Sunday, February 27, 2011

Sexism And Misogyny Are Not The Same Thing

What would a post on women and France be without a picture of Catherine Deneuve?
I just returned from a short trip to Paris, France.  To me, one of the most puzzling things about Paris is that even though it's a bustly city with a ton of people, crowded subways, and -- let's face it -- somewhat uncomfortable and cramped interiors, being there is somehow relaxing.  Why is this?

There are a few obvious things.  Like, Paris is well-organized and beautiful.  Signs tell you not only when the next subway train is coming but when the one after that is coming as well.  Just walking along one of those tidy streets, with those lovely building facades, all a little different but sort of the same -- very relaxing.  When there are a lot of people somewhere, you can guarantee that someone has thought out how it should work.

The ads are interesting, and pretty, and they aren't everywhere.

There are things that are less obvious, though, and I think one of them is that while French culture may be sexist, it isn't really misogynist.  That is, while men and women are treated and regarded differently, and women do a lot of the domestic duties (often in addition to working) and there are the same kind of gender imbalances we have here in North America, in France, people basically like women, feel warmly toward them, and enjoy having them around.

This liking of women -- it's something that seems on the wane here in North America.  There's this whole guy thing here that I don't really understand but that seems to catch us in this double-bind.  If you're a woman who doesn't put a lot of effort into pleasing men with your appearance, then men are hostile on grounds that you're not pleasing them -- or, sometimes, you're just invisible.  But if you're a woman who does put a lot a lot of effort into pleasing men with your appearance, then you're either some kind of tease -- and men are hostile over being baited -- or you're a slut -- and men are somehow even more outraged by that than by being baited.

Talk about a no-win situation.

Now, I don't mean "all guys" or "most guys" do this -- certainly not.  But there's enough guys expressing these views, in the right contexts, for it to be a real thing.  Think about women who are on TV.  If they're not dressing up, forget it.  But if they are dressing up, forget it on the other side:  they're "inappropriate" or "slutty" or whatever.  And if you're dressing up and you look really good and you're unavailable, that's it:  you have to be brought down a peg.

Actually I was thinking about this the other day when that annoying article came out in the New York Times about how these studies had "shown" that attached men find women who are ovulating less attractive than non-ovulating women, even though for unattached men it's the reverse.  This was based on attached men rating some woman questioner as less sexy if they were attached and more if they weren't.  The conclusion the researchers came to was something like, See how mother nature makes it possible for us to be in long term steady relationships!

I'm always so irritated by articles like this.  I mean, consider the very first paragraph of the article:
"The 21-year-old woman was carefully trained not to flirt with anyone who came into the laboratory over the course of several months. She kept eye contact and conversation to a minimum. She never used makeup or perfume, kept her hair in a simple ponytail, and always wore jeans and a plain T-shirt."
Are you seriously telling me that these guys think that being quiet and keeping your eyes down can't be a way of flirting?! Do they live under rocks, these people?  I mean, I get that for the purposes of the study, all that matters is that she acted the same way with each guy, but honestly, can't you just say that?  And that jeans-and-a-simple-ponytail business.  As if the whole Playboy empire wasn't based on the sexiness of the girl next door.  How stupid.

And then the conclusions, geez.  I mean, sure, maybe that's what made the guys rate the woman lower.  But couldn't there be a bunch of other hypotheses?  Like, they found her more attractive, but because they felt not free to flirt with her, they wanted to take her down a peg?  "Meh, big deal, she's not so great."  Really, who knows? But isn't this at least as plausible?  How come we always have to leap to these stupid conclusions about What Mother Nature Intended?

OK OK back to the theme.  My point is just that you can have sexism without hostility toward women, and that for whatever reason, we seem to have some hostility toward women 'round these parts.  I haven't even mentioned the most uncomfortable hypothesis lurking here:  that we have more hostility because we have less sexism, that somehow it's the demand for equality that is making everyone so mad.  I haven't discussed it because I don't know if it's true, and I don't even know how one would figure out whether it's true. 

But as to the hostility itself, trust me, if you're a woman, it kind of wears you out.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Genius, Danger, And The Meaning Of Life: What's Wrong With Boring?

Gaugin, Still Life With Three Puppies.
I try be generous in spirit when people start talking about the meaning of life.

The reason I have to try to be generous is that it's so hard to say anything interesting and plausible about this question that I'm always annoyed by the answers people give.

The reason, though, that I do try to be generous is it's so hard to say anything interesting and plausible about this question that ... well, I feel like critcizing is like shooting fish in a barrel.

But I had to really struggle to be generous when reading Ronald Dworkin's discussion of the question in a recent New York Review of Books

It wasn't so much Dworkin's idea of life as a kind of attempted performance that got to me -- though, indeed,  I had some difficulties there too -- but more the idea that to live a good life requires some kind of striving, achievement, a rising to the challenge.

He puts it this way:
In my own view, someone who leads a boring, conventional life without close friendships or challenges or achievements, marking time to his grave, has not had a good life, even if he thinks he has and even if he has thoroughly enjoyed the life he has had.
Later, he talks about the good of accepting risks in a good life.  The kind of case he mentions has become a standard philosophical example -- though people seem to disagree about what it's an example of, exactly.  The example is the Great Artist who has to decide whether to Sacrifice His Family to Pursue His Great Art -- something like what Gaugin supposedly did when he left his wife and five children alone to go off to paint full-time.

It's commonly thought -- and Dworkin agrees -- that when the Great Artist really does produce Great Art, the sacrifice is vindicated.  It's somehow worth it.  Dworkin goes further, though, and says that not only does the success of such a venture make for a good life, even the attempt at such a venture makes for a good life.  We might value daring in life, even if it risks making our lives worse, just as entrepreneurs and dare-devil skiers do.  So the Gaugin types -- they're really onto something.

But look, we can't all be special, can we?  It really bugs me, the idea that to have a good life you have to be trying really hard to create something special and magical, bucking convention, striving to really make it something distinctive and unusual.  Like, it's not enough to be a nice person and good parent and generally helpful kind of guy or gal.  No, to have a good life you have to climb Mount Everest, or travel among some undiscovered tribes, or fight in some war, or discover some new type of beetle or something.

Can we just pause to tally up the problems that have arisen from this way of thinking?  Places like Mount Everest are becoming overrun with adventure seekers; the poor undiscovered tribes who just want to be left alone have had their habitat ruined by oil-seeking outsiders; young people around the world are set to fighting against and killing one another, and other young people who aren't all that interested in beetles are full of self-loathing and worry because, really, all they want to do is have a nice time, maybe have a beer and watch the game.

It seems to me what we need around here are more models for the good life that aren't full of adventure and striving.  Models that show us how to celebrate the ordinary day to day things, like eating dinner with people, going for a walk, and looking at interesting stuff in a museum or a field or whatever.

Sure, you can turn any of those activities into a striving for achievement:  "I'll make adventurous or gluttonous food! I'll walk faster, harder, longer than anyone else! I'll learn all the paintings by heart!"  But doesn't that sound horrible and depressing?

As far as I'm concerned, when it comes to the meaning of live, no one has really improved on Voltaire's Candide instructing us that "we must cultivate our garden."  Engage yourself in a practical pursuit, and the boring will be transformed to interesting, the flowers will entertain you, the vegetables will grow for eating, and you'll forget about all these stupid questions like what is the meaning of life.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Imaginary Diseases I Think I Have

According to this site, this is a photo of Freud's actual couch.  Looks kind of cozy, actually.
1.  Attention Surfeit Disorder.
Attention Surfeit Disorder is, of course, paying too much attention, and being unable to stop concentrating.  This happens to me a lot.  I'll be driving, and scanning the scene, and something will catch my eye in the rear-view mirror.  I look, I'm interested, I can't turn away.  My attention lingers.  What's happening to that person?  Is she yelling at that guy?  I wonder what's going on.  The most common thing is that I'm concentrating on something in my own mind, and in that case forget it:  I'm in another world.

2.  Alloism.
Alloism is over-involvement with other people and what they are thinking and feeling.  It's being too good at reading the expressions, faces, and emotional cues of other people.  The main problem with alloism is that it wears a person out.  Guy on the subway, woman at the check-out desk, kid giving me a funny look, I don't want to know what y'all are feeling; I got enough problems of my own.

3.  Repression deficiency.
People with repression deficiency can't repress the uncomfortable truths that everyone else seems to just ignore all the time.  Hey, everyone, did you forget that we are all going to die in the not so far away future?  And we're either going to die young, or get old?  And this is going to happen not just to you but to your kids and all the people you love?  When I look at all the healthy repressing people out there, living their lives and not thinking about these things, I'm amazed.  How do they do it?

4.  Antidisposophobia.
Some people can't throw anything away.  I have the opposite problem.  I can't keep anything around.  I hate clutter, and I fear it.  I wrote about this before, how I throw away not just "real life" things but digital things too, and how I even throw away old letters and actual mementos, and how I often get carried away.  I learned today that fear of throwing things away is called "disposophobia" and thus the name "antidisposophobia." Fear of clutter is evidently so much less common than fear of throwing things away that when you Google the former, what comes up is about the latter.  Weird.

5.  Nostalgiaphobia.

6.  Introversion.
Given that I enjoy spending time alone, often in a completely quiet house with no TV and no twitter account, and given that I get kind of worn out being with people, even when I'm very fond of them, I guess you can call me an introvert.  Introversion used to be a personality trait.  But these days I feel like people treat it more like a disease.  Every workplace is all about being a "people person," and everyone seems to get bored and antsy without minute by minute status updates from the people they know.  Even in the library people are determined to be communicating.  Makes me feel like a freak.