Sunday, July 30, 2006

Too Close 

Sometimes personal biases can interfere with evaluations from broader perspectives, and two current examples come to mind. I saw the Miami Vice movie this weekend -- as much because it was playing at a convenient time, as anything -- and really liked it, much more than I expected to, based on the general buzz. Stylish, well-acted, a nicely complicated plot, great cinematography, some cool music. (Aside: the villains here are, in addition to South American drug dealers, Aryan Brotherhoods. A new Hollywood trend?) But here is a Boing Boing post that disses the movie because of a throw-away line about pirated Chinese software. As if such a thing doesn't exist? Please. There's much more to the movie than that; recommended.

And just finished reading Charlie Stross' Glasshouse, a much more pleasurable read than Accelerando, which however dazzling its ideas, was at times a chore to read. I highly recommend the new book. Yet here is Cheryl Morgan, off on what strikes me as a tangent about gender and Feminism and Essentialism, as if unaware of 30 years of studies not only of brain chemistry but of evolutionary theory that suggests very good reasons why there might be differences between male and female brains. I agree with Cheryl that there's a flaw here; why is first person Robin/Reeve the only Glasshouse-wife to not fall easily into her role? Yet Cheryl's discussion gets off on a peculiar note, with
The trouble with men writing about gender issues is that it really is like putting yourself in a glass house in the middle of a public park and inviting people to throw stones at you.

Why is this any more valid or less peculiar than saying

The trouble with women writing about gender issues is that it really is like putting yourself in a glass house in the middle of a public park and inviting people to throw stones at you.


The southern California heat has abated, though we did set yet another record one day this past week -- the highest low, of 71 degrees F. This weekend has been oddly humid, with cloud cover and temperatures kept into the 80s.
Actually I'm well aware of research into gender differences. I follow it very closely (and made brief reference to it in the review). But I'm also painfully aware that there are elements of the Feminist community who would want me strung up from a lamppost if I dared to suggest that such research was anything other than an evil male plot made up to justify discrimination.

But you are right, Glasshouse is a fun book and will be enjoyed by many people who are blissfully unaware of the background issues it touches upon. I just thought it might be interesting to look at why some people might get upset with it. As Matt Cheney has been mentioning recently, Essentialism is an interesting political minefield. If Charlie had written a book in which Robin had to "pretend to be gay", and then was brainwhased into "becoming gay", or if he'd had to "pretend to be black" and then been brainwahsed into "thinking like a black person" then other groups of people would have been upset and other groups would dismiss their concerns as irrelevant.

As to why it is different having men and women writing about gender, well... In my experience when women write about gender men just dismiss it as irrelevant, as nonsense, as further evidence of female irrationality and hysteria. Why would they want to throw stones at people who are simply providing demonstrable proof of their own inferiority?
The only sensible thing to do is to travesty MONTY PYTHON'S LIFE OF BRIAN:

"Now look! No one is going to stone anyone until I blow this whistle! Even if -- and I want to make this perfectly clear -- even if they do say 'sociobilogy'!"

*Stones come raining down*

Jokes aside...Why is it, that when Alice Sheldon (James Tiptree Jr) writes about biologically determined gender differences in her stories that's great...

...but when a MALE writes about biologically determined gender differences, the metaphorical stoning begins?

Ah, the "with us or against us" ritual begins. Actually boys, if you'd bother ed to read what I wrote instead of leaping to conclusions, you'd see that I have no objection to men writing about gender. I just don't like seeing them make idiots of themselves when doing so. I do actually think that Charlie was trying hard to get it right, but he's produced a book that can be read as (note careful choice of words there) implying that that women are, by nature, selfish, vain, inconsiderate, vindictive and meekly obedient to authority. I think that's sad. If you think that marks me out as a man-hating harridan who must be held up for ridicule least my presence cause your balls to fall off or something equally tragic, I think that's sad too.
For the record, Charlie asked me to read the manuscript of Glass House with a particular eye to the gender issues.

I pointed out to him that he had essentially recapitulated Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique.
Why is it, that when Alice Sheldon (James Tiptree Jr) writes about biologically determined gender differences in her stories that's great...

There is no unanimity about Tiptree's essentialism, either. I, for one, don't like it at all: I think it makes a lot of her stories appalling -- or worse, uninteresting.
Cheryl, I think you're over-reacting a bit. No one is holding anyone up for ridicule, or calling anyone names, nor does anyone need to imagine being called names. Surely you wouldn't care to see women making idiots of themselves when writing about gender either, would you? I still don't understand your presumption that this is a special problem for men. Whether or not Stross was successful on this issue, my point in mentioning your review in the first place was that, from my reading, the issue of gender is not a central concern of the book (any more than the role of church congregations in small town life is), which rather is about conformity, social control, and identity, in much broader terms, and your focus on that topic misrepresents the book to that extent. (And, secondarily, that there are any number of reasons *not* to take Stross' depiction of gender roles seriously, among them the actual research I alluded to, as well as the context of the book, which imagines the Glasshouse environment as the imagination of malicious eggheads, in a setting that seems more a caricature of the 1950s than anything that could possibly be 'realistic'.)

"he's produced a book that can be read (note careful choice of words there) implying..."

Pretty weak charge. Lots of books "can" be read in ways the author didn't intend, and that aren't justified by the text.
The central conceit of GLASSHOUSE was a re-application of the Zimbardo prison study, only to a caricature of contemporary gender roles (as they might be viewed from several centuries remove) rather than prison roles. There's also a subtext here about Stanley Milgram's research into obedience to authority. (Reeve is rebelling against the system within the Glasshouse primarily because he/she is complying with the demands of her role as defined by an external authority. As we discover, she's not the only rebel: but the system is set up to prevent the inmates communicating meaningfully ...)

Parenthetically speaking, it's very hard to write about authoritarian relationships in a way that gets the reader's attention without opening yourself up to criticisms about the specific model you chose.

If I'd picked race, rather than gender, as a defining characteristic for the power structure to play divide-and-conquer with, people would probably be asking if I was some kind of closet racist. And if I'd picked some other attribute (colour-blindness? Appreciation of classical music?), the point would have been obscured. So what's a person to do? If you want to make a point, pogo-ing through minefield seems to be the only way forward.
Authoritarian societies with rigid gender roles are very real today.
Would anyone here take offense if a writer described a real authoritarian society in detail... with all the embarrassing tics and traits that sort of society will encourage?

Some social systems bring out the worst tendencies in human beings -- you can say that bad societies make people behave like caricatures of themselves. (For example, the U.S. prison system encourages male convicts to act like caricatures of "machismo".)
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Mark R. Kelly

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