What does it mean to be cisgender?

In article on Feminist Current, a Canadian Web site, Robert Jensen, a professor of journalism at the Univ. of Texas Austin, questions his assignment into the category of cisgender:

“…Sex is a question of biologically determined male and female, gender of socially determined masculinity and femininity. The dominant conception of masculinity in U.S. culture asserts that men are naturally competitive and aggressive, and that being a ‘real man’ means struggling for control, conquest, and domination. A man looks at the world, sees what he wants, and takes it. This is sometimes labeled ‘toxic masculinity,’ which implies it is an aberration from some ‘normal’ masculinity. But this understanding of masculinity-as-seeking-dominance is the default setting for most males growing up in patriarchy, especially through the glorification of aggression in the military, sports, and business.

“All that definitional work [Jensen continues] is necessary to explain why I am not cisgender. As a male human, this patriarchal conception of masculinity is not my ‘chosen’ identity, nor do I believe it is my fate. As a short, skinny, effeminate child … I never felt very masculine. As an adult with feminist politics, I reject and struggle to overcome the masculinity norms in patriarchy. If we were someday to transcend patriarchy, would I feel more ‘like a man’? That would depend on how the term was defined, but in the world in which I live, I refuse to embrace the patriarchal gender identity handed to me….

“So [Jensen concludes], I’m not cisgender and I’m not transgender. I am not gender fluid, non-binary, or multi-gender. I self-identify as an adult biological XY male who rejects patriarchal gender norms and works from a radical feminist perspective to eliminate patriarchy….”

While it has some problematic moments, I think Jensen’s essay offers a small but useful addition to the ongoing debate about the term “cisgender.” If you haven’t been following that debate, some have argued that “cisgender” is analogous to the introduction of “heterosexual” as the opposite of “homosexual”; similarly, “cisgender” can help non-trans people realize the extent to which they have the privilege of not having to articulate their gender; therefore it is a necessary term. Arguments against the term include the possibility that setting up such a strong distinction between transgender and cisgender may actually work against a widespread acceptance of transgender as normal; others claim that transgender and cisgender are Western cultural concepts that don’t apply cross-culturally (e.g., Native Americans who reject the identification of the Two-Spirit tradition with transgender).

What Jensen offers to this debate is his personal experience of gender. He does not see himself as typically masculine; therefore, he does not see that his biological sex matches society’s expectations about the gender role he should take on. Yet he does not consider himself transgender, either. There’s an argument to be made that Jensen has cisgender privilege because he’s non-trans, and thus the term is useful; however, I’m not convinced that biological men and boys who are not masculine, but also non-trans, get the same level of privilege as a stereotypically masculine biological male since (depending on how effeminate you are) a straight non-trans non-masculine man will tend to experience some level of bullying and teasing.

The word “cisgender” is not going to go away, and I feel it remains useful in some settings. What Jensen makes me realize is that we should be careful in how we use the term: we shouldn’t use the term “cisgender” in such a way that it reinforces gender stereotypes. For example, we wouldn’t want to reinforce gender stereotypes of masculinity by grouping Robert Jensen together with Donald Trump under the rubric “cisgender men”; Trump is constantly enacting stereotypes of a hyper-masculine gender role (marrying a woman much younger than he, asserting his virility in various ways, putting success above everything else, etc.); Jensen is taking on a significantly different gender role.

So I’ll continue to use “cisgender” as a term for larger groups of people. But I’m going to be disinclined to apply it to a individuals, aware of its cultural assumptions, and careful not to turn it into yet another binary division.

Mushrooms

Even though we’ve had less than half the amount of rain we should have received at this point in the rainy season — we’ve only gotten 3.05 inches, while the normal value is 6.52 inches — nevertheless the ground is damp and mushrooms are starting to emerge. Walking around the cemetery this evening, I almost stepped on a small cluster of mushrooms growing up in the middle of the gravel drive close to one of the mausoleums.

Ground-level view of mushrooms with mausoleum in the background

The caps of the mushrooms are about one half to three-quarters of an inch across, and the stipes are a quarter to half an inch tall. I find mushroom identification intimidating, so all I’m willing to say is that this organism probably belongs in the order Agaricales; perhaps it belongs in the family Agariaceae. When the mushrooms get larger (if they don’t get crushed) I’ll try to get some spores to see what color they are.

Two definitions of neoliberalism

As I look into the economic and political forces driving global environmental collapse, I’ve been researching neoliberalism, an economic doctrine that was first tried on a practical basis under Pinochet in Chile. Neoliberalism now has come to dominate much of the world, including the United States, where neoliberalism is now so entrenched that it represents an unquestioned economic consensus of both major political parties.

Here are two definitions of neoliberalism. The first comes from journalist George Monbiot, author of How Did We Get into This Mess?:

“Neoliberalism claims that we are best served by maximum market freedom and minimum intervention by the state. The role of government should be confined to creating and defending markets, protecting private property and defending the realm. All other functions are better discharged by private enterprise, which will be prompted by the profit motive to supply essential services. By this means, enterprise is liberated, rational decisions are made and citizens are freed from the dehumanising hand of the state….

“[T]he most powerful promoter of this programme was the media. Most of it is owned by multi-millionaires who use it to project the ideas that support their interests. Those which threaten their plans are either ignored or ridiculed. It is through the newspapers and television channels that the socially destructive ideas of a small group of extremists have come to look like common sense. The corporations’ tame thinkers sell the project by reframing our political language…. Nowadays I hear even my progressive friends using terms like wealth creators, tax relief, big government, consumer democracy, red tape, compensation culture, job seekers, and benefit cheats. These terms, all deliberately invented or promoted by neoliberals, have become so commonplace that they now seem almost neutral.

“Neoliberalism, if unchecked, will catalyse crisis after crisis, all of which can be solved only by the means it forbids: greater intervention on the part of the state.”

George Monbiot, from his 2008 article “How Did We Get into This Mess?” (written, you will notice, before the 2008 Depression hit).

 

The second definition of neoliberalism comes from leftist geographer David Harvey, quthor of A Brief History of Neoliberalism:

“There are two things to be said [about defining ‘neoliberalism’]. One is … the theory of neoliberalism and the other is its practice. And they are rather different from each other. But the theory takes the view that individual liberty and freedom are the high point of civilization and then goes on to argue that individual liberty and freedom can best be protected and achieved by an institutional structure, made up of strong private property rights, free markets, and free trade: a world in which individual initiative can flourish. The implication of that is that the state should not be involved in the economy too much, but it should use its power to preserve private property rights and the institutions of the market and promote those on the global stage if necessary….

“Liberal theory goes back a very long way … to the 18th century: John Locke, Adam Smith, and writers of that sort. Then economics changed quite a bit towards the end of the 19th century and neoliberalism is a really revival of the 18th century liberal doctrine about freedoms and individual liberties connected to a very specific view of the market. And the leading figures in that are Milton Friedman in this country and Friedrich Hayek in Austria. In 1947 they formed a society to promote neoliberal values called the Mont Pelerin Society. It was a minor society but it got a lot of support from wealthy contributors and corporations to polemicize on the ideas it held.”

From an interview with David Harvey, On Neoliberalism: An Interview with David Harvey, in MRonline.

Battling implicit bias

Questions have been raised about the Implicit Association Test (IAT), a psychological test which purports to find implicit bias in individuals. Olivia Goldhill, writing for Quartz, an online business journal, reports that the IAT has a low reliability, or test-retest, score; where perfect reliability would score as 1, and strong reliability would score as 0.7-0.8, the race IAT has a reliability score of 0.44, or unacceptable. Goldhill also reports that several meta-analyses have found that the IAT is a poor predictor of behavior.

I have my own criticism of the well-known race IAT, which you can take online at the Project Implicit Web site. I took this test online, and scored as having a low to moderate bias in favor of African Americans. As much as I’d like to think I’m Mr. Egalitarian, I had a problem with the test: it required me to make fast judgments about low-resolution photos of facial characteristics, and I know myself well enough to know that I have poor facial recognition ability — I once passed my mother and younger sister on the street and only recognized them when I realized that these two women were laughing at me — so any test that requires me to recognize facial characteristics is not going to produce accurate results.Regardless of the strengths and weaknesses of the actual test, I’m still skeptical of using tests for implicit bias to implement organizational change. In my experience, that’s not the way organizational change actually happens: it’s not as easy as administering a test, identifying who has implicit bias, and then watching the complete eradication of bias. If it were that easy, we already would have eradicated racism, sexism, etc.

“What the ‘Bias of Crowds’ Phenomenon Means for Corporate Diversity Efforts,” an article by Liz Kofman (a change management consultant with a doctorate in sociology), suggests a different path towards changing organizational biases that I find more pragmatic. Writing for Behavioral Scientist, an online non-profit magazine, Kofman identifies three recommendations for organizations wishing to get rid of bias.

First of all, Kofman suggests that we “focus on changing processes, not people.” In other words, forget all those training sessions where you make individuals in the organization confront their inner biases; instead, change your organizational processes to reduce chances for bias. Why don’t more organizations do this? I suspect it’s because it’s much easier to hold a workshop on implicit bias than it is to do the hard and detailed work of changing organizational processes. It’s fine to hold those workshops, and Unitarian Universalist congregations wishing to address bias should continue to offer, for example, the excellent “Beloved Conversations” class developed by Mark Hicks at Meadville/Lombard Theological School. Just don’t expect one workshop to take the place of lots of rather boring but necessary detail work.

Kofman’s second recommendation is to “prioritize process change and stick to it.” She points out that this is not easy; it takes “organizational will and discipline to implement and sustain … new processes.” Furthermore, Kofman says, an organization needs to focus on a few key process changes, making those a priority; otherwise, it’s easy to get overwhelmed with too many changes and then nothing happens. Prioritizing process changes, and sticking to them, has proved to be an insurmountable problem for most Unitarian Universalist congregations I’ve known: lay leadership changes from year to year and so priorities change from year to year; new and attractive projects arise and draw attention away from ongoing projects. It’s easier to do that high-profile capital campaign, or to add solar panels on your building, than it is to stick to the hard work of implementing new organizational processes designed to reduce racism and sexism.

And this brings us to Kofman’s third recommendation: “provide resources and incentives for change management.” Because “everyday processes influence the bias of crowds” in any organization, you need to change those everyday processes; but too often there are not resources to help people change those processes, in addition to which there’s little incentive for change. Take for example a Unitarian Universalist congregations which wishes to become less white. Clearly, one thing you’ll need to do it completely overhaul the intake process — how potential members are greeted on their first visit, the processes used to integrate newcomers into the congregational culture, and so on. All that is hard work, so one critical resource required for change will be staff time, from both paid and volunteer staff; and because staff time is a limited resource, other projects will have to received fewer staff hours. And how will you provide incentives for those staffers, particularly for the volunteer staffers? None of this is easy.

To summarize: While Implicit Association Tests might be fascinating, they are probably not particularly useful tools for implementing organizational change. Instead, congregations seriously committed to, e.g., becoming less white, should pay attention to the change management technique of process change.

Radio

In high school, I became enamored of broadcast radio. Since I grew up near Boston, along Route 128 — then a high-tech corridor not unlike Silicon Valley — some high-tech company donated a ten watt broadcast station to my public high school. I got my third class radiotelephone license with broadcast endorsement, and became a once-a-week DJ. We lived four miles from the transmitter, and on a good day my parents could sometimes listen to me broadcasting. I don’t remember what music I played on the air, but during my teen years I listened to everything from Renaissance motets to Top 40 rock.

During the 1980-81 academic year, I took a year off from college and went to work in a lumberyard, my first full-time job. There were a few of us who were under 25, and we all listened to WBCN, the freeform rock music station in Boston. Rich, who worked in paint, tried to time his morning coffee break so he could listen to Mattress Mishegas, the strange call-in quiz show kind of thing run by DJ Charles Laquidara, and if he was working up in the paint stockroom, where no one could hear him, he’d listen to ‘BCN. I worked out in the yard so I didn’t get to listen to the radio much. But I heard Laquidara promoting the big protest at Seabrook nuclear power plant over Memorial Day weekend in 1981, and my old youth group buddy John and I drove up and camped out in the woods next to the power plant and watched people we knew committing civil disobedience. Laquidara made no bones about his liberal-left politics.

That was radio at its best: not just playing new music from well-known bands, not just giving airplay to unknown local bands, but connecting listeners with what was going on. And at WBCN, Laquidara and his listeners all talked with Boston accents. You knew you were listening to people like you, people who lived near you; it was local. After the corporatization of broadcast radio in the mid-1990s, radio became less and less local: you could hear Howard Stern anywhere in the country.

The Web does most of what broadcast radio used to do, and does it better. If I want to get involved in social action, I check the Web. I love exploring new music on online sources, and broadcast radio would never have played lots of the music I now listen to online. And there were lots of things that sucked about broadcast radio: stupid commercials, songs that you hated that got played over and over, lots of boring moments. (Although increasingly Youtube.com is overrun with stupid commercials and bad music and too many boring videos.)

I’m not feeling nostalgic about broadcast radio. But what strikes me is the way I think differently now. Broadcast radio was a communal experience; most of the people I knew my age listened to WBCN, we all knew about the local bands they played. The Web is a fragmented, even tribal experience; you can become part of a small tribal music community.

A leftist historian’s view

For quite some time now, the very few leftists remaining in the United States have been openly critical of the Democratic Party’s attempts to address racism. This is, in part, because leftists view the Democrats as neo-liberals who are committed to maintaining the inequalities inherent in free-market capitalism. One such leftist is Dr. Toure F. Reed, a historian at Illinois State University. Back in 2015, he published an article titled “Why Liberals Separate Race from Class” in the leftist-socialist magazine Jacobin, in which he offered a historian’s critical assessment of contemporary liberal attempts to  address racism.

In his view, the liberal attempts to address racism in the 2010s (including, e.g., Black Lives Matter, etc.) do not compare well with the anti-racist efforts of the 1950s and 1960s. Those earlier efforts grew out of New Deal labor-liberalism, a very different political context  from the neo-liberalism of the 2010s; the earlier efforts were committed to broad economic egalitarianism, according to Toure, whereas contemporary efforts resist any attempt to include economic class as crucial to fighting racism. In his 2015 article, Professor Touré concluded:

“If one views the excesses and failures of the criminal justice system solely through the lens of race, then victims of police brutality and prosecutorial misconduct tend to be black or Latino. However, if one understands race and class are inextricably linked, then the victims of police brutality are not simply black or Latino (and Latinos outnumber blacks in federal prisons at this point) but they tend to belong to groups that lack political, economic, and social influence and power.

“From that vantage point, the worldview expressed by Johnson and others misses the mark and falls into the same trap that, ironically, liberals have offered a stratum of credentialed black Americans for decades: opportunity within a market-driven political and economic framework that disparages demands for social and economic justice for all (including most black people) as socialist, communist, un-American, or even class-reductionist.”

Three years later, in late 2018, the situation hasn’t changed. And in 2018 Professor Touré published a new book, Why liberals separate race from class: The conservative implications of race reductionism. (New York & London: Verso, 2018). I haven’t read it yet, but I came across an interesting quotation that makes me think that I must read it:

“Emancipation and even Reconstruction were produced by a convergence of interests among disparate constituencies — African Americans, abolitionists, business, small freeholders, and northern laborers — united under the banner of free labor. The civil rights movement was the product of a consensus created by the New Deal that presumed the appropriateness of government intervention in private affairs for the public good, the broad repudiation of scientific racism following World War II, and the political vulnerabilities Jim Crow created for the United States during the Cold War. To be sure, Reconstruction, the New Deal, the War on Poverty, and even the civil rights movement failed to redress all of the challenges confronting blacks. But the limitations of each of these movements reflected political constraints imposed on them, in large part, by capital.”

In contrast to the current Democratic party agenda, I am convinced that racism can only be addressed by tackling classism, and by promulgating a broad egalitarianism. As a result, I don’t fit in well with the much of the political agenda of broader Unitarian Universalism. Our religious tradition is currently dominated by the concerns and outlook of the white college-educated elite (i.e., the majority of our members); elite Unitarian Universalists are unwilling to face up to the extent to which they benefit from the exploitation of the working class, and from the continuation of business-as-usual consumer capitalism. Fortunately, there were a goodly number of Unitarian Universalists who supported Bernie Sanders — even though I would consider him a center-leftist, rather than a socialist — he isn’t as far to the left as, say, Bayard Rustin or the later Martin Lught King, Jr., — but still, he represented a desire for a broad egalitarianism.

In any case, I’m going to have to read Professor Touré’s new book.

More from Professor Touré:
“Between Obama and Coates,” Catalyst, Winter, 2018, is a historian’s detailed examination of Ta-Nehisi Coates’s critique of post-war liberalism
“Affirmative Action’s Labor Roots,” Jacobin, 2016, is a vigorous defense of affirmative action

Kinds of atheism, kinds of theism

Elisa Freschi, a philosopher specializing in Indian-subcontinent philosophy, has written an interesting post about atheism, in which she says: “in European history, atheism is the refusal of theism as conceived in modern times, with God as one ‘thing’ among others.” Thus if you refute a theism in which God is a “natural cause” — which is mostly what modern atheism does — you wind up with modern atheism, which can be defined as atheism-as-naturalism. However, such atheism-as-naturalism doesn’t have much to say about the God of Meister Eckhart.

In Indian philosophy, according to Freschi, when people talk about God, “God” may have at least four different meanings: the devatas (the mythological gods); the isvara (the God of rational theology); the Brahman (an impersonal deity); or the bhagavat God (the God of personal devotion). Freschi contends that “atheism in India is mostly targeted at two concepts of god, on the one hand the gods (devata) of mythology and on the other the Lord (isvara) of rational theology.” Freschi goes on to outline how in the 13th to 14th centuries C.E., Indian philosophers such as  Venkatanatha responded to the atheism of the earlier Nyasa school by developing new forms of theism, which Freschi calls “post-atheism theism.”

This discussion becomes relevant to Unitarian Universalism when one considers that many current arguments against theism in our congregations are arguments for naturalism; that is, arguments for modern atheism, which considers God as a “thing.” These arguments become less intelligible when considered as arguments against, e.g., Martin Buber’s conception of God as “Thou,” or God considered in panentheist or pantheist terms.

Another way of saying this is that when using the English-language term “God,” you have to be careful to define in what sense you are using that term. When you argue against God as a thing which is a natural cause, your arguments will have little effect on those for whom God is defined in terms of a personal devotional relationship.

Furthermore, if a modern atheist winds up arguing with a mystic, someone like Henry David Thoreau or me, they might find they’re arguing with a religious naturalist who agrees entirely with their naturalist arguments, but who does not define God as a thing which is a natural cause. If we don’t clarify which definition of God we’re using, the argument is going to get confusing very quickly.

Animal ears

The No-Rehearsal Christmas Pageant we do every year requires some kind of minimal costume for the six animals in the manger scene. The vinyl animal noses I’ve been using for the past decade and a half have started to get tacky, and it’s time to stop using them. Nor did I want to purchase new animal noses; the world doesn’t need any more cheap vinyl junk. First I made a chicken hat as a possible replacement for the chicken nose, but this week I decided that making five other animal hats (and finding a place to store them) simply wasn’t practical.

So instead I made animal ears mounted on head bands. It turns out that animal ears mounted on head bands are a substantial cottage industry, sold on Etsy (just search for “farm animal ears”) and elsewhere. But I decided to make my own — cow ears, donkey ears, dog ears, pig ears, mouse ears, and a chicken crest — using hair bands, felt, wire for stiffener, and a hot melt glue gun.

It would have been cheaper (once you figure in my time) and easier to purchase the ears available on Etsy. However, having made them I know how to repair them, and I anticipate that these animal ears will last until I finally retire.

Why capitalism sucks

You’ve been trying to explain why capitalism sucks, but when you use the term “alienated labor,” people just roll their eyes and appear bored. So maybe you should say “shitty jobs” instead, which is what Natalie Wyn does on her Youtube video “What’s Wrong with Capitalism, Part I.” Wyn gets extra points for being funny, for knowing her Marxism (she dropped out of a PhD program in philosophy, so she really does know Marxism), and for having a good eye for the medium of video.

Maybe Wyn loses points because Youtube sticks an advertisement at the beginning of her video. Or maybe she gains points, because it’s so ironic: an advertisement preceding a video in which advertising is revealed as a tool for irrational manipulation. In any case, Wyn does lose points for comparing capitalist overlords to reptiles; I happen to like reptiles, even snapping turtles, more than I like Donald Trump and Mark Zuckerberg. Though even I have to admit, her reptiles are hilariously funny.

Bottom line: if you’re trying to explain to someone why capitalism sucks, don’t hand them Marx’s Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts, show them this video.