Distractions, Decoys, Devils (Gender, Family, Sports, Sex)
As long as the chief motivations of communication are profit and reproduction, what is said and what is heard will be only what we can say and what we can hear. Our ears are too large, by Nietzsche’s idiomatic standards, as they take in too much and lack discrimination. But using a obverse image, we can equally say that they are too small, narrow as befits the narrow-minded pursuit of wealth and the status quo, or the way in which wealth manifests itself within our contemporary social structure. Chomsky has dealt with the political aspects of the ‘manufacture of our consent’ to governance and the casual responsibility the State might exercise in times of either crisis or plebiscite. But there are both wider and deeper striations of a similar hue at work in more mundane arenas of social life; those that are enacted and endured in the day to day, by the vast majority of us, and experienced hardly at all by political elites or those with authority and access to culture-producing institutions and devices. Our narrowness is not inbred, but rather bred in.
Media does not so much love a circus as it is the big top itself. Selling an ‘issue’ means rolling up a moral panic, and then providing that snowball with enough impetus that this faux feeling of outrage becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Media is not the source of the phenomenon in question – and we shall look at four, in turn, below – but is rather the medium by which this or that facet of human experience becomes larger than life, and thus is transmuted from the base metal of raw and perplexed Erlebnis into the very gold that profit seeks. The gee-whiz genuflections surrounding gender, the fastidious fetish of the family, the speculative spins of sports, the salacious scenes of sex, are perhaps the four foremost examples of this transmutation in current affairs. Their sources are, of course, wholly human, culled from the life of a being in the world, moments of existence without essence. But let us examine them from the point of view of how they in fact obscure our shared existential lot, at first subjectively, and then, when they are taken up as ‘issues’, as projective ‘things’ with a consequential reality about them.
W.I. Thomas, the American social scientist, encapsulates our perceptual inclination in a most pragmatic manner, following William James. His famous epigram, ‘If people believe something to be real, it is real in its consequences’, sums neatly the transition between the murkiness of supposed source material to the hard objectivity of action in the world, however baseless the motives for such action may originally have been. In turn, his generational colleague, Robert Merton, coins for the human sciences the idea of the ‘self-fulfilling prophecy’, some ten years later. Using the bank runs of the early 1930s as his examples, we are met with a clear exposition of the ‘if-then’ of Thomas under its own steam; people imagined the banks were going under, and so they put them under through their own actions. Just so, our current conflicts regarding gender and family, and our daily obsessions directed at sports and sex, are very similar exemplifications of both the Thomas ‘theorem’ and Merton’s conception. Let us now turn to each to try to understand their moral-to-moralizing alchemy.
Gender: Without any sense of the defamatory, I will suggest here that the phenomena grouped under ‘trans’, ‘two-spirited’, ‘theyness’ and such-like, are the result of either a conflict of gender expectations between parents – one desires a boy the other a girl – or the absence of one or the other dominant genders in the family – the child then assumes the role of the absent mother or father without regard to their sex at birth – or again, conflicting general parental expectations regarding role and interest – one parent’s vicarious desires directed at the child are in conflict with the other’s and hence we have a ‘they’ persona, through which the child attempts to satisfy both parent’s sets of demands. If these are the social sources of the phenomena, such studies await the student. But it is well known that gender conflict occurs within the psyche of the child when parents are themselves in conflict, or when both parents desired a different gendered child than the one they ended up with, which is commonplace. Well known too are the studies in which boys are socialized much more roughly, and freely in terms of the lifting of limits, than are girls. It is known as well that what used to be called the ‘tomboy’ or even the gamin are results of girls being treated by parents as if they were boys, once again to accommodate the objectively unfulfilled parental desires.
It is of the utmost to say that the pathology present belongs only to the parents in these cases, never the children, who are victims thereof. But this victimization is carried into the objective space of the public by the resistance other parents have to their own oft clandestine proclivities. They see in the other’s child the very child they feared they themselves would raise, and thus their bad conscience projects a vitriolic violence upon the one who has already been given a difficult start by their own parents. It is a classic example of double jeopardy, and insofar as the phenomena are real and not theatrical – in some, perhaps fewer, cases, a child may simply be trying to call attention to themselves due to the pressing and globalizing economic fact of families not being able to remain viable through a single income; in these cases there is the pathology of neglect, but no authentic transgenderedness – it represents one of the scandals of today’s domesticity. But insofar as the reaction to it is nothing more than a moral panic, it represents in turn nothing more than one tent in the for-profit media circus.
Family: At its inception, the bourgeois family was immediately critiqued and its conception destroyed. But its self-conception lives on, shored up by entertainment delusions and advertising fantasies. Our feted yet fetid fetish for it apparently knows no bounds. The conflict over what ‘values’ it represents and reproduces has no ethical merit and little substance, which is befitting of what is essentially another form of entertainment fantasy, extant mostly in media and not at all so much in social reality. This is not the place to investigate the history of the definitions of family, though such an analysis would have to take place before one says too much about its current guises and how they were fashioned, but what can be said is that, in principle, a person emphatically avows the presence of what is in fact the most absent to him. This is done as a defensive posture against anomie in particular, and more generally, over against the perceptions the other has of the person in question: ‘What’s wrong with your family? Do you know where your children are? Don’t tell me how to raise my kids’, and so on. While social media for youth is a juvenile circus of comparative egotisms – and perhaps this is how it must be, developmentally speaking, though youth themselves appear to take it far too seriously – social media for adults is a painstaking exercise in one-upping the other’s familiality. Whether it is home décor, career, ‘look what my kids are doing!’, or even the daily dinner menu, all prepared by the woman who is half 1955 half 1985 for the man who is half 1955 half 1885, one’s face and one’s book alike mimic in subjective reality what these persons see in media. The magazines which bristle at check-outs in all kinds of stores attest in imagery to the theater that ‘you too can have’ with some dedicated, and still highly gendered, elbow grease. In its own way, women’s magazines are soft-core domestic pornography, whilst men’s are more directly the porn of virile power transferenced into machines, tools and the mechanisms thereof. The mockery directed at the post-war family is also a projection of our bad conscience, aware as it is of our lack of progress in these otherwise quotidian quarters.
Sports: The faux drama of sports has recently been rivaled, and perhaps in the case of young men, even eclipsed, by sports wagering. Betting is a way in which one can vicariously experience the thrill of actual competition. Gambling is a sport unto itself, in this sense, but only secondarily to it being an addiction. Actual professional athletes are not in general addicted and obsessed by their vocation. They rather report enjoying it, even ‘loving’ it, and more humbly, graced by the blessing of being ‘paid for what one loves to do’, but rarely do they lose themselves in life because of it. The same manifestly cannot be said for gambling. This aside, sports, like sex, as we shall shortly see, is chiefly about money, and thus it contains the same tendencies as does media in general. Sports are platinum for media because not only do they appear apolitical, any game can become popular or at least, generate a niche market for itself. The throngs that follow golf overwhelm the audience for snooker, but they are equally riveted to the action at hand. And golf is made insignificant by North American football, football by world soccer, and so on. But in all cases, sports is at best a pastime. It in itself has no profundity, but rather a kind of false freedom in its relatively unscripted enactment, for it is artful without being art. Sports is the moral man’s pornography, the upstanding citizen’s barricade, the passive-aggressive personality’s war. As such, when confronted by the reality of the world and how most of humanity lives in that reality, it is worthless.
And youth sports all the more so. Youth need to be helping the community, serving the weak and the poor, saving the environment from we adults, organizing politically for a human future which is in fact not ours but theirs, and learning how to love one another in all ways. In a word, not playing games. The foisting of organized sports upon youth presents both a con and a conundrum to them: ‘Teamwork’, but against a rival. ‘Character-building’, but in a non-ethical petty context. ‘Self-sacrifice’, but for the utterly trivial. No, no, and no.
Sex: Certainly sex sells, and everyone is aware of this. Peddling our desires in flagrant flaneur has come to be an expectation of not only marketing – the presence of the beautiful girl and sometimes even the handsome young man in early advertising graphics was not only ubiquitous but oddly liberating in a time of suppressed desires – but also of media in general. The most ‘followed’ social media influencers, if they are female, must be attractive and young. The influencer persona is merely the digital live-action version of the pin-up girl, who in her turn, was merely the post-Depression guise of the Victorian-Edwardian advertising girl. What is being sold is not necessarily sex itself, but the sexualization of the commodity, including the human person and the human body. This is why we hear resistance in some quarters against portraying children in this manner. Such a call is mostly hypocrisy, as in the same cultural stroke the beauty and talent pageants flash-flesh-flaunt toddler-through-teen sex while off-stage utterly suppressing and ‘disciplining’ it. Just as we cannot take seriously pornography, the resistance to it is equally laughable. Yes, if it weren’t so dangerous to youth, and on both counts. Sexual imagery meant for profit from voyeurism of whatever stripe has such a universal market due to its expression of all that we would do to one another if we were not called to the stand in witness against our baser selves. In this deeper sense, all pornography is ‘revenge porn’. We view it with a sense of prurient satisfaction, to be sure, but more tellingly, I think, with a real feeling of vengeance: ‘I wish my wife looked like her, did what she is doing, was her.’ Not to target men, as it is well known that men and women imbibe in pornography equally, a sorry testament to both the intimate and wider relations between the dominant genders.
Which may well be, for youth, another call-sign that binary genderedness isn’t working. Why not switch it up? What began as an effort to please conflicted parents develops into a manner of avoiding, or even denying, the reality which exists between men and women, whether gay or lesbian or neither. These two as well, alternate genders to those dominant but attracted to the same sex, challenge their human actors objectively – it is more difficult to be publicly gay than publicly straight – but, I would suggest as gently as possible, relieve these same persons subjectively. Because men and women are socialized so radically differently, every ‘cisgendered’ relationship is a constant exercise in cross-cultural anthropology. Sexual attraction is by far the easiest aspect thereof and therein. And though it is of course true that in a gay or lesbian intimacy, it is still two different people, nevertheless, a man generally knows what to expect of another man, and the converse. So, even if there is no biopower need for everyone to reproduce biologically, there remains the question of how we confront our own humanity. Is loving another like ourselves not the sexual equivalent of the lesser ethics of loving those who love us? And is the unfashionable, but still politically convenient, love of ‘the breeders’ not an exemplification of the challenging and still novel ethic of loving one’s enemies? In this other sense, it is straight people who are the truer radicals.
Now it is part of the philosopher’s job to speak of things no one else wants to hear. To return to our small-eared imagery, the unexamined life produces a myopia in all of our senses. The eyes become accustomed to what is only at hand, the hands themselves feel what is only in hand, the nose scents the familiar atmosphere of social media dining, the tongue tastes only of the food the child adored, and the ears hear soothing sounds of soporific Sundays, when family was ‘together’, at least physically, and when nothing else needed doing. As distractions, our four examples are at their best. We cannot be working every hour, nor can we be constantly examining ourselves as if we were latter day penitents. But as decoys, we are duped into neither questioning nor changing the aspects of our shared world which are collectively doing us in. And when we reproduce those decoys for our children, we turn the decoys into devils, for to deny the chance for a child to live in a transformed world that within it holds a fairer future is nothing less than evil, incarnate in ourselves.
G.V. Loewen is the author of 56 books in ethics, education, health, social theory and aesthetics, as well as fiction. He was professor of the interdisciplinary human sciences for over two decades.