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…’

Beauty is but a vain and doubtful good

When I was a child and began discovering myself in a mirror, I wondered about my nose. I thought it different from my friends -different from Teddy’s at any rate. He was my best friend and we went everywhere together. We had the same kind of jeans, and shared a similar taste in ice cream. We even rode the same kind of bikes to school. But he had a small, straight nose, and mine was fatter and had a little hook in it. Teddy didn’t think much about it -but that was because there was nothing wrong with his. Mine was ugly.

Only later did I begin to understand that it wasn’t ugliness I had been noticing, it was difference. And that looking the same as someone else wasn’t really a sign of beauty, any more than looking different was something shameful or unfair. But that awareness requires some maturity, I think, a Weltanschauung born of more experience than we can expect of a child.

And yet, what is beauty? Can one define it in isolation from what it is not, or must one be forever trapped on a Mobius strip of perspective? And where, on a Bell Curve, does beauty start -or ugliness begin? Short of a Goldilockean definition of ‘just-right-baby-bear’, is beauty actually amenable to definition? Or is it dependent on culture? Historical epoch?

Humanity has struggled with this at least since records have been kept. And the beauty/ugly antipodes have survived largely as antagonists, dependent on each other as contrast -each is what the other cannot be

At any rate, always alert to the nuances of the struggle, I was pleased to come across an essay on the history of ugliness in the online Aeon magazine, written by Gretchen Henderson, a teacher at Georgetown University and a Hodson Trust-JCB Fellow at Brown University:

‘This word [ugly] has medieval Norse roots meaning ‘to be feared or dreaded … Ugliness has long posed a challenge to aesthetics and taste, and complicated what it means to be beautiful and valued. Western traditions often set ugliness in opposition to beauty, but the concept carries positive meanings in different cultural contexts. The Japanese concept of wabi-sabi values imperfection and impermanence, qualities that might be deemed ‘ugly’ in another culture.’

‘‘Ugly’ is usually meant to slander, but in recent decades, aesthetic categories have been treated with growing suspicion. ‘We cannot see beauty as innocent,’ writes the philosopher Kathleen Marie Higgins, when ‘the sublime splendor of the mushroom cloud accompanies moral evil.’’

As Henderson says, ‘When we call something ugly, we say something about ourselves – and what we fear or dread.’

I have to say, I am very attracted to the concept embodied by the Koine Greek word for beautiful: horaios­—etymologically related to hora, or ‘hour’. In other words, beauty means being in one’s hour. Wikipedia gives an example: ‘a ripe fruit (of its time) was considered beautiful, whereas a young woman trying to appear older or an older woman trying to appear younger would not be considered beautiful.’

So, can a nose be ugly? And what would that mean, exactly? To Teddy, it seemed a non-issue, and my constant reference to it bothered him.

“You talk about ugly,” he finally yelled over his shoulder at me as we were racing our bikes to school one morning. “Just look at Cindy, eh?”

“What’s wrong with Cindy?” I shouted back in little grunts, as I tried to catch up with him. Cindy was a girl that sat a few seats in front of me in class. I kind of thought she was cute, although I was much to shy to tell her.

“Ever look at her ears?”

I hadn’t, actually. But she had long brown hair that hung down to her shoulders in big, wavy curls, so the only thing that showed on her head was her face. I didn’t need to see her ears. And anyway, if you couldn’t see something, then it didn’t seem fair to call it ugly.

It made me glance up at Teddy’s ears as I finally caught up to him on a corner near the school, though; I hadn’t noticed them before. They were kind of weird -especially the way the little skin lobes hung down and danced around like earrings when he pedalled.

I checked my ears in the big mirror in the boy’s room when I got to school. Mine were normal, at least. Actually, if you ignored the nose, my face wasn’t too bad either. Everything seemed to match, and as far as I could tell, was in the right place. It was reassuring that I wasn’t a total mess.

That day, as I daydreamed in class, I glanced at the kids around me. Jacob’s chin was kind of long for his face, but Brian’s was almost not there -his neck seemed to join his face with only a little bump just below his lips. I hadn’t noticed that before. Janna had greasy hair, but of course that was no surprise -she also had red marks all over her cheeks, like she was infected, or something.

I could only see Cindy’s back from where I sat, of course, but it was wonderful enough to see her hair dancing over her shoulders as she moved around trying to find something on her desk. It was perfect hair -even Teddy couldn’t deny that. And I was pretty sure that it would smell like roses, or whatever. Beautiful girls were like that.

I think she could feel me staring at her, because just before the class ended she suddenly turned her head and glared at me. He face was tight with… well, with anger, I think, and she screwed her face up into a really horrid scowl. I’d never seen her like that before, and for a moment, I wondered if I’d misjudged her. Without warning, her beauty disappeared, and her eyes ripped into me like knives. Fury is really scary when you don’t expect it. Then, seeing that she had succeeded in punishing me, her face relaxed again and she turned away -whether back to beauty, though, I couldn’t tell.

And yet I suppose we are all different people at different times, aren’t we? Looking back at that memory after all these years, it seems obvious to me that the way we see the world is dependent on factors that are often out of our immediate control. Even our appearance in the mirror is contingent… although I’m used to my nose now.