The Blame Game

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Every time something bad happens, the biggest topic of (cough-cough) “discussion” is: whose fault is it?

It may be a natural human tendency, but it does nothing to solve the problem at hand. Trying to boil everything down to whose fault it is leads to an all-or-nothing approach to complex problems. That ensures one thing: that nothing will ever be solved. Because as long as we are focused on how it’s someone ELSE’s problem, it absolves us of any responsibility to address the larger issues. And whether we want to admit it or not, there are always larger issues at play whenever a hot button topic comes up. But too often, attempts to open up those larger issues devolves into accusations of “blaming the victim.”

Photo via Pixabay

Photo via Pixabay

And that’s a shame, because the biggest, most important issues the human race faces do not exist in a vacuum. People’s choices and behaviors are influenced by a complex series of factors that include their personal experiences, their racial/communal memory, their philosophical and/or religious convictions (or lack thereof), the tone and bias of the news and commentary they encounter, and the society-wide messaging–which frequently pits very contradictory values against each other (i.e.: violence is bad, but violence in entertainment is good. Women are to be respected, except when showing them as sex objects will separate you from your money for a truck, a value meal, or a can of beer).

When we start talking about appropriate or inappropriate use of police force or about sexual assault, to name two, we cannot pretend these other factors do not have an impact. Violations to human dignity are everywhere, from the big and sensational to the way we entertain ourselves and even to the way we interact in comboxes and on Facebook. The problems are systemic, and they often go unacknowledged until they manifest in sensational (i.e. horrific) ways. But sensational or systemic and unseen, the problems are all tied together. If we are ever to make a difference, we have to address the larger context in which the individual violations occur. And the more time we waste hurling accusations about whose “fault” it is, the more ingrained those violations become.

When there are society-wide issues, the solutions have to be society-wide. But when we assign a problem to a macro level, we tend to forget that macro solutions involve a micro level, too. Big violations feel beyond our control, but big violations are built upon billions of little ones, and some of those happen in our schools and communities and even in our own hearts. And those, we can do something about. We have to have the tough conversations with our kids, because if we don’t, their attitudes will be formed by that conglomerate, in de facto ways, instead of deliberately, by those of us who love them. We have to examine our consciences for the ways we could act and don’t, or the ways in which we do act and shouldn’t.

When it comes to the societal problems that outrage us in the news, we all have a responsibility. That doesn’t mean it’s our fault. It means we have the power to impact the world for the better in some small way by the way we speak and the choices we make.

It’s time to stop playing the blame game and look for solutions.

Consent is NOT Sexy

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Photo by ctrouper, via Flickr

“Consent Is Sexy.”

I swear, that’s what the t shirt said. And I think the woman wearing even thought it was a good slogan.

I wanted to hurl.

First of all, I have to preface my comments by saying: I get it. The state of relations between men and women sucks. The way we talk to each other sucks. The way we talk about each other sucks. The humor about sex and relationships sucks. The idea that women even have to worry about being violated? Sucks.

But really? “Consent is sexy”? That’s the standard we’re shooting for? As long as they get permission, that’s enough?

Really?

Women! Wake up! Just how low are we going to set the bar?

There’s a truism about expectations. I’ve mostly heard it in the context of education: that people will live up to your expectations, or down to them. If that t shirt is any indicator, the bar we’ve set for how we expect to be treated is so low, it might as well not exist. As long as a guy doesn’t rape us, we’ll flatter their ego and call them sexy.

Really?

On the scale of sexual attractiveness, consent doesn’t even register. Consent is a prerequisite for claiming to be a man. If we women, in the name of sexual liberation, have chosen to fling ourselves at the feet of men for nothing more than “consent,” then we have brought ourselves very, very low indeed.

Consider this:

Among men who are part of a couple, 75% say they always have an orgasm, as opposed to 26% of the women. And not only is there a difference in reality, there’s one in perception, too. While the men’s female partners reported their rate of orgasm accurately, the women’s male partners said they believed their female partners had orgasms 45% of the time. (From WebMD)

So not only do the men get more out of sex, they’re also clueless about how little their partners get out of it.

And this is okay because…?

If a man wants to claim the moniker “sexy,” he needs to do way, way more than just ask permission. I realize this is a radical concept in the modern world, but sex is the capstone of a relationship, not an audition for it. Relationships between men and women have always been troubled because we’ve failed to make the effort to understand and respect each other for what makes us different from each other. But in the modern world we’ve taken it to a whole new level by making sex the end-all-be-all of existence.

And if WebMD is right, women haven’t gotten much out of the deal. Why are we so concerned about our God-given right to have sex with as many people as possible, without consequences? What are we getting out of it? Has anyone ever stopped to ask herself this question?

Whenever I see dumbass slogans like “Consent is sexy,” hear the way women talk about their husbands to other women, see statistics like the above, I’m torn between gratitude for the amazing man I married and a desire to start screaming at my fellow women for accepting any less.

Here’s another snippet:

Women were more likely than men to show inconsistency between their expressed values about sexual activities such as premarital sex and their actual behavior.

I can’t say for sure, but I think that means women say they recognize that sex is the capstone, not the audition, but their behavior says they’re willing to let men dictate the terms of the relationship.

So much for women’s liberation.

Down deep, I don’t think any woman really thinks this is okay. The focus on romance in fiction aimed at women indicates that we are all seeking authenticity, understanding, and dare I say it, something holy in a romantic relationship. Or perhaps a better word would be transcendence: something in our partner that gives us a glimpse of a reality beyond what we ever thought was possible.

To my fellow mothers–and fathers, too–I say this: we are the ones who form the next generation of men to view women with respect…or not. And too often we shirk our responsibility to point out what is wrong in the world, simply because it’s awkward. We’re so uncomfortable with our own brokenness where sexual matters are concerned, we feel unable to address the subject with our children.

But we have to get over it. We have to confront the ugliness within, look for healing within ourselves, and summon the courage to tell our children–beginning at a very young age–how the world is supposed to look.

Because we can’t let the bar fall any lower than it already has.

 

When Advent Is Not Peaceful

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Photo by DonkeyHotey, via Flickr

We are approaching the midpoint of a season meant to focus on peace and preparation, yet the moment my children get in the van in the school pickup line, they are at each other’s throats. I lose my temper quickly these days, thanks in part to cyclic hormones, in part to the busy-ness of the season, in which every single day brings another note or email from one school, class, or room mother asking for more X, Y, or Z, and in part to flying down the hall five or six times a night to soothe the preschooler for whom a cold signifies the eternal annihilation of all mortal existence.

The news greets me every morning and every hour on the hour with news of how much we proved ourselves not to be “the good guys” in the way we treated our prisoners, with news of protests and violence and name-calling on both sides of every issue, of further proof that none of us, myself or anyone else, is sufficiently well-informed to be certain that our opinion on the issues at hand is undisputably and irrevocably “right”…although we all treat them as if they are. My Facebook feed fills up with tirades and rhetoric that denies all possible rational disagreement. People go on national TV and call others “stupid,” and elected officials return the favor with pleasure.

And it feels to me that this Advent, no one is even making an effort to pull back, to breathe, to seek the cool breath of the Spirit that could guide us through this mine field of real problems. We have this bizarre parallel existence going on: the one filled with shopping lists and office/school parties and the one in which we edit our intake of the news in order to confirm what we already believe–to ensure that we will never, ever have to consider that the other side might have a rational argument, too.

I have no pithy wisdom to wrap up this litany. If I say I grieve over it, I sound holier-than-thou, and it’s eminently clear to me from my own short fuse that while I stay out of the public debates, I am as culpable as anyone else.

I suppose, then, that this is my call into the darkness, a call for self-examination, and for change. For conversion, as we ostensibly prepare for the coming of God made human.

Frozen Is Taking Over My Life

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Frozen is taking over my life.

Which I suppose should not be a surprise, considering that a) I have a daughter, and b) we just visited Disney World.

Incidentally, we did NOT stand in line to meet Anna and Elsa. We did chortle vindictively every time we rode the carousel, watching the “stand by” clock next door oscillate between 105 and 140 minutes. Who would DO that???? we kept asking each other. No, this was some girl we bumped into at the Christmas store in Downtown Disney. But Julianna nearly shot into the stratosphere, she was so excited.

Incidentally, we did NOT stand in line to meet Anna and Elsa. We did chortle vindictively every time we rode the carousel, watching the “stand by” clock next door oscillate between 105 and 140 minutes. Who would DO that???? we kept asking each other. No, this was some girl we bumped into at the Christmas store in Downtown Disney. But Julianna nearly shot into the stratosphere, she was so excited.

We were kind of late to the Frozen party. We took the kids to see it in the theater and we thought it was a great movie. Then, of course, the kids began singing That Song–or at least their faulty memory of it–twenty times a day for the next ten months, in combination with the Lego movie theme (surely the worst song ever written) and “What Does The Fox Say?” And since That Song is a phrase you use all the time in real life, people were constantly bursting into song at random intervals, thinking they were being funny. I found it so annoying, I kind of put a wall up around the movie.

But I downloaded the soundtrack for the road trip to Florida, and by the time we got home I was as big a fan as my kids.

The music is really good, first of all. Obviously the songs are the wormiest of ear worms, but the lyrics are clever (winter’s a great time to stay in and cuddle, but put me in summer and I’ll be a …………..happy snowman!), and I love the rest of the soundtrack. I think that opening is probably my favorite movie opening of all time. Some of the music is very Disney (which is good, but it really smacks you in the face with its Disney-ish-ness), but a lot of it is quite beautiful in its own right.

The other night as we were supposedly going to sleep, I said something about my heart rate monitor not quite working. “It told me my heart rate was 199,” I said. “I knew that wasn’t right. Then it got frozen there.”

“Did you let it go?” Christian asked.

You know that guttural, back-of-the-mouth sound of deep disgust? Yeah, that was me at that comment.

“Or did you just put up with it because it was the first time in forever?”

Oh, he thinks he’s soooo funny. ;)

On the wall of the Christmas store at Downtown Disney. By the way, do you notice how cold Julianna looks? What IS it with this idea that Florida is warm year round? We've been there four times in the winter/early spring now, and every single time It. Has. Been. Cold.

On the outside wall of the Christmas store at Downtown Disney. By the way, do you notice how cold Julianna looks? What IS it with this idea that Florida is warm year round? We’ve been there four times in the winter/early spring now, and every single time It. Has. Been. Cold.

But it’s not just the music, it’s the storytelling. Anna and Kristoph are so instantly likable. In my fumbling attempt to write a new novel during November, I never really finished figuring out my characters–I know their stories, mostly, but I’m not inside their heads yet. I begin to despair of ever being able to write characters who instantly have you rooting for them. (“Whoa there, Feisty Pants!”)

And a plot line that takes something very, very predictable and does something very, very special with it.

I actually read the Wikipedia entry on this movie, and took heart from what I found there. Frozen has a long, convoluted history, one that involved a lot of failed attempts and not-quites. It gives me hope that if I keep poking at this fiction thing, someday I’ll figure it out. I know my writing is good enough. I just have to find the right concept and characters that will sell.

In the meantime, I have to make sure I don’t over-expose myself to all things Frozen. The last time I did that, I was in junior high, babysitting a little girl who always, always, always watched The Little Mermaid. I got so sick of it, I ran the other way for twenty years.

What about you? Are you a Frozen fan? Or are you ready to hire the snowman to throw the Arendelle sisters out?

The Way We Talk To Each Other Matters

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In the spring and early summer of 1994, I was a sophomore in college. I spent the late semester gnashing my teeth about who got which solo parts in the orchestra, and my summer working on the farm. I was aware enough of the world to know something awful was going on in a country I’d never heard of on the other side of the Atlantic, but it was hard to get worked up about it, especially since there was nothing I could do.

Fast forward twenty years. Someone somewhere on the internet mentions a book called Left to Tell, a memoir of the Rwandan genocide. I check it out of the library and suddenly I am carrying it around the house reading while I prepare food and unload the dishwasher, because I cannot put it down.

It’s a horrible story, and Immaculée Ilibagiza doesn’t pull her punches. This story is compelling and so nauseating because of the way people turned on neighbors and friends. People they had been interacting with, going to school with, working with, worshiping with, for years. Ilibagiza tells of kids who grew up as friends suddenly hacking those friends to death. And over what?

Photo by billadler, via Flickr

An ethnic distinction so subtle, they had to have ID cards to make it clear, because they simply couldn’t tell by looking.

We can’t imagine something like this happening in America. We have free and open media that doesn’t spew the kind of ugliness toward groups that she describes in the leadup to the genocide. Our open elections and diverse population prevent us from ever falling down this kind of path.

Well, sort of.

Photo by cobalt123, via Flickr

See, it was language that stirred up the hatred. Propaganda that was so outlandish, reasonable people didn’t give it credit. They just ignored it, figuring nobody could possibly be swayed by language so dehumanizing, so polarizing, and so obviously not based on reason.

And a huge amount of the political, philosophical and religious discourse in America also fits that description.

Photo by tuaussi, via Flickr

The political fundraising letters, written in cataclysmic terms full of bold-face and italicized language, making sweeping generalizations about the motivations and even the worth of those who think differently from you and threatening apocalypse if you don’t act RIGHT NOW.

The Facebook diatribes beginning with the words “I’m sorry, but…” (or any other number of inflammatory openers).

The anonymous (or not anonymous) comments left on blog posts and news articles, ripping into previous commenters with scathing derision.

The email forwards whose only purpose is to stir up self-righteous indignation and “mobilize the base” (which translates to “move to the extreme position and dehumanize everyone who doesn’t come with you”).

Photo by Les_Stockton, via Flickr

Political ads of all stripes, narrated in a tone of voice full of derision and scorn while using half-truths and skewed facts to bamboozle a lazy electorate into thinking issues are black and white, when really they are very nuanced and can only be prised apart by–gasp–the application of REASON.

What I’m listing is not at the same level as what Ilibagiza describes. But it is definitely on the same spectrum.

We do not want to be on that spectrum.

So I’m just asking everyone to stop and think before you react. Before you make any statement about gays/Muslims/Catholics/Protestants/damn liberals/damn conservatives/whites/blacks/cops/municipal leaders/homeless/poor/fat cats/fill in the blank. What sort of tone of voice are you using? What sort of descriptors? Are you using your God-given intellect, or are you expressing bigotry and prejudice through an emotional reaction?

Think about the human dignity of whoever you’re tearing into.

The stakes are too high not to.

Birth Control Really Isn’t Health Care In The First Place

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It is no secret to anyone who reads this blog that I am a not a fan of birth control.  I think it’s unconscionable that women have been expected to suppress or perhaps even damage a healthy, normal part of who they are in the interest of unrestricted sex. Contraception has led to an expectation that women must be sexually available at all times. And it has facilitated relational dysfunctions like the hookup culture, which could not possibly exist without it.

I don’t normally comment on things political, but given this passion, I do want to make one observation in the wake of the supreme court decision earlier this week.

Birth control occupies an unusual, perhaps even unique, place in medicine. The purpose of medicine is to fix what is wrong with a human body, and birth control does not fix a woman’s health. In fact, it inhibits the normal, healthy function of her body. I am hard pressed to think of any other comparable situation in medicine (aside from vasectomy, which is part of the same topic).

Yes, the pill is slapped like a band-aid on any number of conditions, and I’m willing to concede that in some cases it can be useful to treat symptoms (although not the conditions underlying them). But birth control as a family planning method–which is what we’re talking about–is not treating a health problem. In fact, you could argue that it’s creating one by shutting down the way the body was designed to work.

For this reason, birth control’s presence in the health care law has always bothered me. I get why birth control must be administered by medical professionals: it’s a pharmaceutical, and where else in the regulatory hierarchy are you going to classify a pharmaceutical? But still–family planning is not health care.

12 Years A Slave

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Photo by Michael Rosenquest, via Flickr

There are times when you walk through the world filled with awe and joy and gratitude, aware of the wonder, the beauty, the innate goodness of all that exists on earth.

Other times it’s like a veil is ripped from your eyes, revealing the brokenness of the world in all its heartbreaking clarity. A brokenness so deep, so profound, so widespread, you realize it’s beyond the possibility of healing by any human effort.

And sometimes, being aware of one sensitizes you to the other.

I had another post planned for today, a post about joy and the search for the beautiful and the holy. But as I watched the passing moments in preparation for that post, the brokenness made itself clear, too. It came out most clearly in the news that a shelter for abused and neglected children in my town got muscled out of its planned location by residents saying “not in my back yard.”

Then last night, Christian and I started watching 12 Years A Slave. I expected it to be disturbing, but I wasn’t prepared for how deep it pierced, how mercilessly it convicted. It’s not just about the past, you see. What I realized, watching that movie, was that the state of our world, the problems that plague our nation today, began there, with the dehumanization of an entire race of people.

When I write it out like that, it’s a clear “well, duh” moment. But I had never seen the connection before–or at least, not in a way that transcended the theoretical. Like many people, perhaps most, I’ve always placed a dividing line between the past and the present. Our nation has done so much to work toward equality; what good is there in lashing ourselves for slavery and reconstruction and Jim Crow? It’s past. It’s done. The world isn’t perfect, but the real problems have been addressed.

Watching that movie unfold in all its shattering ugliness, I realized they haven’t.

A friend of mine told me once told me a story that I’ve spent a lot of time puzzling over. In a teacher training they were told that they had to understand the culture their students inhabited: a culture in which kids thought it was normal to receive their Christmas gifts from the Voluntary Action Center, and in which parents paid for a Lexus with spinning hubcaps before putting food on the table for their kids–because that was what was considered important in the circles in which they moved.

I thought: There is no way. It sounded like a lesson told by bigots, not by educators. To this day I have trouble believing it.

And yet if, indeed, a mindset like that exists, it’s because for hundreds of years one group of people–mine, I’m sorry to say–systematically dehumanized another, suppressing the expression of intelligence and the desire to achieve in order to keep them safely under control. Whites literally tried to beat it out of them.

We don’t do that anymore. But we do blame people for not breaking out of the cycle of poverty and poor education. There’s a less obvious and more plausibly denied racism that we cling to–the underlying assumptions that poverty and poor choices are a person’s own fault, because they just didn’t try hard enough. Ignoring the history that created the culture of poverty. Acting like it’s in the past, and thus not a real problem at all.

It makes me wonder: if I had lived a hundred fifty years ago, would I have been a participant? A collaborator? Would I have had the clarity of vision to recognize the abomination for what it was?

These are the times when I see the world and I want to weep for it. For myself. So broken. So far beyond helping ourselves. I move in my privileged middle class circles and rage at the super rich like the real battle is between me and those higher on the socioeconomic ladder, when the reality is I’m just as much to blame.

But I’m grateful for the clarity of vision, however painful, because it strips another layer of sanctimonious pride off my soul. And if somewhere there is a solution, I’ll be more likely to see it.