Monday, November 16, 2009

"It's all in your mind."

I recently came across this very interesting story about detecting the effects of PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) on brain activity.  Apparently this is what they found:
A brain processing system that includes the amygdala — the fear hot spot — becomes overactive. Other regions important for attention and memory, regions that usually moderate our response to fear, are tamped down.
That feels right to me, based on my own experience.  If "attention" means "paying attention to events in the present," it's very true that you lose that ability when in the throes of an anxiety/PTSD attack. It's interesting that memory should also be affected.  One might think that PTSD is caused by unpleasant memories.  Maybe what happens is you focus on that particular memory and forget others.  It's as if you lose touch with the present and the past . . . with everything except the nightmare.

But this bit made me sad. And angry:
. . . problems too often shrugged off as "just in your head" in fact do have physical signs . . . "There's something different in your brain," explains Dr. Jasmeet Pannu Hayes of Boston University, who is helping to lead that research at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs' National Center for PTSD. "Just putting a real physical marker there, saying that this is a real thing," encourages more people to seek care, he said.
It's so infuriating that something like PTSD is "not real" unless scientists can find physical evidence.  I mean, that applies to all of our feelings, right?  How do we know if we're really happy or sad, without a freaking scientist to tell us so?  I guess I'm going to have to get a brain scan every time I try to decide which flavor of ice cream to buy.  Which one do I really want?  Oh I can't tell because it's all in my mind!

And of course this totally applies to transgender, which is all in a person's mind.  Many people have theorized about physical causes for gender dysphoria.  Personally I don't care. I don't need scientific justification for my feelings.  I've spent years trying to understand myself and my own mind.  Not that I understand it all, but I believe that psychological techniques, and teaching people that it's okay to feel the things that you feel, have more potential to solve mental/emotional problems than fixating on physical evidence.

Moreover, we interact with the world by creating a mental model.  It really is all in our minds.  Just ask the Buddhists.  It's strange that our society values the mental above the physical in many ways . . . but not this one.

Free Will

Christians used to believe in free will.  I've been wondering lately if they still do.  (I'm not a Christian, but I live in a country which finds it difficult to conceive of morality outside the Christian framework.)  I have the impression that God gave us free will and we're supposed to use it.  To me that implies that, not only do we get to make choices, but a wide variety of choices are probably acceptable.  If there is really only One Right Way, that's not a choice, is it?

But, for example, when I hear some Christians talk about homosexuality, free will seems to vanish.  Specifically, the conservative Christian argument goes as follows: To be homosexual is a sin, but since we're all sinful it may not be any worse than any other sin. However, to act on one's homosexual desires is definitely wrong.   What becomes of free will in that situation?

To me that sounds like any exercise of one's free will is immoral, because we are born sinful and therefore all our natural desires are sinful. There is actually no choice in moral matters: you can only obey the commandments of your religion. (Or other authority figures.)  Maybe the Christian definition of free will never meant anything other than, "you have a choice either to behave and go to Heaven, or misbehave and suffer eternal damnation."  I really don't think that's much of a choice.

In any case, it's an axiom of the homosexual movement that homosexuality is not a choice.  This may grant us a certain amount of tolerance, according to the argument described above, that "we're all sinners," but that tolerance only seems to go so far.  It's extremely dependent on people not flaunting it.  (I also think it's a stumbling block as regards the gay marriage issue, because everybody knows that marriage is a choice.)

Fundamentally, homosexuality is something you do, as well as something you are.  And that will always get back to the question of choice and free will.  I'm not entirely convinced that the "not a choice" argument is helpful.  Saying, "it's not my fault, I was born that way" confirms the belief that it is sinful.  It says, "Yes this is a bad thing but you can't blame me for it."

Choosing to act on X says, "I believe this is the right thing to do."  It poses a moral challenge.  We say that if we are to be true to ourselves we must act on this, act out this, be visible instead of invisible.  We say that true morality consists of being true to ourselves . . . and that's the complete opposite of the Christian doctrine of original sin.

(Yes, this entire argument applies to transgender as well.  I'll be writing about that in an upcoming post.)

Monday, November 2, 2009

Quentin Crisp: Disloyal to Civilization

I adore the late Quentin Crisp.  If I believed in role models, he would be one of mine.  But in fact, neither he nor I believe in them.  I've just been rereading his collected works and was struck by this comment he made after reading a book about the movie stars Clift, Brando and Dean:
"It then dawned on my befuddled brain that what many men feel convention is preventing them from expressing may not be some hideous piratical urge to rape or homicide, but the feminine side of their natures.  This is an idea that has never before occurred to me."
The reason it never occurred to him is that Mr. Crisp was completely incapable of repressing his feminine side, even if he had wanted to, which he apparently didn't.

I have frequently encountered the claim that civilization is the only thing that prevents us from doing horrible things to each other.  Because apparently human beings are all psychopaths and our deepest desires are to kill and maim.  I despise that concept utterly. 

As far as I can tell, the goal of civilization is to set up a social hierarchy wherein the upper ranks get to dominate, and the fact that we all start at the bottom, as children, stores up plenty of resentment and hostility that, if we belong to the fortunate categories, we can take out on our underlings later, when we get underlings.  But perhaps, like many of my compatriots, I have confused "civilization" with "family values."

Anyway, I infinitely prefer the idea that these "horrible things" from which civilization is saving us are only effeminacy, or female masculinity, or uppityness in general, or sex between consenting adults.  I think that explains a lot.

Radclyffe Hall: Congenital Invert

I recently read Sally Cline's biography of Radclyffe Hall.  I can't exactly recommend this particular book, because I found the writer's style annoying, but Hall is a fascinating subject and I do believe the research was well done.

Radclyffe Hall was openly lesbian, politically conservative and independently wealthy.  Those three things all go together: she could afford to be out, but because of her wealth and family pride she also feared social change . . . except when it might benefit her and her kind.  (Ironically, she was opposed to female suffrage.  I guess she didn't think the vote was very important.)  She was physically abused by her mother, and perhaps also by her stepfather, but she supported them financially throughout their worthless lives.

For her religious beliefs, she was a devout Catholic and also a strong believer in Spiritualism.  Perhaps one of the strangest things about her is that she and her life partner, Una Troubridge, carried on a longterm "posthumous" relationship with Mabel Batten, who was Hall's first significant lover and Troubridge's cousin.  (Incidentally, a surprising number of English lesbians "of good family" converted to Catholicism in the first half of the 20th century.  It was an act that allowed you to become both rebellious and steeped in tradition.  As Emma Donoghue puts it, "Being Catholic in England meant becoming slightly foreign, aloof from the establishment; as a church it was associated with the rich and the poor, but definitely not the bourgeoisie."  And of course, to be Anglo-Catholic was not at all the same thing as being Irish Catholic.)

Well, obviously I could go on about Radclyffe Hall all day.  But the reason I'm writing this post is to talk about her gender identity.  In her day, certain people were considered to be "congenital inverts."  "Invert" means that they were what we today call "transgendered" -- a male person living in a female body, or vice versa.  "Congenital" means that they were born that way, and just like today, that was seen to be an important moral point.  If you're congenital, it's not your fault.  You're not just doing it to show off, or to annoy.  You can't help it.

It was also assumed that your sexuality was defined by your gender identity.  Someone like Hall, who believed herself to really be a man (and pronouns are so confusing, by the way.  As far as I can tell, Hall always referred to herself with feminine pronouns, and most of her butch friends did too) would automatically be attracted to women.  Effeminate men were always attracted to men. 

In other words, no distinction was made between homosexuals and transgendered people.  In modern times a strong distinction is made.  I'm kind of ambivalent about this.  On the one hand, I wish there were more solidarity between the two groups.  The acronym GLBT gets used a lot, but the B's and T's often feel themselves to be tacked on.  On the other hand, I certainly don't want anybody making assumptions about anybody else.  Furthermore, it's heterosexist to assume that "masculine" people are only attracted to "feminine" people, and it's caused a lot of problems for trans people.

I have not actually read The Well of Loneliness, but I have read Hall's short story, "Miss Ogilvy Finds Herself," which clearly depicts a butch identity.  And even though Hall's identity is not mine, it still means a lot to me to see us in print.  I don't think I would have liked Hall much as a person. But we have to take our history wherever we can find it, and I am grateful to her for speaking out.