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4.3.12

If you have a few minutes, I would appreciate any help you could give me with filling out this quick survey and sharing the link.  I'm starting a new project and I'm trying to get the word out about it.

2.3.12

What Separates Science Fiction From Fantasy?

I was recently told, by someone I like and respect and look to as a mentor, that science fiction is dying.  I pay little attention to these kind of predictions; the death of sci-fi has been predicted repeatedly before, not unlike the death of science itself, and we have somehow found ways to save both of them from their predicted demise, to revitalize and breathe fresh life into them.

My friend's specific assertion, however, was that sci-fi, particularly of the 'posthuman/transhuman' variety that I work in, is becoming indistinguishable from fantasy as a genre.  As he put it, 'if science fiction is about people who can fly and live forever and read minds, then how is it not fantasy?'  This is a trick that's been tried before too, both by advocates of subsuming sci-fi and fantasy under the slippery label of 'speculative fiction' and by purists desperate to defend their beloved 'hard sci-fi which is composed of stories which conform strictly to the boundaries of science-as-it-is-understood' from the barbarian hordes of mere space opera.  Now, I don't tend to concern myself with genre boundaries.  As far as I have been concerned, if it feels like sci-fi that's what it is, and if it feels like fantasy that's what it is, and if it feels like sci-fantasy or slipstream or what-have-you, that's what it is too.  Genres, after all, are artificial constructs which we impose on The Literature so as to carve it up into manageable chunks for our tiny minds to digest.  But for a moment I felt at a loss as to why I feel like sci-fi as a label is still a useful distinction to draw.  Why should I continue to insist that what I write is 'science fiction full stop'?  So I've been considering it for the past few weeks, and come up with a few ideas on how it seems to me that sci-fi and fantasy are strongly distinct genres.

A few caveats before I begin:  None of the following is to be taken as an 'attack' on the legitimacy or worth of fantasy fiction, which I consume just as hungrily as I do sci-fi; nor is it an attempted repudiation of genres which slip naturally and fluidly between them as, say, steampunk tends to.  Such genres have their own qualities which make them more than merely a mishmash of fantasy and sci-fi, and deserve to be treated as entities on their own.  Like all rules, there are doubtless exceptions to the following; please don't bother hunting up stories which don't follow them and shove them in my face, because it would be an immense waste of your precious, irreplaceable time.  Finally, I have no idea whether these insights are in any way original or even particularly clever; but on my honour as a writer of fictions, I solemnly swear that I have not deliberately stolen anyone's ideas.  If I have unknowingly duplicated someone else's work, I humbly apologize and would be interested to read it, as they have undoubtedly thought things through much more thoroughly than I have.

First: science fiction stories are intended to be taken as being set in what I think of as 'the real world that actually exists'.  This does not mean that they are intended to be taken as 'predictions' or assertions about the nature of reality; simply that the universe in which a science fiction is set, given willing suspension of disbelief, is intended to be 'our universe'.  Any departure from normality is taken as something to be explained -- scientifically, or at least pseudo-scientifically -- even if the explanation at some fundamental point requires a wave of the hand.  I would also extend this to non-fantastic alternate history/parallel reality stories, which always have the many-worlds interpretation standing implicitly beneath them.

Fantasy, by contrast, exists explicitly in 'another world' which the reader is asked to accept as real purely on its own merits.  Any departure from from normality, though it oftentimes must be explicated in order for what is happening to be comprehensible, is intended to be taken simply as 'the way things are'.  Nobody needs to explain how magic is caused by 'thaumatron particles' or how humans evolved into orcs; though these can be fascinating digressions in and of themself, they are fundamentally beside the point.  Even fantasies which are nominally set in 'our world', as we know it to be, are not about the reality we know.  Harry Potter's story cannot be told in Little Whinging; it must be set in Hogwarts, in the Wizarding World, and the muggle world exists for it only as something to be escaped and avoided.

Second, and relatedly: fantasy is about things we know aren't true.  We know that there are no dragons, that there are no vampires, that there are no wizards, that there are no prophecies.  (To adherents of religions: you may cease protesting, because you know I'm right.  Wiccans cannot toss fireballs from their hands, the prophecies of Nostradamus have never alerted anyone to a single event before the fact, and what are now considered miracles have an uncanny habit of having potentially mundane explanations.  The very fact that you have had to resort to the numinous, blind faith, denialism, and the god of the gaps to sustain your beliefs is sufficient proof that those strong claims of religions which can be tested against reality have been weighed, measured, and found wanting.  Get over it.)

Science fiction, on the other hand, is about things we don't know aren't true.  (It's not, as hard-sci-fi advocates would have it, about only things we do know are true, because there's another word for that: fiction that is not science fiction.  After all, Clarke and Asimov both wrote enormously successful works about people with psychic powers.)  This is why it makes sense to protest when sci-fi doesn't get the science right, when it produces a howler that goes beyond the tolerance of even the most willing suspension of disbelief *coughcrackintheeventhorizoncough*.  There could be aliens, there could be psi powers, there could be time travel; but there could not be anyone with the ability to change reality by chanting magic words.  Not without a frantically waving hand and a vastly powerful thaumatron field.

Finally: sci-fi is essentially about change.  This is why it did not exist until such time as humans began to use science, not only to develop disruptive technologies which accelerated the pace of social change, but to start to get a grip on why these changes happened and attempt to predict where they might go in the future.  Thus, sci-fi is about how things are changed, not only by technology but by the inevitable process of social evolution.  This makes it clearer in what way alternate history and parallel reality are fundamentally rooted in science fiction: because they are clearly attempts to explicate the nature of social change.

Fantasy, then, is about that which is unchanging in human life and human nature.  That is why it is almost always set in the past, or an analogue of what we imagine the past to have been; in times when vast social changes either took place over generations or were generally accompanied by unthinkable death and destruction.  For the most part, the only changes that occur in fantasy are of the apocalyptic variety, and are generally little more than a backdrop against which the fundamental, unchanging absolutes of human experience are to show themselves.  Fantasy is also a creature of the age of reason.  Before, there was no fantasy; there was simply fiction, much of which contained elements we now consider to be fantastic.

This is why I feel it is valuable for both fantasy and science fiction to have a vigorous, independant existence.  Fantasy transports us to an unreal, impossible world specifically to tell us about the things which are unchanging in our lives and society.  That is why I love fantasy and am an avid reader of it.  Science fiction remains firmly in this world, and tells us stories about the ways it may be changing, the limits of that change and the immense possibilities still to be discovered.  And that is why I write science fiction: because it's a process I want to be more than a spectator to.

26.2.12

Identities: Neurotype -- Your Brain is Broken

When I was in elementary school, around grade 6 or 7, the students in our class were all asked to participate in an exercise called the Meyers-Briggs Type Index test.  After answering an inventory of several hundred multiple choice questions, the answers each of us gave were collated and used to place each in one of 16 general personality types, refined as a set of 4 dipole scales -- Introvert vs. Extrovert, Intuitive vs. Sensory, Thinker vs. Feeler, and Judger vs. Perceiver.  I scored strongly as an INTP (Introverted iNtuitive Thinker Perciever).  According to the makers of the test this meant, among other things, that I preferred being alone or with small groups of close friends over large groups and crowds, that I tended towards abstract thinking and the 'big picture' over immediate concrete experience, that I resorted to logic and universal principles rather than emotional or relational judgments, and that I tended to collect and communicate information in an open-ended way rather than systematizing, classifying, evaluating, or insisting on absolute precision.

Now, I'm well aware of the criticisms of the MBTI and similar personality-classification systems -- that they underestimate the number of aspects of human personality, that they sacrifice diversity and precision for the sake of measurability and reduce peoplke to a set of numbers, that they can become a self-fulfilling prophecy.  Indeed, there have been many occasions when I catch myself using my MBTI type as an explanatory shortcut for my behaviour rather than taking time to understand its deeper motivations or meanings; that for instance I have trouble socializing with unknown quantities because I am Introverted, rather than I am Introverted in part because I have trouble socializing with unknown quantities.  These critiques certainly have merit and one would be foolish simply to brush them off.

But right from the moment I received and read my test results and through the rest of my life, my MBTI classification has been an invaluable tool for me, in the same way as other 'labels' like Genderqueer, Bisexual, Satanist, etc.  This is because being given an MBTI type was one of the first times I was explicitly told that being the way I am -- thinking, reacting, and seeing things the way I do -- is not 'wrong'.  It may be abnormal (statistically, INTP is one of the less common types) but it is just one of the wide variety of ways of being human; that in fact a vast swath of the population, numbering in the hundreds of thousands, shares a similar outlook on life and way of relating to the rest of the world.  That my difficulties making friends and relating to others, my intense anxiety in situations calling for sustained or intense social relations, my tendency to 'miss the trees while daydreaming about the forest', my difficulties with empathy and procrastination and lack of organization -- these were not 'syndromes' or signs of some fundamental lack within myself, and that they also came with compensating areas of heightened ability which others might lack -- intense reflection and absorption in abstract ideas, comprehension of systems and logical structures, a nuanced and fine-grained comprehension of subjects others might give only the most cursory of attention.  That in fact I was not the inferior of others who seemed to fit into the social world like a round peg in a tailor-made hole, and that in many situations I might conceivably be their superior.  That my brain was not in fact broken (or rather, perhaps, not as broken as my life and experience had implied to me that it was).

This was my first brush with the concept of neurodiversity.

22.2.12

I'm taking the week off to celebrate the highest of holy days, my birthday.  Regular posts will resume this weekend.

15.2.12

And You Laughed When We Called Them Fascists

So let me get this straight.

A mandatory census of statistical information, something we've been doing in Canada for hundreds of years, is an unjustifiable invasion of privacy.

A registry of people who own powerful firearms is a waste of money and a violation of civil rights.

And a law requiring internet service providers to track and log my internet use and giving the police the power to read my email without a warrant is ... something only a pedophile would be against?

How the fuck did my country turn into this?  And don't you fucking dare tell me it was because I stood by and did nothing.  Short of blowing up the parliament building and storming 24 Sussex with an assault rifle, I'm not sure what more I can do.

Happy fucking Valentine's day.

13.2.12

Identities: Race -- Undermining the Overclass


I was planning on doing something about sexuality next, but I've read some really good articles lately speaking specifically to white privilege and so I would like to work through some of my own thoughts about the matter.  This is something I have difficulty speaking to, so I'm outside my comfort zone and I would really appreciate some critique if anyone cares to address what I'm saying here.

I am socially identified as a 'white' person.  It's not a label I want, nor one I embrace.  In fact, it's kind of a ridiculous thing to call me; my skin is not even a particularly pale shade of pink.  Frankly, I would love to actually have white skin.  I regularly coat my face in corpse-pale makeup, not as an embrace of 'whiteness' but in part as an explicit rejection of the fact that I am part of any kyriarchal overclass whatsoever, a deliberate mockery of the term 'white' as applied to people with a low degree of melanin present in their skin.

Of course, I am fully aware that 'white' is not an identity that I can disown.  I am socially identified as being a member of the 'white race'.  That is a social fact as real and irrevocable as the physical facts that many generations of all of my ancestors lived in the geographical area of Europe and that I have inherited appearance-markers and a cultural legacy that clearly indicates this to others; that the state governments of this area engaged in centuries of concerted abuse and exploitation of the indigenous populations of various other geographical areas, and that as a result our society suffers from an ingrained material and social deficit which uses as its boundary marker the perceived colour of a person's skin (and to a somewhat lesser extent the shape of their facial features and ethno-cultural markers such as names, accents and the like).

Much as I may dislike it, I can never forget nor relinquish my status as a member of the overclass.  No matter what indignities I may suffer for my sexuality, gender identity, disabilities, neurotype, or religious affiliation, I will still be seen by others as white and treated as such.  I am granted a myriad of social privileges by the vast majority of other people who have been socially identified as white in the vast majority of situations.  Without even bothering to consult the appropriate list, I can think of more than a few offhand: my name, physical appearance and accent do not cause immediate reactions of suspicion, fear, distrust or hostility in the majority of people who have power over me in various situations.  For the most part, the cultural traditions associated with my ethnic heritage are largely intact, were not deliberately suppressed, and are not generally thought of as 'quaint' or 'backwards' or portrayed in a way that is grossly stereotyped.  All of my ancestors of living memory were considered full citizens of their country of origin with all the associated rights and responsibilities, and most of my distant ancestors did not have their ancestral homeland unilaterally appropriated, their governments reduced to the status of less than vassal states, or their populations subject to the twin indignities of cultural assimilation and civil infantlization.  (This did happen to some of my ancestors, but it is not something that has had a direct impact on my own social situation and so the occasions when it is brought to my attention, though regular, are little more than an annoyance to me.)  I had the advantage of growing up in an environment where I was pretty much assured that the basic necessities of life such as housing, medical care and running water would be adequately provided, that I would receive a thorough and rigorous education provided by competent teachers, that any violence which was occurring in my community would be cause for swift police intervention, that there would be sufficient economic activity to provide me and my family with employment; and if any of these factors were thought to be lacking, the problems would be taken seriously and addressed promptly by all appropriate levels of government.  Perhaps mostly, that I have never really been required to think about any of these privileges; that my awareness of them is entirely voluntary, as I would suffer little or no consequence from simply ignoring them and others' attempts to educate me about them and going on with my life.

I vividly remember an episode from my childhood: I came home from school one day and repeated a joke one of my classmates had told me, but my generally calm and easygoing leftist-hippie parents became infuriated and started shouting at me before I even got halfway through it.  I had no understanding of why they were so angry with me.  Even when it was explained that the joke was racist and that it picked on native people, I still thought it was unfair of them to shout at me like that.  In fact if anything, I felt like it was more unfair.  After all, I didn't know that what I was saying was racist.  How could I?  I was just a little kid!  Looking back, of course, I understand that the fact that I didn't know was what was really unfair.  It was my first experience of understanding racism; and my first experience of what I think of as 'but-I'm-not-racist!' syndrome, the instinctive defensiveness and indignation of a member of the overclass when directly confronted with evidence of their own complicity in the subjugation of others.  On the whole, I'm glad now that my parents reacted the way they did, even if their response was a tad on the harsh side -- given that a lot of white people don't have the experience of being directly challenged about racial privilege until they're much older, and so take that much longer and have to work that much harder to get past I'm-not-racist syndrome (assuming they ever do).  Not that I'm immune.  On the contrary, my first reaction to a lot anti-racist dialogue is to try mentally to divorce myself from the 'white people' that are being written about.  I have to remind myself, often, that it's not necessarily about me as a white person, but that like it or not I am enmeshed in the system of privileges and race-policing that perpetuates the continuing oppression of large populations of other people.  And I have to remind myself that every time I have unconsciously drawn away when passing a native on the street, or repeated a racist joke or laughed at one, or failed to even try to confront other white people when they said racist things, I have willingly been a part of that system and benefited from it -- and that even when I do none of these things, I still benefit from the system, and no matter what I do I will never be able to set aside those benefits.  Not until the racial kyriarchy is permanently dismantled and so far in the past that it effects no longer have any relevance to anyone's lives, anyway.  (And as much as I hope and plan to live long enough to see it happen, I'm not going to hold my breath.)

10.2.12

Blood From a Stone

Today I went down to the local blood bank and allowed them to siphon away a considerable quantity of my precious, precious blood.  It was my first time; I was inspired to donate by a book I recently read, The Red Market, a fascinating (and frequently gut-wrenching) examination of worldwide markets in human tissue from 'blood farms', kidneys and anatomical skeletons to human eggs, surrogate pregnancy, and international adoption.  The book takes a severely critical stance toward the mandates of privacy and altruism prevalent in all forms of tissue exchange, which combine to encourage shortages and black-marketeering, proposing instead a regimen of extreme transparency and direct connection between the human beings involved in the transaction.  Seriously, go read it; despite its often moralistic tone and an unfortunately bioluddite-inflected chapter on longevity research, it's a great read purely for the insane stories of how tissue trafficking has influenced people and communities and discussions of the ethical issues involved.

All of which primed me perfectly for a call from Canadian Blood Services and a quickly scheduled trip to the clinic (which I scheduled for the next evening in case of an attack of nerves; ultimately, I felt no discomfort or distress at all at the sight of my blood flowing down a tube into a machine, and calmly sat and read while it was taken.)  Which might raise the question, in an observer, as to why a person such as myself would do something as altruistic as give blood with no recompense beyond a stale donut.  After all, as a stated ethical egoist I have in the past railed against the stupidity of altruism; I continue to advocate that the principle of self-interest is the highest of ethical obligations and that any supposed moral requirement of self-sacrifice is tantamount to slavery.

At this point I would like to make a firm distinction between 'absolute altruism', the moral requirement to sacrifice one's own self-interest for the sake of others, and 'situational altruism', the occasional calculated sacrifice of one's immediate self-interest in expectation that it will ultimately bring one greater benefit.  One is a compelled action demanded from without, the other a voluntary action inspired from within.  Another concept which may prove illuminating is 'reciprocal altruism', the habitual sacrifice of self-interest which leads to greater benefit for all involved.  Though I'm not entirely comfortable with the use of the term 'altruism' to describe these latter two principles, there doesn't seem to be a more appropriate one available and I'm not quite up to the point of creating my own philosophical neologisms just yet.

Seen from this perspective, the decision to do something like donate blood is not so inexplicable from an egoist perspective.  Of course if blood was traded on an open market and I could get cash money for it I probably would have started selling it regularly years ago; but it's not like I got nothing for an hour of my time and a bag full of my blood.  Firstly, I good a good feeling from the thought of helping someone in trouble.  This is not coincidental; evolutionary psychologists believe that our species may have such good feeling hard-wired into us by evolution as a way of reinforcing the benefits of reciprocal altruism.  Of course these reward mechanisms can be reinforced, deadened, expanded and manipulated -- not the least by the toxic meme of absolute altruism, which has relocated this quite physical pleasure into the realm of the metaphysical as some sort of ethereal signal that you are doing a 'good' thing rather than an evolved response to the problem of effectively distributing shared resources.  But the reality is that, through whatever combinations of neurogenetic hardwiring and socialogical programming, I feel good at the thought of helping out a stranger who needs my blood.  To ignore that pleasure in choosing my actions would itself be a violation of self-interest; after all, the very first of the Satanic Statements speaks against the sacrifice of carnal pleasure to metaphysical principle.

Second, by becoming a blood donor I get a notch in my favour in the continual negotiation of social hierarchy which we all must undergo.  If people learn that I donate blood, their estimation of me will rise and I will gain social benefits concomitant with that knowledge.  (Of course, I must not tell anyone in an ostentatious way, mind you, nor with any hint that I do it for anything other than purely altruistic reasons - that would be self-serving dontchaknow.  Shhhh, don't tell anyone.)  Again, this is something remediated between genetics and socialization.  If the social benefits of such an act were less, fewer people would be inspired to do it, and the system of blood banking, which is very important to our modern medical system, would be impaired.  This is part of why being a blood donor is built up as a heroic and even intimidating act, instead of the somewhat boring process it actually is.

And finally, there is the fact that I am now a tiny part of the system which saves the lives and treats the illnesses of my fellow citizens.  In the future, the fact that my blood is available will permit a surgery or transfusion to go ahead that otherwise might be postponed or not occur in time.  The person who is thus assisted will then be able to contribute more productively to civil life than otherwise.  They will be able to return to their job earlier and thus make the economy more productive, and undertake other non-economic activity which contributes to the common good, and thus to my welfare and well-being.  They will be happier, and will spread that happiness to others, thus making those others happier, and so on until that goodwill ultimately makes its way back to me.  By giving away a bag of blood, I have made the world I live in a slightly better place for everyone -- an everyone that does, should it need to be recalled, include my self.

Would I have liked some more immediate, material reward for my sacrifice?  Perhaps (though I'm not sure the negative social effects of a cash-for-blood system would ultimately be worth it), but I'm pretty satisfied with the deal I got.  Lest it seem that I am some sort of robot who humourlessly calculates the expected benefit of every decision I make, let me assure you that this choice was just as ad-hoc and off-the-cuff as any other.  The blood bank lady called, and in the moment I made a snap decision to give blood; I did it because it felt like something I wanted to do, and that is the only justification I really need.  My point is that this is pretty much the same way most people make most of their decisions.  I'm really not convinced that people who habitually give away their time and money or blood because of an ostensible commitment to 'Christian charity' or 'social justice' or 'humanism' or what-have-you make those decisions based on fundamentally different criteria than I do.  It feels good, it will make people like them more, and it makes the world they live in more like the one they want to; is that not the meat of the matter?  The supposed satisfaction of an abstract commitment to the good of their fellow human beings just seem like a somewhat bitter icing on a cake that is tasty enough on its own.  And as for those who really follow the dictates of absolute altruism, giving everything they have and working tirelessly to help others -- well, we tend to recognize those people as being edge cases, doing something the vast majority of us couldn't and wouldn't do.  A lot of people see them as saints.  I tend to see them as pathological.  What does it profit a man if he saves the world but loses his own soul?

6.2.12

Identities: On Labels

When the topic of socially-constructed identities -- 'labels', as some would have it -- is discussed in an open forum, particularly when the topic at hand is the proliferating, often ambiguous and confusing set of identities associated with gender and sexuality, a certain peculiar attitude almost inevitably shows itself.  This attitude is communicated by certain slogans, such as 'labels are for clothes' or 'we shouldn't put people in boxes'; or by such exasperated questions as 'Why do we have to have all of these labels?  Why can't we all just treat each other as people?'  And I have to say that it's an attitude I tend to sympathize with.  It would be just great if everyone just treated each other as a person first, without making judgments or assumptions based on arbitrary socially constructed categories and we all could be ourselves.  So I hope nobody will take it amiss if I say that this is an absolutely infuriating display of privilege that does not endear you to the community you're claiming to support.

A lot of people are more polite about this than I am, but I am who I am.  I need to either be blunt or shut up; it's just the way I'm made.  By trying to remove 'labels' from the agenda as a topic for discussion, you invalidate my attempt to define myself and understand my place in the social schema.  One of the privileges enjoyed by members of a kyriarchal overclass is the ability to pretend that the class division does not exist, that it is unimportant (until the moment when it becomes extremely important and non-negotiable); to ignore the voices of the underclass saying no, that's not how it is for us, our lives don't work that way and assume that their own experience is representative of the way things work for everyone everywhere.  This is the act of bisexual erasure in which you're declared to be 'gay, straight, or lying'; of white people who claim that they are 'colourblind' or 'don't see race'; of males who claim they treat the women in their lives as 'just one of the guys'.  Members of the underclass simply do not have the luxury of forgetting that they are members of an underclass, or of failing in their attempts to understand how people are going to interact with them based on that fact.

Related attitudes which, though not as viscerally distasteful, are still problematic are those of 'label rejection' or 'label appropriation'.  I see these all on a regular basis in debates regarding sexual and gender identities.  Somebody insists that 'I may be this but that doesn't make me one of that' ('that' being generally an umbrella term such as Genderqueer or Transgender that the protester disapproves of on one ground or another).  Which, you know, is all well and good -- I don't really approve of people getting stuck with labels they don't want to have to live up to either.  Except that it really doesn't matter what you, or I, or any individual thinks about it.  You're going to get labelled one way or another, anyway; and embracing a label of your own volition is a way of preemptively controlling the conversation, of defining for yourself what you are before others define it for you.  Think about it; would you rather be labelled as a Genderqueer, or as a 'freak'?  And, yes, others will still label you as they see fit; but having a self-constructed identity available serves as a weapon against that kind of social violence; when you get called a 'freak', it helps to be able to say 'no, I'm not' and have a community of others to back you up, and the larger the community the more powerful the weapon.  But by all means, if you don't want to self-identify as Genderqueer I won't press the issue.  I just think it's kind of like cutting your nose off to spite your face.  (The related, and much more clearly offensive case is of label rejection by the privileged -- "I'm not 'cisgendered', I'm just normal!"  And if you can't understand why that's offensive, I'm not sure how the fuck to explain it to you.)

Then there's the case where someone from the overclass tries to get themselves included in the definition of an identity intended specifically to delineate the boundaries of the underclass.  I saw this recently during a discussion of identities included in the umbrella term 'transgender', when somebody tried to get 'cisgender' included.  Which is kind of funny, since Transgender can be negatively defined as any gender identity which is not cisgendered.  People who do this may well have good intentions -- sure, maybe they just really, really want to be included and to help out; but what it amounts to is, as in the 'no labels' attitude discussed above, to attempt to erase a boundary that is very real and meaningful to those on the other side of it.  Good allies are needed and welcome in any anti-kyriarchal movement, but they can't allow themselves (or be allowed) to forget that they are not members of the class they are trying to help; that, as much as we all wish that it were not the case, their experience of the social world is simply different in ways that they have never been required to understand.

All of these attitudes are predicated on the seeming basic mistake of thinking that 'socially constructed' is the same thing as 'not real', that it means something will go away if it is ignored.  Social facts are just as real as physical facts.  (They are physical facts, patterns of neural information embodied in human brains that cause real and physical human behaviour.)  You can go ahead and treat a black person just like you would a white person; but that is not going to erase their blackness.  It is not, in and of itself, going to change how anyone else treats them; and it cannot ever erase the way they have been treated throughout their life because of the fact that they have been labelled as 'black'.  Real social-justice activism means working to put an end to kyriarchies.  Trying to pretend they don't exist and acting like you're doing it for the good of the underclass is the exact opposite of helpful.

1.2.12

Why I'm not a Libertopian

Today's political right-wing, which refers to itself as 'conservatism' while advocating a rewriting of the rules of civil society as radical as any communist utopia (but regressive rather than progressive in nature), is built on a confluence of three distinct movements.  The first is a Christian theocratic ideal which would have certain people's idea of 'biblical' principles written into the law of the land (but with considerably less emphasis on the feeding of the hungry or replacing violence and retribution with peace and love, and considerable more on the harassment of gays and the social control of women's bodies); the second is a simple, petty technocratic fascist oligarchy concerned primarily with increasing the ability of the extremely wealthy to dictate the terms on which we live our lives and removing the power of the less wealthy to engage in any kind of collective action.  These ideologies are fairly easy to dismiss, provided that one is neither extremely rich nor fanatically fundamentalist.  The third leg of the tripod, however, and the one which gives the neo-conservative ideology most of its political energy and psychological appeal, is Libertarianism.

The Libertarian ideology is based on a very simple and very appealing principle: that life would be better for everyone if we all just let each other do whatever we wanted with our own lives and property, provided nobody was using it to cause direct harm to each other.  It should come immediately obvious that this principle is fundamentally incompatible with the other two ideas it has allowed itself to become bound up with, and so its place in the contemporary right is more or less as an ideological hit-man in service of its thuggish masters, a silk glove of principle over the iron fist of pure brutality; within this milieu it is reduced to justifying racism in the name of 'free association', class warfare in the name of 'property rights', and the gutting of progressive social policies in the name of 'small government' or 'fiscal austerity'.  The modern Libertarian ideal as a running-dog of neoconservative Christianist fascism is similarly easy to dismiss, poor tortured thing that it is.

But there are still numerous and vocal proponents of a much more pure strain of Libertarianism (which I will henceforth refer to as 'Libertopianism' to avoid confusion with the more common fascist-apologetic strain of Libertarianism).  This simple and principled approach to political questions can be intensely appealing, which is what gives the affectation of Libertarianism such weight when used as a rhetorical club by those who argue against progressive democratic-socialist positions.  It is a particularly attractive position to those like myself who view morality through an egoistic lens -- indeed, the establishment of the cult of Randism has made egoistic morality practically synonymous in political discourse with extreme capitalist Libertopianism, and LaVey was heavily influenced by it.  I, on the other hand, tend to see this embrace of Libertopian ideals by egoists as intensely shortsighted, so I'm going to take a moment to lay out the reasons why I reject simplistic Libertopian arguments in favour of a more nuanced market-socialist anarcho-mutualism.

The most basic problem I have with Libertopianism is that it has no real answer that I can see to the problem of economic inequality.  A fellow egoist might shrug and say that this is no real problem at all, that as long as one ends up on the top of the slagheap, the lives of those on the bottom are of no concern.  I would beg to differ.  Set aside for the moment the simple question of human empathy for the suffering of others (which is a factor a real egoist must take into account provided they are not a sociopathic narcissist -- but a question for a different post), or the fact that the more unequal a society the less likely one is to be able to make it to the top of that heap if one is not born there, or the intense insecurity of being a member of a powerful and privileged class awash in a sea of the poor and oppressed and the continual paranoid fear and sacrifice of time and resources to ensuring personal security that it necessitates.  The fact remains that life is simply better in a society where economic inequality is minimized.  The economy is more productive when everyone has access to food, housing and health care.  One is less likely to be the victim of a crime when large swathes of the population are neither destitute nor unemployed, or to encounter frustratingly uneducated and ignorant people when the masses have access to adequate education.  Even absent any kind of social safety net (and I have yet to encounter an actual example of a society which has achieved significant reductions to inequality by reducing redistributive social policies), a society with less inequality provides the individual with a wider network of relatives, friends and acquaintances, or private charitable givers to approach if they find theirself in adverse circumstances, and a less centralized and therefore more flexible wealth base from which to potentially borrow if they desire to better themself by means of entrepreneurship.  Furthermore, economic class inequality is often intrinsically bound up in regimes of systemic oppression, such as racism and sexism, that have their own distorting effects on society.

Libertopian arguments tend to rely on the concept of a 'really free market' (as opposed to the 'free market' of oligarchical neoconservative rhetoric) in which, among other things, equality of economic opportunity seems to be a given.  The premise is that, given equality of opportunity and complete freedom from coercion, the poor through hard work and shrewd marketing will be able to raise themselves up by their own bootstraps, and that continuous economic growth will raise the standard of living for everyone -- 'a rising tide floats all boats', as it is said.  Leaving aside for a moment how exactly we are to achieve the complete erasure of all kinds of unequal opportunities caused by for example racial prejudice, I'm actually go one better and assume a social condition in which every individual participant in the market starts off with absolutely equal wealth.  The slate is wiped clean of both prejudice and inequality completely, and everyone is free to do what they will with their own property.  Under such conditions, those who have a greater talent for amassing profit will inevitably begin to accumulate a greater share of the available wealth, while others who are lazy, spendthrift, foolish with money, or simply talented in areas that are not particularly helpful in the accumulation of lucre will lose their share and become impoverished.  Arguments, at this point, tend to be made about the moral implications of such a situation -- arguments in which I, as an egoist, am not particularly interested; the simple pragmatic fact is that a portion of the population will be losing access to the things which make them productive individuals, and thus to some portion of their capacity to contribute to the general welfare.  At the absolute best, they will starve or die of exposure and others will be burdened with the trouble and expense of disposing of their corpses in a sanitary fashion.  (Let it never be said that Libertarians have a monopoly on callousness regarding the suffering of the poor.)  What's more, as some people gain a greater share of wealth, they will also gain a greater share of power, because wealth is power; particularly in situations where there are others with considerably less share of wealth, and especially in situations where there are a significant number of people who have difficulty affording basic necessities, wealth is leverage.  People can be bribed to support changes in the rules under which the market operates which favour the accumulation of further wealth by the wealthy and impose barriers to upward economic mobility on the poor, or the wealthy can pay those with flexible ethics and a greater capacity for violence to begin coercing the masses to support those policies.  At this point, points are customarily made about self-defence; but, again, those with less resources and leisure have less access to both the means of acquiring superior firepower and the training to effectively use it; those with superior coercive skill will doubtless number many among them who have their price and can be welded into a disciplined force; and even assuming as given that the wealthy will not engage in direct coercive actions, the simple venality and desperation of the masses is more than sufficient to lead, in due time, to the same outcome.

I would consider such a path a simple and inevitable consequence of the realities of human nature.  If such a situation evolves so naturally from a situation of complete and perfect equality, what chance does the Libertopian ideal have against the realities of systemic inequality and prejudice in our society?

30.1.12

Identities: Sex and Gender III -- Dysmorphia

There are a lot of things I absolutely loathe about my own body.  I hate the colour of my hair; I never quite feel right unless it's been dyed.  My body hair is coarse and fairly thick, and my facial hair grows quick and full; I prefer to be clean-shaved, all over.  The hair on my arms is especially offensive to me; not only is it the most difficult to cover up, but it's thick and wiry and it just makes me shudder.  I even like to shave my eyebrows on a regular basis, which is a more or less unique other-gender marker.  Neglecting these things, I have come to understand, is a pretty reliable indication that I'm slipping into depression (and, of course, it makes me feel worse about myself, which makes me neglect my appearance more, yadda yadda.)  I also kind of hate the way my face looks without makeup.  It's hard to describe how, or why, that is; I just feel like a nightmask or a full-facial genderfuck is my real face and when I'm not wearing makeup I'm trying to hide who I really am.

I've been having a serious issue with my body shape recently.  I'm not going to make it about weight, since abstract measurements are beside the point.  I also don't desire nor intend to promote fat-shaming or embrace it.  However, in the last few years I've developed a bit of a belly -- eating regular meals after years of surviving on KD and ramen will do that to you.  I used to be a skinny bitch who could wear really tight dresses, miniskirts and tube tops without a single curve showing.  None of my gender-bending wardrobe fits me any more, and it's driving me crazy.  I'm hoping that a combination of regular exercise and learning how not to dress like a streetwalker will fix that.  I've talked before about my consistent and deliberate avoidance of physical activity and any kind of fitness regimen, not just because I had no interest in it or perceived need for it, but because 'staying in shape' was a manly man thing to do and playing into social expectations of what a man is supposed to be makes me kind of sick to my stomach.  Regular daily exercise is making me feel a lot better about myself, and making a perceptible difference in both my body shape and my levels of energy and pain.

The first time I wore lipstick, it was more of a fist thrown in the face of society than a conscious embrace of androgyny.  The first time I shaved my legs in anticipation of sliding a pair of stockings over them, the first time I went shopping for clothes that would make me look like a not-male -- these were revelatory experiences.  It was the first time I consciously expressed, to myself, my intense desire to reject the way society had sexed and gendered me, to remove myself from the check-box beside the word 'male' that defined how I was supposed to appear, to act, to feel, and to live my life; the first time I consciously understood that it was something, not only that it was possible to do, but something I was capable of doing.    The vague hatred of my own appearance and body, of the unreasonable and arbitrary expectations that went with it and of the violence I was subjected to whenever I dared to transgress these unwritten, unspoken rules, had always just been something I lived and breathed; it was part of my normal.  Stripping away my customary gender presentation and rebuilding it into something that worked the way I decided I wanted it to felt better than any chemical high; better than sex, better than drugs, better than being in love.  It felt like flying.

Building the old walls of my gendered prison back up again has felt like being dragged back to earth.

***

I've never felt the need to have breasts or to get rid of my penis.  That was always beside the point for me; it's not my 'male' characteristics in and of themselves that disgust me, but the meaning and the expectations society has attached to them.  I know that whatever body dysmorphia I have felt is barely a shadow of what a person who chooses to undergo sex reassignment therapy must feel.  I can only generalize from my own experience, so I do my best to listen to them and understand their experience as they have felt and lived it.

However, I have found that when I talk about sex and gender even in what are nominally LGBT-friendly spaces I am often faced with a great deal of hostility, and that some of the most intense hostility tends to come from traditionally gendered trans-identified people.  This seems to be because certain trans-identified people are intensely invested in the concept of binary sex being a real thing, an innately physical fact rather than a socially-constructed fact.  The argument seems to be that there are innately 'male' and 'female' types of brain and that the intense body dysmorphia that these people experience is due to a mismatch between having a 'female' brain and a 'male' body.  This seems to be intended as justification for the use of sex reassignment therapy to 'correct' the 'mismatch' between sexed brain and body types.

Which is absolute, retrograde hogwash, both on a scientific and a social level.  There is no concrete scientific evidence for there being any significant systematic difference between male and female brains, beyond those directly bound up in the details of reproductive biology; at best there are very minor statistical variations in certain capabilities; and even if male and female brains do tend to be 'hardwired' differently, it would not make the sex-binary any less a social fact subject to social redefinition, a matter of statistics as to which types of bodies, which sets of organs and chromosomal codings, tend to go with which neurotypes.

But all of this is fundamentally beside the point.  Because, as far as I am concerned, the only justification someone should need for undergoing sex reassignment therapy is that it is something they desire to do.  "I don't like having a penis; I would rather have breasts and a vagina.  Therefore I will make it so."  End of line.  It's like the thing about whether being gay is a 'choice' or whether it's something fundamental to your nature and unalterable.  At the end of the day, it really makes no difference in terms of social politics.  Either way, the haters are still going to hate gays whether they choose to be or just are, and the trans-haters are still going to hate you whether you characterize your desire to transition between sex-markers as a 'mismatch' or just as something you want to have.  And by 'want', it should be clear that I am in no way trivializing intense and overpowering feelings; but why would someone whose very existence is an integral rejection of the sex-binary social construct be so invested in reinforcing it that the very existence of people who subvert it in a completely different way threatens their identity?  I'm serious, if someone can explain this to me, please do.