Wednesday, September 18, 2013

The Middle East, an Ex-Fundamentalist's Perspective

I'm in the process of prepping for a move and the beginning of fall quarter, so things have been a bit quiet here lately. Sorry 'bout that!

I had a very strange realization the other day, as I was listening to NPR. Yes, I listen to NPR on my commute. Syria has been in the news a lot lately, and I don't really even want to broach that subject because I'm not qualified to talk about it. What I do want to consider, however, is how my attitudes toward the middle east have changed since my deconversion, and how I'm only just realizing that I know very little about the nuance and complexity of that storied and incredible part of the world.

To start with, here is what I previously thought about the middle east. The middle east is characterized by hundreds or thousands of years of struggle between God's chosen people and the heathen. This struggle continues to this day, with the descendants of Ishmael (Muslims, or people of general Arabic descent, or ancient Mesopotamian/Egyptian/Babylonian/Persian peoples, it wasn't often made clear or historically accurate) battling the descendants of Isaac (Hebrews/Jews/modern Israelis). This righteous conflict will continue until the second coming of Christ when Israel (or America or something) will defeat Palestine (or Muslims, or Arabs, or something) and rebuild the temple. The right people will go to heaven, the wrong people will go to hell, the end. Good conquers evil.

There are a lot of issues with that world view, and that's an understatement. To start with, it's not even historically accurate. The middle east is the cradle of civilization, it has been populated by peoples of varied ethnicity, culture and religion over thousands and thousands of years. Also of note, the Hebrew nations were never really major players in the region. To cast this mosaic of human history into such dull black and white tones is a crime against the vibrant cacophony of voices making up the story of the middle east.

This view is also starkly Islamaphobic. It turns an entire religion and people group into an enemy which God has given another religion and people group authority to fight against. Now I understand it's not as if anyone is trying to restart the crusades, but, the crusades did happen (I'm just pointing that out, not at all suggesting they're going to happen again. People get tetchy when you bring up the crusades).

But the thing I realized, the thing I had never understood before, was that the conservative Christian view of the middle east completely erases the effects of colonialism. Poof, gone. Wait the west may have screwed over the middle east with imperialistic colonial practices? But the west  (or America, or something) is God's chosen people, they can do no wrong. And they certainly couldn't do any wrong back in the good ol' days!

As I was listening to NPR the other day (like an old person) I was considering Syria and wondering what underlying factors could have contributed to its current situation. The problem with my old worldview is that it was a worldview that knew what it wanted to see and fit the evidence into the story it assumed lay underneath. Narratives are not hard to construct. The problem with that worldview is that it leaves out the actual reasons contributing to unrest in the middle east while simultaneously promoting a historically inaccurate and racist understanding of the world. You can't get to the bottom of a situation, and you certainly can't do any measurable good, if you're working off such a skewed foundation.

I've been to parts of the middle east, and it was my interactions with the incredible people who live there that changed a lot of my worldview. My thoughts are with anyone in Syria, Egypt, or anywhere else that is experiencing unrest or suffering. 

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Koko and Me

I guess  this post will be a bit different from what I usually post here (which is completely subject to my whims anyways, so I don't know why I'm bothering with a disclaimer). I was recently reminded (via TED talk) of Koko the gorilla. Koko is a 42 year old gorilla with a vocabulary of 1000 words in ASL, you can find out more about her here, her story is pretty cool!

It was years ago that I first learned about Koko, I think it was in a National Geographic magazine. I remember, distinctly, reading about Koko pointing out a red piece of lint on a towel, signing "red" over and over to the confusion of her human companions until they realized she was pointing to the lint. Maybe she was pulling their scrawny homo sapien legs.

Reading about Koko was one of the first times I truly experienced doubt. Now, on my journey from Evangelicism to Atheism was almost subconscious. Maybe most people don't wake up one day and think "hmmm, I guess I a gay atheist now" but to be honest, that was pretty close to my experience. A lot of it had to do with the incredibly narrow culture I grew up in, I just had to grow out of my childhood indoctrination. I'm digressing though, the point of this is that Koko caused me to experience profound doubt. Or, in less loaded terms, she caused me to reevaluate the way I saw the world and non-human animals. The reevaluation raised huge questions about Christianity's treatment of the environment and non-human animals (particularly mainstream American Christianity as it is linked to conservative denial of human impact on the planet).

And Koko scared me Because if what I saw here was true, if the so called "lower animals" were capable of human emotion, and even acquisition of language, what did that say about god? What did that say about creation? I had the profound feeling that I was no longer alone, that maybe humans aren't as special as we like to think we are.

Today I read about great apes and other self-aware highly intelligent non-human animals with voracious curiosity. Koko doesn't scare me at all (when I saw a picture of her on her 42nd birthday I felt incredibly happy for her). When exploring the world of animal cognition and the several long term studies that have been done, I feel more connected to the world. One of the major parts of my life that has changed since letting go of my old ideas is an intense connection to the world and everything in it. Many religions have a focus on the afterlife, and as a child, I spent so much time focused on what would happen after my death that I couldn't live in the present. Now I experience every moment as it happens (at least, I try to). And with that awareness and ability to be present come empathy and desire for understanding. I want to understand and respect all living things, human or otherwise.

Here is some more cool stuff because I'm a geek for animals:
A Quick Video About Alex The Parrot
Susan Savage-Rumbaugh Talks About Her Work With Bonobos
A Super Cool Study Finds That Very Young Human Infants Respond to Lemur Calls

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

No One Dies A Virgin, Life Fucks Us All

Yeah, yeah, I'm gonna talk about sex, so yanno, be prepared.

I don't believe in virginity, I don't believe in it as a concept. I think there are a lot of really interesting and misogynistic ideals wrapped up in the whole virginity thing, and I'm just going to start at the top and unpack. But to start with, here's my ultimate favorite quote on virginity (aside from the one I used as the title, which is by the inestimable Kurt Cobain):

“I think the concept of virginity was created by men who thought their penises were so important it changes who a woman is.”
(I found this lovely quote on tumblr, here, where the page background is a bunch of vulvas, which is cool ^-^)

So, virginity. What is it? Lets get specific for a minute, Merriam Webster considers virginity to be "the quality or state of being virginespecially maidenhood". What's maidenhood you ask? Back to Merriam Webster we go, " the quality, state, or time of being a maiden". Maidenhood is also an old euphemism for the hymen (along with maidenhead), but we'll discuss anatomy in a moment.

So, essentially, a virgin is a woman who has never engaged in sexual intercourse. Wait, what, men can be virgins too? But the word is almost exclusively used on women and is feminine in origin*. Virginity is a lady thing, I'm going to explain why.

Here's where we return to the hymen, in ye olde days (and today) an intact hymen was considered the proof of virginity. A woman could be (and still can be) examined by a doctor and presented with a certificate of virginity. Vaginal bleeding on the wedding night is also considered proof of maidenhood. This actually still happens among some intensely patriarchal cultures, and hymenoplasty (reconstruction of the hymen) is more common that you would expect. And it doesn't only happen way off in wherever you think patriarchy still happens, because, yanno, patriarchy still happens everywhere.

So, if the hymen is how we tell who is and isn't a virgin, people with penises are incapable of being virgins, and people with vaginas who engage in penetrative anal sex are still virgins. Obviously there's the whole "letter of the law vs. spirit of the law" but that's the problem, we don't even know what "sex" constitutes. If a girl masturbates, is she still a virgin? If she gives a guy a blowjob, has she lost her virginity? What if she has sex with another girl?

The point is, virginity is meaningless. It is a socially constructed ideal that upholds women's sexuality as a commodity for men. That is what certificates of virginity are all about, proving that a woman is unsullied, not damaged goods. The entire concept of virginity is based in women being objectified.

*the word virgin is descended from the Latin word for "young woman". The constellation Virgo, for instance, is "the young woman". Not "the virgin" as English would use the word now. She's been linked to fertility  goddesses, so not a virgin. Also, consider how virgin is a compliment and an expectation when applied to an unmarried woman, but an insult when applied to a man. Now keep considering it. Go on, think hard. And while you're at it, think about what that says about our culture.