You’re Allowed To Be Influenced

For most of my life I have been vocal about not wanting to get married. Extremely vocal. Marriage is only what you make it, it’s unnecessary, it’s got too much history in patriarchal structures, it costs too much. I’ve never felt any particular need to announce to the world in general that I’m in love and want to be with my partner since the one who needs to know that is actually my partner not everybody else. I still believe most of these things. I still think that marriage is unnecessarily prioritized in America, and that defining a romantic relationship as the basis of family is unnecessary. I still think that weddings are a scam to cost lots of people too much money and that marriage makes straight monogamy the building block of society.

But I’ve realized that I want to get married anyway. Kind of a lot.

I’m not immune to culture. I’m not immune to the messages that paint your wedding day as the most romantic day of your life, and that illustrate marriage as a beautiful commitment between two people. I’m not immune to the excitement and joy that other people feel around weddings and marriage, and I’m not immune to wanting a pretty dress and good food and dancing.

I’ve spent a lot of time feeling guilty about the part of me that’s been influenced by culture, the part that wants to femme it up and be swept off my feet on my wedding day. But feeling guilt about the ways in which culture has influenced you doesn’t help anyone. It doesn’t demolish the patriarchy, it’s just another way to tear yourself down for having feelings. Everyone has internalized things that they don’t necessarily believe logically. That does not make those things bad or wrong, just arbitrary. But not all arbitrary decisions are harmful. Sometimes you just have to pick between chocolate and vanilla without a logical reason except “I like chocolate”.

There are certainly problems with choice feminism, but as far as choices go, the decision to get married doesn’t have too many direct negative impacts and the choice to do what you think will make you happy as an individual is a pretty strong feminist choice when you’re a woman who spends too much time ignoring their own preferences and feelings.

There are absolutely contexts in which we need to question and challenge the cultural messages that we’ve internalized. But there are also circumstances where those messages are fairly harmless. There’s nothing wrong with being influenced by external forces. It doesn’t make you a sheep or a bad skeptic or a horrible sexist. It means that you’re a normal human being who has grown up within a culture, just like everyone else. The place at which you need to make decisions is when you realize that one of your beliefs has come to you through culture. Once you’ve done so, you need to decide what the consequences of acting on that belief are, how much it will affect your happiness to try to leave that belief behind, and whether there are good reasons to believe what you do.

Sure, it’s never good to hold beliefs without any critical thought put into it, but sometimes we have to accept our arbitrary preferences. So yeah, I want to get married and I don’t need any more reason than that.

What’s the Harm in Belief?

Sometimes I get mail and the other day I got a Facebook message asking me about this post. Now first of all I have to say YAY I LOVE HEARING FROM YOU PLEASE TALK TO ME AND ASK ME THINGS.

But second I wanted to respond to this message because it asked some great questions and was wonderfully thought-provoking. If you’ll recall, that post in particular was about the fact that I find philosophical questions deeply important and that they are driving forces in my life, therefore I would appreciate it if others would not mock or deride people who care about those questions.

So here are the questions that were posed to me.

1. How is it that I have managed to care so deeply about philosophical questions and not fall into religion/supernatural/spiritual answers? Many other people who deeply explore the world and who are driven to find certainty and understanding look to god. Why didn’t I?

2. Would there be anything wrong with choosing to believe in the supernatural if it made me/a hypothetical person with the same intellectual drive as me feel better?

The first one of these is obviously personal so I’ll only touch on it briefly, but I think the second one is something that creates a fairly large rift between the religious and the non-religious. Many atheists have a lot of bitterness towards religion and sometimes that rubs off on their feelings towards any belief in the supernatural. Many people who do believe in the supernatural don’t think they’re hurting anyone and don’t get why anyone would want them to change if they get comfort from their beliefs. These are both valid points of view, but there are a few other elements that I’ll touch on.

So, question one.

There have been some times in my life where I wished I could just believe in a god because it would make everything so much simpler. I was raised in a Catholic school and for some time I thought that it was the right thing to do to believe in God, but I just really wasn’t convinced. I never felt any presence like other people talked about, and when I became old enough to dissect the logical arguments none of the reasons for God’s existence made any sense for me. I might have felt a yearning, but it seemed clear to me when I looked at the evidence that God didn’t exist.

I suppose I could liken it to daemons. In the Golden Compass series, everyone has a little animal companion who acts something like their conscience. When I first read the series I desperately and deeply wanted daemons to be real. I wished I could have one. It seriously caused me some loneliness because I so vividly imagined what it would be like while reading the book that it felt like someone had ripped my daemon away from me and left me empty and alone. But no matter how much I wished that daemons might be real, I knew they weren’t. God was exactly the same for me. I saw no evidence that he existed, no signs of his presence, no reason to believe he was there. I didn’t even want God as much as I wanted a daemon, I really just wanted some sort of certainty so I sought it out in logic, philosophy, and science instead.

I deeply want truth and in my mind I have already examined the hypothesis of God and found it wanting. Therefore it’s not truth and not what I want. That’s the best way I can explain my atheism and why spirituality didn’t do much for me.

So question 2: what might be wrong with choosing to believe in God if you think it would make you happier? I think this is a really good question. Some people believe that truth and accuracy is the most important value in the world. I disagree. I’ve mentioned before that I think truth is an instrumental value: there’s nothing about accurate perception in and of itself that’s really super great but truth and accuracy are extremely important when it comes to creating a happy life, to being healthy, to having good relationships, to being safe and secure…really any other value you can think of you can only achieve if you have an accurate perception of the relevant parts of the world.

So because I don’t value truth for itself, I do think that there might be some times and places where it’s ok to let yourself believe something that’s not true or to do something that goes against the facts you know, but generally under controlled circumstances wherein you’re fairly in control of the situation.

The problem with making yourself believe in God seems to me to be twofold. First, I don’t think it’s really possible to choose to believe in God in this way. It’s like trying to convince yourself that unicorns exist because it would be really a nice thing. You could surround yourself with unicorn believers and read unicorn scripture and avoid anything that questions unicorn existence and spend a lot of time trying to feel the unicorn presence each day. But when you get right down to it, there will probably be a part of you that never believes, that sees the evidence against unicorns, that is just waiting for someone to mention anti-unicorn arguments so that it can pull down your carefully built facade.

And that would suck. Losing belief is often a painful process. If you force yourself into belief it seems pretty likely someone could force you out again, and then you’ve lost your worldview and possibly a community and you have to start fresh, now with a loss of certainty just behind you. That hurts and it’s confusing and it’s frustrating. It also means you’ve spent a lot of wasted time arguing with yourself, trying to convince yourself of something you don’t believe, and trying to silence a part of yourself. Rarely if ever does telling a part of your mind to shut the fuck up make you feel happier.

But the second problem is that you’ve built your whole life around a lie. I’m not even going to touch on some of the moral problems of organized religion, so let’s assume for now that you don’t join an organized church. But let’s just think about creating a whole set of morals, values, beliefs, and knowledge around something you don’t actually think exists. This seems like it would be pretty ineffective and would probably collapse at some point. Trying to incorporate one premise into an already created worldview also seems like it would require some mental gymnastics.

As an example, I’m pretty much a materialist. I suspect that there’s probably a physical and scientific reason for just about everything, and I’ve built most of my life around that viewpoint. Imagine trying to stuff a god into that. How would it function? What would it do? The paradigm would probably have lots of inconsistencies and would require me to change other things that I hold as true or else hold a lot of cognitive dissonance. And if I changed things, that would lead to other problems, like the fact that I was now acting based on lies I tell myself in order to support my believe in God.

Particularly when it comes to moral questions, I would hope that everyone in the world attempts to be as truthful as possible with themselves when it comes to creating their moral system. Generally a god comes with a morality built in or affects your morality in some way, as metaphysics and ethics are pretty closely linked. If there’s an afterlife it will change how you act in this life, if everyone is interconnected in some way, it will affect how you act in this life, if things are supposed to be the way they are, it will affect how you act in this life. That means god affects morality. If you’ve lied your way into a god, then you’ve built a lie into your morality. This seems deeply bad to me.

This is not to say that every religious moral system is deeply bad because it includes god, but rather that if you don’t actually believe the foundation of a moral system it seems that it would be vulnerable to adjustments that are not actually very moral and that it would likely not actually be the most moral system available.

In addition, I think there would also be a lot of cognitive dissonance. If you had come to the conclusion that God doesn’t exist in your life already, there would probably be reminders of that everywhere, things that don’t fit into a religious worldview for you, evidence in your mind of the materialistic nature of the world.

The person who posed this question included gods like Poseidon as a fanciful example of something that might make you feel more comfortable to believe. I’m going to go along with that theme and look at Zeus. So imagine convincing yourself of the existence of Zeus, the all powerful god and creator of lightning and stuff, and then going out in a thunderstorm. You look up and see lightning. “Evidence of Zeus!” you exclaim, but in the back of your mind you can’t help but think of the fact that you know scientifically how lightning works and that it is not in fact caused by Zeus. Imagine all the time and energy you’d spend fighting with yourself and trying to convince yourself and probably feeling kind of crappy that you can’t actually make yourself believe. Cognitive dissonance is a horrible feeling. It’s confusing and frustrating. It’s almost maddening. I would not want to make choices that increase my cognitive dissonance.

I would also worry that it would make you more likely to accept other falsehoods, perhaps more dangerous ones, in the future. This is a bit of a slippery slope argument and on its own I don’t think it would be enough to discourage people, but in conjunction with some of the frustration of the other reasons, I would suggest it would lead to a decrease in good behavior and in happiness. Think about the process of constantly reteaching your brain to believe something that you think isn’t actually true. This is a skill, and the more you do it, the better you become at it. Think about making a choice to believe a lie in order to feel good. These two things combined seem like they might get a little bit engrained and would lead you to keep convincing yourself that your comfort and happiness is more important than external reality. This might be an extreme portrayal and I doubt anyone would just abandon all morality, but I wouldn’t want to set the precedent of choosing lies.

Now it’s possible that some people manage to convince themselves to believe in God and not have any of these problems, never experience any cognitive dissonance, have a really sound and fantabulous moral system, and never let themselves believe anything else that they actually know not to be true. It’s possible that there would never be those stabs of doubt that make you really miserable, or a moment that it all falls down and leaves you feeling even worse than if you had never believed in the first place. It’s possible you wouldn’t waste any time retraining your brain. If that is the case I can’t really see anything wrong with choosing to believe in a God you don’t actually think exists in order to satiate a deep desire for certainty and understanding. I just suspect that practically speaking it wouldn’t work and would really leave you feeling more confused and frustrated than you started out.

Changing Habits: The Reaction

In the process of treatment and trying to recover from the grab bag of mental health issues I have, I’ve made a serious effort to change many of my habits. Everyone knows that changing habits is hard: adding a meal where there was none requires a fair amount of effort and planning, adding in more socialization requires thought and energy, changing emotional habits is one of the hardest of all. Everyone knows that in order to change a habit you need to do something consciously for many months before it will begin to become ingrained (generally experts say 1-3 months).

And yet despite the amount of personal effort that I’ve put in to changing my habits, the thing that has actually been the most difficult has been the reaction of those people who are closest to me. People act confused, they tease, they joke, and often they make a big deal out of small changes. I’m going to take one example that’s a little bit trite, but sticks out to me as an example of how difficult it is for others to see you in a different light and how that can affect your ability to make changes long term.

I have a sweet tooth. I love chocolate, I love cake, I love ice cream. For most of my life I have never passed these things up. In the process of dealing with my eating disorder, I’ve made an attempt to make my eating more even and balanced: to pay attention to my hunger cues instead of simply eating if something tastes very good or if I force myself to, to stop when I’m full, to eat when I’m hungry. This means that I’ve also been trying to be more careful about not simply asking for ALL THE CHOCOLATE whenever it is offered to me. When I do that, I often feel guilty, unwell, or just angry at myself, and I often feel as if I’m binging if I eat sugar simply to eat sugar.

The other night I said no to a piece of cake at a family gathering. I got stares, exclamations of “Are you ok?”, people feeling my forward as if to imply that I were sick. Needless to say, this was not helpful in affirming my decision to listen to my body that it was full and didn’t want cake. Of course in this situation I didn’t feel I could explain my choice so I muttered something about not liking carrot cake and tried to make myself small.

Obviously it makes sense to comment on something that has changed, or to continue treating someone based on their past behavior if you don’t have an indication that they have changed. However over the top reactions really can make someone feel singled out and belittled for their changes, as if they’re weird or wrong for trying to make those changes.

In general, people don’t want to hear your negative comments about their changes.  Not only do they have to be mindful of making the change, but they have to continue to justify it to themselves every time it’s pointed out, and even if they don’t it certainly feels as if they do. Ideally, changing a habit is about simply doing something different without even noticing that it’s different: it’s habit when you do it without thinking. Drawing attention to it makes it so much harder to have it become second nature.

People expect you to be the same always. When you change habits, you are changing your identity to some degree, and people don’t always take kindly to that. Other people also have to learn to see different things about you, and it’s easy to fall into the mold that others expect of you. You see this when you hang out with someone you haven’t seen in a long time and act in ways you haven’t for years. So if others continue to expect something of you, it requires extra resolve to do something different, to be clear that what you want now is not what you wanted in the past, and to communicate to those around you in a polite fashion that you are different now. Each time someone remembers the old version of you, you’re left grappling with that self as well.

An added difficulty is that oftentimes family and friends may not realize how difficult or serious a choice that you’re making is. They may joke or tease, when you feel you’re doing something important and hard. When that happens, it can feel like you’re stupid, oversensitive, or just wrong about the importance or difficulty of your choices. It feels like you’re going crazy, as if your reaction to things were totally irrational and you should be ok with joking or light-heartedness. Imagine if you made a choice to improve a serious physical health issue and people teased you about it: it certainly would not feel easier.

So this is a general plea: if you know someone in your life is in the process of making some big life changes, let the little changes slide too. It may be better to ask someone about a change when it’s not in the exact moment so that they don’t have to go through the momentary personal crisis that is reminding themselves why they’re not eating that piece of cake. A quiet comment or question when someone makes a decision out of the ordinary is one thing, but it is unnecessary to make a big deal, and can make the person feel as if they’ve been put on the spot or as if they have to defend their actions to you. And for those who are making changes, letting others know ahead of time can take the pressure off of you in the moment, even if you just tell one or two trusted people. It makes it easier for them to run defense and change the subject.

BDSM: A Feminist Pursuit, But Not Taken Lightly

So there’s a lovely little post up at The Pervocracy about BDSM and feminism and how you can do both at the same time, which I a.want to promote and b.want to add to. Now I am going to add the caveat that I do not personally practice BDSM and so if I get things wrong I am HIGHLY sorry and I don’t want to be stepping on any toes for talking about things that I don’t know about. Anywho, I think this post got a lot of things right. I think it’s right that feminism shouldn’t want to “save women from themselves”, I think it’s right that in general the BDSM community pays a lot more attention to consent and safety than other people who have sex, I think that feminism has no place telling women what makes them feel good, and I think that BDSM is a whole lot more complicated than “submissive female, dominant male”. So back off people who are all anti-BDSM.

Now that being said I have worries about all kinds of sex as a feminist and that extends to BDSM. Again, I think everyone has the right to pursue whatever kind of sex they want as long as it’s consensual and doesn’t harm anyone (more than they want to be harmed). But in situations of BDSM where there is a submissive women and a dominant man, I worry that it confirms certain scripts that are all too common in our communities. While it’s true that that might be your personal kink and it might make you feel strong and powerful, we all have to be aware of the fact that our desires are shaped by the community that we come from. I often have the desire to just roll over like a rug and let people walk all over me in my relationships. That’s certainly societally conditioned. It’s not good for me, and the more I do it, the more I confirm that that’s what women do: I set a bad example for any women around me.

This is not to say that I should feel guilty for these urges. It is not to say that there’s something wrong with me for wanting to be submissive sometimes. And it’s not to say that I might not naturally be a quiet person (hint: I’m really really not). What it DOES mean is that I should be aware of the times when I want to act out the script that’s been given to me and consciously choose whether I want to follow it or not.

I think that in many ways these same considerations apply to BDSM scenes. Even if we are acting out violence towards women in a fully consensual way that makes a woman feel powerful, it is still repeating the same script of violence against women. And that has the potential to be far more dangerous than we may expect it to be. Even if our intentions in acting a certain way are to please ourselves, to make ourselves feel powerful or connected to another human being, we should also be aware that what we’re doing is part of a context: the context in which violence against women is normalized and we are continuing to create that image.

Now BDSM is slightly different from my desire to let my partner make all the decisions in my life because it is in fact a role-play, and because it is usually very private. For these reasons, I think that it may not in fact be as worrisome as some other examples of unexamined desire. But that doesn’t mean that it’s entirely unproblematic. I think that when people choose to engage in BDSM, they should be aware of the potential for their actions to be misinterpreted as upholding the status quo, they should be ready to vehemently argue against that (as the article cited above did), and they should be ready to act very differently in their lives when they are not roleplaying.

I’m really not entirely sure how we can follow what we desire and want while still criticizing the status quo. If I desperately want to be a housewife, should I give up that dream because it gives a certain impression of women? Probably not, but I should be aware that my choice might have been shaped by other pressures, and talk about it with my daughters/sisters/friends/women around me. How do you think we should deal with it when what we want may not be entirely up to us? I think that again we might find ourselves caught between our responsibility to follow our own desires and do what makes us feel good, and our responsibility to act in a way that promotes the well-being of others. Our desires don’t exist in a vacuum, so how do we follow them while also challenging the things that might have shaped our desires?