Monday, December 21, 2015

What is this image selling?

It wouldn't do to have a lingerie ad at the top of the blog over Christmas, so let's consider this image.

I'm guessing that's New York City and that it was taken by a highly skilled photographer, probably a professional. Someone, somewhere, probably owns the rights to this. It showed up in my Facebook feed courtesy of a group called Do Something. Perhaps it is their photo. More than 29 thousand people had liked it by the time it showed up in my feed.

It's nicely composed. Most of us, I know I would, would try to compose the picture so as not to have the reflection of the city and the passing person in the shot. The genius of this shot is that this person is in and that they are anonymous. You can tell nothing about them.

But what is it selling? Normally, I'd be cynical. As near as I can tell, Do Something are the business of helping people to feel morally superior without doing much to earn it. But there are hidden depths here.

Let's start with the Gospel.
Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink. And when was it that we saw a stranger and welcomed you, or naked an gave you clothing. And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you? Matthew 25: 37-39)
As one of my favourite Dominicans likes to remind us, this teaching precludes all instrumentality. The people whom the King welcomes into his kingdom are just as surprised to be included as the people whom he will later reject are surprised to learn that they rejected him. That means that you can't know who to befriend if you want to befriend Jesus. It may seem perfectly obvious that the starving kid in Africa is  the person you should comfort but perhaps it's actually comfortably well-off co-worker you don't much like who is having a bad day for reasons you believe are entirely his fault. That means, as the Gospel so often reminds us, that you can't earn your way into heaven.

So what can you do?

I'd start by going back to that photo and quibbling about the word. Character is not a way of acting but a way of being. How you treat those who can do nothing for you is a sign of character; it is a marker for character. But it is not character. Character is something you are. Or, to be more honest, it is something I am trying to become.

You can't treat others well in order to be a become a better person. If you try that, you will be used, exploited and abandoned. No, to acquire character, you have to believe that you could be something better. And what that something is was revealed in its fullest character beginning some 2019 and years ago when a child was born.

Saturday, December 12, 2015

What is this image selling?

Well, lingerie obviously but it is rather interesting that it uses being the object of voyeurism as the hook. This from a Chantelle page that you can see here. Chantelle make very good lingerie (much better than anything you'll find at Victoria's Secret) at the price point that you should expect to go with very good.

The line of lingerie being pushed here is called Idole and, because it's black, this particular set is called Idole Noir. It's probably just an accident that "Noir' conjures up film noir but this image and the others in the series all fit that accidental conjunction terribly well. The girl herself is very white. Her lips are the only thing in the photograph that are neither black nor white. I can make it into a black and white image and it won't look jarringly different

I put it to you that the single most significant thing about that photo, and this is surprising, given that it is a lingerie ad, is that the most erotic thing in it is the woman's face. Her body is surprisingly normal with healthy body fact both on her stomach and on her face. But notice that neither her pubic hair not her nipples are showing and she is wearing sheer lace! In real life, both would show quite prominently through this underwear. The entire erotic interest is her face and what makes you interested in her, whether you are a man or a woman looking at her, is what this woman is feeling.

We cannot make any generalizations based on this. Chantelle obviously are very good at delivering what some women want. "Some" meaning enough for them to make a whole lot of money in a very competitive field. If we can draw one conclusion from ads like this with absolute confidence and that is that there are a lot of women who want feel the feeling the facial expression on the woman in the picture corresponds to. And I don't have to explain what that feeling is to you do I?

I'll tell you why I think neither pubic hair nor nipples ever show through sheer lingerie in ads. It's because the thing a woman wants to know about is not what it feels like to be seen in her underwear but what it feels like to be wearing this underwear under her clothing. It's not the creep who peers through windows that interests her but the men who look at her when she is fully clothed in public spaces. That is why the erotic interest is directed at her face. The value of the lingerie is not what it will look like when she is partly clothed but in what it can make her feel when she is fully clothed.

As I say, not all women want this. I suspect that most women don't. But enough do to make lingerie a multi-billion dollar industry and this ad is for those women.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Things to say "no" to: other people's feelings

I was discussing passive-aggressive behaviour yesterday and said that the way out of it was to be bluntly aggressive and say "no" more often. One of the big reasons we end up saying "yes" to things we don't want to do is because we worry about the effect it would have on other people's feelings if we refused.

Repeat after me: "I don't care about your feelings."

That may sound like the sort of thing a real jerk would say. It isn't. In any case, it rarely or never needs to be said out loud. It's useful to say to yourself though as it will help you keep focused on what you should be focused on. And that is actual behaviour. It's either acceptable or it isn't. Other people's feelings, on the other hand, are their responsibility alone.

They tell you about their feelings for a number of bad reasons. They tell you because the advice columns tell them not to criticize others' actions but instead tell people how they feel about them. "When you do X it mades me feel ... ." Why is that wrong? It's wrong for two reasons. It's wrong because talking about your feelings will lead others to take you less seriously. If they agree to stop doing X because of your feelings they will begin to see you as a tender little flower who needs to be protected. It's also wrong because there is no necessary connection between a particular feeling and the actions it is responding to. Or, to put it another way, "I feel threatened" does not mean "you threatened me". I might simply be over-reacting.

Monday, December 7, 2015

Passive aggression

I know, it's supposed to be "passive-aggressive" and not "passive aggression".

But here's the thing: the easiest person in the world to lie to is yourself. That's counter-intuitive because you know you're lying when you lie to yourself so you should be able to catch it. You don't catch it, however, because you are co-operating with the liar. The fact that you and the liar are the same person makes that co-operation ridiculously easy.

That is why we all mess up on passive-aggressive even though we know what it means.

It doesn't help that words tend to have different volumes. "Passive" is a rather passive word that meekly fades into the background and "aggressive" makes a lot of noise. When we use the expression, we hear the following:
And all we can we think about is the aggression. I think we can get a better grasp on it if we think of passive as modifying the aggression.

The mistake is to think that passive-aggressive means to put up with a lot of nonsense until you can't stand it anymore and then you lash out irrationally. That's not actually what it means. Of course, that is something that we all do. And that kind of explosion is always preceded by genuinely passive-aggressive behaviour. But genuine passive-aggressive behaviour usually doesn't produce that sort of explosion. It's analogous to the relationship between reckless driving and accidents—you could drive recklessly for years without having an accident.

And for most of us, it certainly is for me, the real problem is not the explosions that rarely but occasionally happen but the stuff we do all the time without any serious consequences.

If you think of "passive" as modifying "aggression" you get a better image. Now, that passive is shrinking that aggression rather than meekly disappearing in front of it. For that is what passive-aggressive behaviour really is. It's the habit—all virtues and vices are ingrained habits—of saying "yes" when you really mean "no". And then you start failing. You forget to do stuff, you do it poorly, you procrastinate. None of this seems aggressive because it's all so passive.

And the solution, perverse as this will seem, is to stop being passively aggressive and become bluntly aggressive. The solution to being passive-aggressive is to start saying "no" much more often.

More to come ...

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Does that brain study really prove what we think it proves? Or, the long arm of Descartes strikes again?

You may have read that having a male brain will earn you more money. Or maybe that female brains are better at multitasking. But there is no such thing as a female or male brain, according to the first search for sex differences across the entire human brain. It reveals that most people have a mix of male and female brain features. And it also supports the idea that gender is non-binary, and that gender classifications in many situations are meaningless.
First thing to consider is that this study may or may not be right. We won't know for certain until a whole lot of checking and challenging is done and that will take, at a minimum, the better part of a decade.

But, just for the purposes of argument, let's take it as read that the study is right. That there are no significant differences between male brains and female brains. What would that prove? And, What wouldn't it prove?

Just this morning, while walking my Schnauzer, I saw a game of Quidditch. It's a pretty silly game played by pretty silly people but, that's okay, because playing games is largely about being silly. Quidditch is kind of like the game in the Harry Potter books except that there is no magic involved, which, come to think of it, means that it's completely unlike the game in the books. But it is a game and an athletic game at that.

It was being played by both men and women and the men were, with one exception, how to put this kindly, not very athletic. All except the one were pathetic, unfit slobs to be honest. The women were in better shape and I would guess that they all go to exercise classes and eat healthy food. I'm reasonably confident in this judgment as the women were wearing skin tight clothing that made it rather easy to assess their bodies. They also ran quickly and smoothly without fatiguing. They were pretty fit. For women. And there's the rub for the men completely dominated the game. And nobody playing seemed surprised or dismayed that this was the case.

What has this to do with brains? Well, did you notice how the above study has a strong rationalist bias embedded in it? The whole argument is framed in a way that the only possible way to define "gender" is in terms of brains. You couldn't say it assumes that our brains do or do not define gender because that wouldn't be nearly strong enough to define the way the study has been framed. The question is set forward in terms that no other conclusion is possible. It does the equivalent of asking, "When did you stop beating your wife?"

But let's try another question: If the brain is not determining gender, could something else be doing the work? Something like, here's a crazy idea, your body maybe? Want to know if you're a man or a woman? Lift the waistband of your pants or skirt and look down.

That runs against one idea of freedom. It was an idea my parents were very fond of. "You can be anything you want to be if you just set your mind to it." Or, "set your brain to it", if you're more physically minded (and this should strike us, there is something decidedly unphysical about wanting to speak in terms of "minds" or "brains" to begin with). But your brain may be irrelevant. You can take the same engine and put it in a car or a school bus and it won't make the car able to carry forty students and it won't make the school bus as fast as the car. You may think that gender is a social construct but you aren't going to make most girls as good at Quidditch as most boys will be.

If we accept the possibility that the same brain may end up functioning in very different ways then we might consider the possibility that it will be very different when we put it into a body with lots of muscle, that is flooded with testosterone and has a penis and testicles as compared to a body that has less muscle, a completely different hormone profile and a vagina and ovaries.

It occurs to just about everyone to wonder, at some point in our lives, what it would be like to inhabit another person's body. What would it be like to "be inside" a body with different sex organs. But notice the move you quietly made without acknowledging it simply by wondering about this "possibility" that is currently impossible and may never be possible. You have assumed that the "you" in this story is something other than your body. You're talking as if your identity was something like the driver of a car and that you could simply get out of one and into another.

The assumption here is that your mind, and not your brain, "mind" meaning the things you experience, believe and remember, is what makes you who you are. But there is no particular reason to conclude that. It might well be that putting your brain in another body would force you to change who you are completely by forcing you to experience, believe and remember completely differently than you now do.

If that's true, and I think it is, then the moral questions arising from gender differences are as simple as figuring out your sex—male or female— and then trying to be as good at being a man or as good at being a woman as you can be.

Come back with me to grade school a moment and let's ask a bunch of fifteen-year-old boys what it would be like to "be" inside a girl's body for a change. One of the boys will inevitably make a joke about how the first thing he would do would be to take his/her clothes off and check out a naked girl. One good thing about it, thinks the heterosexual male, is that you could spend all the time you wanted looking at and touching a girl body. And that may be one of the neat things about being a girl for some girls (have unlimited access to touch a boy's body is a bigger part of the thrill of being a boy than most boys would like to admit). But what if you don't like what you see? As a boy, what you see is a big part of what you like about girl's bodies and some bodies thrill you more than others and some not at all. And, while the average boy or man thinks it's pretty cool to touch breasts, it's different to touch yourself than it is to touch someone else. You're still going to want to touch other people and, well, that's going to take some working out isn't it. And, eventually, you're going to get around to thinking that it would be nice to have other people touch you and there are going to be a lot more boys stepping forward to offer than girls and you just may not find any of the few girls who do step forward appeal to you. And when you're finished working all that out, you might stop being a boy brain in a girl's body and just be a girl al the way through.

Or, you could make yourself miserable and unhappy for the rest of your life by fighting against it.