Review: Gadon, The Once and Future Goddess

Gadon, Elinor. The Once and Future Goddess: A symbol for our time. HarperCollins, 1989. Paperback, 405 pages.

The effort to recognize and restore the place of female power, authority, and divinity, especially in areas of study like archaeology, prehistory, and history, is deeply important to women’s empowerment and our reimagining of the possibilities of Western culture. But there is good reason to think that in the first blush of excitement over the possibilities, the pendulum swung too far in the other direction. Gadon, like many others, fell prey to the myth of matriarchal prehistory which Cynthia Eller has so capably exposed as not just inaccurate but an unstable foundation for women’s spirituality.

Let me say up front that I largely agree with Gadon’s descriptions of the dehumanization of women through modernity and patriarchal societies as documented in the historical record. But Gadon is determined to read that narrative back in an unbroken arc to prehistory, where the silent evidence of artifacts rather than texts is more accommodating of Gadon’s reinterpretations. By the end of the work it becomes obvious that Gadon really wanted to write about contemporary female artists and their reenvisioning and reclaiming of women’s bodies and women’s meaning. Those chapters may be valuable, but the majority of the book is devoted to pseudo-historical imaginings that have great potential to do harm.

Gadon’s historical errors and problems are pervasive. She cites Maria Gimbutas as an inspiration and takes Gimbutas’ often-discredited interpretations as authoritative. Gadon then presents these to the reader as if they were the predominant archaeological position. Similarly, Gadon bases an entire chapter on the theories of an archaeologist since disgraced for potentially smuggling antiquities and whose evidence for “the Great Goddess” and a matriarchal society was wholly discredited. Gadon’s reliance on these sources might have been barely excusable for a non-scholar twenty years ago, when she was writing, but our understandings of history and archaeology have developed significantly since then. Today’s readers need to be aware of these issues and look elsewhere for their information.

She also plays a neat shell game with visual evidence, asserting that similarly-described patterns in three different places have distinct meanings related to the goddesses she wants to identify: on page 43, diamonds and chevrons represent water, on page 49, diamonds are a sign of the vegetation goddess, and on page 53, bands of dots and zigzags are snakeskin designs. Similarly, bull horns are both symbols of masculinity and a representation of the lunar crescent – so is the moon a male symbol, too? In later chapters, Gadon slides from one goddess-figure into another, the snake and bird goddess(es) being sometimes separate and sometimes the same, but regardless, Gadon presents all evidence as supporting the pan-Goddess hypothesis.

This kind of sloppy scholarship does nothing more than convince me that interpreting prehistoric artifacts is an extremely difficult field in which it is easy to pick the possible interpretation that supports preexisting assumptions. She also conveniently ignores other possible interpretations. For example, rather than goddess figures, archaeologists might be unearthing Neolithic erotica, which does not necessarily mean that women were valued or powerful. I guarantee that an archaeologist digging up my current culture would find lots of representations of women, but that doesn’t mean women are running an idyllic goddess-worshipping matriarchy.

For someone who wants to imagine herself back in time, Gadon’s disconnection from any physical realities of the period is sometimes annoying and sometimes laughable. Her penchant for inappropriately syncretizing everything leads her to try to unify the rhythms of agricultural food production and those of hunter-gatherer production – in every bioregion and climate! – to support the idea of universal spring sacrifices. She has also apparently never seen winter wheat. (72) This is one more symptom of how she slides back and forth between the symbolic and the actual much too easily.

Gadon’s inaccuracies are not merely symbolic, though: she asserts that people’s “material life improved” as they moved into agricultural communities, when in fact, nearly all the extant evidence shows the exact opposite. (45) Every time a large enough population of humans concentrated, “herd” or “crowd” diseases cropped up, and in fact, even when they survived childhood, farmers were less well nourished and in poorer health overall than their predecessors.

Even in discussing the presence and role of the Goddess in the very society from which she comes, Gadon is sloppy with her evidence, giving incorrect Biblical citations for her quotes, ignoring the Old Testament, and failing to differentiate between popular Catholicism and the Church’s actual teachings. She also wanders through the ideas in her typical scatterbrained way, tossing off odd comments like the idea that the moon brought menstruation into Mary’s iconography by association. (204) Huh?

Most problematic for me was  Gadon’s unremitting gender essentialism. The tactic of valorizing things previously derided for being “female” is an important part of changing patriarchy, but unquestioningly accepting the patriarchal framing of what women are is a major strategic error. Gadon argues that women’s wombs are the source of their power. (289) Reducing women to their reproductive systems is dehumanizing and wrong no matter who does it.

The idea that some of the Goddess images are also phallic, and thus incorporate men, is as backhanded a way of justifying the Goddess as a universal representation of deity as the idea that the Christian god is neither male nor female. The “coincidental” connection to Christianity suggested on page 44 is frankly insulting to Christians in tone and verges on spiritual-cultural imperialism. Replacing the “default male” assumption with a “default female” assumption may help break down patriarchy, but it still defines some people as normal and some as Other.

Ultimately, Gadon’s fascination with visual representations means I should not be surprised by her finally stating bluntly that “the sacred image is not an illusion of reality, but reality itself.” (200) But Gadon does not realize that this willingness to valorize iconography – whether theological or visual, whether life-affirming or otherworldly – is a major root of much of the damage done by patriarchal systems that she decries. The kind of interpretation of the world that deliberately, knowingly, prefers its ideas, or theology, or goddess worship, over reality, and insists that reality will simply have to conform itself to those ideas is the same kind of interpretation that supports refusing women abortion as a life-saving medical treatment, because the reality of the woman’s death isn’t nearly as important as the invisible spiritual interpretation someone else has imposed.

What’s really valuable in this book is the material on contemporary culture, art, and the idea of the goddess. She could have written a perfectly good book about that without doing violence to prehistory and archaeology along the way. Her chapter on the artist as prophet of the Goddess’ reemergence offers a variety of visions of the Goddess in contemporary life and can be read as an invitation to the reader to join that process. I would think that knowing where that journey is headed would make the deep delving of the beginning of Gadon more relevant, more inspiring, and more worthwhile for women who haven’t yet encountered the reemergence of the Goddess, or haven’t encountered it as fully. She concentrates, as usual, on visual imagery, and runs the risk of making women who are not artists or whose artistry occurs in different media feel as if they are not as fully participating in the reemergence of the Goddess, but even for that, this material is uplifting and inspiring.

Towards the end of the book, Gadon acknowledges that there is no real evidence for the kind of society she spent so much time imagining, and mentions the fact that the mother goddess archetype puts too much emphasis on women’s reproductive capacity, but this two-page slice of reality does little to outweigh her first several chapters. (303-304)

Similarly, Gadon’s comment that “sacred narrative often preserves memories of how people experience cultural changes,” is very true and a much better statement of that fact than the overused trivialization that victors write history. (117) But her excellent suggestions about things like women reclaiming the process of birth from an overly-medicalized approach don’t have to be grounded in imaginary ancient sacred narrative to give them truth and power.

I disagree with Gadon’s essentialist take on femininity, but I agree that we – as part of the women’s spirituality movement and as part of the earth-centered spirituality movement – are participating in reconstructing the mythology and cultural consciousness of our time. I think we should try to do so on a stable and sustainable basis, rather than on fancies mistaken for fact. As a result, for a casual reader, I strongly recommend only engaging with the last part of the book and ignoring the prehistorical sections, if you read it at all.

Review: Lale, Asatru for Beginners

Lale, Erin. Asatru for Beginners. e-book second edition, 2009. 157 pages.

Asatru for Beginners is by Erin Lale, an Asatruar who has run for office as a candidate for the Libertarian party. Lale moderated an MSN group for Asatruar for several years, and the book grew out of the FAQ and resources for that group. The book’s origins show clearly, and while it tries to be representative of many or most Asatruar, at times the author’s personal and political agendas come through with startling clarity.

Despite the title, I wouldn’t actually recommend this book for beginners. I think it would be most useful for someone who has a foundation in Asatru and wants to see what the collective documents of a group of Asatruar look like. Reading the book, I think I get a sense of what a lot of the conversations on the list must have looked like to come to these mostly-consensus positions. Encountering those as filtered through the author could be useful for someone trying to get more involved in Asatru, but it does not even attempt to be an unbiased look at Asatru written for someone with no basis.

Perhaps the most useful parts of the book are an alphabetical listing of deities, which I can see as a great resource for beginning practitioners, and the simple rituals for major life events. There is also a rune chart and some straightforward descriptions of how magic might be incorporated in an Asatru framework, plus an overview of additional resources. All of these would be valuable for anyone starting to follow the Asatru path.

The book could certainly do with more thorough editing. It is repetitive, reflecting its structure as parts of a FAQ rather than a book meant to be read linearly. Some things are a little oddly placed or phrased. A warning against not taking oaths in a language you do not understand is included in the FAQ answer on initiations, which seems strange to me. (13) In another place, the text seems to say that the political power of the Roman Empire was only broken after the Protestant Reformation. (33) Surely this is a mistake of confusing the religious power of Rome in Catholicism with the Roman Empire, but it seems to demonstrate a lack of attention to detail, especially since this is the second edition of the book. Some capitalization issues (“Science,” “Lesbians”) and paragraph problems also make the book look less professional than it might otherwise.

Unfortunately, the bigger problem is that some issues that have plagued Northern European reconstructionists show up here too. Lale says that there is disagreement within Asatru about “whether a person must belong to a particular nation in order to be that particular type of heathen.” She continues: “Those who say no are called universalists.  Those who say yes are called folkisch.  However, even among the folkisch, the tradition of tribal adoption is honored, and those of mixed ethnicity are welcomed as long as they have some ancestors from the given nation.”

This seems to me to only begin to scratch the surface of the tremendous issues surrounding race within Asatru. That may be appropriate for beginners, and is certainly okay on a website’s FAQ, but this is a missed opportunity for Lale to expand this material into a better form. Later, the Asatruar involvement in Kennewick Man situation is mentioned, and the author says that Kennewick Man “is 9,000 years old, and dates from a time before the modern races evolved,” which seems to me to confirm an outdated form of thinking about races as simply biologically distinct, rather than a complex interaction of biology and culturally-defined categories that can vary greatly. (15)

The issue of race in Asatru’s history comes up: Lale disavows any connection between Nazi Germany and Heathenism in confused ways; she acknowledges that some Nazis used some Heathen symbols, but maintains that Hitler was a Christian and that Heathens were persecuted in Nazi Germany as well. (33, 34) Again, I understand the limitations of a FAQ, but in a book, surely this could have been addressed with more nuance. The Nazis and their attitudes toward religon were not monolithic, and the text here seems too much like an attempt to claim fellow-victim status to deflect reasonable criticisms that have been raised and continue to crop up about Asatru interactions with white supremacy and other forms of racism.

The strangest part of the whole book for me was the way it addressed – or didn’t – issues of gender and sexuality. Responsible reconstructionists have to grapple with the ways that ancient traditions did or did not address gender and sexuality, especially given the fact that the ancients may have had very different conceptions of those issues than we do today. Lale seems determined on the one hand to insist that Asatru is not hostile to gays and lesbians and on the other to maintain the gender essentialist structure of historical Northern European cultures, right down to using derogatory terms for queer people. This is especially baffling because Lale herself is bisexual.

Addressing gays, Lale writes: “In any case, homosexuality was certainly never outlawed among the heathens.  Some of the gods were sexually ambiguous.” (106) I’m sure the fact that this was “never outlawed” in the past will be reassuring to gay people uncertain of their possible reception in Asatru today. There seems to be an assumption that gay men are effeminate, as another related statement points out that “Both transvestism and changing gender are practiced by some of the gods in our myths.” (105) Given the plethora of easily-available information on trans* issues, it is especially strange that Lale retains the outdated and pejorative “transvestitism.”

Further confusion arises when Lale states that “Modern male seidh practitioners are generally presumed to be gay unless they are transvestites.” (142) The relationship between seidh and gender and sexual identity in the myths is a complex and fascinating topic, but this offhanded statement obscures the potential richness of the topic as point of great interest to queer people interested in Asatru.

This approach also reflects the simplistic gender essentialism that pervades the book. Simple rituals for life events are included, but they are extremely gender-specific (at coming-of-age, women get a jewel, men a weapon) and only mention heterosexual unions.

Lale takes pains to assure women that “In heathen times, the traditional roles of women had value and power.” (102) Yes, the economic power of the home manager is not to be disregarded, but what of the contemporary female Marine who feels drawn to Asatru as a way to embrace her warrior identity?

Finally, in some places, Lale makes flat-out assertions and presents her personal positions as definitive, normative, and inherent in Asatru. For example, she says simply, “Asatru women do not cut their hair,” with a related explanation that women who cut their hair are whores or slaves. (94)

Her libertarian position comes out in statements this FAQ entry on gun control: “A free people is an armed people, because only an armed people has the means to remain free. Slaves are forbidden weapons; free people carry them openly.  A society in which only the police carry weapons openly is a police state.” (104) She does mention that not all Asatruar will agree with all the answers she gives, but in other places she tends to at least acknowledge variation of opinion. This topic is treated as an essential part of Asatru belief and practice.

All in all, this book may be helpful for some beginners, but it is not one I would recommend to someone just starting to explore Asatru. It falls prey to several problems specific to Heathenism, but more importantly, it seems to reflect the opinions of a relatively narrow subsection of that culture with very specific political and social views.

I thank Ms. Lale for providing a review copy of her book to me. It did not prejudice me in favor of her work.

Janet Porter wants me to die

That’s the message she rallied her supporters to send to the Ohio legislature today. And Rick Perry, Michele Bachmann, and Mike Huckabee all agree with her.

Trigger Warning: difficult pregnancy, death

I used to live in Ohio. If I were still there, this bill would scare me out of my wits. I have a disability which means that trying to carry a pregnancy to term would kill me, probably long before a fetus became viable outside the womb. As a result, I did the smart thing: I had my tubes tied.

Tubal ligation is the most reliable form of contraception available for women, but it’s still not perfect. There’s a minute chance that I could get pregnant. If I do, with my tubes tied, it will be an ectopic pregnancy.

Ectopic pregnancies are a medical emergency; they cannot be carried to term. The only treatment is to end the pregnancy, medically if possible, surgically if necessary. If left untreated, an ectopic pregnancy will cause the woman to have severe internal bleeding. She will likely die.

I would likely die – because Porter’s “heartbeat bill” and the “personhood amendments” would make it illegal to treat ectopic pregnancies, as well as ban in vitro fertilization and certain kinds of birth control. When Porter and the politicians who support her argue for these pieces of legislating, they are arguing that if I, or any other woman, ends up in that situation, she should be left to die.

This is worse than the occasional audience member yelling “Let him die!” when the Republican debate turned to the topic of helping the uninsured. That’s bad enough, but this is worse. This isn’t just about not providing financial support. This is about making it a criminal act to give me the necessary health care to save my life.

Don’t be fooled by the slick language and the “heartbeat” schlock. If this bill passes it will not only be a tremendous setback for women’s rights, it will put women’s lives in danger. Maybe your mother’s, maybe your sister’s, maybe your daughter’s. Maybe yours. Definitely mine.

NARAL was right when they called on politicians to “stop the war on women” by supporting Planned Parenthood earlier this year. This is another front in the same war, a war I was conscripted into when I was born, by virtue of having a uterus and a disability. Janet Porter and her supporters want to strip away the little bit of protection that modern medicine has been able to devise to keep this accidental confluence from killing me. If they do, by the vagaries of chance, I still might dodge that bullet. But not everyone will.

By the way, Janet Porter is in with the Christian Dominionists up to her eyeballs. So when they talk about praying for a “culture of life” in the US (a dogwhistle for outlawing abortion and probably most birth control), they’re talking about wanting to let me die. My opposition to Christian Dominionists isn’t just religious: it’s about protecting my own life and the lives of others. When these folks have support from and influence with several of the contenders for the Republican nomination for president, I can’t sit back and ignore them any more.

Given names: Up now at the Slacktiverse!

I’ve got a new piece up at the Slacktiverse called “Given names,” on the topic of names and power. I draw from several different examples and intersections: military interactions, men using women’s names to create an unwanted sense of intimacy, and the ongoing “nym wars” about real-names-only policies on social networking platforms. Enjoy!

Why the individual mandate is absolutely essential to changing our health insurance model

Skylandia has this great post up about how health insurance is not like car insurance. This is a false equivalency that’s just as bad as the idea that government budgeting is just like household budgeting, and resistance to changing the model puts women at additional risk.

I wish I could put this in front of the legislator who said that women should not get assistance paying for abortion, even after rape, because he makes sure he has a spare tire on his car. False equivalencies and wrong models like this are putting women’s lives and health at risk.

I’d like to take Skylandia’s conclusions one step farther in terms of appropriate comparisons with in the US political system. She says that a closed model – with everybody in – is the appropriate approach for health insurance, because everybody is going to need it at some point. In US terms, this is like saying that health insurance should work more like Social Security – everyone pays in, automatically, and it’s there for everyone (in reality, nearly everyone).

That’s what makes this, as Skylandia says, reliable insurance, and not a bet or gamble, like car insurance is. This is why the individual mandate is absolutely essential to improving health insurance and health care in this country. A public option would have been better yet, but it got killed off by the same people who want to get rid of Social Security. Do you see a trend here?

“Every man for himself” is not the best approach when it comes to health care – especially women’s health care, which is already under-protected.

Wiccans worship Goddess and God – RD revises article

Religion Dispatches corrected an article that said that Wiccans “don’t worship a dude at all, but a female goddess,” after readers wrote in to say that Wicca usually involves interpreting the divine as having both male and female forms.

Gary Laderman’s article, “‘Republicanity’—The GOP Transformation is Nearly Complete,” argues that the Republican party is functioning more and more like a religion. Instead of claiming it is becoming the political front of Evangelical Christianity, Laderman describes “Republicanity” as having myths, rituals, ethics, and theology of its own, some of which are Evangelical in nature, but many which treat politics as a sort of religion in and of itself. Under that last heading, Laderman mentioned multiple religions and briefly described their views of deity, ending with the quote above.

I wrote in with examples drawn from the Covenant of the Goddess (perhaps misleadingly named, as I noted), the Pagan Federation, and the old but oft-reproduced Council of American Witches’ “Principles of Wiccan Beliefs,” all three of which showed that Wicca is not purely about Goddess worship. The article has been corrected, with language that indicates the editors may have received multiple letters on the subject; mine has been reprinted below the article.

I’m thrilled that RD moved quickly and decisively to correct what was a factual error on their part. I didn’t want to belabor the point in my letter to the editor, but there’s one other thing that is an issue in their original phrasing: “a female goddess.” What other kinds of goddesses are there?

RD’s correction is a great step in the right direction, especially for a ‘zine that tries to be equitable to readers of many different religions (and has more mentions of minority religions than any other outlet I read regularly!). But the repetitive “female goddess,” and the fact that in spite of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, someone thought Wicca only allowed goddess worship, shows that the idea of the Divine Feminine can still be unusual and surprising, even to people who study religion for a living.

Let’s be grateful for this step forward, and let it remind us that we are making progress with a radical idea just by holding the Goddess up for devotion along with the God. We’ve made tremendous progress; let’s keep going.

My iPad and my feminism

After raving about the iPad’s capabilities, it’s only fair to point out that the technology is only as good as people make it. There’s a lot of stuff on the iPad app store that really annoys me, and most of it has to do with gender.

There’s lots of apps available for people to track their menstrual cycles. Unfortunately, as far as I can tell, every single developer thinks it’s absolutely necessary to design these apps with an icon and user interface that is either full of pink, or flowers, or both. Now, I like icons that are descriptive and distinctive, but apparently the developers are concerned that women can’t tell which apps are specifically for women if the apps don’t look like Hello Kitty just barfed all over the screen.

The language used to describe these apps and inside the apps themselves is even more gag-inducing. Seriously, whoever designed these apps, do you think it’s really all that “discreet” to have an app named something like P Track that has an icon with a calendar with pink flowers marking seven days out of the month? Wow, nobody would ever in a million years guess that that’s for a woman’s….omg, don’t say it! Don’t mention the scary, scary curse of Eve and blood and everything!

Some of the more feature-heavy apps include ways to track fertility, which doesn’t particularly matter to me, but I will throw my iPad out the window before I ever refer to anything that happens in my bedroom as a “love connection.” Seriously? We can talk frankly about recording the details of acne, bloating, breast tenderness, constipation, cramps, depression, trouble concentrating, and weight gain, not to mention cervical position and fluid, but we can’t put “sex” in our calendars?

Worst of all, this isn’t confined to things having to do with what happens in the bathroom and bedroom. The yoga apps that I’ve tried have had an inordinate amount of pink, compared to other apps (in fact, the non-women’s apps tend to avoid pink, making the discrepancy all the more glaring), and plenty of flowers. Yes, I know, the lotus and meditation and all that, fine. But when all of the images of poses are done with female models, it makes it hard for me to think the other things are accidents.

The most highly-rated yoga app, Yoga Free, takes this to a whole new level by having only images of women, a feminine-sounding voice giving the name of each pose, and then a masculine-sounding voice giving directions on how to do the pose. It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that you and I and the little women who are doing yoga on the screen are all being taught by a man, who is the only one who really knows how to do the poses or how to teach us to inhabit our bodies. Isn’t that just a great piece of gender inequality to wake up to every morning?

What strippers taught me about unions

Most of what I know about unions I learned from Live Nude Girls Unite! That’s a film documenting the successful labor-organizing efforts of the strippers at San Francisco’s Lusty Lady peepshow in 1996 and 1997. (A summary of the workers’ experience can be found at the film’s website.) I somehow grew up without much exposure to unions or the country’s labor relations history, and while I originally started watching the documentary as part of an effort to learn more about sex workers, I came away with a whole different perspective on labor relations and what unions are all about. The film does talk about the unique difficulties faced by sex workers at their jobs and in the effort to unionize, but in the end, it’s much more about labor relations than about the peepshow.

I have to wonder whether unions have been so successful in this country that they’ve removed the public outrage that fueled them in the first place, making themselves seem obsolete. A lot of people who aren’t in a union tend to think that either unions exist to protect workers from egregious abuses by employers, like child labor, or to get lots and lots of money for union members. For the first point, many of the horror stories about 19th-century capitalism are too remote to cause serious concern these days. We have child labor laws, and anti-discrimination statutes, and the EEOC, people say; workers don’t need unions to protect them anymore, because all those abuses are illegal now. The experiences of the strippers in San Francisco belie that argument and show how many subtle forms of employer discrimination and harassment are available. Even if the employer’s offense is blatant enough to be prosecuted, winning a lawsuit years later does nothing to put food on the table if you’ve lost your job in the meantime.

More than that, the organizers of the Exotic Dancers’ Union show how unions are actually about managing a key commodity in capitalism: information. Labor relations between large employers and individual employees are inherently unfair, because the large employer has lots and lots of information available to it: information about wages, benefits, and experience in previous negotiations with hundreds if not thousands of employees, experience that gets refined and codified into job offers, contracts, and negotiating tactics. Individual workers can make an effort to get some of that information, especially by looking at compiled information about “industry standard” compensation, but it’s much harder for the employee, whether considering a new offer or renegotiating an old one.

When workers organize, they can aggregate their experiences. They’ll know if management is playing favorites, whether some workers are getting less compensation or benefits than others, and they’ll know if management has an overarching pattern of behavior. Understanding that pattern is the first step to being able to work against it. Yes, unions let workers agree on their collective bargaining positions and even organize work slowdowns or strikes, but that’s not the primary purpose or benefit of a union. Unions exist to level the playing field, to make negotiations more open and fair, and to promote the flow of information that makes capitalism work.

I’d even argue that unions are one of the ways capitalism adapted itself so that Marx’s predictions of doom didn’t come to pass. As Adam Smith pointed out, unequal access to information and inequalities in negotiations make capitalism spin out of control. Instead of the general strike that Marx and others envisioned, workers organized. Smaller-scale strikes did happen, but organized workers were the first step to eliminating some of the worst excesses of unrestrained capitalism in the 19th century and putting it back on a more sustainable track.

And finally, yes, unions have negotiated some major benefits for their members. But those benefits have been a big part of helping workers join the middle class. Back when the auto bailouts were happening, an acquaintance decried the higher labor costs wrapped up in American auto production and blamed them for making American companies unable to compete with foreign ones. I pointed out that a lot of that labor cost went to health insurance and pensions; people in the countries with more “competitive” labor costs shouldered the collective burden of a social safety net through much higher taxes and government programs.

Those costs have to be paid if we’re going to maintain a thriving middle class in this country. It’s not about ensuring lavish lifestyles – did you see the Daily Show segment on teachers’ lives in Wisconsin? It’s about retirement and health care, and at a time when conservatives are simultaneously attempting to dismantle the social safety net and trying to break unions, it’s hard not to conclude that they would be just as happy to see the middle class disappear.

What strippers taught me about unions is that the past isn’t as far away as we think, and that in an “information economy” with a huge service sector, unions are just as relevant as ever.

(NB: As I mention above, this is not an area where I have a lot of experience or academic study; if I’ve stated things that are so blatantly obvious that they don’t need repeating, please excuse me. I welcome corrections and refinements from more serious students of economics and labor history as well.)

I don’t pick up your socks or raise your consciousness

There’s a piece called Femininity 2.0 in the Huffington Post that is a masterpiece of gender essentialism. I think the author and I would agree on many positive changes that we’d like to see in the world, but disagree vehemently on how to get there. That author, Marianne Williamson, goes to such lengths to praise what she describes as essentially feminine qualities that she comes out saying that women need to avoid being distracted by all this so-called women’s liberation and get back to being the homemakers of the world so that we can save the world from the destructive, dangerous menz. No, no, and heck no! I don’t pick up men’s socks for them and I won’t be made responsible for raising their consciousness either.

My real problems start about halfway through. Williamson starts out by establishing her experience with feminism in the 70s and says that kind of feminism basically tried to make women able to be just like men, while “we denied some essential aspects of our authentic selves.” Just what were those “essential aspects,” you ask?

I ultimately realized that my mother’s very traditional role was far from meaningless. I now see that is a woman’s God-given role to tend to the home and take care of the children: it’s just that the entire planet is our home and every child on it is one of our children.

She goes on to explain how and why she thinks fulfilling this “spiritual mission” would change the world.

Homemaker and motherhood are not just material conditions that belong to a few; they are states of consciousness that belong to any woman who assumes them. Women should be the keepers of the conscience of the world. We are keepers of the internal flame — the light of humanitarian values and the primacy of love — and our greatest power lies in keeping it lit.

So where does that leave men? She gives an example from hyenas, which she says is typical of mammalian species, that it’s the females’ job to protect the cubs while the males are…well, threatening the females and cubs. (I’m hearing echoes of Mama Grizzly here, but I don’t know enough about Williamson to know how likely it is that she’s making an allusion.) Her examples of what’s wrong with the world – pollution and environmental destruction, a focus on corporate profits at the expense of humaneness, poverty, hunger, and even disempowered women – are all things that should be fixed, but her rallying cry is exclusively aimed at women. She doesn’t come out and say that men are irremediable brutes; she just doesn’t say anything about what they ought to be doing to change this state of affairs.

This nonsense demeans both women and men. Yes, she’s calling for positive change in the world, but the way she goes about it undermines her whole point. If women are the home of humanitarian values, where does that leave men? And if men don’t have humanitarian values, how can a culture ever be safe and assured of its humanitarian values until men are fully civilized and possibly even controlled by women, in order to keep their presumably inhumane natures from wreaking havoc? That’s not what Williamson is explicitly calling for, but I don’t know how else to interpret her utter neglect of men’s potential roles in her reimagined world, other than as aggressors and sources of danger.

I am not a keeper of conscience of the world because I’m female. I’m fighting for things I believe in because I believe in them, and because I believe that the only way to make a real difference is to get as many people – regardless of their sex or gender – as possible to work on putting those beliefs into action. If Williamson wanted to say something like “women’s (traditional) values of nurturing and caring can be a model for everyone, male and female alike, to learn how to care for each other and the planet,” I might still deride her gender essentialism, or pandering to “traditional” categorization, but I wouldn’t be so absolutely furious. But what she has written is ultimately as destructive as the kind of “paternalistic think[ing]” she characterizes as normal for men.

Casting women as the “saviors” or “civilizers” of humanity, particularly of men, restricts both men and women from exploring the full range of what it means to be human. It condemns women to the hard work and lets men off the hook, and by doing so, it prevents us from making real progress towards a future where all people foster within themselves a “state of consciousness” of caring for each other and the world. Working towards that future is not my “God-given” “spiritual mission” because I’m a woman.  That ought to be our mission together, all of us, because it’s what our world needs from us right now. Want to help?

Tolerance, pluralism, and safe space

There’s been some major upheaval on another blog I read frequently: the blogger has moved to the Patheos portal, and a lot of his very active and tightly-knit community of commenters are seriously upset about this, because Patheos does not meet the standards that community had established for inclusiveness. Since I’ve also recently read Gus diZerega’s post calling for religious pluralism rather than religious tolerance, and Jonathan Kirsch’s God Against the Gods, about the conflicts between polytheism and monotheism, and Stephen Prothero’s God Is Not One, about the differences between major world religions, the subjects of tolerance, pluralism, and safe space have been on my mind a lot lately. A lot of people don’t understand the difference between tolerance and pluralism, and even more people don’t understand that there is a third option: safe space. A lot of people want to work towards safe space, but because they miscall it tolerance, their very language undermines them and can be used against them by the kind of bigots they are trying to work away from.

Tolerance is an appropriate description of the attitude taken by the majority or the powerful when they decide to accept some things about the minority or those without power. Parents tolerate their two-year-old’s tantrums; countries with state religions may tolerate those who believe otherwise. Not every use of the word implies such a huge power disparity, of course: Roman Catholic Christians and Protestant Christians started learning to tolerate the differences among them after the Thirty Years War, both in areas that were Protestant-controlled and those Catholic-controlled. But it does imply a power inequality and that differences existence on sufferance, not because of approval or agreement to disagree.

Pluralism implies that there is more than one way to do or to be, and that more than one of those ways is protected. The US Constitution’s First Amendment right to free speech is an effort to enshrine pluralism in the country’s laws. The government has, in effect, an agreement to disagree with others: the government’s power must be used to support the ability of others to disagree with it or criticize it. When certain kinds of speech are restricted, we slip back to tolerance, and the government deciding what is to be tolerated. Sometimes that’s necessary, but the principle in the Constitution is usually interpreted by courts as an instruction to be as close as possible to pluralism. The decisions by courts that some things, like “fighting words,” or incitement to violence, are intolerable is a point we’ll return to later. Pluralism, by its very nature, is inherently in a state of turmoil: people are allowed to say things like “You’re stupid,” and “You shouldn’t listen to him,” and even “He shouldn’t be allowed to say that,” or, in other words, “I’m using my position under pluralism to criticize pluralism!”

Safe space is where intolerance is not tolerated. Safe space is the idea of tolerance taken through pluralism and out the other side, to where tolerance becomes not just the powerful’s promise not to hurt those who disagree with them, but a reclaiming of that power by the previously powerless, to be used in their defense. It is inherently more regulated than pluralism – pluralism is the laissez-faire form of conversation, if you will. Safe space, like an effort to rectify economic inequalities, attempts to rectify power inequalities in conversation. That requires using power, and in particular, using it against the people who usually have more power.

Safe spaces exist because pluralism isn’t inherently safe. Pluralism is dangerous: people get to say things like, “I know better than you do what you should do with your body,” or “You’re not really a human being,” or “I don’t think you should exist.” I like a lot of things about pluralism, and I would never, ever try to enshrine the ideas of a safe space in law, for example, but pluralism is hard, and sometimes we need places that allow us to retreat from that. It hurts to be worn down every day. Even when each individual insult is light as a feather, at the end of the day you can barely stand up because of the fifteen featherbeds’ worth of insults that have landed on you, even carelessly, even accidentally.

Yes, safe spaces create the danger of an echo chamber, where we only listen to people who already agree with us. But for people who are routinely hurt by everyday life, there’s little danger of that becoming an issue right now. All I have to do is walk out the door to see people who disagree with me, some who show it quite regularly. Yes, safe spaces use power, and no, that use of power isn’t always “fair” by everyone’s definition of fair. But it’s something that I believe needs to be done, and especially when that use of power happens only to those who have given consent by entering the safe space to begin with, it’s a lot better than what happens on the outside. It’s not reverse repression: it’s an attempt to dream, and maybe even to create small pieces of shared dreams, of what a lack of repression would look like.

And yes, safe spaces do exclude those unable or unwilling to cooperate. That’s one good reason that most places aren’t safe spaces, actually. And it’s why creating safe spaces requires a major commitment from those enforcing them to be willing to reexamine their own motives, to make sure they aren’t letting their desire for safety become a cover for their own prejudice, and so that they are using that power in as minimal a way possible.

A claim that pluralism solves all ills is willful blindness. Prothero is right about this: many major religions have fundamental, irreconcilable differences about the world and the metaphysical. For religions and religious interpretations that make exclusive truth claims, existing in a pluralistic space can be hard, and if they create pluralism in areas where they have power, it is a remarkable exercise in tolerance. And they will reveal this by having limits on what they tolerate, just as the government has limits on some kinds of speech, even while holding itself to its promise of pluralism as much as possible. Kirsch is right that monotheism fosters exclusive truth claims and gives a stunning account of how hegemonic power and exclusive truth claims have been used to reinforce each other. I’ve met many monotheists who don’t make exclusive truth claims; perhaps they can move the center of gravity in their religions closer to a point where more mutual respect is possible. But I don’t know, and it’s certainly not the case right now.

Right now, plenty of bigots are still pretending that their religious (or other) bigotry is “fact,” rather than just asserting their right to speak (or act) as bigots. And that means that safe spaces are still needed. It doesn’t mean that everywhere should be a safe space: I disagree with diZerega’s conclusion that a commitment to pluralism should be required of all “true spirituality,” because what he means isn’t just pluralism in terms of speech, but a kind of mutual respect between religions that is not possible for religions with exclusive truth claims. I don’t want to say that those aren’t “true spirituality.” DiZerega wants a kind of safe space in the entire sphere of religion; he thinks religions should not tolerate intolerance. I think it would be wrong for me to dictate to those religions in their own space, and, frankly, I am committed to pluralism, which means that in areas that neither one of us controls, or where we agree not to exercise certain powers – like the public sphere – I have to “tolerate” their intolerance. And I do. But not in all spaces.

In this space, I commit to using my power to try to create a safe space. I haven’t made a comment policy yet, and this theoretical discussion isn’t very clear as one, but I’ll work on refining it. For now, let me say that I want to make this space safe for people of color, for women, for people who are QUILTBAG (Queer/Questioning, Undecided, Intersex, Lesbian, Transsexual or Transgender, Asexual, or Gay), for people with disabilities, for people of any religion who do not make exclusive truth claims or disparage my religion, and more. Because hurtful speech does harm, and allowing that speech is consenting or contributing to that harm. I will warn you, and then I will ban you. And if you think I’m making this space less safe for you in some way, please, let me know about it, and I will listen. Help me make this safe space.