Sexists, Skeptics, Symbols, and Sepsis

Archive for the ‘Introduction’ Category

Firstly, my apologies for taking so long to post again without warning. I suppose one of the privileges of having a relatively new blog, and one that is relatively invisible, is that not many people miss me.

Something that is probably important to say upfront is that this blog is more than just a place for me to vent political spleen or discuss things that interest me, however important they may be in the larger scheme. This blog is an exercise in self-discipline. I have ADHD, you see, and I have just graduated from college, leaving me with a gaping void where I so recently had structure, and I have to keep writing if I am going to maintain any semblance of discipline in my life.

One of the things you learn to live with when you have ADHD is the looming spectre of chaos. I mean, I suppose you would have to learn to live with this when half of your brain is a two-year-old that divides its time between finding shiny things very interesting and throwing fits punctuated by screams of “NONONONONONONO!” You learn what things in your life you need to take care of and which ones can wait for a while, and sometimes the latter end up waiting for a very long while. You learn that disappointment is inevitable; even if you appear to be very competent in some areas, you will be utterly without the ability to even consider others, and it will hurt and will disappoint people you care about. This is a very, very difficult lesson.

I’ve learned most of my lessons about speaking without thinking, and part of why the rhetorical training I’ve had in college is so important to me is that it has taught me to carefully measure my words. To be sure, they are still often too hasty, and sometimes I substitute an intense awareness of individual words’ connotations for a careful consideration of what a lot of words mean when they are thrown together. Still, it’s something. I’ve also stopped accruing speeding tickets (a common feature of driving records for those of us with this particular form of alphabet soup), stopped accruing unpaid bills, stopped feeling as though my life has to be defined by mistakes that have a lineage in this kind of disability (for the most part, although the feelings of worthlessness that come from a solid track record of failure are difficult to defeat). I’m a Person With A Degree, which I never thought would happen when I became a Homeless Single Mother at 23. (Never you mind the anxiety that comes from feeling as though that degree misrepresents my actual talents and abilities.)

But I’m still ADHD, and it still eats up a chunk of my time and spoons in a way that doesn’t happen with a lot of people. Because of this, sometimes, despite my best intentions, the blog is going to sit fallow for a bit. Right now is one of those times, both because of literal housekeeping (you remember the part where I said that some things get sidelined? Yeah…) and because of internal housekeeping. I need to set up a relatively stable schedule of what I will post and when, and I’m not sure what exactly the schedule will be yet. I think that the vagaries of keeping stuff up will be a topic that I’ll hit on sometimes, and it’ll be personal because my experience with this is personal and can’t be otherwise.

All of this to say, thank you for being patient, and I’ll be replying to comments soon. (Thank you, commenters! ::waves frantically::)

I’ll see you again on Monday if all goes well.

Why Sepsis?

The short of it is, it’s a short word that fits into my alliterative title and concisely describes a lot of what concerns me in our society.

Many of our societal issues are caused by our lack of awareness of the little things that promote intellectual and emotional rot in our society; before we know it, that little scrape we sustained when we, say, chuckle at Seth McFarlane’s ridiculous ditty about how he saw actress’ boobs, gets infected when we don’t let the fact that those boobs were presented mainly in movies where the characters were assaulted get in the way of us just enjoying some good, old-fashioned boob time, and goes septic when, in real life, one in five women experience sexual assault and we’re sitting here chuckling as the onscreen assault of women becomes nothing more than a vehicle for us to see boobs.

It’s in the little things, the details, the places where we want to turn our heads away because it’s just not that important. That’s where the diseases grow and spread, and the body politic goes septic, rendering our entire society ill and our wounds invisible to all except those who sustain them most personally.

I am concerned with moving beyond the obvious issues of sepsis and pointing to the little scrapes and cuts that let the disease in. Sometimes I might have some medicine handy; just as often, all I can do is point, and you may know more than I do about how to heal. Society isn’t going to heal at the hands of one person. It takes all of us, working together, critically analyzing what we’re conditioned to accept and presenting positive alternatives, to fix ourselves.

Sometimes we can do that by more closely examining the ways in which we are conditioned to be sexist, which manifest in a plethora of ways that intersect closely with race, gender expression, sexuality, gender identity, ability, class, and any number of other identities.

Sometimes this occurs through the application of skepticism, both as defined by the movement and as defined by the individuals who use it, although I think that feminism done properly is, on the whole, a skeptical project, whether or not it receives any official seal of approval.

Sometimes this can be done when we look at our symbol systems and how they coach us to violence, both rhetorical and physical. Since I approach symbol systems both as a skeptic and as a student of rhetoric, I will likely find this a point of extreme difficulty when these two hermeneutics cross ways, and I welcome input from both believers and nonbelievers when this intersection is the topic of discussion.

I hope we can work together to make things a little bit less septic around here.

Why Symbols?

I apologize, truly, for any imprecision in this post; this is an idea that is still not entirely firmed-up in my head, but perhaps you, as readers, can help me to refine it, and correct me where I seem to be going wrong. I would appreciate any input on this idea in particular because it is, as far as I have seen, I’m the only one saying some of this or, at least, the only one who has taken some of these critiques, which do not originate with me, to this conclusion.

I’ll open this with a rhetorical question (ha! I see what I did there!): Was Kore kidnapped and held against her will by Hades? More importantly, did this have to happen in the real world to be meaningful? Keep this in your head.

This also requires a bit of personal digression. You see, I am a freshly minted college graduate with a BA in Writing and Rhetoric. Much as I love writing, I honestly came to love the rhetoric side more than the listening-to-the-sound-of-my-own-words part, and engagement with rhetoric as a field has brought my conflict with skepticism, as outlined in my last post, to a head.

Although there are plenty of working definitions for the word “rhetoric,” my personal favorite is the first one that I received: Rhetoric is the study of how symbol systems move bodies to action. Keeping in mind that “symbol systems” references all manner of things–from language (which, at best, attempts to describe reality while failing utterly to encapsulate its entirety) to political ideologies to religions–this is a pretty broad operating framework and requires a great deal of care (particularly since I have my own preferred symbol systems and must disentangle those from the differing ones of others in order to attempt to observe the world with any fairness).

This came to interest me in regards to skeptics specifically as I was in the process of writing a long-ish paper about the issues that the skeptical community has with sexism. While trying to unpack the origins of sexism in that community–an issue that I am honestly thoroughly tired of, but will likely discuss here–I gradually came to realize something that I couldn’t fit into the limited space that I had to write. Skeptics have serious symbol problems.

Remember that I said earlier that language is a symbol system. An excellent example of this is the famous painting by Magritte (Ceci n’est pas une pipe), which serves to remind the viewer that a representation is not reality. Language is such an integral part of our function as a species that it can become very difficult to remember that language is the map and reality is the territory that we are attempting to describe, using deeply flawed physical equipment and sounds and images that can, at best, only approximate what we ascertain with that equipment. I’m not even approaching going so far as to say that we can know nothing about reality as a result; I think that it’s important to reach as much of a consensus as we can on what we can, and to use natural explanations where they exist without falling prey to the urge to use supernatural explanations solely because of the current absence of a natural explanation. However, we must be mindful of our own lack of precision which, although not our fault (excepting when it is a result of negligence, as it frequently is in the case of our horrible media coverage of scientific discoveries), is still a built-in part of our existence as a hodgepodge of evolved mechanisms. Symbol systems are, essentially, all we have with which to communicate with one another about our experiences of the world.

The problem with this is that a lot of skeptics do not seem to realize that words are not descriptions of reality. I think this stems from a lack of appreciation for symbols, which are, in the skeptical mindset, “not real”; this renders them as having no value because they do not bring us closer to understanding what is real. Since words are all we have to communicate with, they have to be able to describe reality, because otherwise we’re just working with shadows here. Make no mistake; I am not saying that your average skeptic is incapable of appreciating a work of fiction as having great meaning to them, or ceding that words are an imperfect means of communication, but I think that there is a problem with the sharp delineation between “real” and “not-real” that is usually a built-in part of the skeptical OS.

If you accept the idea that things are, ontologically, either real or not-real, and that there is no ground in between, then that doesn’t leave room for symbols. Symbols–be they words, deities (in religions and denominations that don’t require a literal, interfering god), or rituals–must either describe reality or be completely false, with no real room in between for them to bring meaning through metaphor. Words must be either true or not-true, without the possibility that the metaphors that we use to describe science actually elide the public understanding of science (Richard Doyle has done some great work on this topic) or that our metaphors actually create a space where we have entire gaping holes in our understanding. Words are either true or not-true, which means that either they describe reality or they don’t, and if they don’t then they are either fiction or lies.

Taking this into mind, and considering that I do not believe in the supernatural, paranormal, or pseudoscientific, it would seem as though I am stuck with religious-symbols-as-lies or I am an accommodationist. (If I am an accommodationist then very well; I have been called far worse in my life.) I disagree with this dichotomy, and think that this failure to understand the function of the symbolic in ordering people’s lives creates very real problems with communication between skeptics and liberal theists, who should be natural allies in the pursuit of a society that is more scientifically literate (despite our imperfect mental and rhetorical equipment) and more tolerant of a multitude of religious views. I, and many nontheists, can both believe that fundamentalist and literal interpretations of religion are dangerous lies and that there is a great deal of good to be found within symbolic readings of religious texts and praxis. It is unbelievably damaging and condescending to refer to religious practices as mere superstitions without any basis when, for many people, they create a symbolic order around which people make sense of their lives, and the supernatural nature of the beliefs is frequently secondary to their importance as symbol systems. Science as a working symbol system simply does not provide the richness of metaphor that many people require in order to feel fulfilled, and a lack of provision for people’s metaphor-hunger creates a skeptical movement that is impoverished both in its understanding of its own flawed symbol systems (which are “true” under the “true-not true” dichotomy) and in its understanding of why so many people do not feel satisfied with science as a symbol system, regardless of its accuracy in interpreting reality.

The problem with this goes beyond the ability of skeptics to empathize and communicate with a largely theist public. It extends into their understanding of how symbols, even when they are firmly in the not-true half of the dichotomy, influence the way that people view reality and so, not-true as they may be, create the realities that entire societies inhabit. This is part of why it is important to be intellectually honest enough to delineate between different religions and different forms of the same religion in order to make accurate critiques: the difference between, say, a member of Westboro Baptist and a Christian who attends a Unitarian Universalist church is vast, and the way that the latter interprets the symbol system around which they arrange their lives creates a reality around them that is far kinder and more open to people who think differently from themselves. We shape the reality around us, which includes reality for the people who disagree with us, through our interpretation of it and through the symbol systems that we choose to order our lives around. If we are not mindful of this, then we both have difficulty understanding the reality that others inhabit as well as understanding that our own reality is shaped by the symbols that we choose to interpret it with.

Stories aren’t just stories. I don’t believe that Kore descended to the underworld and emerges as Persephone, but I do know that that particular story resonates with me as someone who, as do too many women, entered into mature sexuality through sexual assault and coercion. That symbol, that story, is important to me, just as it may be important to someone else that a mad god condemned all of humanity to Hell until his son willingly died on behalf of them, or that a man sat under a tree until he reached enlightenment. They may not be Real, but they are real to the people who believe them (whether literally or metaphorically), and they shape the world.

Until skeptics understand what symbols mean to people and why, they are not going to be able to communicate, or understand how they are communicating. They will not be able to understand the ways in which they are making the world in their own image. They will not be able to understand that so many of them view the words of marginalized bodies as unreliable because they cannot trust others to accurately render their own experience through symbols, as opposed to white cisstraight wealthy educated atheist men, who describe Reality and impart it to the masses.

As a rhetorician, I’ve got to say: Skeptics, we’ve got a major problem. The inability to communicate keeps wounds in the shadows and, neglected, unseen, they go septic, poisoning the body.

I want this blog to be a space where readers at all levels of knowledge about feminist theory and social issues can feel safe asking questions, but accomplishing this without inviting in the trolls is a tricky enterprise, so I’m going to mark posts according to whether they are 101 (beginner) or more advanced. If a post is 101 then anyone can ask any question (so long as the asker has read the entire post) and I will attempt to answer or, if I cannot, defer to any patient commenters who may be able to provide a better answer than I can. There is no shame in not knowing something basic so long as you are willing to admit this when you come in. Ask away! I like educating people and I will be courteous; because of the nature of these spaces, I will require that any commenters who are already knowledgeable be courteous as well.

That being said, the provision of 101 posts means that I will expect commenters not to encroach on advanced discussions with 1o1-level questions. Hopefully I will remember to provide links to any relevant 101 (either written by me or by someone I trust) at the beginning of advanced posts but, if I don’t, I will simply link any commenters with questions to the relevant 101. I expect that, since I am kind enough to do this, the questioner will read the content that I provide. Further comments that demonstrate a failure to do so will result in banning. I don’t have the time or energy to deal with people are not willing to comply with basic requests.

Speaking of basic requests: I do not tolerate the use of slurs in my comments.  Aside from the obvious slurs–referring to racial and sexual minorities–I will not tolerate words that refer to women as dogs, women as sexual objects, or the pernicious use of the word “tranny.” Nope.  If you want to bitch-cunt-tranny it up, go somewhere else. You have the whole internet. Quoting someone else is good, but you will end up in moderation if your comments use any of these words or their various censored permutations, so consider yourself warned. In addition, as I said in my first post, misgendering and refusal to abide by requested pronouns for nonbinary and trans* folk (both in the threads and about whom i post) will result in swift and uncompromising bannination.

Considering that, although this blog will be relatively clean of profanity (as opposed to my everyday speech, which is fairly laden with it), I am profoundly comfortable with profanity, understand that it is a huge deal for me to consider a word off-limits in any context. Comments are a curse-friendly space, provided you refrain from ad hominem attacks on other commenters.

Although I am not easy to trigger in general, I will (hopefully) not be the only person on this blog. Because of this, I would request that commenters who are describing physical or sexual assault or who may potentially risk triggering those with eating disorders (fat is a topic that I will be posting about) provide a trigger warning with a brief, nonthreatening description of why. “Trigger warning: eating disorders” or “Trigger warning: rape” should be sufficient. This is a courtesy to readers who may find themselves deeply upset and panicked at descriptions of scenarios that resemble ways in which they have been hurt. I will extend the same courtesy when titling my posts. (Since this is off-the-cuff, I am sure that I will extend the trigger warnings to other things, although this space will not be as picky as some.)

In the skeptical community there was a huge deal recently over Dan Fincke’s civility pledge. Since the title gives away that skepticism is of interest to me, let me assure you now: I do not take the Camels With Hammers Civility Pledge. I understand where Dan Fincke is coming from, but I am disinterested in civility because it a construct that is created and mediated by those with privilege in order to police the speech of marginalized bodies. I am interested in kindness and courtesy; however, sometimes the kindest thing you can do to a person is to jerk a knot in their ass when they need it, and sometimes the most courteous thing to do is to tell someone to shut the hell up before they do further damage to people who already have to live with enough “civil” discussion of their basic humanity. I take no issue with people who have taken the pledge, but I find it contradictory to my personal values and, as such, will run my space according to my own ideas of kindness and courtesy.

Another practice that will get you banned despite its veneer of civility is called JAQing off. Unfortunately, my definition will be rather like the Supreme Court in reference to porn: I know it when I see it. I’ll try to be on the kind side, but JAQing about the basic humanity of marginalized people is going to get you nowhere fast. This space is for education, not for you to “just ask questions” about whether x group REALLY deserves y right. Go ask the rest of the internet.

I ask that basic courtesy be extended on the first comment to anyone who does not flagrantly violate the rules about slurs or JAQing; however, I will lean towards banning as opposed to either eviscerating trolls myself or asking others to do it. Being rather short on time and hoping to find gainful employment soon, I will not have a lot of time to be a patient blogmistress.

If you have a problem with my comment policy, let me assure you that it does not violate your free speech since this blog is a place for me to speak freely, not for you to say whatever you like. Let me direct you towards WordPress, who is kindly providing me with this space, if you have an issue with how I run my blog, and you may speak freely all you like, just as I am.

Rather than introducing myself–because I hope that any potential readers will come to know me well enough over the course of my blogging that a formal introductory post will be unnecessary–I think it’s better to give my reasoning for the title of the blog itself.  So: “Sexists, Skeptics, Symbols, and Sepsis.”  Why are these four things my particular focus here and what do these things have to do with draining the wounds in the body politic?

Why sexists?

I have pulled my first bait-and-switch on you, and I apologize now. I’m most experienced arguing about sexism, but sexists themselves are not particularly interesting to me since we all, consciously or unconsciously, hold sexist views, which means that it is relatively meaningless to assign labels like “sexist” to people as opposed to positions. All of us have been spending our lives stewing in a society rife with unexamined ideologies, all of which inform our identities, and sexism is just the one of these things that I tend to know the most about. This blog will approach social issues from the perspective of intersectional feminism–that is, it not only holds the radical perspective that women are people, but also holds the apparently-even-more-radical perspective that women can have myriad identities, all of which have an impact upon their experiences of womanhood. They are not people in a uniform sense; they are people in the gloriously diverse sense that all people are people, and must be treated as individuals (albeit with some overlapping experiences) as a result. Equally importantly, this blog holds the radical perspective that men are people, with the capacity to experience a full range of emotions and to control themselves around women; to view men otherwise is demeaning and downright sexist. Of note is that it is not possible to hold these views without having room for the diversity of gender expression and biological sex that experiences in the real world, and there will be no question as to the right of nonbinary, trans*, and intersex bodies to define themselves however they wish in this space. Although a separate post on commenting policies is forthcoming, suffice to say that misgendering and refusal to abide by requested pronouns will result in swift and uncompromising bannination.

Some of the deepest wounds in our society are in relation to sexism. Essentialism marginalizes every body it touches, leaving no room for the uniqueness that is part and parcel of every human experience. It demands that every person be woman or man as they are assigned at birth, that every woman be nurturing and kind, that every man be unemotional and strong, that people behave simply as either divine or genetic chess pieces in pursuit of a society of boxed-in, easily-defined identities. We have to step out of these boxes where we feel inclined to do so and, in doing this, we’re going to step on toes. It’s worth facing head-on the fear of being unconventional, though, because doing so shines light on the uncounted bodies who live invisibly, in fear of speaking their deviance, knowing that to do so may be emotional or physical suicide. If we don’t heal society of toxic notions of gender and sex then many people will never have the opportunity to step into the light.

I should say, too, that I am relatively privileged. For disclosure’s sake, I am white, cisstraight-ish, middle-class (but with a brief period of poverty and homelessness), and have a newly-minted, shiny bachelor’s degree that I intend to expand into a doctorate when some of my ducks fall into the right row. Because of my privilege, I may not always recognize when I have firmly lodged my foot in my mouth, so please don’t hesitate to correct me if I screw up (particularly if you’re marginalized in a way that I just don’t have a lot of perspective about).

I look forward to sharing and learning from anyone kind enough to read.


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Sexists, Skeptics, Symbols, and Sepsis

Let's leech the wound in the body politic.