fidesquaerens: (Default)
2012-08-07 03:58 pm
Entry tags:

Finding Strength in Weakness [August Synchroblog]

 (This post is part of the August synchroblog.)

A few weeks ago Jared Wilson entered my world for the first and what I hope will be the last time with a sexist screed that rocked the blogosphere, or at least my corner of it. His original post has been deleted, and I don’t exactly want to give his words any more air-time than they already received by posting them again, plus they are rather trigger-ish for anyone with an exposure to rape or domestic violence, and to a lesser extent to women generally. So let me just summarize them briefly.


Warning: Triggerish for rape, DV, and general ickness )

The thing is, I’m not sure it’s that simple. Don’t mistake me, Mr. Wilson is 100%, outrageously wrong here. But to be fair here, he does have one Biblical land to stand on. To wit:

I will greatly multiply your sorrow and your conception;

In pain you shall bring forth your children;

Your desire shall be for your husband,
And he shall rule over you.” (Genesis 3:16, NKJV)

The problem for folks like Mr. Wilson is they’re a few thousand years out of date:

Therefore the law was our tutor to bring us to Christ, that we might be justified by faith. But after faith has come, we are no longer under a tutor. For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus. For as many of you were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. (Galatians 3:24-27, NKJV)

I don’t want to turn this into testimonial or anything. If I wasn’t a Christian, I’d probably find lots to object to about this statement, like the implication that we need faith to know that that rape-triggerish junk is, if you’ll excuse my language, complete and utter crap. We don’t. All we need is to be decent humans.

But speaking as a Christian, within that tradition, there’s something that’s especially wrong with Mr. Wilson’s language. Not only is it wrong and insulting but it turns the whole of Holy Scripture – you know, the sola thing you evangelicals are so keyed into – on its head. Because curses like this that were clearly temporary and the results of sin are quite honestly the only Scriptural evidence I can find that one group gets to lord it over the other. I don’t particularly accept the idea that men and women are innately different, but I sure don’t accept the idea that this gives any other human the right to dominate, particularly in such a violent way. And if that was ever the case, the whole thing about being sons (and daughters) of God through faith pretty well proves it. Alike in dignity, alike in worth, and each of us precious and unique – whatever bits of anatomy we might have between our legs.

This summer session I read Bertrand Russell’s “A Free Man’s Worship” with my ethics class, and we got into some interesting discussions on human dignity and autonomy and whether having God dictate right and wrong got in the way of all that. Russell writes,

A strange mystery it is that Nature, omnipotent but blind, in the revolutions of her secular hurrying through the abysses of space, has brought forth at least a child, subject still to her power, but gifted with sight, with knowledge of good and evil, with the capacity of judging all the works of his unthinking Mother. In spite of death, the mark and seal of the parental control, Man is yet free, during his brief years, to examine, to criticise, to know, and in imagination to create. To him alone, in the world with which he is acquainted, this freedom belongs; and in this lies his superiority to the restless forces that control his outward life.

Russell’s point, as I understand it, is that there is a certain dignity and a moral worth in being the one to choose. This idea seems very Kantian to me: we are the moral legislator, the one that makes sense of the chaos, and to submit to someone else’s authority is a betrayal of self. Is this idea at least reconcilable with the Christian ideal of submission, of following? Obviously the rest of Russell’s essay is thoroughly atheistic, and I don’t want to Christianize him. But the idea expressed in the quote above is a naturally attractive one, and I see it in a lot of religious peoples’ attempts to live well through horrific consequences. How does submission come into all this?

Years ago, when my grandfather died after a long illness, I remember standing against a wall at the wake and being unable to cry. We weren’t all that close as he had been chair-bound for most of my life, and I thought that was it. So on top of feeling, well, as bad as one does at funerals, I was feeling royally guilty too, but strangely stoic at the same time. My cousin Lisa (who even then “got” me very well) saw what was going on and said that, just for that day, she would be my big sister. I was maybe thirteen or fourteen and the oldest of three siblings, and I thought it was my job to be “strong” for them.  I was wrong, and only when someone showed me that could I start to cry like we all need to at those points.

Christianity glorifies submission and weakness but at the same time many Christians rely on human dignity to find worth in their lives, particularly in life’s dark allies. (This is what I think Paul is really getting at in 2 Corinthians 12 – not that humans are decrepit without God, but that we are strong enough to see even weakness in our strength, something greater than ourselves.) I think, particularly in the wake of tragedies like the Colorado shooting or the recent attack on the Sikh temple, we need what Russell pointed to: “to examine, to criticise, to know, and in imagination to create.” It’s also for me the beauty and salvific power of Tolkien’s mythic vision of a world where “the [story’s] cycles should be linked to a majestic whole, and yet leave scope for other minds and hands.” As humans, we need to stare into the void and find more than emptiness. And if there isn’t anything but vacuum, we need to fill it ourselves.

That requires a very different kind of submission, of following, than the one Mr. Wilson points to, and for reasons that go beyond the obvious ones. It isn’t about giving up our authority and dignity as rational beings, capable to act on something other than simple instinct. It’s about recognizing our limits and choosing to rest a bit, let someone else carry the load for a mile or two, so we can take it up again all the better.

That’s a kind of submission even this dyed-in-the-wool egalitarian can get behind.

(Originally posted at LJ.)
fidesquaerens: (Default)
2012-03-12 06:37 pm

The War on Terror and the War on Women

  (Written for the March 2012 synchroblog; links TBA.)

I have a secret: for years now, I've wished I was eligible for the selective service.

In my country, at the age of eighteen all the guys have to register for the military draft. They don't actually have to serve, and chances are negligible that they'll be called up, since (for all our wars) America has been an all-volunteer army since I believe Vietnam. But ever since I've figured out how committed of a pacifist I am, I've wanted the ability to declare to God, country, and the world at large that there wasn't anyone representin me in this war, either.

I want to be clear about something: I respect what our veterans are trying to do. I nod at them out of respect when I see them on campus, and I've gotten in the habit of picking up pastries every week or two for my veteran neighbor, as a small token of gratitude. I also would gladly pay any tax asked of me to improve their safety while in service and their recovery once they leave. It's the generals and the contractors I have a beef with. I don't think our current wars are just, and given our track record of judicial process for people accused of war crimes and quasi-legal neverending wars, I think it will be a long time before I'd find an actual war I could support. And that's my point. I want the right to register as a conscientious objector to document this fact. Because I am not expected to fight, someone else "covers" me by default, so I get no say in the matter.

It's not just that theoretical point that bothers me, though. At the tender age of seventeen, I was a registered Republican and generally supported the idea of bringing democracy to the world, but I also wasn't sure now I felt about killing someone for that cause or any other, and so I asked my history teacher what were my options if I was morally opposed to war. He told me that I wasn't required to register for the draft, and when I asked why he explained that "Uncle Sam" didn't want to take mothers away from their children, or put children in homes with a mum suffering from PTSD. I'm now a few months shy of thirty years old, still happily single and happily child-free, in a doctoral program that I hope will lead to a professorship. In the meantime I am happy with my hobbies, my volunteer work, my church, and my friends both online and offline. I am living the life of the mind in a truly vibrant city, and it's a good life - just not the one my high school teacher thought I was destined for.

I thought about all this when I heard someone use the phrase "war on women" for the umpteenth time in a newspaper editorial this morning. Again, let me be clear: I think preventive birth control is a good thing, and I think subsidized or insurance-covered birth control is an even bett thing because it vies lower-class women the same liberties I have to manage their sexuality and its consequences. But every time I hear that phrase I bristle just a little bit (and sometimes quite a lot), because it carries with it the suggestion that as a woman I am defined by the bits of anatomy between my legs. It also suggests that if I personally didn't think of fertility like a disease, I would not be included in the collective of womanhood that was under attack. I've been on the receiving end of people telling me what it means to be a real woman, to feel comfortable with that. 

Given that this is a SynchroBlog post, I feel a strong pull to somehow tie this back to my religion. I could cite the many different roles women serve throughout the Bible, from Miriam to Esther to Mary Magdalene, and those stories are relevant. The problem is, they're part of a fabric that stretches beyond any one religious or literary tradition. I could just as easily point to Eowyn and B'Elanna Torres and Brenda Leigh Johnson and all the other strong women of literature. They weren't all shieldmaidens, either. Often as not, womanhood is as varied as human nature (as well it should be!). Our battle-cries need to reflect that.

(Originally posted to LJ; please comment there.)
fidesquaerens: (Default)
2012-03-05 05:15 pm

more on abortion, infanticide, and personhood

 I actually saw this one coming a mile away:

What the 'After-Birth Abortion' and 'Personhood' Debates Have in Common

A few weeks back I wrote about a journal article proposing that infanticides just after birth should have the same legal status as abortions just before. Meaning that they should be legal if the mother's welfare was at risk, and not even called infanticides. I find this claim preposterous, and I tried my best to explain why. Basically, I think there's a big distinction between legal status and moral status.

ChristianityToday, a major online and print magazine in the evangelical (not necessarily conservative, not necessarily fundamentalist, but just evangelical) publishing world made the above post in one of their associated blogs. Basically, the argument goes, this whole debate over infanticide comes from the recognition that there's no recognizable distinction between a fetus and an infant, meaning we should give  all the rights of an infant to a fetus. Think the personhood bills you've seen put out in U.S. states like Mississippi and Colorado.

The problem here is that the concepts of "fetus" and "born human" (to say nothing of human and person generally) are really not so simple, and we're using them like they are. I tend to think the whole abortion debate would be much, much easier if we thought about what we meant by a fetus. I'll grant that a fetus a minute before birth has more in common with an infant one minute after birth, than it does with a fetus one minute after conception. I'll even grant that some of the ways these three things are similar and different are morally relevant. All that proves, though, is that a fetus is a distinction where the members in it don't all have the same moral status.

There are a lot of big philosophical words floating around in there, so let me try to make this simpler. I'll give you that it's morally wrong to kill a fetus one minute before it's born. (Allowing the usual exceptions for self-defense, etc.) That doesn't mean it should be morally wrong to kill any fetus. And, just for the record, it doesn't actually mean it should be illegal to kill a fetus one minute before birth. The law's a blunt instrument and may not be up to the task of splitting that moral hair. It just means that not all fetuses are in the same position, morally speaking.

While we're on the concept of distinctions, it's worth looking at one more: human vs. person. On one definition, it's quite obvious that a newly-fertilized zygote is human. So is an amputated leg or fingernail clippings. Human here just means "has human DNA" or "has human cellular structure." But a doctor who amputates a leg to save the patient doesn't have to go through a hospital board inquiry, and I didn't have to explain to the police why I cut my nails last night. There's another definition of "human," which philosophers both prefer to call "person" to avoid speciesism and to avoid the confusion of using human in more than two ways. Persons are members of the moral community, things that have rights and responsibilities. Some philosophers use  the ability to feel pain; more common is the sentience idea, or the ability to act on something other than just instinct. But when a scientist or a bioethicist talks about a fetus being human, they don't usually mean it in the personhood case.

So to sum up:

  1. Yes, fetuses are (genetically) human.
  2. No, not all fetuses are humans/persons in the moral sense.
  3. The solution is not to call a zygote a person – it is to recognize that fetuses exist along a continuum, and while some may reasonably be called a person, not all can.
  4. So: drop this drive to call a zygote a person. It's not helping.

I am actually as dismayed by this journal article's claim as anyone else. The solution, though, isn't to double down and insist all fetuses are people. It's to recognize the very real difference between a zygote smaller than the period at the end of this sentence, and an eight-month old human baby that could survive on its own outside the womb.

It also wouldn't hurt to distinguish between a late-term fetus's right to life, and the mother of a late-term fetus's obligation to preserve that life. She may have such an obligation based on her past actions of not terminating the pregnancy, not using appropriate birth control, etc. (depending on the situation – this is a big if), but it's not all about a "right to life." There are other concerns that play out here, and the dueling claims in this situation are complicated. You don't do anyone any good by pretending this is a simple issue.

(Originally posted at LJ; please comment there.)
fidesquaerens: (Default)
2012-02-26 05:16 am

on the abuse of labels in the recent contraception blowup

Whatever else the recent blowup over the ACA contraception mandate might have shown, it's that Americans need a better epistemology. The news story has interested me on many levels and will probably pop up in blog posts from time to time. But one philosophical idea kept seeming to float to the forefront, at least in my mind as I read the different news stories. Namely, that the people participating in this debate seemed to be using concepts in very different ways. They weren't even consistent within the different sides.

This becomes clearer if you think about different groups. There was a lot of talk in left-leaning circles about "the 98%" – a statistic that 98% of sexually active Catholic women had used contraception at least once, and that a high number (I think in the neighborhood of 70-80%) used it regularly or were currently using it. The implication was that this meant Catholicism no longer had a major problem with birth control. I previously argued that religious institutions like the RCC don't operate like unions or PACs, where all you need for a position change is a new consensus view. The RCC, like all religious institutions represents its tradition, not the current view of all its members; and the members get to vote by agreeing to be a part of it or not.

So it's in the church's best interest to make its positions relevant to its members, through education and dialogue. I may not agree with the position (in point of fact I don't), but it's not my opinion – or any Catholic parishioner (which I'm not), or the majority opinion of those parishioners – that decides here. Here, what it means to be a Catholic is controlled by those people charged with interpreting and guarding Catholic tradition. The bishops and the rest of the Catholic hierarchy.

The liberals have it wrong here. I say this as a liberal! But on this particular point, they're off base.

Interestingly, they're also wrong on a related issue but for exactly the opposite reason. This one came up in the context of hearings on this same mandate. There was a bit of a brouhaha over the fact that there weren't any women on the first panel that appeared before the committee, and specifically that one witness who had been denied contraception by her Catholic employer that she needed for non-reproductive reasons wasn't allowed to testify. The charge of "Where were the women?" was pronounced immediately by Nancy Pelosi and soon went viral. I wasn't convinced even at first, because this particular hearing was over whether the mandate posed a challenge to religious freedom, and the woman they wanted to testify didn't have any comment on that particular issue. Do I wish the various religious groups had highlighted some of their female leaders (which do exist)? Yes, if only to drive home the point that religion is not all male-dominated, and that the lashback was tempered by an awareness of the reality women live. But the proposed witness was none of these things, and so I didn't feel excluded on those grounds.

It's what came next where things got really interesting. See, as it turns out there was a woman on the second panel that testified before the hearing (two in fact), but they didn't testify in favor of the mandate. So the idea that no women had testified was revamped a bit to say no women had testified for women. This irked me in the same way that the line that anti-abortion access laws are somehow a war against women. I don't like those laws, I find them insulting in their insinuation that women's decisions couldn't possibly be well-reasoned and I think some of them (like the recent narrow miss down in Virginia) are awful assaults on women and turn the doctor-patient relation on its head.

But I don't think attacks on them are a war on women, because lots of women do resent having reproduction labeled as an illness. Women tend to be among the most ardent pro-lifers, and they probably see abortion as an assault not only on a child but also on their way of life. I don't agree with them, but it is disenfranchising to them to suggest that unless you hold a certain view, you are not speaking for women or you're not a real women. Sarah Palin and Michelle Bachmann are women, and as much as I hate what they stand for on nearly every issue, they represent the viewpoints of many women.

The difference here is that "women" are not an institution like a church is. So here, you can't say you are protecting the institution of womanhood. If you were talking about a specific institution organized along gender lines (NOW, for instance) then, yes, we have a right to say that such-and-such a legislation is anti-NOW or against the interests of NOW. But the larger issue that a legislation is anti-woman? That only makes sense if you think of women as a monolithic group. We aren't that, and again the Democratic party is on the wrong end of it to suggest we are.

I've made my feelings on this mandate clear in recent posts, but that doesn't mean I can't recognize sloppy sentiments when I see them. Ironically, the left-leaning blogosphere is contradicting itself when saying on the one hand the RCC must take every member's position into account with no regard for history when determining the RCC's position, and then on the other hand that "women's issues" should only be decided by the "right" kind of women. Ironic that they get it wrong in both cases, really.

(Originally posted at LJ; please comment there.)
fidesquaerens: (narnia)
2011-11-19 06:04 am

my heroes have always been shield-maidens

(Early to bed, early to rise, I guess! It's not even 4 AM, and I'm fully awake.)

Over at ChristianityToday's Her.meneutics blog, Margarita Mooney has been discussing what I call "soft complementarianism." Complementarianim is the idea that men and women are in some sense separate but equal. I mean that sincerely and not at all snarkily. Complementarianism, in theory, does not make men superior to women. It simply says that men excel in some areas, women in others, and that both genders excel when we do what comes most naturally to us. And that "naturally" is innate, it's ingrained into us because of our gender. This basically means that women are happiest when they do traditionally female work, and similarly for men.

Many complementarians use this to argue for women not to be in the workforce. Women are natural mothers, and so when possible we should encourage them to be mums. "Soft" complementarians like Ms. Mooney don't go quite that far. Using the philosopher Edith Stein, Mooney argues that women can excel at any field they want – but that they will be happiest when they do this in a feminine way. Specifically, women are innately nurturers, and so they should not feel the need to masculinize themselves in their professions. Ms. Mooney is a university professor, and she mentions how this means being a listener to students' problems and helping connecting them to the right campus resources to help them when they're depressed or overwhelmed or whatever.

Ninety-second version: According to Stein (per Mooney), there's no reason women have to be biological mothers to be fulfilled. But they are naturally nurturing, and they'll be happiest if they can find an outlet for that.

The problem is, some careers are naturally more open to nurturing than others. If Stein is right, then women are not going to be most fulfilled as a laboratory science researcher. Or even as an accountant or computer scientist. It's not irrational, then, to suggest we should admit more women into educational programs that prepare them for feminine careers. Or that human resources people should be more ready to hire a woman in a job where she'll get to be more "nurturing." It's only what's best for her, after all. You might even argue that within a certain degree, it is rational for women to be nudged into the more "nurturing" track, even if it is less highly paid or prestigious – nurse rather than doctor, marketing rather than engineering, etc. Ironically, in many cases this would push us to women into higher positions (up to a point). Men make good grunts or CEOs, while women make good middle management, etc.

If Stein is right – if men and women are intrinsically different – then some kind of complementarianism is a step forward. Of course it's been abused in the past, but abuse doesn't in itself prove a belief wrong. (You can think Stalin and Mao were monsters and still think Marx had it right.) But my problems with complementarianism go beyond that. It assumes that women and men really do have innate characteristics that are different, so much so that all women will live best when they use the feminine traits (and similarly for men). Soft compatibilism is a step in the right direction, but it still says that men and women are inherently different.

Yes, many women like to nurture, but I tend to think that's the weight of culture more than any innate character. Historically women did serve as child-raisers, and "good" women (ones who excelled at their appoint tasks) were good nurturers. So women were raised to encourage that and now the gendered equivalent of ambidextrous women – ones who can excel at either traditionally male or female traits – were pushed to build up the traditionally feminine ones. This is true not just of women who can excel equally well in either category, but also women who might be more drawn to traditionally male domains but that can (with some effort and no small degree of awkwardness) make feminine traits work for them.

I count myself in the second camp. I'm highly logical and like to fix things or at least understand them. My background is in math, and while I really enjoy teaching, I don't particularly enjoy the hand-holding parts. What I like is not so much comforting the student but in helping them become a better philosopher and a better human. I like being a leader and making things work. I'm thankful for Stein's not restricting me to the "domestic angel" role, because I would be miserable there! (With all due respect to those people, male and female, who thrive in that role, that's simply not who I am.) And I suspect many other women feel similarly. For that matter, many men excel at the traditionally feminine as well. Just one example I know of: one of my cousins is a laboratory scientist while her husband is an author and a stay-at-home dad, and he's great with their kids. Complementarianism seems like it would have nudged them both into opposite roles, and while I don't presume to pass judgment on their lives, I can't see how that would be an improvement.

When I read the post, I thought about the movie title: My Heroes Have Always been Cowboys. My heroes have always been shieldmaidens. Or the kick-ass science types of the Star Trek universe (Jadzia Dax, B'Elanna Torres, even Katherine Pulaski). Or hobbit matrons who were every bit the equal of their male counterparts – the image of Lobelia whacking the ruffian over the head with her umbrella is easily one of my top five moments in Lord of the Rings – or even certain brainy Gryffindors who we know first and foremost as an individual and "the smartest witch of her age." (It's incidentally why I have no love for Bella Swann, who seems to define herself in terms of her handsome prince saving her from the banality of being human.) These characters are women, to be sure, but they also play tonga and slay Nazgûl and otherwise transcend what women are supposed to do in polite society. And I love them for it.

None of this means that girls have to go in for this particular model of the no-holds-barred heroine. But I think that for those of us who do like to see the world this way and maybe want to take those people up as role-models, that's not wrong. It's not less valid as a woman (or as a man, if you prefer a more traditionally-feminine model). It's just different.

What do you think? Is there such a thing as "feminine" / "masculine" traits? I'd love to hear peoples' thoughts.

fidesquaerens: (politics)
2011-09-08 09:26 pm

(no subject)

This is ridiculous:

Read more... )

I mean, I know that sex sells and clothing ads in particular often objectify women, but this ad is basically softcore porn. I guess they deserve three cheers for not having stick figures as models (though it is a plus-size company), but still there's something I find repulsive about it.

It's not just the shirtless aspect of it, btw, though that doesn't help. It's the way they look directly at us as if beckoning us to come be as close to them as the other models. This may make me sound prudish, and I guess I can be. But the whole point of modesty and clothes generally for me is that you don't emphasize the physical. With only so much on display, it should prod other people to see me as more than just a physical being. Would it have killed them to throw on a shirt and show these women actually doing something in the clothes?