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Dogma is a cage.

One of the things I like about science, at least the philosophy of science, is that nothing is sacred. In science, everything is theory until it has been subject to rigorous testing, and even then what we believe to be rigid and fast is often proven quite malleable when we are able to see more, know more or simply apply the test under different circumstances. To be a true scientist is to be comfortable with never knowing anything for sure.

This is something a lot of people have a really, really hard time with.

And I get it. As a species, we are lovers of dogma—sets of rules set down by an authoritative source, infallible and immutable. These sorts of systems are the basis of our religions and our ethical systems; they provide a foundation for law and order within our societies. Given that the universe often feels extremely chaotic and incomprehensible, it’s only natural to want to bring a little bit of order to it all, to want to find a reason for what might otherwise feel like random maligneance. And certainly our laws and ethical systems allow us to live together in relative peace, most of the time, and to mete out order and justice when that peace is broken.

Rules and principles are important. Ideology is important. We are better people when we strive for something, even if you and I may not agree on exactly what that something is.

A problem arises, however, when we hold on to rules and principles for the sake of the principle, for the sake of the dogma, even when we’re faced with overwhelming evidence that the rules don’t work. Then dogma becomes stagnation. It can become cruelty. And it most definitely becomes a cage.

The thing about dogma is that it’s always issued by an authority, someone (or many someones) with power. Someone who, it turns out, always benefits from the rest of us staying in that cage, whether they mean to or not.

For those of us who grew up in especially dogmatic cultures, breaking out of that cage can be tantamount to committing suicide. It requires a willingness to question everything you’ve ever been taught, which usually means questioning the people who taught it to you: parents, friends, comrades. It means choosing to live with an extreme amount of cognitive dissonance and to push oneself through an evolutionary process that is dangerous, damaging and even deadly. It often means the loss of every relationship you hold dear, because even if you can “agree to disagree,” you will always be the person who left, the person who took everything that has meaning in your culture and threw it on the ground, stomped and shat on it.

Breaking out is violent and messy. Always.

I read an article over the weekend about Derek Black, once a leading voice of the white supremacy movement in the United States. It’s the story of how he broke out of his dogmatic cage, and the price he paid for it. Most of you who read this will say that his cage, the white supremacy movement, is extreme. That it should have been easy to break away, should have been a relief. Obviously, that sort of dogma is damaging.

Perhaps, for you, it is.

But I couldn’t help but remember other dogmas, ones that seem benign, even magnanimous at first (and honestly, maybe they were once), but aren’t anymore. I recalled my own internal battles as I came out as an atheist, a feminist, a bisexual and polyamorous person. Beliefs I have held that were just plain wrong. Beliefs I hold now that may be too simple for the real world. Things I desperately want to be true, but probably aren’t.

None of this is ever easy.

It would be easy to live in the cage, stand by the dogma, suggest that it’s ok because my rules aren’t hurting anyone. That they are, somehow, more correct than everyone else’s. That those people, the ones who profess to have the same beliefs as me, are doing it wrong, that their cage is somehow different and broken.

It’s hard to hold these ideas lightly, to be willing to search for new evidence, to be willing to change one’s mind. To choose an ideology that’s compassionate and thoughtful and pliable over a rigid set of rules. It’s easy to feel persecuted when one’s dogma is questioned.

But again, dogma is never without context. Someone always benefits from your cage. And it’s pretty much never you.

You’re going to be tempted to view this as idealistic, or naive maybe. The phrase “so open-minded that your brain fell out” is often echoed in these discussions. Or you might think that you’re not dogmatic, that you don’t have those issues. After all you’re a good person, you aren’t a white supremacist, you vote Democrat (or third party). You’re an independent thinker. I guarantee you I’m not naive, and I also guarantee you that none of us is truly independent. (Another thing about science? Good science assumes a certain level of bias. That’s why it relies on consensus by a wide variety of people in a wide variety of contexts before anything is considered a rule.)

Dogma is a cage, but it doesn’t have to hold you down. All you have to do is look for the bars.

 

 

(photo credit: Peter Griffin.)

All the girls.
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Stop calling me a girl.

Over the weekend, as part of an ongoing commitment to a cinematic, popcorn-and-booze Saturday brunch, we went to see The Girl on the Train.

I liked the movie. It’s a quite good adaptation of the book, and the film layers a gorgeous, delightfully moody New England scenery over the whole thing that nicely set the tone for the story, one of those shorthand things you can do with visual media and that can be so difficult to do on a page.

The title of the story, though, seems to be part of a disturbing trend, where we take deep discussions of identity and relationships and, most especially, the abuse and murder of women and cover them over with a mysterious cover and a cutesy title.

The Girl on the Train

Gone Girl

And the title that (I think) started them all: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.

There’s something telling about American culture with that last one. I’m given to understand that the original title, translated from Swedish, is Men Who Hate Women. But here, to sell books, someone chose to reduce the main female character, Lisbeth Salander, to adolescence and comment on her appearance. The second bit of that is ridiculous, to some extent. One minuscule detail in a myriad of those conveyed throughout the narrative about Lisbeth’s physical appearance. It’s interesting and makes for a great cover design, but ultimately, it’s a throwaway comment in a sea of far more interesting prose.

The first bit is problematic on a much deeper level. The book was not titled Men Who Hate Women by accident. The entire book contains story after story of women who were refused agency and personhood by the men in their lives. Lisbeth’s own struggle centers around a state-imposed guardianship, one that essentially forces her to remain a child despite having successfully reached adulthood. While we would likely not all agree with her personal version of adulthood, we are left no doubt as to whether Lisbeth can care for herself.

And yet, despite that being the central theme of the book, someone, somewhere, chose to take that from her once again by retitling the book—and as a consequence, the entire series—using the word “girl.”

Now, some of you are already protesting. “Why can’t I say girl? There’s nothing wrong with it, it’s just a word. We call men boys, too. This is just political correctness gone amuck.” And so on, and so forth.

Hang in here a moment. Let’s unpack some words, shall we?

People who like to argue semantics like to point to strict definitions, so let’s start there. From Dictionary.com, we have:

girl (noun): 1. A female child, from birth to full growth. 2. A young, immature woman, especially formerly, an unmarried one.

and also:

boy (noun): 1. A male child, from birth to full growth, especially one less than 18 years of age. 2. A young man who lacks maturity, judgement, etc.

Now, theoretically, these two definitions should be essentially identical.

Notice how they’re not.

According to the dictionary (and hence, our oral traditions), the male of the species outgrows the term “boy” at age 18, unless he’s especially irresponsible (Or a person of color, which is not the specific focus of this blog post—that discussion is somewhat more complex than I’ve got time for today—but does merit observation.).

Female members of our species, however, don’t have such nice, defined lines. You might get to be a woman if you get married—a status defined wholly by its relationship to someone else. You can theoretically mature out of being a girl, but there’s no qualification for this. Responsibility does not appear to be enough by itself, and we live in a culture where “mature” is generally read as physically elderly, some might even use the word crone, and certainly not something to be desired.

No, in this culture it is best to stay fresh-faced, wrinkle-free, childlike and immature for as long as possible. At least, if you happen to identify as female.

In the book version of The Girl on the Train, the main characters do not refer to themselves or other women as girls (as I recall, at least, and a cursory review of the novel would seem to reinforce that memory). Rather, the word is imposed by the title, and is picked up in the film version of the story as Rachel, the primary point-of view-character, reflects, “I am not the girl I used to be,” a phrase that, especially given the weight of all that happens and has happened in the story, feels contrived and trite and out of character. Something that’s meant to force a tie to a title that already doesn’t quite fit, that seems designed to deliberately evoke reference to earlier, similarly-named works (and probably is).

(There is a comment to be made here about how literature featuring female leads is generally only marketed to women, and redundancy in titles is quite common, and really, do “they” think we’re that stupid? But I’m not going to make it.)

In Gone Girl, the use of the g-word is much more deliberate. Throughout the story Amy, the female lead, refers to various types of Girls, the people we, as women, are supposed to be, the straitjackets laced up around us to ensure that Order is maintained.

And it is precisely that issue that leaves me banishing the word altogether, at least when it comes to describing a female person over the age of 18 (Except perhaps by doting parents who, after all, will still be calling us things like “punkin” and “Suzy-Q” long after we’ve reached the half-century mark. They are our mums and dads, and herding us intact into adulthood should probably earn them a fair bit of leeway in matters of terminology.).

It is the word “girl,” with all it’s loaded baggage, that has us celebrating basic self-care as “adulting,” that has us all too eager to settle for long-term, unfulfilling relationships as proof we are truly grown-up. That imprisons us in a cult of youthfulness and irresponsibility. That tortures us into madness when we cannot keep up the charade. That allows the men in our lives to see us as mere playthings and possessions, dolls to be manipulated in whatever way they so choose.

Call me a woman. Call me Gretchen, or Gee. Call me any host of other things, good or bad. But for the love of all that is or is not holy, stop calling me a girl.

My Favorite Kind of Beach, Los Angeles 2016
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When I was young I dreamt of living by the beach.

It’s funny, because on the one hand, I totally made that happen. And on the other, the life I live now is the polar opposite of the one I imagined back in those days.

I was thinking about this the other day, because we’re rapidly approaching what I’d call my favorite time of beach: the days have grown shorter, the angle of the sun has changed and there’s a distinctive nip in the wind most evenings. The colors of the sky and the sea fade into glorious pastels, the intensity of summer washed away for another season.

When I used to dream of the beach, it was in that stony, water-colored palette, wind-swept and solitary. The kind of beach I imagine one finds in places further north of here, though I have little experience of my own in that geography.

When the beach was only a dream, it was a solitary place. A cloistered sanctuary, accessible only to the most determined, a heaven-on-earth for my painfully shy, introverted, younger self. The self that found it difficult to make friends—and honestly, most of the time didn’t really want to—people being uncomfortable and messy and, well, just plain stupid a lot of the time. The self who was easily overwhelmed by the chaos of the universe and all those freaking ridiculous people, who believed that if she could only stop the world for a moment, just a moment, she’d figure it all out.

These days, the life I actually live is so far removed from that dream—the only things in common are the sand and the sea—and yet it is so much more fulfilling than I could have imagined back then.

It is fully, densely populated. It is busy and hectic and intense. It never stops. I have become someone who, once shy and terribly awkward, now makes friends by accident. I not only manage the chaos, but I’ve even been known to go looking for it. And I love it.

That being said, I still find days when it’s all too much, and I still catch myself thinking that if it would all just stop for a moment, if I could just make it all go away long enough to find the space to evolve, then, well! Y’all just better watch out.

People are messy. Being people together is messy. The world is a hard, hard place. But we’re all just trying to do our best. Yeah, even that guy. And we don’t get to put on the brakes, we don’t get to press pause. If we’re to evolve, to grow, we have to do it between the rock and the hard place.

Today, that truth is hitting me hard. And I want to shut it all down maybe now more than I ever have before. But I can’t. And I won’t.

See you at the beach.

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We Can Control Our Genetics—But We’re Not Ready

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about where we’re headed as humans, which is probably unsurprising, given our current political climate here in the U.S. I have to admit to a fair amount of news-related depression these days. Donald Trump’s bizarre brand of nationalism and white supremacy, echoed in daily assassinations of black men by those we (the society of Americans) pay to protect them are only the tip of a rapidly melting iceberg, symptoms of a disease that is slowly rotting us from the inside out. I can’t help feeling, most days, that the species we fondly refer to as homo sapiens, and most especially that subspecies known as american has doomed itself to a very efficacious extinction.

Because I am me, I’ve been throwing my attention toward the future—using my generally optimistic view of our capabilities as a hedge against the pessimism I hold regarding our general nature, especially as a group. That means a lot of science (what we could do) and a lot of history (what we have done and—possibly more important—how), seasoned with generous doses of psychology, sociology, and cultural anthropology. I draw hope from the belief that we are absolutely capable of digging ourselves out of this hole we’re in, and that the first step in doing that is knowledge (science).

Which is to say, when the Gee gets down, the Gee goes full egghead.

And all of that is really just serving as background for my having seriously mixed feelings this morning when I discovered two seemingly disparate, yet completely connected things in my news feed.

The first is a report from New Scientist announcing the birth of the first baby conceived via a new technique that uses the DNA of three individuals as biological parents.

The idea behind this technique takes advantage of one of the cool things about cells and DNA, that is, that we have two types of DNA in each cell: most of it in the nucleus (core) of our cells, and some in the mitochondria (energy factories) of the cell. These two DNA strands are different, and some genetic disorders are specifically linked to one or the other type. These disorders are passed down maternally in a woman’s egg cells.

In this situation, the scientists circumvented a deadly mitochondrial DNA disorder by placing the mother’s healthy nuclear DNA into the eggs of a donor, one who had healthy mitochondrial DNA. In this way, the baby is still primarily related to both mother and father, but does not receive the damaged mitochondrial DNA. So far, the technique seems to be working.

Now, the scientist and optimist in me is really excited about this. It offers a unique way to circumvent weaknesses in our genetic makeup, and I like the idea of a stronger genetic code on principle alone. Given that my pessimistic side is pretty convinced we’re doomed as a species, I’m all for giving the kids of the future as big a helping hand as we possibly can.

Additionally, there are interesting implications for those of us who believe in an expanded definition of the two-heterosexual-parents-only definition of “family.” While the genetic link to the mitochondrial donor is fairly weak, it is a link, and that is, well, kinda nifty.

The flip side is, of course, that the more we have the ability to choose what our kids look like, how their brains function, how their bodies perform, the more we have the ability to make mistakes, to be biased in favor of an ideal that might not, in reality, be so ideal. After all, evolutionary benefit often comes from something that looks like a genetic mistake. And we are extremely vulnerable in this area. Over and over again, we prove that we cannot tell the difference between “different” and “broken.”

Case in point: the study referenced in this story on NPR, in which researchers discovered inherent racial bias in preschool teachers.

Yeah, you read that right. Preschool.

There’s a lot of folks these days that want to pretend that systemic racism—and a lot of other bigotry and bias—doesn’t exist in our society. Or even that it’s somehow justified, that there’s a “correct” social order and that it’s topped by white, heterosexual men.

Studies like this counteract that. Studies like this show that we stack the deck against certain people from the very beginning. And this on top of the news from San Diego of yet another fatal shooting involving our police and an unarmed, black man.

In the face of all this, how can we possibly hope to evolve? How can we be trusted with the power to change our own genetic code?

I want us, as a species, to be better. Help me out—where do we go from here?