Tag Archives: Activism

“We’ve Never Lived in Such Peaceful Times”

4 Jan

Time allowed(Image by H. Kopp-Delaney used under CC 2.0 license via)

 

“Is the world becoming a more dangerous place?” This is not a subjective question, but it is all too often answered by entirely subjective findings. Do you watch the local news and listen to a police scanner? Do you see graffiti as street art, or cause to clutch your valuables and not make eye contact with anyone? Do you know someone personally who has been robbed, attacked, or murdered?

The objective answer to the original question, however, is no. The world is in fact safer than it has ever been in human history because we humans have become drastically less violent. Never before has there ever been a place of such high life expectancy and such low levels of violence as Western Europe today. Around the globe, there are lower rates of war and lower rates of spankings. There is no guarantee that the decline in violence will continue. But most of us have a hard time even believing that it exists at all.

In his book The Better Angels of Our Nature, Harvard psychologist Stephen Pinker proves that the human emotional response to perceived danger—especially danger towards ourselves or someone with whom we can easily empathize—always risks distorting our perceptions of safety. One of the problems of empathy, he argues, is that we more readily feel for those we perceive to be more similar to us. This results in our investing more time, money and emotion toward helping a single girl fighting cancer if she speaks our language and lives in a house that looks like our own than toward helping 1,000 foreign children fighting malaria. We are more likely to disbelieve a victim of abuse if we can more quickly identify with the accused, and the same is true for the reverse scenario. And if you have been the victim of a horrendous crime or are struggling to survive in any one of the countries ravaged by war this year, you may become angry at any suggestion that the world is getting better, lest the world ignore the injustices you have suffered.

Those of us working in human rights must beware these problems whenever we trumpet a cause. Every activist’s greatest enemy is apathy, and fear of it can lead us to underscore threats while downplaying success stories in order to keep the masses mobilized. But any method founded on the claim that we have never lived in such a dangerous time is spreading lies.

As Pinker and Andrew Mack report in a recent article:

The only sound way to appraise the state of the world is to count. How many violent acts has the world seen compared with the number of opportunities? And is that number going up or down? … We will see that the trend lines are more encouraging than a news junkie would guess.

To be sure, adding up corpses and comparing the tallies across different times and places can seem callous, as if it minimized the tragedy of the victims in less violent decades and regions. But a quantitative mindset is in fact the morally enlightened one. It treats every human life as having equal value, rather than privileging the people who are closest to us or most photogenic. And it holds out the hope that we might identify the causes of violence and thereby implement the measures that are most likely to reduce it.

There is a risk that some will see the decline in violence as reason for denying crime (“Rape hardly ever happens!”), dismissing others’ pain (“Quit whining!”), and justifying their disengagement (“See? We don’t need to do anything about it!”). Pinker and Mack, however, claim the decline can be attributed in the modern era to the efforts of those in the human rights movements. In the example of violence against women:

The intense media coverage of famous athletes who have assaulted their wives or girlfriends, and of episodes of rape on college campuses, have suggested to many pundits that we are undergoing a surge of violence against women. But the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics’ victimization surveys (which circumvent the problem of underreporting to the police) show the opposite: Rates of rape or sexual assault and of violence against intimate partners have been sinking for decades, and are now a quarter or less of their peaks in the past. Far too many of these horrendous crimes still take place, but we should be encouraged by the fact that a heightened concern about violence against women is not futile moralizing but has brought about measurable progress—and that continuing this concern can lead to greater progress still…

Global shaming campaigns, even when they start out as purely aspirational, have led in the past to dramatic reductions of practices such as slavery, dueling, whaling, foot binding, piracy, privateering, chemical warfare, apartheid, and atmospheric nuclear testing.

The decline of violence undermines the arguments of those who invest their energy in fear-mongering (“People are evil and out to get you!”), self-martyrdom (“I’ve tried for so long—I give up!”) or indifference (“There’s no point to even trying.”). In his excellent book, which is well worth your time, Pinker demonstrates that all humans are tempted to use violence when we are motivated by feelings of greed, domination, revenge, sadism, or ideology (i.e., violence for a greater good), but we have proven that we can overcome these temptations with our capacity for reason, self-control, sympathetic concern for others and the willingness to adhere to social rules for the sake of getting along. There is much work to be done, but the decline is ultimately cause for hope. 

Happy New Year!

 

 

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They Don’t Care That We’re Angry

29 Sep

Capslock is NOT persuasiveHere’s a shocker: North Americans don’t like activists, especially feminists and environmentalists. Results from a study featured in The Pacific Standard show that these groups are associated with an abrasive, in-your-face approach to politics, and this repels more people than it attracts. Reporter Tom Jacobs urges these groups to change their tactics if they want to get anything done, while Alexandra Brodsky at Feministing has taken umbrage at any call for women to “hush up.” Jacobs has my attention. As someone who’s constantly clogging her Facebook friends’ Newsfeeds with social justice editorials, I’m happy to hear from anyone who can tell me how to entice more people to join the discussion.

Activism is recognizing injustice and inequality when you see it, and taking the time to ask, “Why?” It doesn’t have to be angry. But several of my friends echo the results of the study, saying they’re turned off by the way so many activists—feminists in particular—walk around like ticking time bombs, ready to explode at anyone who dares disagree with a woman ever. One of these friends cited a feminist who once told her, “The problem is people don’t like my writing because I’m just too controversial for them.”

I can see how that kind of self-righteousness would fail to impress, and I can also see where it comes from. Emotions run high whenever we try to talk about injustice and inequality because these are issues that threaten personal safety and pride. Debaters on both ends of the political spectrum all too often tend toward the obstreperous, topping off their arguments with the age-old threat: “You don’t want to make me angry.”

To which I must say, You’re right. I don’t. Because you can be rather boring when you’re angry. Speaking up requires some degree of bravery, but simply getting angry requires no talent whatsoever. A toddler can get angry. (Calling someone a Nazi requires even less skill.) Hollering until your opponent cowers may feel like you won the debate, but it usually means you’ve humiliated them, which will cause them and their supporters to hate you and your beliefs more than they did prior to the encounter. If you’re concerned with no one’s opinion but your own, then your activism isn’t about seeking justice. It’s about seeking attention. And anyone can play that game.

That said, it is unfair of anti-feminists to use a few belligerent narcissists as an excuse for dismissing an entire movement, for denying inequality and injustice exist, for refusing to listen to anyone who speaks up about it. In reaction to this year’s spate of female celebrities claiming “I’m not a feminist, but—”, the great Mary Elizabeth Williams wrote:

Ladies, it is OK to say that you’re a feminist, full stop. You don’t have to twirl your hair and stamp your toe delicately into the ground and sweet-talk that maybe you guess it’s OK that men and women be treated equally…

You can call yourself or not call yourself whatever you want, but consider this. Nobody enjoys it more when a woman says she’s not a feminist than a misogynist. Nobody gets more gloatingly self-congratulatory about it, or happier about what “real” women don’t need than someone who doesn’t like women very much…

A woman will usually strike me as rather petty if she trashes the entire feminist movement just for the sake of making sure no one thinks of her as unattractive or unlikable. And a man will usually strike me as rather creepy if he downplays the importance of women’s rights or refuses to see the ways in which feminism benefits men tremendously. Complacency is just as self-righteous as belligerence.

There are many people who opt out of activism for very good reasons. Some have had terrible experiences with prejudice and for them, avoiding political discussions means avoiding deep and harrowing pain. I myself have had days—sometimes years—when I just did not want to think about my dwarfism in any political way. Constantly reminding yourself of all the narrow-mindedness out there is not a lot of fun. To those on the receiving end of bigotry, it’s perfectly fair to want a break from the tough stuff.

It’s also fair to take a more nuanced approach to politics, to believe in an idea but not the execution, or to question the usefulness of labels like “feminist” or “environmentalist.”  But we would look cock-eyed at anyone who said, “I’m not into human rights, but—” And so I react with the same “WTF?” to anyone who goes out of their way to disassociate themselves with feminism, or any other social justice movement. In the words of my husband, “Why would anyone explicitly say they don’t like feminism? That’s like saying you don’t like democracy.”

And to those who still think feminism is inherently humorless and activism is overly serious, I direct them to a story featured in The New York Times in 1990, wherein feminist activists broke into toy stores and switched the computer chips of Talking Barbie and Talking G.I. Joe, which left the blonde roaring, “Vengeance is mine!” and the soldier musing, “Will we ever have enough clothes?”

(And for those of you who like your jokes a little bluer, there’s this and this.)

I very much want to reach those participants in the study, that majority of North Americans who associate activists with repugnant rage. This issue is of particular concern to me because, among my closest friends and family, no one has ever called me soft-spoken.

Toward the end of my senior year in high school, I got wind of a rumor that I was going to be voted “Most Argumentative” in the yearbook. As soon as I heard about this, I campaigned for it. “You’re not voting for me? Why the hell don’t you think I’m the most argumentative?!” In jest, of course.

But not without truth. I had published my first angry letter to the editor at 14, followed by a couple more over the years. I spoke at school board meetings and political rallies. When I heard a speech I gave described by a family friend as overflowing with “righteous indignation,” I could not have been more pleased. It felt in part like a revolution against old-fashioned gender roles—because everyone knows a woman who talks too much is castrating, while a guy who can command the room is powerful—but mostly it just felt like me. When I like something, I love it to pieces, and when I don’t, everyone braces themselves for a rant. Assertiveness over insecurity. Honesty over likability. I don’t care what you think, anyway. I am woman. Rar.

Years later, as I began writing for wider audiences, I began wondering if my Medea-like rage had ever changed a single mind. Righteous indignation sounds passionate to those who already agree with you, but what if my I-HAVE-NO-TOLERANCE-FOR-INTOLERANCE approach had actually scared off someone who may have been willing to hear my argument in lowercase letters? I refuse to back down, but I don’t want to threaten anyone, either.

Make no mistake, I still love to argue with righteous indignation at all hours of the day with anyone willing to engage me. (As I explained to my sleepy-eyed partner in the middle of a rant about cultural appropriation one morning before work, “Sorry, honey, but you married a walking manifesto.”)  But whenever it comes to public debate, I try to remember to put on the brakes and ask myself, Do I want to silence my opponents or convince them?

And if the answer is the latter, then Desmond Tutu certainly said it best: “Don’t raise your voice—improve your argument.”

 

 

Dragging Entertainment Into the 21st Century

21 Oct

(Via)

 

This week, humor site Cracked.com features a great article by J.F. Sargent titled “6 Insane Stereotypes That Movies Can’t Seem to Get Over.”  Alongside the insidious ways in which racism, sexism, homophobia still manage to persevere in mainstream entertainment, Number Two on the list is “Anything (Even Death) Is Better Than Being Disabled”:

In movie universes, there’s two ways to get disabled: Either you get a sweet superpower out of it, like Daredevil, or it makes you absolutely miserable for the rest of your life. One of the most infamous examples is Million Dollar Baby, which ends with (spoilers) the protagonist becoming a quadriplegic and Clint Eastwood euthanizing her because, you know, what’s the point of living like that? Never mind the fact that millions of people do just that every day…

Showing someone using sheer willpower to overcome something is a great character arc, and Hollywood applies that to everything, from learning kung fu despite being an overweight panda to “beating” a real-world disability. The problem is, this arc has some tragic implications for the real-world people who come out with the message that they are “too weak” to overcome their disabilities.

The result is that moviegoers think that disabilities are way worse than they actually are, and filmmakers have to cater to that: For example, while filming an episode of Dollhouse where Eliza Dushku was blind, the producers brought in an actual blind woman to show the actress how to move and get around, but the result was that “she didn’t look blind,” and they had to make her act clumsier so the audience would buy it.

Even in Avatar, real paraplegics thought that Sam Worthington’s character was making way too much effort transferring from his chair, but that’s the way we’re used to seeing it in movies. It’s a vicious cycle, and it isn’t going to stop until either Hollywood wises up or people with disabilities stop living happy, fulfilling lives.

I’ve examined Hollywood’s ableist problems several times before and there are still plenty to dedicate an entire blog to.  But, like The Daily Show or The Onion, Cracked has a long history of excellent social critique embedded amongst the fart jokes and it’s awesome.  Especially when considering that not only mainstream but alternative entertainment all too often can’t seem to let go of the tired stereotypes.  That Cracked is a site not officially dedicated to politics or social activism suggests that the comics writing for it believe calling out the industry for its embarrassing ineptitude is just common sense.

 

 

   

Fighting the Good Fight or Feeding The Ego?

19 Aug

Body Art Chameleon“I know so many men and boys and trans individuals who wear dresses for so many different reasons, and they do it a lot more than mainstream movies, TV, and advertising suggest.” 

I felt my fingers tremble just a tiny bit as I typed this sentence last week.  Not because of the subject matter.  Not because of the point I was trying to make.  Because of the “I.”  Was that word going to drive home my point, or derail it?

Studies show personally knowing someone who belongs to a minority group increases the likelihood that you will have empathy for that minority.  If you have a family member who is gay, you’re less likely to oppose marriage equality.  If you know someone with dwarfism well, you’re less likely to see their medical diagnosis whenever you look at them.  GLAAD emphasized the political potential for all this in a brilliant meme last fall.  Urging LGBT individuals to talk openly about their partners and love lives at the dinner table with the same frequency as their straight family members, they called it, “I’m Letting Aunt Betty Feel Awkward This Thanksgiving.” 

Truly caring for someone with a different perspective often—though, sadly, not always—inspires us to try to understand their perspective and this enhances our own.  Letting others know that They are not so different from Us because we know and care deeply about many of Them can effectively break down barriers.  And, when discussing social injustice, it’s always best to ask someone with personal experience, lest we unwittingly make erroneous assumptions.  But, of course, just having friends who belong to minority groups doesn’t solve everything. 

As I wrote about knowing men and trans people who wear dresses to elucidate that They are actually Us, I cringed at the idea of flaunting my loved ones’ Otherness for the purposes of my blog.  By inserting myself into the statement, there was a risk that some would think I was trying to prove my open-mindedness.  I’ve bragged like that in the past, especially when I was an egocentric teen.  (You know, back when you practiced writing your name over and over?)  And my own Otherness has been flaunted a few times by friends and acquaintances seeking attention for their open-mindedness.  It’s a serious problem in the social justice movements.  

In Black Like Me, the author tells the story of a New Yorker he encounters who has come to the South to “observe” the plight of the black citizens.  “You people are my brothers,” the New Yorker insists.  “It’s people like me that are your only hope.  How do you expect me to observe if you won’t talk to me?”  Although the man’s opposition to segregation was morally correct, his overt self-regard and patronizing disgust at his brothers’ “ingratitude” makes it one of the most cringe-inducing scenes in the book.

In Baratunde Thurston’s fantastic memoir, How To Be Black (just out this year), the author asks writers and activists about white people’s fear of being called racist.  damali ayo, the author of How To Rent A Negro and Obamistan! Land Without Racism, says it best:

It shows our values as a culture when somebody says, “I don’t want to be a called a racist.”  Really what they’re saying is, “I want you to like me.  I don’t want to not be liked.  I want to still be okay with you.”  They don’t mean, “What I really want is to know and understand experiences of people of color…”  That would be great.

And so, it just shows that, as I always have said, we are operating at this third-grade level of race relations.  And it’s that third-grader that goes, “Please like me, do please like me,” versus “Can I understand?”

We all want to be liked and we all want to do the right thing.  But the the third-grader mindset can’t help but focus more on the former.  It is evident in common phrases like:

“We were the only white people there!” 

 “I’ve always wanted a gay friend!” 

“I think I’m [bisexual/learning disabled], too, because I [kissed a girl once/have difficulty concentrating]!” 

“I’m not prejudiced!  I have so many [nonwhite/foreign/LGBT/disabled] friends!”

Of course, in certain contexts and worded differently, these statements would not be offensive.  What makes them offensive is the need to let others know all about us, the belief that our support for equality deserves praise, the patronizing (and unjust) view that minorities should be grateful for our lack of prejudice.  We can note that we were the only white people in a group in order to spark a dialogue about social segregation, or we can flaunt the experience like a medal from the Liberal Olympics.  We can worry that having a homogeneous circle of friends will limit our perspective, or we can believe that racking up as many minority friends as we can is proof of our expertise on all minority issues.  We can try to empathize with someone labeled “different” because of their sexuality or biology in order to remove stigmas and barriers, or we can try to seek the attention they are getting for ourselves.  We can respond to accusations that we have offended by trying to understand why someone would be hurt, or we can respond by listing our liberal credentials.

This depends primarily on the individual.  Someone who likes to brag about their open-mindedness usually brags about most things they do.  This personality trait seems to be particularly common among educated elites—parodied so well at Stuff White People Like—because elite education frequently fosters competitiveness.  (Taking the time to count your degrees, count the books you own, count the minority friends you have…)  Competitiveness is anathema to selflessness.   But while bragging about the number of books we own is silly because we’re obviously missing the point of reading, bragging about the number of minority friends we have is grave because we’re missing the point of human rights.

Do we donate to charity privately because it makes us feel better to spend the money on someone else?  Or do we hope that others will notice and admire our sacrifice?  Then again, drawing attention to the work we’re doing is usually important if we want to advertise the cause and urge others to join.  That’s where things get murky.

A while back, within a few months of each other, two friends stood up to ableism and told me about it after the fact.  A guyfriend came fuming to me about his teacher who had used the word “midget” and who had then insisted, despite my guyfriend’s protests, that it wasn’t offensive at all.  A girlfriend told me that a mutual acquaintance had said something crass about my dwarfism and that she had told him to back off repeatedly because she wouldn’t tolerate such bigotry in her presence.  The first friend focused his story on the offender’s behavior.  The second focused her story on her heroic defense.  People who want to understand the problem more than anything tend to focus their feelings on the injustice they encountered.  People who want to be liked more than anything tend to focus their feelings on their performance.

This shouldn’t ever deter anyone from working for equality and social justice, from celebrating diversity or from spreading awareness.  Open minds should always be highly valued.  But to paraphrase the recent words of the Crunk Feminist Collective, by not being racist—or sexist or homophobic or lookist or ableist or transphobic—we’re not doing anything special.  We’re doing what we’re supposed to do.

 

 

When It Comes to the Sexes, Ignorance Is Bitterness

1 Jul

 

“Men and women can’t really be friends, can they?”  In the wake of Nora Ephron’s passing on Tuesday, there’s been a revival of this When Harry Met Sally question.  And you can probably guess what my answer is.  With no disrespect intended to the late feminist, I’m really hoping this is one of her contributions to pop culture whose staying power will erode with time.  It’d be easy to dismiss it as no big deal, nothing more than a cute gimmick, but an excellent NY Times piece from earlier this spring asserts what I have always suspected: Our society’s lack of faith in cross-gender friendships signifies its traditional lack of faith in men and women being able to understand each other.  And that’s a big deal.

According to tradition, men and women view each other as the Other and only meet for the sake of mating and family, hence the cultures wherein women were banned from being seen with any man who was not their husband or relative.  Western pop culture promotes vestiges of this in its assumption that any regular contact with a member of the opposite gender will lead to you falling for them, especially if you’re a guy.  As Jeff Deutchman writes in this several-volume Slate article, “It’s called having no standards.”  When Harry Met Sally says, Fine, maybe as a guy you don’t fall for every woman who crosses your line of vision, but it’s your only motivation for maintaining a friendship with one, and attraction will always poison friendship.  Oh, puh-lease.

“Only worth it if I get laid” may be the rule for a Hollywood character, but it is a very bleak view of the other gender.  Friendship may be impossible if you are set on maintaining that view, but in that case, too bad for you.  And everyone else around you.  I’ve seen friendships survive unrequited love, illicit feelings, romantic trysts and break-ups, and go on to rival any sisterhood or buddy bond in depth.  Men and women can sure as hell be friends, and I don’t mean friendly chit-chat at dinner parties.  I mean call-up-and-confide-your-deepest-fears, ask-for-advice-on-your-most-serious-problems, make-you-laugh-in-a-way-almost-no-one-else-can friends.  Instead of Harry and Sally, they embody Jerry Seinfeld and Elaine Benes, or Emma Morley and Dexter Mayhew, nurturing an allegiance that says “So what?” to any sexual tension, past or present.  They are anathema to the “Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus” folklore, just as international relationships are anathema to racist myths. 

It is true that men and women are culturally conditioned to think and behave differently, just as Germans and Americans are culturally conditioned to think and behave differently, as are New Yorkers and Texans, Berliners and Bavarians, Long Islanders and Upstaters.  But there is always far more variation in the thoughts and behaviors within cultures than across them.  Our traditional categories ignore this, suppressing any details that throw themselves into question, no matter how critical.  Arguing against male-female understanding by emphasizing the traditionally recognized differences is disingenuous because it relies on an extremely narrow, heteronormative perspective. 

Social conservatives often cite hormonal and genetic differences as wedges between men and women, straights and gays, but such arguments are cherry-picking the facts to prop up the antiquated gender binary.  In a New York magazine article on transgender children appearing last month, a theory presented by Dr. Jean Malpas breaks down the concepts of sex and gender into not two but four parts, visually represented on a stick-figure:

  • Biological Gender: your chromosomes and genitals.  Indicated on the stick-figure’s crotch.
  • Sexuality: your romantic attraction to others.  Indicated on the stick-figure’s heart.
  • Gender Style: sometimes called Gender Expression, your preferred self-presentation in matters such as fashion, posture, speech patterns and hobbies. Indicated by a circle around the outside of the stick-figure’s body.
  • Gender Identity: your innate sense of being male or female or androgynous, regardless of biology or style or sexual interest.  Indicated on the stick-figure’s brain.

We are so much more complex than Harry and Sally, and so much deeper than they give us credit for.  Just as an international relationship requires at least one if not both partners to be bilingual, a cross-gender friendship requires at least one if not both friends to be intellectually curious, empathic and uninterested in the stereotypes they have been taught regarding both their own gender and someone else’s.  Indeed, the author of the Slate article claims that cross-gender friendships work best between individuals who are “less gendered.”  (Guys who are unafraid to enjoy movies like The Joy Luck Club, no matter the risk of looking effeminate; women who are unafraid to make asses of themselves, no matter the risk of looking unladylike… )  Bonding over common experiences is easy.  Considering a different point of view despite cultural pressures signifies genuine respect, the very sort needed to fuel any kind of progress.  This is why having close friends of all kinds of gender identities, styles and sexualities can be so awesome. 

Friendship, unlike politics, requires the participants to not just listen to each other but hear what the other is saying.  As a woman who wants a career, I am still expected to juggle it with almost all the responsibilities of childcare because mothers who focus more on their success than their family are negligent.  Many guyfriends are sympathetic to this, while pointing out to me that with or without a family, they are expected to focus more on their success than their emotional fulfillment.  Discussing such ambivalent feelings with friends of the same gender identity can be very helpful, but peer pressure can impede it.  Discussing such feelings with a romantic partner is very important, but it carries the burden of how these feelings will affect the relationship.  Discussions that take place outside of a romantic relationship are more likely honest than resentful because the problem can be identified without having to be solved right away.  That’s what friends are for.   

But it receives little support from tradition because Harry and Sally insist that straight men and women are doomed to fall in love, and traditional notions of love have very little to do with respect.  In passionate romance, possessiveness trumps respect, and while overt jealousy may now be seen as uncool, the tendency for men and women to break off along gender lines at parties seems to correlate directly with the number of monogamous couples.  Pursuing a new friendship with a man your husband doesn’t like—who isn’t gay—can still be judged as inappropriate.  But it’s a double standard, because many men and women strongly dislike their partners’ same-gender friends, yet to try to quell such friendships would be seen as Yoko Ono tyrannical. 

As partners, we should understand that cross-gender friendships more often indicate open minds than loose morals.  Navigating the complexities of life-long commitment is where men and women need to be able to understand each other most.  People whose primary or only close communication with the other gender is through their partner are more likely to assign misunderstandings to their partner’s entire gender.  (“Women are incapable of being on time!”  “Men can’t be trusted for the life of them to buy Christmas presents!”)  The more opaque we consider the Other to be, the less likely we are to try to understand their perspective, as well as the perspectives of those who don’t fit into our stereotypes.  It’s no coincidence that the cultures that place the most restrictions on male-female interaction afford the fewest freedoms to women and LGBT individuals.

But things are getting better.  Cross-gender friendships are more accepted now than ever before because men and women of all gender identities are communicating and understanding each other at record levels.  Not only are new mothers freer to nurture an identity outside the home, but new dads are more likely to hug their children and tell them they love them now than at any other time in modern history.  Attraction and the possibility for it will probably always complicate relationships—and politics and life—to some degree, but open dialogue continues to prove that the Other is never as impenetrable as we have been told.  In the words of researcher Kathryn Dindia, “Men are from North Dakota, women are from South Dakota.”  Our friendships are both the cause and the result of this.

 

 

Celebrating Even What’s Long, Long Overdue

12 May

Equality, Difference(Image by Nikole Handel used under Creative Commons license via)

 

“Justice is what love looks like in public.”

—Cornel West

Unless you’ve somehow managed to ignore all Western media except my blog this week, you know that Obama has become the first sitting U.S. president to voice full support for marriage equality.  As expected, opponents of the cause are united in their outrage, while supporters are split between those who see a social victory and those who see mere political calculation. 

I understand the cynical/frustrated reaction.  When it comes to any issues of equality and civil rights, the idea that At last the president considers you a full human being! can feel like ice cold comfort.  The idea that you have to “wait” for a majority to grow to accept you as you are, that support for your rights is considered politically “risky” or “courageous” is supremely depressing.  The idea that you should be “grateful” to anyone for believing that the way you were born is as valid as the way they were born can be soul-crushing.  I love my parents to pieces, but I don’t like thinking I should thank them for not dumping me in an institution or an orphanage at birth, as so many other parents of dwarfs have done.

But to see the struggle toward justice only in these harsh terms, however true they may be, is to ensure that the entire process will be nothing but painful.  It is the right of any disenfranchised person to do so, but they should always understand that when others celebrate, it’s comes from self-preservation, from the need to transform pent-up fury into explosive joy when an opportunity finally arises.    

When Obama was elected, it would have been entirely valid to view the historic moment only as a cruel reminder of America’s long history of injustice: What kind of a nation takes 230 years to consider someone with a certain skin color electable?!  But very few Obama supporters—black or white—saw it this way.  When the votes came in on November 4th, 2008, when the state that had only 41 years before fought all the way to the Supreme Court to keep interracial couples apart ended up swinging left and ensured that night that the next president would be the son of just such a couple, we were shocked.  And the shock felt fantastic.  All the exhausting work that went in to combating those 230 years of injustice had to come out somehow and most felt they had little choice about the tears streaming down their face.

That’s why I’ve found myself beaming at this week’s headlines emblazoned above the president’s likeness.  I did the same in the summer of 2003 when my radio told me that nine judges had just ruled that gay men and women were no longer allowed to be arrested anywhere in the United States for simply being gay.  Sure it was sickening to consider that just two decades before, nine judges had ruled the other way, upholding Georgia’s right to imprison two men who had been happened upon in their own home by a police officer.  But as I stopped my car to take it all in, I reveled in the fact that, no matter the political calculation or nit-picking bureaucracy involved, bigotry had lost that day.

Whatever his personal beliefs, of which we will never be certain, President Obama has just placed himself on the right side of history.  If one interprets this in the most cynical way—i.e., that he only did it to fire up his base and win votes—it’s our democracy in action, indicating that the majority is leaning toward equality.  (And thank god he didn’t use that phrase “I’ve learned not to judge gays and lesbians,” a cop-out that implies there is something morally ambiguous to judge.)  Bigotry is an inexcusable force that has been obstructing equality for far too long, but it’s losing the battle.  And I can’t think of any better reason to stop, if only just for a moment, and celebrate.



 
 

Lessons in Grief

22 Apr

(Image by Stephen Alcorn © 2003 http://www.alcorngallery.com)

 

Humans are afraid of many things, but death probably ranks the highest.  Whether embracing the pragmatic/repressed approach that insists we keep off such upsetting subjects or delving into the artistic/philosophical fascination with all things morbid, almost no one talks about the realness of grief.  It’s too much of a drag.

This week marks both the birthday and the death day of one of my very best friends, Bill Palinski (1984 – 2004).  My life changed forever when he left without warning.  I had lost close relatives and acquaintances before him, but he was supposed to grow old with me.  He was supposed to accompany me through life, doing what he had always done: enthrall me with his superstar adventures, teach me lessons through his wisdom and his flaws, celebrate with me, listen to me complain and cry, and make fun of me the entire time.  Bad things can happen, but you never truly believe it at the most visceral level until one of your closest loved ones is ripped away from you.  He would be supremely annoyed were I to use his death as a source of self-pity, but he would be pleased to know it has helped me understand grief and those it consumes. 

When you’re in bereavement, you constantly feel on edge.  You want to punch strangers on the subway for going on with their lives and not realizing what an amazing person is missing from the world.  You feel constant guilt whenever you try to do something that doesn’t involve mourning your loved one.  Almost everyone, including your closest friends, says something that strikes you as deeply insensitive.  (Sometimes it is insensitive, other times your anger picks targets at random.)  For the first several months, you avoid parties or any social situations where people will ask you “What’s new?” because you’re constantly on the brink of tears and anyone’s problem unrelated to loss seems incredibly petty to you.  Many people like to talk about death in the abstract—the prospect of dying, the politics of war and violence, famous murder cases, existentialism, Halloween, the songs they want played at their funeral—but almost no one enjoys talking about someone you know who died.  And everyone is ready for you to “move on” and “get over it” way, way before you are.  Getting over it is out of the question.  Growing from it is the only alternative to being paralyzed by your newfound proof that bad things can and do happen, and may very well happen again.  The only way to keep ourselves from letting this fact drive us mad is to engage in what bereavement counselors call “healthy denial.” 

And for all the summarizing I just did, grief varies profoundly with different circumstances.  Losing your best friend and losing your mother and losing a child and losing someone to a long illness and losing someone in an accident and losing someone to murder are all very, very different experiences.  People in grief are usually desperate to hear from other survivors, but they never want the different circumstances shaping their grief to be dismissed for the sake of relativizing sorrow.  The phrase “I know what you’re going through” should be used with caution.   

I didn’t know any of this before I lost him.  I always wanted to help others in bereavement, but I was that awkward person who was scared whenever I didn’t know what to say and believed any sort of grieving beyond a few months was probably unhealthy.  Staying away from social gatherings certainly sounded like a bad idea.  I’m sure I said many careless things that were hurtful.  I probably still do when reacting to someone else’s loss.  But I now find it heartwarming, not sad, if they want to tell stories about the person who’s gone.  And I know to let them call the shots.  If they want to talk about it, listen actively.  If they do not, don’t prod.  Only offer advice or philosophy when they ask for it.  Otherwise listen, listen, listen.  As a friend said after a loss, death highlights how often we forget the importance of listening in all aspects of life; how much we prioritize having an opinion ready for any sort of subject we encounter. 

The grieving process takes up to two years, and of course, the pain never goes away.  There’s not a day that goes by without my missing Bill, but I no longer feel guilty when I push tears aside to pursue something I truly believe in.  Time has brought me to this more productive state of mind, but so has his inspiration. 

At his funeral, his sister said, “We’re all going to have to be a bit better than we had planned on being now that he’s gone.  We have to take on some of the good works he was going to do.”  I’ve carried him with me on every adventure I know he would have loved and never got to have: finding true love, taking in the Tokyo skyline, meeting David Sedaris, learning naughty words in Swedish, belting out “Wig in a Box” a hundred feet away from where the Berlin Wall stood, appreciating the beauty in all the wonderful friends I’ve made since his passing who will only ever know him as photographs and stories.  But I have also let him remind me that I rarely have an excuse for not supporting a cause I believe in. 

Alice Walker said, “Activism is my rent for living on the planet,” and no one embodied this as well as Bill.  By the time of his death at age 20, he had been an exchange student to Ireland, a volunteer for exchange students to the U.S., done volunteer home renovation for a poor black community in South Carolina, donated and signed petitions for the Natural Resources Defense Fund, and worked for almost 10 years with the Quakers for peace, non-violence and human rights.  (In trying to summarize all this in a letter of recommendation, a guidance counselor wrote that he did volunteer work to aid poor Quakers.)  He made friends left and right—in every sense—while simultaneously being known far and wide as the coolest of the cool.  To him, being hip was all about a scathing wit (“Oh, Emily, your little dwarf arms just can’t reach!”) and a refined sense of the absurd (a few times he insisted we pretend to fight at parties just to see everyone else’s awkward reaction).  But it was never about being too cynical to care or work for justice.

Okay, he hated the rainbow flag—“Where was I when they voted on that?!”—preferring the sober tones of the Human Rights Campaign logo.  The medium is the message, of course.  But whenever I slump into cynicism, daunted and wanting to do nothing but complain about humanity’s capacity for cruelty, the ubiquity of ignorance and the overwhelming number of flaws in the system, he is always quick to answer: “So?  You’re alive.  You can do something about it.”

 

 

In Activism, The Medium Is The Message

6 Apr

 

An acquaintance recently referred to me in a discussion about limb-lengthening on a Tumblr page.  Having heard about my medical experiences from mutual friends, he insinuated that I may have been forced into it, reported the procedure is used to make people with dwarfism “look normal” and dismissed it as therefore morally wrong.

Around the same time that week, The New York Times featured a discussion regarding whether the Internet’s contributions to political discourse are always productive under the headline, “Fighting War Crimes, Without Leaving the Couch?”  The Internet itself is so multi-faceted it undoubtedly does as much good as harm.  Like all media, it has both cerebral and shallow corners.  And, as the Times piece reveals, there is a fine line between slacktivism and activism.  But the recent trend toward microblogging—Tweets, Facebook status updates, Tumblr—for political discussions is rife with problems.  For every productive comments thread I’ve read, there are conversations that never evolve beyond slogans, sneering, choir-preaching, or kneejerk reactions with most information based on hearsay.  Every single piece of information cited in the Tumblr discussion on limb-lengthening contained at least one factual error.  (More here on the fact that it was posted in the context of sick fascination rather than bio-ethics.)  That microblogging brings those who don’t have the time or energy to compose an entire blog post or article into the discussion is hardly a compelling argument, since it quickly extends to Those Who Don’t Have the Time to Research Or Think Much About the Issues. 

I’m quite used to having my story cited in debates because of the exposure I’ve allowed it.  I love debate like other people love video games and limb-lengthening is a contentious issue.  (Just ask my friend who witnessed a stranger with dwarfism approach his mother and demand, “How could you ruin your child’s life like this?!”)  When ignoring the broad-sweeping nature of his assertion, I consider this friend of a friend’s kneejerk opposition to cosmetic surgery preferable to, say, the handful of journalists who have interviewed me and chosen to portray limb-lengthening as a painless miracle cure for anyone unhappy with their size.  But reading his hasty dismissal of my seven-year-long experience based only on what our mutual friends had told him brought back memories of all the people I’ve observed summarizing deeply personal, overwhelmingly complicated decisions in 140 characters or less, both online and off:

“It’s been TWO months since she died.  He’s gotta move on.” 

“It was so selfish of her to get pregnant now with everything her husband’s going through.”   

“It’s absolutely horrible to abort a fetus that tests positive for a disability.  Who would do such a thing?!” 

“Only one girlfriend?  Well, then she’s not really gay.  She was just experimenting.” 

“It’s ultimately selfish to want a child with dwarfism.  You wouldn’t want to do that to a child.”

“No wonder she got mugged.  Any girl who goes hiking alone should know better.”

“It’s so stupid that women are supposed to be upset about not being able to have their own kids.  They could just adopt.” 

Assuming others’ motivations, knowing what’s best for everyone, passing on poorly researched information; too often gossip masquerades as political discourse, both in the media and at home.  We all feel compelled to have an opinion.  About everything.  The more noble root of this is the desire to actively take an interest in everything.  But that nobleness dies the moment we can’t be bothered to consider anything beyond our gut reaction before spouting off; the moment a desire to improve the world devolves into the simple urge to mark everything we see with our own personal “GOOD” or “BAD” stamp. 

Obviously, as a blogger I am constantly offering my opinions.  But I remain acutely conscious of my chosen medium, taking inspiration from Marshall McLuhan whose quote heads this post.  There is a difference between tabloids and broadsheets, between documentaries and reality TV, between a blog entry and a Tweet, and it’s not just big words: It’s the intellectual commitment required of the audience in order to consume.  True learning demands this commitment and risks upsetting our world view.  Voyeurism indulges our complacency and guarantees our prejudices will be cemented.     

Every blog post I put out is both a labor of love and a terrifying experience.  Every week I hear the imaginary voices of every individual who could in any way be implied in my arguments howling at me, “Who do you think you are?!”  The voices aren’t loud enough to scare me into silence.  But, combined with the inspiring examples set by my partner, my mom and dad, Ariel Meadow Stallings, Barack Obama and many others, they motivate my every edit of that girl in high school who was so well known for her righteous indignation that she was voted “Most Argumentative” in the yearbook.

That girl has made so many mistakes along the way.  I found out that posting your religious views online can earn you applause from strangers but cost you a friendship.  I’ve learned using the “I know someone who…” argument can offend or embarrass said person if you haven’t asked their permission, even when it’s intended as praise.  I’ve learned passion alone inspires your supporters but usually sounds like ranting to the unconvinced, especially on Facebook.  I’ve learned mass emails are not only passé outside the workplace but were never very popular to begin with.  (At least not among the recipients.)  I’ve learned to never read the comments section on YouTube unless I want to lose all my faith in humanity.

I intend to address all the reasons why I underwent limb-lengthening eventually, but at the moment I’m not sure yet if I can in anything less than the 13 pages I needed in Surgically Shaping Children.  I’m sorry to play Tantalus to those unable to shell out the cash for the book or find it at their library.  This undoubtedly limits the number of people I inform.  But, for now at least, I prefer to be held responsible for a few well-informed individuals rather than many misinformed ones.  And no matter how I end up condensing it, I know I won’t ever be able to fit seven years of limb-lengthening into one Tweet.    

 

 

Today’s Princesses: Teaching Them “That Self-Absorption Is The Same As Self-Confidence”

10 Mar

When I was growing up, I had a hard time remembering that McDonald’s and Disney were not the same company.  I still have a hard time remembering that.  Both aggressively market products few can spend their entire lives resisting because their advertising budgets are unrivaled and because they have mastered the recipes for broad appeal.  Both are aggressively exported to other countries, representing all that is optimistic, colorful, unsubtle and indulgent about America.  Both are harmless in small doses but unhealthy when they attain the monopoly on a child’s life they’ve been aiming for.

I’ve just finished Cinderella Ate My Daughter: Dispatches from the Front Lines of the New Girlie-Girl Culture by Peggy Orenstein.  Like Eric Schlosser in Fast Food Nation, Orenstein examines a corner of our culture that does not take constructive criticism well.  It is because of the magnitude of the pink princess deluge driven by Disney and their ilk combined with their defensive refusal to admit any fault or responsibility—“It’s what every girl wants!”—that her work deserves such a warm welcome.

For any of her failures to perfectly repair the girlie-girl culture in 200 pages, Orenstein offers several impeccable articulations of the problems.  Princess packages are problematic when they impose rote scripts and must-have shopping lists, stifling rather than encouraging creativity.  Sexualization is problematic when the implied goal is not to attain pleasure but to please a man in exchange for being approved of as pretty.  Social networking online is problematic when “the self becomes a brand to be marketed to others rather than developed from within.”  And the Muppets are problematic when, for all their ingenuity, they still can’t come up with more than two female Muppets.  I think I’m going to end up quoting her a lot.

The New York Times praised her book while emphasizing that it is little cause for alarm seeing as most girls outgrow the pink princess phase.  As a former Snow White wannabe, I know this can be true, but I had kick-ass feminists in my life to help me along the way, including a dad who sewed my costumes.  I hesitate to agree with the Times’s assertion that “most” move on.   Orenstein provides depressing figures on the rise of female eating disorders, the recent drop in computer science degrees, the persistent problem of young women equating “feeling good” with “looking hot.”  Even as I tend to surround myself with self-confident, intellectual women who define themselves as much more than their prettiness and their purchases, I regularly encounter those who fit into Orenstein’s figures.  They are the ones whose fathers only gave them credit cards, never engaging them in intellectual discussion, and who now avoid debate like an ugly outfit.  They are the ones who know that appearing pretty means non-threatening, so self-confidence is tossed out for coyness, self-assertion is abandoned for pouting, and wit is relinquished for fawning giggles in the presence of men.  They are the ones who torture themselves over their looks—“I’m so ugly! I’m so fat!”—in order to land a man and then keep him from cheating, spending more of their day unhappy than any other people I know.  They are the ones who have not left the princess phase because they do not know how to. 

Too often criticism of the princess culture is misconstrued as bitter resentment by those who just don’t have what it takes to wow the guys or woo the pageant judges.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  It is sincere concern inspired by the hard evidence of the very real dangers that motivates critics like Orenstein:

There is… ample evidence that the more mainstream media girls consume, the more importance they place on being pretty and sexy.  And a ream of studies shows that teenage girls and college students who hold conventional beliefs about femininity—especially those that emphasize beauty and pleasing behavior—are less ambitious and more likely to be depressed than their peers.  They are also less likely to report that they enjoy sex or insist that their partners wear condoms. 

Depression, eating disorders, STDs, and unwanted pregnancy are nothing to sneeze at.  Meanwhile, a study conducted at the University of Houston found women who identify as feminists demonstrate less hostility toward men than women who don’t.  A Rutgers University study found they are also more likely to be in a relationship and their partners report more satisfaction with their sex lives.  Isn’t that the happily ever after every parent wants for their daughter?      

Sometimes Orenstein’s feminist alternatives to the pink princesses sound soft compared to the roar of her reprimands.  Focusing only on the (admittedly daunting) price of the dolls, she misses a major opportunity to understand the educational, multi-cultural brilliance of the American Girl history series.  Disney’s The Princess and The Frog promotes independence, battles lookism and exemplifies egalitarian romance in all the ways Beauty and the Beast failed to, yet Orenstein’s review of the film was as weak as its box office performance.  Princess Fiona of Shrek is bad-ass and the third film in the series parodies princesses better than anything else it takes a jab at.  However, I wonder how necessary any model of romance—feminist or traditional—is for the preschool set.

Indeed, it is important to distinguish between the pre-pubescent girls and the post-pubescent ladies in books and toy stores, and on the screen.  Sparkles and daisies are innocuous. Unrealistic beauty standards and boy-crazy storylines are not.  The original Strawberry Shortcake and Rainbow Brite were not the cleverest female role models, but they acted their age and thus appropriately for their target audience.  Their cadres of friends were coed.  They regularly outwitted male villains—proving that girls’ problems aren’t limited to cat fights—and the reward was always a happier world, either more colorful or fruit-filled.  Like Hello Kitty, Strawberry Shortcake and Rainbow Brite demonstrated that to be cute is to be round and childlike, not dangerously busty-yet-skinny like Barbie and the Disney Princesses.  But both Rainbow Brite and Strawberry Shortcake have since been redesigned to at least suggest adolescence:     

 

Characters that were not invented first and foremost to sell dolls and costumes are usually a safer bet.  Lilo and her sister Nani of Lilo and Stitch are two of the best female characters in cinema history, let alone the Disney canon.  Meanwhile, Pippi Longstocking is worshipped in Northern Europe by boys and girls alike.  Indeed, wouldn’t a more pro-active welcoming of boys into the princess culture dilute a lot of its sexism?  How about dads reading The American Girls to their sons as often as moms read Harry Potter to their daughters?  Orenstein does recognize the potential for that revolution, citing a Creighton University study that showed half of boys aged 5 to 13 chose to play with “girls’ toys” as often as “boys’ toys,” but only after they were promised that their fathers wouldn’t find out about it.

Like the families relying on fast-food several times a week, many parents find it difficult to resist the pink marketers’ schemes and the peer pressure foisted upon their daughters in play groups.  There is nothing wrong with the occasional indulgence, just as there is nothing inherently wrong with the color pink.  But just as we have demanded healthier Happy Meals and more farmers’ markets, we should demand more varied toys, activities and role models for our children, refusing any monochrome model of girlhood.

 

 

Working with the F Word

12 Feb

audre lorde rough paper background by Starving ArtistIf you’ve explored this blog, you’ve heard me toss around that lovely word “feminism.”  And I bet a few of you cringed, rolled your eyes or ignored it: “Feminism is the idea that men and women are equal.  We get it.”

Traditional gender roles inflict thousands of double-standards on women and men, and I’ll discuss them in greater detail soon.  But feminism is so much more than that.  Despite the “fem” in feminism, women’s rights are neither the limit nor the core of equality.  As Gloria Steinem recently said, it’s about challenging hierarchies.  It’s about saying, “You’re not the boss of me!”  There is no other word for opposing all hierarchies based on characteristics about which we have no choice: our ethnicity, our sexuality, our race, our gender identity, our class background, our physical traits and capabilities, our mental capacities.  There should be.

Because chauvinism is the common enemy.  Feminism started off aiming to liberate women.  And that includes poor women.  And women of every possible ethnic background.  And in every country.  And women with physical differences and disabilities.  And women with mental disabilities and psychiatric disorders.  And women who are attracted to women.  And women who are attracted to both genders.  And women who transition into their sex.  And those who transition into another.  And those whose biology or sense of self does not correlate to either male or female.  And those who are men.  As a woman with achondroplasia, how could I ignore anyone who is screwed over for the way the way they were born?  As a woman with achondroplasia who chose to undergo controversial limb-lengthening procedures, how could I condemn anyone forced to make deeply personal decisions directly linked to their identity?  And the questions logically expands to: How could anyone?

Do “human rights” or “egalitarianism” adequately imply opposition to any manifestation of chauvinism?  Labels are so problematic.  Internet and library searches for “egalitarianism” usually produce discussions of class and poverty, while “human rights” tends toward macrocosmic, international issues of war, poverty and suffrage.  In effect, these terms can be narrower or broader than feminism.  Yet there are advantages to redefining a well-known term like feminism rather than trying to invent and disperse a new one.  When self-proclaimed feminist Amanda Palmer defended a project objectifying conjoined twins, Sady Doyle at Tiger Beatdown gave her the lecture of a lifetime that sums it up better than I’ve ever heard:

… this “feminism” thing: it’s not for some people, it’s not for you specifically, it’s not a fun little badge you get to slap onto your actions when it suits you. It is a system of carefully worked-out thoughts, which has been developed for many, many years by many thousands of people, and one of the most unavoidable parts of this system, which we can’t get away from if we are thinking for even a second with any ounce of intellectual rigor or honesty, is that everybody matters. Everybody matters precisely as much as you do. Which is why you don’t get to use them as a means of gratifying yourself with attention when the attention is good, or deny them the right to be heard or respected when the attention is bad.

Feminist history is stained with instances of female chauvinism, racism, ethnocentrism, classism, homophobia, transphobia and ableism, and continues to be by the likes of many.  And we’ve got to keep calling that out with the same vigilance we accord any issue.  As the xenophobic view claims that multiculturalism and universal human rights are inefficient and the only battle worth fighting is your own, a non-violent society only functions when based on the concept of reciprocity.  Despite the structures in place that assume otherwise, everybody’s health, job, relationships, sex life, family, and happiness matter exactly as much as yours do.

That’s what the F word means to my husband, my mom and my dad, my sister-in-law, my closest friends, my favorite teachers, and me.  And if that still makes you cringe, if you still find the label too problematic, leave me a well-thought out argument in the comments.

 

 

Welcome to Painting On Scars

4 Feb

 

So you’ve heard that “Kids can be so cruel”?  What a cop-out.  Adults are cruel.  Kids are constantly blunt and sometimes mean-spirited, but they have the chance to grow up.  Turning 30 this year, I realize that I’ve encountered more ableism over the past 10 years than any other time in my life – online, at dinner parties, and during my four years as an undergrad at Bard College when it was consistently rated in one of the Top Ten Most Liberal Schools by The Princeton Review.  If I ever have children biologically, they will each have a 50% chance of inheriting achondroplasia from me.  Whether or not they have achondroplasia, I’m much more concerned about the adults they will encounter in their lives than the kids.

Today ableism – a.k.a. disability discrimination – ranges from the yuk-yuk objectification of freaks, to the sick fascination with medical realities, to personal phobias of looking weak or unattractive, to well-intentioned charity that is truly patronizing That this so often comes from those whose own experiences of marginalization would logically render them better candidates for empathy has inspired me to start this blog. 

There also aren’t enough blogs about dwarfism.  There are hardly any blogs about dwarfism beyond childhood.  The community of dwarfs who have undergone limb-lengthening is non-existent, as if we want to pretend we were never dwarfs in the first place.  And feminist blogs for and about dwarfs who have undergone limb-lengthening continue to elude my Google efforts.

While my own experience invariably influences my perspective, I refuse to argue only about issues directly related to dwarfism and limb-lengthening.  Without knowing the word for it, I was raised to believe that if you’re going to support the rights of one minority, you’ve got to support them all.  In the end, they’re all related.

So consider this blog a continued reflection on the issues I addressed in this book.  Or The Most Inclusive, Progressive Forum Ever!  Or just another reminder that whether you’re discussing a sex issue or scar tissue, the personal is inescapably the political.

 

 

It’s Not One or the Other with Evelyn Evelyn

6 Nov

Evelyn EvelynSo Jason Webley and Amanda Palmer have formed a band called Evelyn Evelyn for which the two dress up as conjoined twin sisters.  I wasn’t going to comment on the scandal that has erupted over the launch of their new album because it seemed too many people were screaming at the top of their lungs and the ones who weren’t had stuck their fingers in their ears.  But I’m both a big Jason Webley fan and an advocate for more visibility on the issues of ableism in political discourse.  And this is an excellent example of a common occurrence in the counter-culture that rarely gets talked about.  Here are a few of my points, some of which have already been made by others, some of which haven’t.

One can love Jason and/or Amanda as artists and also believe that they’ve done something wrong.  One can be in awe of Mick Jagger’s talent, and still gristle at his womanizing and the lyrics he sings advocating it.  The adolescent idol-worship of these two singers that’s been revealed in the defense arguments is quite disturbing.

Even though I fiercely believe in intersectionality (i.e., if you’re gonna support the rights of one minority, you’ve got to support them all), being insensitive toward one group of people does not make you insensitive to all.  Amanda Palmer is a fierce feminist and LGBT advocate, and both she and Jason like to sing about, as he put it, the experiences of those on the margin.  This project does not nullify their previous good works and transform  them both into misanthropic bigots.

As intersectionality often proves, a liberal identity does not make progressives like Jason and Amanda incapable of prejudice or sheer jack-ass behavior.  I met student after student at Bard who would glare at anything remotely racist or sexist or homophobic, but who insisted that dwarf-tossing is fucking hilarious and cringed at individuals with facial deformities.

I admit that I didn’t consider the offensive implications the first time I heard of the project.  When I read the bio on Evelyn Evelyn’s MySpace page, I did start to feel the thing reverberate with circus-freak retro-chic.  More than anything, I didn’t see why the twins had to be conjoined.  They have the same name and sing back and forth to each other; there isn’t anything about their record requiring them to be conjoined except to add a little freak-show flavor, realized by the sight-gag of the two singers performing onstage on a single accordion.  If Evelyn Evelyn were merely identical twins, no one would have given it a moment’s pause and only the freak-show flavor would be lost.  I happen to think “Have You Seen My Sister Evelyn?” is a great ragtime song.  I also enjoyed Jason’s solo rendition of “Elephant Elephant” using the audience for call-backs far more than his version with Amanda as his twin. 

Bearing all this in mind, it is my opinion that both Jason and Amanda have handled this quite badly. 

Jason’s apology on his blog is much less defensive than Amanda’s, his shock at the reaction seems genuine, but he nevertheless manages to keep stumbling.  “I had some fear that the few conjoined twins living in the world might find the project offensive.”  Ouch.  Respect and human rights do not directly correlate to a minority’s numbers.  Someone pointed out that conjoined twins are so few because their infant mortality rate is so high.  Ouch.    

As for Amanda, I don’t know why she tweets or posts so frequently only to be shocked about the fire she draws from her hastily typed statements regarding her often controversial projects.  Let’s not kid ourselves – she obviously likes being an iconoclast, which is fine and in fact admirable, but she so far lacks the poise to handle the inevitable backlash each time she comes roaring onto the scene with another boisterous project.  And, Amanda, you don’t need to let us know you’re PMSing.  If you’d used the word “midget” on me and included that in your apology/excuse, it would not help to redeem you. 

I originally wasn’t going to attend the Berlin show because it’s rather expensive, but now I’m considering proposing a boycott over this issue.  Not because I hate these two for it (I don’t), but because the friends who were reluctant to go over the price would likely tell me to loosen up if ableist politics were my sole reason.  And that could be a good opportunity to confront the prejudices lurking under the liberal badges we love to wear.

 

UPDATE: Any credibility Amanda’s apology had was swiftly obliterated by her performance on this Australian talk show.  She may very well be a feminist and a radical and an activist, but first and foremost, Amanda Palmer is a narcissist.  Possibly the least radical thing you can be in show business.

 

 

Note: This post originally appeared on February 21, 2010 at klompen.livejournal.com