Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Priveleges of university students...

include the ability to procrastinate on schoolwork to dash off to something equally academic but more interesting. With some prompting from a colleague, I exerted that privilege and attended a panel discussion on "Bible Belt Race, Power, and Sexuality" last night.

I took away quite a few thoughts, and will try to progress through them in a somewhat orderly manner...
Dr. Shaw opened the discussion by showing a portion of the film "Black is....Black Ain't" which I need to watch in its entirety. Something that jumped out at me was the number of interviews in which participants said "Religion is about bringing people together." "If it doesn't result in peace with others, it's not from God." All panelists reiterated this viewpoint, including Bishop Rawls. As a Christian, I couldn't help finding this remarkably disturbing- Jesus makes it quite clear in Mathew 10 that he didn't come to bring peace but a sword, and that his followers could expect persecution and the breakdown of relationships. Ow. Panelists made a distinction between "church" (people) and "religion" (spirituality) and I found this a little incomplete. "Religion" is an organized system of belief and worship, complete with structure and leaders...."spirituality" is much more ambiguous and open. But given the broad scope of the panel, the definitions worked well enough.

Bishop Rawls clarified that her denomination, the Unity Fellowship Church Movement, is not a "gay" church but rather an "authentic" church. I picked up a serious "good pastor" vibe off this woman, which doesn't happen often with evangelicals for me (a "good preacher" vibe is more common- which must be related to why some churches with the best pastors run those ministers off because they're not good preachers). Yes, that was a minor point, but I think important to mention particularly in light of the discussion on gender.

When panelists were asked about gender, Bishop Rawles took the position I did throughout college. She expressed enthusiasm over women occupying and vying for top positions of power in this country in recent years (Nancy Pelosi, Condoleeza Rice, Hilary Clinton, Bishop Katherine Jefferts Schori). Rawls pointed out that there seems to be a far greater rift when it comes to gender and positions of power than race or sexual orientation in regards to those same positions. She went on to speak about the lack of models, for, say, being a woman bishop, and the importance of approaching those situations like a woman. She mused a bit about "things that happen when girls get in boys' rooms" and gave the example of the UFMC and a couple other likeminded denominations struggling to dialogue- until the point when there were female bishops present, when it turned into "let's all go to Palm Springs for a girls' week." Hmm....Rawls believes women to be more likely to ask for what they need and to pull resources. (Example given being "if I'm trying to make a meal for my children, and I've got rice, and you've got some beans, and I know that guy over there has a hamhock, I'm gonna try to hook us all up with a good meal. Men aren't as likely to do that."

The three other panelists- Dr. Simmons, Mr. Hinojosa, and Mr. Patterson, all took the position I ended up with shortly after graduating college- gender is a social construct of society, the load of expectations of what men and women traditionally are like and do. Mr. Hinojosa in particular mentioned a friend of his who is a transgender man who's recently started dressing in drag, which is the sort of thing that makes your head hurt. And the general conclusion was that authenticity is much more important than gender.

Which was my conclusion shortly after college...and the more I get away from that environment, the more I feel the disservice of the John Eldridge books. (yes, I know the John Eldridge books are just one example of this). But this process of defining "what masculinity/femininity is" or "what being a man/woman means" just seems deeply hurtful at its core. Especially when it's conducted by conservative Evangelicals (who seem to be the ones most interested in such definitions). I can't start to explain how many times as a teenager, and a college student I collided with some pre-fabricated idea of what femininity was. Femininity involved nurturing, having children, bringing life and encouragement to situations....that femininity was gentle, demure, submissive. Proverbs 31, 1 Peter 3 etc. were used to model templates of what being a "Godly woman" looked like....and that template was never anything I could possibly become, without losing my soul. I tried to take the thoughts on femininity and womanhood and carry them into a different environment (one that allowed women ambitions beyond marriage and motherhood, and permitted them to be leaders,thinkers, activists) but that ultimately got to be too much work. So at some point, I made the decision to treat gender like it was something society had invented and just to be authentic. I chose to believe that striving to be a thoughtful, excellent, Godly, authentic individual was more important than trying to make sense out of Captivating, or any similar garbage.

Oddly enough...the mentality that society constructs gender, and we are in reality free to be who we are allows men and women to move through society simply being themselves. Ironically, this creates a more accurate picture of what men and women, as individuals and groups are like.

(I do have more [but shorter!] thoughts on something else brought up in the discussion that I'll save for a later date)


paul bowman said...

For my part, I'm with you in seeing the hurtfulness of Evangelicals' handling of gender and wanting to escape it. But to conclude — looking for a way of escape or a way of putting things right — that the gender 'norms' that came to be held in a certain media-polished monolithic shape in the last century & a half are nothing, at bottom, but cultural constructs seems to me a leap much too far.

It also seems to me that there's nothing special in the gender-definition obsessiveness of today's conservatives (as we, and they themselves, conveniently but loosely label them). There's as much obsessiveness about gender, reactively, on the other side of the social-politics line; it's only manifested, theory and lifestyle, in alternative and artificially distancing ways. Gender-role obsessiveness is a feature — isn't it? — of all kinds of societies, past & contemporary, where there's been enough freedom from mere survival concerns to allow its emergence. (Think for instance of highly developed pre-industrial Asian cultures — Indian, Chinese, Japanese societies, & related. No connection to us, yet no lack of parallel structural obsessiveness.)

The process — borrowing your word — of gender-delineating is something basic to all our experience in community, surely, with roots deep, really untraceably buried I mean, in social history as well as in natural history. In other words, it isn't a pattern any big or small historically isolable social group — e.g. American Evangelicals of the 20th century — can produce or 'construct' as a mere means of cementing certain power relations. And it's not deconstructable in any simple terms, because you can never get somehow outside of this business of gender differentiation, to look at it clinically. You can't help re-expressing, unselfconsciously or consciously (perhaps ironically), the prevailing cultural patterns even as you're trying to distance yourself from them.

To call something in this category of things integral, broadly, to what we are and how we think — birth, childhood, manhood, womanhood, aging, child-bearing and -rearing, death, the cycle of generations, and on & on — to call one of these unprecise yet undeniable divisions of our existence a construct isn't to gain a critical position, it's only to obscure our ethical problems under a new layer of language play. It may give our social conflicts new & more interesting avenues of expression (and levels of aggressiveness); it undoubtedly allows a range of people new room both for greater self-expression and self-involvement; but its concern isn't fundamentally with whether or how we see each other, it's with analysis, manupilation, & management. It can't resolve the one-another problem. It may be about freedom & equity, but it isn't also about mercy & peace. It's not enough for us.

paul bowman said...

Whatever the deconstructing expedient and the whole centuries-old tradition of apparently paradigm-breaking assumptions about historical progression, the self, &c., has had to offer us artistically and intellectually — and that's a lot, I think — it seems to me a questionable path, at best, to honesty and authenticity in these matters of shared life, of interpersonal and ethical understanding, man to man, woman to woman, woman to man. It leaves too much, and too many, unacknowledged — dis-acknowledges too much, in the wish to get at the special dis-acknowledged piece of truth that might expose a collective error. The way to recognition of the individual's equal experience and importance, to kindhearted embrace of the alien, to resisting the urge to turn difference and imbalance to private advantage, can't be something so dismissive of the rule-seeking multi-generational life of community — faulty as that life inevitably is. Inclusivity can't be just a matter of rhetorical wedges & weapons for the disadvantaged & the outsider, it has to be a matter of common humanity. (And, finally, of love — the special piece of truth disclosed in Christianity, if only in hints & mysteries.) The healing between us in community has to be really holistic.