Thursday, December 22, 2011

Let's Make The War On Christmas A Reality

It's OK dude, you won't get hurt:  cats are officially non-combatants.

Was there ever a more eye-roll inducing concept than the absurd purported "war on Christmas"?

If you haven't been too bored to pay attention, you may know that the idea, propagated by certain religious and conservative factions, is that the effort to be inclusive -- by saying "Happy Holidays" instead of "Merry Christmas," by reining in the relentless Christian imagery and music, by neglecting our Shopping Duties -- somehow constitutes a "war": on Christmas, and by extension, on family values, decency, and all that.

I thought it was one of those things that if you ignored it it would just go away.  But the counter-attack has been strong.  There's more religious music than ever, and to my amazement, people have started to seem like they get a weird kick out of saying "Merry Christmas" -- like this is some kind of dangerous and subversive act.  Oooh, political incorrectness!  

So I'm annoyed by that.  But the truth is, I'm also kind of annoyed by Christmas itself.  I'm one of those atheists who was always happy to go along with decorated trees, presents, friends, food, and drinks -- all excellent things in their way.  But Christmas is out of control.

Shopping and gift buying are especially out of control.  Presents make sense for kids, and maybe in certain circumstances for adults.  But the idea that you should go on a massive shopping spree guessing at what all the other adults in your life would like -- how could that fail to produce piles of expensive, unwanted garbage?  Just thinking about all that stuff cluttering up people's homes and then getting shipped off to landfills gives me the horrors. 

Stores are opening Thanksgiving night; workers are there from midnight to early morning; The New York Times actually had a whole news story about whether "the Saturday before Christmas" was the 17th or the 24th.  People, if you were looking for signs of the materialism apocalypse, well, here they are.

So let's kill two birds with one stone:  let's make the war on Christmas a reality.  

Maybe you're thinking, "War?  Isn't that going a bit far?"  Who is this lunatic?  Is there really someone so grouchy and curmudgeonly that they'd actually prefer Christmas not to exist?  What about ginger cookies?  What about the star on top of the tree? Won't somebody think of the children?

You know, it's not the Christmas spirit I'm against. It's the Christmas crap.  The great thing about Thanksgiving as a holiday is that, because it's based on a universal and secular human concept -- that of gratitude -- it's inclusive, flexible, and non-materialistic.

So I'd like to see Christmas -- Sorry. I'd like to see a late-Winter holiday -- based on something like that.  As for that universal human concept, why not take a page from Christmas's playbook, and make it joy?

Instead of religion and shopping, we could do Joyful Things, like making snowmen, flying kites, and playing music.

Now doesn't that sound nice?

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Sexism, Homophobia, Sex, and Groping

I was talking with my friend the other day about the idea that there's some important connection between sexism and homophobia.  We agreed:  there is. 

Probably there are a lot of important connections, actually, including obvious ones about discrimination and so on.  But I think there's a less obvious one too, having to do with sex, gender, and sexual agency.

Here's a constellation of ideas that I think forms a part of some sexist and homophobic men's view of the world.  Men need sex, and women provide it.  Women aren't rational, so it makes no sense to put them in charge of decisions about something so crucial to men's well-being.  Women shouldn't really be treated as sexual agents, making decisions about what's best for them.  It's more like, keep the pure and domestic ones for home and babies, and treat the female rabble however you want. 

This may sound extreme.  But how else to explain the otherwise extraordinary ways some men defend other men's assault on women's sexual agency? 

Just as a single example, I recently learned about the Ada initiative to get more women involved in open technology and culture.  The executive director and co-founder says the reason she got involved with starting the Ada initiative is because her friend went to an open source conference and was groped -- and that she herself had been groped twice at such conferences. 

Worse, when the friend wrote about the experience on her blog, "hundreds of people made comments like, "Women should expect to get groped at conferences," and "It was her fault."  The comments came from her colleagues in open source, presumably highly educated and pretty thoughtful people.  If you're a reader of comments on the internet, you know this is not an isolated occasion. 

So it's surprising the extent to which some men will defend the appropriateness of just touching women in inappropriate ways when they feel like it. 

But such men don't want to be touched this way themselves.  And they really don't want to be touched this way by other men. 

You can see the groping-double-standard playing out in the recent upset about TSA groping.  I mean, women get groped on the subway all the time, and I feel like the general cultural reaction is a kind of collective shrug:  jeez, girl, you're out, you're on the subway, what did you expect?  Get over it.  But once the groping happens to men, and once it happens to women who are married moms, it's like OMG! Crisis! There's inappropriate touching! Call your congressman, right away

I know it's not quite the same -- because the TSA gropes you with the long arm of the law -- but still, the estimation of harm is obviously very different. 

You can see where I'm going with this.  If you're a guy who thinks that it's OK to treat women as having no sexual agency, that treating women this way is an essential aspect of male sexuality, and that being treated this way in turn would be an outrage, you're going to have a big problem with gay men right off the bat.  Because by turning that male sexual attention on you, gay men threaten the whole logic of your position. 

So even the existence of gay men is a problem for your sexist world view. 

The answer seems obvious to me:  equality and respect for everyone, and when it comes to sex, if you're not sure, ask. 

Why there's so much resistance to this basic set of human goods, I don't know.  

Sunday, December 4, 2011

The Harmony Myth Of Human Nature

I took this a couple of years ago at a bookstore near my home.
Sometimes it happens when you're watching Oprah at the gym or reading some advice columnist while surfing the net.  Sometimes it happens when you're just trying to mind your own business but someone starts talking to you and you can't run away.

It starts when a person is talking about how it's "OK" that their dog died or that yours did or that their sister got sick or that they lost their job.  And they'll say that it's OK because, really, at the end of the day "everything happens for a reason."

And you'll be like, "Wait. What?"

I was going to say that this is a version of the "just-world fallacy," which is "a cognitive bias in which people believe that the world they live in is one in which actions have appropriate and predictable consequences" (thank you, Wikipedia).

But if you think about it, it's not so much a "just world" fallacy as a "utopian world" fallacy.  Because when people say that everything happens for a reason, they usually don't mean that bad stuff happened because a person deserved something bad to happen.  They mean the much more radical idea that what seems like "bad" stuff is actually good, and will reveal itself to be so in some unspecified "long run."

It's easy to make fun of the utopian world fallacy.  But I think it has a close cousin belief that is harder to ferret out -- and even more widespread.  This is what I call the "harmony myth" of human nature. This is the idea that that there is some naturally coherent way to put your life together so that all the pieces will fall into place.

If you can just get things properly organized and get yourself free of weird addictions and neurotic attitudes, so the thinking goes, there'll be no more cravings for doughnuts and quarter-pounders and no more lolling around the internet, looking for the latest Snooki news.  Instead, you'll be dying for organic carrot juice and spending all your free time taking free online physics courses or informing yourself about the history of the Balkans.

I might notice the harmony myth more than other people, because it is contrary to one of my most deeply held convictions about the good life:  that it is, at bottom, a series of trade-offs.

The reason to eat more carrots and fewer doughnuts isn't that carrots are inherently good and doughnuts inherently bad; it's just that there are other things you want, like health, that happen to be hampered by too many doughnuts.  If you're just waiting for things in your life to get organized so that the doughnut desires go away, trust me:  you'll be dead before that happens.

I was so pleased recently to hear Peter Sagal say on Wait, Wait, Don't Tell! me a couple of weeks ago that the one lesson kids would learn from having apples as a compulsory half of the french fry portion of a Happy Meal was how much better french fries are than apples.  Because that is true.  But it doesn't matter.  It's only if you're in the grip of the harmony myth that you'd think that nutritiousness and tastiness have to be tightly correlated.

Two manifestations of the harmony myth particularly drive me nuts.  One is in education.  I often hear parents telling me how important it is that learning in school be "fun" and what a failure it is when it's not.  And I tell them:  sure, it should sometimes be fun.  But it isn't always going to be fun.  And isn't that an important part of what kids are learning in school?  That you can do things you don't particularly feel like doing, in order to reap some longer term reward?  Isn't that lesson the foundation of achieving stuff?

The other is in the whole "cook fresh meals at home" movement.  I have no quibble with the idea that it is good to cook fresh meals at home.  It is.  But why on earth this massive pretense that cooking at home is actually more fun and pleasant than going out or getting take-out?  I'm sure there are exceptions, but for many people, cooking is boring, repetitive, and kind of stressful.  And when you're done, there are pots and pans and dishes to clean.

Why not call a spade a spade, and say, Fun, Maybe Not, but Worth Doing, Obviously.

Once you get rid of the utopian myth you realize that coherence in life isn't about magical harmony, but rather about making sensible tradeoffs and compromises.  Cake for breakfast on Christmas:  fine. Cake for breakfast everyday:  insanity.

It's tempting to do a little armchair psychology about why people fall into the harmony myth trap. But I'll limit myself to just one comment.  As the end product of millions of years of evolution that proceeded by survival of random mutations, how could we fail to be anything but a patchwork of varying drives, tastes, needs, and appetites? 

It just wouldn't make any sense that we'd be anything else.