Assorted Questions and Thoughts

Fear: sometimes fear is incredibly helpful. Fear has helped me get my shit together for moving to a new country. Unfortunately fear is also making me want to grab all my friends and throw them into a cuddle puddle and curl up in a little ball under all of them and never move again. Sometimes fear is based on reality (there are some threats to me in moving to a new country and so I need to take precautions) and sometimes it goes crazy and gets out of hand and convinces me that I’m probably being chased by a fucking bear when I’m actually just sitting at work typing. I suppose there should be easy ways to tell when fear makes sense and when it does (look for bears: no bears? Good to go.) And yet that doesn’t make my heart stop pounding and my ears stop ringing. Where did evolution go wrong?

Rightness: Most people think that the beliefs they hold are right (or they wouldn’t hold them. I suppose some people hold beliefs because they feel comforted or they want those beliefs to be right, but generally a requirement for belief is thinking something is true). And yet the likelihood that any of us have 100% correct beliefs is pretty much 0. How do we move forward and act in the world knowing that in all likelihood some (if not most) of our beliefs are incorrect? We probably don’t know which ones are the wrong ones or we’d have changed them. We may not even be able to know which are incorrect. What is the best course of action in this situation? I think somewhere in here lies the difference between “faith” of the religious variety and belief. Faith does not look for more information to constantly update its worldview. It has its conclusion and it’s done. I think it is possible to have faith of this type in nonreligious settings. Belief ideally is a temporary condition. You think you know something and you operate off of it but you seek out new and better information.

Yesterday I was talking to my therapist about anxiety and thinking that I would crash and burn in Ireland and fall back into really nasty depression. She looked at me and listed some of the stuff I’ve managed to do in the last two years: take a year off of school despite thinking it meant I’d never accomplish anything, survive a job that I hated every moment of while dealing with intense anxiety, boredom, and depression for 8 hours uninterrupted each day, quitting that job to take a lower paying job, not having any idea where my future is going or what I want out of my life, actually forcing myself to be social despite huge anxieties and making a good circle of friends…the more she listed the more I realized that even just thinking about many of these things now they sound impossible. But I did them. I don’t know that I can call myself “recovered” but perhaps “in recovery” (I hate these terms) and I never, ever, ever thought that that was a possibility and still don’t entirely believe it. But once she pointed out how much I had survived and even thrived through, the more I realized that recognizing that isn’t just about feeling good about myself or patting myself on the back, it’s more about knowing that I can do it and if I’ve done it all once then I can do it again. The fear still exists, but there is knowledge underneath it now that I have succeeded before and that is comforting.

I wish that there were ways to fulfill more kinds of attraction with different people. In the past week I’ve felt serious romantic, sensual, intellectual, aesthetic, and friendly attraction to a variety of different people. In my experience we have two potential words for all of these (plus sexual) attraction: dating or friends. There are some slight variations on these (friends with benefits, casually dating, married), but overall there’s either “sexy/romantic” or “friendly”. I like labels and maybe there’s no reason to label these things, but I think it’s nice to understand what’s fulfilling about different relationships and let people know that they have a priority in your life. I also like to be able to have a template for interacting with people: dating type interactions are different from friend type interactions, and I do different things in them, and different things are considered baseline acceptable. If there were a word for “you’re my brain crush” maybe there would be more clear ways to move forward with fulfilling the need for deep conversation or intellectual interaction. As it is you kind of let someone know you want to be around them in some fashion or other but the only further specification  you might be able to give is “I have a crush on you” which implies romantic/sexual things. I just like to be able to place people in my own network and have clarity about my own feelings and the feelings of others.

One of the things that scares me most about myself is that I am often positioned socially as “smarter than”. I really have no idea if I’m actually smarter than most of the people that I know but people keep telling me I am. I hate writing about things like this because I sound intensely vain, but the purpose of this paragraph is not “I’m so smart!!!” it’s that it’s fairly isolating to be in that position, and as I’ve written before it often leads to inadvertently saying things that others interpret as making them look stupid (or things that really are truly insensitive because others don’t accomplish as quickly as I do or don’t understand in the way I do). But yesterday I was talking to someone who hates feeling less smart than others. I think this is far more common: few people like feeling stupid or uninformed. I feel like there are parallels to some of the other things I’ve mentioned: situations where we know that fear or our beliefs might be ill-informed, but there’s no right way out. In this case, we all know that there probably has to be a “smarter” person in any given interaction but no one wants to be on either side of it. Perhaps this is a place for radical acceptance. There will always be some discomfort in uneven situations but we don’t have to infer bad intentions or judgment because of that discomfort. There have been some classrooms in which I haven’t felt uncomfortable when I know more than others or others know more than I do as the atmosphere is one of sheer curiosity. I don’t know how to promote this kind of environment in other places, but this gives me hope that it’s possible.

I’ve noticed that most people I talk to about philosophical/existential type questions typically view them as abstract exercises which might have some impact on the way they live their life if they come to a fairly solid conclusion that demands action of some sort. This is not what philosophy is like for me. I feel it emotionally, as important to the meaning of my life. I’ve always wondered why this is the case, and I’ve imagined that it’s probably just to do with mental illness. However I had a realization today that on a regular basis I have to question my own sensory perception. I cannot see my body accurately: I have some pretty severe distortions in my body image and I often find myself legitimately confused about whether or not I’m horribly overweight or underweight or normal. It can shift hour to hour whether I can see my body remotely accurately. And so most days I’m uncertain about whether I’m seeing reality. This makes questions of coming to logical conclusions rather than conclusions based on observation far more pressing to me. Every day I am faced with the philosophical quandary of whether or not external reality is there and what I think it is. I emotionally feel the deep confusion of looking at something and wondering if it’s just my mind playing tricks on me. I don’t know that there is a conclusion to this thought, but it’s illuminating to realize that some people can emotionally experience what for others are thought experiments. Perhaps it is a starting point for increased empathy, but perhaps it also suggests that those who do face these questions in their daily lives may have more insight into the situation (just as we tend to prioritize women’s voices in understanding women’s experiences or queer voices in understanding queer experiences). At the very least, it suggests that there might be more ways to do philosophy than through logic and thought experiments.

Hierarchies of Eating Disorders: A Spiritual Perspective

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If you’re someone who reads lots about eating disorders, you’ve probably already seen this article by Maree Burns floating around recently. For those who aren’t enmeshed in the world of post-structuralist and feminist critiques of eating disorders, you may want to try to read it anyway. It’s a little long and at times jargon-y, but it’s also fascinating and makes important points about the hierarchies we set up around eating disorders. Similar to Burns, I will not be using this post to posit anything about the actual nature of eating disorders, but rather about how they’re constructed in the common conscience of Western society.

There are many points in Burns’ article that I’ve spent time grappling with: the fact that anorexia is both held up as perfect control and derided as sickness and disgusting, the way anorexia and bulimia can be mapped onto the virgin/whore dichotomy, and the tendency to view anorexia as the ideal eating disorder. There is an hierarchy of eating disorders, one that is held up by nearly everyone. Anorexia is considered cleaner, more respectable. Many people even view many of its characteristics as positive, but simply taken too far. On the other hand, bulimia is considered disgusting, animalistic, and out of control.

Burns looks at this hierarchy from the perspective of post-structuralism. I’d like to take a different perspective that I think can illuminate some other elements of the hierarchy and the ways that eating disorders make a certain kind of sense. Spirituality is something that Burns does not touch on at all in her article, despite the fact that moral language runs rampant in descriptions of eating disorders, and in the past eating disorders often happened in religious contexts.

Throughout her article, Burns draws on the Western concepts of dualism. She looks at it particularly from a feminist lens, in which female is associate with body/disorder/evil/animal, and male is associated with mind/rationality/control/order. However there is a slightly different version of this dualism that may actually shed more light on eating disorders, which is the body/soul split. Burns points out that society (including pop culture, psychological professionals, and those who actually have eating disorders) makes negative judgments of only certain elements of eating disorders. This includes the behaviors of bulimia (especially purging) and the skeletal body of someone with anorexia.

She posits that these are different types of judgment: the judgment of bulimia is about actions that don’t fit into the appropriate feminine mold, while the judgment of anorexia is about a body that makes a mockery of the thin ideal.  She looks to how each of these “negatives” deviates from acceptable feminine roles and how that deviation results in judgment. In contrast, the behaviors that make up anorexia (self-denial and self-control) are often viewed positively as movements from feminine (bodily) to masculine (rational).

However there is another way to interpret the negative judgments we cast on those with eating disorders and the ambiguous position of anorexia in society. We can find a clue in the religious language used by starving saints in past centuries and co-opted by some people with anorexia today (including myself). Oftentimes this language circulates around dismissing the body completely and moving into a fully spiritual realm. The prioritizing of the next world over this one still holds sway in Western culture (despite frequent cries about our society falling into horrible materialism).

These criticisms of eating disorders reveal that bodies, particularly bodies that remind us that we are animal, mortal, and fallible, are what receives criticism. Negative judgments of bulimia often center around the corruptness of the body and through the body, the individual. The body is seen as the ruler in this situation, but the focus on the body is often given a moral meaning. People with bulimia binge, however the binging on food is often extended into other realms: they’re posited to be kleptomaniacs, sex addicts, or out of control. Most of these assumptions focus on impurity and the fact that binging and purging “taints” the individual. I’ve often heard them referred to as “failed anorexics”. This means that they have failed at the purity that those with anorexia achieve because they allow their body and its needs to overtake them. The obsession with “how much did you eat” and “how did you throw it up” reveal society’s dark obsession with the animalistic elements of bulimia and how it affects the body, rather than an interest in the inner lives of those with bulimia.

Burns suggests that the negative judgments of bulimia are made in contrast to the self-control (often interpreted as rationality) of anorexia. She says: “Self-starving is also paradoxically privileged as a signifier of those qualities that have historically been associated with ‘masculinity’, such as self-control, persistence, transcendence of the (labile feminine) body, and strength” However I would argue that this type of self-control is often associated with spirituality rather than any kind of rationality, as she suggests. People recognize the irrationality of anorexia in the context of the material world. However starvation, asceticism, and self-denial have a long history in the religious tradition of transcending this whole plane of existence.

Something that I’ve posited for quite some time is that the end goal of anorexia is to become pure spirit, to no longer be held up by worldly, finite things.This is why anorexia is often held above bulimia. However the reality is that people with anorexia do have bodies and their actions do impact their bodies. When their bodies begin to appear abnormal, we’re reminded again that they are human, finite, and mortal and that their bodies are falling apart. We are reminded of death (see: focus on the “skeletal” nature of the anorexic figure). And especially as Western societies move closer to secularism, this reminder of death is viewed as disgusting and disturbing, garnering criticism. The combination of heavenly motivation with dying body creates the mixed reaction of most individuals.

This additionally explains the feminine coding of anorexia. It falls in line with the tradition of women who fade away into martyrdom and make their femininity acceptable by rejecting their bodies unequivocally. It is part of the “pure” woman, the history of women as keepers of the spiritual well-being of their families, of women as more moral and in touch with religion than men. Part of the push/pull response to anorexia is the fact that the very deadliness and extremity of it is considered admirable by some. Not everyone can do it: it refuses to accept human limitations and so in some ways appears almost supernatural. The extreme refusal of finitude almost appears to be a martyrdom, especially for those who are trapped within the eating disorder. There’s even a kind of cultish interest in the fact that many people with anorexia suffer from ammenorrhea. Their bodies no longer even produce blood, one of the most obvious markers of human finitude.

On the flip side, bulimia reminds us of our more animal side. We think of the behaviors not as outstanding or amazing, but as mundane and slightly disgusting. We associate overeating with animals, with bodies, and we view vomit as wholly animal (because bodily fluids are gross ya know?). It’s very easy to view the dichotomy between bulimia and anorexia as a struggle between our lower natures and our higher spiritual calling.

And of course if we are considering female morality and spirituality, sex must be play a role. The connections between food and sexuality have already been identified, particularly in Burns’ article. Abstinence is a largely spiritually driven quest. Few secular people feel the need to be abstinent for moral reasons (of course there are some, but it’s not nearly as common as within religious circles). The drift of the spiritual meaning of sexuality into food also colors our conceptions of eating disorders. Just as the body is dirtied and corrupted by inappropriate or out of context sex, so it is by inappropriate or out of context food: a binge. An important part of this connection is the way that sexuality is used to dehumanize, animalize, and objectify women. When we use phrases like “orgies of eating” to describe a binge, we sexualize not only the food, but also the individual participating, and through that sexualization we objectify. It portrays people with bulimia as less human, as more animal. The objectification of women through hypersexualization plays directly into the ways that anorexia (anti-sexual) is viewed as humanizing, pure, and spiritual while bulimia is viewed as animalistic: those who engage in it are objectified just as others who are hypersexualized are.

While the role of male/female dichotomies plays an important role in eating disorders, we should also consider the dichotomy of worldly/heavenly and how that can explain some of the behaviors and attitudes we have towards eating disorders. The history of eating disorders (particularly the long history of female saints starving themselves to death) is a good place to start in this perspective.

Hiding Behind Humor

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In my family we have a joke. It originated when I was a teenager, bored on the weekend. I walked downstairs and my parents were creating a to-do list of tasks they needed to complete before Monday. Like any good teenager, I demanded that they pay attention to me. They jokingly said that it wasn’t on the list. I promptly picked up a pen and wrote at the top of the page “Priority #1: Entertain Olivia”. When they finished that list, I wrote up a post it note that said the same thing and stuck it to the fridge. There it remained for years, until we had to replace the fridge and took down all of the junk decorating our old one.

It was funny. Except when it wasn’t. Except for the times when boredom drove me into an anxiety so deep that I didn’t know what to do and legitimately contemplated smashing my head against the wall until I blacked out just so I could stop having my thoughts run in circles. Except for the times when I was alone and lost and couldn’t make myself leave the house because I just didn’t know what to do with myself and the hugeness of the world was too much and my mind was too full of angry thoughts that had appeared when there was nothing else to fill it up. It was funny though. It was precocious.

And somehow, deep in the recesses of consciousness, it was self-care. I knew what I needed and I was asking, demanding, begging that someone pay attention to what I knew I needed. And somewhere, my parents knew it too. There was an unspoken agreement that when possible, they would feed my desire for constant entertainment.

Now for the most part, this was just a joke. It didn’t have some large, existential meaning. But it revealed something about me. I really was seeking attention and for a legitimate reason. This isn’t the only time that the way someone has joked has revealed something about their mental state, or about what they need from others.  This is one of the reasons that I feel racist, sexist, and otherwise oppressive jokes are such a problem: all jokes contain a morsel of what the joker believes is truth.

There are two elements to this story that I find important in my own life. The first is that I’ve started paying more attention to how I joke. Perhaps if I had paid attention to it ten years ago I would have realized that I had some issues long before it turned into a life-threatening disease, and personally I think that would have been just peachy. When something comes up repeatedly in my life, I’m trying to take the time to stop and think about it. Oftentimes, these are jokes. Thinking back on my life, I’ve noticed other jokes that were telling: when I was younger I used to say that I wasn’t turning into my mother, I was my mother. Now I’m starting to see that as an unhealthy intertwining of identity. Hopefully I’ll notice my current jokes before they turn into problems.

Rarely have I heard anyone suggest that we should be mindful of the way we joke as a barometer of how we’re doing. However humor is often a way for us to say things that would otherwise be inappropriate without repercussions. More often than not, anything goes in comedy. Particularly sarcasm makes it easy for us to say what we truly mean without being taken seriously. I’m surprised that more people don’t look to the jokes that they make as a way to think about what’s going on beneath the surface of their thoughts, but I’d suggest we all spend a little more time thinking about it.

The second thing that I’ve noticed from this anecdote is that I now pay more attention to the jokes that other people make. Self-deprecating humor? That says something serious about a person’s self-esteem. Racist and sexist jokes? Aw hell no. I’ve started to hold people more responsible for what they say under the guise of humor, because everything we say has consequences and repercussions. I have begun to try to be thoughtful about the ways I respond to humor, even as simple as “Please don’t make fun of yourself, it makes me uncomfortable”. I’ve tried to simply be aware of what it means when someone makes the same joke over and over. I’m taking humor seriously now (which is not to say that I suddenly have lost my sense of humor, simply that I over analyze my sense of humor now. Hooray!).

I hope that more people can become aware of the ways that we use joking and humor to cover things up in our society. While it’s wonderful that we’ve had people like Lenny Bruce and George Carlin open up the world of comedy to some majorly free speech, there is a downside, which is that people often use comedy as an excuse to say anything. Since much of comedy relies on wordplay, it’s often a way to say things sideways without anyone truly noticing the impact of what you’re saying. Comedy is a good cover for the depths of your true beliefs. I suggest we make a concerted effort to bring humor into the realm of critical thought and stop giving it a free pass just because it’s funny. It could make a serious difference.

 

 

Sexist Language-Chicken and Egg

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It’s fairly common knowledge that the way we speak can help to ingrain stereotypes and can be degrading. Much of our language is inherently sexist. We often assume masculine as the default, or include diminutive endings for the feminine versions of words. Oftentimes we make words meaning “female” synonymous with weak or bad, or we use them as insults or as ways to dehumanize others. We use words like “bitch”, “pussy” or “girl” to infantilize men that we want to appear weak.

 

Many times, it seems that we assume that we can change our language. We recognize that we have no good words for women or women’s bodies that aren’t either scientific or degrading, and we try to suggest new ones, as if these words were only considered degrading by happenstance. It’s as if we just mistakenly forgot to create words for women that were appropriate and respectful, or that our insults just happen to be female-coded more often than they are male-coded.

 

However it seems to me that the reason these words are considered degrading is not happenstance. Any word that we introduce which is feminine coded that exists in society as it is today will take on a negative connotation because words associated with women are inherently negative in today’s society. Because we associate womanhood with weakness, we associate words that imply womanhood with weakness. While it’s important for us to recognize the unconscious part that language plays in our conceptions of women, it’s also important for us to recognize that simply changed our language will not help.

 

This is true in all kinds of language. In the past, people used the word “retarded” as an insult, and so to create more respect for those who are developmentally delayed, we introduced the phrase “special needs”. Unfortunately, that phrase has now become an insult. While it is important to continue to allow our language to change based upon the desires and needs of oppressed groups, we must recognize that our language responds most to the dominant groups, the people who use language most often and who have the power to control discourse. While we may want to create a word to reclaim our identity, the truth is that it’s likely to be co-opted by the dominant society and used against us because its association with our marginalized identity will necessarily give it a negative connotation.

 

As someone who is highly interested in linguistics, I respect the power that language has. But it is in a reciprocal relationship with culture. Language can’t create culture or thoughts all on its own. The Sapir-Whorf theory is pretty much bunk. Language may help us think in certain ways or confirm our ways of thinking, but we have to shape the language and we can think outside the bounds of our native language. So while we should be aware of language and work to change the problems that language reveals, we always need to remember that language is not the problem, it’s just the symptom.

What’s the Use in Universals?

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I’ve been reading a book recently called Feminist Theory and Christian Theology  by Serene Jones. While some atheists might find it odd to read books on theology, I’ve always found it interesting and important to see what currents are moving in other people’s lives and in other groups of people, particularly when those groups of people have a great deal of power over politics and culture and are likely people I will interact with in my life. In addition, I find feminist theology absolutely fascinating, both to see how individuals interpret feminism within the context of their lives, and to see how people can perform some amazing mental gymnastics to make two contradictory ideas fit together.

However the first chapter or two of the book are simply about explaining some of the fundamentals of current feminist theory, and I have a bit of a bone to pick with some of the things that it had to say. It identified two main camps of feminism, essentialism and constructivism, and it identified pros and cons to each one. In order to find the middle ground and gain the pros of each, she introduces a variety of feminism called strategic essentialism, a position that allows for universals as long as we only use them for emancipatory purposes in women’s lives.

One of the ideas that undergirds this position is the idea that taking a radical constructivist position doesn’t leave any way for us to imagine a better future because it doesn’t have any normative force, and that it doesn’t provide a basis for community or agency.

This doesn’t seem to make any sense whatsoever to me. Now first of all I suspect that Jones is using the term “universal” differently from the way I do. She seems to accepted that there can be bounded or constrained universals, universals that are accept as true for a particular time and place, or accepted temporarily with the knowledge that they probably aren’t true. This seems exactly the opposite of what a universal actual is. Definitionally a universal should be…well universal. It is not constrained, it holds in every time and every place. It holds throughout the whole universe.

Now it seems to me that no rational personal would invoke universals, because let’s be honest, the odds are against you, but when you believe in a God, they seem far more plausible and can be very appealing. They’re a cheat sheet to bring people together, to simplify things, to create identity…but are they really useful or even truthful when talking about feminism, oppression, and women’s experiences?

Jones suggests that we can temporarily adopt universals to give us forward momentum, while also recognizing that these universals will likely change, grow, or be replaced. It seems a bit like lying to oneself though. If you know that the world doesn’t actually have the universal that you’re holding to, but you still act in accordance with it, won’t you act dishonestly or improperly at some point? Won’t your actions not fit the facts? While sometimes it can be useful to take up a tool that we discard later, “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house,” and universals are sure as heck the master’s tools. If we’re going to make any progress, we have to be intellectually honest and work from the facts instead of using a pre-ordained conclusion that women should be emancipated to mold the facts to our beliefs. Lying is not an appropriate tool to use towards women’s lib, particularly not lying to ourselves.

Beyond the practical fact that temporarily taking up a universal we will later discard is essentially lying, it’s an extremely limited view of the world that sees only universals as the ways to build community and agency. To look at a real world example, psychology manages to find similarities between human beings in useful ways by looking to patterns and tendencies. While it’s not always an ideal system, it does help people create communities and identities, and no symptom in any diagnosis is universal. Something does not have to hold in every case to provide a sense of community, and oftentimes when we assert a universal to build a community, we end up silencing and excluding a good number of people who don’t fit into our preordained universal.

One of the wonderful things about many feminist communities is that they recognize and celebrate differences (and those that don’t better get their asses on that train, because that’s where the future is sitting right now). There are TONS of ways to create communities and connections between the people with differences, and perhaps it requires more time and effort, but you get a stronger community for it. You can find similar values with people who are otherwise completely different from you, or you can encounter someone radically different and grow. That often creates the strongest bonds because you grow towards each other and learn from each other. In addition, we all have uncountable facets to our selves. While I may not have the same thing in common with every person that I feel a sense of community with, I have SOMETHING in common with nearly every person on this earth. We can have overlapping identities that allow us to relate to a variety of people in different ways, and when you bring a group of people together, nearly all of them have some way to relate to each other. Again, it requires more work to find these similarities when they aren’t laid out for you as a universal, but it’s far more honest and it doesn’t open the door for us to be constrained or excluded by a false universal.

As for the question of normative force, there is a huge difference between a universal ethic and a claim of universality (of a train or behavior). Jones needs to make sure she clarifies the difference. When we suggest an ethic, we’re suggesting the ideal way everyone should behave, not how they actually do behave, or even how they’re all capable of or naturally drawn to behave. And yet despite there being no universal claims about the world as it is in an ethical claim (usually), they still have normative force.

In addition, we have found ethical systems in the past that even in their suggestions for the future don’t really rely on universal claims because they are built to be context sensitive (utilitarianism is the quintessential version of this, and although it has a few vaguely universal claims about people wanting pleasure, they’re pretty mild). When we suggest that only universals have normative force, we’re demeaning the ability of our fellow human beings to think in nuanced ways. We can imagine a better world simply by imagining choice for all, not by imagining one thing that will be ideal for everyone else. We can be flexible with our normative claims and be sensitive to context and difference. There is no need for the language of universals.

While I could see arguing for the differences between constructivism and essentialism by pointing to facts, I’m not sure that it makes sense to point to the pragmatics of each position. They are claims about the world, not claims about strategy, and it’s generally just a bad idea to put truth second to strategy.

Social Justice 101: Intersectionality

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So here is the beginning of my attempt to create a backstore of blog posts that I can whip out at a moment’s notice so I don’t have to go through the work of re-explaining privilege or intersectionality or institutional sexism again and again. I’m going to do my best to explain intersectionality in a nutshell, although it is an incredibly complex topic. I’m also going to try to link to a few articles that get into a bit more depth or explain particular aspects of it as well.

SO. Oftentimes when we think about social justice problems we think of them as separate. You might be a feminist, or an advocate for the rights of disabled individuals, or working on race issues, or fighting for GLBT rights. Most often we see these things separated out in the practical work that advocates do (at least partially because it’s really hard to tackle more than one thing at once). But this can also be a serious problem. In feminism in particular, there have been many instances throughout history and today in which feminists use certain kinds of power and privilege to oppress other women: in general, feminism has been for white, cis-gendered, heterosexual, able-bodied, upper-class women, and for people who don’t fit those definitions it has been incredibly difficult to gain recognition in the feminist community and have their concerns heard.

And so out of this problem, the concept of intersectionality was born. Intersectionality is the idea that all of our kinds of privilege interact. It’s not a simple question of having privilege for one thing, and then getting part of your privilege pile taken away because you’re part of a different marginalized group. Different oppressions can build on each other, like trans-misogyny, or they can affect each other in really complicated ways (for example being black and having a mental health concern is very different from being white and having a mental health concern). In some cases, even though you have a lack of privilege, you may be using your other privileges to oppress others in the same marginalized category as you (white women do this to black women in feminism all the time by silencing their concerns).

Intersectionality is also about understanding that we exist in a variety of different systems, and sometimes one system is acting on us more strongly than another. For example if I enter into a conversation with a disabled individual about able-bodied privilege and I try to say that I understand because I have mental health concerns, or that it’s just like ____ or say that they’re ignoring my perspective because they’re talking about their own issues, I’ve just effectively used my oppression as a silencing technique for someone else’s oppression. Intersectionality requires a great deal of listening to all kinds of experiences, and yes, even respecting the one black, Jewish, lesbian, trans-gendered woman you know and understanding that her experience of privilege and oppression is different from other experiences of privilege and oppression.

While there is no time in our lives that oppression doesn’t exist for us because we are female or a person of color or disabled or fat or lower class, that doesn’t mean that all of those oppressions exist in the same ways at all times, or that they are pertinent to all other forms of oppression. Intersectionality asks us to examine what privileges we may be using at any given time, and how that interacts with our oppressions, as well as how it can create unique forms of oppression for other individuals.

For some more resources on intersectionality, I suggest Natalie Reed’s blog (although it may be taken down soon, so get over there while you can), or these websites:

http://blog.twowholecakes.com/2009/07/101-thoughts-on-intersectionality-or-why-theres-no-dark-skinned-fat-black-women-on-more-to-love/

http://www.reddit.com/r/SRSDiscussion/comments/p8k1z/effort_intersectionality_101/

http://lipmag.com/opinion/broadening-feminisms-intersectionality-101/

Metaphors: Privilege and Spoons

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There’s a thing in the disabled community called the spoon metaphor. This was developed by a woman with lupus as a way to explain how her disease affects her, even when it’s not visible. While I don’t have a physical disability, I do have mental illness to deal with, and so sometimes I feel more comfortable explaining things to people through this kind of metaphor.

There are other metaphors like this, for privilege and for being able. Metaphors about difficulty setting, smoke, and even My Little Pony. The most basic is a bases metaphor: when you have privilege you start at first or second base, and when you don’t have privilege you start at home and have to work harder to get all the way around. I’ve found metaphors can be extremely helpful, both for explaining things to other people and for reframing things in my own life. One of the most important things that metaphors can do for us is to help us move away from charged language (like privilege) and move into a place where we can start to assess the parallels of situations instead.

In general, we think in metaphors, often unconsciously. Most of the abstract language we use began as metaphor. The metaphors we use can change how we approach things (those who view time as linear often approach their lives differently than those who view it as cyclical), and metaphors can help us lay down different paths in our mind that are almost like intellectual shortcuts.

Each of these metaphors gives us different aspects of privilege. They highlight different things, whether it be starting with less resources as someone who is not privileged, or having something to help you along when you do have privilege, or the fact that you don’t notice privilege when you have it. That’s one of the things I love about metaphors: each one brings something new to the table. Of course things means that we always need to incorporate a variety of metaphors in order to have a well rounded understanding of any concept.

I feel that privilege is a place where intersubjectivity is extremely important, and all of these metaphors together highlight it. I’m a skeptical type person and run in many atheist and skeptical circles. Often in these circles I hear cries of “objectivity!” shouted out about how we should approach the world. If something can’t be objectively verified, then it’s useless. These have always rubbed me the wrong way, since true objectivity is pretty damn impossible (you’ll never escape your own perspective, or the distortion your own senses create: we’re always trapped in our own subjectivity), and I generally prefer intersubjectivity, which is the process of incorporating as many subjective viewpoints as possible to come closer and closer to objectivity.

Privilege is a beautiful place to do this. Privilege is an experiential thing, just like discrimination. These metaphors point towards the experience of being aware of someone else’s privilege and your own lack of privilege. This is not something you can measure, or objectively point to, but rather we can build up a picture of it through intersubjectivity. If we each try to take a stab at defining how we see and experience privilege, then we can add more and more pieces to how we view it, build it up into a more cohesive whole that has dimension and depth. Metaphors are a beautiful way to do this because narratives can’t give us concrete elements to focus on. Metaphors pull certain pieces of the experience and highlight them. So each individual might have a preferred metaphor that rings true to them, and whose particular elements embody and sum up their experience. These give us more discrete elements to combine.

I think that the importance of metaphorical thinking is lost in many other places. We forget that it allows us to view our knowledge in a different way and allows us to highlight certain things that can be brought together. The importance of multiple metaphors is certainly not highlighted. I think that these could be important tools in science, in politics, or even in pop culture. I wish more people would use their metaphors.