Talking Philosophy With Kids At The Brooklyn Public Library

This Sunday afternoon at 4PM, I will be participating in a Philosophy for Kids event at the Grand Army Plaza branch of the Brooklyn Public Library (in the Info Commons Lab); the event is sponsored by the Cultural Services Office of the French Embassy. I’ll be functioning as a kind of Philosophical Advice Columnist taking on, and considering, the following question with an audience made up of six to twelve-year old youngsters):

A friend of mine has a three-year old daughter. Every piece of clothing he buys her is pink and floral. Every toy is a doll or makeup kit. He’s already started joking about how she won’t be allowed to have a boyfriend until she’s 30. This all makes me incredibly uncomfortable, but I don’t know whether I’d be crossing a line if I said something. Can I let him know how I feel?

After I posted this announcement on my Facebook page, a friend asked the following question–in what seems a rather irate tone of voice:

The bigger question is why someone should think that they have a right to even think about how someone else is raising their children in the first place, let alone believe that have a right to interfere.

This is a very good question. The straightforward response to it is that because we live in a community, a society, our actions always carry the possibility of bearing on the welfare of others, no matter how self-directed or ‘personal’ they might seem; it is a libertarian and liberal fantasy to imagine that we are isolated islands in the social sea; we are caught up, inextricably, in the lives of others, and they in ours. A family bringing up their child in a sexist or racist environment is raising someone who might very well inculcate those pernicious doctrines and then act on them–to the detriment of someone else’s child. We form political communities directed toward the common good, even as we strive to maximize our individual welfare; the challenge of figuring out how individual freedoms and self-determination can be safeguarded and enhanced while ensuring the rights of others are not infringed on is a central challenge to political and moral philosophy.

To make this discussion a little more personal: I’m the father of a four-year old daughter, and I try my best to bring her up as well as I can to prepare her for the challenges that will undoubtedly confront her in a patriarchal society. My task would be made incomparably easier if the parents of male offspring brought up their children to be sensitive to such considerations as well; it undoubtedly takes a village to raise a child.

This afternoon, I will not pretend the question raised above has a straightforward answer, and will not attempt to provide one to my ‘discussion group’; instead, I will try to draw out some of the central issues involved, perhaps by engaging in some level of abstraction so that the general form of this particular query can be exposed, and the difficulties of answering it can be confronted directly. I’m looking forward to it.

On Encountering Resistance And Lovin’ It

This morning my four-year old daughter marched into our living room, and clutching a ‘storybook’–a collection of tales based on Disney’s Frozensaid, “Papa, this is my favorite storybook. I like it a lot. I know you don’t like it, because I know you don’t like princesses.” Having made this announcement, she walked over to the couch, sat down, and thumbing through its pages, began ‘reading’ aloud to herself. (My daughter cannot as yet read, but she likes to make up her own versions of the stories she has had read to her; needless to say, some rather interesting plot twists result in her recountings.)

I listened to her announcement and watched her ‘read’ with some pride.

She was right in surmising that I ‘don’t like princesses.’ I’ve often said uncomplimentary things about ‘princesses’ in front of my daughter: they dress up too much; their clothes won’t allow them to play in the playground, or go climbing or hiking; they seem to spend too much worrying about what they look like. When we see a video of a sportswoman or a female performing artists, I make sure to point out that the athlete looks nothing like a ‘princess’; princesses don’t play guitars or the drums; and so on. You know, the usual things a parent concerned about the relentless ideological assault of the pink princess advertising machine–the toys, the T-shirts, the make-up kits, the stories of being rescued by princes, the unrealistic body images of skinny, blond, white girls–would do. My daughter has clearly been listening and watching; she knows her father doesn’t ‘like princesses.’

But she does like the adventures of Anna and Elsa, and all the excitement, magic, monsters, and animals that seems to enter their lives. (I’ve still not seen Frozen and I don’t think I ever will but I’ve read out a couple of the stories from that book to her so I have some idea of what entertains my daughter.)

But over and above the fact that my daughter is capable of spending time by herself with a book, what about her remark made me regard it with some pride? Well, she does seem to have established some crucial distance between what I want and what she wants for herself; she doesn’t seem to be entirely reliant on seeking my approval–she did not, after all, walk up to me and plaintively ask me for permission to read her book. Rather, she acknowledged a disagreement between the two of us, and then went ahead and did what she wanted. (I would like to think she regards Anna and Elsa’s adventures as showcasing activities that the princesses I don’t ‘like’ don’t seem to engage in–those two get up to considerably more action than the typical princess–and so, in some ways, even her liking the tales in Frozen reflected my interactions with her.) I’ve often told my daughter that she should ‘do what she wants’ and not ‘worry about what other people say.’ Today, she did just that, and what’s better, she didn’t care about what someone in a position of authority had to say about what she liked and wanted to do.

On Being Advised To Not Take A ‘Girl’s Role’

Shortly after I began attending a boarding school in the ninth grade, I was approached by our ‘senior master’ and asked if: a) I could ‘act’ and b) if so, was I interested in trying out for the annual school play. I had done some acting in school and youth club plays in the sixth and seventh grades, so I answered in the affirmative to both questions. On  hearing this, the senior master asked me to attend a ‘reading’ that night where we would go over the play’s script. I agreed. When I told my classmates about this invitation, I received many congratulations. Acting in the school play was a prestigious business; being invited to act in it was an honor not accorded to many. I was suitably pleased, and resolved to write home to my mother as soon as I could that I had begun to rack up laurels here in my new school.

That night, I showed up at time in the school library for the reading. I was handed the play’s script, and the reading began. (If I remember correctly, that year’s play was Joseph Kesserling‘s Arsenic and Old Lace.) The senior master pointed at me and asked me to read–again, if I remember correctly–Elaine Harper’s part. (I do know it was a young woman’s role, and Elaine Harper is the young woman in Arsenic and Old Lace. My school was a boy’s boarding school, and we did not import actors or directors for the school play.) I did not mind being asked to play a woman; I vaguely remembered my father telling me that: a) in Shakespeare’s time, boys and men often played girl’s and women’s roles and b) that he himself, in college, had played a woman’s role in A Midsummer Night’s Dream for the college Shakespeare Society. If my father–a man who would go on to fly fighter jets and fight in two wars–could do it, so could I.

Our reading went on for two hours. By the time I returned to my dorm, it was after ‘lights out;’ everyone in my dorm was in bed, and seemingly fast asleep. I quietly changed, went over to my bed, and lay down. As I did so, my neighbor stirred and spoke.

“What role did they offer you?”

“I”m supposed to be a young woman.”

“Are you going to take it?”

“Yeah, it sounds interesting.”

“So, this is just something I want to tell you. Every year there is a school play, and every year, someone has to play the female parts. The boys who play those roles, they become the sissies in school. No one ever lets them forget it. They get teased and bullied all the time. They get called ‘girls’; people copy them walking and talking and putting on make-up. Last year, X did the girl’s role, and no one has stopped teasing him since. You’ve just joined this school; you still haven’t made that many friends. Some people don’t even like you because you’re from the Rector’s old school, and they think you’re his pet. I wouldn’t do it. This is just my friendly advice.”

[Or something like that.]

I lay there in bed, listening to that seemingly disembodied voice whispering at me in the dark. The vision it conjured up for me was equally gloomy; I knew exactly what he meant. I had already seen examples of how quick and efficient and cruel my school’s bullying and teasing was; many boys were permanent outcasts, shunned and sent off to the margins for faults imagined and real. I knew X was an outcast; now I knew why. I lay under a thick blanket, but I shivered nonetheless. I didn’t want to be a girl in a boy’s school.

The next day, I told the senior master I couldn’t do the role. It went to a boy a year younger than me. He was a wonderful actor and brought his role to life. For the next year and a half, every time my class mates and I walked past him on campus, someone would wiggle their hips, giggle, put on a falsetto, and call out his name. He never returned our gaze.

Men Writing As Women, And Vice-Versa

A few days ago, I excerpted a passage from James Baldwin‘s If Beale Street Could Talk (Bantam, New York, 1974)  in which the central character, a young woman named Tish, describes her–and her boyfriend, Fonny’s–perceptions of Bell, the policeman who has sent Fonny to jail.

Tish:

But I was beginning to learn something about the blankness of [Bell’s] eyes. What I was learning was beginning to frighten me to death.

Fonny:

When their paths crossed, and I was there, Fonny looked straight at Bell, Bell looked straight ahead. I’m going to fuck you, boy, Bell’s eyes said.

My annotation concluded:

Only Baldwin, I think, could have captured–in quite this way–the aura the black man feels radiating out at him from a policeman: the resentment, the sense of being marked as a target, the implicit and explicit violence, the desire to destroy whatever it is that makes him into a man who can hold his head high. The policed see and experience the police very differently; they know they are looked at through a different lens.

Except that in the passage I noted, Fonny’s perceptions–that of a black man–of Bell are actually those of Tish–a black woman–for she is the narrator of the story. Baldwin, a male writer, has written a novel in first-person where the gender of the narrator is not his. This, as might be imagined, is not a task that novelists often attempt. Our own interiority is hard enough to ‘capture’; the description of another kind of subjectivity is particularly intractable task. Third-person descriptions of another gender are a little easier than first-person perspectives, even if only marginally. (As Meg Toth noted in the discussion I make note of below, “Inhabiting a different perspective is not the same as writing well about it in the third person….So many authors write sensitively and insightfully about main characters of the opposite sex, but using first person to do so is rare.” Baldwin even provides us an explicit description of Fonny and Tish’s love-making; it is a remarkable scene, powerful and sensitive.)

What makes Baldwin’s novel particularly interesting is that our pre-encounter-with-the-text expectation is that we will read Baldwin as one of the most vivid male articulators of a distinctive ‘literary black rage.’ (Richard Wright would be yet another.) But instead, Baldwin turns his attention elsewhere. In the case of my reading of If Beale Street Could Talk, considerable anonymity preceded it: I had never heard of it, a sad commentary on my knowledge of Baldwin’s work; I found it a battered paperback copy on a stoop in Park Slope, Brooklyn, and intrigued, brought it back home with me; when I opened it to read, I had not even read the jacket description; this made the little shock I experienced on finding out that Tish was the narrator especially distinctive and pleasurable. There is something to be said for skipping reviews.

Note: After reading Beale Street, I made the following query on Facebook:

Favorite novel written in first-person where the author’s gender is not the same as the central character’s?

The response to this quest was gratifying; I will post the list that emerged–including novels that are actually written in third-person–anon. It is very rich; I’m looking forward to the reading that lies in store.

Critical Theory And The Nature Of Law

My graduate seminar on ‘The Nature of Law‘ read and discussed critical race theory this past week. I’ve–along with my students–been thinking about the relationship of critical material like this–along with the critical legal studies readings we did over the last two weeks–to the definitional and foundational debates that so occupied us in the beginning of the semester. Certainly, we seemed to be distant, in our concerns and preoccupations, from the question of what law is ‘–at least in the way that, for instance, the folks engrossed in the natural lawpositivism debate were. In one dimension. For instance, precisely because critique seizes upon normative failings, we were often discussing what the law ought to be as opposed to what it is. But in another, we aren’t.

For note that in providing the sort of critique critical race theory and critical legal studies are advancing,  the kind that informs us it is an agent of social construction and reification, an instrument of ideological control, a diversion away from radical political and social change, toward change more palatable to the established orders, we are also being told a great deal about what the law is not. It is not an impartial dispenser of justice, and neither is it a reliable instrument of social change. The critical race theorist is able to remind us of law’s limitations and circumscriptions: the inability of its remedies to redress some kinds of particularly pernicious wrongs, its helplessness in the face of entrenched, ‘internal’ racism, the kind which deeply implicates every social, political, and economic reality it interacts with, its being frozen into accepted trajectories of reasoning and categorization that prevent it from playing the kind of role most optimistically envisaged for it by a certain species of liberal theorizing. For instance, the critical race theorist’s advancement of an argument for reparation shows how current legal reasoning and analysis is inflexibly locked into presumptive modes of inquiry and understanding about guilt, responsibility, and even the ontology of groups and persons, that lead to a reflexive rejection of such claims. Law constructs many social facts, and there are many others that construct it in turn.

The critical theorist also–most crucially–adds color and depth to the earlier bloodless debates about whether law is understood as a system of rules, the command of a sovereign or the imperfect realization of a social morality. Critical theory informs us that the identity, the placement within social and political orderings and hierarchies, of legal actors–and those subject to them–is a crucial determinant of the content of law; it is a crucial force in determining the trajectories and workings out of a legal system. (Feminist legal theorists, who we will begin reading in two weeks time, will obviously bolster such identification.)

The nature of law remains crucially undertheorized unless its definitions are bolstered by critique. For it is only by means of the latter that the history of law can be seen and examined. And that, of course, is how we bring its coherence and incoherence to light.

Praising One Partner, Dissing The Other

Sometimes, on Facebook, an innocent will post a photograph of himself and his female partner, and be greeted with a slew of admiring comments and ‘likes’. These will often be things like ‘you guys look great together’ or ‘fabulous couple!’ Sometimes there are  comments about the wife or girlfriend’s looks: ‘X is beautiful’ or ‘X is so lovely.’ And sometimes, some comments make the same point while taking a dig at their male friend: ‘Dude, she is so above your pay grade’ or ‘you are batting well above your average here’. Or something like that. These are all friendly enough, I suppose, but I must admit to feeling a little uncomfortable about the last cluster. (Perhaps people make these kinds of remarks in face-to-face settings as well, but this behavior is more easily and often observed on social media.)

The folks making that last kind of remark are indulging, of course, in some good-natured joshing: man, you really lucked out. This commentary–which women also direct at their male friends–is a sub-species of that special way that men have of expressing affection for each other wherein they call each other vaguely derogatory names as a sign of affection. Still, I wonder, don’t these kinds of comments also ‘good-naturedly’ tell the woman she is slumming it with her partner? You know: Hey, you’re being charitable here, dispensing your favors to our ‘plain’ friend? That she could have, you know, done better? Are the folks making this kind of joke, one directed at their male friends, also as comfortable making this kind of implied remark about the woman? (Note: this kind of commentary is almost never directed at women by their female friends. No one ever, as far as I can tell, tells a woman that she has really gotten lucky by ‘snagging’ such a hottie who is so clearly deserving of someone better looking than her.) I know the folks making this kind of remark are complimenting the woman’s looks–but in an odd sort of way, really, because they also seem to be suggesting she has lost out in the ‘looks stakes.’ Despite being blessed with an abundance of good looks. So not only is she unlucky, but she also lacks judgment.

I wonder if the discomfort that I’m expressing has as its root, an acute discomfort at the idea that people ‘snag’ or ‘catch’ partners, that there is some ‘physical matching’ involved between people, so that folks with similar rankings on our scale of aesthetic appreciation should be paired off with each other, and that thus, a ‘mismatch’ in looks is notable. In a way. I get that physical attraction has a great deal to do with the initial expression of romantic interest but still, we know enough about what makes relationships work to know that there is a great deal beyond the initial ‘flush.’ Most of which has to do with our complex personalities and the way our partner addresses our most felt needs. Which only emerge, more often than not, once the initial stage of courtship is over, and are rarely known to those outside the intimate circle partners create for each other.

I don’t mean to be a pedant here, or a killjoy. I’m just curious about whether the folks who talk like this have thought about some of the possible implications of their seemingly innocent remarks.

Note: On reading a draft of this post, my wife remarked:

I feel like you touch on but don’t explicitly say something that seems the most problematic about such comments. I think the reason that the same thing would not be said to a woman is because society believes a woman’s looks to be the most important thing about her whereas they are only a minor component of a man’s overall status. You can insult a man’s looks without insulting a man, but you can’t do the same to a woman.

She’s right.

 

Starting Them Early: Beauty Spas For Little Girls

Loving parents can now take their children, especially young girls,  to spas for manicures, pedicures and hairstyling.

There are times, and they recur quite often, when I wonder about the wisdom of having brought a child into this world. This is one such.

Our culture creates and sustains a toxic atmosphere for women from cradle to grave. Wear pink, play with princess toys and unrealistic dolls that almost immediately start to create body image problems; wear non-functional clothes whose primary task appears to be sexualization of the wearer; be subjected to endless litanies of stereotypes and genderized commentary; suffer sexist discourse and sexual violence; struggle for reproductive and family planning rights; lack adequate political representation and access to social, economic and cultural power. And on and on. The list is exhausting.

Perhaps we should have beauty pageants for young girls. Wait; we already have those. Do we have bikini competitions and perhaps even a Sports Illustrated Pre-Teen Swimsuit issue? If not, they are surely on their way. Do we have pre-pubescent girls working as models, performing sexualized poses for glamour photographs? I think we do. (No surprises, these models suffer from anorexia and bulimia.) What atrocity is left to commit on our young women? Surely there is commercial imperative out there that will be able to dream up some new avenue of derangement.  

Here are some ideas–in the domain of games and services–that come to mind:

1. Video games in which a young girl must traverse an obstacle course to get the boy of her choice. Other variants could include beating other girls–violently or otherwise–for pole position. These obstacle courses could be staged in many settings: for instance, one could be on a campus, where a library-based female students spots a boy walking on the quad, and chucks her books to take off in pursuit. Another one could be staged on a gym floor: our heroine would spot a weightlifter on the other end, and try to reach him while navigating the obstructions–like barbells–placed in her path. She is not allowed to lift them but must enlist male allies to move them for her instead. This could be advertised as ‘building hand-eye co-ordination skills’, ‘developing the competitive spirit’, and ‘building team partnerships.’

2. A constraint satisfaction game in which a fixed amount of money must be spent to buy the best possible combination of make-up items. “Best possible” is a function of which combination of items–perfume, lipstick, lipgloss, eyeliner etc–appeal to a select list of desirable boys, who themselves are ranked on a scale of hotness and cuteness. This could be marketed as ‘helping to develop mathematical and algorithmic capacities.’

3. A culinary course in which young girls would be instructed how to make ‘food for a new, light, sexy, you’. Menu items would include traditional classics as weight-loss shakes, skinny lattes, fat-free dressings, and celery salads.  This could be pitched as ‘a modern version of the traditional Home Economics class, one geared to today’s adventurous young woman.’

We’ve only scratched the surface, folks.