Monthly Archives: August 2014

LGBT or Gender Dysphoria; the DSM Controversy

I have noticed a pattern in my own blogging; I don’t tend to jump on issues that are currently major controversies. Striking while the iron is hot is hard for me to do when everyone else is trying to hammer away at the same lump. I don’t like the chaos of a lot of other voices, and I’m wary of the way my own prejudices towards or against the people arguing might obscure my ability to make up my own mind. One of my greatest fears is falling into the trap of believing what I believe because it conforms to the beliefs of people I like. I would rather wait until the iron has cooled, after the other smiths have wandered away, and examine what remains. If I think there’s some work left to be done, then I’ll reheat the iron myself and see if I can hammer out something in peace. It might not be the right thing, but at least I feel like I have space to think while I’m working.

Now that I have entirely exhausted that metaphor, let me resurrect a controversy from a year ago; the DSM’s continuing classification of transsexuality as a medical disorder in the DSM-5, albeit with the new name Gender Dysphoria and a new description of the diagnosis. This article by the Huffington Post covers it well, but in brief, the new diagnosis is almost universally regarded as an improvement, but the mere presence of transsexuality in a medical text is resented. At this time nobody is fighting too hard to entirely remove it, because without it trans people could not get insurance coverage, leaving transition out of the reach of the majority of trans people. Still, it is tolerated with a good deal of grumbling.

The association of being trans and being disordered goes back to the days when homosexuality was also considered a mental illness. Being transgender was considered an extension of homosexuality; the misconception that there is no difference between an extremely effeminate gay man or extremely butch lesbian still exists. It naturally follows, then that once the L, G, and B were no longer considered medical issues, the T should also cease to be a diagnosable condition.

Or does it? For one thing, as I just argued, the whole association between being gay and being trans was flawed to begin with. I identify as a man, but I am also attracted to men. My place in that acronym as a G is independent of my place as a T. Therefore, just because homosexuality is no longer a medical condition, that does not necessarily mean gender dysphoria needs to be removed from the DSM. Furthermore, there is a reason that homosexuality has been removed from the DSM while transsexuality hasn’t. Gay and bisexual people don’t need any therapy to live a productive, fulfilling life. They just need social acceptance. If society fully accepted trans people, if I no longer felt that I needed medical assistance to pass as male to protect myself in bathrooms and on the streets, would I still want hormones and surgery? Yes. Even concealed by binders, my chest bothers me. Surgery will heal me of that. Having taken testosterone makes me feel good when I look in a mirror. I used to feel dissociated from the person I saw. Now I actually see myself. Quite apart from any social issues, having a body that misaligned with my feelings about my identity caused me daily stress. Having a body that feels more like mine gives me daily relief. Medicine objectively helped me.

Now, I can think of three different problems with considering trans people disabled. First, many trans people love their bodies, love their place in the queer community, and don’t want to be pathologized. Second, having a disability is highly stigmatized, and trans people have enough irrational prejudices to deal with without adding ableism to the mix. Third, there’s a fear that consenting to be labelled with a diagnosis will ultimately take power away from trans people to determine their own medication. Not every surgery or hormone is the best choice for every trans person, and worse, there’s the fear that someday, someone might invent a drug to stop trans people from being trans, a pill that would make every trans person’s mental gender align with the gender they were assigned based on their biology. These are all legitimate issues, but I have come to believe they are not sufficient to justify a crusade to remove transsexuality from the DSM.

The first is a case of personal identification. Many trans people don’t feel remotely disabled. Some don’t even desire any medical alteration, either because they identify outside of the gender binary entirely, or because, for whatever reason, they feel male or female enough without the intervention of hormones or surgeries. That is completely fine. If I have learned anything from the social justice community, it’s that there is no battle more doomed to failure than the fight to make people identify as something that that doesn’t feel right to them, just because the identity they currently have is inconvenient for your particular social mission. It’s also a cruel battle. I want a world where everybody respects everybody’s identity, provided that identity is not motivating them to violate somebody else’s safety or consent (I only bring this up in anticipation of an asshole who says, “what if somebody identifies as a serial killer or a rapist?” Go fuck yourself, hypothetical troll).

My argument against the first issue is not that trans people as individuals can’t have legitimate reasons for feeling they don’t belong into the category “disabled.” My argument is that in the world of disability activism, there is precedent for that. Much of my experience with disability comes from studying ASL for four years to work as an interpreter. This education focused on the culture as well as the language, and I had many d/Deaf friends, and even dated a deaf guy for a little while. The whole reason for that funny lowercase/uppercase split I did is that some people consider themselves disabled (like the guy I dated, who was lowercase deaf), and some people consider themselves part of a linguistic minority (and capitalize Deaf to show their pride in their identification). For those who live in predominately signing communities, the objective reality is that their experience is more like that of a linguistic minority than that of a disabled person. I don’t see why the trans community can’t accommodate the same sort of variable identification. For some individuals, “has gender dysphoria” describes how they feel about their bodies and their place in society; they are men or women who had to overcome a physical problem to live the lives they needed to. For others, an identification as queer works best, and many combine both.

The second one has a pragmatic logic, but on a moral level it bothers me. The argument is ultimately is at best accommodating ableism, and at worst actively ableist. Look at this quote I found on Yahoo answers, by someone who was delivering a Trans 101 that was otherwise very balanced and well informed;

“However, many (most?) folks who qualify for this diagnosis [Gender Identity Disorder] dislike the term. That is because being born transsexual or being transgender is NOT a disorder, they are natural variants. However, because of the stigma applied in the past it was labelled as such. Modern research over the last 25 years has more or less proven that people are in fact born this way.”

She is saying that trans people are unlike disabled people because they are natural and born that way. Well, many if not most disabled people are born that way, and in what objective sense are they unnatural? Disabilities often arise from genetic inheritance or mutations, which are entirely natural processes. And, once again, we are not different in the sense that we don’t sometimes need medical intervention to live our lives. She isn’t using natural in any objective sense, but in the same sense that a cultivated rose is “natural” but a two-headed snake is “unnatural.” She’s really just saying that being transgender is good and nice and fine but being disabled is bad and yucky. I’m not okay with that.

The third issue is actually one where disabled and transgendered people are actually natural allies. Whether it’s cochlear implants for d/Deafness or Ritalin for ADHD or SSRIs or prosthetics vs wheelchairs, disabled people are constantly faced with the issue of people believing that a particular cure is either something every person with condition X must have, or that it’s something unnatural and if you take it you are betraying the great movement of condition X positivity. The reality, for practically every cure that does not actually prevent premature death, is that there are pros and cons, side effects and new opportunities, and what is a good choice for one person may be a poor choice for another with the same condition. In nearly every disability 101 I have encountered, a key issue has been the right to self-determine treatment based on your individual needs. The sentiment that certain cures would take something away from who you are as a person is not uncommon. Deaf people, people with autism, some artists with manageable mood disorders are just a few examples, and again for every example there is someone else who would give anything to have been born without their disability. Similarly, some trans people would jump at the chance to be cis, while others, like myself, feel like being trans is part of who they are, and that losing it wouldn’t be an improvement, just changing who they are to make other people comfortable.

This is a massive article because I am trying to condense so many complex issues into one piece. As it is I feel I will need follow-ups and clarifications, and on that note if you have some objection to what I have said please leave a comment, so I can clarify or educate myself as needed. Ultimately, my point is this; the aim of trans activism is to convince people to accept our rights to self-determine our identities and our bodies, without scorn or alienation from people who find us distasteful for bigoted reasons that have nothing to do with our own well-being. This is a primary goal of many disabled activists as well; for non-life threatening conditions that have treatment options, this is often the primary goal. So rather than alienate ourselves from them, why not ally ourselves with them?

Hi, I’m Lane William Brown. I have been diagnosed with gender dysphoria. I  am really okay with that.

Rereading the Screwtape Letters as an Atheist; Part Thirteen

For several chapters now, Lewis and I have danced around the topic of Christian sexual morality. He says one thing that makes me cringe and brace myself for the topic. Then, instead of diving into it, he uses it as a springboard into something else entirely, and I am both relieved and disappointed. Relieved, because right now sex is arguably the most divisive issue when it comes to the battle between conservative Christians and everyone else and putting off the dive into that shitshow was okay by me. Disappointed, because I do care about the topic, and I think it’s important to say my piece on it. Now, in Chapter Eighteen, he finally gives me to chance to talk about what I think of the controversy.

“The Enemy’s demand on humans takes the form of a dilemma; either complete abstinence or unmitigated monogamy.”

Now, let me make one thing clear. If you personally are A. a virgin, B. a monogamously married person, or C. someone who is holding off on sex until marriage, nothing I am about to say is directed against you. In my ideal world, I would fold this chapter in with the ones on prayer and communion, because they are just about Christians doing Christian things. In the world I actually live in, the right wingers have put considerable effort into directly imposing their sexual mores onto people who do not share those convictions, using not only bullying but also legislation to ensure people who try to live their own lives are not left in peace. They ban gay marriage and poly marriage and create legal barriers to getting insurance to cover birth control. They make it as difficult as possible for teenagers to get real medical information in their sex ed, in an attempt to control their sexuality, despite studies showing that doesn’t stop teenagers from having sex so much as make the sex they do have much more risky. And then they have the audacity to accuse us of forcing our agenda down their throats. I don’t have any problems with somebody making the personal decision to not have sex, or not have sex outside of particular circumstances, but in this case I will speak against the logic and mores Lewis lays out, not because I want to convince anybody to abandon them, but because I want people to see how these are not mores that need to be encoded into our laws and imposed on the private lives of citizens.

I have been to a number of churches and heard many pastors, reverends, youth leaders and ordinary Christian adults speak on why they believe sex outside of marriage is so bad, and there really isn’t that much variation in their reasoning. Mostly they are either of the belief that sex is inherently evil, and only in the context of marriage is it sanctioned as a necessary evil, or they believe that it is inherently good, but it is intended only to produce loving relationships within marriages. Lewis is part of the latter group, and he elaborates on that reasoning in a way that I don’t think many conservative Christians would disagree with.

“The whole philosophy of Hell rests on recognition of the axiom that one thing is not another thing, and, specially, that one self is not another self. My good is my good and your good is yours. What one gains another loses… Now the Enemy’s philosophy is nothing more nor less than one continued attempt to evade this very obvious truth. He aims at a contradiction. Things are to be many, yet somehow also one. The good of one self is to be the good of another. This impossibility He calls Love… His real motive for fixing on sex as the method of reproduction among humans is only too apparent from the use he has made of it. Sex might have been, from our point of view, quite innocent. It might have been merely one more mode in which a stronger self preyed upon a weaker – as it is, indeed, among spiders where the bride concludes her nuptials by eating her groom. But in the humans the Enemy has gratuitously associated affection between the parties with sexual desire. He has also made the offspring dependent on the parents and given the parents an impulse to support it – thus producing the Family, which is like the organism, only worse; for the members are more distinct, yet also united in a more conscious and responsible way. The whole thing, in fact, turns out to be simply one more device for dragging in Love.”

Lewis cares a lot about logic. He fundamentally believes that faith is not only religious, but also rational, and whenever possible he justifies his assertions with tight syllogistic reasoning. Despite this love of logic, if you look carefully at the above, he says nothing about marriage or monogamy or virginity. On the next page, he will skip right to the assertion that once two people have slept together they must be married monogamously forever, seemingly completely oblivious to the fact that he, with all his concern for logic, never gave any reason why that would be so.

If anything, he gives an excellent argument for promiscuity. He is literally saying that sex is physically associated with love, that God is love and that God desires us all to be lovingly united. The conclusion that we should all unite in a planet-wide orgy to bring the kingdom of heaven down to Earth follows more logically from his premises than the conclusion he actually reaches.

And, in fact, his line of reasoning is not too far from my reason for being very sex positive. While, depending on context, sex isn’t always loving, it is often an expression of love, in the sense of “I want to do a thing with you that makes us both feel happy and connected and good.” The fact that I had sex in the context of relationships that ended doesn’t negate the fact that it was an act of love. It’s entirely possible to have a short term relationship where you really care about each other, and then you find you aren’t compatible in the long run and the most loving thing you can do is walk away. While that relationship existed, it was loving and good, and the sex was part of that. If God is supposed to be all about love, why is that condemned? I have still never heard a good reason articulated.
There are times when mores found in religion are also encoded in our laws. We can generally agree that killing other people should be avoided. Thievery is also generally frowned upon. These things are legally prosecuted because they are actually objectively bad things for society. You can explain why they are bad without resorting to religion. When it comes to things that some religions condemn, but that can’t be logically proven to be good or bad without religion, a nation that takes separation of church and state seriously will not make the religion into law. They will allow people to decide to follow what their faith dictates if they so desire, but they will not give members of that religion the power to impose their beliefs on those who do not share them. That is why Lewis’ failure to logically articulate his belief matters today. If this is the best he can do, that has some obvious implications for what our laws are currently doing wrong.

Next Lewis has Screwtape go into marriages, happy and otherwise, and why being in love is a big fat trap of the devil. I have more to say on that, but because this is already a full blog post’s worth of thoughts, I feel forced to break this chapter up into two parts. It seems appropriate, really, given that Lewis himself could not reasonably connect point A with point B. I apologize for any grumpiness that may have come across in this post, but have I mentioned that I’d really like to get married in Virginia someday?

Rereading the Screwtape Letters as an Atheist; Part Twelve

“My Dear Wormwood,

“The contemptuous way in which you spoke of gluttony as a means of catching souls, in your last letter, only shows your ignorance. One of the great achievements of the last hundred years has been to deaden the human conscience on that subject, so that by now you will hardly find a sermon preached or a conscience troubled about it in the whole length and breadth of the Western World.”

Big shock ahead; Lewis and I disagree quite strongly about whether or not that’s a good thing. Before I go on, I feel I should share something about the Seven Deadly Sins. They are not in the Bible. There are some lists of vices in the Bible, but no list of seven that map exactly to the classical pride, envy, wrath, avarice, lust, sloth and gluttony. Those were a project of early medieval theologians, who liked creating lists of seven virtues and seven sins, for complex theological reasons that can nevertheless be boiled down to really liking the number seven. So when Lewis criticizes modern preachers for neglecting gluttony, he isn’t actually talking about them leaving out anything from the Bible, or even from key doctrinal documents like the Nicene Creed. He’s essentially grumbling about them giving up on a game old monks liked to play.

I will give him credit for one thing, however. He manages to write a whole chapter on gluttony without a single ounce of fat shaming. He pulls this off by ignoring overeating, and talking instead about what Screwtape calls the gluttony of delicacy. To illustrate this concept to Wormwood, he explains how the demon Glubose has used it to make the Patient’s mother what is technically known as a pain in the ass.

“She is a positive terror to hostesses and servants. She is always turning from what has been offered her to say with a demure little sigh and a smile, ‘Oh, please, please… all I want is a cup of tea, weak but not too weak, and the teeniest weeniest bit of really crisp toast.’ You see? Because what she wants is smaller and less costly than what has been set before her, she never recognises as gluttony her determination to get what she wants, however troblesome it may be to others.”

He goes on to give more examples. Rather than just eat some of her food at a restaurant and get a box for the rest, she makes exhausted waitresses take it back and throw away all but a quarter of it. She goes through a string of housekeepers and cooks because either she fires them for not making everything as perfectly bland as she wants it, or they quit out of frustration. Friends dread having her over. Obviously, she is being inconsiderate, and I agree that her behavior is bad. I’d even go further. She is being manipulative, requiring everyone around her to meet standards that would only be reasonable if you’re a mind reader, and then making them feel bad because they put too much butter on her toast, and somehow she still maintains the illusion that she is being reasonable and everyone else is being selfish. This state of self-deception persists because she only measures the reasonableness of her expectations by some vague cultural ideas about what is fancy and what isn’t.

Having conceded this point, I still think there’s a huge flaw in focusing on gluttony as her sin, because really the least of her problems is that her pickiness centers around food. Even being a picky eater would be all right, if she accommodated it in ways that were considerate to others. If she brought her own food or took a bite of what she was offered to be polite and then filled her stomach at home, that would be fine. This is the problem I have always had with gluttony; I’ve never heard it explained in a way that didn’t boil down to “greedy, but extra bad because you’re being greedy about food.”

What if she claimed she had a nice modest house, but has impossible standards of cleanliness for her housekeeper? Or if she made those vague “all-I-want” statements about what she wants for Christmas, and then when she opened her presents she sighs, says, “oh, it’s lovely dear, but, well, it’s just,” and then makes everybody feel bad because they didn’t guess the exact right shade of blue? Wouldn’t that be exactly as bad as the delicacy surrounding food that Screwtape describes? By the logic that gives gluttony its own word, you would need a word for being greedy and particular about the state of your house, your clothes, your car, your toys, your books, your garden, your living room media center, the photographs on your wall, and every other object you could ever possibly come into contact with.

I feel very strongly about talking about morality in terms of actions, causes, effects, how we feel and how we make other people feel, and other such intangibles. These are the things that make up the core of good and bad, kindness and meanness. Objects tend to be incidental, and focusing on them is just a distraction. One of my biggest regrets about the Christian environment I was raised in is the way I was trained to measure people’s goodness by the little cultural emblems they displayed, in addition to how they behaved. A perfectly nice person could have morality points deducted simply because they wore a leather jacket, or had too many piercings, or because their calendar had pictures of forties pin-up girls instead of lighthouses with Bible verses. I was judgmental, and I also felt a very idiotic sort of guilt whenever I privately admired someone’s purple hair.

Gluttony is a word that I rarely hear outside of reviews of the film Se7en. In all the churches I’ve been to and all the sermons I heard, I don’t think it was mentioned once, and I’m completely fine with that. Get to the point about selfishness and greed, and leave out all the crap about how being selfish and greedy over a particular thing is somehow extra bad. I wish I could say the same thing about lust, but as anybody who has paid any attention to modern culture knows, the exact opposite is true there. If you went to some churches, you would think the two qualifications for being saved are belief in Jesus and sexual purity. The tendency of lust to steal the spotlight even pops up in this chapter; the last half of this chapter is about how gluttony is useful in getting people fixated on satisfying their senses, which in turn can weaken their defenses of their chastity. However, most of what he says about chastity and lust boils down to saying he will go into it in more detail in his next letter, so I too will save that topic for next time.

Rereading the Screwtape Letters as an Atheist; Part Eleven

A bit of my own background; by the time I was eleven, the number of churches I had been to probably outnumbered the years I had existed. Moving from church to church frustrated me, because as a homeschooler my main social outlets were always at church and I was never good at making friends in a new place. Furthermore, I began to suspect that the church my father was looking for did not actually exist. Anywhere we went, he would start out praising it as “exactly like our old one, but with all the problems fixed!” and before long he would decide the music was too loud or the sermons were too repetitive or that he absolutely could not go somewhere where the pastor did not believe speaking in tongues was a thing. So, when I first read Chapter 16, I found the opening almost smugly vindicating.

“You mentioned casually in your last letter that the patient has continued to attend one church, and one only, since he was converted, and that he is not wholly pleased with it. May I ask what you are about? Why have I no report on the causes of fidelity to the local church? Do you realise that unless it is due to indifference it is a very bad thing? Surely you know that if a man can’t be cured of churchgoing, the next best thing is to send him all over the city looking for the church that ‘suits’ him until he becomes a taster or connoisseur of churches.”

This is one of those chapters that is a bit hard to review, because, as Lewis goes on for a while about how God uses churches, I’m sure his intent was to say something about churches and not communities in general. My intent in writing these reviews is not to talk about why I became an atheist or criticize religion in general, but to comb through a book that I loved as a religious homeschooled kid and see whether it still holds any meaning for me as an adult atheist. When he says things that are anti-atheist I’ll comment on them, but if he says things that are just pro-religious I’m not going to bother. Nowadays, I don’t have a church. On the other hand, I haven’t stopped talking with people about moral issues and the art of self-improvement. If anything, I’ve started talking about these things more; there’s a lot more to say when you aren’t starting the conversation with the assumption that all the answers are in a particular book. So I can either ignore this chapter, or ignore Lewis’ intent and apply what he says to moral and intellectual communities in general. Even though I feel like I’m stretching the applicability, even by my own standards, there’s a lot here that I think can apply, so stretch I will.

The whole theme of this chapter is finding ways to disrupt the Patient’s practice of church-going so that it is of little use to him, and as much good to the demons, as possible. Screwtape describes three things Wormwood can do to break down the Patient’s commitment to the church. First is keep  him moving, as described in the opening, second is send him somewhere with a poor pastor, and third is get him worked up over divisions between the churches that are trivial. It’s easy to see Screwtape’s reasoning in all of these, but harder to figure out how to avoid his traps. How do you leave a poorly lead church if you also believe that it’s important to be loyal to your community, or cultivate feelings of loyalty to a community without caring somewhat about the little things that separate it from other ones? Not to mention that telling the difference between trivial and doctrinal issues isn’t as easy as he makes it out to be. I was always taught that such and such a practice was profoundly symbolic of significant doctrine X or that we follow this tradition because it’s a way of reminding us of important thing Y.

But just because it’s hard to negotiate this advice, that doesn’t mean the points aren’t good. Much of life is about finding a good balance between good ideas that sound contradictory. There is a middle ground between insisting on impossible perfection and being unable to recognize that the bad of a particular environment outweighs the good. There are ways to care about your own symbols while recognizing that others can use different symbols to reach equally noble ends.

Screwtape believes the worst way for a person to attend church is with an attitude that is “critical in the sense of rejecting what is false or unhelpful, but which is wholly uncritical in the sense that it does not appraise – does not waste time thinking about what it rejects – but lays itself open in uncommenting, humble receptivity to any nourishment.” I like the beginning of that statement, and I like the end, but I have to pick at the middle for a little bit. How do you reject what is false without thinking about what is being rejected? I suppose what he may be trying to say is that you don’t dwell on what you have rejected beyond the amount of thought needed to decide it was worth rejecting. Even if I believed that was possible, I’m not sure it would be a good practice. I like going back and thinking about the parts of a particular person’s message or ideology that I disagree with. For one thing, it can be useful to notice trends of bad advice in a particular advice giver. It can help me recognize whether I am dealing with a human being who will occasionally say things I disagree with, or someone with a serious flaw in how they approach a particular issue. For another, if I never revisit ideas I have rejected, I never give myself the opportunity to reconsider whether I was right to reject them in the first place.

Here’s where I agree, though; I think he’s trying to make the point that when you set yourself up as a judge, you take from yourself the ability to be a scholar. A judge is stuck between good and bad, guilty and innocent, winner and various degrees of loser, but a scholar gets to investigate and pick the good out from a message, no matter the flaws of the messenger, and use the good for their own edification. That, I think, is a point worth remembering.

Screwtape’s next suggestion for corrupting the Patient’s church-going habits (stick him with bad churches) comes with two specific recommendations; the church of Fr. Spike or an unnamed pastor. Fr. Spike is easily inflamed and his messages, wildly contradictory, tend to come from a place of hatred of what is different rather than love of what is good. The pastor is almost painfully lukewarm and limits himself to a handful of reworded sermons calculated more to avoid offending anybody than to actually teach anything. These two types of bad teachers can be found anywhere. One is bad because they encourage you to use the ideals they are preaching in harmful, destructive ways. The other is bad because, while their message is all right, it is limited. Listen to them for too long and you stop learning anything. If you never risk saying something wrong or offensive, you will never challenge anyone to grow. Putting the first and second points together, what I take away is this; don’t force your teacher to be perfect before you accept their teachings, but it’s another thing entirely to move away from a teacher who no longer has anything to teach you, or whose influence has become toxic.

His third point is to some degree a repetition of what was said earlier about factionism. In that chapter, he talked about dividing people broadly, into radicals of one sort or another who can’t stand to speak to each other. Here he talks about something even more common and insidious; the attacks between people who belong to the same general group, but have some little habits or rituals that separate them. He talks about high and low churches, in other words the more orthodox and traditional vs more casual worship practices. In my life, there’s the vegans vs. the vegetarians, or people who get really hung up over whether you say you’re “bisexual” or “pansexual.” The antidote Screwtape fears Christians discovering is “what that pestilent fellow Paul used to teach about food and other unessentials – that the human without scruples should always give in to the human with scruples. You would expect to find the ‘low’ churchman genuflecting and crossing himself lest the weak conscience of his ‘high’ brother should be moved to irreverence, and the ‘high’ one refraining from these exercises lest he should betray his ‘low’ brother into idolatry.”

I think that goes a bit far. There’s something very paternalistic and demeaning in the attitude he describes there. I’d be pissed off if, for example, people who are normally carnivorous started only ordering vegetarian dishes around me because they don’t want me to lose my resolve from all the yummy bacon smells. However, if I tone down the advice a little bit, I end up with the vegetarians bringing hummus to the potluck to maximize options for their vegan friends, while the vegans bring a make-your-own salad with everything from sliced ham to cheese to walnuts as protein, and the carnivores pick up some black bean patties to grill along with the hamburgers. I end up with everyone using each other’s preferred identifiers and pronouns without a lot of grumbling over pan vs. bi or singular they vs. zie. I end up with a Muslim woman complimenting her friend’s miniskirt while her friend admires the print on her hijab, because they both want each other to feel pretty and comfortable instead of judged.

I like that world. I like it a lot.

Rereading the Screwtape Letters as an Atheist; Part Ten

Chapter Fifteen continues Chapter Fourteen’s return to advice that I think rocks, regardless of what religious affiliation you belong to. It gets away from the usual concepts of virtues and vices, and instead as it muses on the passage of time and the mortal perspective on it.

“The humans live in time but our Enemy destines them to eternity. He therefore, I believe, wants them to attend chiefly to two things, to eternity itself, and to that point of time which they call the Present. For the Present is the point at which time touches eternity. Of the present moment, and of it only, humans have an experience analogous to the experience which our Enemy has of reality as a whole; in it alone freedom and actuality are offered them.”

The demons, by contrast, want humans to dwell on either the past or the future. The past can be useful, as it gets people away from the present, but it also has a reality to it that demons distrust. People who dwell on the past are dwelling on things that really happened. Whether the future itself is a thing that really exists, but has yet to be experienced, or whether it’s unreal until it becomes the present, from a human perspective every thought we can have about the future is speculative and imaginary. Screwtape finds this incredibly useful.

“We want a man hag-ridden by the Future – haunted by visions of an imminent heaven or hell upon earth- ready to break the Enemy’s commands in the Present if by so doing we can make him think he can attain the one or avert the other – dependent for his faith on the success or failure of schemes whose end he will not live to see. We want a whole race perpetually in pursuit of the rainbow’s end, never honest, nor kind, nor happy now but always using as mere fuel wherewith to heap the altar of the Future every real gift which is offered them in the Present.”

In short, Lewis is giving the advice so often given by modern pop psychologists and good living gurus; live in the present and enjoy the moment. It is good advice, as far as it goes, though it is also a bit cliched and impractical to really follow. One of the nice things about this chapter is that it also goes a little deeper into the complexities of following that advice. For one thing, he acknowledges the need to think about the future sometimes.

“To be sure, the Enemy wants men to think of the future too – just so much as is necessary for now planning the acts of justice or charity which will probably be their duty tomorrow. The duty of planning the morrow’s work is today’s duty; though its material is borrowed from the Future, the duty, like all duties, is in the Present.”

For another, he deconstructs the vague nature of the words “living in the present” themselves. Like most platitudes, the phrase might have a correct and healthy interpretation, but it sacrifices clarity for quotability and might be interpreted in ways that do as much harm as good.

“It may describe a process which is really just as much concerned with the Future as anxiety itself. Your man may be untroubled about the Future, not because he is concerned with the Present, but because he has persuaded himself that the Future is going to be agreeable. As long as that is the real course of his tranquillity, his tranquillity will do us good, because it is only piling up more disappointment, and therefore more impatience, for him when his false hopes are dashed.”

I do often hear “live in the present” stated in a way that encourages complacency. It is often paired with ideas about leaving the future to itself, which is advice that is hard to take seriously when our action and inaction really does affect the future. Furthermore, it often comes paired with images of smiling people in pretty dresses looking out at the beach or some such thing, communicating the idea that living in the present always means being happy in the present. Sometimes the present is troubled and unhappy. Sometimes the person who is experiencing the present has depression or anxiety disorders. Being told to be happy now is not helpful when you are sad now. It’s not happiness or sadness in the present that Screwtape cares about, but use or neglect of what the Patient has in the moment. Fear and complacency are both potential allies, but if neither anxiety nor comfort are obstacles to the Patient doing today’s work or enjoying today’s pleasures, they are losing the battle.

This chapter is one of the ones that has stuck with me over the years. Excessive focus on the future seems to be genetic in my case. Ask any of my siblings about how our father would open up a map and make us all look at the exact neighborhood where his mansion would be located when he published his book and it became a bestseller. The presentation usually came with a pamphlet of which boat he was going to get. I laugh at it, but I also have been known to, for example, extrapolate the number and species of pets I will have when crush X decides to marry me. I used to either let myself get sucked into these fantasies, or try to stamp them out, both of which were wastes of time. What has proved effective is recognizing these fantasies as fantasies. When I remind myself that they are distant dreams, and liable to change, their power to drag me out of the present evaporates. That’s a little bit of a terrifying thing to do, because the truth is, the fantasies about the present insulate me against the fear that present me, the one who really has to work for future me’s dreams, is not up to the challenge. I’m afraid of taking the steps that could lead me to success, because in taking them I could prove that I’m a failure.

Still, as I work to do things that make me happy now, when I set short-term goals and work to really accomplish them, I find my life improves, even when my plans fall through. However vividly I can dreams, eventually I am going to be jerked out of the daydream into my real life. Priority number one is to make sure that real life is a decent place to land.

I think I’m going to go enjoy the present moment known as “breakfast” now.

Rereading Screwtape Letters as an Atheist; Part Nine

In many of the early chapters, I found advice that, with a little tweaking, I found insightful and still applicable to my life, and that I think would be good advice regardless of anyone’s religious affiliations. As the book progressed, I found it drifting more frequently into either advice that was harder to apply to the life of any non-Christian, and occasionally dipping its toes into the pool of the outright bad advice. Now, in Chapter 14, the book returns to ideas I can get behind with little to no amendment.

In the last several chapters, the Patient nearly fell but instead reaffirmed his faith, and Screwtape is concerned that this reconversion is entirely too humble. It is not focused on any grandiose promises of future perfection, but marked by an attitude of taking each day as they come, and quiet prayers to deal with each day’s temptation as they come, as well as for forgiveness when he inevitably screws up. This is incredibly discouraging to Screwtape.

Humility is a concept that I struggled with a lot as a child. The dangers of pride were often impressed on me, and I very much wanted to be humble. When I was a kid, I thought pride was thinking good things about yourself, and humility, as the opposite of pride, meant thinking bad things about yourself, so as a person who aspired to be good I endeavored to think as many bad things of myself as possible. This is, apparently, all part of Screwtape’s evil plan to corrupt our attempts at humility. “Let him think of it not as self-forgetfulness but as a kind of opinion, namely a low opinion, of his own talents and character… By this method thousands of humans have been brought to think humility means pretty women trying to believe they are ugly and clever men trying to believe they are fools. And since what they are trying to believe may be, in some cases, manifest nonsense, they cannot succeed in believing it and we have the chance of keeping their minds endlessly revolving on themselves in an effort to achieve the impossible.”

Really, I could almost do this whole entry as quotes. I still don’t think I’ve heard a better description of real humility than the following; “The Enemy wants to bring the man to a state of mind in which he could design the best cathedral in the world, and know it to be the best, and rejoice in the fact, without being any more (or less) or otherwise glad at having done it than he would be if it had been done by another. The Enemy wants him, in the end, to be so free from any bias in his own favour that he can rejoice in his own talents as frankly and gratefully as in his neighbour’s talents – or in a sunrise, an elephant, or a waterfall. He wants each man, in the end, to be able to recognise all creatures (even himself) as glorious and excellent things.”

Self-hatred is not humble. Objectivity is humble. Telling somebody their hair looks nice is humble. Humilities is reminding yourself that life is not a competition and you don’t need other people to suck for you to be awesome. In the secular world, I’ve encountered another version of this idea, though it is very different in packaging. It’s that idea that you are fantastic, and you should ignore those people who act proud and put you down, because what’s really going on is that they are insecure. If they were really secure, they would be able to appreciate you for who you are without trying to elevate themselves above you. People who can act humble are the ones who are confident enough to know how great they are.

I wonder if this approach to humility is more effective in really inspiring humility than warning people of the dangers to their souls if they are prideful. A long time ago my sister showed me this article about prescriptive and descriptive norms. Studies have shown that people respond better to “this is what people do” than to “this is what you should do because otherwise you’re a bad person,” particularly when it’s implied that many people do the wrong thing. Christian morality often comes salted with a good deal of original sin and the idea that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God and are in need of his grace. In other words, being prideful and vain and petty and terrible is a normal thing to do, and even if you do your best to be good you don’t get full credit because you’re a human and people suck. The secular message I described above can still end up discouraging good behavior, if it’s phrased as “most people put down other people because they are insecure,” but it’s easily expressed as “the world is full of people who are confident, and because they are confident they will build you up instead of put you down.” That would have the effect of both explaining what the good behavior looks like, and subliminally encouraging them to copy it.

I’m really curious to know whether other people have observed the same distinction. How do people talk about morality in religious vs secular contexts? Which sort of advice is easier to follow?