Thursday, August 14, 2014

Pain, Labour and Suicide

The internet has been awash for the past couple of days with discussions of suicide. The discussion seems to break down into three basic groups: people who have actually experienced suicidal depression who are trying to explain what it is, people who have never experienced it but who are trying to offer compassionate support, and people who have never experienced it but are pretty sure that people who do are whining narcissists.

At the heart of the debate over suicide is a basic disagreement that has troubled philosophy for as long as people have been asking the Big Questions: Is it possible for a person to experience suffering of such intensity that they become functionally incapable of rationally exercising their moral free will?

The obvious test case is the problem of people's wills breaking under torture, but most of the time people discussing this case have no actual experience of being tortured so the discussions basically devolve into thought-wank. So instead I'm going to examine the closest experience that I have: giving birth.
Labour is, in my opinion, a fantastic existential laboratory for examining the relationship between pain and the will. Excruciating physical agony is there, freely on tap, and nobody will accuse you of being masochistic or self-destructive if you choose to confront it head on. Also, you can pretty easily set up conditions and then test your ability to pursue your pre-established goals once the pain sets in. For example, you can test things like “Can I continue to keep my thoughts sufficiently clear to continue reciting the rosary throughout the entire birthing process?” “Can I resist the temptation to ask for pain medication?” “Can I follow all of my midwife's instructions and maintain rational control over my actions?” “Can I prevent myself from screaming?” If you have a lot of kids, you can test more complicated things like “What is the difference between the relationship between my will and my body if I spend several months psychologically preparing myself to adopt an agonistic posture towards pain, vs. the same relationship if I prepare myself to adopt a cooperative/embracing attitude towards it?”

Obviously I only have tentative conclusions based on a very small pool of data involving a single subject: me. But based on that, I would have to say that I've arrived at two basic principles which I think are probably true.

a) It probably is possible, through the use of a variety of interior techniques, to achieve the Stoic ideal of rational detachment from any kind of pain.

b) This is not accomplished without practice. And I don't mean “practice” in the sense of performing various exercises to strengthen the will (though that may help), but practice in the sense of actually enduring the kind of pain that you want to be able to endure.

What this means in practical terms is that when you encounter a new kind of pain, or a new depth of pain, or a new duration of pain for the first time you're probably not going to be sufficiently well equipped to take it on. The radical volitional position is right in so far as it is possible to prepare the will for anything, but it's naive if it suggests that this can be done simply by willing it. Successfully resisting overwhelming pain involves technique and experience, not just guts and good will.

So what does this have to do with suicide?

Well, basically suicide (at least in a contemporary context) is usually not a error in rational judgment. The days when Cato and Seneca calmly and philosophically contemplated their options and soberly arrived at the conclusion that self-slaughter was the most rational option are past. Most contemporary suicides are motivated by intense psychological suffering. The psyche literally hits a point where it is no longer capable of dealing with the amount of emotional pain that it is experiencing and it starts writhing around, contorting itself, looking for any possible way of alleviating that pain – not unlike someone in massive physical agony who constantly changes positions, moans, cries, screams, gets in the shower, gets out of the shower, lashes out, stands up, refuses to stand up, lies down, refuses to lie down, demands an ice pack, throws the ice pack across the room, etc. etc. etc. in a vain attempt to achieve some kind of relief.

In the case of someone in physical pain, we all understand. If a woman in labour starts screaming that she doesn't want to give birth anymore, or that she wants to die, nobody comes by and tells her that she's being selfish or narcissistic. If she has to make a hard moral decision that will result in the prolongation or intensification of her suffering, nobody will treat her like a self-indulgent whiner if she's unable to make it. Even people who have never been in that kind of pain themselves are able to see that the degree of suffering is clearly beyond anything that they've experienced, and usually they humbly suspend judgment.
In the case of emotional pain, however, there's very often an assumption that the person is somehow responsible for bringing this pain upon themselves, and that they are fundamentally always capable of dealing with it if they really try. This is exacerbated by the fact that the causes of unendurable emotional duress are often not observable from an outside perspective and the person suffering is rarely able to adequately articulate them. The kind of anguished cries that tend to issue forth from the lips of the suicidally depressed often sound like completely irrational nonsense. “I hate myself.” “I'm incapable of loving.” “I'm a bad person.” “I'm utterly alone.” Statements like these seem to reflect an error in judgment, but what they actually reflect is an experience so painful that there are no other possible words for describing it. Perhaps “My God, my God why have you forsaken me?” which was also not an error in judgment, coming as it did from the lips of a man who understood perfectly why He had been forsaken and who knew that in fact He had not been.

This experience of forsakenness, of emotional anguish to the point of desiring death, is not a product of selfishness, narcissism, self-indulgence, or ingratitude. It does not only happen to bad people. Scripture tells us so. Look at the book at Job: Job in his anguish not only pleads for death, but demands to know why the stars did not close their eyes on the day of his birth, why the womb brought him forth. He not only wishes for death as an end to his present sufferings; he is so overwhelmed by pain that he wishes his entire existence to be stricken from the scrolls of Being. And of course Job's very righteous and virtuous friends tell him that this is his fault, the punishment for some secret sin. But God tells them that they have spoken wrongly.

Saturday, August 2, 2014

Eros & Thanatos

In these philosophical dialogues, questions of love, sex, death and retribution are explored by a group of characters representing a wide diversity and experience.

Unlike many books with a dialogue format, this one doesn't have a Socrates character who is always right. Each character brings some aspect of truth to the table and it is only through a clash of ideas and insights that they approach a solution to the problems they confront.

Catullus Kirkman is a young gay artist flirting with Christianity in spite of his parents' attempts to raise their children as good Roman Pagans. His angst over how, when and if to come out to his family form the backdrop for a discussion of sexual morality and the nature of love.

Germanicus is a devout Stoic whose dedication to rational abstraction rarely ports well to his personal life. His attempt to help his brothers with their respective struggles forces him into a deeper engagement with the complexities of truth, and the importance of the emotional life.

If Nietzsche does philosophy with a hammer, Juvenal does it with a chainsaw. Haunted by the restless spirit of a murdered child, he delves into the morality of necromancy, life after death and the nature of justice as he discerns whether to become the instrument of its bloody vengeance.

Get it here.

UPDATE: Now available on here.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Criminalizing the Buying of Sex in Canada

Many political conservatives in the United States are accustomed to looking at Canada as a hotbed of liberalism, where the consequences of the sexual revolution have progressed further than they have at home. So it’s nice to be able to write about something that Canada is doing right.

Bill C-36, the Conservative government’s proposed prostitution bill, is currently being fast-tracked through Canada’s legislative system following a decision by the Canadian Supreme Court to strike down the existing prostitution laws late last winter. The existing laws were challenged on the basis that they endangered prostitutes in order to advance a Victorian agenda of social decency.

Read the whole article at the National Catholic Register here.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

The Unclean Spirit of Gender Ideology

There's been some buzz around the internet lately about the concept of gender ideology, and Pope Francis referring to it as “demonic.” So I wanted to talk about what exactly “gender ideology” is, and how it relates to the experience of transfolk.

Basically, gender ideology is a dualist ideology that collapses all of human sexuality, maleness and femaleness, into either biological difference or social construction. As is generally the case with dualism the body is considered to be relatively unimportant in relation to the mental/spiritual/interior aspects of the self and so the relevance of biological difference is usually downplayed. Sexuality interacts with the more fundamental aspects of the person only in terms of gender and gender, masculinity and femininity, is understood solely in reference to social conditioning which proponents of gender ideology see as basically arbitrary, and usually sexist.

It's an ideology that came out of second wave feminism, and it's largely the result of women trying to seize equality within a deeply hierarchical patriarchal cultural system. To put it simply, within a hierarchy there's a natural tendency to evaluate difference in terms of superiority and inferiority. There's also a general tendency within male-dominated structures to view relations, especially relations between human beings, in hierarchical terms. The Roman obsession with status, or the way that Late Medievals and Early Moderns stressed about exactly where in the Great Chain of Being their particular bloodline was situated, are prime examples of the hierarchical impulse in action. And of course throughout most of the history of the Western world it has been believed that sexual difference implies a distinction of value, with men on top.

Now Christianity did maintain that women possessed a dignity before God equal to that of men, but dignity before God did not generally manifest as equality within political or social structures. For second wave feminists seeking social equality, the path of least resistance lay in a denial of sexual difference. If a difference in kind implies a difference in status, then the simplest way of eliminating a difference in status is to deny that there is a difference in kind. Sexual difference in earlier cultures often manifested in terms of socially stratified gender roles, and sexual difference was almost universally invoked as a defense of those roles. Women couldn't be in the army, because they were weak. They couldn't be politicians, because they were naturally passive. They couldn't be academics because their reason was too easily clouded by sentiment.

Feminists of the second wave said “No!” Women are not weak, they are enfeebled by artificial, socially constructed constraints invented by men in the service of male interests. To a very significant degree, this was true – and demonstrably so. The curse invoked at the outset of history, “and he shall lord it over you” has in fact played itself out in the cultural arena and the beauty and dignity of sexual complementarity has been badly warped and tarnished by the presumption of men. Gender ideology allowed women to assert equality with men, but it came at a cost: the differences between the sexes had to be construed as trivial or irrelevant.

Now if we look at the contemporary situation, and especially at the development of Third Wave feminism and the men's movement, it's pretty clear that sexual difference has re-emerged as an important cultural concern. As soon as a social consensus surrounding womens' right to participate fully in the social, cultural, political and economic life of our civilization emerged, feminism shifted towards a defense of femininity qua femininity, rather than a denial of difference between masculinity and femininity. We've started to reap the good fruit of earlier forms of feminism, and we've also started to discard the chaff.

Gender ideology remains, however, within queer discourse, and for much the same reason. The dignity of same-sex love is defended by an attempt to present it as identical with heterosexual marriage. The dignity of transfolk is defended by an appeal to a socially constructed notion of gender. After all, if gender is just a social artifact, and society construes a particular male individual as “feminine” or “effeminate” then that person should be allowed to live as a female. It makes sense. Right?

The thing is that I don't think very many transfolk actually believe this. Admittedly I'm going from a fairly small group of people that I've spoken to personally, but one thing that seems to emerge in the actual experience of trans people is a fundamental appreciation for the meaning and significance of sexual difference combined with an intense feeling of gender dysphoria. Trans people do not believe that the differences between male and female are trivial, superficial, or irrelevant. They experience these differences as extremely relevant, as fundamental to “who I am.” A transwoman does not believe that she's a woman because she thinks that the differences between femininity and masculinity are abitrary, rather she believes that she is a woman because she experiences herself as feminine in the most profound strata of her being – and her femininity is sufficiently important to her that she is willing to risk social ostracism, loss of employment, derision, exclusion from her religious community, rejection from her family, and perhaps surgery in order to be able to express what she firmly believes to be the truth about herself as a sexually differentiated person.

So where does gender ideology come in? Well, in more or less the same place that it came in for feminism. Generally, people can relate to the idea of wanting to escape from arbitrary social restrictions better than they can relate to the idea of a woman with a penis. If gender is socially constructed, then a person who chooses to transgress gender expectations may be weird, but they're sane. On the other hand, if a person has a male body but insists that they are female, they're crazy. They believe something that seems to be demonstrably untrue. Most of the stereotyping and discimination faced by transfolk is based on the assumption that they are mentally ill; an appeal to gender theory allows them to evade the presumption of mental illness and to seek ways of managing gender dysphoria without being pathologized.

The problem with the Christian response to transfolk is that the beauty of sexual complementarity becomes weaponized. It is used to undermine the rights and dignity of a very small minority of people who are not privileged to experience masculinity and femininity the way that the majority do. It's not entirely dissimilar to the way that the beauty of rationality and health were used by the eugenics movement to undermine the rights and dignity of people with exceptional cognitive or physical challenges. The underlying assumption is that people should be valued based on their correspondance with an abstract human ideal, and that deviation from the ideal is a moral or social problem.

If we want to effectively demonstrate the falsity of gender ideology we have to start by realizing that trans people are not a manifestation of ideological confusion. Rather they are a group of people who have adopted (at least publicly) the only viable ideological solution to a complex social and personal dilemma. Telling them that they are violating God's plan for humanity, male and female, by deliberately denying their sexual nature does not help. It's not a viable ideological solution, and it's a suicidally dangerous existential solution (I mean that quite literally: I've known trans people on suicide watch for this precise reason.) Simply put, people do not choose to experience a deep-seated incongruity between the apparent sexuality of their body and their interior sense of self as masculine or feminine, and they certainly do not experience gender dysphoria because they have willfully rejected God's plan for humanity.

If the Christian community wishes to serve trans people, it will be necessary to provide a coherent alternative, an anthropology that maintains the dignity of sexual complimentarity without compromising the dignity of bodies whose sexuality is complicated: the dignity of intersex people who may not clearly be born either male or female, and the dignity of trans people whose bodies do not echo their interior experience of sexuality.

Friday, May 9, 2014

Alaska Townhall Event

I’m going to be involved in a townhall event today in Anchorage Alaska. Up until this afternoon I’ve been kind of dreading it: reading the bios of the other four participants I felt like I was totally the odd duck in the pond. I’m female. Canadian. Queer. Catholic. They’re male. American. Straight or ex-gay. Protestant. But we had lunch together and talked about this afternoon’s event, and I’m actually really excited for tonight. I’m still the most liberal person in the group, but I don’t feel embattled about it, which is really good. Also the form is cool. Usually when I do stuff it’s basically a long pre-prepared talk followed by Q&A. It means that I write and rehearse a performance, and then give it on the day of, ideally without visibly relying on my crib sheet. (My long-term ambition is to be able to use the ancient ars memoriae to be able to give speeches with my hands entirely free in the style of a Roman orator. But perhaps it’s better that I can’t do that, since I might be instantly damned for vanity if I ever pulled it off.)

Anyways, this is going to different. The goal is a free-form discussion with some vague guidelines to help keep the conversation going. There should also be a lot of Q&A with the audience. I think that it’s going to be recorded and possibly be made available on the internet. I’ll let y’all know if that manifests. There’ll also be another event in Palmer tomorrow, so if it is streaming to the internet I can hopefully figure out where you go to watch in time for that one.

The basic outline is that we’re going to start off talking about the experience of being gay, then we’ll talk about the role of the Church, and finally culture. If I’m not totally dead as a result of jet lag, I’ll try to blog about how it all went down later tonight. 

Finally, if anyone has advice on how to dress like a real lesbian, please help! I probably won’t get your advice in time, but maybe you can improve my look for tomorrow. If it does go to TV, I’d like to look good enough that Terry Nelson won’t tell me I need a stylist!

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Man Down

One of the reasons that the “distant father/smothering mother” narrative, and other related psychotherapeutic stories, continues to hold clout in Christian circles are the claims that therapists make about their own experience. On the surface, it's very reasonable to think that if someone has worked with hundreds, or thousands, of same-sex attracted clients and has seen a pattern that emerges in the vast majority of cases, their testimony can be taken as highly authoritative.

But there's a problem. Although a handful of clinicians see this pattern over and over and over again, the vast majority of psychotherapists (regardless of their ideological convictions) do not. This points towards an overarching problem with using clinical experience, rather than randomly sampled studies, in order to understand the genesis of homosexuality. What's the difference? Well, in clinical experience if you see a pattern, you might just assume causation. In a randomly sampled study, you're able to investigate whether the pattern is a) universalizable (or at least widespread) in a non-clinically presenting population, and b) whether the pattern is more prevalent in the population being studied that it is in the population generally. 

Universalizability is important because there are often massive differences between clinical and non-clinical populations. For example, no one would ever think it made sense to explain why some people like wine by calling on the expert testimony of substance abuse counselors. A population of non-addict oenophiles will obviously diverge in numerous salient respects from a population of winos – and there may also be significant differences between the population of alcoholics who seek clinical treatment vs. the population of alcoholics who join AA vs. the population of alcoholics who never seek treatment vs.the population of heavy drinkers who manage to sobre up without outside intervention. 

Even if a reparative therapist has worked with thousands of clients, he's only ever worked with a population of people who have chosen to seek, or at least investigate, orientation change. He can't be relied on to have an accurate sense of how his client base differs from the wider LGBTQ community.

A further complication, is that you can't investigate what a man's level of attachment to his parents was during childhood without relying on self-reporting data recalled long after the fact. A number of studies have shown that self-reporting data is often influenced by a subject's perception of the desired outcomes of researchers. We also know, from personal experience, just how unreliable and malleable memory can be. We often remember events differently at different times in our lives, and it's perfectly normal (indeed, inevitable) that we interpret our memories in order to meet our present psychological, existential or ideological needs. 

In therapy, the therapist doesn't just document a person's pre-existing understanding of his or life: the therapist helps the client to build a narrative that will make sense of their circumstances. In the case of reparative therapy, the therapist begins with a pre-crafted narrative and then tries to find events in the clients' life that conform to that narrative. It doesn't matter whether the client comes into therapy feeling that he never really connected his father; it's assumed that if he's willing to dig deep enough he will find the father wound.

One problem with this was demonstrated by an investigation in which a heterosexually attracted journalist signed himself in to reparative therapy, claiming to be seeking treatment for homosexuality. Apart from lying about his sexual attractions, the journalist was honest in filling out an initial assessment and answering the therapist's questions. By the end of the first session he was told that his (non-existent) same-sex attractions were caused by a problem in his relationship with his same-sex parent. The narrative was projected onto the client regardless of the fact that he was a straight man who had a perfectly normal relationship with his dad. 

This doesn't surprise me. In the years that I've been studying and writing about faith and sexuality, I've encountered a number of people who have had experience with this kind of therapy. Some have ultimately embraced the narrative presented, others have rejected it. I know of several cases where people insisted that they didn't have a poor relationship with their same sex parent, and where they were repeatedly told that they were in denial, refusing to co-operate, or failing to dig deep enough. I know of one case in which a young woman was told that all lesbians are the victims of childhood sexual abuse, and when she insisted that she had never been abused, the counselor tried to convince her that she had in fact been molested but had suppressed the memory. In some cases where people have embraced the reparative therapy narrative, the “childhood wounds” that allegedly caused their SSA are really just perfectly normal events that happen to every child, like feeling scared or abandoned the first time their mom left them overnight in the care of another adult.

That's not to say that no gay men have actually been rejected, bullied, mistreated or neglected by their fathers – nor that those who have been are merely inventing their experience in order to please a therapist. Men who have really suffered from paternal rejection do tend to find reparative therapy helpful, but they don't tend to find that it eliminates their same-sex attractions.

I've never been to reparative therapy, but I have been involved in forms of healing prayer and informal counselling that involve trying to resolve present problems by healing and forgiving the past. I recall in one session being told that I should pray for God to give me an image, an emotion, a memory, something that would lead me back to the moment when a particular vice had taken root in my soul. I prayed, and I prayed earnestly, but nothing. The woman leading the prayer continued to encourage me, and it became increasingly socially awkward to deny that I was receiving any kind of deep insight or inspiration. Eventually I began to grasp at the nearest thing that looked like a plausible explanation, and offered that. We prayed over that wound, and moved on. 
I know that in counselling this kind of thing happens all the time, and that when it happens with a client who is less habitually analytical the narrative is often adopted as true. This means that if a reparative therapist has worked with a large group of clients, and has the experience of repeatedly leading his clients to a discovery of a father wound, that doesn't necessarily mean that the father wound has any kind of objective existence outside of the therapeutic process. The therapist thus ends up unintentionally exagerrating the number of clients who had poor relationships with their same-sex parents.

Saturday, May 3, 2014

Man Up

I wrote a little bit yesterday about the problem of Christian media surrounding homosexuality tending to support the psychological theories which suggest that parents are responsible for making their kids gay. I've since learned that the producers of the The Third Way actually weren't going out of their way to present that narrative – it's much more that they found it hard to find people who were willing to be interviewed for the project, and most of the people who were willing were either reparative therapists, or were folks for whom the standard narrative fit. Fair enough. People who honestly had bad experiences with their families of origin should have the right to tell those stories, and if they're the only ones who stand up, they're the only ones who stand up.
That said, there are two strong reasons why I don't think we can exculpate Christian culture for its role in perpetuating these stereotypes.

The first has to do with the role of Christian culture in promoting gender stereotypes, and in particular for its role in sustaining effemeniphobia: a generalized revulsion towards “feminine” behaviours in men. The standard psychological explanation for homosexuality put forward by reparative therapists is that male homosexuality is explained largely through the lens of a “distant father” and a “smothering” or “overinvolved” mother. Lesbianism, on the other hand, proves a much slipperier fish. Causes of lesbianism could be anything from an overbearing angry or violent father who wounds his daughter's ability to trust men, to a weak and underinvolved father who fails to help his daughter respect masculinity, to a father who is too involved in his daughter's life and therefore role-models masculine behaviours. Or, it could be a mother who is distant. Or a mother who is too involved and shelters her daughter from masculine influences. Or a mother who is insufficiently feminine and doesn't teach her daughter how to wear lipstick and shop for bras. Or... Basically, if you combine all of the theories, the upshot is that having human parents may cause lesbianism.

So why a relatively streamlined narrative for men, but for women, a plethora of narratives so vague and varied that it has absolutely no explanatory power whatsoever?

One likely explanation is that reparative therapy makes the assumption that correlation = causation.

Reparative therapists see many gay men who have poor relationships with their fathers, and because they observe this pattern they assume that this poor relationship is the cause of homosexuality. This is problematic. Even if we assume that the clinicians are seeing a pattern that can be generalized to non-clinical populations, we still have to ask: is it more reasonable to assume that distant fathers cause their sons to be gay, or that fathers are more likely to distance themselves from gay sons? Given that a) there is a significant population of gay men who have perfectly normal relationships with their fathers, and that b) there is an absolutely huge population of straight men who have terrible relationships with their fathers, there's definitely good grounds for asking the question.

There are also pretty solid grounds for answering it in favour of fathers distancing themselves from sons who are perceived to be “effeminate” or “queer” -- especially if we take into account the fact that reparative therapists are working primarily with a population of gay men who are unhappy about their sexuality. Here, a pretty straightforward narrative emerges: a man who is homophobic and/or committed to a restrictive ideal of masculinity has a son who displays signs in early childhood of being gay. The father either rejects the son, or tries to force him to comply with gender stereotypes in the hopes that this will “fix” the problem. This causes a rift between the father and the son, and causes the son to feel insecure about his sexuality and his masculinity. He senses that his father rejected him for being gay and consequently feels a lot of shame and depression, possibly including a sense that he has not only been rejected by his earthly father but also by God.

This narrative is concordant with both points A and B above. It makes sense of the fact that an experience of paternal rejection seems to be much more common among men who seek orientation change, men who join spiritual support groups, and men who are highly resistant to seeing themselves as gay vs. average gay men. It explains why the “distant father” motif seems to be much more common among older gay men whose fathers grew up in a world where it would have been shameful for their son to be a “sissy” or a “fag,” than it is among gay men of my generation, whose fathers are more likely to feel an obligation to be supportive. And it also explains why we don't see a similar pattern among women, who have generally been subjected to far less severe homophobia, and who are often allowed a greater expression of gender-diversity than their male counterparts.