Empty Chairs


Empty Chairs

Clint Eastwood may have provoked no end of hilarity with his performance at the Republican National Convention (and jokes about which one was more wooden during the show, him or the chair he addressed), but there was nothing weird about it. When we leave out the partisan reasons one group or another may have laughed over this display, what’s funny about it is simply that Eastwood made explicit something just about all of us have become very adept at, while rarely being confronted with the absurdity.

We have so mastered the art of talking to someone who is not there, that we can even do it beautifully when someone very much is there, right in front of us. We can obliterate them with our monologue and blow them away like so much straw. It’s so prevalent, especially in discussions where this could not be more counter productive, I’d forgive anyone who thought this is a necessary, adaptive trait for our species.

Hell, maybe they’re right! As psychologist Bruce E. Levine explains, even mental health professionals seem preoccupied with finding ways to make us adjust to a mentally ill society.

“Increasingly marginalized was the idea that treatment that consisted of manipulating and medicating alienated people to adjust to this crazy rat race and thus maintain the status quo was a political act—a problematic one for people who cared about democracy.” 

His piece is a great read on its own, but for my purposes, the upshot is that if you have problems with the way things are, “we have ways of making you compliant”. In Levine’s profession, this means using chemical and behavioral tools to directly alter the way we perceive this world, and if that perception is justified but causes suffering, these tools are often brought to bear to selectively impair one’s consciousness.

And for the rest of us, whether or not we’re subject to those tools, we remain very, very good at reading the writing on the wall and discerning patterns. From there, we make a choice: resist or conform. With conformity comes peace of mind, but since others make different choices, maintaining that peace means having to annihilate anything that might draw our attention to what we’ve chosen not to see.

We tend to think it’s all about the Straw Man fallacy, and if people just knew they were making poor arguments based on incorrect information, that they would change their arguments and adopt “the facts”. It’s how they empty the chair in the first place, before putting a straw man in it, that we should explore. Eliminating various people or entire classes from a discussion they have a stake in is not always followed by putting words in the absentee’s mouth, but it does always clear the way for oppression.

Consider this study, wherein OB/GYNs studying rectovaginal endometriosis… conclude, using the kind of grading scale you’d expect from a list circulated by a fraternity house, that women with this condition are more attractive. That’s truly it. They looked, saw that the women were getting thinner (due to a chronically painful illness which causes infertility), and also had larger breasts. Then came to the conclusion that, I’m not kidding you, their study’s title references directly: women with endometriosis are hotter.

Let’s be clear. There is no cure for endometriosis, only various ways to manage it. It can compromise the immune system generally, and is often comorbid with other conditions. And this study about the “attractiveness” of women with this condition was published for peer review.

Do we see what this study shares in common with the US Congress’ hearings on contraception coverage earlier this year?

Women are absent. Not in reality of course, not in this country or the world, not in the care of physicians with real conditions, no, women are there all right. They just might as well not be, and it is damn hard to find them anywhere near the microphone getting passed around from man to man with the power to choose when these discussions happen, and what the consequences will be.

Or look at what someone else does with their podium once there can be no doubt that the other person at stake has no way of talking back, only there to be burnt.  That’s correct, that actually happened. With Amanda Todd dead, the self-proclaimed Amazing Atheist takes to his echo chamber to make sure anyone moved by her suffering knows how terrible he thinks they are.

No one here will be surprised that an atheist can just as easily be mean spirited or hateful as they can be “good without God”. But how about this individual? In support of his claim that gay marriage advocates have gone too far, may even lose his precious support as another gay man, and they are outright “heterophobes”, he offers up evidence like this:

“First came the Advertising Standards Authority’s demand that the blogger ‘Archbishop Cranmer’ answer for the adverts he had run on behalf of the Coalition for Marriage campaign. These ads – which showed heterosexual couples celebrating their nuptials and implored viewers to sign the coalition’s petition – apparently caused ‘hurt and offence’ to some gay people. The only way in which one could possibly be ‘hurt’ by the ad would be if one were somehow offended by the image of straight couples doing what straight couples have done for thousands of years – marrying one another. This isn’t a reaction against ‘hate speech’ folks, it’s outright hetero-phobia.”

No, Mr. Wind-Cowie, that is not correct at all. It requires willful blindness to determine that this is the only way an advertisement for an organization devoted to denying homosexuals the right to marry could hurt someone, only if they had some bizarre or pathological sensitivity to the sight of heterosexual marriages. Aside from the entirely reasonable notion that some people, without the right to marry their lovers, might in fact experience pain at the reminder that other people do have this right (and no movement for gay rights has ever sought to abridge their right to), the writer further finds nothing understandable about hurt or anger that comes from seeing public advocacy against their own civil rights. He concludes the only possible explanations are genuine phobia or cynical attempts to censor from people who won’t just “argue with them”, or perhaps both.

This is a gay man who has made himself the empty chair. He considers refusing support for a movement whose cause he claims to believe in, is apparently aware of homosexuals’ once criminal status in his society, and yet unironically uses the word “Heterophobia”, explicitly arguing that there is a growing institutional bias against heterosexuals. I can only be grateful the organization he’s associated with doesn’t list him as one of their experts.

I share his concern for the state of “public discourse”, but perhaps he’s not familiar with what discourse is, the combination of power and knowledge, or how public discourse cannot be called public (nor should it fairly be called “knowledge”) if whether or not a person deserves civil rights is “up for debate”. The legitimizing force of placing climate change skeptics on a level with climatologists who advocate for sustainability is not a victory of public discourse, nor is cramming creationism into science classrooms. It takes settled conversations backwards and retards efforts to progress towards justice based on decided premises. It does not prevent anyone from choosing to sometimes hang back and argue with others who do not yet agree, but the alternative, demanding that those who remain unmoved have the public discourse brought to them is not an argument for justice, it’s an argument for privilege. If Wind-Cowie wants to give up his seat to them, he’s welcome to.

But maybe that’s all too ivory tower. In the streets of the Castro, we find this again.  A private board considers the request to fly the transgender pride flag on the Day of Remembrance and is denied. Despite having accommodated the bear and leather pride flags in the past, they refuse, remind the woman asking them that they were already magnanimous enough to allow her to attend two of their meetings, and then insist:

 “Nothing in this response to your request should be interpreted as any disrespect for the Transgender Flag, the November 20 Transgender Day of Remembrance, or similar issues.  We hope that consistently administering MUMC’s Rainbow Flag policy, in fact, re-enforces the strength, pride and unity of all parts of our community.”

Or maybe it’s just a reminder of decade upon decade of insisting we assimilate, sit down, let the grown ups decide when we’ll be recognized. They are literally telling her, and by extension all of us, how we should interpret their decision, attempting to pre-empt dialogue. How gracious of them to let her speak at all, even though it isn’t even their member meetings where decisions regarding the Castro flag are made, given their firm commitment to policy. Except for Bears. And Leatherfolk. Of course they could have exceptions actually written in to the policy, but how their flags do not threaten “strength, pride and unity” the way trans pride apparently would is beyond me. Take special note of the update to this story in the above link, reversing the prior decision here discussed, and enjoy evaluating their explanation on your own.

And if that’s still not enough, let’s get down and dirty with porn.  The authors of this open letter to Buck Angel quote him as saying:

“I’m a huge advocate for disclosure [referring to trans folk disclosing their trans status], because I believe a lot of people get themselves in bad situations because they do not disclose. For example, trans women who might hook up with a cis-gendered guy and then he goes home with her and finds out she has a penis and flips out and beats her up or kills her. That’s horrible, and I really believe by not disclosing it’s very disrespectful to the other person because they might not be into it and it makes them feel very freaked out about themselves.”

There’s already a thorough takedown of the victim blaming going on here at the link given, so again, just consider, this kind of sentiment is only possible if cis-gendered men are somehow more “present” more real to someone than trans women. In that one respect, I actually empathize with Buck, because what discourses are out there that don’t make white, straight, cis-gendered, largely affluent men a constant presence? I obviously disagree with him, and hate seeing this kind of language from someone I’ve taken inspiration from, but really, beyond his remarks, is there a venue or media out there that isn’t saturated thoroughly with the unspoken assumption of powerful and straight cis white men’s greater validity?

Would he tell this other sex worker without his glamorous experiences that her decisions are the cause of her misery? Possibly rendered infertile, definitely unable to find work in her field, and then openly mocked in a court of law for trying to claim worker’s compensation. Maybe given her condition, this is a question we should turn over to the Italian OB/GYN’s. They’re clearly experts in whether or not she still could make money dancing.

Or if not them, maybe the sisters of the Children of Mary order can offer her help. That is, when they aren’t making videos that claim:

“With the prevalence of contraception, it’s no wonder adultery is on the rise, as is promiscuity, homosexual behavior, and even abortion due to failed contraception”

Good grief, Buck, you and I might be queer on account of the pill! I don’t know for sure if you’d find it as silly a claim as I do, but maybe you’d agree that there’s nothing surprising about this message coming from an institution, which has traditionally sought to suppress information about sex and sexuality, and believes condoms do not have an ethical role to play in the fight against HIV.

I won’t say that celibates have no right to discuss these matters, nor do I assume they must somehow be more ignorant than others (though this specific group clearly is). I only want to demonstrate how it doesn’t matter if you’re part of a cloistered group of ideologues, a glamorous or powerful figure insulated from criticism, someone with “special access”, someone ranting in a youtube echo chamber, or a regular high schooler where 98% of your peers are white. If other people are absent from the development of your ideas, they will be absent when you express those ideas, but unfortunately still painfully subject to the consequences.

I look at those students there, performing a pep rally skit that “humorously” reenacts Chris Brown’s beating of Rihanna while actually wearing blackface, and I am less disgusted with them than I am the culture that made them. I’m not without empathy. I feel it for these students. It was not as easy for me to go through life without confronting realities of racism or abuse as it is for them right now, at this moment of their lives, but I still managed to stay blind to it well into adulthood. I had the help of teachers, family, media, a largely homogenous campus.

They have all those things and live in a world where Amanda Todd sees no way out but death and a man like Michael Brutsch can shape the nature of discourse over vast portions of “the front page of the internet”. Make no mistake, when a lesbian servicewoman’s death on duty and the nation’s preference for well behaved, invisible LGBTQ people ensures that her partner is not even acknowledged after the fact, let alone given access to services, the stakes are high.

And I absolutely include blogs among the forces helping make this world what it is. Coincidentally, I received my first pieces of hate mail while drafting this piece (which have nothing to do with this site), and I actually have to credit one of the “points” they made while trying to tear me down. There truly is something to the idea that putting my ideas up publically, while reserving the tyrannical power to limit comment, is a narcissistic enterprise.

It would be fantastic if the Internet were a place where porn stars and nuns were genuinely communing, but as things stand, every obvious incentive remains for us to continue setting up empty chairs to lecture at. The Internet didn’t make this happen of course. It simply presents new, more efficient opportunities for us to do so, and gives us more ways to practice talking about things we’re ignorant about, more undeserved confidence, and more volume.

It will take greater incentives in the other direction to make any kind of positive impact. As long as each checkmark next to traits like white, male, rich, cis, straight, or Christian ensures more actual “presence” in dominant discourses, and as long as any deviations from that list are balkanized into easily ignored margins of discourse, we will continue to see even well meaning people participate in oppression.

So to LGBT folk who think flamboyant queers hurt the cause of acceptance and equality, or to atheists who see including social justice issues as divisive and diluting their mission, you must understand, embracing us enriches you. There is no threat to letting us take that seat and share meaningful, equal footing. It only means you will have more company.

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