Monthly Archives: April 2016

How to turn a child into a monster

They say that ignorance is bliss.  Among the lies we tell ourselves, this is one of the biggest, up there with Sticks and Stones.  The problem with ignorance is that our brains fill in the gap in our knowledge with extrapolation, speculation and downright guesswork.  We then carry on with our lives in our blissful ignorance until a situation arises where we must make use of the “knowledge” we have stored in that area.  Either we carry on regardless, assuming that our guesswork is true fact, or we realise that we are relying on guesswork and start to worry that we will appear to be foolish under public scrutiny.  As a rule, people don’t like to appear foolish, and to court the risk of appearing so will lead to fear.  Yoda sums up the rest for us in a neat nine seconds.

If I am operating from ignorance, I fear that you will think me a fool, or that you will correct me in public view.  Both of these will cause me embarrassment, because nobody (or very few of us) relish the thought of being exposed as being wrong in front of others.  If we get the slightest hint that embarrassment might be looming, that fear grows large and bears its shiny white teeth.  I then react with anger at the perceived threat to my integrity, which can lead me to hate the person or people I believe are posing the threat.

The threat response is primal: it is an evolutionary trait that meant that we survived, as a species.  The people who did not have this strong threat-fear response got eaten by large things with big claws and powerful mouths (Never not be afraid).  This causes problems in modern society.  There are very few situations in most of our lives where we face the genuine threat of death from wild animals.  The worst danger most of us face is the risk that a pigeon will shit on us between the car and the office.  I think we can agree that this is usually a survivable situation.  The threat/fear response is still there, however, and when it is activated, the higher brain functions shut down and we respond with our own teeth and claws.

So goes the theory.

It is not difficult to find examples of this in practice.  To me, some of the scariest are when the person posing the threat is a young child.  Over at Raising My Rainbow, Lori found exactly that at her PTA meeting.  The PTA had gathered to discuss, amongst other things, school policy and the law regarding children who do not neatly fit into our stereotypes of gender.  It wasn’t long before the ignorance started to leak onto the floor, and the epithets started to flow, washed down on a river of bile.  The gathered parents had no qualms about conflating gender expression with sexuality (because the boy equivalent of tomboy is gay boy, of course), and neither did they stop for a moment to consider that the people they were demonising were seven-year-old children.  From that point, rumours were proclaimed as fact (“There are two of ‘them’ at our school using the girls bathroom! Two!”), as were statements of fear and speculation (“I don’t want a girl in the boys bathroom looking at my son’s penis!”).  Lori decided to stay quiet, and I can understand why.  The group of parents had ceased to be a group of rational human beings and had turned into a mob.

Had sense prevailed, the presenter would have been able to finish his talk, and pointed out to the parents present that the toilets have doors, and that the children will, typically, go into the cubicle and close the door before exposing any private parts.  They are private parts, after all, and are to be kept private.  Personally, I cannot comprehend the kind of mental processes that lead a person to say (in front of a crowd) “I don’t want a girl in the boys’ bathroom looking at my son’s penis”.  Maybe it’s just that the person speaking was a woman and has not spent much time in boys’ toilets.  I have, and I can tell you that the routine is this: go in, find somewhere to wee, wee, wash hands and leave.  At no point do we walk around the room with our penises dangling out for all to see.  After all, our penises are our private parts, and we keep them private.  Yes, even in the toilets.  Particularly in the toilets in a primary school, where there are seldom any urinals at all, and all the sit-down toilets are in cubicles with doors.  What did that mother think?  How is it even possible for her to reach the conclusion that a person-with-vagina (whom she calls “a girl”) will be in there to look at penises in the first place (rather than to use the toilet), or that the boys’ toilet is a room with no privacy?  Gaah!

I covered the so-called bathroom bill in North Carolina last week, but I bring it up again because this thing happened. I wonder how we are supposed to tolerate it when a person running for public office, specifically the County Sheriff’s job, uses overt hate-speech during his campaign. This is a man who is supposed to be in charge of protecting people in the county. Yes, even people he doesn’t like very much. He’s supposed to send the police after people who have broken the law, not after people who are simply trying to sit in a stall, with a door, in a public toilet to have a wee. When the person wishing to be elected to run the police department is on the record as wishing to beat a person unconscious just because of his own prejudice, we have a problem. When he gets elected (which he surely will), we have a bigger problem.

Are we not all people? Do we not all deserve respect?

Call the (gender) police

With the improving weather, here in the Northern Hemisphere, it’s going to be time for me to crack out the skirts again. This is always amusing since I identify as a man.

Last year, a very dear young priest said to me, after Mass, “I have to ask about the skirt.” I replied, with a smile, “says the man in the dress.” He defended his sartorial choices on the basis that it is traditional for priests to wear cassocks. Fair enough, I thought, but he’s the only priest I know who wears one (and I know quite a lot of priests). With luck, this encounter and others will have expanded his mind a little and he will take a broader view of humanity to his next assignment.

I bought a new skirt on ebay last year. It is substantially too long, so I took some time yesterday to play with the length. With luck and a following wind (not too strong, as I don’t much like showing off my pants to the world), I’ll get some sewing machine time with it before long and I’ll be able to wear it out and about. It’s that, or be stuck with the same two I have been wearing for several years.

I am lucky in many respects, being white and identifying as a cisgender man. It lets me get away with a lot that many other people would have difficulty with. I can enter the “men’s” public toilets in a skirt and confidently use the facilities without incident. Well, I say without incident, but I am always a little bit nervous that someone will get uppity that I am breaking the cast iron dress code that men seem to impose on each other. I’ll leave it at “without incident so far“. I am sure that I don’t want to hurt anyone, and it would be an unfortunate way for someone to discover that I have twelve years of martial arts training under my skirt, but I will defend myself if I have to.

The fact that I have to talk about self-defence in the context of going for a piss in a public facility is the central problem here. If a tall, cisgender, white man needs to consider safety problems going for a wee in a skirt, it’s going to be a thousand times worse for people who don’t tick all those privilege boxes.

Public toilets are, as a rule, gendered spaces. There is usually a sign on the door suggesting that members of only on gender are permitted into the sacred sanctum within (even if said sanctum is filthy and smells of stale piss). Implicit in that is the expectation that we are only going to meet people who look a certain way once we are within the space and that we have the right to challenge a person who does not meet our expectations once we are there. This gender policing is what makes it so hard to use the toilet when you present in a slightly out-of-the-ordinary manner.

Putting that sign on the door tells everyone that, beyond that point, some people are not allowed, and that you can relax a bit because you know not to expect some of the people who might make you nervous (particularly nervous if you are going to take off your clothes, albeit behind a door). If you see someone you don’t expect to see having passed the sign that says that you will only see people you expect, you can get nervous and/or irate, and demand that said person leaves. You feel that your filtered space has been infiltrated by a person that the filter should have stopped. Call the gender police, I don’t think that this person should be here. I determined for myself that I was allowed here, and I am determining for myself that that person should not be here. Get them out. The fact that that person decided for themself that they were allowed in is not relevant to you. Unless you’re in North Carolina, of course.

This attitude is very harmful for gender minorities, and it extends far beyond public toilets. The amorphous and ever-changing “movement” that is feminism could take a moment to examine itself. Some of the great feminist icons of the ’60’s, for example, keep exposing themselves as hugely transphobic. I guess that the basis for their objection is that they spent so much effort to carve out women-only spaces so that women can speak and be heard without men interrupting or dismissing them that they get very protective about those spaces. It is right that women-only spaces exist (in a society where men continue to dominate much of life and public discourse), and it is right that we men take a sip of humility and refrain from demanding entry. At the same time, it is wrong that these spaces should be closed to transgender women. Transgender women are women with their own stories to tell and deserve to be heard. They are not, Fay Weldon, just men who have decided that women have all the power now and so they are going to put on a dress and heels and seek that power.

Not being transgender myself, I cannot speak for transgender people, but Weldon’s sequel to Life and Loves of a She-Devil looks highly offensive to me. Apparently, the protagonist, having had his life wrecked by his wife (the eponymous she-devil) decides that the only way to get on in life is to become a woman.

Sorry, Fay, but that’s not what transgender is.

EDIT: Lesley pointed out that Germaine Greer is a serial offender in this department too, and is probably a louder spokesperson for 60’s feminism.

Now, both of you, please shut up and let trans women into your space so that you can listen to them speak and you might gain an understanding that they are people too.

Don’t let the door hit you on your way out

One of the biggest and best endorsements of Pope Francis’ new document, Amoris Laetitia, is that it has got the good people at Rorate Caeli in a righteous rage.

Between 1962 and 1965, a series of meetings of the world’s Catholic bishops took place. These meetings, called the Second Vatican Council, radically changed the way that Catholic worship took place, and paved the way for people to have Mass in their native languages rather than in Latin, a language that had been dead for a thousand years.

The Council was so radical in its transformation of practice that Popes Paul VI, John Paul II and Benedict XVI all spent considerable effort in rolling back the changes in the 50 years since its conclusion. The Council spoke of subsidiarity, taking decisions at the lowest level possible, it spoke of the Holy Spirit’s movement amongst the People of God, in a radical shift away from the top-down practices of the past. The Council, principally, spoke of the living God at work in his people and how it would be nice if we let the people have a relationship with this living God and not just spend out time and effort making sure they follow the exact instructions laid out in the big books, gave us their money and let us get on with the important business of running the show.

Naturally, people don’t much like it when power is taken from them and given to the people. John XXIII called the council, but he did not live to see its conclusion. Paul VI was somewhat less enthusiastic about reform than John had been, but he saw a clear mandate in the Council conclusions and had the humility to push ahead with reform (the fact that he later ignored expert advice from medical professionals and his own bishops and wrote a document condemning the use of “artificial” birth control methods is a discussion for another time).

John Paul I was pope for 33 days and didn’t really have time to do very much.

Coming from Communist Poland, John Paul II spent his 28 years as pope steadily concentrating power in the Vatican, undoing much of what the Council had done in terms of allowing the Voice of God to speak through his people. Benedict carried on, calling for purity in faith and a rigid adherence to a tradition where the clergy did things in a particular way and everything was by the book.

Enter Francis whose mission is to take the church out to the people. His vision of the Catholic church is as a field-hospital in the battle. He calls Catholics out of stuffy buildings and out into the streets where they will meet complex people in difficult situations. We must, he says, not be scared of getting mud on our shoes nor of being shepherds who smell of sheep. He has firmly sidelined a couple of outspoken traditionalist cardinals and has constantly spoken about mercy. It is almost as if he has read the Gospel accounts of the life of some bloke from Nazareth who upset Jerusalem a couple of millennia ago. A guy who went to great lengths to meet people where they were and who spoke out against the dry, dusty legalism that had gripped the church of his time, people for whom The Book had all the answers, and the answer was usually to point out where you had gone wrong and to condemn you in a thousand little ways before breakfast.

All this condemning, of course, put those with the book in great authority, gave them great power. 2000 years ago, when Jesus challenged them to put the book down for a moment and to look at the people instead, they had him nailed to a tree.

These days, crucifixion is frowned upon, but the people who would gladly nail others to trees are alive and well. They yearn for the good old days where the priestly class had all the power and were able to tell everyone they met exactly how naughty they had been and that they needed to repent of their sins. Yes, you cannot get to God unless you come through us.

Directly challenging this tendency towards clericalism, Francis acknowledges that a fumble-fingered cleric can do much damage to the lives they are entrusted with:

A pastor cannot feel that it is enough simply to apply moral laws to those living in ‘irregular’ situations, as if they were stones to throw at people’s lives… This would bespeak the closed heart of one used to hiding behind the Church’s teachings, ‘sitting on the chair of Moses and judging at times with superiority and superficiality difficult cases and wounded families,’

And this is what the radical right has its biggest problem with. They are used to being right, and used to having a solid basis for their righteousness. Francis, in this document, is challenging that certainty and calling on people to admit that nobody is perfect, and that the way to change hearts is to demonstrate the love of God and let that do the work. It is what Jesus himself did when he encountered those whom the establishment classed as sinners.

The document does not go far enough to satisfy my hunger for acceptance of gay, transgender and/or intersex Catholics, but it is making some very significant baby steps towards admitting that human identity is more complex than we are led to believe in primary school. This document (indeed, this pope) cannot fix 2000 years of misinformation on this subject, but the fact that the pope has decided against foamy-mouthed condemnation of people who love is a radical shift away from the cast-iron certainties of the past.

Given a few more centuries, Catholic head office might align with the actual practise of actual Catholics on the ground.

Welcome to the field hospital.

Boom, bang-a-bang

Man’s inhumanity to man continues its ascendency.  People are blowing each other up in Ankara, Brussels, Lahore, Bamako, Ouagadougou, alongside the ongoing bloodbath that is the belt of Daesh-controlled land in Iraq and Syria, as well as in Syria more generally, and Libya of course.  And Afghanistan.  And so on.

We rich white folk are, of course, more upset about the bangs in Belgium than we are about those brown people in far-away, unpronounceable places. Whether that is because Belgium feels closer to home or because we just don’t care about brown people is a matter of ongoing debate.

So. Terrorism. It’s a funny thing, really. The weapons of terrorism are often portrayed as being explosives and assault rifles. This is missing the point entirely. The trigger fires the gun, but the gun is the weapon. Bombs and guns are only the triggers that are pulled by terrorists. The weapons that they deploy are our own governments. They pull the triggers and the institutions that we have elected to run our nations then do the actual work that the terrorists are trying to make happen.

A mere handful of people died in all of the places I mentioned above. In terms of lives lost and injuries suffered, the world’s roads are far more dangerous than our terrorists. The most deadly terrorist attack in recent history took 3,000 lives; over 42,000 people were killed on the USA’s roads that same year. We did not have three minutes’ silence to remember the dead on the roads in that far-off country, neither did we specifically mourn the 3450 dead on the UK’s roads. The victims of the Sept 11th attacks were no more or less dead than those killed by vehicles, their families were no more or less devastated by the lives cut short.

Why, therefore, are we so desperate to do the terrorists’ work for them that we fall over ourselves to be the weapon that responds so readily to those trigger events? Our Home Secretary wants to spy on us all (because nobody needs that human right to a private life, and because burying the security services under a mountain of useless data is a brilliant way to find the “bad guys”), the US has decided that travel to Belgium is dangerous, borders are closing and Muslims are being targetted for no reason other than that they look a bit like what we expect Muslims to look like.

Simon Jenkins sums it up much more eloquently than I can.

To live in a free society is to live with some degree of risk. We are foolish if we want those we elect to power to protect us from all risk. Not only is it actually impossible for anyone to do that, but also it would result in an almost total lack of freedom for us all. We have not enclosed all roads in tunnels and we have not removed human drivers from vehicles: instead, we teach our children to look before they cross the road. In the US (amongst other places), it is actually against the law to cross the road at a place except a marked crossing. Astonishingly enough, it is also illegal to blow up thirty people who are going about their business in a busy city airport or metro station. That should be enough. We make laws to guide behaviour and accept that some people will exercise their freedom to break those laws and people will die.

But it’s a risk we must accept if we wish to live free.