to call myself “Christian” would drag me back into the rigged game of trying to please or convince others about my identity. Perhaps orthodoxy goes so well with patriarchy because they both fear the internally self-referenced person, as explained in this Psychology Today article by relationship counselors Linda and Charlie Bloom:

They listen and take influence, but they know who they are, what they want, and are guided in their choices by that clarity. While they are respectful of conventional wisdom, and open to personal input provided by their partner, friends and colleagues, ultimately they tend to make their life choices on the basis of their own experience and judgments, rather than defer to the opinions of others. This trust in the validity of one’s instincts or intuitive knowledge is distinct from the notion of “shooting from the hip” or just “going with your gut feeling.” It is the closeness of the partnership that has promoted such self-trust, and that self-trust enhances the partnership.

Self-trust is less not simply “doing what I want to do” but rather is a matter of accumulating the wisdom that is cultivated through the practices of self-awareness, self reflection, and the intention to learn from the results of our life choices. It also doesn’t mean rejecting all outside opinions. Self-trust combines the openness and receptivity of a child’s mind with the understanding of an adult whose wisdom has been deepened through a lifetime of learning and the integration of life’s lessons.

A life that is self-referential is one that is flexible, fluid, and creative. Our sense of security comes from a sense of trust in our capacity to deepen it rather than rely exclusively upon the input of other people and institutions. Self-referentiality allows us to choose from a broader range of options in making our life choices without having to adhere to a particular tradition authority, or belief system. In so doing we are able to meet our needs and address our unique concerns with resourcefulness and creativity.

A system that wants to cut people off from their inner power, and replace it with social control, will start by making them ashamed of their needs for nourishment, pleasure, and authenticity, after which it becomes easier to convince them that God also doesn’t value them unconditionally. I’m much happier being fat, queer, and crazy. And I might be able to turn you to stone.

Aspie Explorations

My results on the RDOS Aspie Quiz

Your neurodiverse (Aspie) score: 116 of 200
Your neurotypical (non-autistic) score: 97 of 200
You seem to have both neurodiverse and neurotypical traits

Had I taken the above quiz before I got married and moved out of my abusive home, I would likely have scored further to the right (neurodiverse) side of the chart. I was so special-topic-y as a kid, you wouldn’t believe it. (Ask me something about Medieval and Renaissance English history, I dare you.) This made me successful in certain high school classes but incomprehensible to my peers. A holdover from this experience is that whenever I’m very excited about a new interest, or absorbed in writing a scene in my novel, a self-hating voice cranks up: “Nobody cares about this!” I’m feeling it right now as I write this post!

Social media has helped normalize my love of niche specialties. If I want to talk about the Trinity, or trauma theory, or genderqueerness, for an entire year and see everything else in life through that lens, there is some micro-community in the blogosphere or on Twitter that will go along for the ride. I am self-employed now, also thanks to the Internet; I can take a break with friends who share my interests, then return to the solitary bliss of a home office customized for my sensory sensitivities. It’s harder to fit in when one’s social world is limited to the random people in a school or workplace, where every day involves awkward negotiations around accessibility in a shared space that’s too loud, bright, or poorly ventilated for a neurodiverse person.

Even taking those new freedoms into account, the social skills component of the spectrum has shifted considerably for me over time. My youth was spent in a perpetual state of rage and anxiety from being bullied at home and at school. Not only did I not have the bandwidth to figure out what other kids were thinking and feeling, I eventually lost the motivation. As a matter of principle, I refused to walk in the shoes of people who had never shown empathy for me. Moreover, my mother’s narcissism raised her idiosyncratic tastes to the status of Old Testament purity laws; I was actively forbidden to consume media that would have helped me understand my peers’ cultural references, or to wear age-appropriate stylish clothes. The only way to salvage some self-esteem was to wear my weirdness defiantly.

I don’t have the typical Aspie presentation of being unable to read facial expressions or emotions. I love analyzing people’s feelings and relationship patterns–I’m a novelist. Survival in my mother’s house also required me to anticipate her every whim, so much that I sometimes feel I’ve used up my lifetime quota of mind-reading energy. However, in my youth, I was much more literal about thinking their feelings were wrong. I could understand in the sense of “I perceive she has a crush on that guy” but not in the sense of “I can imagine myself having a crush on a guy like that, or acting that way about a guy I liked”. Ayn Rand was right, attraction should be rational, damn it! I’m not really different now, I just have far lower expectations of people’s rationality, even my own.

This combative idealism carries over into situations where someone’s implied feelings and body language are at odds with their words and actions. I’m misled, perhaps more easily than a neurotypical person, into believing the explicit cues to the exclusion of contradictory implicit ones. But this is as much a choice as it is a blind spot. My anxiety spins out of control when I can’t trust that someone is being straightforward. Rather like letting my phone go to voicemail so that people will text me instead, I don’t try to read hidden signals because I want to encourage people around me to be direct. Does it work? How would I know?!

I was never diagnosed, nor do I see the need to get a formal diagnosis now, because I’m not seeking any medical services. But I’m discovering many wonderful female and genderqueer Aspie blogs where I keep having “Me too!” moments. They make connections between odd traits of mine that I never realized were related to anything.

I first got a clue that I was on the spectrum when I read Feminist Aspie’s post about her extreme sensitivity to heat. This problem that I share with her has probably been my single biggest obstacle to fitting in with “normal” social life (after I stopped being abused, that is). Because environments that most people find comfortable can put me into temperature meltdown, I often have to choose between bowing out of a group event for a reason that people think is stupid or untrue, or attending and making others uncomfortable with my access needs. Either way I risk being told that I don’t care enough about people, when in fact I am doing invisible extra work just to “relax” with them. The emotional labor that Aspie women and female-ish people do to stay connected is not really appreciated because of sexism; more on that in a future post.

Prosopagnosia (difficulty recognizing faces) is a common Aspie symptom that has caused me many embarrassing moments. When in doubt, I use a trick from Huckleberry Finn, updated for modern times. Ask the person to spell their name for your contact record in your phone. Then you will find out who they are!

I go for Feldenkrais integrative bodywork once a month, and we’ve been working on my mis-aligned feet and why I feel like I walk off-balance. Well, according to The Goodenoughs Get in Sync, a book we bought to help with the Young Master’s speech therapy, vestibular disorder is another sensory processing symptom. The Young Master is a sensory seeker while I am a sensory avoider with an added layer of hyperactive startle reflex from trauma. Picture, if you will, me trying to slice cucumbers in the kitchen while he pops up behind me and wants to touch everything I’m doing. As they say on the movie posters, comic mayhem ensues.

One could perceive a movement on this blog from “Trauma explains me!” to “Gender explains me!” to “Neurodiversity explains me!” Actually I see a complex interaction between child abuse and neurodiversity. Narcissistic parents impose a special kind of pain on an Aspie child because they take away her control over what she wears and eats and how she is touched. I now see that I spent much of my early life in constant sensory distress. It’s wrong for any parents to make their child caretake their emotions, but it’s a particularly cruel way to treat a kid who is neurologically programmed to fail at this, and will grow up internalizing her parents’ accusations that she is thoughtless, selfish, or unfeeling. Being Aspie makes it harder for a kid to find allies outside the home, so she doesn’t trust that anyone besides her (abusive) parents will understand or care for her. An awkward, “difficult” kid will be victim-blamed even more than normal. The learned helplessness from abuse keeps her from realizing that she has a right to accommodations and that there are environments where she could function at her peak.

Teachers, guidance counselors, friends: if you see this person, please buy her a stim chew toy and a copy of Alice Miller’s Banished Knowledge.

(Summer job ID, sophomore year of college, 1991. I just can’t even.)

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May Links Roundup: Faith in Atypical Minds

If there’s a unifying theme to this month’s links, it might be “Put yourself in a different frame of mind.”

How does Christianity sound to a person on the autism spectrum? Reading Aspie Twitter has made me realize that I have some spectrum-y traits, particularly in the area of sensory processing disorders, as well as a tendency to take people’s explicit statements and ideas at face value and downplay social-emotional cues that contradict what they’re saying. My literal-mindedness was only enhanced by being subjected to manipulation and gaslighting in my childhood. Nowadays, perhaps I could figure out your unspoken subtext, but I often choose not to, in order to deter passive-aggressiveness and hypocrisy, and avoid spinning out into the old hypervigilant anxiety of waiting for the “gotcha!” from my personality-switching parent. I try to force people to rise to the level of my candor, with varying degrees of success.

When it comes to religion, my Aspie-ness probably makes me less comfortable than the average churchgoer with contradictions between official doctrine and lived experience. Whereas a neurotypical person might bracket theological objections in order to enjoy the interpersonal and aesthetic aspects of church, and understand that this is actually the point of church, I become twitchy at any hints that we either don’t believe or don’t care what we’re saying in the liturgy. I wonder if people on the spectrum are less likely to be affiliated with organized religion, and if this is why.

The progressive Christian blogger “perfectnumber628”, an American woman working in China, also observes that self-advocacy for non-neurotypical needs can be wrongly suppressed by the Christian culture of self-effacement. In her March post “Honest Lent: ‘Seek First God’s Kingdom’ Doesn’t Work If You Have Autism”, she notes, for example, that when certain sensory stimuli are more overpowering for you than the average person, you can’t just take care of everyone else first and wait around for well-meaning people to reciprocate, because they won’t even know that you need help unless you explain it.

I used to act uncertain when I tried to communicate about the loud-sounds problem. I didn’t have the language I needed back then- I didn’t know it was about needs and pain; I thought it was me being weak and unreasonable and selfishly asking for special treatment. I used to ask instead of tell. My tone of voice showed that I believed it was an unreasonable request, and so people didn’t take it seriously- or they made suggestions based on their total ignorance of the problem, and I treated those suggestions as more important than my “silly” sensory issues (which, I thought, are my own fault because I could choose to go to therapy and become “normal”). I used to end those conversations with “I don’t know if I’ll be okay with that or not, but … okay.”

But now I’ve learned to say it this way: “Loud sounds are extremely painful for me, so if there are balloons at the party, I will not be able to go.” Like it’s just a fact of the universe, just a simple cause-and-effect, and I’m not going to entertain any suggestions about how I should “get over it” and “it’s not that bad.” I’m very much “leaning on my own understanding” here- nobody told me “it’s perfectly reasonable for you to avoid things that make loud sounds, because they cause pain to you in a way that’s completely different from what most people are experiencing.” I figured that out on my own, and it’s not like I can ask other people to confirm it- they don’t know what I’m feeling, and I don’t know what they’re feeling. I’ve decided I don’t need anyone’s permission to advocate for myself. If I say this is what I need, then I have the right to tell people and expect to be taken seriously.

I used to “seek first God’s kingdom,” but God did not take care of my other needs. The only way to make sure those unique needs are met is if I stand up for myself, if I communicate to other people that this is a real thing that needs to be taken seriously. Any hesitation, any “humility”, any “putting others first” on my part, when coupled with the fact that other people can’t relate to what I’m feeling, gets interpreted as an indication that what I’m asking for isn’t a real need that other people should care about.

Written from an autistic perspective, but useful for everyone, Real Social Skills is an insightful blog about social rules, boundaries, power dynamics, and resisting abuse and ableism. This article from February, “On trauma aftermaths that don’t advance the plot”, is a must-read for fiction and drama writers who are creating characters with PTSD, as well as people seeking to support us in real life. Life with trauma is less about dramatic revelatory moments, and more about mundane but essential accommodations for chronic fatigue and distraction. What if “I’m triggered” was as straightforward as “I’m allergic to peanuts”? Just let us be honest about our self-care without probing for the story behind it.

It can be exhausting when people see you as a story and expect you to advance the plot whenever they notice some effect of trauma. Pressure to perform narratives about healing doesn’t often help people to make their lives better. Effect support involves respecting someone as a complex human, including the boring parts.

The aftermath of trauma is a day-to-day reality. It affects a lot of things, large and small. It can be things like being too tired to focus well in class because nightmares kept waking you up every night this week. TV wants that to be a dramatic moment where the character faces their past and gets better. In real life, it’s often a day where you just do your best to try and learn algebra anyway. Because survivors do things besides be traumatized and think about trauma. Sometimes it’s not a story. Sometimes it’s just getting through another day as well as possible.

A lot of triggers are things like being unable to concentrate on anything interesting because some kinds of background noises make you feel too unsafe to pay attention to anything else. For the zillionth time.  Even though you know rationally that they’re not dangerous. Even though you know where they come from, and have processed it over and over. Even if you’ve made a lot of progress in dealing with them, even if they’re no longer bothersome all the time. For most people, recovery involves a lot more than insight. The backstory might be interesting, but being tired and unable to concentrate is boring.

Triggers can also mean having to leave an event and walk home by yourself while other people are having fun, because it turns out that it hurts too much to be around pies and cakes. Or having trouble finding anything interesting to read that isn’t intolerably triggering. Or having trouble interacting with new people because you’re too scared or there are too many minefields. Or being so hypervigilant that it’s hard to focus on anything. No matter how interesting the backstory is, feeling disconnected and missing out on things you wanted to enjoy is usually boring.

When others want to see your trauma as a story, their expectations sometimes expand to fill all available space. Sometimes they seem to want everything to be therapy, or want everything to be about trauma and recovery.

When others want every reference to trauma to be the opening to a transformative experience, it can be really hard to talk about accommodations.

Another problematic use of trauma as character backstory is the trope that unresolved anger from abuse turns people evil. Meant to humanize a villain character, this trope can easily have the reverse effect of making survivors seem antisocial and dangerous. Abigail Nussbaum’s sci-fi review blog Asking the Wrong Questions delves into this problem in her 2011 analysis of the X-Men movies. Our sympathies are supposed to lie with Professor Charles Xavier, the assimilationist mentor of the super-powered mutant X-Men, while Erik a/k/a Magneto, a Holocaust survivor, doesn’t believe in the possibility of peaceful coexistence between humanity and his kind, and is therefore positioned as the villain. But what if Xavier’s virtue is simply privilege?

…what troubles me about the film is that it feels like yet another expression of an attitude that I’ve been noticing more and more often in Western, and particularly American, popular culture as it struggles with the topic of genocide and national trauma–a crucial failure of empathy, imagination, and, finally, perspective, that leads to a blanket condemnation of anger.  I saw this in Battlestar Galactica when human characters who refused to make peace with the Cylons–the people who had destroyed their civilization–were made into villains.  I noticed it a few weeks ago when I watched an old Star Trek: Voyager episode, “Jetrel,” in which Neelix is urged, and eventually agrees, to forgive the person who designed the weapon that depopulated Neelix’s home colony and killed his entire family.   And I see it in the increasing prevalence of vengeful victim characters, who are condemned not for the choices they make in pursuit of revenge, but simply for feeling anger.  There is in stories like this a small-mindedness that prioritizes the almighty psychiatric holy grail of “healing”–letting go of one’s anger for the sake of inner peace–over justified, even necessary moral outrage.  First Class condemns Erik not for targeting innocents and embracing the same prejudiced mentality as his Nazi tormentors, but for wanting to kill Shaw.  It places two choices before him: either he takes the life of the person who killed his family and tortured him, in which case he’s a villain, or he relinquishes not only his quest for revenge but the anger driving it (the alternative of putting Shaw on trial for crimes against humanity is never suggested).  As if to add insult to injury, the latter option is presented by Charles–a rich, privileged gentile who has not only never experienced a day of hardship in his life but who, as Mystique points out, has no problem passing for human–with a glibness that belies the film’s claim that he has seen Erik’s memories and fully comprehends his pain.

The key scene of X-Men: First Class has been repeated in all its trailers: Charles tells Erik that killing will not bring him peace; Erik replies that peace was never his goal.  This is the moment that’s meant to define them as hero and villain–Charles, the man of peace; Erik, who embraces killing.  To my mind it’s actually the moment that sums up the film’s moral bankruptcy.  Charles is the hero because he thinks peace of mind is more important than punishing a mass murderer.  Erik is the villain because he can’t stop being angry at the person who murdered his mother in front of him.  Scratch just a little bit beneath that surface and you’ll find the ugly truth that underpins most of Hollywood’s attempts to grapple with the Holocaust and atrocities like it.  Erik is a villain not because of what he does with his anger, but because bad things happened to him.  Charles is the hero because he’s lucky enough not to have been victimized.  The fact is, Hollywood–pop culture in general, actually–doesn’t like victims.  It’s willing to feel sorry for them, but it won’t quite accept them as heroes.  We want our heroes to be strong, inviolate.  Victims–those who haven’t passed through fire unscathed, or somehow worked their way back to the exact same person they were before their ordeal–are suspect, damaged goods, defiled.  We’d rather believe that there’s something wrong with them for how they react to their experiences than to accept that we too might react the same way.  So we consign them to villainy, and embrace as heroes those who are simply fortunate.  There was space in X-Men: First Class to buck against this trend, but instead it reinforces it.  It bills itself as the story of how Charles and Erik became a hero and a villain, but the answer that it ultimately reveals is: because that’s how they were written.

Explanations are tricky things. I’ve always been odd: I have heightened perceptions, skills, and understanding in some areas, coupled with difficulties with some ordinary-life functioning. I think my origin story for these superpowers and handicaps has moved in a more and more socially acceptable direction, from “I’m smarter than everyone” to “I have the true religion” to “I’m a trauma survivor” to “I’m kind of Aspie”. But any of these narratives are only useful to the extent that they help me love myself and build positive relationships with others. Used defensively, to explain to an unkind interlocutor why I can’t drive on highways/hate the beach/can read 100 words a minute/know way too much medieval English history/made up my own religion, self-labeling can expose one’s core self to an even more painful attack than the original criticism of the behavior. So be careful about using your identity group as a human shield. I guess my most important “real social skill” is holding to the principle that we should embrace each other’s diversity, whether or not we understand it.

Is Feminism the Right Movement for Nonbinary People?

This is not a post about “do trans women belong in women’s spaces”. Feminism is for women. How you became a woman is nobody’s business.

This is not a post about “do nonbinary people belong in feminism”. That framing begs the question that we are, or should be, asking to be allowed in.

Rather, I’m pondering two complex questions: Should enbies always push for gender-neutral or gender-inclusive language in feminist activities? When feminists who identify as women decide to continue centering women in their group’s language and mission, what alternative services exist for enbies to address issues that have traditionally been the purview of feminist organizing: sexual assault, reproductive rights, discrimination, and the like?

The answers, I believe, are interconnected. Before women can declare that a space is not for us or a movement is not about us, have they considered whether we have anywhere else to go for this kind of support? Are those options equally local, accessible, and effective for the enby in question? What are these women doing to supply feminist resources and theoretical insights to enby-focused organizations?

Before we enbies go #AllLivesMatter on anything gender-specific, have we empathized with women’s silencing by patriarchal society, and appreciated the historical struggle to carve out spaces where women’s voices and experiences had prime importance?

The topic is on my mind because I’ve signed up for a “Women’s Sacred Rage” workshop. It was a fantastic experience last year, the organizers are reliably trans-friendly cis women, and I expect the participants will be supportive of gender diversity. But I’m more definite about my queerness than I was then. Do I need to come out to everybody or will that be derailing? I was socialized as a woman, I’m perceived to be a woman, I participate in a sexist culture, but one source of my rage is that I was forcibly brought up as a girl/woman when I don’t think I was one.

Two articles I read recently frame this dilemma. Rain and Thunder is a local magazine of radical feminist thought and activism. When I call their feminism transgender-exclusive, I mean that as a description, not a slur. Their branch of the movement is concerned about erasure of the specific history and needs of women, particularly lesbians, by the rising popularity of umbrella terms like “queer”. The articles are not available online, so I’m going to quote some passages below from Debbie Cameron’s essay “The Amazing Disappearing ‘Women'”, in Issue #67 (Spring 2017). She is upset that reproductive health organizations have started using gender-neutral language to acknowledge that some people who get pregnant and menstruate don’t identify as women, and that a similar change is taking place in political discourse about hate crimes:

…the term ‘gender-based violence’…is widely used by government bodies and NGOs to refer to what feminists would call ‘violence against women’ and/or ‘male violence’. In this case what prompted the adoption of the inclusive term wasn’t a concern about anti-male bias. Rather, humanitarian organizations in the 1990s felt the need for a more abstract umbrella term to encompass the full range of issues they were working on. The choice of ‘gender-based violence’ did not, initially, change their understanding of the issue. Most early definitions of ‘gender-based violence’ explicitly say that it means ‘violence against women’…

…But to me, at least, it’s unclear why calling violence ‘gender-based’ should do more to highlight power and inequality than calling it ‘violence against women’. The most obvious characteristic of the inclusive term is its vagueness: it says only that some acts or types of violence are ‘based’ on ‘gender’, while leaving the nature of the connection unspecified. (Is it to do with the motive? The perpetrator’s gender? The victim’s gender? Both?) Far from highlighting ‘power inequalities between men and women’, the non-specificity of ‘gender-based violence’ leaves room for an interpretation of it as something any gendered being might do to any other gendered being…

…From a feminist perspective the problem with inclusive terms is not statistical, it’s conceptual. Feminists conceptualize male violence against women as a form of social control which helps to maintain men’s collective position of dominance. It’s not just a question of some individual men using violence to dominate some individual women. All women–including those who will never experience an actual assault–have to live with the fear of being assaulted by men, and with the restrictions that fear imposes on their freedom of movement, action and speech. Violence perpetrated by women against men, however heinous and individually deserving of punishment it may be, does not have the same political function. All men’s lives are not circumscribed by their fear of being attacked by women. This understanding is what motivates the feminist preference for gender-specific terms. Replacing those terms with non-specific, ‘inclusive’ alternatives is not just a superficial change in wording, it’s a rejection of the logic of the feminist analysis…

…When feminist organizations adopt inclusive terms…they aren’t trying to make the problem of structural sexual inequality disappear. But the result is still a loss of analytic and political clarity. Planned Parenthood’s reference to ‘people being criminalized for their pregnancy outcomes’ is a case in point. Like feminist campaigns against male violence, feminist campaigns for reproductive rights are underpinned by a political analysis which sees the legal and religious policing of reproduction as a tool of patriarchal social control–and the point isn’t to control ‘pregnancy outcomes’, it’s to control the behavior of women. (pgs. 12-13)

So much to unpack here. Let me start by problematizing the rhetorical move of speaking for “feminism” as a monolith, akin to evangelicals’ self-descriptive use of “Christianity” or “orthodoxy” to give false universality to one sectarian perspective. To be fair, Cameron is right that male violence against women is supported by and reinforces structural inequality, while the reverse is not true. Men–or should I say, those who are perceived as men–don’t regularly circumscribe their behavior to reduce the risk of date rape or sexual assault, and in situations where they do have to worry about this (e.g. in prisons), they’re generally afraid of other men. And yes, attacks on reproductive rights aim to subordinate “women”, but that’s because conservative men don’t recognize trans and enby identities. Why should we defer to their misgendering of pregnant people?

But is this all there is to feminism? Are all other instances of gendered violence outside its purview? I would argue that “gender-based violence” includes:

*The widespread violence against transgender women, typically by cisgender men, which has its roots in misogyny and toxic patriarchal gender roles. According to the National LGBTQ Task Force’s StopTransMurders campaign: “In 2013, where there were also 12 reported murders of trans women of color, the National Coalition of Anti-Violence programs reported that 72% of hate crimes against LGBTQ people were against trans women, 90% of whom were transgender women of color.”

*Domestic violence in lesbian relationships, when the straight-acting or femme partner exploits her butch girlfriend’s gender-nonconformity to shame her or threaten to “out” her. (Ask me how I know about this.)

*Both mothers and fathers forcing female genital mutilation and male circumcision on children who are incapable of consent.

*Both mothers and fathers coercing children into the wrong gender identity or expression, including “corrective” surgery on intersex infants.

It’s patriarchy, not the existence of trans and nonbinary folks, that starves feminism for resources, so that radical feminists fear competition from issues other than the traditional one of male violence against women. I believe there should be spaces for the specific needs and solidarity of cis women who’ve been oppressed by men, just as there are (or should be) spaces foregrounding people of color, lesbians, trans and gender-nonconforming people, etc., but there should also be ultra-inclusive spaces where everyone affected by patriarchy and gender-based violence can share insights and support each other’s rights. Planned Parenthood, NGOs, and governments should be as inclusive as possible because they serve large populations and there are few alternatives for people who are turned away from these organizations. At the personal level, like workshops and support groups, I don’t have a hard-and-fast rule to discern when it is time to be inclusive versus specific, though I think the presence or absence of alternative resources is key.

For the contrary position to Rain and Thunder, I appreciated Kim Kaletsky’s piece “The Dangerous Exclusivity of Spaces for ‘Women’ Sexual Assault Survivors”, an October 2016 post on the social justice blog The Establishment.

…when author Kelly Oxford encouraged “women” to “tweet their first assaults” in reaction to Trump’s recently released remarks about his right to grab women…I hesitated to join the millions of people responding and sharing their stories.

…[I have]a very particular kind of nonbinary identity, the sort that doesn’t come with body dysphoria. I often pass as a cis woman, whether I want to or not, because I have breasts and don’t wear a chest binder. Sometimes I benefit from that — when I’m able to use women’s restrooms without putting myself in danger, for instance — but mostly it feels like having a sign with false information about me tattooed on my back, one I didn’t ask for and can’t easily remove. At no time does the dissonance between who I know I am and who others tell me I am feel more apparent, however, than when public conversations about gender-based sexual assault arise…

…The more I read others’ stories, the more I wanted to share my own subway story, in solidarity with others. But the stronger my desire to speak up, the more hesitant I became. What would it mean for me to take up space in a conversation explicitly designated for “women”? Would my voice be welcome as a nonbinary voice, or would I have to forfeit that aspect of my identity in order to earn the right to share my experiences?

I chose not to share my story. It’s a decision I’ve made numerous times — when considering submitting essays to magazines dedicated to sexual assault survivors, and when looking into support groups and listening in on social media conversations. I respect that spaces designated for women are for women, and will never deny their importance. Women need that space, and they need to feel safe there. And if my presence as someone who doesn’t wear the “woman” label is going to make anyone feel less comfortable sharing their experiences, then I fully relinquish my right to be there.

But if most spaces for survivors of gender-based sexual violence are for cis women, where does that leave the trans or nonbinary people who may or may not identify with femininity or womanhood, but whose bodies cis men have felt entitled to because they “looked like a woman”? Welcome or not, I often avoid spaces designated for “women” for the sake of my own mental health. Because participating means agreeing you wear the “women” label, entering “women’s” spaces, to me, feels like misgendering myself. And though many “women’s” spaces are unlikely to turn me down even if I do speak up about being nonbinary, I don’t want to subject myself to a space that’s so ambivalently supportive of nonbinary identity that its organizers can’t even commit to using nonbinary-friendly language. I’m already feeling vulnerable whenever I talk about sexual assault and rape culture — I can’t feel liberated from the weight of misogyny if I’m simultaneously dealing with language that invalidates my gender identity.

While I have enormous respect and appreciation for “women-only” spaces, their existence feels counterproductive. Many of them strive to combat or heal the damage from patriarchal norms. But I don’t think it’s possible to deconstruct misogyny or promote bodily autonomy without also deconstructing binary gender and the complicated binary gender divisions and expectations that keep patriarchal culture in place and deny trans and nonbinary folks their own bodily autonomy.

In my workshop later this month, I’ll probably come out, and it’ll probably be fine. People in our ultra-progressive town have responded with a wonderful indifference to my past declarations. The question remains whether I’ll go further, and start some conversations about creating trans- and enby-led forums for survivors of abuse and patriarchy. The burden of organizing those opportunities shouldn’t be entirely on us not-quite-women. I encourage cis-feminist groups to help us build on their work. And by encourage, I mean, “will annoy you until you do what I want.” Sacred Rage power!

The Gospel According to Alice Miller: The Truth Will Set You Free

Alice Miller (1923-2010) was a groundbreaking psychoanalyst and author of many books on childhood trauma as the root of personal and societal problems. Some of her work crosses over into theology, as she critiques how certain religious texts reflect and perpetuate toxic family dynamics through the generations. Concepts of original sin, forbidden knowledge, and child sacrifice take on new interpretations when we decide to stand on the side of the child, against parental violence. This hermeneutic has led me to part ways with Biblical Christianity as I once understood it. It was a surprise and consolation to find that Miller rescues the person of Jesus from this deconstruction, giving me a way to keep relating to him without going back into denial.

Miller’s The Truth Will Set You Free (Basic Books, 2001) is a popularization of her theories for a general audience, focusing on the case against corporal punishment of children, rather than the taboo topic of sexual abuse in the family. Even the title is a quote from Jesus (John 8:32), though this may be the choice of the English translator. (The original German title was Evas Erwachen, which I think means “Eve Awaken” and refers to Eve eating the forbidden fruit.) This passage from the last chapter describes a Jesus I can believe in:

The figure of Jesus confounds all those principles of poisonous pedagogy still upheld by the christian churches, notably the use of punishment to make children obedient and the emotional blindness such treatment inevitably brings. Long before his birth Jesus received the greatest reverence, love, and protection from his parents, and it was in this initial and all-important experience that his rich emotional life, his thinking, and his ethics were rooted. His earthly parents saw themselves as his servants, and it would never have occurred to them to lay a finger on him. Did that make him selfish, arrogant, covetous, high-handed, or conceited? Quite the contrary.

Jesus grew into a strong, aware, empathic, and wise person able to experience and sustain strong emotions without being engulfed by them. He could see through insincerity and mendacity and he had the courage to expose them for what they were. Yet to my knowledge no representative of the church has ever admitted the patent connection between the character of Jesus and the way he was brought up. Would it not make eminent sense to encourage believers to follow the example of Mary and Joseph and regard their children as the children of God (which in a sense they are) rather than treating them as their own personal property? The image of God entertained by children who have received love is a mirror of their very first experiences. Their God will understand, encourage, explain, pass on knowledge, and be tolerant of mistakes. He will never punish them for their curiosity, suffocate their creativity, seduce them, give them incomprehensible commands, or strike fear into their hearts. Jesus, who in Joseph had just such a father, preached precisely those virtues. (pgs.190-91)

Working Title/Artist: The Holy Family with Saints Anne and Catherine of AlexandriaDepartment: European PaintingsCulture/Period/Location: HB/TOA Date Code: 09Working Date: 1648
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Online Publications Edited By Steven Paneccasio for TOAH 1/2/2014

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April Links Roundup: Christian Hookups

When I was navigating single life as a college and graduate student in the 1990s, a lot of the ideas that would have made sense of my desires and boundaries were not yet part of mainstream discussion. Today I’d probably identify as a demisexual, i.e. a person who only feels sexual attraction to someone when there’s an emotional bond. Back then, I only had a choice between Christian conservative modesty rules or a “sex-positive” feminism that shaded into peer pressure to prove my maturity through sexual availability. The latter was epitomized by the campus therapist I sought out for help coping with my mother’s mental breakdown; she offered her unsolicited opinion that I had a fear of intimacy because I mentioned that I planned to save sex for marriage.

It’s popular to write thinkpieces scoffing at the proliferation of labels for gender and sexuality, but in my experience, having a theoretical framework for your intimate inclinations does two important things. First, it reassures you that being out of step with your immediate social environment is a normal human variation, not a personal failure to grow up, loosen up, or man up. Widening the lens beyond the people who happen to be in your hometown or classroom reveals that there is no single right way to be in your body. You might even find like-minded friends or partners who use that label as shorthand for your shared values.

Second, identity labels give you a way to be clear about your limits without judging other people. Especially for those of us who are read as female, a simple “No, I don’t feel like having sex with you” is often taken by the other person as either a hurtful personal rejection or as an opening to negotiate, not a real boundary. Religious chastity rules served the same purpose, but required me to assert that everyone else was doing sex wrong. Celibate, opinionated, unconsciously queer…I would have made a great pope.

For me, demisexuality means that I can enjoy sexual fantasies about fictional characters or the hotties in the Jockey underwear catalog, but can’t picture myself getting physically close to a real-life guy unless I trust him and feel seen and cared for by him. The prospect of an unloving hookup gave me a dis-integrated feeling, a stifling sense of being consumed and erased. My body can’t relax if the emotions aren’t genuine; contrary to popular ideas of romance, illusion is a real buzzkill for me.

I appreciated this March 2017 article by Katie Klabusich at The Establishment, an intersectional social justice blog: “The Unspoken Problem With College Hookup Culture”. In her review of Lisa Wade’s social science study American Hookup: The New Culture of Sex on Campus, Klabusich finds a way to critique the callousness and emptiness that have become the norm in this subculture, without slut-shaming. The problem is not the number of sexual partners but the lack of a compassionate and responsible ethic about how to treat one another, whether in short- or long-term relationships.

Wade zeroed in on why dudes freak out and why women are so hard on themselves when they feel a thing — basically, students think that emotionless sex is the desired norm…

But can sex — even casual sex — actually be devoid of meaning? And more importantly, should it be?…

…I have realized over time that I wasn’t defective for wanting even casual sexual encounters to have meaning — even if that meaning was “just” fun, release, and temporary connection.

“Clingy, desperate, and needy are extremely effective insults, invoking all the things that students don’t want to be: weak, insecure, unable to control one’s emotions, and powerless to separate sex from feelings. For men, it’s the antithesis of masculinity. For women, it’s a failure to be liberated, modern, strong, and independent…Students aim, then, for aloofness.”

And this aloofness, Wade says, can engender a vicious cycle. “The idea is not just to not care, it’s to care less. Lack of interest is a moving target and the direction is down,” writes Wade. “So, after a hookup, students monitor each other’s level of friendliness and try to come in below the other person. Each time one person takes a step back emotionally, the other takes two. They can end up backed into their respective corners, avoiding eye contact, and pretending the other doesn’t exist.” Wade cites an NYU alum who calls it “the blase Olympics.”

The problem is that this blase attitude can make it difficult to ultimately establish emotional intimacy. “The skills needed for managing hookup culture…are in direct contradiction to the skills needed to propose, build, and sustain committed relationships,” writes Wade.

Gay Christian activist Kevin Garcia explores the same theme in his interview “Let’s Talk About SEX(ual Ethics) w/ Rev. Jonathan Vanderbeck”, an episode of Garcia’s podcast series A Tiny Revolution. From the introduction:

Sexual ethics (one’s personal practice around about the proper expression of sexual intimacy) is a topic of conversation that happens rarely in church because it’s assumed everyone is waiting till marriage. But, if we’re being honest, this is hardly the case. And have we stopped to ask why we believe this way? Or have we even explored what scripture says about this?

In the hour-long episode, they suggest that “covenant” and “one-flesh” language about sexuality in the Bible could be a foundation for kinder and more respectful hookups. All the people you have sex with become a part of you and vice versa, whether you end up in a long-term relationship or never see each other again. Christian sexual ethics should guide people to bring a loving consciousness to all encounters, rather than shaming people for having diverse sexual lifestyles. The current ideal of monogamy leads to hypocrisy and unkindness as gay Christians and former Christians act out their inner conflict on their partners. Listen to the interview and follow Kevin and Jonathan on Twitter.

Given how long it’s taken mainline churches to approve same-sex marriage rites, I don’t expect a liturgy for sacred one-night stands anytime soon. But why shouldn’t there be? Religious ritual and romantic courtship have traditionally provided transition markers between ordinary life and the liminal, powerful, transformative space where intimacy happens. My marriage-first ethic developed from the dearth of such intentional practices to honor short-term affairs. However, older people who’ve done more spiritual and psychological inner work could create such practices for themselves, as Damien Bohler describes in his 2015 post “Sacred Casual Sex” at the spirituality and mindfulness website Elephant Journal.

I am looking for something very specific in a partner that goes beyond attraction and requires a compatibility of life-path. And yet when I meet beautiful individuals who awaken this fascination within me my body, my heart, my mind, my soul wants to know them even if it is for a short while.

In our conventional models of relating the way to do this is through one night stands, casual sex or perhaps ‘friends with benefits.’ After having experimented in all of them I feel none of these ways of being with another are truly satisfying to me. Inevitably some kind of deception occurs, sometimes we are even both privy to that deception. Perhaps neither of us want something longer lasting yet we are sucked in by the ideas that perhaps, because we have sex or share intimately, that we are obligated in some way to pretend that there is more between us than there actually is. Another thing we might do is hold back a part of ourselves from truly becoming intimate and vulnerable with this other because we are not “in love forever after.”

I want more than that. I want the freedom to show up fully with whoever I am with, and also the freedom from unstated obligations and assumptions. I want to love, adore and cherish even if it is only for a short while.

In the article, he describes how he and one of his lovers crafted a plan to explore intimacy in a caring, bounded, and non-exclusive way. I wonder if any Christian media outlet would publish a similar piece. Are the norms of exclusivity and permanence too embedded in our monotheistic covenant religion? How far will queer Christians be able to develop the tradition in a new direction? Never underestimate the power of sex to spur Reformation–see Martin Luther’s rejection of clerical celibacy.

March Links Roundup: Race and Repentance

Christians this month are observing the season of Lent, a period of self-examination and repentance, and this Episco-pagan is among them. If the Christian part should ever drop out of my identity, Lent would be the last to go. It’s always felt, for me, like opening up more breathing room in our shared spiritual space; a rare time to acknowledge sadness and confusion in a publicly supportive environment, and the luxury of introspection in liberal churches that are usually so focused on outward social action. (Plus, forty days is really the outer limit of how long I can maintain good habits, like eating fewer carbs and not biting my nails.)

On Ash Wednesday, the multi-author blog Feminism and Religion offered this positive re-thinking of repentance as creative tension: accepting imperfection as our natural state, while always striving to grow beyond it. It reminds me of the dialectical-behavioral therapy affirmation (I’m paraphrasing Marsha Linehan here), “I accept you just as you are and I believe you can change.” One could say this attitude is less prideful than the traditional fall-from-grace narrative that implies we were supposed to be perfect. Religion professor Natalie Weaver writes in “A Lenten Reflection”:

Today is Ash Wednesday, where people the world over are reminded that they are born of dust and destined to return to dust.  In the meanwhile, we will fast and repent of all the wrongs wrought by our doings and omissions.  And, while my own disposition sort of naturally enters into that almost masochistic self-reflection, another part of me feels the strong urge to resist that burden.  This is not to say that I eschew moral agency or culpability.  Rather, it is to resist an anthropology of sin and fall.  I sooner would see an anthropology of effort and crawling towards walking.  I sooner would embrace the idea that creaturely life is not perfected, especially while it is still in process, and that sin and error are actually manifestations of the imperfect but noble effort of the child trying to stand; the adult trying to be responsible; the elderly trying to give advice, and all as much as possible for as long as possible.

The great evils of this world are driven by desire for godlike domination and access.  They demonstrate the craven lust to own land and bodies and resources and control.  They are the unchecked will of the self striving to create the world, writ small or large, after one’s own image.  But, isn’t there something of this grandiose self (construed as both individual and corporate, tribal, and national identities) also present in the narcissistic gaze inward, where I try to determine my imperfections and imagine myself without them as in some pre-fallen or post-fallen way, heavenly state?  Does the obsession with sin not betray some deeper sort of god-complex?

I would like to suggest that we are better served by a less audacious theology.  It is wise to be a creature, recognizing the scope and limit of one’s influence and place.  We harm ourselves when we batter our souls with all that we should have done and all that we did not do.  And, even such an exercise diligently undertaken will not change in a lasting corrective sense the inevitability that we’ll arrive at this same bend next year.   The truth is, while we all search, we don’t know in an absolute sense for what we search; we hope for that which is beyond our imaginations.

Among the topics of my soul-searching this year is racism and my complicity in it as a white person. I have mixed feelings about “privilege” language because being treated decently is a universal right, though one that is unfortunately far from universally enjoyed. “Privilege” has connotations of something that was handed to you when you should have earned it, or a coddling of immature sensitivities. But for now, it’s the best commonly-understood shorthand to convey that inequality is structural, not just about personal animus.

In the words of former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, white privilege is partly about the “unknown unknowns–the ones we don’t know we don’t know.” We have no reason to question popular narratives of American history that could be dangerously wrong. We might fall for hate-mongering political strategies against a marginalized group without recognizing that they’re right out of the KKK’s playbook.

For example, in this 2014 post from The Weekly Sift, “Not a Tea Party, a Confederate Party”, freelance journalist and amateur historian Doug Muder convincingly argues that Reconstruction was the second phase of the Civil War–and the North lost.

The Civil War was easy to misunderstand at the time, because there had never been anything like it. It was a total mobilization of society, the kind Europe wouldn’t see until World War I. The Civil War was fought not just with cannons and bayonets, but with railroads and factories and an income tax.

If the Napoleonic Wars were your model, then it was obvious that the Confederacy lost in 1865: Its capital fell, its commander surrendered, its president was jailed, and its territories were occupied by the opposing army. If that’s not defeat, what is?

But now we have a better model than Napoleon: Iraq.

After the U.S. forces won on the battlefield in 1865 and shattered the organized Confederate military, the veterans of that shattered army formed a terrorist insurgency that carried on a campaign of fire and assassination throughout the South until President Hayes agreed to withdraw the occupying U. S. troops in 1877. Before and after 1877, the insurgents used lynchings and occasionalpitchedbattles to terrorize those portions of the electorate still loyal to the United States. In this way they took charge of the machinery of state government, and then rewrote the state constitutions to reverse the postwar changes and restore the supremacy of the class that led the Confederate states into war in the first place. [2]

By the time it was all over, the planter aristocrats were back in control, and the three constitutional amendments that supposedly had codified the U.S.A’s victory over the C.S.A.– the 13th, 14th, and 15th — had been effectively nullified in every Confederate state. The Civil Rights Acts had been gutted by the Supreme Court, and were all but forgotten by the time similar proposals resurfaced in the 1960s. Blacks were once again forced into hard labor for subsistence wages, denied the right to vote, and denied the equal protection of the laws. Tens of thousands of them were still physically shackled and subject to being whipped, a story historian Douglas Blackmon told in his Pulitzer-winning Slavery By Another Name.

So Lincoln and Grant may have had their mission-accomplished moment, but ultimately the Confederates won. The real Civil War — the one that stretched from 1861 to 1877 — was the first war the United States lost.

The missed opportunity. Today, historians like Eric Foner and Douglas Egerton portray Reconstruction as a missed opportunity to avoid Jim Crow and start trying to heal the wounds of slavery a century sooner. Following W.E.B. DuBois’ iconoclastic-for-1935 Black Reconstruction, they see the freedmen as actors in their own history, rather than mere pawns or victims of whites. As a majority in Mississippi and South Carolina, and a substantial voting bloc across the South, blacks briefly used the democratic system to try to better their lot. If the federal government had protected the political process from white terrorism, black (and American) history could have taken an entirely different path.

In particular, 1865 was a moment when reparations and land reform were actually feasible. Late in the war, some of Lincoln’s generals — notably Sherman — had mitigated their slave-refugee problem by letting emancipated slaves farm small plots on the plantations that had been abandoned by their Confederate owners. Sick or injured animals unable to advance with the Army were left behind for the slaves to nurse back to health and use. (Hence “forty acres and a mule”.) Sherman’s example might have become a land-reform model for the entire Confederacy, dispossessing the slave-owning aristocrats in favor of the people whose unpaid labor had created their wealth.

Instead, President Johnson (himself a former slave-owner from Tennessee) was quick to pardon the aristocrats and restore their lands. [3] That created a dynamic that has been with us ever since: Early in Reconstruction, white and black working people sometimes made common cause against their common enemies in the aristocracy. But once it became clear that the upper classes were going to keep their ill-gotten holdings, freedmen and working-class whites were left to wrestle over the remaining slivers of the pie. Before long, whites who owned little land and had never owned slaves had become the shock troops of the planters’ bid to restore white supremacy.

This history is even more relevant in the Trump era than when Muder wrote it three years ago, because false narratives of the reasons for racial and economic inequality drive much of the Trump-supporters’ policy initiatives and self-image. The second half of the article warns:

But the enduring Confederate influence on American politics goes far beyond a few rhetorical tropes. The essence of the Confederate worldview is that the democratic process cannot legitimately change the established social order, and so all forms of legal and illegal resistance are justified when it tries…

…The Confederate sees a divinely ordained way things are supposed to be, and defends it at all costs. No process, no matter how orderly or democratic, can justify fundamental change.

When in the majority, Confederates protect the established order through democracy. If they are not in the majority, but have power, they protect it through the authority of law. If the law is against them, but they have social standing, they create shams of law, which are kept in place through the power of social disapproval. If disapproval is not enough, they keep the wrong people from claiming their legal rights by the threat of ostracism and economic retribution. If that is not intimidating enough, there are physical threats, then beatings and fires, and, if that fails, murder.

That was the victory plan of Reconstruction. Black equality under the law was guaranteed by the 14th Amendment. But in the Confederate mind, no democratic process could legitimate such a change in the social order. It simply could not be allowed to stand, and it did not stand.

In the 20th century, the Confederate pattern of resistance was repeated against the Civil Rights movement. And though we like to claim that Martin Luther King won, in many ways he did not. School desegregation, for example, was never viewed as legitimate, and was resisted at every level. And it has been overcome. By most measures, schools are as segregated as ever, and the opportunities in white schools still far exceed the opportunities in non-white schools.

Today, ObamaCare cannot be accepted. No matter that it was passed by Congress, signed by the President, found constitutional by the Supreme Court, and ratified by the people when they re-elected President Obama. It cannot be allowed to stand, and so the tactics for destroying it get ever more extreme…

Meanwhile, at The TransAdvocate, this 2016 post by Cristan Williams looks at the history behind “Bathroom Bills and the Dialectic of Oppression”. In an interview with Princeton lecturer Dr. Gillian Frank, Williams details “the ways anti-equality groups have historically cast oppressed groups as voyeurs and/or perverts, warning the public that should an oppressed group have equality, bad things may happen in public bathrooms.” Klan spokesmen in the 1960s raised the specter of white women catching “Negro diseases” from integrated restrooms; opponents of the Equal Rights Amendment in the 1980s similarly warned that gender equality would let gay men spread AIDS in public bathrooms and locker rooms. “The political argument that supporting the discrimination of a minority group equates to saving children from harm traces its rhetorical roots back to Jim Crow laws.” Williams quotes Frank as saying:

Analyzing the racial origins of [Save Our Children’s (SOC)] activism and the gay rights response to it in the 1970s reveals a migration of conservative ideas and activists from race-based conflicts to gender- and sexual-based conflicts. SOC’s discourse of child protection embodied a protean logic of family privacy against queer sexuality. That strategy was, in part, learned from southern US resistance to desegregation, dating back to the Civil War, which used the language of privacy and family protection to address issues of race.

(“Save Our Children” was Anita Bryant’s anti-gay activist group in the 1970s.) Frank continues:

The use of mass media to aid in the construction of oppressed groups as sexual threats can be traced back to a specific political narrative initially used against Black Americans. The KKK was perhaps the first to enjoy the use of mass multimedia to inspire the dominate population to view members of an oppressed group as a potential sexual threat. In 1915 the KKK was featured in the movie blockbuster, Birth of a Nation. The movie, originally titled The Clansman, features a White man portrayed as a Black man who tries to rape a White woman. The movie earned more than 10 million dollars (more than 235 million in 2016 dollars) and helped popularize the Black rapist trope within the public consciousness…

…The Republican Party centered their political dialectic upon this trope in the 1988 presidential race between George Bush and Michael Dukakis… Bush portrayed Dukakis’ support of racial equality as an endorsement of the rape of White women by Black men through attack ads featuring Willy Horton. Horton, a Black man who raped and killed a White woman, was constructed to be a central figure in the Dukakis political team. Bush’s aid, Lee Atwater said, “By the time we’re finished, they’re going to wonder whether Willie Horton is Dukakis’ running mate.”

Imagery used to support anti-transgender politics likewise draws upon the construction of transgender women as sexual threats. Political advertisements against Houston’s equality ordinance consistently featured the message that should trans women be protected from harassment and discrimination, little girls would be raped. The Houston Chronicle reported, “Opponents of the ordinance… have flooded radio and TV with ads saying the law gives men dressed in women’s clothing, including sexual predators, the ability to enter a woman’s restroom. On Tuesday, the group released a TV spot that closes with a man bursting into a stall occupied by a young girl.”

This political dialectic functions to erode the oppressed group’s humanity to the point wherein their mere existence in society is enough to warrant calls for violence…

Visit Cristan’s blog and Twitter feed for more articles about transgender rights and the surprising history of trans-inclusive radical feminism.