The colour of truth is gray

It’s back again… Well, actually I suppose it never left. We still seem to be obsessed with the genderization of colours -as if it were an established biological given; as if it were as obvious as handedness, or as necessary as the assignation of gender at birth. ‘Pink is for girls and Blue is for boys’ -its self-evidence is once again being called into question; it seems an endless, pointless cycle.

There have been many attempts to link gendered colour preference to Weltanschauungen, genetic atavisms, and of course, persistent, market-savvy fashion manipulation (even I attempted a commentary in a previous essay: -but none seem adequate explanations for its persistence in our culture. Indeed, those studies that have sought to resolve the issue seem to have canvassed opinions from predominantly western cultures. And apart from the probable sampling bias, there are other factors that likely come into play, as suggested in a 2015 article in Frontiers in Psychology: ‘… red symbolizes good luck in China, Denmark, and Argentina, while it means bad luck in Germany, Nigeria, and Chad (Schmitt, 1995Neal et al., 2002). White is a color of happiness and purity in the USA, Australia, and New Zealand, but symbolizes death in East Asia (Ricks, 1983Neal et al., 2002). Green represents envy in the USA and Belgium, while in Malaysia it represents danger or disease (Ricks, 1983Hupka et al., 1997).’ In other words, ‘this variation in the symbolism of color could lead to variation on color preference between cultures.’ We’d best choose our colours carefully.

But, I suppose what got me interested again in this perpetual, gendered debate was a rather lengthy and thoughtful article (extracted from her book Gender and Our Brains) in Aeon by Gina Rippon, an emerita professor of cognitive neuroimaging at Aston University in Birmingham, UK:

I have to say I was lured into reading the entire article when she quickly introduced me to the dreadful concept of ‘gender reveal’ parties. They apparently come in two varieties: in one, the pregnant woman for whom the party is held, does not know the sex of her fetus as do the organizers (the ultrasound sex, by agreement, has been sent only to them) -it is guarded in a sealed envelope as is the colour motif; in the second variety, the mother knows and reveals it with all the appropriately coloured hoopla at the party.

And why, apart from the puerile attempts to colourize the event, do I find it so disagreeable? Well, as Rippon suggests, ‘20 weeks before little humans even arrive into it, their world is already tucking them firmly into a pink or a blue box. And… in some cases, different values are attached to the pinkness or blueness of the news.’

I also read further, in hopes that the author had some convincing insights as to whether the colour assigned to each gender was biologically or culturally determined. Unfortunately, the evidence she cites seems able to support either -or neither- side. One study, however, did make some progress in resolving the problem: ‘American psychologists Vanessa LoBue and Judy DeLoache tracked more closely just how early this preference emerges. Nearly 200 children, aged seven months to five years, were offered pairs of objects, one of which was always pink. The result was clear: up to the age of about two, neither boys nor girls showed any kind of pink preference. After that point, though, there was quite a dramatic change, with girls showing an above-chance enthusiasm for pink things, whereas boys were actively rejecting them. This became most marked from about three years old onwards.’ This suggests a cultural rather than biological explanation: ‘once children learn gender labels, their behaviour alters to fit in with the portfolio of clues about genders and their differences that they are gradually gathering.’

But why, then, the cultural preference? There was recently what may be an Urban Legend suggesting that at one time, the gendered colour preferences were actually reversed and ‘that any kind of gender-related colour-coding was established little more than 100 years ago, and seems to vary with fashion, or depending on whether you were reading The New York Times in 1893 [pink for a boy]… or the Los Angeles Times in the same year [pink for a girl].’

But, at least in our current milieu, the issue is not so much the colour as what it has come to suggest, consciously or not: ‘Pink has become a cultural signpost or signifier, a code for one particular brand: Being a Girl. The issue is that this code can also be a ‘gender segregation limiter’, channelling its target audience (girls) towards an extraordinarily limited and limiting package of expectations, and additionally excluding the non-target audience (boys).’

Of course, as Rippon points out, the fact that Pink may be a signifier of what is acceptable to females, allows it to bridge the gender gap: colour a toy truck pink, and it becomes acceptable for a girl to play with it. Unfortunately, the other side of the permission can be that ‘pinkification is all too often linked with a patronising undertow, where you can’t get females to engage with the thrills of engineering or science unless you can link them to looks or lipstick, ideally viewed through – literally – rose-tinted glasses.’ And viewed through prevailing stereotypes as well, I might add.

And yet, what determines what constitutes a ‘boy toy’? Is it what the child sees -or what their parents and grandparents saw in the world in which they grew up? In the world today, women drive trucks, operate diggers, become doctors and lawyers -not just secretaries, teachers, and nurses.

There is also a danger to pandering to ill-conceived remedies, of course. Take Rippon’s example of the STEM Barbie doll (STEM -for the older, more naïve readers like me- stands for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics -traditionally male-dominated fields, apparently): ‘efforts to level the playing field get swamped in the pink tide – Mattel has produced a STEM Barbie doll to stimulate girls’ interest in becoming scientists. And what is it that our Engineer Barbie can build? A pink washing machine, a pink rotating wardrobe, a pink jewellery carousel.’

Only in the penultimate and last paragraph of the article does Rippon come close to answering the question on the reader’s lips from the beginning of her 4500 word document: ‘It is clear that boys and girls play with different toys. But an additional question should be – why?… The answer to these questions could lie in our new understanding of how, from the moment of birth (if not before), our brains drive us to be social beings – to understand social scripts, social norms, social behaviour – to make sure we understand the groups we should belong to and how we can fit in… our brains are scouring our world for the rules of the social game – and if that world is full of powerful messages about gender, helpfully flagged by all sorts of gendered labelling and gendered colour-coding, our brains will pick up such messages and drive their owners to behave ‘appropriately.’’

Perhaps Rippon is correct, but I wonder if it’s more accurate to say that we were stuck with gendered colours; I think there is room for hope: what the child sees when she looks around is changing. So I am instead inclined to the view of André Gide, the French author who won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1947: ‘The colour of truth is gray,’ he wrote.

May we all be free to mix our own colours…

Here’s ado to lock up honesty

Sometimes I think we want to simplify things too much; we crave bichromality: on or off, yes or no. We want certainty, not a spectrum. An answer, not another question -a decision, in other words. And yet if we stop to look around, it seems obvious that things are seldom black or white -there are colours everywhere.

Relationships are no different -how could they be when two unique individuals are involved? When evaluated over any period of time, they are in constant flux. Contingent. Their often turbulent waters involve negotiation -one might even say navigation. There are no reliable maps -and unless there is local knowledge, ‘Here be dragons’ like those drawn on medieval charts in areas where there was insufficient information to avoid dangers.

Even initial reassurance may require sudden modification depending upon the conditions -we cannot always know in advance how things will work out. Indeed, the very fragility of the substrate is one of the important reasons why we are so enamoured with fine porcelain, with delicate lacework, with Trust.

But relationships, except in a legal and sometimes transactional sense, are seldom maintained by official written contracts -it’s more of an understanding, verbal or otherwise. This is fine, of course, but susceptible to misunderstanding or deliberate deception. Vulnerable to sudden, unexpected changes in either partner. Difficulties in effective communication…

Words, words, words,’ says Hamlet to Polonius. It almost doesn’t need an explanation, does it? Similar to his ‘That one may smile, and smile, and be a villain’ -although admittedly in a different context. But the meaning is clear: one can hide behind a curtain of sound, or a reassuring appearance, so that what is being conveyed may be confusing -purposely, or accidentally.

The problem, I suppose, is in knowing the intent of either one of the participants and its effects on the other. This is especially important in sexual matters where effective communication often lags behind the actions, and frequently is restricted to vague, initial permission followed by hormonal dictates.

It is a subject that people often feel reluctant to talk much about beforehand. Meanings of words and actions can change in the heat of battle, making prior negotiation -setting ground rules, and such- important. Sexual dialogue is not something taught particularly well in School Health Classes, so I was pleased to find an article in Aeon that was willing to tackle it head on.

The author, Rebecca Kukla, is professor of philosophy at Georgetown University and senior research scholar at the Kennedy Institute of Ethics. She explores the language of sexual negotiation. ‘Philosophers who specialise in what is known as ‘speech act theory’ focus on what an act of speaking accomplishes, as opposed to what its words mean.’ She writes that, ‘all speech acts are governed by what philosophers call ‘felicity norms’ and ‘propriety norms’. Felicity norms are the norms that make a certain speech act a coherent possibility… I can’t name someone else’s baby just because I feel like it, by shouting a name at it. These would be infelicitous speech acts. ‘Propriety norms are norms that make a speech act situationally appropriate. So, although I have the authority to order my son to clean his room, it would be a massive norm violation for me to walk into his classroom at school and shout at him to clean his room in the middle of class.’

‘In public discussions about the ethics of sexual communication, we have tended to proceed as though requesting sex and consenting to it or refusing it are the only important things we can do with speech when it comes to ethical sex… Consenting typically involves letting someone else do something to you. Paradigmatically, consent (or refusal of consent) is a response to a request; it puts the requester in the active position and the one who consents in the passive position. And in practice, given cultural realities, our discussions of consent almost always position a man as the active requester and a woman as the one who agrees to or refuses him doing things to her.’

And yet, ‘Autonomous, willing participation is necessary for ethical sex, but it is not sufficient. We can autonomously consent to all sorts of bad sex, for terrible reasons. I might agree to do something that I find degrading or unpleasantly painful, for instance, perhaps because I would rather have bad sex than no sex at all, or because my partner isn’t interested in finding out what would give me pleasure.’

‘Usually, when all goes well, initiations of sex take the form of invitations, not requests… But when I’m trying to establish intimacy with someone as I am getting to know them, an invitation is more typical and likely more conducive to good, flourishing sex than a request… Invitations create a hospitable space for the invitee to enter.’ An invitation to dinner, for example. And ‘An interesting quirk of invitations is that, if they are accepted, gratitude is called for both from the inviter and the invitee. I thank you for coming to my dinner, and you thank me for having you.’

‘A sexual invitation opens up the possibility of sex, and makes clear that sex would be welcome. Invitations are welcoming without being demanding… Notice that if I invite you, appropriately, to have sex with me, then consent and refusal are not even the right categories of speech acts when it comes to your uptake. It is not felicitous to consent to an invitation; rather, one accepts it or turns it down. So the consent model distorts our understanding of how a great deal of sex is initiated, including in particular pleasurable, ethical sex.’

Kukla goes on to talk about when and if invitations are appropriate, and then about such issues as ‘gifts’ of sex in long-term relationships, as well as the sociology of gifting. But her discussion of ‘safe words’ I think is one of the most important topics she covers. So, ‘Even if we freely consent to a sexual encounter, or otherwise enter it autonomously (for instance, by accepting an invitation), we also need to be able to exit that activity easily and freely. Entering autonomously is not enough; sexual activity is autonomous only when everyone understands the exit conditions and can stop at will, and knows and trusts that they can do this. This requires shared linguistic norms for exiting any activity. Safe words, properly employed, provide a framework that allows everyone to understand when someone wants to exit a sexual activity.’

‘Part of what is interesting about safe words is that they let someone exit an activity at any time without having to explain themselves, or accuse anyone of transgression or any other kind of wrongdoing (although they can also be used when there has been a transgression)… One reason they are important is that inside a sexual encounter, speech is frequently nonliteral… We need very clear ways to be able to tell when someone wants to leave this nonliteral discursive context.’

And, as she suggests, ‘Safe words are powerful discursive tools for enabling sexual autonomy, pleasure and safety, in at least two senses. Most straightforwardly, they offer a tool for exiting an activity cleanly and clearly, with almost no room for miscommunication. But even more interesting to me is the fact that safe words allow people to engage in activities, explore desires and experience pleasures that would be too risky otherwise. When we want to experiment with something that might give us pleasure, but also might make us uncomfortable or put us at risk, we need to be especially sure that we can exit the activity easily.’ But, of course, ‘safe words should never become the only way that someone can exit a scene or activity – all participants need to remain flexibly responsive to other discursive cues as well.’

Unfortunately, the ‘strong social tendency to focus our discussions of sexual negotiation on consent and refusal has resulted in a narrowed and distorted view of the pragmatics of sexual communication. Correspondingly, we have tended to focus on rape and assault, understood as nonconsensual sexual activity, as the only sexual harm we need to worry about. In fact there are many ways in which sex can go ethically wrong, other than by violating consent.’ Kukla feels that ‘sexual autonomy also requires the ability to engage in clear, pragmatically complex, fine-grained sexual communication – including uses of language that go well beyond consenting to and refusing requests for sex.’

There is so much more to communication than words, isn’t there -and so much more to words than meets the ear?  Hamlet again: ‘There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy…’

What We Value

I think it’s about time I revisited the concept of ‘disability’, both in its description and in society at large. It seems to me that the word itself is too value-laden to accept at face value. We are all disabled in one way or another and yet we may not see ourselves like that. And why should we? Disability, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder –or in this case, the beheld. I first wrote about this several years ago:

The concept is embedded in context, and like two colours mixed together, can result in something totally different. Totally unexpected –even if innocently mixed. I was reminded of this by another  BBC article on Down Syndrome and antenatal screening:  Once again there was an acknowledgment that ‘”The whole essence of a good screening programme is the counselling you have before you even have the blood test done or the scan done,” says Alan Cameron, foetal medicine consultant at Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Glasgow.’ And, of course, ‘[…] all experts agree that the way a diagnosis of Down’s syndrome is presented can influence whether parents choose to continue with the pregnancy.’ Even unconscious biases affect the way counsellors present the evidence, and none of us is free of these, I fear. We are all tinted by the colours that surround us, after all.

And I suspect there’s no better place to experience colours than riding in a bus.

I happened to be sitting behind two young women, both of whom were carrying their babies in those little vertical hammocks on their chests that tend to wax and wane in popularity. They evidently were strangers, but as newly minted parents, they seemed anxious to brag and peek at each other’s baby.

“She’s gorgeous,” said the one sitting beside the window, glancing at the closed-eyed head breathing quietly in its tight little container on her seat-mate’s chest. I’m not sure how she ascertained the sex so easily, but maybe new mothers are more adept at that than the rest of us.

“Thank you,” said the other, risking a peek at the sleeping baby beside her. “So is yours,” she cooed, cuing a smile and a flutter of her eyes.

“His name is Joshua,” the window lady responded, as if it was essential to establish that from the start. “Names are important,” she added, more seriously. “It means ‘God is generous’, or something…” To be honest, she didn’t sound too certain.

Aisle-woman was silent for a moment. I couldn’t see her face, obviously, and it might have been rude to look, but I thought it seemed an awkward response. “That’s nice,” she said in a carefully neutralized tone, but that kind of thing is hard to determine when you’re sitting behind someone in a noisy bus. “My little sweetie is called Elizabeth…” I could hear the hesitation in her voice. “I don’t actually know what it means,” she admitted.

“It means God is satisfaction, I think,” window-woman said without a pause. “We were going to name him that –if he’d been a girl, I mean.”

“Oh.” Aisle-woman seemed stumped about how to reply, but her neck-language suggested she was none too comfortable with the God references in both names.

They were silent for a few streets, and then, window-woman, unable to contain herself, peeked at the other baby. “They all look so peaceful when they’re asleep, don’t they?”

The woman nodded and felt forced to reciprocate with a fleeting inspection of Joshua as he snored. I assume it was snoring, at any rate, because it was rhythmic and his mother didn’t seem to be doing it. Elizabeth’s mother reached over and loosened Joshua’s hammock with a finger, thinking that might have been the cause. It was an innocent gesture, meant to be helpful –a mother’s instinct in action- but Joshua’s mother immediately grabbed the offending finger.

“He’s okay,” she said, embarrassed at her protective reflex. “Joshua’s just a noisy sleeper, that’s all…”

Elizabeth’s mother stole another glance at Joshua and I could see the edge of her smile, even from behind. “I’m so sorry, I didn’t mean to interfere,” she said, and adjusted Elizabeth’s little hoodie, just in case. “I thought he looked a little puffy… I wondered if maybe it was the hammock.”

Joshua’s mother forced a smile and then turned to look out of the window. “He isn’t puffy; he looks just like yours,” she said in a soft little voice that I found hard to hear.

“I’m sorry,” Elizabeth’s mother said, touching the other’s shoulder gently. “I… I thought I was helping…”

When Joshua’s mother turned her head to respond, I could see a tear rolling down her cheek. She stroked Josh’s little cheek and the snoring stopped for a second or two. “They told us he’d be…different,” she said slowly, “But he’s really a very good baby, you know…” She stroked Joshua again when he seemed to be rousing, and he immediately relaxed and made some sucking sounds with his lips. “I know he meant well, and everything, but the doctor always looked so sad when he saw me during the pregnancy. You know, like he was trying to console me or something…”

I could see a little tear beginning to form in the eyes of Elizabeth’s mom now. “I’m so sorry,” she said as softly as she could over the rattle of the bus. “I didn’t mean…”

But the window-lady had already pulled the cord for the next stop and was starting to rise from her seat. “God really has been generous to us both,” I heard her say as she reached out and gently stroked her neighbor’s baby as she passed. “It’s just that I’m always going to be reminded of that, I guess…”

She hurried through the opened door and I could see her standing out there as the vehicle pulled away, caressing little Joshua but otherwise not moving… As if maybe the answer was another bus…