Surface    |    Backfill    |    About    |    Contact


Housework Expectations

Amanda at Mouse Words points out this letter in response to an article about men's failure to do their share of the housework, written by a man who does split the work 50/50 with his wife:

While there is no question that across the board the situation could not be defined as equal, I would hazard a guess that significant progress has been made in terms of fathers' active involvement in meeting their children's day-to-day needs. Characterizing this entire "generation" of fathers as a "lost cause" is as insulting as healthcare professionals who assume I do not know my children's medical history, daycare providers who refuse to address issues to me and instead wait to see my wife, whom they see far less frequently, or individuals who practically give me a gold star for correctly stating my children's birthdays.

Amanda is caustically dismissive of the writer's complaints, arguing that he shouldn't be demanding a cookie for doing the work he should be expected to do. I quite agree that men deserve no praise for doing 50% of the work, but I don't see this writer as asking for a cookie. All he's asking is that people complaining about men's laziness make their generalizations a little less sweeping (though it does seem that living in a relatively progressive social circle has led him to inflate the proportion of men who do take responsibility).

I also think that fixing the sorts of stereotypes that he reports could do some good for those families that don't split the work 50/50. We're strongly shaped by others' expectations of us. If service providers were to project the assumption that men do their share of the work, and act put out when that assumption isn't met, it would create more social pressure on men to live up to it.


Political Ecology of Amazonia

Brazil's President Creates Massive Forest Reserves After Killing Of American Nun

Brazil's president ordered the creation of two massive new rain forest reserves Thursday amid increasing pressure to protect a lawless Amazon region from violent loggers and ranchers after the killing last weekend of an American nun who fought to protect the jungle.

Decrees signed by President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva will form a reserve of 8.15 million acres and a national park of 1.1 million acres in the state of Para, where 73-year-old Dorothy Stang was shot to death in a dispute with a powerful rancher.

Unfortunately, this article doesn't give enough information to know how positive a development Lula's decree is. Without good enforcement, drawing lines on paper won't do much to save the forest or its people. Also, conservation reserves have a history of (deliberately or unintentionally) depriving local people of resources that their livelihoods depend on. An archetypcal wilderness reserve may do more harm than good by undermining local peasants while making those in power think that the problem has been fixed.

I'm also concerned about this, from the end of the article:

Lawlessness has long been common in huge Para state, where ranchers, backed by hired gunmen, ensnare poor workers in an endless cycle of debt akin to slavery. Tensions rose further when the government recently ordered ranchers to evacuate land they occupied but couldn't prove they owned.

Ranchers and loggers blocked roads and rivers, and the government relented, allowing ranchers with dubious claims to the land to continue logging.

Environmentalists have complained bitterly about the government's decision. In their letter Thursday, the 60 groups demanded that Silva set a deadline for the occupiers of public land to prove ownership "without flexibility for any sector."

I understand the environmentalists' sentiment. However, demanding unassailable proof of ownership has the potential to greatly disadvantage the rural poor. Though situations have improved over the years, peasants in the Amazon -- and elsewhere -- are often without clear legal deeds to their land. They occupy it based on extra-legal custom and the fact that it's not worth the government's while to challenge them. Larger, more powerful operations like logging companies or big ranchers are typically more skilled at, and have more resources to invest in, obtaining some form of legal documentation of their claim. Mestizo peasants may be at the most disadvantage, as numerous state and international programs have focused on securing the rights and livelihoods of Indians (sometimes enticing mestizos to claim to be Indians in order to tap into these programs -- some Amazonian tribes have had population booms due to genetically-non-Indian people being adopted).


Amanda emails with a very on-target criticism of my previous post:

i know it seems sort of cute and intellectual to use big words to avoid swearing, but when you do that you have to be aware of the meanings of the words you're using. here, by using words that have actual meanings, instead of swears where the meanings have been mostly effaced, you make it sound as though you are using the idea of anal sex as an insult, instead of just calling someone a fucking asshole, which is the product of putting two swears together arbitrarily and is supposed to provide emphasis instead of giving them a combined meaning. your rewriting doesn't have the desired effect of using a common insult to describe homophobic people and instead sort of undermines your statement by unintentionally making you sound somewhat homophobic yourself.

And I know you're not homophobic etc etc but wanted you to be aware of the effect of that way of writing.

Homophobia And Authority

... It was all for Fleming High School senior Kelli Davis. The school says it will not publish her senior picture because she wore a tuxedo instead of the traditional drape.

... The school board says the clothing breaks school tradition.

... "Young ladies wear one thing and young men wear something else. If you choose not to do that, you're out of line," [resident James] Stewart said.

This story (via Rox Populi) goes into more detail. Let's first be clear on one thing: the principal, who made the original decision to bar Davis's picture, is (as the kids say) a rectal aperture engaging in intercourse. There is absolutely no excuse for his small-mindedness. That said, it is reasonable for the school board to refuse to intervene. Delegation of authority means allowing the delegate some scope for using his or her discretion -- even if that leads to small abuses of power. I think enforcing a relatively modest gendered dress code falls under the principal's discretion, and I'd be hesitant to ask the school board to micromanage the principal's job. (At the same time, board members and other citizens who agree with the substance of the decision enter rectal territory as well.)

I also think there are deeper problems than whether Davis's picture can go in the yearbook. The second article makes it clear that homophobia is pervasive in the school. It's not a climate conducive to learning when Davis's classmates stand up and declare "I hate queers." This larger issue does deserve intervention by higher authorities. Sadly, it seems that the administrators are as bad as the students on this front.


Scout Perception

OK, one more Hugo Schwyzer-inspired post. I plead lack of time, which has led me to crop my daily blog-reading down to just Alas, Schwyzer, and Mouse Words some days. Hugo has taken a lot of flak for a post in which he pointed out the sexism of PETA's tactics but ultimately expressed support for the organization. He responded with a post pointing out that emphasizing ideological purity too much would leave him a member only of the Hugo Schwyzer Fan Club. In comments, I said:

To me, it's a matter of cost-benefit analysis. Does the organization I'm supporting do more good than harm? My (unposted) criticism of your previous post, which I think a number of other commenters share, is not that you're not pure enough. Of course we all have to compromise in order to join anything but the me fan club. My concern, though, is that you're focusing too much on the animal-rights benefits achieved by PETA and not considering that they're outweighed by the sexist, weight-ist, and anti-Semitic costs of PETA. Now, you may weigh the two sides against each other differently -- certainly my support for animal rights is much softer than yours (I'm not even fully vegetarian), so a unit of sexism goes farther in souring the deal for me -- but it's the tradeoffs, not the lack of purity, which lead me to disagree with your stance on PETA.

I also mentioned that my potentially controversial organization to support would be the Boy Scouts. I've made the rational argument for my continued support before (for example, here). In brief, I think the good that the Scouts do for straight religious boys and their communities outweighs the harms done by their anti-gay and anti-atheist policies.

I also think a couple of points from the risk perception literature shed some light on the issue (then again, since I'm so immersed in that literature right now, it seems to shed light on everything, or at least divert my attention from anything it can't explain*). The first issue is the "availability heuristic." People are more concerned about things that they can more easily bring to mind. Because the Scouts get so much news coverage when they kick out gays and atheists, those are the first things that come to a typical non-Scout's mind when they think of the organization. On the other hand, my six years as a Scout weigh more heavily in my mind, so my first thoughts are of service projects and camping trips, learning and character-building. My personal experience was of an organization that was formally religious yet tolerant of atheists, and that made nary a mention of sexuality.

The second issue is control. People are willing to accept far larger risks if they're voluntary and/or controllable. In part, this is due to an inflated sense of our own competence. So we'll happily drive a car or smoke a cigarette, but we'll scream bloody murder if someone wants to build a nuclear plant next to us, even though the nuclear plant has a far tinier chance of killing us. Yet we'll allow a hazardous facility like a nuclear plant if a citizen panel is given the authority to review plant records and shut the place down at any time if they don't like what they see. In the Boy Scout case, I am an Eagle Scout. So I feel like I have some (small) amount of control over the Scouts' policy. Thus the Scouts aren't Those People doing horrible things over there, they're people like me -- and I know that I, at least, am willing to listen to reason about sexuality and religion issues. So I'm more optimistic that the Scouts will grow more inclusive over time.

*This parenthetical remark is an application of the basic notions of Cultural Theory, proving that my immersion in the risk literature has gone meta.


More On Dating And Gender Roles

At some point I'll get back to writing about environmental issues -- really, I will!

Thinking a bit more about the issues raised in my previous post, it seems that the loss of strict gender roles has to lead to greater difficulty in dating. One of the basic functions of dating is to find someone who is compatible enough that you can spend the rest of your life with. Gender roles -- like any other social roles -- serve to standardize people, making them conform more closely to a limited set of archetypes. On the other hand, weakening gender roles allows a greater diversity of tastes, attitudes, and behaviors. Assuming the level of compatibility that people demand is constant, people in a society characterized by strong gender roles will have an easier time finding a mate, because the things they have been taught to expect in a partner match the things all people of their target sex have been taught to exhibit. This may be a functional adaptation in smaller-scale societies, where the pool of potential mates is smaller and thus the likelihood of finding someone highly compatible in a situation of free identity construction would be very poor. In a densely populated society with access to networking technology (i.e. urban areas with the internet), finding a mate without the aid of gender roles becomes much more realistic, though still more difficult.



In comments to a typically astute Hugo Schwyzer post, Aegis raises an interesting dilemma that (he says) faces heterosexual men who break out of traditional male roles: they can't get dates. As he puts it:

The problem is that in the real world of heterosexual relationships, guys who abide by most aspects of male gender roles are going to be more successful.

... For example, most women still expect the man to initiate things. Lots of women also still expect men to be assertive and stoic. Until this changes, it is highly counterproductive to expect men to completely "free" themselves from being assertive and stoic for instance, because those qualities are actually making them attractive towards women.

My first reaction to this was to think it's a quantity versus quality issue. I haven't exactly been a big ladies' man, though I can't entirely attribute my lack of dates to my failure to conform to traditional masculine norms. Yet the two long-term relationships I've had have been incredible, in large part because both my ex and my current girlfriend share my progressive views on gender and accept my lack of machismo.

One wonders, then, why a man who is uncomfortable with traditional masculinity would settle for a woman who demanded that he fill that role. Compared to other times and other genders, the social and economic pressures facing modern single men are rather light. Further, a woman who expects her partner to wear a mask of an uncomfortable gender role is unable to provide what I see as the most important attraction of a romantic relationship, a confidante with whom one can be completely open. This is particularly true since one of the elements of traditional masculinity is that men don't need to confide in anyone. Surely a guy's friends can provide as much emotional intimacy as a girlfriend or wife who demands he be someone he's not. So what's left to attract a progressive man to a non-progressive woman? Sex. Sex certainly has a powerful appeal. But how good can sex be night after night with someone you don't bond emotionally and philosophically with? Aegis's observations actually seem to suggest a half-baked feminist argument for porn: it can help non-macho men resist the temptation to sell out their ideals in order to get some, by providing another satisfying-for-purely-physical-reasons outlet for their libidos. A big problem here, though, is that most porn is marketed toward a caricature of a traditionally masculine customer -- so non-macho men would have trouble getting some in real life or virtually.


Valentine's Catharsis

I've never been particularly strongly affected by Valentine's Day. I spent more years than I care to think about single, but I never felt the intense sense of rejection and exclusion that many single people report (perhaps because I was so hopelessly single that the possibility that I could be celebrating the holiday didn't seem realistic). I've been lucky enough to spend the past four Valentines' Days with partners who were progressive enough not to demand that we act out the standard Valentines' Day script (flowers and heart-shaped chocolates and whatnot).

But while Valentine's Day is overtly a day for couples, and I don't doubt the sincerity of many single people's complaints, I think the day also serves an important function for many single people. Many single people understandably feel that there's something missing from their lives. This is both a personal lack -- wanting the kind of affection that you can only get from a romantic partner -- and a social lack -- our society is in many respects set up to accommodate couples. Valentines' Day serves as a focus for all that bitterness. By being overtly couple-centric, it brings single people's lack to a head. This allows them to wallow. They can justify, to themselves and others, pouring out their anger and bitterness. They can go on the offensive against people in relationships, accusing them of being oppressors and of having been duped by Hallmark. And they can participate in perhaps the most important Valentine's Day tradition, the bitter single people party. By "heightening the contradictions" of romantic inequality, Valentine's Day provides a catharsis and rallying point for the single.


Google Maps

Everyone's all excited about Google Maps, and it is pretty nifty. But I have a couple nits to pick:

1. It doesn't show as much non-road data as some other services. Note, for example, that Mapquest shows both Aquashicola Creek and Mill Creek in Palmerton, whereas Google Maps shows neither. (Both services omit Park Creek.)

2. It has a weird algorithm for deciding which municipality names to show. Zooming in on eastern Pennsylvania, you see the label for Lower Towamensing Township before you see the label for Palmerton, despite the latter being home to half again as many people. On the other hand, the township is eight times as large area-wise. So perhaps Google Maps was designed by a Republican.


Humans Are Animals

One of the basic themes that comes out of Mary Douglas's anthropological work is the idea that people think better in categories, rather than in scales. We like to sort things into clearly delineated groups (a tendency that seems active in Douglas's own theorizing, as she asserts the existence of four distinct "cultural biases"!). This tendency seems to be especially strong in religious thought -- perhaps because religion claims to reveal the ultimate structure of existence, rather than messy empirical "appearance." The flip side of this is a fear, strongest on the part of more religiously-oriented people, of sameness. Giving up a categorical for a scalar measure, to them, slides quickly into undifferentiation. An example came up in a recent Carl Zimmer post. He had reported earlier that due to some ancient mutation, humans lack the Neu5Gc sugar that other mammals have. Excited creationists wrote to him asserting that this is evidence that humans were designed. Their argument is basically that the lack of Neu5Gc makes humans unique, and therefore there must have been a creator who meant humans to be distinct from the rest of the animal kingdom. Zimmer makes the obvious reply: every organism is unique in some way (that's how we can distinguish species!), so the lack of Neu5Gc is not some special chasm between humanity and animals.

What interested me, though, is why these creationists were so excited over finding evidence of human uniqueness. Creationists seem to infer that because evolution says there is continuity between humans and other animals, it means that humans and animals are the same. Now, it's true that evolution denies the extreme kind of uniqueness that many religions credit humans with (and I have no problem with the idea that humans and other animals are a lot more alike than we realize -- in fact, I think it's pretty cool). But the fear expressed by creationists goes deeper, becoming a fear of total sameness. Without a gaping chasm to separate us, we might as well be monkeys.

In part, this fear is religion's own doing. The animal kingdom that they fear being assimilated into is not the animal kingdom studied by scientists. Rather, it's an animal kingdom constructed by religion as an Other or antithesis to humanity, an animal kingdom stripped of the ability to learn, communicate, and even engage in (rudimentary) moral reasoning. When scientists say that humans are animals, creationists hear that humans are beasts. So no wonder they're eager to find evidence of an important distinction between us and the animals.


Chivalry Between Consenting Adults

Hugo Schwyzer has posted a defense of his chivalrous behavior. His basic principle is to do what makes the recipient (the "chivalree," I'll call her) feel comfortable. So he'll hold doors and chairs for women who like that kind of thing, but he'll refrain from chivalrizing someone who is "hyper attuned to ... percieved injustices" and therefore uncomfortable with the situation.

But what about when the chivalrer feels uncomfortable? (Presumably Hugo's tolerance would trump his sense that chivalry is the correct behavior and so he'd never presume to hold me to his standards, but there's still an implication that it would be better if everyone did things his way -- and likewise for my position.) I'm not comfortable being asked to perform certain acts simply because I'm a man. This is particularly true when the act is premised on a generalization about men and women that doesn't apply to me -- for examplem, most women I know can probably bench-press more than I can, and if I were single I'd be dating mostly women who earned more than I do. I'm also not comfortable sending the message associated with chivalry to onlookers (or reinforcing it in either my own mind or that of the chivalree). It's a message that says that men and women have fundamentally different social roles, and that men are guardians of women's delicate constitutions. (However one may personally interpret chivalry, one must remember that the act can communicate something quite different to others.) On the other hand, the kind of gender-neutral courtesy that Schwyzer grew out of sends a message that I like much better -- that men and women are more alike than they are different.


Christian Environmentalism

Fausto has a nice post up about the possibilities of justifying reverence for nature within the Christian tradition. The basic problem, as he states it, is that:

... although Christians may accept that creation is the product of a divine Creator, core Christian values are far more about how we relate to each other and to God than how we relate to the rest of creation.

I more or less agree with fausto's conclusions about the possibility of Christian nature reverence. But I think seeking grounds for nature reverence takes too narrow an approach to the underlying question. The interpersonal ethics emphasized by Christianity seem to me to be ample resources for Christian environmentalism. Fausto himself offers an anthropocentric justification for the need to find environmental values in Christianity:

Today, though, when the human population strains the earth’s capacity to sustain it, any religion that does not place sufficient value on the health of natural systems is in truth a very real danger to the future of our species.

The environment can be seen as just another system among others through which people can help or harm each other. Our interactions with the environment can be judged by their impacts on our fellow people. The Bible doesn't give us much indication of what type of decisions will have positive environmental impacts -- but it never purported to be a science book. Figuring out what our environmental choices will "do unto the least of these" is our job.

It's interesting to note here that the greatest strides thet Christianity has made in motivating environmentalism have come not in nature-as-an-end-in-itself middle class environmentalism, but in the environmental justice movement, where environmental choices are viewed through the lens of social justice. Churches in lower-class and minority neighborhoods have provided important spiritual and organizational capacity for groups fighting against locally unwanted land uses (toxic dumps, hog farms, etc.).


Hegelian Ecology

For another installment of "interesting things I learned from my coursework," we turn to the issue of indigenous resource management, where I recently encountered an interesting dialectical synthesis of past scientific views.

Going back to the early days of scientific research on environmental management, the prevailing opinion was that indigenous people were rapacious. Being uncivilized, they lacked the scientific know-how to properly conserve their resources, and took too short-term a view. It was thus necessary for people like colonial foresters to save the natives from their own prodigality.

The rise of cultural ecology saw a shift in the other direction, as it was discovered that indigenous people had sophisticated environmental management systems that functioned much better than anything that the colonial or capitalist world could invent and impose. This research gave scientific credibility to the "noble savage" view, which argued that indigenous people lived in respectful harmony with the earth.

The growing consensus around praise for indigenous environmentalism led, inevitably, to contrarian research showing all was not quite so rosy. One example that really stuck with me was Shepard Krech's book The Ecological Indian, in which he argued that Native Americans did not have such sophisticated environmental knowledge that allowed them to adjust their resource use to sustainable levels -- indeed, many of them believed anti-environmental things such as that the bison herds were inexhausible. It was only their low level of technology and population, and hence their limited ability to act on their cornucopian views, that saved the American environment (at least before the introduction of guns and horses, which led to rapid environmental damage before the hunters worked out what their mistake was).

I've recently come across some interesting work by the resilience community (notably Fikret Berkes) that suggests that indigenous people often share the cornucopian view described by Krech, but that it's a good thing. In the context of the larger indigenous management system, cornucopian views encourage periodic intensive resource use -- pulses of high exploitation separated by "fallow" periods. And as it turns out, in many ecosystems this sort of pulsed resource use gives a higher and more sustainable yield than constant low-level extraction. Rather than counting on the stability of the ecosystem, pulsed strategies create small disturbances that lead to renewal. Thus native claims that hunting could increase the size of animal populations were, in a sense, right.