"Any woman who chooses to behave like a full human being should be warned that the armies of the status quo will treat her as something of a dirty joke. That's their natural and first weapon." ~ Gloria Steinem

Thursday, May 28, 2009

In Which I Mercilessly Dismantle Sam Schulman’s “Knowledge” Of Kinship, Laughing All The While

This is a response to Sam Schulman's "The Worst Thing About Gay Marriage". I won't post a link, but fear not; google will show you the way. 

In order for an argument to hold water, you must first accept the basic premises. In this case, firstly, that we have a rigid kinship structure; and secondly, that this rigid kinship structure must be preserved. I am completely ignoring the issue of whether or not marriage does indeed fulfill the functions laid out by Mr. Schulman, because that portion of the argument is completely irrelevant. His assumptions are faulty; there is no need to consider arguments supporting a faulty assumption.

Besides, I’m pretty sure a lot of people have already torn his article apart on those grounds.

But back to my issues. To begin with, the idea of a rigid kinship structure is laughable. Clearly, this person has no idea what kinship actually means.

Kinship, like all cultural traits, is fluid. This fluid nature is harder to see when you only examine a short period of time in the history of a culture, but it is always there. Do you really suppose that the Yanomamo came into existence using ebene? This notion ignores the process of cultural evolution; it's possible that we can define the moment they became Yanomamo as the period when they began practicing the use of ebene, but it's absurd to propose that they've "always been that way". Nobody has "always" been anything.

Unless you’re a Creationist, of course. If that is the case, you might as well stop reading right now, because 1) you’re going to get annoyed with me, and 2) you are obviously unequipped to grapple with the basic rules of logic and reading this is a waste of your time.

Culture, like "nature", is continually in flux. There is no end goal; no set purpose; no state to which we are moving. Understanding of this concept has fallen into shadow with the advent of our own particular culture, as we have developed the cultural trait of seeking the "best" way to do things; but in reality, there is no such thing as “best”. Just the fact that I can point out our desire to do things "right" proves my point; have humans "always" tried to things “right”? Of course not. The Yanomamo do not run up to the U.S. and attempt to get us to use ebene. Neither do they attempt to coerce neighboring villages into joining theirs; on the contrary, historically, Yanomamo societies are more likely to split than merge. (Chagnon 82)

Because, for example, our technology trends toward faster, smaller, and more efficient, we feel that our society is also trending upwards. I will not offer a commentary on whether we are trending upwards or downwards, because to me, the issue is moot. We’re not trending up or down—but we are trending in a direction. And that direction is change—just change. Undeniably, the United States has changed radically since its inception; but there is no reason to suppose that today we are inherently better than we were on May 27, 1809. To be sure, our society had ills at that time that we have since attempted to erase, but again, there is no reason to suppose that we are “better”. We are merely different.

Our laws make more sense now; that’s all. Laws shape a society as often as they reflect it; quite frequently, a law is enacted that does not reflect the society as it is, but how [enough] people wish it to be. And it takes time for the attitudes to catch up with the laws; we don’t consider black people to be property anymore, but that doesn’t mean every individual in the U.S. is free of racism. The longer we live in a society that prohibits slavery, the more we come to collectively agree on the immorality of racial discrimination. It’s a simple, observable fact.

And so, who are you to choose an arbitrary point in our cultural history and claim it as the best? On May 27, 1809, plenty of people thought we were already the best we could possibly be. Think about that.

The plain and simple fact is that if you consider a kinship system to be so glorious that it can and should resist evolutionary (in a societal sense) pressures, you have disregarded the fluid nature of culture and placed that particular system as the end result of cultural change. Which just means that all cultures are striving to be like yours.

Do you recall the “Great Chain of Being”? The Great Chain of Being placed squirrels above insects; dogs above squirrels; dark-skinned humans above dogs; light-skinned humans above dark-skinned humans; angels above light-skinned humans; God above angels. The Chain placed creatures in this manner as a reflection of how God had ordered his creation; the position of dark-skinned humans below light-skinned ones allowed the white Europeans to consider their African peers as subhuman.

You may laugh at the ignorant people who made the Great Chain of Being, and well you should—but if you laugh unfettered, unmindful of your hypocrisy, perhaps you should go back to the beginning and read every word of this over again.

Works Cited:
Chagnon, Napoleon A. Yanomamo. 5th edition; 1997.
My degree (in anthropology).

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Everyone's a doctor--er, anthropologist

I feel called to congratulate 52% of the state of California on their admirable accomplishment; they have succeeded, in just one round of Mormon-funded voting, where anthropologists have failed time and again. They have 1) defined Marriage [the capital M is intentional]; and 2) decided that a one-woman, one-man union is essential to a culture’s survival. Well done, you! I expect the anthropologists who have dedicated their lives to the study of marriage and have yet to agree on a universal [yet utile] definition shall ring you presently to bask in your infinite wisdom.

I do not claim to be an expert on culture; I doubt you could find anyone who does. I freely admit that I hold only a bachelor’s degree in anthropology, but lacking any evidence that the majority of Americans have any knowledge of cultures beyond our own (and this is written in the simple fact that most Americans still use the term “primitive” to describe cultures that do not engage in totalitarian agriculture or live in vast cities), I think we can assume I’m more of an expert than they are.

George Peter Murdock defined marriage as such: Marriage “exists only when the economic and the sexual [functions] are united into one relationship.” But what about the Nayar? In the 19th century, the Nayar lived in India; a woman had to have at least two husband, a ritual husband and one or more visiting husbands, none of which contributed any material support to the woman and her children. And so Kathleen E. Gough, an anthropologist studying the Nayar, gave this definition: “a relationship established between a woman and one or more other persons, which provides that a child born to the woman under circumstances not prohibited by the rules of the relationship is accorded full birth-status rights common to normal members of his [or her] society or social stratum.” This allows the definition to include other rare and rather complicated kinds of marriages, such as biologically female-female marriages that are socially defined as male-female and do not include a sexual component—which, as of the 1970s, made up 3% of all marriages in the Nandi of Kenya. And yet, Gough’s definition excludes the male-male marriages of the Cheyenne Indians in the 1800s, and ghost marriages of many cultures including Taiwan. (Pasternak 82-84)

Where do your “traditions” fall?

Oh, I see; you’re just talking about our culture. After all, we’re special; we answer to a higher power; we’re “civilized”. Perhaps you should read my next post.

Note: Statistically, I believe the most common marriage arrangement is indeed male-female. But most cultures have situations in which a different arrangement occurs—and in no instance are those different arrangements considered “deviant” or “outside the norm”. They are simply different, and still within the boundaries of their culture—or else they would not exist, and not by virtue of illegality. When did we start believing “minority” = “deviant”?

If you would like to know more about any of these topics, please let me know. I was intentionally brief to avoid rambling.

Works Cited:
Pasternak, Burton, Carol R. Ember, and Melvin Ember. Sex, Gender, and Kinship: A Cross-Cultural Perspective. 1997.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Matilda Joslyn Gage on marriage

The power possessed by the church during the middle ages was largely due to the control it had secured over domestic relations, and that no more severe blow has ever been inflicted upon it than the institution of civil marriage.... The Protestant pulpit is only less dangerous than the Catholic to the liberties of the people in that its organized strength is less. The old medieval control of the family under and through marriage is now as fully the aim of the Protestant church as of the Catholic.... The courts of this country have decided that marriage is a civil contract. As such a clergyman is no more fitted to take part in it than he would be to take acknowledgment of a deed, or take part in the legalization of any other contract. In fact a marriage performed by a clergyman of any denomination should be regarded as invalid in the light of civil law.

-- Matilda Joslyn Gage, "The Dangers of the Hour," refuting the Pope's and clergy's opposition to America's institution of civil marriage, quoted from Annie Laurie Gaylor, Women Without Superstition, p. 218-9. positiveatheism.org

Monday, May 25, 2009

If you aren't in awe, you aren't paying attention

Atheists garner a lot of criticism for “abandoning the wonder” in life. The assumption is that without supernatural belief, humans lack something to inspire awe, to marvel over; there is no imagination or room for creativity in a life without religion.

This, as you may have guessed, is something I believe to be composed entirely of bullshit. I believe in some things for which I have very few reasons; these bring me no end of mystery to ponder, no end of enjoyment. Some of my crazy theories are backed by [albeit slight] evidence; some are merely fancy. But none of them are harmful—and that’s what makes them ok.

Sometimes I believe the spirits of my dead relatives are awash across the universe in the form of stardust. Sometimes I believe fairies live in flowers, water sprites in creeks, and dryads in trees. Sometimes I believe in an unseen collective of consciousness made up of the energy of all living things, communicating constantly regardless of time and distance.

I have reasons for believing these things; they’re not necessarily excellent reasons, but they exist. I believe in the first because I “feel” them occasionally around me; plus it’s a pleasant thought, thinking of your cousin who died from a gunshot wound to the head flitting through galaxies, pure energy swarming through stars and space debris. It’s entirely possible that his matter will become star material someday, but it’s unlikely he has any awareness of it. Still, it’s a harmless belief. Silly—but harmless.

Religious beliefs are anything but harmless. I’m ok with pretending that fairies live in flowers because it doesn’t affect my behavior—except in a good way, if it spurs me to protect the Earth. I’m not trying to throw children in jail for picking flowers because it infringes on the rights of fairies, or going around college campuses passing out free copies of The Fairy Manifesto, or telling my high school significant other that he or she is going to burn in hell for not worshipping the Fairy Queen.

My third irrational belief is not as irrational as it may seem at first. Quantum physicists have demonstrated that particles can communicate instantaneously across vast distances; I’ve merely extrapolated from those experiments. Since we are made up of particles, and particles communicate regardless of space and time, something like my theory is possible. According to quantum physics, these particles communicate instantaneously because they are actually the same particle. (think about that for a minute. i dare you to tell me your mind isn’t blown.) 

Think about how that idea could affect the entire human population, and then tell me how your belief has equal ramifications.

Believing in God is not harmless, even if you throw out all the wars and disagreements and policies and all of that. See, if you subscribe to Intelligent Design, if you just content yourself with “Oh, God did it,” there is no room for further inquiry. Why bother? God did it. God started it all. Sure, there might be a single being who started the universe rolling (emphasis on MIGHT), but there’s no evidence for it, so what good is that opinion?

“No good at all” is the answer you’re looking for. A hole in our knowledge is inspiration for intellectual growth; plugging that hole with an idea just because that idea has been handed down to you (the number of generations is irrelevant) stymies any hope you may have of finding what’s actually in the hole. And the more people who believe they’ve already filled the hole, the less likely we are to find what’s really in there.

I acknowledge my flights of fancy as such—but they also have the added benefit of not prematurely plugging holes. My flights of fancy feed my imagination as well as my essence; I enjoy them, and they sustain me. However, they're ideas that admit to being so; they allow for further exploration, and not the false exploration of evolution confined to the cage of religion.

My flights of fancy could be true. They could be utter hogwash. Either way, I'm good.

Now try these on for size:
  • If you condense the history of the universe to a single year, humans would appear on December 31st at 10:30 pm. 99.98% of the history of the universe happened before humans even existed.
  • We are star material that knows it exists.
  • Through the wonder of DNA, you are literally half your mom and half your dad.
  • The faster you go, the slower time moves.
  • All life on Earth is directly related by descent. You are a cousin not just of apes, but of the sequoia and the amoeba, of mosses and butterflies and blue whales.
Now that, my friends, is wonder.

~ From "Teaching Kids to Yawn at Counterfeit Wonder" by Dale McGowan; excerpt from Parenting Beyond Belief

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Quote of the moment from positiveatheism.org

"You are nipping in the bud fancies which I let blossom. The shore is safer, but I love to buffet the sea -- I can count the bitter wrecks here in these pleasant waters, and hear the murmuring winds, but oh, I love the danger!"

-- Emily Dickinson, embarking on a quest for truth unfettered by doctrinal constraints and herd prescriptions (very reminiscent of Melville), in a letter to Abiah, quoted from Gary Sloan, "Emily Dickinson: Pagan Sphinx," Positive Atheism (June, 2001)

Monday, May 18, 2009

Categories of betrayal, Volume One -- Independence

Lately I've come across a few deconversion testimonials that describe the process as initated by awakening sexual awareness--to distill it down a bit. For me, sex had nothing to do with it, although the feeling of betrayal is one to which I can relate.

I do feel that God, if you believe in him, set us up to fail, but not in the areas of purity and/or holiness. My #fail categories are 1) independence, and 2) intellect.

Let's deal with the first one first (I discussed this a bit in this post). I am independent; I like living life on my own terms--in fact, I have an innate need to do so. I am unhappy bending my will to that of anyone else; this is why I am averse to relationships and never made student leader in my college marching band.

I was raised to believe that Christianity was a joyous alternative to secular living; if the "real world" fails you, turn to Jesus, and he will show you a better way! Don't like the materialism of our culture? Christianity will teach you to live humbly and sparely. Kids on the playground teasing you? Jesus loves you no matter what. Disagree with the laws of your society? Religion will give you higher laws to follow.

Well. This is not the case for my relationship aversion. Societal pressure to partner up is immense; the underlying attitude is that a person is not complete unless and until they are sharing their life with another person--and just one person. You might think you're happy alone, but you'll be much happier once you get yourself into this very specific attachment that society has so handily outlined for you.

I don't like it. I don't like the idea that I'm not a whole person by myself, that I need someone else in order to be truly happy, that despite entering this world as an individual, I am somehow missing a piece of my puzzle and will not be satisfied in life unless I die involved in a long-term, serious, romantic relationship with just one other person.

What's that? I don't like secular society? Turn to Jesus!

Oh, wait. He's saying the same goddamn thing, except replace "romantic partner" with "Jesus Christ".

And so God created me, supposedly, to be the independent, fiery creature that I am, and expects me to sacrifice my innate personality in order to be a good follower. He expects me to accept that I'm not sufficient on my own, that I need him. He expects me to do his will, and to pray to him asking him to make my will his will. He expects me to sacrifice the very core of my being, which he supposedly created.

I will not submit.

And that is what Lucifer said, supposedly, at the beginning of time when he exercised his free will and chose not to follow God. Of course, since I couldn't find those specific words in the Bible (my mom always quotes me the above version), I can't be sure, but he definitely said "I will ascend to Heaven, above the stars of God I will set my throne on high; I will make myself like the Most-High" (Isaiah 14:13-14). The guys who wrote the Bible were totally there.

Future topics note to self

Lately I've come across a few deconversion testimonials that describe the process as initated by awakening sexual awareness--to distill it down a bit. For me, sex had nothing to do with it, although the feeling of betrayal is one to which I can relate.

I do feel that God, if you believe in him, set us up to fail, but not in the areas of purity and/or holiness. My #fail categories are 1) independence, and 2) intellect.

Let me be clear. These are not direct reasons for my lack of belief in god; these are just the catalysts that led to a deeper examination of my beliefs--the first instances of "non-jive" with religion, if you will.

I'm not done with the writing on these categories of betrayal, so I'm not posting them yet. This is pretty much a check on myself, so I don't get bored and/or frustrated and give up.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

I am a piece of a beautiful puzzle

I often get the feeling that people think growing up in a big family is all bad. I won't go through all the reasons I hear on a regular basis; I'm sure you have also heard them.

I also won't go into whether or not it's socially and/or environmentally irresponsible to bring seven children into the world. No. Do not even try to go there, as anything you bring up at this point (when the seven children are already in the world) will essentially be a reason why I or any one of my six siblings should not be alive, and not only will I not tolerate any suggestion along those lines, it's just a completely moot point. My parents are done having kids. It's irrelevant to pretty much everything whether they should have had as many as they did or not. Feel free to discuss that--elsewhere.

Moving on.

I would like to walk you through a thought experiment. Pick your favorite sibling; if you do not get along with your siblings or are an only child, think of your best friend.

Think about that person for a moment.

Think about how you have fun with them, how you can laugh yourself silly over nothing at all, how you think of them at random times because you heard a song on the radio or something, how you'd love to just drop everything to spend the whole day with them, how you know you can call them at 4 am if you need them, how they know everything about you and have been there your whole life, and if you ever needed a kidney they'd fucking tear theirs out with a spoon for you.

Think about that, and now think about the fact that I have six people that fit that description. SIX. If I ever needed a kidney, I'd have six fucking kidneys lined up for me. If all six were a match for me, I would have six people fighting over who got to give me their kidney.

And every single one of them is different. I have a very special, very unique relationship with each one of my six siblings, and none of them in any way replace any of the others.

If I want to talk about children, there's a sister for that.

If I want to talk about sex, there are two sisters for that.

If I want to talk about snowboarding, there's a brother and two sisters for that.

If I want to talk about physics, there's a sister and a brother for that.

If I want to talk about sports, there's a sister and two brothers for that.

If I want to talk about young adult literature of the late 19th century, there's a sister for that.

I could go on forever.

Friday, May 1, 2009

My "sex-positive"

In honor of the launch of the sexgenderbody website, I would like to share my own version of sex positive.

There's this...I don't know, thing surrounding the number of sexual partners a female has in her lifetime. We all know it; remember that episode of Sex & the City where Miranda gets chlamydia and has to make a list of everyone she's ever slept with? Her tally ends up around 42, a number she's a little ashamed of. The episode centers around the question of "how many is too many?" which is a ridiculous question, in my book.

Here's my rule: Never sleep with more people than you're willing to admit.

I'm not suggesting we should all go around telling everyone our sexual history. No. That is not what I'm saying at all. Who you talk to about sex is your decision; but when you are talking with that subsection of the population, those people you share your "number" with [Incidentally, when did the "magic number" get such high status in our lives?], those are the people you're most comfortable around, yeah? So if you're ashamed to tell the people you are most comfortable around how many people you've slept with, there's probably something wrong here.

[Note: There's a difference between being ashamed and just not wanting to talk about it. Whether or not you tell your number to anyone, ever, is your decision as well. I'm not shy about mine (in real life...not on the internet...), but it's cool if you are. My rule applies only to those who tell people their number. And I'm already sick of reading the word "number".]

In my opinion, when you are ashamed about your sexual past, your actions don't match your thoughts. Options:

1) You're having more sex than you're comfortable with (for whatever reasons).
2) You're fine with the amount of sex in your past, but feel that society is going to judge you.

Both of those options sort of demand a tweaking of something. And thus, in my opinion, if you think your number is too high, it's a warning sign of something else afoot.

Because I, like many others, do not believe there's any such thing as "too many" or "not enough". Too many for whom? As sexgenderbody.com says, "I define my sex, gender, and body. You define yours." Number of partners is something you have to define for yourself; society shouldn't have any say in it.

In closing, let's not forget the double standard displayed in another facet of the aforementioned Sex & the City episode. Miranda has slept with exactly 42 men and can write every single one of them down, but feels like a slut; Steve has slept with 60 to 80 women, isn't sure of the exact total or who they all were, but doesn't care much and just blames it on being a bartender. Women are sluts, men are studs.

I shouldn't need to tell you that I'm highly offended by all double standards based on sex and/or gender. Did you miss the "feminism" at the top of the page?