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“And still we find so tightly wound, your way of thinking” (Fugazi)

March 10, 2008

Let’s see, where was I? That’s one result of radial and associative thinking. In fact, that’s one way I’ve come to recognize some of the repetitive thoughts that did not originate in my mind (or even in my own culture), but are direct products of indoctrination. As Barbara Mann astutely observed of the Western thesis format: “I never trusted the Puritan sermon format that engendered it, with its simplistic propositions marching onward, as to war. It is too easily corrupted for polemical purposes masquerading as scholarly inquiry, even as it lapses into empty cleverness.”* That’s an excellent description of the mental feel of most of the internalized indoctrination; it does march relentlessly and simplistically.

That was not really a digression, but central to the point I’m (clumsily) trying to make here. Most of us fight sundry attempts at social indoctrination, many of which we’ve internalized over the years. I actually feel more hopeful–and rather lucky–to be able to recognize some of them by their glaringly inappropriate form and content, given the culture I was raised in and the way my mind works.

As I mentioned in the last post, more of this internalized crap has become horribly obvious in the past couple of weeks, since I have been working my way through a diabetes diagnosis. Not too surprisingly, I’ve gotten depressed, and it’s stirred up a lot of things I thought I’d reached some peace with. Achieving a healthy mental/spiritual/moral equilibrium is definitely a continual process, and this has helped bring that idea home–as well as how pervasive the harmful social conditioning is.

A bit of background to the situation: to keep some semblance of sanity and integrity, I have needed to try to sort out a lot of cognitive dissonance that’s accumulated over the years. I grew up between (at least) two cultures, as is wonderfully addressed in Genocide of the Mind, an essay collection edited by Vine Deloria, Jr. Violating a lot of other expectations and stereotypes that Western society holds dear has not helped matters–while not understanding exactly what these expectations were, in the first place, never mind that I was feeling the effects of two wildly varying sets of them. I ended up internalizing an amazing amount of stuff while realizing it made no sense whatsoever, the way I understood the world to work. Just figuring out what was going on made me feel remarkably saner.

In short, since 1981 or so (first grade in a very Westernized system), I have gotten to hear all about what a wretch I supposedly am, because very little about me fit other people’s expectations. I have been presumed stupid, lazy, fat, beastly huge, stubborn, anything but feminine, physically hideous, uppity, selfish, too clever by half, unmotivated, trashy, generally morally deficient, eminently unfuckable–you name it. Trying to suit a psychotic set of expectations I didn’t really understand, I got to hear that my priorities were becoming seriously skewed, closer to home. Yeah, I picked up an amazing load of hurtful messages, without the knowledge to help me sort through them. A lot of them started playing in my own head, regularly.

An aside: You don’t need the cultural dissonance, or the neurodiversity, or being female, etc. to be on the wrong end of this sort of thing–any one of the factors will suffice. Let’s just say that I am not a fan, these days, of societies which pretend that snarly, hierarchical behavior is only right and proper (if not Human Nature). They are not good for much of anyone who has dealings with them.

Less than amazingly, having grown up female, bombarded with all the messages and peculiar expectations girls and women are subjected to in under a power-mad patriarchal system, the first thing to give is consistently my body image and physical confidence. I bow in to the heavy demands that I physically diminish myself, even as I know it’s just plain wrong. The Western feminine ideal bears very little resemblance to women like me, nor the women I grew up around; appearance included. Even women who come closer to that ideal are battered hard trying to fit into impossible standards. Lately, I’ve preferred to think of myself as a “traditionally built lady” (beautifully put by Alexander McCall Smith), by the standards of the Ohio Drainage. Indeed, “traditionally built ladies” where I’m from absolutely horrified many Western visitors who couldn’t quite marginalize them into a nonthreatening category; I have seen exactly the same responses on the streets of 21st century London, where I am a smidgen taller–and rather more robustly built–than the average man. Most of the objections I have heard to my looks, in general, have been flat-out racist–which only adds insult to the injury of living under these standards. I can’t be somebody else of a different racial group, were it even reasonable to expect me to try it. Nor do I feel any urge to be small and weak, even if I could do that. The emphasis Western society places on women’s looks and physical size is just another form of control, and not very subtle at that.

The rest of the insults are just gravy, since I am a woman in this society. I have let them undermine my sense of competency quite thoroughly over the years, however.

When I get depressed, this saner approach falls by the wayside, and I am filled with insecurity. My last post went into some detail about that. The repeating scripts, which may as well be of alien design, start distracting me. At least now I recognize them for what they are.

Another aspect of this that I should mention is the effect it can have on relationships. An incident last night got me thinking harder about the whole subject. Not to go into too much gory detail, but both of us went to bed feeling like crap–and I couldn’t sleep for a while–thanks to a discussion. Just to put the icing on a longer-running issue, I’ve been feeling like a hideous, sick old woman recently, and some of his behavior exacerbates this in a bit of a vicious cycle.

When a person has been thoroughly conditioned to respond to a set of conditions in a certain way, it is not exactly reasonable for the other person to consider said response totally irrational–especially when said other person benefits from the conditioning. As an example too close to home, if I have been trained that one of the most important things I can do as a woman is to be attractive and “fuckable”, I am going to become upset if omy partner’s responses strongly suggest that I am neither. This is liable to make me anxious and confused–given my conditioning–and I am likely to want to know if this is, indeed, the case. Particularly if I am married to the other person, and his opinion in these matters is generally considered important. In this situation, suggesting that I’m just perceiving a problem where none exists (possibly because estrogen is as good a cognitive aid as crack, though this was wisely unvoiced) is colossally unfair and unhelpful, assuming that the other person has not spent his formative years as an anchorite on an otherwise uninhabited planet with no media feed whatsoever. I may parrot some obnoxious messages on occasion, but they are part and parcel of the society he lives in. This is but one maddening example of privilege.

It’s also a rather good example of a point which has struck me hard, recently. Some pretty inappropriate ideas about who should be putting on a display, and how much one should hide/try to change one’s basic self in order to attract and/or keep a partner, have been shoved down my throat. And our expectations, conscious or otherwise, are rather different, coming from different cultures.

We all know how things are supposed to work in Western society, unless we’ve spent a lot of time on that beforementioned planet. This is another case in which it’s too easy to combine two very different sets of expectations into one hideous method for making a marriage and family work–very much like “not being lazy”. From an Indian (and Black, I understand) perspective, women carry a pretty hefty responsibility to be strong and hold the family together. We make sure things run smoothly, and take responsibility for pretty much all household matters and finances. If anybody is going to make sure everybody is fed and clad, under a roof, it’s Mama. It’s not a heavier part of the load, but a division of responsibilities. Marriage is a true partnership. Additionally, Mama is not an unpaid laborer for someone else’s benefit, it’s her house and land. This setup is so different from what one sees in Western society that a lot of observers made some really ridiculous interpretations of how things worked–and continue to work, to great extent. This system works OK if everyone involved understands it, and handles their own areas of responsibility–and also if everyone gets full credit for doing a crucial job. It’s also easier if you’re not living in a nuclear family setup, with fewer people to share the work around.

Mix and match with some Western expectations, and things can turn ugly and confusing very quickly. Responsibilities become unclear, but there sure are a lot of them! It’s easy not to give yourself much credit for what Westerners want to consider “women’s work”, and assign low status; nobody else seems to be giving credit for it. A feeling of responsibility for keeping things running can easily turn into a belief that you are also responsible for holding a relationship together, with all the “hard work” that entails when you are not afforded the same level of respect. The awful combination of not being lazy being emphasized, and common Western ideas of what useful work entails (hint: it’s got to generate significant monetary income), can generate clouds of misery. It’s not hard to think of plenty of other conflicts that can–and do–arise.

One pretty fundamental conflict does involve the Western emphasis on female physical attractiveness, based on prescribed criteria, along with false scarcity. The message I picked up in school, and from all the media ad nauseum while I was growing up, is that the burden is on me to attract men and to keep them interested in me. I am a sad and pitiful creature if I do not currently have one around, and should go to truly astounding lengths to remedy this situation and try to keep a man happy, lest it become very obvious to other people that I am a substandard girl/woman. It is worth starving myself, wearing hideously uncomfortable things, hiding that I have a mental and emotional life, and otherwise acting like a complete dope. The main things men have to offer me are security of various sorts–including financial benefit and straightforward physical safety–and, just maybe, a sense of humor. The rest is on me. In fact, it’s only right that things work this way, to humans’ great evolutionary advantage. We all know there’s not enough of anything to go around, and the fittest will grab it all, while the rest are inevitably jealous.

I wish I were exaggerating more than I am. And I did buy into this, to a frightening extent.

No wonder a lot of the things my mom, and other older women at home, told me didn’t make much sense when I was younger. They were working from more egalitarian assumptions about gender and relationships. I probably frustrated them no end, in my confusion. Still, I had to fight the expectations I’d already picked up, trying to incorporate what now looks very much like poison from the wider society.

One fundamental difference is in who bears primary responsibility for impressing prospective partners and convincing them that s/he really wants you around. The fact that, traditionally, you didn’t see a lot of women whooping and dancing around with turkey feathers attached to their rear ends speaks volumes. Men are still considered to be the ones who need to do any required convincing, and to try harder to please once in a relationship. (Definitely not to a similarly submissive point.) Jealous and possessive masculine behavior is still particularly discouraged, since they’re statistically more likely to get dangerous; it’s not exactly considered a sign of maturity in anybody. A lot of the difference has to do with there just not being the same kind of gender-based economic and social power imbalance, while what does exist tends toward the women. All kinds of bizarre power plays are not considered an inherent part of gender relations, or of human relationships in general. Thankfully these patterns haven’t yet been changed as much as they could by current Western economic pressures.

Plenty of room for confusion and conflict, indeed.

*  From her Iroquoian Women: The Gantowisas, which is one of the most useful books I have ever picked up. The commentary on cultural differences is priceless, and extends well beyond the Iroquois. This book helped open my eyes to so many things, in a refreshingly witty style.

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