28 October 2006

Norms and the 'we'

Thanks to all for the great discussion in the comments over the NJ decision. Good stuff!

I just wanted to follow-up briefly to say that in my little ditty on heteronormativity I was not able to make a few prepatory distinctions that, as Tmcd's comments indicate, are crucial.

Norms ≠ Average

I'm talking about normativity as in Foucaultian normalisation, not just 'what most people happen to do/think/feel/believe'. Heterosexuality is certainly what 'most people are/do', but what interests me is the way in which it is normative: it is that which is presumed and expected, and that which, when deviated from, produces severe consequences for the deviators.

Tmcd would say that these consequences are all for the best, as they encourage a form of family that is a pretty damn good one for raising children. I'm also not opposd to all norms, or even all normativity. So, yep, the norm that kids should be educated I'm all for. And a whole bunch of others as well.

Finally, and also quickly, I think, and I say this with all due respect to Tmcd whose arguments and perspective I value deeply, that the 'rampant promiscuity' stuff is just a gargantuan load of shit. Monagomy has nothing to do with queerness. First off, let me just say, monogamy is difficult, but that's NOT because of the primal nature of men who want to fuck everything that moves. It's hard because of societal norms that make it so challenging and frustrating at times for two people to go through life together as a 'we'. And monogamy is therefore much harder for people whose relationships mark them as queer with respect to the dominant norm of heterosexuality (this is the only link between being gay and so-called 'promiscuity').

The deep irony about my irreconcilable differences with Tmcd over the issue of gay marriage, is that I think we are both highly committed to encouraging the possibility of two people making their way in the world together. And that's why the references to 'rampant promiscuity' - which it's hard not to associate with a certain demonisation of the so-called 'gay lifestyle' that has itself been rampant in popular discourse for 20+ years now - is so problematic.

Right now, two of my best long-term straight friends are completing their divorces. A large number of the straight people I know are committed to a vision of individual independentness that I think gets in they way of any chance for a 'we'. In contrast, two regular readers of this blog are each a part of a 'we' that makes them much more than they might ever be as an 'I', and they achieve this despite the fact that the system of law and norms will not recognize their relationship as equal to that of two people who get drunk in Vegas. There are also two other sets of readers out there that may not be gay, but I'd certainly call them 'queer' and they have two of the srongest relationships I've witnessed in my life - oh, and one of those pairs raised me. This is why I will never accept that we should settle for a world in which we 'live with' heteronormativity.


tenaciousmcd said...

Sam, this is an important debate, so I have an obligation to be clearer than I probably was. I know the phrase "rampant promiscuity" is a lightning rod, and I probably shouldn't have even dropped it, but looking back at my comments, I don't think I directly connected it to gay behavior, just to the notion that norms are necessary when dealing with "sexual" behavior (gay OR straight).

My argument was this: norms are inescapable and have significant social benefits. This is true in education, politics, and sexuality. But there are always negatives, and some norms are oppressive, hypocritcal, and counterproductive; they often entail consequences for deviance that are unjust and inhumane. As you know, I consider the demonization of gays to fall into this latter category. What we ought to do--as citizens, as political theorists, as human beings--is to work toward the most humane and reasonable set of norms we can achieve, rather than attacking normativity per se. Insofar as the gay rights movement embraces monogamous ideals (e.g., gay marriage, although not ONLY gay marriage), it seems to me that it acts wisely. Rather than denouncing normativity (or trying to deny the obvious non-moral normativity of heterosexuality), it is better to demand gay inclusion within "monogamonormativity" or "marritalnormiativity." Ok, so those are crappy slogans, but you get the point.

Now, I'll light the match. The gay rights movement has not always acted responsibly in this regard. The gay "liberation" politics of the 1970s, which often championed a kind of sexual anarchy, was deeply confused. I have trouble taking Foucault very seriously on these matters becasue, well, that was his agenda too. Of course, much of that was inevitable: the result of too many years trapped in a closet. I know that these remarks are bad form since I'm a member of every available oppressor class--except GOP--so I do not speak from an experienced or privileged position. (Incidentally, I make the same arguments about radical feminism and Afrocentrism.) But I'm also a gay-friendly, bourgeois Democrat, someone who wants to find ways to bridge the cultural and political (though not sexual!) divides between gay and straight. So take my remarks as those of a sympathetic outsider who's looking for ways to include and trying to suggest that certain strategies have been (and will be) counterproductive for that end.

dan said...

Hi TMcD...Allow me to enter this discussion although I've not met you before.

Firstly, I don't think that illuminating the way normativity works is "attacking normativity."

Beyond that, perhaps you are correct to separate the norm of monogamy from heteronormativity -- let's say that it is a norm unto itself that is not heterosexist. I'm not sure that that is accurate, but I accept it for now. Two points follow: rejecting monogamy is not embracing promiscuity, even in practice. And sexual anarchy, or promiscuity, whatever its sexuality, is not "deeply confused" -- it is, in fact, emotionally, physically, and politically liberating; and it can be meaningfully disruptive to forms of oppression, and in a very productive way. I think the same is true concerning radical separatist feminism and Afrocentrism. I say this, and believe it, and yet I cannot immediately provide a theory of monogamy that satisfies one who is not able to speak from an "experienced position" (but privileged? You use the term loosely!). Maybe Foucault does -- I don't know if I know! -- and if so, maybe you and I would differ on how seriously we take him on this.

Yes, we need our gay-friendly allies! But, gay or not, what are the conditions? Acceptable, agreed-upon norms aren't the only way in which we can structure an inclusive politics. A frustratingly disruptive analysis of how normativity functions is a very good step in the direction of thinking through other possibilities of sexual politics.

Number Three said...

I think I've been in this discussion before . . . in Lincoln, Nebraska, of all places. I would just ask TMcD how far his "always act responsibly" rule goes. As old friends, I know that TMcD doesn't have a radical bone in his body, but doesn't he have to concede that some radical positions have worked to advance social progress, even if the radical actors in question have failed to "always act responsibly"?

Almost everything we take for granted in the world today was once a "radical" innovation, in one sense or another. Even marriage defined by love instead of property rights. Or the freedom for ordinary folks to question social norms.

I know that some people have not always acted responsibly in questioning social norms. I would hope that I am one of them.

tenaciousmcd said...

Rather under the weather today, so this may or may not be coherent.

In US politics, at least, "radicalism" is almost always counterproductive. Now, we can mean different things by radicalism. It can mean (a) the philosophical willingness to engage in systematic critique of widely agreed upon premises, (b) the broad political tendency to take strong (often extreme or absolutist) stands on issues, or (c) a very specific brand of left-wing ideological politics that focuses on overturning or subverting various hierarchies of oppression: bourgeoisie vs. proletariat (Marx), white vs. black (Carmichael, X), man vs. woman (MacKinnon), or hetero vs. queer (Foucault). These three categories are not mutually exclusive, and there are surely other ways to define the term, but hopefully this captures the major uses.

I'll focus on (c) since I think that's mostly what we're talking about here. Really, really bad politics. Just look at the 1960s. The more radicalized the civil rights and anti-Vietnam movements became, the less effective they were. King was NOT a "radical" in this sense--he was a "liberal" who had an unfortunate tendency to flatter white racist stereotypes by making arguments to black audiences saying they ought to bathe more and learn proper English. Although he took a confrontational approach to southern whites, he stressed an integrative ideal, one that would take place heavily upon white terms and using white allies. By contrast, Stokely Carmichael, Malcolm X, Huey Newton, et. al., took a more radical approach, emphasizing black "power" and the "liberation" from white hierarchies. And what was the result of the movement going away from MLK and toward the radicals? A Nixon victory in 1968 and landslide in 1972, the collapse of the New Deal consensus, and the rise of the Southern GOP, promising "law and order." We're still living with those consequences.

Same thing on the other hierarchies. Gloria Steinem's "a woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle" is one of the dumbest lines in the modern history of political ideas. The more radical feminists became in the 1970s, the less that both middle- and working-class women could identify with the cause. And is it any accident that the 1970s gave birth to BOTH sexual liberation politics (for gays, women, etc.) and also the right-wing religious fundamentalisms that swept Iran, the US, and other countries? The fundies, whether Xian, Muslim, or Jewish were largely driven by what they saw as the threat to "traditional" conceptions of masculinity. I know that those notions are, indeed, questionable and open to deconstructive critique. But I think we know which group (fundies vs. radicals) has had the greater practical impact on US politics.

#3 knows me well: I don't have many radical impulses. But I think that's also a resonable position, not just a tempermental one.

Dan (& Sam), when I hear a "critique of heteronormativity," I immediately think, "Oh Lord, save us from the crazy lefties!" And that's me--a sympathetic ally to gay rights who despises the fundies with every fiber of my being. I also happen to know that Sam is anything but a crazy lefty, and I assume you're not one either. This strikes me as one of those discourses that becomes way too blinkered by its inability to think about how such a critique will and must be perceived by those outside the gay community.

The great American reformers (Jackson, Lincoln, TR, Wilson, FDR, MLK, etc.) stood squarely within the liberal mainstream. If you want successful "radicals" (Stanton, WJ Bryan, Wendell Phillips) you'll generally find that they were most successful when working within the framework of mainstream politics and not against it.

Number Three said...

Oh, lordy. Where to start?

First of all, with causation. There's this: "[What happened when the movement turned] from MLK and toward the radicals? A Nixon victory in 1968 and landslide in 1972, the collapse of the New Deal consensus, and the rise of the Southern GOP, promising "law and order." We're still living with those consequences." Nixon won in 1968 for a number of reasons, including the radicalism of the anti-war movement (the demonstrations at the Democratoc convention), maybe black separatists, at the margin. But that election was about dissatisfaction with the Vietnam war, civil rights of the kind we both support, and the Great Society. (And Nixon barely won, beating the handpicked v.p. of a completely discredited president.) I don't think that the "acid, amnesty, and abortion" landslide of 1972 can be attributed to Eldridge Cleaver, either. Note here that it's not the "acid, amnesty, Afros, and abortion" election. LBJ said, when he signed the Voting Rights Act, that he had lost the South for the Dems for a generation. And that was only "radical" if you're a white supremacist, which neither of us is. So don't use too broad a brush.

And this: "And is it any accident that the 1970s gave birth to BOTH sexual liberation politics (for gays, women, etc.) and also the right-wing religious fundamentalisms that swept Iran, the US, and other countries?" Um, this isn't a coincidence? The Iranian revolution and bra burners have a common source? Was there something in the air? And next you'll be claiming that Iranian fundamentalism is Islamic fascism, and that feminism is, too . . . which brings us to "feminazis"? Is that where this goes?

Second, with getting the point. "Gloria Steinem's "a woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle" is one of the dumbest lines in the modern history of political ideas." I don't know why this is dumb. Isn't the point that women can find personal fulfillment even if they are independent? That it's possible for women to have a meaningful life without a man (and the accompanying traditional sex roles) providing that meaning? Is that dumb? Steinem used hyperbole, to be sure. A traditional literary technique. (Let me make a "modest proposal" . . . .) But would TMcD agree that "a man is not complete without a wife"? Because that seems like the corollary.

I'm also not sure that radicalism hasn't won a few battles, at least in the long run. Certainly our current rulers are radicals, of a different stripe than any of us, to be sure, and they've succeeded in destroying almost every major U.S. institution. (Hyperbole, people. But barely hyperbolic. If that's possible.)

But really, haven't the radicals of the 1970s that you despise really won? I mean, it's perfectly "normal" today for a woman in her thirties to make decisions about her personal life that prioritize career over reproduction--an idea that Steinem advanced. And that's good. Black is beautiful, and we actually think about the horrible treatment of Native Americans in U.S. history. Gays and lesbians have more social acceptance today than one would have thought possible, even 15 years ago. And that's great, as far as it goes, but it should go further.

These radical ideas may not have won any elections, but, as my buddy Bill O'Reilly would say, there is a culture war going on here, people. And the radicals are on the march, maybe even achieving some social reforms that have changed the mainstream.