Saturday, September 29, 2007

Difference and hate-crimes

I had almost forgotten about the story of Matthew Shepard. When I was teaching diversity to journalism students, I used his story a lot when talking about hate speech/acts against sexual minorities precisely because it was so powerful. As I was browsing the net the other day, I came across a case study on the power of social networking through the internet in the case of Matthew's death, and was reminded of the story once again.

You see, this boy could have been any one of us. And that's what's so frightening about his story: born in 1976 and violently killed in 1998. The crime was motivated by the fact that Matthew was gay. The 22 years old political science college student was different from what was perceived as 'normal sexual behavior'. Why was this difference offending? Why it still is? What is it that makes some of us feel that someone else's sexuality infringes upon our own? Who defines what normal sexuality is and why we never question that definition for ourselves?

In his book The History of Sexuality, Michel Foucault has argued that bourgeois society has transformed sex into something that can and should be controlled. Sexuality, a central part of our embodied existence, was enlisted into capitalist logic of production. Good sex is that aimed at producing new labor force. The moralization of sexuality, which resonated so strongly with Christian dogma, policed our own desires, bodies and behaviors. Forms of sexuality which do not lead to reproduction are stigmatized, since they are not "economically useful and politically conservative" (p. 37).

Easier said then done. I mean, Foucault might provide interesting answers, but how can these answers help us becoming less judgmental and more inclusive?

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Change: from inside, from outside or both?

I proudly posted the quote of the month from Foucault's discussion of technologies of self. You can read it on the right hand side, but the basic idea is that changes in people come through the intellectual. Now, as I was browsing my colleague's thesis today, the first thing I saw was her own motto: change comes from within, from our own consciousness.

The first one seems patronizing, but I can remember of few instances in my life when I think it is true. Think of your own intellectual development and ask yourselves: was it purely my own work here? No author whom I read, no teacher who has taught me, no mentor who has guided me? But the second is equally applicable: who did the change? Did the teacher or the author operate the change in me like a surgeon working on my brain?

Maybe change comes with both of them. Maybe change comes with the example set by a person you respect, but it comes with the help of who you are so far. Which would mean that changing our way of perceiving difference starts with some basic activities of inquiring what we deem as different and why, but also with every little conversation or life experience that we have with difference.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

This is is not about difference, for a change.

Well, it is not, and yet it is. It's about a new book - The Shock Doctrine - which I am definitely gonna read. It's about the short youtube video linked below (again, a youtube video is worth a thousand words...) which talks of violence, whether state perpetrated or a natural disaster, and how human beings relate to it.

It could be about difference though, if you ask what is one of the main political techniques of mobilizing support in times of a crisis. The wise politician knows that people need a scapegoat - and they deliver it in the form of the marginal groups, who can be easily identified by their appearance. We always seem to need a scapegoat to make sense of crises.

The good thing about such works is that they are not bound by the academic rules. Just like Michael Moore's stuff, they are meant to puzzle you, to have an impact on you. And of course, that's also their bad part. If you really are critical, you cannot avoid asking yourself if these are not generalizations, based on partial evidence, stories constructed to present an argument meant to impress. Conspiracy theory. No answer here.

Link to book review in the New York Times

Monday, September 10, 2007

A YouTube movie is worth a thousand words...

A friend posted some cool short clips from Beijing. Sometimes, the only knowledge we have of something or someone comes from movies. It used to come from books, but with technology, perception and imagination changed. Now, the only problem with movies is that they are inescapably shaped by the collective imaginaries of the crew.

With Web 2.0 and applications such as YouTube, everyone can make a movie and share it. In theory, there will be a diversity of perspectives, turning old stereotypes obsolete. I thought about this while watching my friend's clips. The Beijing I know is a fuzzy mixture of images and words in my mind. Without knowing what I expected, I was still surprised by what I saw.

The surprise puzzled me. Why is it there? What did I expect to see? And why? Can we see something without any expectation? Are we white pages inscribed with meanings as we grow up, or are our minds born out of the meanings we come to learn?

Saturday, September 8, 2007

To exist is to differ?

Reading Latour, I came across this quote from sociologist Gabriel Tarde on difference:

"To exist is to differ; difference, in one sense, is the substantial side of things, what they have most in common and what makes them most different. One has to start from this difference and to abstain from trying to explain it [...]" (Tarde (1985/1999) Monadologie et sociologie: 73)

There's a point here which I take: to exist is to differ. That's true, we are all different. For Luhmann and system theorists, difference is the source of existence, as something comes into being by drawing boundaries around itself and, in this process of boundary-drawing, it sets the difference between what the system is and is not. My favorite example: a nation (pick one) comes into being not by virtue of historical necessity, but by delimiting itself along particular lines such as ethnicity, religion, language, territory. In this process of defining who the nation is, it sets the boundary separating it from who the nation is not.

But that's also not that obvious: why do we see the difference? To what extent our individualistic culture is not a source of seeing the difference, obsessing with it? Why are we different first and foremost, instead of similar (for instance, because we have one heart, one pair of lungs, one mouth and so on)?

I guess this comes down to the old constructivist debate: why do we see the tree as an individual unit and we do not see 'tree' as a whole, including the soil in which its roots are, the air which the leaves breathe etc. In other words, what is the principle of classification which informs our vision?
From this perspective, I have to side with Foucault and Skeggs (cited in last post): the principle of classification is always partial, always connected to a particular distribution of (access to) resources in society (sorry Latour, I guess I am not an ANT scholar). And I wonder to what extent our principle of classification is not difference as a source of mistrust and different moralities?

Sunday, September 2, 2007

Trained to see the difference

In one of the posts below, I was talking about how I was trained to recognize certain traits as valuable in a work of art. I'm reading Beverley Skeggs book about "Class, Self, Culture" and she put this thought I had in a very nice form:

"...differences (and inequalities) are produced, lived and read" (2004: 4).
Throughout our upbringing, we are taught to ascribe meaning to things. Eating food from the ground is yakky, later on it's just not healthy. Rap has no musicality in it. Having a mom and a dad is the balanced way of growing up. Sex means a woman and a man. And so on.

We rarely spend time thinking about the morality of such explanations, or perspectives, as Skeggs calls them. The underlying system of values which makes us label something as good/ bad, attractive/ disgusting is not given or universal. It is a social process, closely related to power relations in that society.

She says: look for what hierarchy the value you ascribe implies; look for how that hierarchy is connected to your position and your interests; look for how this moral hierarchy sets borders and thus produces differences as bad. I think I like these hints for understanding difference.

(Photo: by fotologic).
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