Misoheterism Gone Mad

There are human characteristics – appearances, mental traits, rights, and duties – which all humans have in common, and that there are also characteristics a particular human will have which depend on his or her sex.  The existence of this distinction in characteristics – human versus male or female – is not debatable.  All human beings have a head.  Not all human beings have a penis.  The extent of each category I recognize as debatable, and I would say that the current question popularly posed in this area is whether the characteristics which differ by sex extend beyond the merely physical, although we also consider how we deal with the physical differences.

However, many modern feminists, egalitarians, and anti-sexists have become carried away with academic, social, and legal success and are beginning to make ludicrous claims which make no sense if examined closely.  Although I admit I have myself used them derogatively, none of those terms or movements are inherently problematic.  Feminist and anti-sexist agendas claim to remedy problems imposed by overly patriarchal or traditional societies, and few people deny that some problems, at least, exist.  Egalitarians – at base – look for an admission of equal human dignity, which – although actual egalitarians’ arguments and ideals often diminish human dignity by refusing to admit human responsibility in many areas – is clearly a worthy goal.

But the simple fact is that the extremists in these movements have taken a dislike to the reality that the human race is composed of two sexes, neither more nor less (though you can get to three if you count the clergy or the French, depending on your preferred joke), and that these two sexes have some inherent differences.  This ideological distaste for the reality of sex-determined characteristics has become so pronounced among these extremists that any activity which assigns different roles to the different sexes is looked on with suspicion.  But I want to talk about those mistakes as mistakes and not confound the mistakes with the good work.  The general mistake I have therefore labeled “misoheterism” – fake Greek indicating a dislike, hate, or distrust of differences.

Now for the big reveal!  This post has nothing to do with marriage.  I think the egalitarian efforts on that subject are absurd, bizarre, badly-reasoned, and in fact an example of this misoheterism, but under my two categories of human characteristics I can at least comprehend the argument that human sexuality is a identical feeling across the sexes, thus trumping biological differences.  More to the point, human sexuality – and therefore marriage – is a matter important to humanity as a species (especially to the survival of the species).  I therefore cannot object to the mere fact that someone questions a traditional understanding, if he believes that understanding wrong.

On the other hand, given the existence of sex-determined characteristics, when a trivial pursuit is attacked for assigning roles based on sex, I cannot even respect the questioner.  And that is what is happening now in the swing dancing scene.  Lest you think I am making this up, here are a couple samples: Shhh, Don’t Tell: Swing Dancing is Sexist; and Solving Sexism in the Lindy Hop Community.  Read through at least one of them: the first is concerned, ideologically, with the fact that men are “leads”; the second I have a bit more respect for as the author is concerned with improving that elusive thing known as “connection” – unfortunately, her “solution” is also ideology-driven.

The first article, from “Ambidancetrous”, I am simply going to reject out of hand.  There is nothing wrong with “sexism”, if by “sexism” all you mean is “assigning different roles to people of different sexes for an activity”.  Finding problems with it is as absurd as alleging “weightism” as a reason a football coach puts the three hundred pound guy on the line instead of split out wide.  People are different.  Deal with it.  But even assuming the origins were truly sexist (by this I mean something assigned unwillingly and against a real human unity shared by the sexes), the activity itself does not stand condemned if people still enjoy it.  (Although it is beside the point, I do not think that swing – and other traditional dances’ – lead-follow model is sexist, but rather reflects actual difference.  I do see where someone could differ – but I do not see why the origin matters now.)

“Rebecca Brightly”, on the other hand, demands a more nuanced answer.  For one thing, she is not entirely wrong.  There are types of Lindy dancing where “lead” and “follow” language is not particularly helpful, individual styling is much more important, and her idea of “conversation” is very useful.  As a beginner in the grand scheme of swing, I would say a lot Charleston and Charleston-inspired stuff falls into this more individualistic category – even when dancing with a partner.  It is even more true for a lot of the line and circle dances.  I am also pretty bad at all of those things, and the idea of me pontificating on Lindy styling is fairly ludicrous.

On the other hand, there are Lindy types in which her attempt to reduce both roles to “conversationalists” is a mistake.  At the very least, it would create something which would in fact be an entirely new style of Lindy – which, of course, is neither a new thing (yes, I just said that the creation of new styles of swing is not new, which, duh) nor a bad thing (and many people might enjoy it more).  But it would be a different style.

Let me demonstrate with a simple example.  Consider inside and outside turns.  These are perhaps the most basic “traditional” moves, and more or less shared by many other dance forms.  The lead – which is of course traditionally the man – signals a turn and the follow follows in the indicated direction.  Of course, these turns can be dressed up – extra turns for the follow, additional moves for the lead in the meanwhile, flourishes from the follow which the lead must of course accommodate, and so forth

Yet to change the lead-follow form of the move is to change the move.  What changes does the “conversation” motif suggest?  That the follow sometimes take the initiative; two possible results suggest themselves:

First, that the follow sometimes “requests” the turn.  This of course happens often enough – usually verbally – that it is hardly a new element – and the move itself retains the same form, and since the follow still depends on the lead, the supposed “sexism” remains just as much in force.

Second, that the follow leads the lead through the move reversed.  This is where it seems to me the “conversation” idea, applied to more strictly lead-follow dance forms, turns instead into a new style, without affecting any real change in the old style: it requires a lead willing to not lead at times – in fact for the sake of argument willing to split the lead equally – making the lead and follow terms rather silly and mere residues of the older style this new concept derives from, if in fact they continue in use at all.  Not a bad thing, this new style, but it does not “fix” the old style in which the lead is a lead – unless it replaced it completely, which, humanity being human, is somewhere between “exceedingly doubtful” and “resembling the chances of Frosty being comfortable for long in a Very Hot Place”.  And even then, the SCA or whoever would dig it up ten years later.

What the author suggests as a solution really is not one, or at least is not a general solution.  The method with more promise is her intermediate step, what she calls a “Giant Step Forward”: asking dancers to learn, and practice, and dance, both lead and follow roles without prejudice.  This at least has the virtue of realism – it preserves the form of the dance while muting the “sexist” overtones she finds objectionable.  But now we find ourselves back where “Ambidancetrous” started: demanding conformity to some ideological concept, refusing to admit the differences – or at least any use to the differences – between the human sexes.

So far I have been talking about Lindy as a particular thing, without considering the general context.  Considered without context, the “sexism” concerns about Lindy – or any other dance – are fairly silly.  But I grant that in context, the emotional concern – if not the logical one – gains more validity.  If patriarchal abuses are a real and continuing problem, and society can be improved by widening the scope of activity or authority we assign by mere humanity rather than by sex, then perhaps we want to re-evaluate how we amuse ourselves: the jokes we tell, the friends we make, and yes, the way we dance.

On the other hand, let us reason the other way for a minute.  Since there are two sexes, there was no reason not to, for the purpose of a dance, designate one as a “lead”.  Similarly there is no particular reason that, for the ordering of society, one sex not be socially designated as a “lead”.  The fact that the vast majority of human societies throughout history have done this, and have so designated the male of the species (and yes, I am one), is at least two things: first, it is a fascinating anthropological phenomenon, or even a psychosis if we assume the sexes are most essentially coequal; second (and alternatively), it is perhaps evidence that “patriarchy” – if by this we mean nothing more than a habit of male rule, and assume decent behavior from all concerned – is not inherently evil, unless we wish to condemn most of humanity’s moral judgment.  But to come back to the point, it also appears to make the condemnation of current Lindy fashions as “sexist” more a commentary on modern taste than an absolute judgment.

Oh, and above all: this is a recreational activity.  Calm down about The Fate of Society and just dance.

The Problem of a Problem

I can not off hand remember ever being directly taught at home that racism is wrong.  Certainly the lesson was not taught directly with the importance attached to other faults – lying, stealing, breaking things – or even the more positive lessons – share, help, do your work – I had to learn as a child.  This is not to say it was a neutral, “doesn’t matter” kind of thing.  I learned my Christian faith from my parents and churches who taught that Good News was “to the Jews first, and also to the Greeks”, and was to be brought “into all the world”.  I read To Kill a Mockingbird and Lewis’s Narnia books (The Horse and His Boy and The Last Battle touch on the subject) and,  in general far more fantasy than is probably good for me but the topic of interracial cooperation is a common theme, no doubt because the era of the birth of fantasy has coincided with a growing recognition of racism as an evil.  But if I took a wild guess why the subject was never made an explicit area of instruction, I would say it was because it was never needed – my family is not racist, and no societal pressure (at least in the United States) is urging racism as a good thing.  I never learned how to drive a wagon or plow a field, either.

I have since learned that the fault of racism does continue – whether in the relatively harmless form of unthinking tasteless jokes in private, or in more serious ways with actual discrimination in hiring, pay, and name-calling.  Given human nature, I have little hope of ever eradicating this completely, but reducing it to a “normal” fault like lying sometimes seems plausible.

On the other hand, I have also learned something else, something foreign to my well-educated mind: racial identification is a continuing trend.  There is not, as far as I can tell, any such thing as a self-conscious “white identity”, but among other groups it can seems – viewed from outside of the self-identified group – almost a monolithic thing.  You can only hear comments like, “I wouldn’t do that to a brother!” so many times before you start wondering whether the speaker would do “that” to someone who did not have the good fortune to be black.  It is true that this black identity is seen from the other “side” as well – it is not unusual, for instance, to find people assuming a black neighborhood is a bad one regardless of facts.

(I use the word “black” here after consideration: “Negro” is no longer the polite literary term.  “African-American” is laughably inaccurate at this point for the majority of the population it purportedly describes – before moving to the DC area, for example, the majority of the people I knew who were from Africa were in fact white.  Finally, if “white” is acceptable, “black” ought also in fairness to be accepted.)

The impetus for mentioning these things is of course the trial of George Zimmerman, acquitted of the charge of 2nd-degree murder of Trayvon Martin on the basis of self-defense.  The best comprehensive sourced account of the incident that I have found is here on Ricochet, a conservative forum.  That the author, Dr. Rahe, includes his own editorial commentary should not deter you from looking through the sources, but I do not want anyone able to complain about my sourcing being dishonest.  Alternatively you can look at this piece from Slate.

The best question I have come up with – or at least, it seems the most pertinent to me, in light of Zimmerman’s acquittal and the available evidence – is this: why was the (immediate and disturbingly lasting) media narrative, that Martin’s death was driven by Zimmerman’s racism, and that the fault was entirely Zimmerman’s, considered plausible?  Why is it that now after the acquittal, and absent any evidence of racism on Zimmerman’s part, many still assume the jury was wrong, and the initial narrative was correct?

There is an obvious, if uncomfortable, answer.  That answer is that we as a society are used to the fact that crime – by total incidents and by likelihood – is far more common in cities.  We are also used to having black populations far more concentrated in those cities.

We therefore are talking about a sort of societal racism here – we are conditioned (by reality, it must be pointed out) to expect a black criminal more often than a white one.  But we know that making these assumptions about a particular person is wrong; therefore, if Zimmerman was acting on these assumptions – which it must be repeated is not clear – even though many of us, probably most of us, share them, then, he must be racist.  Our own tendencies – let alone the facts – can go unexamined.

If we want these societal assumptions to go away, we need to do two things.  The first (and relatively minor) one is to stop confusing them with genuine malicious racism.  That kind of racism – the kind which genuinely sees a person of different skin color or hairstyle as a subhuman freak, or at least as inherently kind of dumb – is, I suspect, not as common as worries about racism, undistinguished, suggest.  Again, I am sure it still occurs; I am not completely naive.

But the second, and far more important, is to reduce urban corruption.  Almost any data I have looked at – here is world homicide data, for instance – seems to show general correlations between crime rate, poverty, and government corruption (which is really just a polite term for a different kind of crime).  Chicago politics are legendary; Detroit and LA are almost as bad by reputation; New York currently has a nice veneer, relatively speaking, but I wonder sometimes whether Tammany Hall and the protection racket have entirely passed away.  That the urban concentration of black populations common in the US are most subject to this corruption, while surely an interesting point historically, is (for my current argument, at least) an unfortunate coincidence helping along an unfortunate stereotype.

I specifically targeted corruption; reducing poverty is another goal.  Reducing corruption will almost certainly help immediately, were it to be done.  How to go further than that, I will leave to others, or at least to another post, except for one note: to “reduce poverty” it is not enough to give more benefits (welfare money, food stamps, government insurance, etc.) to those who are poor.  Those are not necessarily bad things (like I said, that is a different discussion), but they do not solve the basic problem – that the person is not in fact self-sufficient, that they are in fact poor.

This is so obvious it hardly seems worth the hundreds of words spent to get here, and – note! – there is not one thing racially determinative about the conclusion.  All I am asking is that we expect the same things of our cities – regardless of our population – that we would expect of the most posh WASP suburb of Boston: honesty, fairness, lawful behavior.  If we start expecting – consciously expecting – this in the cities, I am so bold as to suppose that the actual differences would start to fade, and the stereotypes with them.

But one further thing must be said.  It does not help these societal assumptions about [random black person] that the most offensive popular art form – rap glorifying criminal and violent acts – is a genre largely dominated by black artists.  It does not aid in the reduction of this sort of common-sense racism (if I may so abuse the term for the sake of my argument) that a large number of black citizens, especially younger ones, go about their business dressed – sometimes by elaborate preparation – as though they forgot to get up in the morning.  If black identity must persist – and I at least do not see why ethnic identity must continue to be a point of reckoning for all time – can it not find in itself at least a hint of respectability?  It is far too easy for people like me – white, privileged, outside the self-identifying and other-identified community – to see “black culture” as nothing much more than a banana republic mentality.  I do not think that this negative impression is entirely the fault of the beholder.

Books Reviewed: Fledgling; Saltation

Barnes & Noble owes the genius who put the ATM right next to their store many dollars in royalties, based purely on my own purchases.  I have a habit – not a bad one (he says) but likely a fiscally irresponsible one – of wandering into the store every couple weeks immediately after collecting my cash for the period.  I have money, and the store has books – it’s a perfect match!

On one of these trips which take me usually to the science fiction and fantasy shelves I picked up a copy of Sharon Lee and Steve Miller’s Fledgling.  It is, in so many words, a delightful book.  It is a very rare thing to find books written with obvious care and exacting attention to detail; rarer still in sci-fi sold in cheap paperback format; and yet rarer in works written jointly.  The sheer precision of Lee and Miller’s prose would have won me over, even were the story less entrancing.

The authors have brought to life a universe nicely in line with the Standard Sci-Fi Setting: multiple planets, faster-than-light travel, differentiated cultures – the works.  However, it is all assembled with a care rarely shown by other authors – even Zahn or Banks rarely reach the exacting level found in Fledgling.  And in choice of protagonist – and supporting cast – is found barely a hint of the Great War Event – possible, past, ongoing, or encroaching – so common in science fiction.  Academic conflicts, it appears, can be made an equally enthralling setting for the journey of self-discovery (though this as a summary is somewhat misleading).

In short, it is a book I would highly recommend, not just to fans of science fiction, but to anyone in search of a good novel.

The cover of Fledgling proclaimed it “A New Liaden Universe Novel”, so I could hardly be unaware that it was one of an ongoing setting, if a new series.  I have no idea if the previously published books were as good; I am however well aware of the disease known as sequelitis and so put off, for a long time, picking up the sequel Saltation.  (Much to my surprise, that is a real word.)  To my disappointment, if not surprise, Saltation is in fact not nearly as good.

The exquisite prose is still largely a feature, if not of as even quality.  Much of the flow of the story is, however, lost to a plot which feels forced in many places.  Fledgling could stand alone; Saltation is unmistakeably a sequel and a bridge to (at least in intention) Clearly Greater Things, and suffers for it by a lack of definition.

I should take a minute to say that some of this is clearly intentional – the rush, the hurry, the shifting out of place are all crucial elements to the story.  I may not be being fair to the authors artistically, relying instead on my preferences for tighter storytelling with, as the White King would advise, a clear beginning and a definite end.  But in one particular at least there is a real flaw with Saltation as a novel: this is that it does not, properly speaking, have an ending at all, even a fairly indefinite one on the model of, say, Robin McKinley’s Sunshine.  The series complete, this may not be a problem at the end of things; as a novel read on its own, it is, as they say, a problem.

A final issue – and I dislike bringing it up, as it is not exactly an artistic concern, but I ought in conscience mention it – is that Saltation does not refrain from paying the required lip-service to the 21st century’s sexual egalitarians’ agenda.  (Not that the societies of the universe of Fledgling are strictly “traditional”, but they are, as it were, plausible deviations from the norm rather than the “accomplishments – or imagined conclusions – of a rather decadent age.)  Whether this is the authors’ opinion honestly written or an attempt to be “modern” and “fair-minded” I cannot tell.  It is – unlike some books I could name – neither blatant nor ham-fisted, nor does it intrude on the story – but it is not exactly pertinent to the story either, and so jarring to a reader like myself when noticed.  In a different circle I might not mention it, so little does it impact either the story or the style, but I know many of my readers here share my morals and thus should be duly warned.

This should not be taken as meaning I disliked the book.  If I were issuing grades, Fledgling earns an A about a point away from an A+, while Saltation is a weak B-.  Even as part of an ongoing story, the ending of the book should have been better handled.