down with elevation

A couple of weeks ago, I attended a talk with scholar Elizabeth Young Breuhl entitled “Sexual Diversity in Cosmopolitan Perspective.” By and large it was an interesting talk. Her main point was that our concept of what constitutes sexual deviancy is shifting from an acts-based model to an intent-based model (my words, not hers) – more or less, that we used to consider deviant acts to be those that fall outside the heterosexual monogamous reproductive imperative, but that we’re moving toward a conception of deviancy that’s more about whether those acts are based in real personal connection (i.e. not in violence or objectification) and with full consent of all participants. Perhaps a bit optimistic, but a good point nonetheless.

A few things bothered me about her talk, though, one of the main ones being that she pulled that classic white Western stunt of romanticizing Native cultures. Specifically she spoke about how Two-Spirit people were elevated in status in Native tribes, in service to making a larger point about how “other” cultures have been a lot nicer to their sexual minorities than contemporary Western society is.

Okay. Fair enough. I am aware that some Native tribes in some places did elevate the status of the people who were sexual and gender minorities, and that’s a beautiful and proud tradition well worth reclaiming as many modern-day Two-Spirit people are doing. But to hear her speak of this as though it were a simple, unproblematic and universal concept among all tribes everywhere was just not so cool. I’m no expert in First Nations history, not by a long shot, but it doesn’t take an expert to hear the tinny ring of romanticization in statements like hers.

For starters, not every Native tribe did or does things the same way. So to make any statement that lumps them all in together in their approach to Two-Spirit people is necessarily inaccurate. I would be very surprised if every single tribe in North America were universally friendly to sexual and gender minorities, pre-colonization, and among those that were, I’d be further very surprised if “friendly” operated the same way everywhere and was universally simple and wonderful. No culture has a perfect approach to sexual and gender diversity, now or in the past, and anytime I see a rosy picture of any culture painted by white people, my mind always leaps to basic racism. People often think that racism is only really racism if you’re holding negative stereotypes about people, but it’s a lot broader than that. Pseudo-positive stereotypes are just as problematic – you know the ones. Black people are such good singers and dancers, and they’re so happy (subtext: they aren’t qualified to be intellectuals or business people or much of anything beyond a source of entertainment for white people). Asian women are gentle, great lovers and highly skilled manual labourers (subtext: they are fit to be sexually and emotionally dominated by white men and underpaid in menial jobs). Women are naturally loving, nurturing and kind (subtext: they’re weak and pliable and have no real power). And so forth.

Next to that, Western colonization came into the picture many generations ago and inevitably took a devastating toll on Native cultures of all sorts, bringing with it a repressive religious framework and rigid concepts of gender and appropriate sexual behaviour – not to mention atrocities like residential schools and numerous other horrendous examples of oppression. So even if it were accurate to believe that Native cultures were perfect havens for the sexually diverse at some unspecified point in the past, that past is a long time ago and the present looks very different indeed.

But that’s just the surface level of what bothered me. On a deeper level, the concept of “elevated status” itself is problematic. Much like “positive” stereotyping comes with reductive subtexts, just because we elevate the status of a given group doesn’t mean there’s no down side. In fact, the vast majority of the time, when we elevate the status of a group we simultaneously subject that group to some really rotten hatred. So just because in some cases Two-Spirit people were elevated in status doesn’t somehow mean that prejudice or restrictions were not also operating against those people at the same time.

We see this all over the place. Women are often elevated in status – in some contexts, we’re worshiped as goddesses of fertility or purity, held up as examples of moral and sexual virtue, treated with great politeness and consideration. Our history is full of examples of this sort of treatment. But that hardly eliminates the dark side of worship. When you’re on a pedestal, it’s awfully easy to fall off – to literally become a “fallen woman,” fit only for abuse and degradation. The old idea, for example, that women shouldn’t have to work for a living comes hand in hand with an insistence that women don’t have the right to work or get paid equally when they do. The idea that women are sexually pure and morally virtuous very easily transforms into a restrictive double standard about the right to sexual pleasure and agency, and brings with it a need for “dirty” women to serve as receptacles for men’s sexual needs that they simply could never bring home to their wives – Madonna/whore dichotomy, anyone? And all of these ideas come with huge unstated racial bias in the first place – white women are good and clean while women of colour are dirty and fit to be used; white women shouldn’t work, but black women can be enslaved.

Other examples abound. Here’s one. We live in a culture that worships children – that perpetuates the myth that children have no sexuality and are the models of innocence, until they hit an age that’s arbitrarily chosen by the state after which point they’re magically transformed into adults. It’s totally unrealistic, of course, but the mythology holds tremendous power. It’s spawned (or been spawned by?) a cult of youth-worship, fed by commercialism and mass media, in which we all strive, beyond any semblance of realism, to appear and be as youthful as possible. But actual kids are treated like shit in our culture. They’re stripped of agency, denied information about their sexuality (for fear of corrupting them – or is it for fear of corrupting our own holy paragons of innocence?), and abused and disrespected in the home and in institutions (just look at the Catholic church). When they don’t comply with the standard of sexual innocence, they’re seen as deviant and treated as such. Of course, this isn’t true for every child in every home all over North America, but it holds as a general statement. (Read Judith Levine’s amazing book Harmful to Minors for an eloquent analysis of this problem.)

The underpinning of this worship/abuse pairing is objectification. I’m not just talking about the classic use of that term, in the sense of looking at women’s bodies while ignoring them as people – although that’s certainly one example. No, I mean objectification in a broader sense. I’m talking about our strange tendency to use people – both individual people (in the case of celebrities) and groups of people (lumped together around their common characteristics) as projection screens for our own anxieties, hopes and desires. In modern-day North American culture specifically, this little habit is so common as to be unremarkable. We create heroes and icons so that we can place our hopes and dreams on them; and we treat them with a potent, and sometimes deadly, combination of worship and disrespect that’s only really possible if we forget about their humanity. This dehumanization takes place in such disparate areas as celebrity stalking (“I love you so much I’ll invade your privacy and possibly even injure or kill you”), certain forms of misogyny and racism and child worship/abuse like I mentioned above, the projection of ideals on disabled people (“you’re brave and long-suffering and inspiring to all we able-bodied people, but we won’t employ you or give you any dignity or make buildings and transit systems that you can use”), and many more.

The specific social realities of each example are vastly different – I’m certainly not trying to equate the hardships of a stalked movie star with those of an oppressed disabled person, for example – but the psychological process is the same. As soon as we start to elevate and worship a person or group of people, we simultaneously turn them into an object that reflects our needs and hopes and anxieties, and that objectification in turn creates the grounds for abuse.

This isn’t to say we can’t admire individuals for the good work they do, or praise the richness of a given culture, or even seek metaphor in the social situations of various groups based on their shared characteristics. I think I’m just pointing to the problems that come with these practices when we go a step beyond human admiration to hero worship, or a step beyond genuine interest in a group’s reality to simplistic stereotyping and fetishizing. It may look good and shiny on the surface, but it’s rotten at the core.


5 thoughts on “down with elevation

  1. I hear that generalisation about Two-Spirit folks in pre-contact times a lot too. It also bothers me when non-Natives lump all Native societies together as if they all share the same culture. While there are many similarities, there are also some pretty drastic differences as well.

    As for “positive” stereotypes, I bring this up a lot in my anthropology classes. Often, though, students have even gotten angry with me for claiming that these stereotypes are just as ethnocentric and degrading as negative ones. When I point out that any stereotype dehumanizes, many of them just don’t get it. To them, glorification is a good thing no matter how it is manifested. *sigh*

    One thing that people need to remember is that with awe comes fear. So anyone who is put in a position where people will be in awe is also in a position where people will fear them a little bit. Some people might enjoy the power that they feel this gives them but they don’t realise (or care) that they are giving up a bit of their humanity in the process.

  2. Thanks, Jacky. You are ever insightful.šŸ™‚ And nekobawt, yes, good point – from the most obvious (unfeminine women, say) to the most obscure, that’s a huge source of pain and anxiety for so many people.

  3. I really admire and appreciate how you pulled that broad and pivotal problematic from a talk that was very grounded in particular historical examples (generalizations?). Beautiful.

    And I also truly appreciated your comment in the lecture.

    I hope I see you soon!

  4. Hey Liz! Thank you so much for the kind words. Yeah, she made several points that really didn’t sit so well with me, but this one was the big one. I was trying to walk the line between being an annoying audience member and making a point that I really just couldn’t stay silent on and still feel good about myself, so I picked this one and left the others alone. Anyway, it was totally awesome to see you at York! I think I sort of knew you were in town but it was a wonderful surprise to see you in person. Next time don’t run away so fast afterward!šŸ˜‰ Let’s make sure we hang out in 2010.

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