Sunday, May 20, 2012

Love, Sex toys and Gucci couture

One particularly awful date a couple of years ago tattooed itself into my soul. My date spent the evening describing how several other men (who had also shown an interest in her) made her feel. She used an interesting analogy to explain what was going on to me: one man she had been seeing was like a 'warm cuddly sweater', but she was looking for a guy like a 'Gucci dress'. I suspect this was all a not-so-subtle attempt to explain how she was not even slightly interested in me. She never got around to telling me what kind of fashion accessory she saw me as. By that time, I was too disgusted and angry to care.

To me, this seemed the quintessence of why dating in Los Angeles sucks. I'm not a bloody handbag, I'm a person.

'Objectification' may be thought of the process by which a person is made into a thing.

The philosopher Martha Nussbaum has argued that something is objectified if certain criteria are present. These include instrumentality (if the thing is treated as a tool for one's own purposes); denial of autonomy (if the thing is treated as if lacking in agency or self-determination); fungibility (if the thing is treated as if interchangeable); denial of subjectivity (if the thing is treated as if there is no need to show concern for the 'object's' feelings and experiences). Note that one of the categories is violability (if the thing is treated as if permissible to damage or destroy) which, when applied to people is widely considered unacceptable. All of the other criteria, however, are habitually and routinely applied by people on each other within the context of dating.

When men do this, it's generally based on treating women as sexual objects and is justifiably recognized as denigrating, dehumanizing and exploitative. When women do this, its usually related to finding a sugar-daddy or a protector. At their worst, men seek women as sex toys; and apparently, women are looking for Gucci couture. I think that these are just the worst, most obvious examples, but the underlying attitude is absolutely pervasive, widely accepted and wildly destructive to everyone touched by it.

Objectification tends to be obvious to bystanders watching it happening. Recently, I was standing in the lunch queue at my local sandwich shop and two women standing behind me were describing a friend of theirs who was in the thrall of a particularly exploitative man. This is something we have all seen. It sounded as if she was simply being used by the man she was interested in and both friends were delicately talking about how she didn't want to hear them tell her the truth. We've all been there. The person being used is always the last to realize and the person being used is often strangely complicit in their own exploitation. "They'll only like me if I give them something" or so the logic goes.

I think people objectify one another (and themselves) all the time in romantic relationships, especially in Los Angeles. If you find yourself asking the question "Do I love this person?" and you rationalize your perspective via a pros-and-cons sort of logic then guess what? You're objectifying the person you're evaluating. That person is now a thing that provides you with something like sex, or money, or romance. It might be framed as someone who makes you feel a certain way, or someone who fulfills a romantic (or sexual) fantasy or caricature. Where are they as a person in this calculation? Why is love so resplendent, so shockingly glorious and beautiful, so selfless and unthinking amid all the cynical calculations? Well, it hinges on the thought of the loved one as someone you treat with the same consideration as you treat yourself, or more. Quite the antithesis of the sorts of selfish calculations I find so sickening.

So, please, take a moment and see the person sitting across the table from you. The person who has spent hours in front of a mirror or on a treadmill to look their best, and be the specific-type-of-object you currently think you're looking for in a man or a woman. Take a moment, throw all that nonsense aside, be yourself and talk to them as a person. You might find a little moment of transcendent vulnerable beauty shimmering in the darkness. In that discovery, you will make the world a happier, more radiant place for all of us.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

The 'Fundamental Virtues'

Flying is one of those interesting contexts when people will usually be happy to strike up a conversation with a complete stranger. It can be awkward when you realize that you’re falling into a political discussion with someone whose views are diametrically opposed to yours. I view these situations as an opportunity: a moment in time where it’s genuinely possible to learn something. I was sitting next to an older gentleman on a flight from LA to DC. As we were pulling back from the gate, I noticed the title of the chapter he was reading: “The Battle of Britain” and I immediately saw an opening.

“My granddad flew Hurricanes in the Battle of Britain”, I said. He looked up, a little baffled and I repeated myself by way of introduction. We started to chat. The book he was reading was a catalog of the seven moments in history. Seven separate events that the authors singled out as signature moments when 'Christian Freedom and Democracy' were preserved from the onrushing invasions of malignant invaders. One chapter was about the Persians at Thermopylae, another about the conversion of the Emperor Augustine, another about Genghis Khan and the Mongol hordes, and of course, the Battle of Britain. I had reservations and voiced them. Isn’t that ignoring a whole slice of history? Wasn’t that conveniently forgetting the excesses of the Borgias and the Catholic Church in the days just before the reformation? He fielded my questions with some grace but not much engagement and we left it at that, for the time being.

Simplicity is appealing when we’re talking about virtue and goodness. Complex things, grey areas, pragmatic issues of contradictions lead to all sorts of issues and so it’s expedient to simplify matters to the simple dichotomy of ‘Good Guys’ and ‘Bad Guys’, or more sinisterly ‘Them’ and ‘Us’. Complexity leads to hemming and hawing, to moralistic relativity and the apparent slippery slope of compromise. Having said that, a simplistic view of what is right and wrong invariably leads to the sort of intractable argument that our political dialogue is currently, ridiculously, engaged in: a clash of core values that leads nowhere.

I hold the following boldly stated view: there are three fundamental virtues: (A) Compassion, (B) Integrity and (C) Understanding. These are inviolable, sacrosanct, absolute and, for want of a better word, ‘good’. Their inverse: Cruelty, Dishonesty and Ignorance embody what I consider as ‘evil’. The simplicity of this holds me in a strong grasp and interestingly, involves subtle complex pitfalls when applied to other people. Am I being compassionate or understanding towards others if I insist that they adopt my virtues as their own and judge them negatively if they don’t? This is where the complexity and depth lives of any truly moral person: in the consequences of your deeply held views to others.

In my mind, a Christian who preaches the Bible’s lessons of love and forgiveness only to turn around and say that homosexuality is a sin (and by consequence, any gay man or woman is damned) is a shocking contradiction with real, painful consequences to those people. The act of compassion requires you to ‘dethrone yourself from the center of your world and place another there’, leading inexorably to the golden rule: Do unto others as you have them do unto you. I doubt that any living soul would actually ask for someone else to issue a judgment of eternal damnation on them based on something as arbitrary and unconscious as sexual orientation, but I guess there’s a whole doctrine of sin to worry about. No, I say, let’s keep it simple: focus on Compassion, Integrity and Understanding and everything else will be fine.

My newly found friend and I started, inevitably, to chat about politics. He is a fiscal conservative, a bit more centrist on social issues and a frequent viewer of Fox News. He doesn’t like Hannity, Limbaugh or Coulter, but still feels that the Fox perspective is fair and balanced. He doesn’t believe the liberal media’s biases and positively loathes the demagogues of the left. He despises Barney Frank and Al Gore and argues passionately about Obama’s budgetary foolishness, about the importance of deregulation and the various ways in which the wealthy shouldn’t be penalized for their success. He and I talk about Health Care and the various sins of the left (from his perspective) and the right (from mine).

I suddenly realized that something important was happening: that he and I lived through the same events: the town hall meetings in 2009 where so much appalling propaganda was pumped through the airwaves surrounding the Health Care bill (mainly, in my mind, originating from the right wing, but he asserted from the left as well) and we had completely different experiences of those events. We literally were living in different worlds, with different logics and different narratives. There was no possible agreement or consensus between us largely because neither of us was getting the full picture. For whatever reason, whoever is to blame, there was almost no way of making an impartial, well-informed, fact-based evaluation of the issues since everything had been reduced to a polemic ‘them-against-us’ sort of argument. So many of the talking points we see in the public forum are geared to denigrating and dismissing our adversaries; of scoring points and killing off; of ridiculing and disingenuously undermining the others arguments.

Here was a man who had spent his life in business finances and he was sharing his expertise with me. The least I could do is listen and think carefully about what he was telling me about the tax code. I’ve read in the Economist (a publication with some chops in this area) that the latest wave of regulations in this arena are just too cumbersome and yet, as a good little liberal, I’m offered a moralistic justification for this legislation based on how the ‘banks are bad’. How can I, as a responsible citizen in a democracy, hold the reigns of power and hold my government to account if I have no accurate access to well-informed information? It’s impossible.

I dread the next few months as we all dissolve into the sepid, vile dialogue of a particularly negative presidential campaign where the three evils of aggression, bullshit and ignorance will reign supreme. I enjoyed my conversation with my new right-wing friend. I learned some things and I hope that he heard me when I said to him: “Don’t demonize the people involved in the conversation but listen to what they have to say”.

I walked away from the interaction feeling more far strongly that these fundamental virtues are the only things that really matter. On the whole, I could care less and less about a person’s political views. I do care very deeply why they might feel the way they feel. Are they motivated by compassion, honesty and understanding? If not, do they understand why? I will probably become a little strident concerning these virtues during the coming presidential campaign.

Let us elevate the level of debate, treat our adversaries with consideration and tell the truth. If anyone wants to make the claim that the USA is the greatest democracy in the world, they should be prepared for my comeback: “Show Me”.