Sexuality and public image

Apologies to anyone who has me on an RSS feed of any kind… a while ago I wrote a post about objectification, posted it, and then promptly took it down when I decided that it didn’t say what I wanted it to. I spent the rest of the night trying to write what I really meant, and finally gave up, deciding that my thoughts on this matter weren’t quite coherent yet. Turns out the whole question of sexuality and public presence is a complicated, multi-faceted one… who knew?

Here’s the difficulty I found myself facing: I don’t have a problem with a person looking at another person and responding to them sexually, whether the two are strangers or friends, whether the looked-at person is at all interested in the looker or not. I am inclined, however, to be defensive of people — usually women — who choose to conceal their sexual attributes if they prefer not to be considered as a sexual being in a particular context. I thought I was on pretty solid ground here, until I started wondering if this conflicted with my general values of making the world a more beautiful place wherever possible, and wondering if society ever has a right to expect a certain kind of dress from its participants, and the answer to that in my mind was “of course it does, sometimes,” and that’s when I started to realize that this whole issue was hella complicated and I needed to think about it more.

Arguing with Shaun about it, and then reading this excellent post on Lori Douglas, a Canadian judge recently forced to step down because of a sex scandal, helped me clarify one part of my confusion. In a perfect world, a woman would be able to wear a low-cut blouse to work and not be considered any less competent, serious, or professional by her colleagues. In the real world, that’s not how it works. Society may have made great strides in accepting women as able participants in the professional and academic world, but only if they are thoroughly desexualized. Let a professional woman be seen as a sexual being — whether as an object of desire or as an enjoyer of sex — and her credibility and respect takes a huge hit. It’s the Madonna/whore dichotomy for the new millennium.

This, like most forms of sexism, causes problems for everybody. Obviously it causes problems for women, who have to choose between being professionally respected and being sexually expressive — and a sub-problem for professional women, who have to be as attractive as possible without being sexy. It causes problems for men, too, who can’t acknowledge a woman’s sexual appeal without it being assumed that he’s reducing her to only her sexuality.

Women are increasingly allowed access to the professional and academic realms. Women are increasingly allowed sexual autonomy and expressiveness. But until a woman can exist publicly as a whole person — sexual, creative, productive, intelligent, familial — sexual liberation is in its infancy.

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Rights vs. Oughts: a fundamental concept for civilized conversation

I’m going to try to make this short and sweet, so I can point back to it whenever I need to. There’s something we all need to get clear, in our discussion of ideas and ethics and social mores and what have you. It is this: There is a distinction between granting a right, and bestowing approval.

Do we have that? This is important. I can defend and advocate someone’s right to do something, without at all believing that it’s what they should do. I can defend and advocate someone’s right to do something while at the same time trying to persuade them to do otherwise.

To take two recent, topical examples: that dude in Florida had every right to burn his Koran. Those Muslims in New York have every right to build their community center near Ground Zero. I don’t approve of either action. I could write long posts arguing reasons for both of those parties not to go through with their plans. And if I did this, someone would inevitably respond with, “Yeah, but they have a perfect right to do so, so why are you arguing?”

I’m arguing because I, as a thinking person, have every right to criticize and disapprove of other people’s legitimate choices. Full stop.

To take a more everyday example: I have the right to eat meat. If an animal-rights-activist-vegetarian friend disapproves of my eating meat, they have the right to say so, to argue with me, to show me reasons why perhaps I shouldn’t eat meat. If this friend and I care about our friendship, we will find a way to strike a balance between discussing this issue all the time (because it’s so important to my friend) and never discussing it (because it’s a source of conflict.)

When I say, “People shouldn’t do X,” please don’t take that to mean, “People shouldn’t be allowed to do X.” Those are two very different questions.

What would it take? pt. 4

Back to Ginny now, with the third and last reason I had for holding on to my faith: existential cushioning. This is the one that kept me calling myself a believer even after I’d concluded that there was no compelling evidence whatsoever to believe; even after I’d recognized that holding onto a religion just for the social benefits was unworthy of the person I wanted to be. Even after recognizing those two things, I still could not contemplate without horror the idea of a universe that didn’t have some kind of divinely written happy ending. I was pretty broad in my ideas of what this happy ending might be. I didn’t even want eternal life (or whatever) for myself, necessarily. I just wanted to know that somehow, in the grand scheme of things, everything was going to turn out okay.

I spent about a year considering theism and atheism from where I then stood, right in the crack between the two. I concluded that a godless universe made sense and was consistent with the evidence I could see. I also concluded that a god-ruled universe made sense and was consistent with the evidence I could see, although only for a sufficiently liberal definition of “god.” My rational mind could accept either of these two contradictory view of the world, and I didn’t know what to do. Flip a coin? Be a believer on even-numbered days and a nonbeliever on odd? Just calling myself an agnostic wouldn’t do, for I was quite certain that one thing or the other was true, and I am too interested in truth to give up the search with a shrug. Besides, the question is not merely academic. Our beliefs inform our actions, and even the most neutral of agnostics can’t escape behaving as if something is true.

I hovered in the balance for several months. I wanted to re-enter Christianity, mostly for the social reasons mentioned in part 2 of this series, but I couldn’t justify doing so without a definition of “faith” I could honestly lay claim to. The definition I finally settled on was the aforementioned need for a happy ending to the universe. That need, and my desperate hope that it might be met, remained consistent throughout all my questioning… more consistent than almost any other feeling or thought. In the end I decided that to my critical mind, that would have to do for faith, and I walked back into the Christian fold.

I spent a lot of time in the next few years distinguishing between “I need to believe this” and “I need this to be true.” I don’t think many of the people I talked to understood or accepted the distinction, and as one person pointed out, it only makes a difference if there actually is a god. Be that as it may, my re-established faith consisted almost entirely of this need, this pinning of all my hope onto a god I recognized might or might not be there.

Then one Monday I had an existential crisis. I had read and watched, in close succession, two fictional scenes from the point of view of a person who was about to die at the hands of enemies. The second character was being burned at the stake, a fate which has held “worst nightmare” rank in my mind as long as I can remember. And it hit me with a terrible suddenness: this might really be how it ends. I, and everything I love, and the universe itself, might die in fire and ash, and that might be the end of the story. I can’t tell you how much of my life up to that point had been spent in hiding from that revelation. But it had come to me at last, with full force, and terrible as it was, I found that I could bear it. It did not bring despair or devastation; what it brought was a tremulous sweetness to every moment. I spent the next two days hovering on the verge of tears, feeling as if everything I touched was unspeakabl y precious and fragile. It was a thrilling, agonizing, exquisite mode of existence, and it was far and away more powerful and more genuine than any religious feeling I have ever had.

It couldn’t last; the course of day-to-day life obscures the poignant awareness of our fragility most of the time, and that’s probably for the best. But the terrible fear of a godless universe was gone, and I don’t think it will ever come back. And with that gone, I had neither need nor reason to claim belief in a god. So I didn’t, and don’t.

What Would it Take? Part 3, Lane’s Take

So, what would it take to persuade me I was wrong about religion? What could persuade me to convert? I think there are three separate questions embedded in this question; what would it take for me to believe a religious claim, what would it take for me to believe a religion, and what would it take for me to believe in faith? I’ll answer them in that order.

All I need to believe a religious claim is evidence. If its a claim that a person can perform miracles, I would like to see those miracles performed, and then analyzed to ensure they couldn’t have been performed by mundane means and then attributed to supernatural powers. If its a claim about who founded the religion, I’d like historical evidence that this person really existed and a historical record that’s consistent with the religion claims they did (yes, I use they as a singular pronoun. Get over it). If its a moral claim that a particular behavior is an abomination, I’d like evidence that there is something objectively harmful about that action, as opposed to it being simply a cultural taboo that was encoded in the religion. And in fact there are some religious claims that I do believe. I believe it is generally moral to do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Empathy is a key aspect of morality, and the Golden Rule is an application of empathy. Some religious people claim that holding ones beliefs to a rational standard leaves out things like love, compassion and morality, but that is simply not true. I have never encountered a rational argument against love. I haven’t experienced anything that would make me doubt that some actions are morally reprehensible. I see no evidence that compassion does not exist. In the fields of psychology, sociology and even neuroscience all those things are studied as real phenomena, just like evolution and the weather. Just because I am convinced of the existence of morality does not mean I need to believe all other religious claims, which brings me to the second question.

To believe and follow a religion, I would first need all religious claims essential to that religion to hold up to rational analysis. You can’t expect me to believe an unverifiable concept of the afterlife, an inconsistently accurate version of history and a cosmology that contradicts scientific understanding, just because your religion also has some good moral rules and its founder probably existed. I also would not accept a denomination of a religion that threw out religious claims after they’d been firmly established as false, held onto the ones that are either true or unverifiable and then claimed their version as the one true version despite the “false” ones having been around far longer. I can appreciate the intent, but that is not rational justification of religion, it is retconning. I’m looking at you, progressive Christianity.

And then there’s the meta-question. What could persuade me to accept faith? This is the one where I come up blank. I could come up with evidence that could persuade me to accept religion, but not religious faith. By religious faith I mean that stage of religious belief after you’ve been persuaded and converted, when you stick to that religion despite evidence to the contrary. If you convert with a conditional, “and if I ever encounter new evidence that radically shakes my understanding of the evidence that caused me to convert I will deconvert again,” most religious people would consider that a false conversion. That’s not an aspect of religion I ever want to return to. I think its a fundamentally flawed notion.

That’s not to say I don’t have faith in anything. Take my friend Karissa. I think its completely fair for me to have faith in her. I have faith that if I ask for her advice, she will give me the best advice she can. I have faith that if I do something wrong by her and apologize, she will forgive me. I have faith that when we hang out together we will have an awesome time. All of that is backed up by years of her living up to my faith in her and often surpassing it. I do not, however, have any faith in her ability to show up somewhere on time. She is the very definition of disorganized. The first few times we made plans to hang out, I had an expectation that she would show up on time, but she didn’t. So I let go of that expectation; simple enough.

I also take leaps of faith. Sticking with Karissa as an example, when I first met her, I took a leap of faith that my initial impression of her was correct. I’m extremely glad I took that leap. She’s a fantastic person. However, if she had turned out to be a passive-aggressive bitch, it would have been insane for me to cling to my initial leap of faith despite evidence to the contrary, and I think the same standard should apply to God and religion. For some reason it generally isn’t. Religious people fall back on faith time and time again, including answering questions of “why didn’t things turn out the way my religion predicts they would?” with “you just have to have faith.” I’ve observed that in debates with atheists, most theists know better than to fall back on religious faith as a justification for religious faith until they’ve run out of other reasons. Its a different story when theists talk to each other. Its one of the first ideas to be brought out. I prayed earnestly for something and didn’t receive it? “Have faith that God had a reason.” I try to see the reason and fail? “Have faith that there is a reason, you just can’t see it.” I try to see the reason for concealing the reason and fail? “Faaaaaaaaaaaith!” As somebody who lived with that approach from early childhood to about the age of nineteen, I’d like to say its pretty sucky.

It fails because its emotionally frustrating, and its mentally stifling as well. I’d rather interact with reality, and adjust my beliefs and expectations to meet it than adjust my perception of reality to fit my beliefs and expectations. Reality matters to me. Truth is something I value both ideologically and practically. As a fallible human being, I sometimes make wrong conclusions, and I need to hang onto my ability to discard wrong conclusions. I honestly can’t think of anything that could persuade me to choose religious faith over that ability.

But in all fairness, I’m not taking my rejection of faith on faith. I tried religious faith, for close to twenty years. It failed. You could argue that I had insufficient faith to begin with, but that’s a trap, not an argument. Its begging the question. In addition, I don’t have religious faith in atheism. I have Karissa-faith. If atheism has a negative effect on me, I won’t cling to it. I’ll go looking somewhere else. What I love about atheism is that atheists don’t consider unshakeable faith a virtue. This very post was inspired partly by Ebonmuse’s article and Greta Christina’s post on what could persuade them to convert.

The benefits of living with unshakeable faith couldn’t justify unshakeable faith itself, much less what I was supposed to have faith in.