In choice, we are so oft beguiled

It’s interesting just how important categories are in our lives, isn’t it? I mean, let’s face it, often they’re just adjectives –subordinate to their nouns. Add-ons. And yet, they can frame context, colour perception, and even determine value. Some, like, say, texture or odour may be interesting but trivial; some –size, or cost, for example- may be more important although optional in a description. There are, however, categories that seem to thrust themselves upon an object and are deemed essential to its description, essential to placing it in some sort of usable context. To understanding its Gestalt. These often spring to mind as questions so quickly they are almost automatic. Gender is one such category, age, perhaps another. And depending, I suppose on the situation, the society, or even the category to which the listener belongs, there may be several others that are deemed necessary to frame the issue appropriately.

The automaticity of a category is critical, however. If the category is felt to be of such consuming importance that it needs to be established before any further consideration can be given to the object, then that object’s worth –or at least its ranking- is contingent. It is no longer being evaluated neutrally, objectively. It comes replete with those characteristics attendant upon its category –intended or not. Age, for example, wears certain qualities, incites certain expectations that might prejudice acceptance of its behaviour. Gender, too, is another category that seems to colour assumptions about behaviour. So, with the assignation of category, comes opinion and its accompanying attitude.

One might well argue about the importance of these categories, and perhaps even strategize ways of neutralizing their influence on reactions, or subsequent treatment. The problem is much more difficult if knowledge of the category is so necessary it is intuitively provided as part of what is necessary to know about, for example, a person.

I suspect that in my naïveté, I had assumed that foreknowledge of many of these categories was merely curiosity-driven. Politeness oriented. Important, perhaps, so that I wouldn’t be surprised -wouldn’t embarrass the person at our initial encounter. But I am a doctor, and maybe see the world from a different perspective. A piece in the BBC, however, made me realize just how problematic this automaticity had become. How instinctive. http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20130423-is-race-perception-automatic?ocid

The article dealt mainly with its effects on racism, and the difficulties of countering it if we accept, as some evolutionary psychologists seem to believe, that it is basically intuitive. Evolved for a reason. Wired-in. ‘[…] if perceiving race is automatic then it lays a foundation for racism, and appears to put a limit on efforts to educate people to be “colourblind”, or put aside prejudices in other ways.’ But, as Tom Stafford, the author of the BBC article puts it, ‘Often, scientific racists claim to base their views on some jumbled version of evolutionary psychology (scientific racism is racism dressed up as science, not racisms based on science […]). So it was a delightful surprise when researchers from one of the world centres for evolutionary psychology intervened in the debate on social categorisation, by conducting an experiment they claimed showed that labelling people by race was far less automatic and inevitable than all previous research seemed to show.

‘The research used something called a “memory confusion protocol” […] When participants’ memories are tested, the errors they make reveal something about how they judged the pictures of individuals. […] If a participant more often confuses a black-haired man with a blond-haired man, it suggests that the category of hair colour is less important than the category of gender (and similarly, if people rarely confuse a man for a woman, that also shows that gender is the stronger category). Using this protocol, the researchers tested the strength of categorisation by race, something all previous efforts had shown was automatic. The twist they added was to throw in another powerful psychological force – group membership. People had to remember individuals who wore either yellow or grey basketball shirts. […] Without the shirts, the pattern of errors were clear: participants automatically categorised the individuals by their race (in this case: African American or Euro American). But with the coloured shirts, this automatic categorisation didn’t happen: people’s errors revealed that team membership had become the dominant category, not the race of the players. […] The explanation, according to the researchers, is that race is only important when it might indicate coalitional information – that is, whose team you are on. In situations where race isn’t correlated with coalition, it ceases to be important.’

I don’t know… To me, this type of experiment seems so desperate to appear to be wearing a scientific mantle, that it comes across as contrived –kludged, if you’ll permit an equally non-scientific term. But I take their point. If there is some way of diffusing the automaticity of our categorizations –or at least deflecting them into more malleable descriptors –teams, in this case- perhaps they could be used as exemplars –wedges to mitigate otherwise uncomfortable feelings. Placeboes –to put the concept into more familiar language for me.

Stopgaps, to be sure, and not permanent solutions. But sometimes, we have to ease into things less obtrusively. Less confrontationally. A still-evolving example -at least here in Canada- might be gender bias in hockey. Most Canadians have grown up exposed to hockey, and might be reasonably assumed to have an opinion on the conduct of games, players, and even rules. And yet, until relatively recently, the assumption was that hockey players –good ones, at least- were male. For us older folks, it was automatic. No thought required; no need to ask about gender. But no longer is that the case. For a variety of reasons, there is still no parity, and yet it is changing –slowly, perhaps, but not conflictually. And so, despite any initial challenges, is likely to succeed.

Am I really conflating success in the changing mores of hockey with gender equality? Or basketball teams and how we view their members, with racial equality? Am I assuming that diminishing discrimination in some fields leads to wider societal effects? Yes, I suppose I am. A blotter doesn’t care about the kind, or the colour, of the ink it absorbs; it’s just what it does. What it is. And, in the end, isn’t that what we all are, however vehemently we may protest? However much we may resist the similarities that bind us in relationship for fear of losing our own identities?

But if we step back a little, we may come to appreciate that the correlation need not be like that of a blotter -need not involve a team, or a marriage… I am reminded of the advice from one of my favourite writers, the poet, Kahlil Gibran: Love one another, but make not a bond of love: let it rather be a moving sea between the shores of your souls.

It’s the way I prefer to see the world, anyway…

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Forked Tongues

“Suppose I were to tell you that I’m really disappointed in you,” she said, bending her head slightly and glaring at me over the tops of her glasses. The two of us were sitting in a little pub near her condo.

I have to say I don’t know Susan very well, but I’d seen her buying groceries in one of the local grocery stores that dot our little community and we began to talk about our various choices in vegetables. I have always confined myself to the more readily available frozen varieties –namely, the Big Three: peas, corn, and beans –with an occasional foray into carrots.

But Susan, it seemed, was into Fresh, and although I do wander into the produce section in summer, I have tended to avoid it in the off-seasons. “What do you do for salads?” she asked, when she saw me picking up a package of frozen broccoli which I only grabbed by mistake when she bumped into me in the aisle.

“Pardon me?” At first, I wasn’t sure if she was talking to me -it certainly wasn’t the salad bar.

Her eyes were mischievous, and pointed right at my face. There was no mistake. “Do you eat salads?” Her lips were smiling, but her eyes began burrowing into my cheeks… Or maybe I was blushing.

“I…”

“Because I’ve never seen you buying lettuce, or looking at the selections in the salad bar.”

It seemed a rather personal thing to say –something my mother might have done. I was forced to return her smile in self-defence and I couldn’t think of a clever reply. “Maybe I do that when you’re not around, Susan.” As soon as I’d said it, I regretted it –I didn’t want to hurt her feelings. She’d always been friendly to me, always said hello and smiled in passing. It’s a small community, after all.

And yet, come to think of it, she always seemed to be smiling when she saw me. But I know that’s a very arrogant thing to think. A very undeserved, and probably unfounded, observation. I suppose I am fair game to someone who is also fair game, though -also divorced… But I keep to myself; I’m a rather private person. I do not invite relationships, or start random conversations –I would not even know how. People like me are happy just glancing through the window at the passing crowd.

But Susan appeared determined to engage me in dialogue. “Maybe you don’t eat as many salads as you should…”

She seemed to leave the thought open, but I just shrugged. To tell the truth, I was a little embarrassed at the attention.

“I tell you what, G, since I’m going to make one anyway…”

She left it open again -an obvious invitation- but I just blushed and stared at my feet in confusion.

“Come over at six for salad and some wine.”

I had to think quickly. “That’s really sweet of you Susan, but I’m afraid I’ve already  thawed some meat for my dinner, and…”

It was her turn to look embarrassed. “I’m sorry, G, I didn’t mean to seem so aggressive.” She propped a large quivering smile on her face and fidgeted with her shopping basket.

I realized I had committed a major social gaffe, and I touched her sleeve. “Look, why don’t we go for a glass of wine later? I’ll have my dinner and meet you at the old pub by the park?” Her face perked up. “About, what, eight o’clock?” I added, now fully committed.

What had I got myself into? But, on the other hand, it was something to do –something different- so that evening after a rushed dinner, I hunted around in the closet to inspect my wardrobe. The choice was old, though -dated. The last time I had even thought about dressing up was four or five years ago when I was married, but I remembered my ex had always thought I looked good in black for some reason. Who was I to argue?

At least it was easy to find black in there. I chose a black turtle neck sweater and black jeans and stood in front of the mirror. I looked pretty good, I thought, and headed out the door.

And so I found myself sitting beside her at the pub, and eventually, the inescapable object of her gaze. I could tell she’d already had a glass or two before I arrived, but I figured that would make it easier for me to find something we could talk about. She was sitting at a little table in the corner where it was so dark I almost missed her. The place was pretty busy for a Thursday, though, so maybe it had been the only table she could find.

“You look really nice tonight, G,” she said as soon as I sat down. Fortunately, the shadows hid my embarrassment. “I’ve never seen you dressed up before.”

I wasn’t sure what she was getting at, and I didn’t know what to say. “Well, it would be wasted in the grocery store,” I finally mumbled, managing somehow to mispronounced ‘grocery’. She giggled at that, and I immediately dropped my eyes onto the table as if I couldn’t manage those either.

I could see her expression soften, and she reached across the table to clasp my hand. I think she was just trying to reassure me, to let me know that she knew I was nervous, but she didn’t let go for the longest time. For some reason, I felt trapped, although I knew she was simply being friendly. It’s hard to describe, actually -it should have felt comforting, but when she leaned across the table to look into my eyes, I felt I had to close them. I moved back. I tried to do it slowly, so she wouldn’t notice, but she did. And when I opened my eyes again, she was smiling.

“For god’s sake, G, I wasn’t trying to kiss you.” She shook her head slowly and sighed. “Let’s have some wine.”

She ordered a litre carafe of white, but I have to say that she polished off most of it herself. Despite that, she wanted to order another carafe. She had decided to tell me more about why her marriage had failed, I think.

I shook my head and checked my watch. The conversation had been pretty one-sided, and I was tired of sitting there politely listening to her. And anyway, she was beginning to slur her words, so I thought she’d probably had enough. I offered to walk her back to her condo.

“Good idea, G,” she said after thinking about it for a moment. “You can come up for a drink.”

I smiled and shook my head. “A wonderful idea, Susan, but I’ve got to travel into the city early tomorrow.”

She leaned across the table again, grasped both my hands and kissed me on the lips.

I was so surprised, I jerked my head back rather suddenly. I realized it was rude, but I thought I’d already made it abundantly clear that I wasn’t interested in that kind of thing. Well, not yet, anyway. I have to get to know somebody first. She was rushing it.

That was when she told me she was disappointed and glared angrily at me as if I had let her down, or something. After all, I’d asked her out for a drink. She grabbed her coat and stood up unsteadily.

I was about to join her, when she waved at a friend at another table and, after turning to wink at me, sat down beside him and rubbed his shoulder.

Maybe I am meant to live alone. Maybe I just don’t have the social skills to understand other people in the way they expect. And maybe there is something wrong with me, but I felt coerced that night. Exploited. And, although disrespected describes it best, I don’t think anybody would understand. Even worse, I don’t think anybody would believe me…

 

 

Much Rain Wears the Marble

I had just missed the bus, I know that now –but so had she, the little woman sitting by herself in the tiny shelter. It was an almost-dark evening in April, and I had walked for a few blocks along a darkened, tree-lined street because there was no shelter at the previous bus stop. It was perhaps a silly thing to do, but I didn’t fancy just standing in the cold. It was also raining heavily, so I took refuge under the first bus shelter I found. It had a low plastic roof and a small bench occupied by a middle aged woman. She glanced at me suspiciously and then buried her neck in her long black coat, staring motionlessly at her lap. Strands of long damp hair had escaped her blue woolen hat in places and hung limply on her shoulder like bits of tangled string. Although she was seated and trying to wrap herself like a package in her coat, her eyes made quick sorties in my direction -and even quicker retreats whenever I met them on their journey.

I could tell she was frightened, so I tried to stay near the edge of the shelter, but the fury of the rain pounding on the thin plastic roof soon drove me nearer to the bench. I smiled to put her more at ease, but the movement of my lips seemed to terrify her even more, and I could see her moving ever closer to the edge, ready to run if I so much as moved again. And yet, however uncomfortable, we were both trapped.

It seemed, though, that the longer I stood there, the more nervous she was becoming, so I decided to say something –anything- to reassure her.

“Sorry,” I started, “I’d wait outside, but the rain…” Her face almost disappeared inside the up-turned collar of her coat. Perhaps with the noise of the rain, she’d thought I was trying to flirt with her… I tried again. “Did we both just miss the bus…?” I suppose it didn’t sound very matter-of-fact, but it was hard to use a normal tone of voice to compete with the ferocity of the wind gusts and the incessant drumming of the rain. If she heard me, she was obviously too frightened to reply.

The wind was picking up and I was getting lashed with turbulent eddies of rain where I was standing, so I decided to sit on the opposite end of the bench she had clearly hoped would be hers alone. I had been carrying a cloth shopping bag with some take-out food I’d picked up for a late dinner, so I carefully placed it between the two of us like a wall. She was obviously at the extreme end of what little bench remained and I saw her eyes enlarge like a frightened doe as my bag seemed to close the distance.

I didn’t really know what to do; we both felt uneasy, so I decided to look away. Stare down the dark road, maybe -the bus shouldn’t be that far away. I raised my arm to look at my watch and I saw her flinch out of the corner of my eye. Things were getting serious.

“Listen,” I said, looking straight at where her face should have been, but seeing, instead, a knife. It was a tiny, dirty-looking folding knife, to be sure, but it startled me all the same. “I’m sorry I frightened you, but I’m just waiting for the bus…” I tried to sound calm.

She fastened two saucer-sized eyes on me so quickly I had to blink. They examined my soaked jeans, and then my equally sodden rain jacket. I wondered if perhaps it was the hood that had frightened her, so I slipped it off my head and smiled again. But her expression was still wary, still on guard -and so was the hand that held the little knife.

I shrugged, hoping to let her see I meant no harm, and yet she watched my every move like a wolf trying to estimate the threat I posed. I could have overpowered her easily, had she threatened me, but there was something about her excessive fear that tugged at me. It was more than fright, more than simple misgivings -it was terror. I wondered whether it was the way I was dressed, the isolation of the bus stop, or maybe a mental health issue. It was hard to judge anything about her appearance in the dim light, but who carries a knife to a bus stop?

The hand holding it shook slightly, but her fingers were so thin and boney I suspected she was unwell. “Are you okay, ma’am?” I asked, but gently, and only when I felt I could sit back against the thin wall of the shelter without alarming her further.

For a moment, she turned her whole head towards me, and it seemed as if she was going to answer me, but she merely blinked, and the movement of her lips faded. Her face, and what I could see of her neck, was as gaunt as her fingers, her cheeks hollow, and her lips cracked and unhealthy looking. The coat was clearly too large for her, but I don’t think that’s what made me sad. It was more her eyes: they seemed too large for her face –or rather, her face appeared to have shrunk around them.

I could see some tiny headlights far down the road, and I put my hands on my lap where she could see them. The bus would be here in a moment anyway. “Are you hungry?” I said –the words just sort of appeared at my lips and slipped out before I could think much about them.

She seemed surprised, and her eyes briefly softened, before going back on guard. I could see the knife shaking more now, as she watched for any trick I might be playing. But I caught the quick glance at my shopping bag, although I pretended not to notice.

“It’s not much, but there’s some take-out stuff in there…” I felt almost silly saying that, because the smell of Chinese food had hardly been dampened by the wet bag. “Oh, and there’s some veggies, and…” To tell the truth, I had forgotten what I had bought -or maybe I was embarrassed at what I had to offer.

Her eyes were beacons now, and her face had somehow moulded around them. There were only eyes, in fact, until they blinked. And, as the almost empty bus pulled up, I thought I saw a tear in one of them.

I left the bag on the bench, but she sat motionless and watched me get on the bus, watched me sit in the window seat, and as the bus began to pull away, I saw her mouth move and her hand wave before she reached for it.

I’m sorry now that I hadn’t bought anything more nourishing that night. Something more worthy for a gift…

 

They didn’t ask for it

Sometimes, you just have to take a stand! Sometimes, enough is enough! How many times do we read about lawyers –or even judges- wondering about the effect of clothing on sexual assaults?

And it’s not just the criminal justice system that asks the question; I fear that it is a question that floats just beneath the surface of many a speculation –voiced or silently implied.

Blame seems to be a requisite component of justice however, and although it often is a focus for vengeance –sorry, punishment– it is always more satisfying if a reason for an action can be found. After all, an effect requires a cause, does it not? And post hoc, ergo propter hoc makes it even sound erudite. But, although it seems a logical outcome, it is a spider’s web that can be terribly difficult to disentangle unless we are motivated to take the counterintuitive step back from the seductive fallacy.

Admittedly, there are cultural differences that play a role in a society’s willingness to accept or at least tolerate excuses for behaviour, but in terms of the reasons for sexual assault, I would suggest that they are less cultural and more gendered. Excuses, not reasons. And, in these cases,  it is the action that must be examined, not the justification.

I found myself drawn to an article reporting on a woman in India who found an innovative way to draw attention to the issue: http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-india-42408844 ‘Indian artist-activist Jasmeen Patheja collects clothes donated by victims as testament to the fact they are not to blame […].’  Her project is called I Never Ask For It. And while the collection may seem a bit creepy, she maintains, ‘”It’s got nothing to do with what you’re wearing, there’s never any excuse for such violence and nobody ever asks for it. […] The project wants to contain and hold space for our collective stories of pain, and trauma.”’

It was a time when ‘[…] street harassment was being dismissed as just ‘eve-teasing’, something that boys do and girls must experience. It was being normalised. There was an environment of denial and silence around the issue, which made it okay to continue it. […] harassment in public places is all too common and almost every woman has experienced catcalls, lewd remarks, touching and groping. And anyone who questions it is told that the fault actually lies with them – she may have done something provocative, she may be wearing clothes that showed skin, she may have been out late at night, she may have been drinking, she may have been flirting: in short, she may have asked for it. “Girls are raised to be careful, we are raised in an environment of fear which is constantly telling us to be careful. We are told if you’ve experienced assault, then maybe you’re not being careful enough, that’s the underlying message we’re given.”

‘She set up the Blank Noise collective in 2003 to “confront” that fear. […]The first step to confronting any fear, Ms Patheja says, is to start a conversation around it and one of the things that Blank Noise does as part of the “I Never Ask For It” project is to gather testimonials from women. […] Almost all women chose to describe what they were wearing at the time of the assault and, Ms Patheja says, that’s what gave them the idea about the museum of garments.

“We found women often wondering about their garments. They’d say, “I was wearing that red skirt’, or ‘I was wearing that pair of jeans’, or ‘I was wearing that school uniform’. So it became a deliberate question at Blank Noise and we began asking, ‘so what were you wearing’? [..therefore..] we ask people to remember their garments, bring them in because they have memory, and in that memory it’s been a witness and it’s your voice.”’

I found that article very moving –especially that the clothes women had chosen to wear with pride at the time of the assaults had become forever tainted by the attacks –that those colours, fabrics, and even styles now made them feel sick. Guilty… Ashamed. They had expected admiration, approval, compliments, for how they dressed –or maybe hadn’t even thought much about their clothes beforehand. But, planned or not, a simple smile would have sufficed to indicate that they, too, could be beautiful. We all have a need for more than the mirror can say; most of us not only dress for ourselves, but in hopes our tastes will be vindicated. That we will be vindicated.

Yes, we often dress for effect, innocent or otherwise, and yet does the first chirp of the stirring robin cause the sun to rise? Are we looking at it the wrong way? Does attraction necessitate response? License behaviour? Does it even necessarily modify it? For some men, that is a vexing question, no doubt –and yet there it is. It has to be confronted. It is not enough for the man to say he was beguiled. That her clothes spoke for her –said what she chose not to say. That they told him all he needed to know… That they asked him and he merely accepted the invitation. Really?  He felt not only that entitled -that privileged- but also that omniscient? Stuff and nonsense!

Of course, how silly it all sounds divorced from the situation. After the fact. Even to other men, it would be difficult to argue his ability to know that he had been granted permission to violate someone else. To be assured that he could really see the world through his victim’s eyes…

As the Scottish poet, Robbie Burns put it: O wad some Power the giftie gie us to see oursels as ithers see us!

Because, no, they didn’t ask for it. And they certainly didn’t deserve it.