Friday, March 31, 2006

Pushing Round Holes into Square Heads

Thinking about disputes of ideology/world view and the limits of converting the comfortable but narrow into the uncomfortable but 'correct.' It happens with my students all the time--this session I have been in dispute with a handful of students about arguing positions with myths, stereotypes and outright propaganda as 'support' but some persist in 'supporting,' for example, their anti-same-sex marriage claims with homophobic myths about children being more likely to be sexually molested in same-sex homes, that same-sex relationships are inherently unstable and that marriage is 'sacred.' I'm not going to argue them out of their religious beliefs (and do not hide that I do not share any of them) but I will not allow them to make an argument based on shit.

But what about people I know, friends, acquaintances I like?

For example, a colleague in my department I’ve known since grad school when we were the only 2 blacks in the entire English graduate program, a woman I like and respect and have a good time talking to and commiserating with but who, despite her open-mindedness and political leanings, is very conventional and narrow-minded about marriage. It bothers me b/c she is narrow about that in a way that she is not with anything else--women's rights/feminism, gay/lesbian rights, masturbation, etc. It always comes out as a not-so-subtle condemnation of individuals we know and groups as a whole who do not live in heterosexual, state- and church-sanctioned relationships. She seems to think that b/c I am married that I must agree that marriage is the superlative form of relationship available. And the next time it comes up, I will have to tell her--marriage is not superior to other relationships just b/c it is sanctioned by churches or governments. Marriage has been and can be the worst choice, though no choice at all, for women worldwide, marriage as a way to restrain and contain female sexuality for men's purposes (be that political, religious and/or personal), marriage as a way to define a man's personal chattel/property, as a way to keep women bound while men do what the fuck they want. It works for some. Sometimes it works b/c both agree monogamy is the best choice for them separately and as a couple, sometimes it works b/c neither partner can really imagine anything else or attempt anything else with a desired/needed comfort level (part failure of imagination, part need for certainty) but 'sometimes' is not a universal. Monogamy/marriage also fails, often, and often b/c of conflicting views on marriage/monogamy or one (or both) parties giving lip service to marriage/monogamy while not feeling able to be honest with the self and the partner (or partners) about personal needs and views and general dishonesty (or, in some folks' cases, just plain skankiness). Alternatives, ranging from polyamory to celibacy to committed singlehood, are often presented as the evil face of marriage/monogamy so that whatever marriage is said to be, the alternative isn’t. For example, marriage is safe and trusting while alternatives are exploitative and risky/disease-ridden. But it can be turned around—marriage as confining (or my more descriptive typo ‘coffining’) and oppressive, alternatives as accommodating and liberating/liberated. Neither is always true. There are excellent marriages and excellent alternative arrangements and lousy marriages and lousy alternative arrangements. A man or woman is as likely to be miserable in a marriage as when cohabitating as when dating as when single, depending on the individual and his/her needs, or understanding of those needs, which can be thorough and transparent or murky and unexamined. And it is possible to live one way yet be the other. It is possible to be a non-monogamist living with a monogamist. It only works, though, if the non-monogamous one doesn’t feel oppressed, confined, punished, shamed into living the only-you-for-me life. Your sexuality (on any point of the spectrum) may not be your choice but how you express it (or not) is.

a brief bit on marriage throughout Western history

The Marriage Benefit-Revised

Why a bad marriage is worse for women than men

"Marriage Is for White People"
(I have more to say on this later and on marriage-as-panacea)

And that wasn‘t even what I wanted to say. What I was thinking about, with my students and my colleague, is how much or little can I expect or demand of people? As someone more sex-positive/open-ended about adult relationship forms, do I have a right to demand that my colleague change her mind by 5 p.m. tomorrow or else? Or apologize to me for offending my alternativeness? I don’t think so b/c if I did, then I would have to allow the same demands to Jehovah’s Witnesses who come to my front door proselytizing. What I think I can do is this: tell what I think, what I believe and feel and why and leave it at that or set parameters. I am the kind of friend who’ll say, Now you know I think totally out of the box on that but I see what you’re saying and you know what I'm going to say. I can confront her about her bias and about the myths (and church teachings) she may be basing her pro-marriage platform on. I can present alternative facts, opinions, examples, anecdotes, statistics. I can make a strong case. I can get totally personal and tell her way too much about myself. But I can’t go in her mind and shift the switch, in actuality or ethically. And there are degrees of harm. Yes, I confront homophobia and racism and sexism b/c they manifest in clearly and objectively harmful ways (and not so objective ways but that’s another whole galaxy of discussions). I confront narrow-mindedness in general b/c most –isms are based on that kind of ignorance + smugness/group-norm-centrism. If my colleague interfered with someone’s career b/c the person in question wasn’t married, I’d call her out just like I would if the person in question were black/Latino/Polynesian/ Roma, gay/lesbian, Muslim or atheist and question the Christian precept that what folks do with their genitals is somehow their business. Could she demand that I agree she is right? No. Could I demand she say I am right? Double no. Should I demand she apologize to and appeal for atonement for being flawed and therefore human? Triple no.

It’s one of the soul-bashing strains of the University for me, the choruses of anti-evolution, homophobia, classism, myths and prejudices, the lockstep thinking I encounter mostly in students but also in the ‘adults.’ And myself. Less and less but there it is. If I’m flawed and/or if I had to journey long and hard to be more enlightened, educated, free and willing to fight for the freedom of others (than I was before, not more than Those Other People With Unwashed Minds), can I expect everyone to take that on and/or like it and/or get the same results?

It’s another yes and no.

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Blogger Bardiac said...

Wow, what a great post. I really like the italicized part, where you imagine what you say to your friend, and that you each know each other's position on things.

Marriage seems so especially difficult. I have doubts about it, myself, and sometimes think that gays and lesbians are aiming the wrong way in going for legalization. But the legal protections seem so important, and I sure want people to have that choice for themselves.

Mostly, though, I worry about women I know (students and others) who seem to easily accept or embrace patriarchal practices within het relationships without thinking critically. Heck, didn't my Mom's generation fight that fight?

I guess I wish more people would rethink the way we do marriage in the US broadly.

Sat Apr 01, 09:06:00 PM  
Blogger G Bitch said...

i, too, worry about the young women i teach who, on a woman-dominated campus, unquestioningly compete for male attention and pine for marraige as the solution to all social and personal problems and have no ideas on how to keep from being used/taken advantage of/taken for a ride. sigh. i have a lot more to say about the whole thing.....thanks for reading!

Sun Apr 02, 07:48:00 AM  
Blogger Suzanne said...

Marriage is not even between the married couple to an extent. All sorts of people seem to think that they have the right to tell you how your marriage should be, whether you agree to it or not.

One of the things that is small, but always enrages me and makes me hate my husband even though it is not his fault that people are assholes, is when people address mail to us as Mr. and Mrs. So-and-So. Last time I checked, I still was a person with my own name, not a female extension of Husband.

I know it is the least of the world's problems, but these things wear me down and hurt a relationship that we agreed to have because other people refuse to respect the way we chose to live.

Mon Apr 10, 12:23:00 AM  

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