Thursday, June 24, 2010

What it Means to be Irrational

First of all, I have a confession to make:  I've been going to church. But it's okay.  It's just the Unitarian Universalists. It's not a real church.  And by that I mean, that they don't require you to subscribe to their beliefs (whatever those may be.)  Essentially you can bring your own beliefs.

Last Sunday, a member of the congregation shared with us his thoughts on Father's Day, and related issues.  Father's Day is, to put it mildly, not my favorite holiday.  But nonetheless I enjoyed this guy's sermon.  One of the things it made me think about is different types of irrationality.

Here are two of the anecdotes he shared with us:

One day he was visiting  . . . Colorado I think? . . . and, sitting on top of a mesa at sunset, he had a mystical experience.  You know the drill, surrounded by nature, huge expanses of sky and desert, one human being seems so small out there.  And yet he felt there was a presence there with him; he was alone and not alone.

People find these sorts of experiences very memorable. And in his case, it became extra memorable when he found out that, at approximately the same time he was having this beautiful experience, his father was dying of the heart disease that had troubled him for many years.  He could not help but feel that there was a connection.

He then went on to tell us that his father's father died prematurely, and to share a story about that.  His father was then twelve years old, and he said to God, "I will give you my new bicycle if you keep my father alive."

These are examples of two different types of irrationality.  Mystical experiences are irrational because they cannot be explained to anyone.  They cannot be reproduced at will, especially not in a laboratory.  They have no objective reality.

The idea that God (if god exists) would be at all interested in possessing a bicycle, or a sheep, or one's firstborn child, that God ever would, or ever has, make bargains with people, is irrational because it's simply not true. If it happened on a regular basis, we would know about it. Where do people get this idea from, anyway?

Some people say that mystical experiences are imaginary.  Some even say they're a form of mental illness.  Personally, of those two types of irrationality, I prefer the subjective, internal experience to the flat-out lie.  There's a difference between things that cannot be proved to be true, and things that can easily be proved false.

Monday, June 14, 2010

A Non-Trans Privilege Checklist

Privilege checklists make a lot of people uncomfortable.  They usually start in about how "I have that problem too" or "that's not a real problem" or "you have no right to complain!"  (What is a privilege checklist?  Basically, it's meant to be a list of privileges that you don't get to have unless you're one or more of the following:  white, male, heterosexual, cisgendered, able-bodied, etc.  This is said to be the first privilege checklist.)  I got the list below from Ampersand's blog.

The purpose of a privilege checklist is not to make you feel guilty.  Nor am I posting it because I want everyone to know how oppressed I am, poor me, my problems are worse than everyone else's.  The purpose of a privilege checklist is to make you think about your life experience, and hopefully to recognise that a) other people have problems too and b) if you had to put up with this sh*t, you'd think it was totally unfair.

A Non-Trans Privilege Checklist

1) Strangers don’t assume they can ask me what my genitals look like and how I have sex.
2) My validity as a man/woman/human is not based upon how much surgery I’ve had or how well I “pass” as a non-Trans person.
3) When initiating sex with someone, I do not have to worry that they won’t be able to deal with my parts or that having sex with me will cause my partner to question his or her own sexual orientation.
4) I am not excluded from events which are either explicitly or de facto* men-born-men or women-born-women only. (*basically anything involving nudity)
5) My politics are not questioned based on the choices I make with regard to my body.
6) I don’t have to hear “so have you had THE surgery?” or “oh, so you’re REALLY a [incorrect sex or gender]?” each time I come out to someone.
7) I am not expected to constantly defend my medical decisions.
8) Strangers do not ask me what my “real name” [birth name] is and then assume that they have a right to call me by that name.
9) People do not disrespect me by using incorrect pronouns even after they’ve been corrected.
10) I do not have to worry that someone wants to be my friend or have sex with me in order to prove his or her “hipness” or good politics.
11) I do not have to worry about whether I will be able to find a bathroom to use or whether I will be safe changing in a locker room.
12) When engaging in political action, I do not have to worry about the *gendered* repurcussions of being arrested. (i.e. what will happen to me if the cops find out that my genitals do not match my gendered appearance? Will I end up in a cell with people of my own gender?)
13) I do not have to defend my right to be a part of “Queer” and gays and lesbians will not try to exclude me from OUR movement in order to gain political legitimacy for themselves.
14) My experience of gender (or gendered spaces) is not viewed as “baggage” by others of the gender in which I live.
15) I do not have to choose between either invisibility (”passing”) or being consistently “othered” and/or tokenized based on my gender.
16) I am not told that my sexual orientation and gender identity are mutually exclusive.
17) When I go to the gym or a public pool, I can use the showers.
18) If I end up in the emergency room, I do not have to worry that my gender will keep me from receiving appropriate treatment nor will all of my medical issues be seen as a product of my gender. (”Your nose is running and your throat hurts? Must be due to the hormones!”)
19) My health insurance provider (or public health system) does not specifically exclude me from receiving benefits or treatments available to others because of my gender.
20) When I express my internal identities in my daily life, I am not considered “mentally ill” by the medical establishment.
21) I am not required to undergo extensive psychological evaluation in order to receive basic medical care.
22) The medical establishment does not serve as a “gatekeeper” which disallows self-determination of what happens to my body.
23) People do not use me as a scapegoat for their own unresolved gender issues.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Out of the Silent Planet

C.S. Lewis is one of those writers whose talent I admire, while finding their ideas more or less repugnant.  (Other examples include Robert Heinlein and Joss Whedon.)  Lewis' writing style was so very original that I can't understand why he relied so much on Christianity for his themes and plots.  Did he not want to be original?

I up and read a biography of him, by A. N. Wilson, who makes the very interesting assertion that Lewis was completely lacking in "self-awareness" and "introspection."  I do not quite understand how Wilson deduces this, but if true it would explain why I dislike Lewis so much.  "Introspection" means a lot of things.  To lack introspection is not to lack imagination, which Lewis certainly had.  And one can be thoughtful without being introspective . . . although it's interesting to consider the things that Lewis was not very thoughtful about.

For example, although he wrote several books about Christianity, according to Wilson he was no Biblical scholar.  So, when he says in The Problem of Pain that Jesus "was either a raving lunatic of an unusually abominable type or else He was, and is, precisely what He said. There is no middle way.  If the records make the first hypothesis unacceptable, then you must submit to the second," he is referring to "records" that don't actually exist.  There is no proof either way - there cannot be - and the Bible is not a historical document.  (Not to mention that Jesus was often reluctant to proclaim himself the Son of God.)  But Lewis didn't care about any of that.  He constructed an argument and he stuck to it.  It's an odd combination of logic and pure irrationality; add in his hectoring insistence that he is right - "there is no middle way" - and you have something that I find completely distasteful.

And yet.  The novels.  I recently returned to the Silent Planet trilogy, not having read them since my teenage years.  The plots are as follows:
  1. Out of the Silent Planet:  our hero accidentally travels to the planet Mars and meets the various inhabitants.
  2. Perelandra:  our hero travels to the planet Venus and fights the (Christian) Devil. 
  3. That Hideous Strength:  our hero fights evil here on Earth.
You'll notice that the first book is very different from its successors.   It is still about good and evil, but the protagonist is a lot more passive . . . and as far as I can tell, there is nothing explicitly Christian in the first book.  We learn that each planet has its own ruling spirit, or incorporeal entity, and above them all is the great being called Maleldil.  Earth is called the "silent planet" because its ruler rebelled against Maleldil and it was put under a sort of blockade.  (The idea that Earth is under the control of an evil demigod actually reminds me of the Gnostic version of Genesis, which I'm willing to bet Lewis did not do on purpose.)

When I was younger, That Hideous Strength was my favorite of the three.  I still think that it has some great writing, although the plot and, again, some of the ideas are a bit dubious.  Now I appreciate Silent Planet more, for its imagination, lack of pretentiousness and anti-colonialist critique.  I mentioned that the protagonist arrives on Mars accidentally.  The two men who travel there first discover gold and intelligent life.  They plan to take the gold and kill the inhabitants so that "Man" will have a new planet to live on when he renders the Earth uninhabitable.  But they get the impression that the natives want a human sacrifice, so they go back to Earth and kidnap one Elwin Ransom, with the intention of trading him for gold-mining rights. 

On Mars, Ransom escapes and meets up with some of the inhabitants on his own.  He's a philologist, and when he discovers that they have language, his first thought is how exciting it would be to publish an English-Martian dictionary.  I am not making this up.  He also gets seasick when riding in one of their boats . . . none of this is very heroic.  In the later books he gets more and more . . . special.  He's not some bumbling fool anymore, which appeals to me a lot less.

Indeed, in the later books Ransom gets more and more saintly and the bad guys get more and more evil; also more powerful.  In Silent Planet, they have the technology to travel to another planet but they don't really understand anything about the world they've discovered.  They assume the natives are backwards and stupid, and they are easily defeated.  (Hope that's not a spoiler.)  In subsequent books Lewis raises the stakes; maybe it's just a fictional convention, to create antagonists who are pure evil and almost omnipotent, but I dislike it.  And from a theological point of view. . .  Lewis seems to me to spend more time dwelling on the power and malevolence of the Devil than on the power and benevolence of God. 

In fact, the whole point of the last two books is that the Devil makes people do bad things.  Or rather, they choose to work with him, but he has powers of his own and he's constantly tempting and manipulating people.  I don't believe in an external Devil; I think it's irresponsible to promote the idea that "the Devil made me do it;" and I believe that this actually gets back to Lewis' lack of introspection which I mentioned at the top of the page.  He didn't want to examine his own unconscious motives, or admit that he had unconscious motives, or an unconscious mind at all.  All of that stuff is not part of him - it has to be moved elsewhere, and the Devil makes a handy receptacle for those parts of ourselves we don't want to acknowledge.

Ironically, That Hideous Strength depicts two characters going through tremendous amounts of self-examination.  It's as if Lewis was willing to dip his toe in the wading pool, but not to go any deeper.  And his conclusions are, for the most part, so perfectly conventional.  At one point, one of the characters says, "Anything might be true.  Heaven, Hell, the afterlife . . ."  It's odd that even though anything might be true, the only possible truths these people can think of are the Christian ones.

In both That Hideous Strength and in the biography, it says that Lewis was very fond of the Normal, the plain, ordinary, boring comforts of an uneventful life.  (One might speculate as to the ways in which he had been deprived of the Normal, leading him to appreciate it so much.)  As the novel puts it, the Normal is a man's cosy memories of his wife, "fried eggs and soap and sunlight and the rooks cawing . . . he was having his first deeply moral experience.  He was choosing a side:  the Normal."  And it just so happens that the Normal is synonymous with the moral, the good, the Will of God.  According to Lewis, science, psychology, Progress and progressive ideas of any sort are not Normal.  He was deliberately and anachronistically old-fashioned.  (And yet he wrote three science-fiction novels.) 

Science and technology do have their drawbacks; in that much I can agree with him.  Although I suspect that for him, for example, destroying the environment is bad simply because the environment is something that already existed, and we're not supposed to change stuff.  I'm not sure if he was aware of the extent to which damage to the environment damages humans too. He criticizes science for its hubris . . . but he also almost seems to take science at its word, to believe that it has all the know-how it claimed to have.

C.S. Lewis seems to be one of those people who never really grew up and never wanted to. Again, that's not me.  There is something charming about the simplicity of childhood . . . of safe and happy childhoods, anyway . . . but there comes a time to put away childish things.  Especially if you're going to go around claiming to Know the Truth.  You can be simple-minded, or you can be smarter than everyone else.  Can't be both.