Victim Blaming

I just read something that irritated me. The basic thrust of the article, “There’s a Reason Why Your Waiter Hates You,” by Jedediah Purdy, is speculative:

More jobs involve what social theorists call “affective labor,” meaning emotional work—setting up micro-relationships that make customers feel good. It’s true of retail and sales. It’s true of customer service. It’s true of the caregiving professions, such as nursing and home health care. These sectors are growing because they’re hard to mechanize or offshore, unlike doing paperwork and making things, which we mostly leave to algorithms, machines, and faraway people.

He continues:

We’re human, so of course we sometimes want and need to connect, and we can’t always be sincere. The problem comes in when unequal economic power extorts emotional work. There is something indecent in asking people to fake a feeling to make a living.

We are, he says, becoming a nation of phonies, which is especially odd because, according to Purdy, people in the U.S. value authenticity.

In fact, the intrusion is so subtle and so pervasive that it is possible to lose track of whether you’re faking it or not. A job becomes a training, now just in how to be, but in who to be. If it’s indecent to ask employees to fake a feeling, it’s worse to ask them to cultivate a false self.

I’ve worked a lot of those low-level service jobs, and I’m inclined to agree with much of what he says. I do have a few disagreements:

  1.  I worked most of those jobs over twenty years ago, so I’m not sure that this is the new phenomenon he says it is.
  2. He contrasts this “emotional work” with rudeness. There’s quite a range of behavior in between fake friendliness and rudeness, and much service work takes place in a polite, but distant, manner.
  3. The requirement that people lower on a power hierarchy cater to the emotional needs of people higher on the hierarchy, (Put more plainly, you need to dance around the whims of your boss.) occurs very frequently in non-service jobs.
  4. This seems to underestimate how authentic friendliness is in situations among peers.

Overall, though, I agree that the requirement to be someone you are not in a job situation can definitely rise to the level of feeling oppressive. At the same time, I have to say, that I believe this oppressiveness is most objectionable to college graduates who have grown up in a middle class environment who suddenly find themselves working service jobs and occupying a position in the social hierarchy to which they are extremely unaccustomed. Faking friendliness may feel inauthentic to everyone sometimes, but for the progeny of the middle class it can also feel like a slap in the face. They were raised to question authority, not to be obsequious.

However, these are smaller quibbles. I do really feel the need to highlight what’s wrong with the example he uses to introduce the subject: sexual harassment of waitresses.

Ninety percent of women waiters get harassed sexually, according to a recent study. Why is the number so high? Partly because waitstaff depends on tips to raise their wages above the federal minimum wage of $2.13 an hour for “tipped employees.” That means a waiter needs to establish a relationship with each customer: Serving food and drinks isn’t just a job, but a micro-flirtation on very unequal terms. The wage structure of waiting tables is a sexual-harassment machine. (my emphasis)

I take a great exception to this statement. I was sexually harassed as a waitress. I did not flirt with anyone, micro or otherwise. For someone claims to see the negative effects of power differences created by capitalism, Jedidiah Purdy writes about sexual harassment from a surprisingly privileged perspective.

In my last post, I wrote about my experiences dating a radical lesbian feminist separatist. Although, I eventually found their views to be too narrow for me to feel comfortable within that movement, and that eventually lead me to question the ideas on which it was based, I was hanging out with that group in the first place because I was a fairly radical feminist myself. This time included a lot of upheaval in my personal life. I tried dating men again. Got pregnant. Had an abortion. Dropped out of college. All of this happened with the span of perhaps a year. I found myself living with my parents, with my mother thinking the best way of getting me back into college was to be as mean and cold to me as possible. For a time I had my head shaved off on one side and shoulder length on the other. This was considered highly unattractive at that time. I wore loose-fitting jeans with Converse high top sneakers, or loose, baggy, shapeless skirts that came almost to my ankles. Most of my shirts came from second-hand stores. The weirder the better. They amused me for some reason at the time, but when I look back at old photos I can’t remember why. Eventually, I got a crew cut. If the stereotype of the moody alt-chick had existed at the time, I’m sure I would have been put in that box, which probably would have only made me mad and driven me to even more bizarre outfits in a futile attempt to express my “authentic” self.

This was far from the proudest time of my life, in fact it was miserable in every way and everything I did to try to be happy seemed only to make my life worse, but it’s safe to say that, by the time I got a job as a waitress, I was not the sort of person inclined to flirt for a paycheck, nor would most people have looked at me and thought that I was.

So there I was, nineteen years old, reading want ads in the newspaper, with nothing on my resume except baby sitting. In college, I posed for art classes to earn money, but I think I never put that down. Hmmm… wonder why that is? I was qualified to do pretty much nothing. I saw an ad for waitresses at a pancake house a few minutes away. So I went.

I started a couple of days later with five other young women. That the place had such a high turnover rate should have been a warning sign to me, however I was too inexperienced to recognize that fact. The boss said that we could expect men to come onto us. Then he looked at me. “Well, not you,” and he laughed. What he intended as an insult, came to me as a relief. Then he looked at a young woman a couple of inches taller than average with long hair lightened to blond and a push-up bra. “I expect you’re going to have a lot of problems,” he said in a tone that was a problem in and of itself. She didn’t appear to appreciate his concern.

There were some class tensions swirling around me as well because they assumed, with some reason, that I had grown up in a higher class background than they had. A cook intentionally burned me. There were a great many verbal jabs, mostly from the men. The women overall were kind. I lasted only one night.

A couple of men came in at one point. They were the only all male table that night since it was a restaurant that catered to families. They tried to make small talk, but I wasn’t interested. When I brought them the check, they had laid out what looked to be an inappropriately large tip on the table. One of them looked at me and gave me a cocky smile, “What time do you get off?” I put the checked down on the table and walked away. When I returned to wipe off the table shortly after they were gone, so was the “tip” and they had left none at all. If you don’t know, waiters and waitress in the U.S. earn only a very small “base pay.” Most of their income comes from tips. Tipping is not considered optional. It is required. Waiters are taxed with the presumption they are receiving tips and most of that “base pay” is withheld as taxes.

When the night was over, I walked to my car. I found myself feeling weirdly nervous. I was very aware of the fact that I was walking alone in an empty parking lot to my car, which was parked in a far corner as was required of employees, where the light didn’t quite reach. It was my nervousness walking to my car that made me decide it was not worth it. It’s one thing to say that a person should just let comments roll off their back, but they have an effect. You can say, as my psychiatrist and my mother always do, that these people have no credence and what they say should not effect my sense of self. But it does. In duration of one shift, my entire sense of self had changed. It was the weird vulnerability I felt walking to my car, and I didn’t want to feel that scared again and I never went back.

Anecdata, you may say. Just because I didn’t flirt for a tip and was treated poorly anyway doesn’t mean that Purdy is wrong, perhaps other waitresses do open themselves up to sexual harassment by flirting for money. The way his article is phrased, it is unclear, when he quotes the figure that ninety percent of women waiters report sexual harassment and asks “Why is the number so high?” and answers that question by saying that “micro-flirtation” is part of the job, whether that is the conclusion of the study being quoted or his own speculation. The link he provides leads to a New York Times article, “When Living on Tips Means Putting Up With Harassment,” an article with a very different focus. In fact, the article makes no mention of flirting, micro or otherwise.

Ashley Ogogor, a 29-year-old waitress who has lived in the city for a few years and who has become a spokeswoman for the movement, told me that especially in hotel restaurants, where she had once worked and where heavy drinking was commonplace, she had learned to ignore lewd or inappropriate comments because she was so dependent on gratuities. One summer night she had clocked out of a particular restaurant, changed into her regular clothes and was waiting for a meal to take home. While she was doing so she made a phone call to her boyfriend. A customer approached her, grabbed her phone and then started hugging and whispering to her.

The report on which much of the Times article, The Glass Floor: Sexual harassment in the Restaurant Industry, draws is very much focused on the effect of the sub-minimum wage received by restaurant workers and their dependence on tipping. There are a couple mentions of flirting in that report, but they are in the context of managers telling servers to flirt with customers (16% of women) and customers wanting the servers to flirt. Both actions are considered examples of sexual harassment in the report. This does not mean that waitresses never flirt with the hopes of getting larger tips, but it does seem that Purdy’s assertion is unsourced.

This is not a small matter since many times when women complain about sexual harassment or sexual violence it is claimed that they wanted or encouraged such behavior. Also, what the report calls “pressure for dates”, I personally perceived as an offer of money in return for sexual favors, in other words, the suggestion that I prostitute myself.

Purdy is wrong when he says “Americans tend not to talk about the economy as a system of power.” That is exactly what the report is focusing on in its emphasis on the role that tipping and the sub-minimum wage play in sexual harassment. They note that harassment is less severe in states where there is only one minimum wage. The report connects working for tips to economic insecurity and the consequent tendency to put up with sexual harassment in order to not suffer economic consequences. Although women working in the industry reported more harassment from co-workers, they said they felt less bothered by that. As one worker put it:

The one thing that really bothers me, though, is not necessarily co-workers; [in] that interaction I have more freedom to be like, ‘okay, stop it’. But when a guest does it, then I feel a lot more powerless. That’s when I’m like, man, that’s where my money’s coming from…

As the Times phrased it, “the economic structure that turns customers into shadow employers, leaving servers — so often women — vulnerable to the predations anyone picking up the bill might feel entitled to exercise.”

The link in that last quote from the Times takes one to the site of The Gothamist, to the article “A NYC Bartender’s Powerful Open Letter To The Hedge Funder Who Allegedly Grabbed Her Ass.” In New York State, groping someone without his or her consent is a crime. We see the direct relation between tipping and sexual harassment in this story.

Laura Ramadei, an actor who tends bar at Lucky Strike on Grand Street, says that when she asked customer Brian Lederman what he’d like, he immediately groped her. And after she made it clear she wasn’t enamored by his charms, he left her with a shabby tip.

In Ramadei’s own account she adds:

We were in a family-friendly restaurant, around 6:30pm, and I was wearing a loose-fitting, long sleeve shirt, jeans, and no makeup…so I’m not sure where the confusion arose as to what kind of service you were being provided.

Brian Lederman would seem to be bragging about being a serial offender when he says, “I’ve grabbed plenty of girls’ asses in my life.” I hope the next time he grabs someone’s ass, that person calls a cop, or perhaps files a hostile work environment suit. This is criminal behavior. Men who do this in the subway get arrested.

After reading the report The Glass Floor, I understood why I was scared walking to my car that night.

The documented prevalence of sexual harassment is not attributable to a simple desire for sex; rather, it reflects an abuse of power and a structural issue where women’s and trans bodies are viewed as expendable commodities that exist merely for someone else’s pleasure. By devaluing individual human worth and dignity, and by reinforcing a financial power dynamic that renders workers vulnerable, sexual harassment, and the environment that supports it, opens the door to the sexual violence that some workers reported experiencing.

Another low-level job I had that involved being nice to people when I didn’t feel like being nice was when I worked as a receptionist in the Wall Street area, at a company that served the banking industry. One of the firm’s clients made me uncomfortable with propositions. In a notable contrast to the restaurant only a few months earlier, I told my boss and he said he would talk to him about it. It never came up again, so I assume he did. Although I understand much of what Purdy is talking about regarding the need to be falsely ingratiating in many service jobs and I do agree it can be a negative thing, there is a qualitative difference between that and the sort of sexual harassment endured by restaurant workers because the culture of tipping and it helps no one to confuse the two.

As a final note, I was not entirely comfortable with The Glass Floor’s treatment of male victims of sexual harassment, which was a little too cursory. Certainly gender roles do affect sexual harassment, so it is hard to discuss it in a purely gender neutral way, and since women are the primary victims it is not unexpected that more space would be given to their experiences. It was heartening that they did consider the experiences of transgender individuals, but a bit more discussion of experiences of male victims of sexual harassment would have made for a stronger report.

Why I Am Not a Dyke

I just finished reading a great, long article, on BuzzFeed of all places, “Inconspicuous Consumption“, about tuberculosis. The highbrow side of me feels like I should write something about the importance of public health measures in combating diseases, or something other thing of that ilk. I have a couple of pages about the low rate of vaccination in France open in a couple of browser tags. However, that, ahem, not so highbrow side of me couldn’t resist some of the click bait more typical of BuzzFeed, so, instead of following up the article with my original thought of tracking down that article I read a couple of weeks ago saying that the difference between the current Ebola outbreak in West Africa and the SARS outbreak in Asia a decade ago had to do with the effectiveness of the government response, I found myself reading “70 Thoughts You Have When You Realize You’re a Stereotypical Lesbian.” It reminded me of why I am not a lesbian.

Many, many moons ago, when I was just an adorable little wisp of a thing, a little artsy-fartsy barely twenty-something trying to survive in New York City on crummy low-level, hourly wage, no benefits, no vacation jobs, I landed a steady job at a call center. The company had goals that no caller should wait longer than a certain length of time, perhaps one or two minutes. This policy meant that the floor was well staffed and there was, for periods during the day, plenty of time to converse with the other employees between calls. I found myself regularly sitting down next a slightly younger man recently arrived in New York City to live out his dream of writing the great American novel. We rapidly bonded over what I thought was a shared love of literature.

One day, as usual, I sat down next to him. He was on a call. I plugged in my headset, logged into the computer system and settled in for the morning shift.

He finished his call, then spun around in his chair to face me. “Admit it, you’re a dyke.”


“Come on. Why do you even bother trying to hide it?”

“I’m not trying to hide anything. I’m not a dyke.”

“Look, I’m gay. You can tell me.”

“Why are you insisting? What makes you think I’m a lesbian?”

“All of my female friends are lesbians. In fact, all of my closest friends are lesbians. Actually, I kind of wish I got along with gay men better. Maybe I’d get a date. Anyway, you and I get along far, far too well. I’ve never gotten along with a straight person as well. ‘Fess up! Have you ever slept with a woman.”

“Well, yeah.”

“See! I knew it! I’m never wrong.”

“Your ‘gaydar’….” I said, sarcastically rolling my eyes. “Well, my only real girlfriend always claimed to have perfect gaydar and she was certain I was straight.”

“Aha! Girlfriend! So this was more than a passing experiment.”

“Well, if it makes you feel better you can say I’m bisexual.”

“Bisexuals don’t exist!” He said. My ex girlfriend had said the same thing to me. “It’s just a stage on the way to admitting you’re gay.” At least that was a more open-minded response than my ex girlfriend had. Traitor. Nympho. Wolf in sheep’s clothing.

I had read some of his autobiographical short stories based on his youthful experimentation with other boys. I tried to explain to him that dykes weren’t like fags. They weren’t distinguished mainly by their sexual desire for women. I described to him the radical lesbian feminist separatists I knew in college.

“You,” he said authoritatively, “need to meet some lipstick lesbians.”

Actually, I wouldn’t hear that term in the media for at least another year or two. Today, with the internet, a term like that wouldn’t linger in a subculture quite as long before becoming mainstream. However, this really marked a major change in lesbian culture in the U.S. The women he introduced me to were only a few years younger than I was, but they were growing up in a different world. Many of them were still in college, most of them at NYU. I felt slightly awkward, like an adult among a group of teenagers, which I essentially was. There was a pretty blond girl at a party in Brooklyn who I thought was flirting with me. At one point in the evening, we wound up lounging in a corner on a cluster of cushions on the floor. She said she was seventeen and still in high school. Suddenly, I felt really weird. If she had been a heterosexual boy who was certain he wanted to sleep with me, I would have had no qualms about taking him home with me. She said she wasn’t certain if she was gay or straight, but she wanted to try sleeping with a woman. If we had been peers, I would have had no qualms about it, either. I’ve never quite understand why it didn’t feel right, but it didn’t, and I left the party alone. I would go to a few more of those parties, but I always felt a bit on the outside, even though few were as young as that girl and none were younger. I looked young for my age, at the time. Teenagers were always walking up to me thinking I was one of them. So, the fact that I felt out-of-place was probably me. Maybe working, rather than being in school, puts you in a different place in your life. In terms of how they dressed, the music they listened to, what they did in their free time, they were far more like me than the lesbians I had known in school.

Mostly, though, while I’ve gotten along with individual lesbians, I’ve rarely ever gotten along with a group. This doesn’t necessarily mean that I’m fighting or arguing, just that I’m not interested in the things they’re interested in and I wind up drifting away.

So, when I saw the admittedly silly BuzzFeed list, I felt slightly irked. Not rage filled, or even mildly angry at being excluded. More like resigned, and I thought to myself, eh, yeah, I guess that’s why I’m not a dyke.

I don’t own a single flannel shirt. I suppose I could date a woman who owned one, provided she didn’t wear it often. I don’t get the fascination with softball. Why softball? Actually, I don’t like sports. I liked horseback riding when I was younger, but isn’t that a classic straight girl obsession. I wasn’t even obsessed by it. Hiking’s nice. Actually, long walks outdoors are nice. I call it hiking to make myself sound sportier. Honestly, I was the artsy type, you know, the kind who’s coordinated enough to dance, but not to play sports.

I didn’t go to a women’s college. My older sister, who is very straight did. She probably has had more lesbian friends that I have.

I’ve had my hair short more than I’ve had it long, on the other hand, until I took up the keyboard recently, I had very long nails. Men were always asking me to scratch their backs.

As far as wearing men’s clothes goes, I like a lot of men’s clothes, but I don’t really have the body for them. Too much ass. (Hey, maybe I should say “too little waist!”) The list also mentioned something called “snapbacks.” I’m not really sure what that is.

Anyway, I’m not really sure where I’m going with this. I know it was a stupid list, but I just read it and felt like “groan, groan, groan.” At least gay men have a multiple stereotypes, although that might not be much of a consolation. My writer buddy at work never really did fit in to any of them.

It might be counterintuitive, but ultimately I found the straight world, or at least a world in which straight people were a majority, to be far more welcoming than women oriented social milieus.

Movie Review: Samba

I’ll go see Omar Sy in just about anything, so it’s a good thing he carries this movie. It’s not a bad movie, but it’s spotty, inconsistent, and it drags at times. It’s a social drama/romantic comedy, or rather a social comedy/romantic drama, and it might have been better if the filmmakers had chosen one or another because the parts did not combine well this time.

When I’m in France, I usually grab the opportunity to take in a movie that is unlikely to make it across the Atlantic. This one might on the strength of the directors’ previous international hit, also starring Sy. On the other hand, it doesn’t have any of the stereotypical images of France that usually guarantee a hit in the U.S. That isn’t inherently a negative for me. In my mind, Un Coeur en hiver is the exactly the sort of French film Americans eat up, and not one I personally liked. (When I’m in a playful mood and I encounter I snobby Francophile, I introduce the subject of French film – and then start waxing poetic about Luc Besson. This usually makes them turn all sorts of fascinating colors.)

The movie centers around the title character, Samba, played by Sy, an undocumented immigrant from Senegal who wants to regularize his situation and stay in France. He encounters Charlotte Gainsbourg. She says that she is a former high-powered executive who got burned out and is suffering from insomnia. She looked believably fatigued. Outside of seeming tired and depressed, there was nothing else believable about her character. I’m not really sure if I should blame the writer, the directors or Gainsbourg herself, whom I’ve liked in the past, but I suspect the blame could be divided among all of them. One necessary ingredient to make the story work was that the two leads had to have sufficient interest in one another to overcome gaps in both culture and social class. It might be understandable that a depressed, bored woman might be interested in Sy’s energetic character, but why anyone would be interested in Gainsbourg’s character is beyond me. She seems like even more of a drag than your average depressed person. (Charlotte, never go full burn out.) It’s hard to believe that she was ever an executive of any importance. Furthermore, although France might be different, you can’t just take a year off and expect to return to having the authority you did when you left, as Gainsbourg appears to do at the end of the movie. Her character barely seems capable of standing up, let alone leaning in. She wears the same black turtleneck and baggy brown overcoat seemingly everyday. When she finally returns to her work and she walks in her office and all these very Gallic looking men in business suits quickly put away their cell phones, it just looked so contrived.

It was such a let down from the opening which began with a wedding and had what appeared to be one long shot from the fancy reception, through the various levels of the kitchen until we encounter Samba working in the back as a dishwasher. While the movie’s portrayal of low-level jobs seemed to me to be, with the exception of the window washer scene, realistic, their notion of how white-collar jobs function seemed to me to be off.

It’s too bad the window washer scene didn’t seem to fit in because it was cute. Some of the funniest moments were with Tahir Rahim, who plays a Moroccan immigrant pretending to be Brazilian, so he can appear sexier. While working as a window washer in La Defense, he does a strip tease in front of a crowd of admiring office workers. I couldn’t help thinking that it was too bad that he and Sy didn’t star in a mad cap comedy about two undocumented immigrants trying to make their way in France. As it was, many of his scenes, while thoroughly entertaining, felt like they came from a different movie.

Similarly, Youngar Fall does a wonderful job as Samba’s uncle, yet those scenes feel lifted from a serious drama.

Sometimes, a movie can draw from different genres and it works. This time it didn’t. It’s not a bad movie, just an okay one. However, for Americans, it might be interesting to see because you get to see a side of French society we don’t usually bother to look at.

Some Photos

I went to the opera the other night, which got me to thinking, which got me to writing, and I’m still writing. Have you ever had one of those thoughts that led you to say to yourself, “Let me look that up.” Then that eventually led to looking something else up, and then something else. So, eventually, I’ll probably get a post up. In the meantime, I’ve downloaded some pictures from my camera. For some reason, I haven’t been taking as many photos as on previous trips. I’ve also tried drawing, but haven’t really done much. My visual imagination seems to be in a slow mode at the moment.

The first three photos were taken at the Bibliothèque Sainte Geneviève. It’s considered an architecturally important building for its use of cast iron. At the time I was there, an interactive art installation was in progress. There was also an art installation at the Panthéon.

Where Can She Go?

Imagine yourself, a human being. That should be easy enough. Now, imagine yourself relatively young. Since those of us who are not currently young were once young, that should still be easy. Imagine you have hopes and dreams for the future. You see yourself as person capable of independent thought and you want the freedom of action you believe should go with it. Perhaps you would like to be a dancer, or a film-maker, or a writer.

But you live in a country where you are not permitted to dance. Or where the government tells you what to write. Or where religious authorities tell you what to film. Despite this, you are determined to be a human being capable of independent thought and action. You write, you make films, and you find you are threatened with prosecution and violence.

So you flee.

You flee to a country where you have heard that you will have freedom of expression, a country where that is enshrined in law and an inherent part of that culture.

When you get there you are told that you can’t write what you want, you can’t make the films you want. The people who have denied you your humanity at home have followed you to your new country. They speak on your behalf. They say that you do not want this freedom of expression.

Now, what do you do?

I wrote this after listening to Lila Ghobady speak at the Secular 2014 Conference. In the 1990’s she was an active part of the Iranian underground cinema, making films that were not supported by the government.

According to an interview she gave to Bitch Magazine:

After secretly shooting these films, we had to leave the country since it was not possible to distribute the underground films we had made, which we wanted to edit and distribute abroad to introduce the underground cinema of Iran to the world to show that an alternative cinema to the official government cinema exists. Living abroad, we could also help our friends working inside Iran to continue their work on underground cinema. Our friends in Iran have been working on films on issues such as self-immolation and teenage suicide – both of which occur at an unbelievably high rate in Iran today. They are also working on the topic of the role of government gangs who have started sex trade businesses to export sex workers to an international market. In addition, they are working secretly on films about labour and student protests in Iran.

The dark reality is that by creating censorship and phony turmoil, the Islamic Republic of Iran succeeds in deviating paths of artistic and social expression. It tries to dissipate the confrontational energies of the Iranian people and prevent them from organizing. For this, it creates phony social movements. When it cannot hide public poverty, prostitution, trade in children, and the overall devastation that has overtaken Iranian society, it presents itself as a critic that objects to its own doings. With a variety of tactics, it controls social protest by suggesting that transformation and change can come from within the government. It engages in thievery, and plays the role of the anti-thief. It is the executioner that plays the role of the defending attorney. It plunders public wealth and then creates charity boxes for the poor. The underground cinema exposes these tactics, especially in the art and cultural arena.

Ghobady moved to Canada. She attended Carleton University in Ottawa where she recieved a master’s degree in Canadian/Women’s Studies. During her talk, she mentioned how disturbing it was to hear some students ask that speech at the university be limited to shelter the feelings of some Muslim students. She says that she still has nightmares about living under a theocracy.

The reason I started this post using the second person pronoun, was because I really think it is necessary to see these questions from the point of view of the persecuted. There are Muslim women say, “I do not want to be saved.” To them, I say, “I wasn’t thinking of you.” I am a fairly powerless person myself, and not in a position to save anyone. However, to the extent I can support people like Lila Ghodaby, who wants for herself the same things I want for myself, I will.

Secularism and Laicite

I have recently returned to France from England where I attended the Secular 2014 Conference which was held in London this past weekend. It was an incredible conference and I’m sure I will be referring to it quite a bit over the next few weeks. For now, I’m going to limit myself to one short subject since I wrote about it a week or so ago.

To summarize very briefly what I said, the word “secularism” appears to have two principle meanings. One is primarily a political concept, and is the way I prefer to use it, indicating the concept that the state should remain neutral in matters of religion. The other meaning is close to atheism or humanism. I also stated that the concept of state neutrality in matters of religion is so important to a prosperous, human state that comprises people of multiple views on religion that we really should have an unambiguous term.

At the conference, I was impressed by the unanimity of the Francophones in the resistance to the term “secularism.” I, myself, had always felt that it was an adequate translation of the French concept of “laïcité.” However, multiple speakers, including Caroline Fourest, Nadia El Fani, insisted on using the French word, which was accompanied by some grumbling on the part of Anglophones as well as Allophones. I might have been inclined to agree with the grumbling if I hadn’t just done some research on the use of the word “secularism” and found it to be disappointingly plastic.

The term “laïcité” is, at least in my mind, most associated with the political changes that followed the French Revolution and the ideas of the French Enlightenment that preceded it. However, the Wikipedia entry traces the term much further back into history than that.

In pre-Christian antiquity, there was no separation of religious and political power. Roman emperors were considered divined and played a role in the religion of the empire.

The teachings of Jesus are sometimes cited as examples of the principle of the separation of Chuch and State, for example in Mark 12:17: “Render unto Caesar that which belongs to Caesar, and to God that which belongs to God.” André Gounelle recalls that regarding the discussions about the law of Separation of Church and State, Aristide Briand refers several times to a passage from Luke and considers that certain Christians, along with Stoics, were among the first to deny “that the state had a role to play in determining the relationship between God and human beings.” (Source: Wikipedia. Translation: Mine)

In the fifth century, Pope Gelasius I wrote of the difference of temporal power and spiritual power, which is seen as prefiguring the Catholic Church’s concept of “Two Swords.” This concept is derived from a bull issued by Pope Boniface VIII in the fourteenth century which asserts that temporal powers are subordinate to the Church. At the same time, the concept of the Divine Right of Kings held that monarchs received their authority to rule directly from God. These concepts led to many conflicts between secular and ecclesiastical authorities in Europe throughout the Middle Ages.

Despite older origins of the word rooted in the latin word “laicus,” meaning the common people, our contemporary understanding of the word “laïcité” is derived from the Enlightenment and, like so many of our modern political concepts, can be traced to John Locke.

Although the freedom of thought, conscience and expression were strongly promoted by an array of Enlightenment thinkers, much like the English term “secularism,” the French term “laïcité” was not coined until the latter part of the nineteenth century. Unlike the English term, however, the French term arose in a more obviously political context, during the Paris Commune and during the Third Republic. In this context, the term “laïcité” takes on a connotation of a communal organization that allows for the coexistence of individuals belonging to different spiritual traditions. Although the Francophones did not adequately explain why they preferred the French term to its English equivalent, I suspect this association with peaceful coexistence accounts for part of their preference.

Jean Baubérot, a French historian and sociologist specializing in the sociology of religions, describes the concept of laïcité as comprising three ideas, a secular state, a guarantee of freedom of conscience and the equality of different religions.

A secular state most protects minority beliefs and, since atheists are a minority everywhere, it is unsurprising that we are everywhere associated with the advocacy of a secular state. However, as Ted Cruz found out while speaking to an organization defending persecuted Christians, religious people frequently support a secular state when they belong to a minority religion. Several of the speakers at the conference emphasized that they did consider themselves adherents of a religion. It is important to separate atheism from need for a secular state. It is clear that the English term “secularism” is vague to a great many people all over the political spectrum. As I suggested in my earlier post, if we cannot clarify the term, perhaps we should adopt another. With that in mind, I have been wondering the past few days if adopting the French term and Anglicizing it as “laicity” might be useful and effective.

Pardon Me While I Gloat

Before heading off to bed, I though I’d take a quick look at the weather. I also glanced at the Daily Beast website which was already open in a different tab because the internet is like that. I just saw in the sidebar, “Who the Hell is Patrick Modiano?” Darling, darling, darling, you are soooo provincial; it’s almost sweet.

About a decade or so ago, I asked a French acquaintance if he could suggest some contemporary French authors. He recommended several, but the next day the only name I could recall was Patrick Modiano. The book he had recommended was Rue des boutiques obscures, but I couldn’t find it in New York at the time. I did, however, come across La Place de l’Etoile, and read that. About a year or so later, I did find a used copy of Rue des boutiques obscures.

So, when I saw the headline, my first thought was that he must have died. Happily, no. He apparently has been awarded the Nobel Prize in literature.

Now, I will go fall asleep with a feeling of self-satisfied cosmopolitanism.

Oh, right, he’s not a bad choice for those of you whose French is pretty good but it takes you a long time to read because his books tend to be short. They’re not especially easy, the length makes it bearable. There were a lot of places were I felt confuse by what was going on and had to reread sections several times.

Canadians Distrust Atheists More Than Feminists and Jews!!111!

Okay, I’ll ‘fess up right now, the title borders on trolling, however there is a point to it right now. If you got your nose too out of joint before reading further, the eleventy-one should have been a big tip-off that it was tongue in cheek.

Yesterday, I wrote a post about whether or not atheists are oppressed and, while researching the question, I realized a great deal of what we categorize as oppression today centers around group identity. I spent a fair amount of time reading Cressida Heyes’ article on the subject on the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy website. It’s an interesting article and I highly recommend it.

When I read the statement, “Oppression… is the systematic limiting of opportunity”, I decided to do a bit more research to see if there was much information on the matter of discrimination against atheists. I tried searching using the terms “fired from job for being an atheist.” This led me to a post on Reddit, written by someone from Toronto. The writer worked as a waitress. A customer asked what church she went to and she answered that she didn’t go to church. When asked why, she said that she didn’t believe in God. Shortly afterward, she was fired.

That left a lasting impact on me. For many years I hid the fact I was atheist, not knowing exactly how people would react. It took me till my early 40’s until I was more comfortable admitting my views. It was a shame I let people effect me that way all those years.

What bothers me most is that now, when I get into discussions with theists, they don’t believe my story. They’re in denial about the discrimination atheists face. Does anyone else have a similar story of being fired or being discriminated against?

I continued reading the thread and in it was a link to an article in Scientific American, “In Atheists We Distrust,” that I’ve read before and I’ve seen quoted widely.

Atheists are one of the most disliked groups in America. Only 45 percent of Americans say they would vote for a qualified atheist presidential candidate, and atheists are rated as the least desirable group for a potential son-in-law or daughter-in-law to belong to. Will Gervais at the University of British Columbia recently published a set of studies looking at why atheists are so disliked. His conclusion: It comes down to trust.

Gervais and his colleagues presented participants with a story about a person who accidentally hits a parked car and then fails to leave behind valid insurance information for the other driver. Participants were asked to choose the probability that the person in question was a Christian, a Muslim, a rapist, or an atheist. They thought it equally probable the culprit was an atheist or a rapist, and unlikely the person was a Muslim or Christian.

Having seen this study referenced again and again, I decided it was time to bite the bullet and read the actual study by Gervai, Shariff and Norenzayan, “Do You Believe in Atheists.

Since this article was published, I’ve seen this statement many times, “Americans trust atheists less than rapists,” in comment threads. Although mainstream news sources reporting on this study have been slightly less distorted, the impression is definitely left that it was about the extent of discrimination against atheists in the U.S. population. In fact, the study was intended to not to survey the extent but to explore the psychology of anti-atheist prejudice. According to the authors:

Although prejudice has been a central topic of social psychology for decades, most of this research has been along racial, ethnic, and gender lines. Despite its prevalence and peculiarity, little is known about the social psychology of anti-atheist prejudice. The present article offers the first known systematic exploration of the social psychological processes underlying anti-atheist prejudice and contributes to the scientific understanding of both the psychology of prejudices and the cultural evolutionary landscape of religion.

It’s a shame that this study has been reduced to a click-bait headline because we can use exactly this sort of information. Regarding my own troll-like title, the study had six parts, five of which were done in Canada. In fact, the least interesting part of the study, which is significantly different from the others, is the first part, which was done in the U.S. So, technically, it’s Canadians that trust atheists less than rapists. ;) Okay, maybe it’s a handful of Canadians.

Another thing that’s inaccurate in the Scientific American report is that the participants were not asked to choose if a person was a Muslim, Christian or Atheist. It utilized a concept known as “conjunction fallacy.” Since the probability that two things are true is less likely than that one thing is true, it is always less likely that the person under consideration is two things rather than one thing. In the study under discussion, they described to the participants someone who commits a variety of selfish and illegal acts. Then they asked if they thought

it more probable that the man was a teacher or a teacher and (a) a Christian, (b) a Muslim, (c) a rapist, and (d) an atheist.

What this demonstrates is a “representative heuristic.” Let’s remember that the researchers are not trying to find out the extent of anti-atheist prejudice but what might lie behind it. They note:

To understand a given form of prejudice, researchers must first understand the threat that the target of prejudice is seen to pose. Only then can they formulate precise hypotheses about the possible reactions that characterize any specific prejudice.

They go on to note that the evolutionary psychologists have been puzzled by large-scale cooperation in human societies. Gervais, et al. cite Frans L. Roes and Michel Raymond. In their paper, “Belief in Moralizing Gods,” they state:

Moral rules imposed by humans invite the suspicion that some members of the group will profit more from these rules than others, but such concerns are alleviated if the rules are convincingly portrayed as having been imposed by impartial gods without material or reproductive interests. If obedience to a certain religious moral rule indeed serves the interests of certain people, they may be expected to deny selfishness and to maintain that the rule reflects the will of the moralizing god. Finally, gods are often considered immortal, so their rules may last for many generations. We therefore suggest that an effective way to impose moral rules on society members is to have these rules prescribed by gods. Belief in these gods signals acceptance of the rules and, for the reasons stated above, we expect more support for the rules (and thus more belief in moralizing gods) in larger societies.

Roes and Raymond did indeed find a “modest but highly significant” correlation between the size of a society and the belief in supernatural beings that can enforce morality.

The particular hypothesis Gervais, et al. set out to test is whether or not anti-atheist prejudice is based on distrust. The use of “rapist”, besides making great click bait, was intended as an example of someone who would not be trusted. They establish that distrust is a feature of anti-atheist prejudice.

There are very few studies about atheists. It’s even difficult to make seemingly simple statements about how many of us there are and what our demographics might be. If we want to combat anti-atheist prejudice, it would behoove us to take a look at the few studies we have a note what they actually say. To this end it would be worth taking a look at some of the conclusions of this article.

Different prejudices have different characteristics. Anti-gay prejudice is often characterized by feelings of disgust. In contrast, anti-atheist prejudice is characterized by feelings of distrust. It appears to have little to nothing to do with unpleasantness. Someone might like an atheist but not trust him or her. (So don’t bother about being a “nice” atheist, maybe?) People who are religiously unaffiliated also distrust atheists. However, people who reported a stronger belief in a god or gods are more likely to distrust atheists.

Supporting another key prediction derived from our framework, belief in God proved to be a potent predictor of atheist distrust (Studies 1, 3–6). Importantly, this relationship was fully mediated by the belief that people behave better if they feel that God monitors their behavior (Study 4).

The authors note that they chose a framework that would enable them to make generalizations about anti-atheist prejudice around the world, not simply in North America. Because strongly religious people were more distrustful of atheists, the researches expect that more religious regions will have more anti-atheist prejudice. They also note the context-sensitivity of anti-atheist prejudice. People who are in a mating market they perceive as competitive report increased religious belief.

The authors further note that religion helps to explain cooperative human behavior in the absence of large-scale institutions. Furthermore, “societal-level existential security (as guaranteed by many modern social institutions) is a persistent predictor of reduced religious belief.” That government institutions guaranteeing some security reduce anti-atheist prejudice is a possibility that our libertarian and anarchist friends might like to mull over.

Oppression or Suppression

When atheists claim to be oppressed, many people, including some atheists, roll their eyes. Are atheists oppressed? (I’m not going to definitively answer this question, so don’t get out your knives yet.)

First of all, what does it mean to be oppressed? On a hot muggy day, the weather can b e oppressive, but that is hardly what we mean when we say a group is oppressed. Rather, oppression as it is meant in this case is a political concept.

The Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen introduced as one of the rights the right to resist oppression. The concept was derived from Locke and his right to revolution as a safe-guard against tyranny and the group oppressed would have been the citizens generally. With the rise of identity politics in the second half of the twentieth century, the concept of oppression shifted slightly to being one that was closely tied to certain identified groups. In the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on Identity Politics, a social group is

a collective whose members have relatively little mobility into or out of the collective, who usually experience their membership as involuntary, who are generally identified as members by others, and whose opportunities are deeply shaped by the relation of their group to corollary groups through privilege and oppression (Cudd 2006).

According to this definition, atheists may not be a social group. Certainly, we inhabit something of a borderline in the definition. I have had a friend who doesn’t believe in the existence of God tell me that I am anti-social for calling myself an atheist. We see the importance of being born into a given group as part of the implied definition of a social group when we toss around the question of whether or not being gay is inherent or if it is a choice. Many atheists were born parents who practice a religion and they were raised in the culture surrounding that religion. Coming out atheist, is perceived by the dominant group as a choice. We have “mobility”, as long as you define mobility as the opportunity to pretend you believe something you don’t. When my friend tells me that I am anti-social, he is seeing me less like a homosexual for whom his sexual orientation is considered an innate trait, than like a bisexual who says that he wants to have a relationship with someone of the same-sex.

The article in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy continues:

Oppression, then, is the systematic limiting of opportunity or constraints on self-determination because of such membership: for example, Frantz Fanon eloquently describes the experience of being always constrained by the white gaze as a Black man: “I already knew that there were legends, stories, history, and above all historicity… I was responsible at the same time for my body, my race, for my ancestors” (Fanon 1968, 112).

If one defines oppression as the “systematic limiting of opportunity or constraints on self-determination” it becomes very hard to argue that atheists are oppressed in most western societies. Although the Religious Right in the U.S. occasionally speaks as if it would like to oppress us in this manner, there is comparatively little limiting of opportunities for atheists. However, that may be because we are not easily identifiable. There is some evidence that people are less inclined to hire atheists. We do know that people would least like for their child to marry an atheist.

As far as the second part of statement, the quote by Franz Fanon, the atheist has been constrained by the theist, and in the western world primarily the Christian, gaze. In fact, one could say that the “New Atheism” is in large part an attempt on the part of atheists to define themselves rather than to allow themselves to be defined by others.

Conversely, members of dominant groups are privileged—systematically advantaged by the deprivations imposed on the oppressed.

Interestingly, while it is difficult to categorize atheists as “oppressed”, it is surprisingly easy to consider Christians as privileged according to Peggy Mackintosh’s check list. However, since it can be hard to make white people who do not want to see white privilege see it, I hardly expect to be able to make unwilling Christians see the far less obvious Christian privilege.

Still, it begs the question, is there such a thing as an atheist identity?

I would posit that oppression of atheists is more the outgrowth of the suppression atheism. While most of us feel that we simply can’t believe and that atheism is therefore an inherent, authentic part of our identity, it should also be recognized that believers do not see us this way. We are not, in their minds, a group that needs to be put down, but are individuals expressing an idea they do not want to hear.

As much as “identity politics” has a negative connotation, it is worth recognizing that it is one of the primary lenses through which we see politics today, a lens that may not always apply.

Inside My Head

So the night before last, I was walking down a pedestrian street lined with cafes and bars. Although the weather had turned and it had started to drizzle, I was walking slowly scanning the establishments to see if any appeared to be serving food. A drink and a bite to eat would have suited me just fine before turning my feet towards home. Most of the places appeared to only have people drinking. At one bar, the clientele appeared to be entirely male. At an outdoor table, one man sat on another man’s lap and they were kissing.

Before I tell you what went through my mind, I would like to explain why I want to engage in a bit of over-sharing.

A day or two earlier, I had become embroiled in a comment thread that got me hot under the collar. The original subject was statutory rape, a subject about which I have fairly complicated feelings, sufficiently complicated that can’t clearly summarize them here. I had gotten in what I believed was a very civil exchange with someone who said that he tried reversing the gender roles and he was surprised by his own reaction. I can’t remember what on earth I said, and I don’t want to go look at it because I don’t want to get mad all over again, but a third person, with whom I have hitherto never had any exchanges whatsoever, responded to my comment by saying that statutory rape was different for girls and boys because men like sex more than women. Anyone who knows me would anticipate that I would go ballistic.

There are a few issues here, but one that has the widest application is the matter of the individual versus the norm. It is not currently fashionable on the left to be an individualist. Since my childhood, people seem to have become increasingly occupied by establishing what should be considered the norm rather than in defending the right of the individual to deviate from it, the right of the individual to make a life he or she wants to live. Attempts to establish a norm have the effect of being coercive to those who do not conform to it. At best, one is left feeling like a freak.

Growing up, in the wake of the sixties, there seemed to me to be a greater tolerance for a wider array of character traits. (One day, I will link this to my grand critique of meritocracy.) We have endless debates about what is natural, debates that will never have a resolution as long as human beings live in societies because there is no natural. There is no man in a state of nature. There will never be an end to the arguments about whether a given characteristic is due to nature or nurture because it is in our nature to nurture. In our arguments about what is normal, what is typical, what is average, what is natural, we lose the diversity of human experience. Our sense of what can exist becomes attenuated.

Flaubert mocked the received wisdom of his day in his Dictionary of Received Ideas. We, today, have our own received wisdom. We know how to make ourselves congenial at a gathering of strangers. What not to say.

I do not want to say what gets women as a category sexually aroused. We could sit here and quote studies and have a battle of examples. However, what we would miss is that there are some sexual thoughts that it is socially acceptable to voice and others that, while not exactly forbidden, would turn people away from you at a social gathering. So while I’ve been at parties where, in mixed company, men have made lascivious jokes about hot women, what went through my mind, ever so briefly, while walking down the street the night before last, I have never heard mentioned.

As my eyes fell on the two young men kissing at the cafe table, I was aware of a twinge between my legs, of a slight quickening of my breath, a flush in my face. As I walked past, my eyes did not linger nor did my head turn. No one passing me passing them would have known what was going through my body and my mind.

It would be incorrect to say that I was surprised by my response. I have long been aware that I think the sight of two men together can be hot. But what occurred to me was that I’ve never heard another woman say that. We could argue about whether or not “women are turned on watching two men.” But what does that statement even mean and what wisdom would that argument yield? If fifty-one percent of women were not turned on by watching men together, then we would say that “women” are not turned on by watching men, effectively ignoring the minority. Should only ten percent of women respond as I do, we should be made to feel like outright freaks for our subconscious response. Then we could get into the ridiculous argument as to whether or not this response is shaped by our societal conditioning. Then surely someone would come along with an elaborate socio-biological argument about why women have not evolved to find two men together sexy, an argument which would then truly make the women who do feel that feel like freaks, like a random mutation unfit for survival.

It occurred to me that it is widely accepted that heterosexual men find watching two women engage in sexual activities to be highly exciting. Of course, there must be some variation in how exciting men find this to be and there probably must be some men who are more or less uninterested in this. However, it does remain that received wisdom has it that men enjoy watching two women.

By this point in my thoughts, I had long left the two men at the cafe table behind. It was a gay bar and it would be a good guess that the men were gay and probably would not be especially appreciative of a female voyeur. On the other hand, I thought, what if they were bi? Maybe not them, but perhaps two other men…. Then the thought went through my mind, “Bisexual men are hot.” It wasn’t a complicated thought, or especially thought out, nor was it one that hadn’t ever crossed my mind before. In fact, it has crossed my mind many times before that it would be especially thrilling to have sex with two bisexual men. I’ve had sex with two heterosexual men and it has always slightly disappointed me that they seemed to be incapable of physically enjoying each other.

Then I recalled another exchange in a different thread on a different site where a bisexual man was bemoaning the fact that bisexual women are seen as hot while bisexual men are not seen as hot. However, what was he bemoaning if not received ideas. Who establishes who is hot? Certainly, no one asked me.

So, in telling you that I find the sight of two men engaged in sexual contact arousing and that I find bisexual men to be hot, you may feel that I have given you too much information. But the reason I want to say this is to reinforce my sense of my own individuality, and hopefully yours as well, as opposed to my membership in the generic category “woman.”

Returning to the subject of the thread that got me so mad a few days ago, the question of statutory rape, we need to consider the possibility of a violation against an individual, not against men or women as a category.

Part of my complicated response to this thread was due to the fact that a few days earlier I had read a post about male victims of sexual assault. When I read in the comment thread that the young man in question shouldn’t be considered a victim because men like sex more than women, I was reminded of how sexual assaults against men are not taken seriously. I think it would help if we could view people as individuals rather than as primarily members of a group.