Monday, March 24, 2008

The One Right Way to Be, and other lies my culture told me

I'm most of the way through Bob Minor's Scared Straight: Why It's So Hard to Accept Gay People and Why It's So Hard to Be Human, and it's a lot more densely packed with ideas than I had been expecting. It's also one of those books that interacts in unexpected ways with everything else you're reading at the time, making you revisit the things you noticed in those books in greater detail and with more of an eye to social context. (Yay helical thinking!)

From the title, I thought this book would be mostly about overcoming homophobia, but that's only a small part of it. Much of the book is dedicated to explaining and critiquing gender roles, and looking at homophobia as one of many pressures on people to stay inside those roles. He also argues that these roles serve to cut people off from each other, and from their own full humanity. Some examples:

  • strict controls on which emotions are acceptable for each gender to express (e.g., men don't express fear or uncertainty, women don't express anger)
  • male peer pressure to maintain masculinity (which no man can embody perfectly all the time)
  • pressure on women to be attractive to men, and to prioritize pleasing men above fulfilling their own dreams or ambitions
  • fear of being thought gay discourages deep same-sex friendships
  • construction of "opposite" genders (e.g., Men from Mars and Women from Venus, or pop evolutionary psychology) discourages authentic male-female communication
  • ritualized His and Hers dating scripts ("getting laid," "scoring" vs. finding potential husbands, avoiding slut, prude labels) that are inherently conflicting
  • equating intimacy with sexual intercourse ("sex" = PIV, nothing else counts)
All of these work to cut off most of the available channels for human connection, giving everyone a certain basal level of desperation they bring to dating. The latter three bullet points also work to put an inordinate amount of pressure on sex and romance to fill all of men's and women's emotional and social needs, which they can't do. Too often, people blame their partners, themselves or the opposite (or same) sex in general for their failure to find a truly fulfilling relationship, without questioning why it is that one relationship is supposed to meet all their needs anyway. (I also think this goes a long way toward explaining our culture's schizophrenic, love/hate attitude toward sex --- whether we're using it to sell widgets or denouncing it from pulpits and presidential podia, we still see it as this idealized thing, endowed with emotional power and resonance far out of proportion to what it is). Minor's analogy is that these unspoken cultural assumptions are like water, through which we swim like fish. We might differ among ourselves over the best way to swim, or have different arrangments of fins, but few of us point out that the water isn't the only place to live.

Minor's detailed explication of all these cultural prejudices brought to mind my earlier impressions of The Speed of Dark, where I remarked on the rigid, constraining definition of "normal" that pervaded Moon's fictional future society. Her protagonist, Lou, is hyper-aware of all the ways in which he falls short of that normalcy, and this awareness leads him to be somewhat stingy with his confidence. (He keeps it hidden from most people that he listens to classical music, he won't tell his therapist that he fences, he's afraid of his police-officer neighbor). He is also aware of the double standard to which he is subject: as an autistic person in a time when autism has been practically abolished by genetic engineering (he and his coworkers represent the last generation to have autistic members), he knows his behaviors attract scrutiny that "normal" people's don't, even when they are largely the same behaviors. (Is pacing the floor or twiddling a pen called "stimming" if your boss is doing it?) In much the same vein, the authors of Women from Another Planet? describe spending years of their lives and untold amounts of mental energy trying to mimic "normal" interaction. One woman describes hoping that if she could learn the "mechanics" of socialization, other people would open up to her, and her disappointment and puzzlement when that never happened. Another describes the "moral judgment" heaped upon people who just don't conform:
It's like very social people are viewed as being better potential students, better potential employees, and better people in general. Even though it's not true. The worst part for me was when I bought into this nonsense. I thought I must be some kind of terrible person to be this way, and I was always looking for a way to get better.

It seems to me like what Minor describes with respect to gender and what Moon and Kearns et al. describe with respect to social skills and odd behavior are all part of the same thing: the idea that, of all the vast, mind-blowing diversity of human behavior, only a narrow slice is "normal," "healthy" and "natural." All deviations are to be considered suspect, if not downright pathological. Daniel Quinn anchors this attitude in the mythology of Western culture, this idea of "One Right Way to Live," in his Ishmael trilogy. It has played a role throughout the history of our culture, in the spread of missionary religions like Christianity and Islam, and the rise of global empires and, later, the expansion of capitalism. Writ small or large, this intolerance of more than one way to live impoverishes us all.

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