Archive for February, 2015

Cognitive Dissonance

Let's see. White: check. Straight: check. Male: check. Now, let me sit down and learn something...

Let’s see. White: check. Straight: check. Male: check. Now, let me sit down and learn something…

Yesterday and today (it’s only 9am as I write this, so, gee, can’t wait for the rest of the day), I saw/see these two articles/essays making the rounds on Facebook. One, titled I read only non-white authors for 12 months. What I learned surprised me, and another titled I Challenge You To Stop Reading White, Straight, Cis, male Authors For One Year. I feel like the main thrust of these pieces would be apparent, even without clicking the links. But the responses I saw in the comments were overwhelmingly of this type: When I choose a book to read, I don’t consider the race, sexuality, or gender of the author. I just want a good story. Sometimes it got ugly, numerous comments (“liked” by plenty) suggesting that non-white, heterosexual, female/trans authors were simply playing their respective “cards” in order to sell books. The latter response is repugnant, ignorant, and shallow. The former, though, is what I’d like to address.

How can anyone read these pieces (or, even the titles, honestly) and still come away thinking the “I don’t see race/sexuality/gender” argument is remotely valid in any way (or, ever, really*)?

According to Wikipedia (that tried and trusted source), “cognitive dissonance” is “the mental stress or discomfort by an individual who holds two or more contradictory beliefs, ideas, or values at the same time, or is confronted by new information that conflicts with existing beliefs, ideas, or values.”

I happened to have noted a while ago that I more often see the “I don’t see race/sexuality/gender” argument coming from my fellow progressives far more often than I see it used by folks, we’ll say, more traditionally known to be racist, sexist, and homophobic. This has always been pretty disappointing, but there it is. So, you’ve got these people running around, happy and comfortable in the idea that they are not contributing to the problems of race, gender, and sexuality because they are, indeed, not at all racist, sexist, or homophobic. How nice. Good for them. But, oh, when someone points out to them that their reading list is primarily made up of straight, white, male authors, the cognitive dissonance sets in: “Oh noes. I’m not any of those bad things, and yet, my reading list seems to reflect an underlying predisposition to these bad things! What do I do?” And up goes the idiot mental block. “I shall simply say that I do not see race, gender, nor sexuality, and, like magic…MAGIC…I am above it all. ABOVE IT.”

Just…stop that. Let’s all go put on our big girl/boy/trans pants on and have a look at this as adults, shall we?

You are experiencing the icky discomfort, and yes, shame, of being a member of our society and culture. Not very nice, is it? I know, because I experience it too. *shudder* It’s gross. It was brought home to me with a reading experience I had last night, which I’ll return to later.

But, for the moment, let’s all pretend we’re perfect. Got it? Are you perfect? Good. Relax in that comfort and, in this moment of mental clarity brought on by this happy lie, let me explain the point of these year-long reading exercises. You don’t have to get defensive about them now, because, hey, you’re perfect and none of this applies to you.

The point of these exercises is to break the cognitive dissonance you’re feeling right now (or, were feeling a moment ago, before you turned perfect). In terms of our personal comfort, it’s a trial by fire. Not the reading itself. I imagine the reading itself is rather fantastic. It’s the getting past the recognition that, no, you’re not perfect–you do carry a lot of societal baggage and it affects you in ways you don’t even know, until someone points it out and you go into idiot mental block mode. That is the trial. The point of deliberately going out of your way to find authors that aren’t immediately on your radar (and yes, white, straight male writers are more likely to be on yours and everyone else’s radar because that’s what society puts in front of us–and let’s not fool ourselves with the stupid idea that it’s all based on merit. Hahaa…oh, I made myself LOL with that one. Pardon. ) for a year is so that, by the end of that year, your hard work has paid off. You now know where to find books by these authors (because yes, you have to look for them). You now know that these authors are more than their stereotypes. And, holy shit, maybe you even now know (and aren’t just assuming, because you want to be good, right?) that these authors, who are in some way, or ways, different than you, care about and think about the same things you do. Wow. Common ground. It’s amazing what you learn when you go back to the basics, which is that we’re all human (well, most of us). And hey, that’s basically what has enabled us non-white, non-hetero, non-male readers to read all of that straight, white male lit for all these many, many years. If we can do it all our lives, I promise that you can do it for a year.

What the point of this exercise isn’t? I can tell you, it’s definitely not to shame straight, white, male authors. And it’s not to shame you for reading them. By all means, read what you want. But a relatively simple exercise like this can result in only good things. You’re expanding your reading base in terms of variety and points of view, which, in turn, opened your mind to relationships that you probably thought were closed to you because of cultural differences. You’re a step closer to closing that gap. And the next time someone challenges your inherent goodness with a reading exercise, you won’t get all bunched up and defensive. You’ll say, “Fuck yeah, I’m totally doing that.”

And, in fact, I think I’m totally going to do that (fuck yeah!). Because last night, I was in bed reading. I was reading Nelson Algren’s Somebody in Boots. I was about 94 pages into a 256-page novel when I just couldn’t (even) anymore. It’s a story of the down and out white men of the 20s and 30s, with a particularly spineless protagonist. Which is fine. But, I found that I could no longer read about how terrible these men had it–and they did have it bad. Homelessness is horrible–the filth, the hunger, the constant fear, the sickness, the exhaustion, the loneliness, the everything. Terrible. And I could have stuck with it, save two things: 1) in 94 pages, I had yet to see any inkling from this protagonist to try something different and perhaps change his situation (for better or worse, the active decision making was pretty scarce), and 2) the gang rape of a black, female fellow transient. As I read, I could hear this little voice in my head saying, “If he rapes her, I’m done. If he rapes her, I’m done.” And slowly, she was incapacitated, thrown down, and:

Now there came into Cass’s heart and dark and terrible desire. Drawn by a power more strong than himself, like a strong hand pushing him from behind, he went closer and closer. About him others moved slowly closer. All moved slowly, and in silence, toward the black woman. The air became charged with the smell of the woman, they all smelled the dark woman, her thighs and her womb: womb, belly, and breasts; her thighs flexing in fear.

They were all of them men; they were  men without women.

So, they raped her. Because they are men, men without women, and we all know that women are only good for one thing. He raped her, this protagonist to whom I was supposed to be sympathetic. And I was done.

I understand that gang rapes happen. But I can’t move on to page 95 with a protagonist who hasn’t even got the basic willpower of human decency not to brutalize those below him, as though his own lot were as low as it goes. Because, hell, I can turn on the news and see that every day, today, among the reasonably affluent. It was here, reading this, that it became so glaringly clear that, although I’m sure Algren assumed he wrote for anyone who would read his books, this book was not in any way written for me, a woman. Our cultural blanket inclusion is anything but inclusive. It is the inclusion of straight, white men, which is what we all see as “baseline average/normal” whether or not we are straight, white men. And the vast majority of what dominates our literary landscape is written from the perspective of straight, white men, for straight, white men, whether the authors knew it, or meant to do it. Just like you and I don’t really mean for our reading lists to be chock full of straight, white men. It’s just what it is. It’s the “norm.” Hey, because we’re all included, right? Well…we’re not.

And there I was, enjoying the prose style of this book written by a straight, white man (a leftist who expected Simone de Beauvoir to be the submissive in the relationship, no less), like I have for my entire life, and I just couldn’t anymore. The prose could no longer cover up the alienation I’ve always felt reading these books–these books that, despite how much in them I did relate to, were in no way written with me in mind. I could say that I’m exempt from this reading exercise, because I’m a woman and I know how it feels. But that’s bullshit.

So, consider this a friendly, if irritated, wake-up call to my progressive comrades who generally consider themselves not racist, sexist, or homophobic, but who seek to alleviate the discomfort of their own cognitive dissonance by using the “I don’t see race/sexuality/gender” argument cop-out.* Cut it out. The discomfort of your cognitive dissonance is but a tiny fraction of the discomfort felt every day by non-whites, women, trans folk, and gays. It’s nothing. It’s like whining about needing a band-aid for your paper cut while the guy next to you is gutted and bleeding to death. Suck it up, tough it out, and in the end, if you can manage the make it through a year-long reading challenge like this, actually be the better person, instead of just assuming you are one. And although I, myself, am bleeding to death, I can look around the emergency room and see that I’m not the only one, and although the blood is all red, the wounds are different, in different places, and some bleed more than others, some less, but all are far worse than a paper cut.

Am I going to stop reading straight, white male authors? Of course not. That’s stupid. But my reading list is definitely getting an overhaul and, poor me, I’ll just have to deal with the extra work of that.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

*Important side note: this tactic of claiming that you’re so enlightened that you’re somehow above the fray and don’t need to consider these things is really comfortable for you (go ahead and pat yourself on the back), but, in reality, it’s detrimental to actually solving the problems of race, sexuality, and gender discrimination. You are part of the problem. These issues are like cancer–it does not go away by denying and ignoring it. Doing that only gives it free reign to grow and wreck everything. And admit it, if you read on Facebook that someone died after deliberately choosing to ignore their cancer, you’d think, “Duh. What a moron.” Well…that’s what we’re thinking about you. Sorry. Truth.

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WmarriageCFact: I never dreaded the month of February until it became Women in Horror Month. I dread it because it’s like taking all the bullshit women have to deal with generally throughout the year and magnifying it a thousand times in the area that, to us, is supposed to be a safe space. While it’s nice to see the many posts featuring women and what they’re doing in horror, it’s impossible not to be irritated by the fact that this only happens one month out of the year, and then inevitably, there’s conflict. And, again, nothing new here, except that when it happens during this particular month, it becomes intolerable (more so than usual). And frankly, I’m usually so exhausted by the constant year ’round outrage regarding my gender that by the time February rolls around, I just can’t. Not even.

But I’m going to say something this year. This is mainly inspired by a wonderful post by writer and well-known swell guy, John Edward Lawson. Go ahead and have a read. It’s not long, and it’s very good.

I want to address two things. One, this:

Yet I still find myself somehow wandering into the nigger conversation. You know that one. I’m standing with a bunch of guys and the conversation veers toward the subject of women, and bit by bit, we meander to the point where if you replace the word “women” with the word “niggers” you realize you’re having the same conversation being held at the regional KKK headquarters. No need to look back to wonder at how free folk conducted themselves during slavery or reconstruction or the Jim Crow era when we can simply observe the men in our lives.

I’d like to thank Big Black John deeply for saying the thing we can’t say. Well, we can, but not without being called racist.

Here’s something a lot of people don’t know. Women’s movements had their beginnings in the Abolitionist movement. When women began fighting for the rights of African Americans, they weren’t thinking of themselves and their own rights. But as they worked against slavery alongside men (and speaking to men), it became glaringly apparent that their lack of rights was preventing them from being able to fight fully. By this, I mean that women weren’t permitted to be so publicly active, and so when they took part in anti-slavery gatherings, or, Universe forbid, tried to actually speak, they were met with anger and sometimes violence–not because of the words coming out of their mouths, but because they were women attempting to engage publicly.

And so here’s what happened. In some cases, they were pushed out of the anti-slavery movement (because the men thought their struggle was a distraction from the “real” struggle) and actually had to go form their own all-women groups to continue the fight against slavery. From these women/groups came the Women’s Rights Movement. And in the end, the women abolitionists were sorely disappointed that their anti-slavery comrades, in fact, didn’t support their own rights and need for freedom. I’d like to take this moment right here to point out that, if you think domestic violence and murder statistics are appalling today, I’m sure you can imagine with what level of impunity that sort of thing was carried out with during the mid-19th century. And if a person has no freedom of movement, of speech, to choose what one does with one’s life, and suffers severe emotional, psychological, and often physical reprisals (not to mention the economical threats), is this really less than “slavery” simply because the men calling the shots are using this particular group of people to bolster their egos and sense of masculinity? She may be a bird, but she’s a bird in a cage.

While the horror of slavery was ended, women’s slavery has never been acknowledged. Black men were able to vote well before women, and while we got the Civil Rights Act in ’64, despite being introduced every year since 1972, we still can’t get the Equal Rights Act passed (for your information, it was originally written and introduced in 1923). I’m not saying that everything’s been great since the ending of slavery, or black men getting the vote, or the Civil Rights Act. It’s been a slow, grinding road to “equality” (whatever that means anymore), and today, in 2015, racism is alive and well–robust, even–everywhere you look, literally. Literally. And so is sexism, except women haven’t enjoyed quite as many large scale, official, public acknowledgements that they have been wronged by society. We still struggle to be taken seriously–in the workplace, in our homes, hell, just in a simple conversation. Worse, we’re still having to prove that we’re beaten and raped. We still have laws that tell us what we can and can’t do with our bodies. If a girl’s shoulders are showing in school, she’s the one who has to change her behavior, not the boy whose inability to control his raging hard-on is actually the problem. And if he rapes her? Her fault. If a woman is in an abusive relationship and she leaves, she was too demanding. Her expectations were too high. When she doesn’t leave, she deserves to be beaten.

So, this is what we’re looking at. Which brings me to my second point. John wrote:

Women don’t exist just in the horror scene, so the condemnation has to be considered within the larger context of society. A single metal post is not threatening, so focusing on it seems silly until you realize many more encircle you forming a cage.

Exactly. I find that the men working within the horror community get extremely defensive, acting as if they’re being unfairly singled out. “Men in horror” are being picked on. Here’s something that would be really great if both men and women in horror would keep in mind. The treatment of women in horror, by men in horror, is but a tiny fraction of what exists in the world in terms of male/female relations. If someone in the horror community decides to tell me I’m ugly, my reaction could go one of two ways. I could have a meltdown (and therefore be blowing it out of proportion), or I could ignore it (and therefore be “unsupportive” of women). The thing is, both of those reactions are completely justified. I might freak out over it because it’s just the cherry on the cake of my week, which was full of misogynistic ramblings on the Internet–abortion, yoga pants, go-make-me-a-sammich, etc. etc., getting cat-called on the street and then called a “bitch” because you didn’t respond with a smile and, I don’t know, offer a blowjob, and maybe all of this bullshit drudged up those extremely unpleasant memories of that (or those) abusive relationship(s) you thankfully managed to extricate yourself from. Or, worse, the one you’re in right now. The one that even if you did go to a shelter (because that’s your only choice), no one’s going to stop him from killing you.

And ignoring it is reasonable as well, because maybe you’re like me and you’re just fucking tired. Just sick and tired of all of it. Whatever the case, no reaction is good enough, as usual. As with everything. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.

But, to you, Horror Community, women and men, I say to you…your interactions against the backdrop of “horror” is such a small piece of the larger problem. When you both put so much of your identity into this one area–this genre–it takes on the illusion of being separate. Like, some sort of oasis where the troubles of regular society can’t possibly reach.* So, you think you’re better than you are, or you think it’s worse than it is. Comparatively, it’s pretty much the same. It’s such a huge and complex web of social, political, economical threads that few people really sit down and even attempt to consider from all angles. And yet, here we are in this little corner of our culture–the horror genre–and we act like these problems begin and end at its doorstep. They don’t. They never did.

Fact: Women have lived without equality far longer than the “horror genre” has existed. “Horror” is but a child by comparison. And for every woman horror writer you can think of, you can name five men. How many of you can name (without Googling it) five women who fought for the abolition of slavery first before going on to fight for their own freedoms?

I can rip the men of horror twelve brand new assholes every February because, frankly, one of them does something stupid. Sexist. Someone always does. Because February is when they have the most fun, the misogynists of the genre. It’s when they can illicit the best, most spectacular responses. Me? I like to blow up once a week at everything happening inside and outside the genre, because raging fury never sleeps, nor does in acknowledge boundaries. The men in the horror community have a long way to go before the women in the same community will feel equal. That’s just a fact, because it’s only a microcosm of the larger problem. And guess what? It’s not my job, nor my responsibility, to point out the changes these men need to make. You know why? Because we’re all adults. If you can’t figure it out, that’s your problem. I’ll just step over you on my way to the buffet.

So, in closing–everyone have fun fighting this month. We could use more thoughtful, intelligent posts like John’s. We could use more understanding. We could use, in all honesty, a fucking history lesson, and a whole lot more perspective. But that requires work, and who’s got time for that?

– – – – – – – – –

*And don’t get me wrong–I get it. We’re all, on some level, societal misfits. This community is where we’re supposed to feel socially safe. Unfortunately, it’s not safe. It’s no different here than anywhere else. And I do believe that that disappointment on the part of women is felt so much more acutely. Men who are social misfits find solace in their fellow freaks/geeks in various genre communities. Women often find…socially inept men, who are, disappointingly, often worse than the “normal” men out there in the world. We have no refuge but with each other, and we’re so damaged by sexism in society that we fight amongst ourselves (and you’ll find this in any “minority”). There is no safe harbor.

You want references? Here you go.

Century of Struggle: The Women’s Rights Movements in the United States by Eleanor Flexner and Ellen Fitzpatrick

Natural Allies: Women’s Associations in American History by Anne Firor Scott

The Grounding of Modern Feminism by Nancy F. Cott

No, not something you can skim over on the Internet. Go read a damn book.

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