Bones

Dear Princess ‘Ishka,

We need to talk about one serious problem. It may not be as dramatic as hunger in the third world, or attention-seeker buffoons controlling nuclear arsenals, but it still has its own, peculiar weight in the everyday life of many people.

Individuals not belonging to this minority, may find it hard to understand how lucky they are in doing effortlessly and painlessly many simple actions, like sitting on a wood chair, on the ground, in- and outdoor, to sleep on the side joining one’s legs, and so on.

I belong to the minority of the “bonies” and life for me as for my fellows is tough. The bodies of bonies are extremely bony or, as my sister would put it, “sharp-cornered”. When bonies sit on wood chairs, they feel like their booties are trying to drill in them. In general, bonies don’t sit on comfortable incorporated cushions, but on two inverted little diamond-hard pyramids. And sometimes it is pretty painful. “Buttless bonies” like me (a minority in the minority), can’t even sit quietly on the grass, for once you sit, it is likely for your buttocks to get stuck in the ground.

If you think this is terrible enough, you better think twice. Because even sleeping is hard for bonies. If you are a bonie, by joining your legs, you don’t have soft thigs granting you sweet dreams. No, you spend the whole night trying to figure out how the symmetrical shape of your knees could be put together, without giving you the feeling of lying on irregular pointy rocks. Not to talk about your ankles, which feel like clashing flints. I am still wondering how I have not yet spontaneously caught fire at night.

Bonies’ bones are obstacles also to social relationships. When you go with good friends to a crowded bar and there’s no place anymore where to sit, it would be a great idea to sit on a friend’s thigs. If only it weren’t possible for bonies’ butt-pyramids to seriously injure them by digging holes in their legs. All is left for bonies to do is observing at a distance and with envious eyes the ease of those people that are unaware of the fortune they daily sit on.

Booties give people social status and they enable one to climb the rankings of sex-appeal. Once you abandon the lies behind Disney standards for looking at the humankind, there is one thing you really care about, and that’s not the color of one guy’s eyes.

I don’t like being a crybaby, so I decided to do something. But growing a booty is an almost impossible task for a bonie like me. It is like growing an orchid in the middle of the Saahra, like trying to convince a lioness to go vegan to feed her cubs, or like blowing air with one’s own lungs into an hot-air balloon pretending it will start flying towards a brilliant future.

Perhaps I am delusional about the success of this enterprise, but luckily my friends can see beyond my physical appearance and appreciate me, despite my caprices. Even more luckily, they don’t see “too much beyond” as to see me from behind.

Forever yours,

‘Miasha

 

Possession

Dear Princess ‘Ishka,

Back to when we were used to go clubbing together, to lay down on the grass side by side in early summer, and to find mutual comfort in the arms of one another, I was also used to consider you mine.  You were my friend when I was alone, my happiness when I felt lost, my confessor when no one seemed to understand me.

The possessive adjective “my” acquires a special meaning when it refers to people we particularly care about or relationships of mutual affection. Indeed, we don’t use it only to designate material possession, like when we say “my t-shirt”, “my bank account”,  etc. It can express an almost infinite number of relations, in which the possessor is not necessarily owning the possessed thing, like when we say “my hometown” or “my university”. It is interesting to note, that the relation of “belonging to” implied by the possession is not unidirectional, because a t-shirt belongs to me, whereas I belong to the university and not the other way around.

My professor”, “my parents” and “my volleyball team” are all examples of social relationships. At a first glance, it could seem that “my friend” falls neatly in this category. And for most of the cases it does.

But when I say that I considered you mine, I don’t talk about a social relationship among others. I want to characterize myself as a possessive person. You were mine because I was jealous of our friendship and I kept it as something inestimable, a deep and complicated feeling locked inside my heart. But most probably I was also jealous of you as a person.

Jealousy can be the natural side effect of affection, but it has devastating outcomes if brought to its extreme consequences. It is because of jealousy that most “crimes of passion” are committed. Jealousy is a constitutive part of the patriarchal power of men over women and it is strictly linked to greed of specific intersubjective relationships. It’s not surprising that Christianity, taken as the religious phenomenon which has legitimated historically countless forms of hierarchies and conservativisms, forgot to put jealousy among the seven deadly sins, but not to fight the subversive (even if perverse) potential of envy.

What about being possessive? Is it necessarily a bad thing? It obviously is if the sort of possession is of the same kind of “my t-shirt”. But, as we have already seen, the adjective “my” can govern both directions of “belonging to”. So, when I say you were mine, I mean not only that you were belonging to me but also that I was belonging to you. This very peculiar kind of friendship is based at the same time on possessing and being possessed. What is possessed is not an external individual, but the reciprocity and the feelings it gives rise to. And among these feelings, jealousy is certainly one of the most recognizable.

Thus, when I say that you were mine, I say more about my status than about yours. I don’t say anything about you being “owned”, but rather about my being jealous, attached, needy and, on top of all, vulnerable. Was our friendship worth the costs?

I think that, sometimes, our lives are too a great responsibility to be lived on our own. Sometimes, it is just too hard to live as isles, communicating with each other only through naval expeditions. Sometimes we need to build bridges to enable a pacific invasion of ourselves, and to deploy part of the burden of living on other special people. This is the strongest remedy against loneliness, but it exposes ourselves to the threat of emotional dependence.

Yes, I think it was definitely worth it. And it is also now, as I begin to understand what it means to pay those costs for another friendship of mine. Still, I can’t wait for the time of being yours again.

Forever yours,

‘Miasha

Pride

Dear princess ‘Ishka,

Yesterday I went to the disco with some friends of mine. We had our pre-drinking at Museumsquartier and had time to chill and relax before the crazy dancing. Being relaxed means to me also to let my “gayness” flow freely and abandon myself to somewhat theatrical manners.

M, a friend of mine, asked why I “try” to be gay. Well, that’s not much of a claim, since I am gay indeed and I don’t have to try. But obviously he meant why I “struggle” to appear gay. I found the question puzzling but interesting at the same time. Indeed, how can I be myself if my behavior is “theatrical”, which sounds dangerously related to “forcefully contrived” if not “fake”?

“I behave like that, because I am like this” was my first thought. But that answer is wrong, for one thing is to be “born this way”; another thing is to give a very strong impression of what one is.

We could make use of the insightful concept of “naturalistic fallacy” to understand better this dilemma: what is natural entails no “normative force”. To put it simply, if you ARE something, it doesn’t follow that you OUGHT to be (or do) anything as a consequence (especially in moral terms). If you hold this principle to be true (as I do), then you can see how inadequate my answer to M was: from my being gay it simply doesn’t follow that I ought to act as a gay person.

M spotted some sort of endeavor in me to appear gay. And I admit that sometimes I am not “gay simpliciter”, but I also feel like I ought to be gay. How to make sense of this in front of the naturalistic fallacy?

At a first glance, I could answer “because that makes me feel alright”. But what if I am self-deceived in believing I feel alright? Why isn’t the normative expression of “gayness” a mark of  insecurity and need of attention, rather than of independence?

We need to do better than that. M himself suggested that, perhaps, it helps to strengthen my personal identity. However appealing this answer may sound, we have not made much progress since the strength of my identity could always be an outcome of self-deception. Think for instance at an overweight person who starts believing that all people thinner than him are sick and therefore he accepts his physical appearance. He is self-deceived, but the outcome would still be an authentic reinforcement of personal identity.

These two answers show that normativity could be nothing more than a psychological trick and that I don’t really “ought to be gay”. Either I am self-deceived in believing that the endeavor in being gay makes me feel better or in believing that my identity depends on showing it off as lively, colorful and stereotypical as possible.

I am not convinced by such conclusions. Instead, I do believe that there is something truly normative entailed by “being gay”. But what is it?

Even if I am too ignorant with respect to the academic literature on the topic and I have not yet thought about it more than a couple of hours this morning as my hangover was slowly fading away, I suspect that we can derive from the natural struggle of existing as a gay person the normative force we need.

If your own existence is endangered by the social environment around you, you may develop resilience as a natural response. That is, you learn how to adapt to an hostile environment while staying true to yourself. However, you don’t “naturally” stay true to yourself. You ought to be yourself against social pressure. You ought to take pride in who you are, because otherwise you succumb.

If my intuition is correct, the very concept of “pride” becomes an essential part of yourself, the part enabling your survival and flourishing. And if this is so, the distinction between what is natural and what is normative in “being gay” becomes a strict connection. The naturalistic fallacy stays unchallenged for most of the cases. It simply doesn’t apply in the special case in which it is not possible to naturally be oneself without normatively being oneself.

It’s not possible for me to distinguish an underlying self from my acting under norms regulating who I take myself to be. The fact that I feel alright and that I am randomly cultivating my personal identity are not enough. In order to be authentic, I ought to be proud and that also means that I ought to behave in a way which conforms to my inclinations. Hence, “being gay” doesn’t mean “fake”, but rather “proud” and “auto-nomous”, in the literal sense of “self-regulating”.

This has been only a brief reflection on one of the many meanings of pride, even if not the easiest one. To thank you for your patience in reading it through, I wish you a joyful, extravagant and (why not) theatrical season of pride!

Forever yours,

‘Miasha

Loss

Dear Princess ‘Ishka,

In very recent times, I have been thinking about the reasons of the special treatment we reserve to children and adolescents when they die. There are many anthropological theories about these phenomena, drawing from cultural studies, psychology and even evolutionary biology. Such theories are not of my concern. Instead, I would like to briefly inquire the possibility of a plausible moral justification for the special character of grief regarding young people.

At a first glance, if we agree that human life has a priceless value in our societies, it seems already hard to defend the claim that some human beings deserve to be mourned more or more intensely than others. Under normal conditions, there is no unit of measurement available to understand why lives of adolescents would be of greater moral value than those of older people. I stress the fact that I am thinking in moral terms, and not in terms of, say, reproductive potential, working potential, and so on.

From a moral perspective, all (at least human) lives are incommensurable in value, independently of how long they lasted, other things being equal. Therefore, it can’t be a matter of value, to look for the moral reasons to justify the great attention devolved to the death of children.

I talked to my flat mate about this puzzling matter and he suggested to consider the traditionally Christian focus on the innocence of children. I understand the term “innocent” as having two main meanings: the etymological one, which is said of a person “not committing any harm” (lat. in-nocens); and the religious one, which is “being without sin”.

The etymological meaning of the word simply doesn’t apply to children in general. We all know what great harms children are capable of, even if they lack the means of adults. Bullying and egoistical behaviors are just two of many examples. Of course, someone could claim that “innocence” actually implies being naïve, independently of the harm committed. But this would be a reason to be less morally sensitive to a child’s death rather than more, because being naïve can be morally reprehensible.

On the religious view – or so I take it, children are “without sin”, whereas adults are sinners. It seems to me, that when you commit a sinful action, your whole being gets somehow infected psychologically. It is as if you contract a disease (the sin) and the only way to get rid of it is to repent and let the divinity wash away the stains from your soul. Morality, however, talks only about actions and not about the soul and psychology of people. When you commit a bad action, from a moral perspective, the only thing being bad is the action and, on other accounts, the bad intentions. But there is no compromised soul, and psychology is left to psychologists.

If innocence, in the etymological sense, is not observable among children more than among adults and the religious sense is addressing a domain of meaning not of direct interest for morals, we are better off without it.

After all, there could be no moral justification for the great attention given to the deaths of young people. However, I suspect that we have been ignoring a very important element of morality so far. Children and adolescents are indeed “special” moral subjects. And it’s definitely not because they are “intrinsically good” or “better” than adults. Indeed, they are less, because their understanding of morality is, on an average, less developed than the one of adults. By “being less good” I don’t mean “being morally worse”, but rather not being yet full-blown moral subjects.

If children are potential moral subjects, their loss is a particular one. When an adult dies, her death has a meaning: that person, as a full-blown moral subject, held a moral position in this world, and has left meaningful and personal traces of herself along her way. What traces can a child leave, if all he has done so far has been reflecting like a mirror his education? What traces leaves an adolescent, as she struggles to find her place in this world like a chrysalis trying to develop its wings?

We can’t ascribe any moral meaning to the death of children. They were not autonomous defenders of any moral value, they didn’t stand for anything with appreciable personal commitment, nor were they reprehensible for indolence. When they die, they leave holes.

Perhaps it is absurd to look for a moral justification for the mourning of children. But surely we feel an atypical moral bewilderment when they leave this world.

Forever yours,

‘Miasha

Niqab

Dear Princess ‘Ishka,

Frau Geist is a real person. I don’t know her personally, but a friend of mine (D) told me about her. I met D on the oriental pillows of the Weltcafe near the University. We had not seen each other for a while. Now he works for a cooperative with the purpose of integrating people with “particular” behaviors into a non-medicalized social context. Some of them need also psychiatric support, whereas others are more independent and join the cooperative for having a good time and good conversations with the friendly staff.

Frau Geist could be considered a case in-between. She is not a strongly impaired “patient”, but she couldn’t be considered very independent either. Frau Geist thinks that there are hidden cameras in her bathroom, ready to spy her whenever she walks in. No matter how many times D and his co-workers have showed her that there is nothing to fear. They simply haven’t checked enough. Mechanical eyes are always there, waiting for no one but her to take her clothes off in the bathroom.

This “cameras conspiracy” leads to the unpleasant consequence that poor Frau Geist has not been taking a shower for a while. But hygiene is not the only issue here at stake. As a matter of fact, Frau Geist is so scared of espionage, that she hardly walks outside her apartment. For this reason, she wraps herself in a bed sheet with two holes in correspondence of the eyes to get to the cooperative’s place, which is situated in the same building downstairs. A wandering ghost, occasionally fleeing from her demimonde. Unsurprisingly, D has started calling her “Frau Geist” (literally, from German, “Madame Spirit”).

As you can imagine, it is not easy for the cooperative to figure out a way to help her enjoy life outside the building. D told me that they even thought of giving her a Niqab as a present. Even so, she is definitely not going unnoticed, and suspicious glances could give her the final proof that indeed she is being spied. Let alone that, as things stand now, people are going to notice her with their eyes only after having noticed her with their noses.

At any rate, I told D that the Niqab sounds like a wonderful idea. I tried to imagine Frau Geist wrapped in a colorful fabric, taking the subway with the excitement of an unexperienced 007. Then having a walk in a city park, now that summer has started blooming. She inhales slowly, watching the sunrays being fractured by the dark leaves of the imposing chestnuts. She is safe: the Niqab protects her from the indiscreet cameras.

Would you call it freedom? Why not? After all, you can imagine her relaxed joy, when breathing in the open air. She can be like ourselves, and do the things we all do. Someone could claim that she is just crazy. But would it be worth it to lock her up in a hospital room, wasting the precious time of a walk in the park? Doesn’t she deserve to be happy, in her own way, because of her own story?

Next time I am encountering a woman in a Niqab, before thinking about any symbolism or general social phenomenon, I will ask myself if that woman has no better reasons for dressing like that than Frau Geist. For sure, my imagination, however fervid, won’t help me understand the complexity of the life of that person, and of the difficulty of making certain choices.

I think it is out of question that oppression of women can very well be established by means of cultural and religious symbolism. But sometimes, we just think in too general terms to criticize the individual case. And the next woman we see in Niqab could be just like Frau Geist. Free to be outdoor, and happy.

Forever yours,

‘Miasha

Perspectives

Dear Princess ‘Ishka,

I never considered myself a racist. Despite the many shortcomings of my catholic education, one of the most fundamental teachings in my childhood has been to “see beyond the colour of the skin”. Of course, I knew what racism was and I could hear it in the words and perceive it in the behavior of many people around me. Those people made me feel uncomfortable and that, I thought, was the proof of my anti-racism.

Given these premises, I had still to take into account a dilemma: Asians were all looking alike to me. I never said it openly, but look: they all have dark, straight hair and their eyes are dark and have a peculiar “Asian” shape. Was that racism?

I had once a conversation on the topic with a Korean friend of ours. I call her Sunny for the present purposes.

We were crossing Marienplatz in Munich and I straightforwardly asked her about the widely shared idea, at least among Europeans, that Asians look all the same. She stared back at me in puzzlement. “I actually thought Europeans looked indistinguishable! Asians are very different from one another!”

I didn’t want to offend her. At the same time, I thought there was something amiss in her recognition of the relevant evidence. I told her “Look! There are blond Europeans, dark-haired and red-haired! We have a shade of eye-colour for almost each individual! How can’t you distinguish among Europeans?”

Sunny frowned. “How can you? I mean, how can you tell that someone comes from Spain, Great Britain, Poland or Greece? You all have different hair colours, but you really can’t pick casually one European and tell at first sight where she is from! With Asians, that’s different. I could for most of the cases tell If a guy is Korean, Chinese or Japanese without having to look at his passport or speak to him!”

Yes, that was striking. I’ve always been thinking in the individualistic way belonging to many Europeans, that of differentiating people independently of their context, but only with respect to individual qualities. For Sunny, on the contrary, what was relevant for the categorization was the possibility of ascribing people to a certain nationality. And  yes, in that sense, “Westerns” are more hardly distinguishable.

So, who is (racially) the most uniform population? That depends on the perspective, and this perspective is a racialized one, if it is to take the question seriously. Race, therefore, is not on the skin, nor on the facial traits or in the culture. It is in our eyes, and it is so strong that it creates a universe of “factual evidence” very hard to deconstruct.

So, am I a racist after all? If I were to answer “no”, that would be problematic, for how can I tell to what extent my whole perception of reality is racialized? I think the best way to answer is that I try to fight racism, even the one still lying in me.

There is hardly a colour-blind person, and hardly a person who is not racist at all. On an average, if you aren’t anti-racist, you let racism define you.

Forever yours,

‘Miasha

Abstraction

Dear Princess ‘Ishka,

Try to pick the intruder among the following group of things: glass, bottle, stock cube, vase. I don’t really want you to solve this elementary puzzle of abstraction. Instead, I would like to tell you about the original solution my sister gave to it, when she still was at the beginning of secondary school.

The faculty to abstract the general from the particular is an amazing capacity of the human mind. Its discovery goes back at least to Aristotle, and had enormous impact on the way we think about the functioning of our mind.

Abstraction enables us to categorize things in the world and give them an order. It is the fundamental ability underlying the very possibility of scientific research, which aims at giving general laws of nature (if not universal). You couldn’t say anything informative about movement, molecules or cells if all you could talk about were single movements, single molecules and single cells. Abstraction makes it possible to say how every single movement works according to the laws of physics, and how all molecules and cells behave according respectively to chemistry and biology.

The merits of abstraction are countless. One could even claim that there would be no human intellectual progress without the capacity of finding the common property among many individual things. The world would look like a chaotic ensemble of particular entities, precluding any possibility of orientation.

Luckily, all humans share abstraction. Or so I thought, until my sister ruthlessly smashed my convictions.

A questionnaire was given to all schoolchildren of her year. Its purpose was to test their logical abilities with respect to public education, I guess. When confronted with the “intruder’s puzzle”, they were expected to abstract the common property of most of the items presented and pick the exception. Of course, there is one evident property shared by glass, bottle and vase, which stock cube doesn’t present, namely the property of being a container. Apparently, that was not evident enough, since my sister answered “vase”.

Should we worry about my sister’s intelligence back then? Where on earth did she find the property common to glass, bottle and stock cube, vase doesn’t present? The best way to counter my apprehension was to ask her directly. Her response was along these lines: “you don’t necessarily find a vase in the kitchen, do you?”

What she did when confronted with the puzzle, wasn’t to abstract the shared property. She rather asked herself if there were contextual similarities among those objects of common usage. And the first thing that came to her mind was that you never find a kitchen devoid of glasses, bottles and, when available, stock cubes. Vases, on the contrary, are not necessarily part of the kitchen’s furniture.

My sister’s thought was contextual rather than abstractive. And, to a certain extent, that was more appropriate, insofar as the term “intruder” comes with a feeling  of disappointment rather than logical rigour. In a certain sense, you would have good reasons to be disappointed if you weren’t to find glasses, bottles and stock cubes in someone’s kitchen (when available). On the contrary, you just don’t go to someone’s place asking “why aren’t your vases in the kitchen?”

Of course, my sister’s way of thinking was not as rigorous and general as abstraction would have been. But instead of wondering how contextual thought is less reliable than abstractive thought, we should ask ourselves if the intruder’s puzzle was rigorous enough in the first place! Indeed, it seems that the puzzle was already expecting a certain kind of answer there was no precise criterion to expect. And my sister involuntarily showed the flaw in the formulation: one needn’t necessarily use abstraction to give a pondered answer to certain questions.

It was very stupid of me to have fun of her when I first heard that answer. I share part of the blame with those who formulated the intruder’s puzzle first, presuming that people who think, need thinking in a certain way. But my sister proved us wrong.

Indeed, she taught me a very important lesson: don’t expect people to act and think always upon the best theoretical principles because, in practice, abstraction might be of no use in everyday activities, like having dinner or the like. A stock cube might help instead.

Forever yours,

‘Miasha