Friday, June 24, 2016

Strange things can happen..

...when you decide to go poking around into notions of socially constructed phenomena such as identities. This can get really weird really fast because these areas deal with thinking about how we build our notions of who we are and how we are.

What you say? I'm just me and that's who I am.

Not so being you didn't just "happen"...nor did me being me...or anyone else for that matter. Who I am or who I believe myself to be came about as a result of a negotiation (an ongoing negotiation that continues throughout the lifespan) between our inner experiential world and that big bad outer world that we all swim in. How we think we are versus how the world out there tells us we have to be (in order to be considered acceptable or ok or "normal"). You didn't think all that stuff just "happened" did you?

By negotiation I mean stuff inside us encountering stuff outside of us and our figuring out how to navigate and exist and balance our inner desires and preferences and conceptualizations with the outer pressures and conceptualizations that we're all subjected to.

For instance, a couple of the clusters of stuff we all encounter in U.S. culture comes to us via those ways of being that have to do with which racial identity we're assigned and which gender identity we're assigned. Those are pretty much handed to us and we (generally) don't have much choice in the matter. What we have to figure out is how to reconcile them (somehow) with how we feel or perceive ourselves to be and with how to operate in the world in such a way that we can, sort of, be ourselves within those gender and racial roles that we're stuck with.

I'm mostly wrestling with gender identity here...not that other aspects of being (race, for instance) aren't powerful and always present...but here I'm sort of ignoring (because I'm not smart enough to try to think about all of it all at the same time, but all of it at the same time is how it happens) other elements and focusing on gender role or identity.

If you don't think you're handed a gender role and pretty much forced (by forced I mean that if you try to ignore that role or violate that role you will face some fearsome consequences) to adhere to it then...if you're gendered as a male...try this experiment. Go buy yourself some dresses and/or skirts and...changing nothing else about yourself...start trying to wear those articles of clothing and go through your daily routines out there in the going to work and such. Watch what happens...I betcha you'll find all kinds of pressures being applied to you to knock it off. Folks will probably start behaving very differently around you and they are also likely to dramatically change their perceptions of you...mostly not for the better either. You might lose your job, your might have physical violence directed toward you. People get really really excited about this stuff...some to the point of being willing to harm you if you make them too nervous or upset their expectations. 

We all get messages about how to "perform" our gender identity/role from birth onward...all the time and in all kinds of ways. And...often (probably always in some way or other) there is a mixture of race and gender messages directed towards us. Here's one graphic I found that theoretically is "universal" in terms of a message about being a "real" man but it actually is racial too. Why is it racial...well...some groups of folks don't generally have as much body hair (Native Americans for instance) as others but this graphic implies being a "real" man means having lots of facial hair.

See what I mean? The fact is I have little facial hair and absolutely no chest hair...which means I'm not a "real" man...right? According to the message in the graphic I'm not a "real" man. To me, that's silly. But...silly or not...stuff like this is astonishingly powerful and consequential. If you don't believe me, and your gender role is male...go ahead and try the experiment I mentioned before and see what happens. Actually...don't...because you might get hurt and I wouldn't want that to happen. Do a thought experiment instead...imagine wearing a skirt and imagine the reactions you might get. That's safer.

I've been thinking about all this stuff for some time now...actually I've been thinking about the gender stuff for a long time. Partially because of what I did professionally...back when I was doing professional stuff. I did psychotherapy for a long time and I quickly realized that you really can't do psychotherapy very well if you buy into the "real" man crap very strongly because "real" men are expected to be rather stupid about emotions and feelings and such. are not going to be very skilled at psychotherapy if you're ignorant about feelings.

One of my first encounters with this awareness was having it pointed out to me that men have a much harder time learning the skills of psychotherapy than do women...because...women are much more familiar with and much more practiced at dealing with feelings than are men.

Guys have much more to learn...initially anyway...than do women. It isn't that guys can't learn the necessary's just that they have to make much bigger and more encompassing changes than do women mainly because of the messages they've gotten about what/how to be a "real" man. Men often have to learn to adjust/modify their notions about gender identity in addition to learning new skills in order to become a half-way competent psychotherapist...women much less often have to adjust their gender identity notions when learning these skills.

What's become much more apparent to me about this "man" stuff over the past couple of years as I've wrestled with living vegan and with struggling with the implicit racial biases that my culture has taught me is that...much akin to how "whiteness" has mostly to do with being oppressive so does "man" stuff have to do mostly with being oppressive. What a bunch of crap...jeez.

Consider this graphic. Agree with that?

Sounds pretty snazzy, eh? Five years ago I probably would have seen this and thought...hey...good stuff. Now...not so much. Think about it...It's all very well if you're a member of a dominant or powerful group and there's little risk associated with your being honest and straightforward...but...what if you're not a member of a dominant group. What if, for example, you were Jewish and living in Germany in 1943...would you run out and tell the Gestapo that you were Jewish? Because you're being a "real" man and you are being honest and you don't want to be a "coward"?

I really had never connected all this "honesty" stuff with oppression but it actually has a tremendous amount to do with who has power and who doesn't. It seems to be that the more social power you possess then the fewer negatives there potentially are for being "honest". Maybe it has almost nothing to do with being a "man" but has much more to do with power. Hmmm.

That statement in the graphic...which is presenting itself as a universal sort of thing is actually profoundly influenced by assignment to a  racial group and by what's going on in the context of the society that someone lives in than it has to do with a "universal" truth. 

If a situation is that you will be killed if you're honest but you might live if you are deceitful...and (let's say) your deceit harms no one...then you're a "coward" if you lie? Gimme a break...that's deplorably simple minded and shallow...and seriously misleading. 

Don't misunderstand...I suspect honesty is probably a good thing...I value it...but...the consequences for engaging in honesty are thoroughly intertwined with your social identity and with your society and what is going on in that society at a particular time. Any thoughts about "honesty" that ignores those factors and just holds out "honesty" as a universal sort of value that applies to everyone (or "real" men) the same way, in all circumstances and at all times, is sort of goofy. It's much more complex and convoluted than the graphic suggests.

What does being a "real" man have to do with being vegan? Based on my own experience both personally and's my impression that women who live vegan far outnumber men who are vegan. By a big guess would be at least 5 women are vegan for every 1 man who is vegan. Presuming that ratio is semi-accurate...why the big difference? Think about some of the messages that we get about how to be a "real"'re supposed to be tough, strong, stupid about feelings, willing to ignore others in order to get what you want and on and on and on.

Read Carol Adams book to learn more about the weird mixing that our culture engages in regarding being vegan and sexual identity.

Being vegan is very much intertwined with many of the messages that we get about how to be a "real" man...and most of those messages about being "real" men ooch us in the direction of not living vegan.

This social construction stuff is a heck of a lot more complex than you might think. I'm glimpsing, somewhat, that maybe most, if not all, of these socially constructed positions and identities have much more to do with power than they have to do with any "difference".

I've just touched on a few aspects of it can think about your own experiences of how you've navigated your sexual identity and I suspect you'll quickly see that there's very little of it that's straight forward and uncomplicated...and you might notice that it has much more to do with power than you've previously thought.

Note: I've written as if there are only two sexual identities...that's what our culture tells us anyway...I'm quite aware that's false...the gender binary stuff is part of the wacky way oppressive cultures work. I know it's much more complicated than the way I've presented it here so please excuse my omissions and/or failures at being accurate. This stuff is very very complex.  


Have Gone Vegan said...

Hey veganelder, thought I'd share a gender role story with you. I've been wearing my hair fairly short these last few years (except when I'm too lazy/cheap to get it cut), but every ten years or so I like to get it ALL off and start fresh. This time when I got it clipped I didn't go down all the way to #1 but settled for #2 (about 1/4 inch), and woah, the reaction I got!

Admittedly, a few people actually thought it looked cute, maybe in part because my hair has gotten quite grey. But the interesting thing is that the older the person, the more they disliked it and were very vocal about expressing it. I heard stuff like, "Yuck.", "Why did you get it cut it that short?", "Why do you want to look like a boy?", "Do you feel like a boy now?", "You look like you just got out of jail." and more than one person practically pleaded with me to never ever get it cut that short again.

So funny. Having my hair that short felt very freeing (and great on my bike in the wind!), but I capitulated the next time I got it cut and left the top a bit longer. But the sense I got from the older generation is that what they really objected to was the fact that I wasn't conforming to their idea of what a "real" woman's hair should look like. In that sense I was screwing with gender expectations and they didn't like it one bit, snort.

veganelder said...

Thank you for commenting Have Gone Vegan. It's really sort of dismaying to notice how in contradistinction to all the lip service white humans in North America pay to the idea of "freedom"...if you dare to actually behave in ways that don't follow the rules...even in tiny ways like hair come the expectation police.

As for the "older" generation...well...they're my contemporaries and all I can do is say sorry. In truth they were probably that way when they were younger but were too busy with other stuff to say anything.

Little sociological experiments like you did with the haircut are very interesting and tend to make visible some of the invisible rules that constrain and guide our everyday behavior (while we walk around thinking how free and stuff we are). Good for you for warping some expectations.