Thursday, May 24, 2012

Destroyer of Worlds

I vividly remember this conversation with my father. I was eighteen years old, visiting my parents on winter break from university. Dad offered me a lift to my alma mater so I could visit old teachers and classmates.

We did not talk much those days. I had not yet forgiven him for pressuring me to join the military, and he had not yet forgiven me for not joining the military. He did not know I was queer, and I was not ready to let him know.

Heaps of grimy slush lined the roads. He admonished me to stop fogging up his windows with all my breathing. I mentioned having talked to my eldest brother, and that he was doing well. Dad said nothing. An older, wiser me would have kept my mouth shut, but I was young and indignant.

"Would it be that bad for me to turn out like him?" I asked. My big brother and I had similar temperaments and aspirations. "He is a successful writer."

"After how many years washing dishes?" said my father, unimpressed. "You can get a good job and then write when you are retired."

I suppressed a sigh. "I could, but I would be miserable."

"How are you going to provide for yourself, and your family?" he asked.

"I'm not going to have any kids, so I doubt my income will be that much of a problem," I said. My big brother was the only one of my siblings who remained childless, and I was determined to keep him company.

Dad seemed unimpressed. "You will want children someday."

"Maybe," I said. "If I want kids, I will adopt them once I am able to support them."

"Then your excellent genes will be going to waste." He tried to sound light-hearted, but failed.

"It isn't a waste if I use them to do good in the world," I said. "Like, I can raise my kids well, whether they're adopted or not."

"It's because smart people like you aren't having kids that idiots are taking over," he snapped. "That's selfish. People like you are destroying the world."

I knew he had a temper, but even for him that came out of left field. Was he worried about his 'excellent' genes dying off? He had five children and six grandsons already. His genes were doing just fine without the contribution of his eldest and his youngest.

It is always hard to learn that a hero is not quite the person you made him out to be. Though a great man for many reasons, my father was far from perfect. Up until that day, though, I never truly doubted my father's intelligence or wisdom. That was an illusion that needed to be destroyed.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Stranger than Fiction

Here are some recent WTF moments from my actual meatspace life.

A man sees me kiss my partner (in the heart of the 'gayborhood', mind you):
"Now I've seen it all!"

A woman asks me for the date of the Spring Equinox, one day late:Me: Sorry, it was yesterday.
Her: But it should be on the 21st!
Me: Usually, but this year it was the 20th.
Her: Well, I hate it when they go changing things, so it's the 21st to me.

A man asks for a black-and-white candle and I direct him to it:
Him: Is it this one? (Points to a dark-green-and-black candle)
Me: No, the one next to it.
Him: This one? (Picks up the same green-and-black candle)
Me: No, Sir. White is the color that isn't dark.

Two women arguing about my gender:Woman #1: Thank you, Sir. I mean Ma'am!
Woman #2: You blind, girl? That's a man!
Woman #1: No he's not. I mean she's not!
Me: He is, actually.
Woman #1: Oh my God, I'm so sorry, Sir! It was the earrings! I'm so sorry!

A man walks down the street shouting into his cell phone:
"People ride by everyday, and I tell ya, Moby Dick is in that motherfrakker!"
(He did not really say 'motherfrakker'; I just do not feel like digging through Blogger's TOS to see if I have to turn on the adult filter for deploying the F-bomb.)

A woman holding a tub of scented bath salt:
Her: Ooh, bath salts! (Turns to me) What do you do with this?
Me: ...put it in your bath water?
Her: Oh, I thought it was for burning!
Me: ...

Friday, May 18, 2012

Skirting the Issue

Iggy Pop in a dress. Your argument is invalid.
I like skirts--long or short, on women or on men, on other people or on myself--so long as they are wide enough to permit free movement and have usable pockets. I like trousers that fit those criteria as well, and find them more suitable for some situations, but I still prefer skirts for on the basis of comfort and aesthetics.

A lot of people seem to have this mental block: they see skirts as women's garments, and cannot move past that. Men wear trousers. Women wear skirts...and trousers. Why are women permitted to wear both, but not men? They cannot be bothered to ask questions like that.

Maybe they just do not want to consider the likely explanation, which is misogyny. This is a very reductionist version: women wear skirts, men wear trousers, and women are inferior to men; it is good for women to strive for something above their station, therefore women may wear trousers; it is bad for men to sink to something beneath their station, therefore men may not wear skirts.

Other people can accept certain types of traditional men's skirts, such as kilts or sarongs, but only if one belongs to the culture that produced said garments. My partner's mother is convinced to this day that my partner's and my predilection for kilts is justified by our Irish American heritage. The number one question we get asked when we walk around in kilts is, "Are you Scottish?" After all, why else would a man wear a skirt? Is 'personal preference' that difficult to understand?

Yes, Utilikilts 'count' as skirts.
There are also people who embrace the idea of men wearing men's skirts--but only men's skirts made for men only! Strangers sometimes ask about my 'skirt', only to be corrected by other well-meaning strangers: "It's a kilt, not a skirt!" That strikes me as similar to insisting that blue jeans are not trousers. The obsession with framing men's skirts (or men's unbifurcated garments, as some prefer) as exclusively male and unambiguously separate from women's skirts seems kind of neurotic to me. It goes back to the same misogynistic message that it is more humiliating for a man to appear womanly than it is for women to appear manly.

Every culture attaches a different set of largely arbitrary meanings to clothes. Living in the Information Age affords us the opportunity to experience many such sets of meanings from all times and places. Furthermore, we have the freedom to question, change, or discard these meanings if we find them wanting. I call bulshytt on the notion that only women can wear skirts.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Escalating Privileges

It is said that the trickster Elegua once walked down a street between the properties of two men, wearing a hat that was half black and half red. After he had gone, one man made a remark to his friend across the street about the strange youth who just walked by in a black hat. The friend was bewildered, for he had seen the same youth wearing a red hat. They got into a fight, each calling the other a liar and a fool.

'Privilege', in the context of social psychology, refers to advantages conferred by membership--or perceived membership--in a group, especially a dominant group in a stratified society. The idea is that members of dominant groups often fail to perceive advantages conferred by their group membership. This is due to the phenomenon known as correspondence bias, which inclines us to give dispositional explanations for our own success ("I got the job because I am competent") and situational ones for the success of others, ("He got the job because he was lucky"). Similarly, we tend to give situational explanations for our own failure ("I lost the job because the economy is bad") and dispositional ones for the failure of others ("He lost the job because he is lazy").

Elegua's hat (he is a schmott guy!)
Unfortunately, that same psychological principle also makes it very difficult to point out someone else's privilege. Every such attempt that I have witnessed 'in the field' has ended in misunderstanding, resentful stalemate, or outright hostility. Sometimes this happens because the person pointing out the privilege is doing it in a combative way, or even employing the concept as a weapon. More often, however, it is because the person whose privilege is being pointed out assumes he is being accused of bigotry.

The advantages conferred by privilege range from material resources to subtle differences in social interactions, but usually share the feature of being unearned, outside the agent's conscious control. Possessing privilege does not make one prejudiced, nor does it not make one 'privileged' in the conversational sense of 'rich'. Advantages in one area do not preclude disadvantages in other areas--or even in the same area.

Consider an example that does not carry too much political baggage: height. Tall people have many advantages, both physical (e.g. the ability to reach high shelves) and social (e.g. sexual desirability, especially in men). Excluding outliers, studies show a correlation between greater height and better pay, and so on. Are there disadvantages to being tall? Sure! I expect that tall people hit their heads more often, and might have trouble finding clothes that fit them (just as short people do). However, the disadvantages of tallness do not invalidate the advantages it confers.

Now, put some of the common misuses of privilege in the context of that example. Using privilege as a brickbat is like blaming a tall person for his ability to reach a high shelf. Conflating privilege with prejudice is like saying a tall person discriminates against short people by being able to reach a high shelf. Denying a position of privilege because one also has disadvantages is like a tall person claiming that the ability to reach high shelves does not benefit him because he also hits his head on door frames.

That example gets a bit silly, since height-related issues are not a systematic source of ingroup/outgroup conflict or social stratification (at least not in adult populations). Though often discriminated against, short people are not denied equal protection under the law. Tall people, however ignorant of their advantages, do not lobby for laws that infringe on short people's rights.

Generally, the types of social inequity addressed with the privilege concept are related to gender, race, socio-economic background, and sexual orientation. So it can be said that I have male privilege and middle-class privilege. I also have white privilege, even though I am half Asian and do not identify with my European heritage (as explained in True Colors), because much of racial privilege hinges on how others see me, not how I see myself. Along the same lines, I can some benefits of heterosexual privilege simply by not mentioning my sexual orientation or the sex of my partner.

I have never been 'called out' on my privilege. Perhaps I have needed it at various times, but I do make an effort to examine my own privileges before participating in discussions on social inequity. I did this even before I knew there was a word for it, because I have seen both sides of many hats. So, even if an issue seems straightforward to me, I stop and consider my perspective: might they see something I cannot?

In some versions of the tale from the beginning of this post, Elegua came back and showed the two friends his hat, which was red on one side and black on the other. In others he watched with glee as the argument escalated into a full-blown feud, ending with the complete destruction of the village. Either ending is pretty much in character for Elegua (and for humanity). The moral of that story is supposed to be "Keep an open mind", though sometimes I think "A hat is just a hat" is a pretty good takeaway, as well.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Sith

I find myself drawn to certain archetypes or tropes across many genres--well, mostly science fiction, but you know what I mean. I create my own versions of them again and again in novels and roleplaying games. Some of these probably already have more scholarly appellations, but here are my names for them.

  • The Fallen Antihero
    'Antihero' can refer to either a flawed hero or a sympathetic villain. I find the combination of those two the most poignant--the Hero who falls from grace.
    Examples: Lucifer (Paradise Lost), Anakin Skywalker (Star Wars), and Captain Ahab (Moby-Dick).

  • The Genius Advisor
    Not exactly a mentor, not exactly a sidekick, the Genius Advisor is an oft-overlooked character and a role model to many geeklings. His intelligence is the key to the Hero's success, and he is the 'good' counterpart to the Evil Vizier.
    Examples: Zhu Ge-liang (Romance of the Three Kingdoms), Spock (Star Trek), and Thufir Hawat (Dune).

  • The ÜberGeek
    If the Genius Advisor is a young geek's role model, the ÜberGeek is his fantasy self. He is intelligent, studious, and a complete badass in spite/because of it.
    Examples: Daniel Jackson (Stargate), Hiro Protagonist (Snow Crash), and Oracle/Barbara Gordon (Batman).

  • The Disciplined Sociopath
    Lack of empathy does not mean lack of self-control; the (typically hyper-intelligent) Disciplined Sociopath uses his powers for good...or not.
    Examples: Hannibal Lector (The Silence of the Lambs), Rorschach (Watchmen), and Sherlock Holmes (Sherlock).

  • The Razorgirl
    The original Razorgirl was Molly, a bodyguard/killer for hire in Neuromancer, but this type of ruthless female warrior is common in science fiction. Unlike the Femme Fatale, her power lies not in sex appeal, but martial prowess.
    Examples: Miranda Lawson (Mass Effect 2), Motoko Kusanagi (Ghost in the Shell), and Catherine Li (Spin State).

  • The Crossdressing Warrior
    Typically a girl disguised as a boy so she can go adventuring, but occasionally a man dressing in drag to evade detection, the Crossdressing Warrior serves as the heart to many a comedy of errors.
    Examples: Hua Mu-lan (The Ballad of Hua Mu-lan), any of the protagonists in All the Queen's Men, and Éowyn (Lord of the Rings).

  • The Faithful Retainer
    Under-appreciated and overlooked, the Faithful Retainer accepts his lot out of love for his master. He can be a font of wit, wisdom, and courage, morphing into the Everyman Hero in his master's moment of need.
    Examples: R2-D2 and C3PO (Star Wars), Samwise Gamgee (Lord of the Rings), and Sancho Panza (Don Quixote).

  • The Childlike Posthuman
    Maybe he can bench-press a car or recite Pi to the millionth digit, but he does not understand friendship or innuendo. Even if he kills without blinking, he retains a certain innocence, wonder, and vulnerability.
    Examples: Data (Star Trek: The Next Generation), Darman and other clone troopers (Star Wars: Republic Commando), and Seven of Nine (Star Trek: Voyager).