Unicorns

Dear Princess ‘Ishka,

Why are unicorns so central in the symbology of gay culture and lgbt culture in general? Unicorns are magical animals, they are “special” or even “unique” but they are often associated with purity, not to mention virginity. What does that have to do with the very material and often highly sexualized gay imagination?

The stigma on sexuality reminds us of something dirty rather than of the purity of the unicorn coat. One of the most ambitious aims of a movement for sexual liberation is precisely to eradicate the idea that there is any purity in certain behaviors or that virginity has any moral significance whatsoever – or that it has any meaning at all. Lgbt movements attempt to break the barriers between heterosexuality and what is considered “deviant” from it and hence “bad”, “stained”, “sick”. In the lgbt universe, purity is irrelevant, dethroned by an inclusive rainbow of all the different shapes human sexual orientation can assume.

The whiteness of the unicorn couldn’t be any further from the darkness of the sleepless nights of gay clubbing. Its lack of imperfections couldn’t be less representative of the wounded, scarred personal histories of many lgbt people.

Perhaps, unicorns are symbols of re-birth after the first coming into the world was repressed by homophobia. The virginity they stand for could be a metaphor for the brand new start of life after coming out and accepting oneself.

This looks like a plausible interpretation, but I have my doubts about it, for it sort of clashes with my conception of (gay-lgbt) pride. Being “out in the open” as a lgbt person doesn’t mean to have forgotten one’s own past. On the contrary: the scars are worn with pride. They remind us of the fights, of the resilience against all odds, of survival and of the final victory, which didn’t come without high costs.

Lgbt people can be “re-born” in a certain sense, but not without any connection to their past. Personal histories give meaning to our pride, our joie de vivre, our strengths as well as our weaknesses.

I don’t have the intellectual tools to analyze lgbt symbology any deeper, also because it would require expertise in historical and cultural studies, not to mention semiotics and hermeneutics, disciplines I know little or nothing relevant about, especially for this specific case.

Let me then just give you a hint of what I think about unicorns. As small children we have been told that unicorns do not exist. The same doesn’t necessarily happen with respect to other imaginary figures like Santa Klaus, angels or else. Unicorns are the ultimate non-existent thing – at least in the western collective unconscious.

On the other hand, lgbt people have lacked visibility and are often misrepresented. They have been marginalized and made object of false beliefs and myths. Just like unicorns, they didn’t exist in the ordinary life of most people. Not because they hadn’t been there the whole time, just because they were oppressed to the point of invisibility.

Being recognized as existent, worthy of love and acceptance is central for the construction of the personal identity of many lgbt people. The unicorn becomes the symbol of being there when many do not believe in you, to be as real and as worthy of existence as anyone else, without further justification. Just because one exists.

Unicorns do not exist. Or maybe we just failed to see that they have always been there, under another name or another form. For now, I am content of being part of the most fabulous volleyball team ever. We are the Royal Unicorns and I am a proud unicorn.

Forever yours,

‘Miasha

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Disgust

Dear Princess ‘Ishka,

Sometimes we need those moments of pure loneliness. Just locking ourselves in our bedrooms and do whatever we want or nothing at all, away from indiscreet glances. Alone with ourselves. Or almost. Because who knows who else is hiding with us. Spiders, millipedes, silverfishes, flies, midges,… not to talk about mosquitoes!

There are very good hygienical reasons to keep some of these unwanted visitors away from our homes, but a fact remains: no matter how clean and well-supervised your place is, they will always find a way to crawl, fly or scamper in. Whether you want it or not, we live with these creatures and our houses are part of their ecosystems.

If you have developed some sort of moral sensitivity toward animals in general, I have a warning for you: insects are animals too. So a question arises, however of little importance it might sound: is it ok to crush, electrocute, poison to death or simply evict our tiny “flatmates”?

Many of these species are noxious, like mosquitoes, some are the symptom of scarce cleanliness, like cockroaches, others are just very annoying, like flies. There is however one reason I can’t take seriously: disgust.

I can’t understand how certain people find the eight hairy legs of a spider more revolting than swimming with unshaved human beings. You never risk to swallow the hairs of a spider by chance!

Another explanation for disgust might be the great anatomical difference between insects and human animals. One could picture insects as sorts of aliens or monstrous creatures. But again, why be disgusted by such differences? Just mind your own business and the millipede will do the same! Isn’t it wonderful that there is such diversity of shape, color and function even in the otherwise very boring environments of your home sweet home?

Perhaps, other people believe that they could be crawled over by one of these animals, or bitten by a venomous spider. However, how probable is that to happen? I mean, you are thousands of times bigger than a silverfish! Chances are that you inadvertently stomp on him without even noticing, not that he has any interest in getting any closer to you. The same with spiders – whose venom is innocuous in most cases anyways.

Imagination seems to play a very important role in disgust. We imagine that certain things might be too different to be understood, based on their exterior appearances, but it would require little effort to appreciate the industriousness of the spider in building her spectacular web, while we tidy up our place.

We imagine that certain things are much more dangerous than what they truly are, and we could’ve felt much less fear and disgust simply by asking ourselves “What could possibly happen? What is truly at stake and what is just a fanciful exaggeration of our mind?”. Sometimes we are scared by something, and we forget we are thousands of times bigger, more numerous or powerful. We could even forget that the object of our fear might have much better reasons to be scared of us.

Disgust is often thought of as a feeling one can’t change at one’s will. It is almost like distaste. But the disgust we feel toward insects, other animals or other human beings is of a different kind than the distaste we have toward unappealing food. It is almost entirely based on our imagination. And guess what? We can control our imagination and, through it, we can influence how we feel disgust. We could even stop being disgusted, if we retain it not to be rational of us: so great is the power of our minds.

Three days ago it was the international day against homophobia and transphobia. If it is possible for us to stop being scared or disgusted by creatures with more than a pair of legs and more than a pair of eyes, I do believe that, one day, we could even stop being disgusted by our fellow human beings.

Forever yours,

‘Miasha

 

Stigma

Dear Princess ‘Ishka,

I am no stranger to sexual repression. I know how hard it is to live with a social stigma targeting your sexuality. This is a reason for me not to turn away in disgust when I hear about pedophiles. Indeed, one of the greatest sexual stigmas of our time is the one against pedophilia.

If the attempt to have sex with a child raises serious moral concerns, the attraction itself seems to be a condition out of the direct control of the pedophile. Pedophilia, independently of whether it is classified as a psychiatric disorder or as a natural tendency to feel sexual attraction for prepubescent individuals, can’t be blamed insofar as it is a trait of a person and not a choice.

The dilemma of pedophilia is this: there might be a condition on who you are that you can’t change but, at the same time, its expression meets strong moral opposition. Moreover, if we don’t have the puritan presumption of thinking that a pedophile is intrinsically different from non-pedophiles with respect to sexuality, why should this person even try to “change”? Shouldn’t we be open to pedophiles and accepting them as people who have to carry a burden much greater than the one non-pedophiles carry?

Me, J, R, P and J were sitting in my living room as we started talking about the puzzle of pedophilia between a glass of wine and the next. We came up with an imaginary example, which might illustrate an aspect of this dilemma from an interesting perspective.

One of your closest friends – R suggested to call him Steve, has come out to you in the past as a pedophile. It was hard for you to accept him at first, but you have slowly understood his struggles in repressing his inclinations. Now you love him just as you do with all your other close friends. You are also a parent, and your six-year-old son thinks that Steve is a very cool person and he always looks forward for Steve to visit.

Your child doesn’t feel an attraction for Steve in sexual or romantic terms. He is just very fond of him as a human being, and he has no clue about Steve’s struggles with his sexuality. You also know that Steve would do no harm to anybody, especially to children.

One day, your son comes to know that Steve is going on vacation to the Grand Canyon (this part was suggested by J). Steve has found very cheap tickets, he is a climbing specialist and he would do a wonderful guide. Moreover, he would never refuse to make your child happy, given the friendship between you adults.

This would be a one-in-a-life-time experience for your son, and you strongly doubt that there will be any such convenient opportunity for him in the relevantly near future. Unfortunately, you have to work in those days and you can’t join.

Your child really wants to go with Steve to the Grand Canyon none the less. He has twinkly eyes at the thought of exploring the rocky mountains and he has already started scheduling all the experiences he will enjoy with Steve. He trusts Steve as if Steve were you.

Would you let your son go with Steve, knowing that they will be alone for a couple of weeks in the middle of nowhere?

R was still unsure that there would have been no risks for her child. So we add the condition that God himself sends you a vision of your child having the best experiences and coming back home safe and sound. What you can’t know, is how Steve himself is going to feel. Moreover, you have absolutely no clue about the fact that he might feel sexual attraction for your child specifically.

This is a complicated case. Many factors come into play, especially trust, which is only in part a matter of rationality. But another important factor, to my understanding, would be the position you are putting Steve into, if you let your child go with him.

Given what I called the “dilemma of pedophilia”, could you put Steve in such a borderline situation, where he would be alone with the potential object of his sexual desire and no adult friend nearby? Would it be fair of you to leave him confront his demons on his own? Will you think that you have shown your openness to Steve or have you exposed him to his most vulnerable side?

Dealing with this topic raises more questions than answers. But it must be addressed, for we are talking about real people, who have not only been heavily stigmatized, but who are also living real moral dilemmas.

Forever yours,

‘Miasha

EDIT: I’ve found this highly educational and interesting video from TEDMED on the topic, enjoy!

Pro-life

Dear Princess ‘Ishka,

The debate on abortion is one of the most burning ethical disputes of our times. The contenders are, on the one side, the pro-life movement, opposing abortion in all its forms, and the pro-choice movement, open to the possibility of opting for abortion.

As far as I am concerned, I strongly advocate the pro-choice position for very specific reasons. Drawing from feminism, I do believe that the body of a woman should ideally be under her “unconditioned control”, and if she considers the possibility of aborting, her choice must be taken very seriously.

In the real world, however, the choice is constrained by many more conditions. Socio-economic factors as well as medical protocols play a crucial role, not to talk about culture, and patriarchy – which, as far as I can imagine, could have pretty much contaminated medicine as well.

This is for me a reason to stop inquiring further into the general topic of abortion and leave it to the experts. What I can do is to consider a specific example which might already challenge the pro-choice view I adopt.

Consider a dramatic case in which the medical doctors can only save either the life of the mother or the child in her womb. Saving a life means also that no complications or negative side-effects are expected to occur. Who is going to be saved, is going to enjoy perfect health.

Now, say that the woman who is having the baby is a hardcore pro-life, who would prefer to die rather than “murder” her creature. What can a defender of the pro-choice position say in this case? Shall we save the woman against her will or save the child, even if it means that the person who is supposed to make the choice dies?

From a merely utilitarian perspective, even if the one who is saved were to enjoy a perfect state of health and, say, good socio-economic and affective conditions, it is clear that the mother would still pay costs that the baby wouldn’t have to pay, if she survived. The loss of a child could be indeed psychologically debilitating and I just find implausible to add the condition to our example that the saved mother just “doesn’t mind about the death of her child”, especially if she is a pro-life. Saving the child would mean indeed avoiding the greatest pain overall.

However, I don’t think that a pro-choice can truly reason this way. The mother is the source of the final judgment about aborting and the possibility that she dies potentially jeopardizes her authority over the matter. What comes first? The words of the woman or the woman herself? Her choice or her being a choice-maker?

I take this to be a paradox, for respecting the choice means in this case, opting for the death of the choice-maker, hence we can go back and question the validity of the choice in the first place.

My present intuition might probably be wrong, but I think that in such a case the woman as a choice-maker shall be given priority as a full-blown person, capable of intersubjective and linguistic interactions.

If the death of her child is not annihilating her as a person afterwards, she can find a meaning to it with her subsequent pain, with her aversion to how things have gone and potentially by making out of her even a stronger defender of the pro-life movement.

If, on the other hand, she falls in irreversible depression or she kills herself afterwards, the decision to save her will have proven to be a failure.

An easy objection to the view I have just presented is to argue that the once-grown-up-child would just as well make sense of the death of his mother. Actually, he will give it a heroic meaning: his mother has sacrificed her life for him to exist. Isn’t that another very good reason to opt for the death of the mother?

I don’t have a convincing answer to this objection. I just think that meaning can’t be as arbitrary as that. I don’t believe that there is anything heroic in saving the life of something that is not yet capable of minimal intersubjective interactions – apart from vegetative ones, nor that giving birth is such a mystic event.

The mother would die for a huge question mark, not for anyone in particular. She doesn’t have any clue about what kind of human being she is going to give birth to. And love isn’t as easy as loving an unborn: you truly love someone only when you come to appreciate the independence of a person from your ideas and expectations about him.

The more I talk, the less I am convinced. Better leave these questions for further speculations…

Forever yours,

‘Miasha

Death

Dear Princess ‘Ishka,

Few things are as scary as the thought of one’s own death. We can joke about it, we can believe that our soul is immortal, we can convince ourselves that we care more about the death of our friends. But if we seriously take a moment to think about our lifeless body, our own vitreous eyes, unable to take a glance of the world anymore, at the end of our inner, vibrant life made of organs and electric connections, we are overwhelmed by a sense of emptiness.

If we feign in our minds our own death, we can’t find anything valuable anymore. Why wake up in the morning? Why work, study, eat, take care of how we look and of our health, think about other human beings, our relationships in general? Why move at all? Why breathe?

It is plain to see how counterproductive engaging with such a thought might be. Especially because it can’t stay a cold and detached speculation for that long. The contrast with our actual life is too great and too close to be avoided, and negative feelings start slithering between our thoughts, accompanied by the silent veil of depression.

Is there a way to think about the end of our existence as sentient material beings without such negative feelings? Is there any antidote to such desperation, however illusory it might be?

Many religions offer systems of powerful narrations about how to face the thought of death. In the Christian tradition, the soul survives the material death of the body. Hinduists believe in re-incarnation, whereas for Buddhism we are one and the same with nature and we should try to bridge the gap between our subjective existence and the material body, which are one ad the same.

However, these narrations stand on complex metaphysical assumptions, which often end up in mystery, esoterism and ascetism. For a more down to earth approach, the material body with its subjective existence is fundamental and the thought of its irreversible death ineludible. So we shall play within our limited existence, with what we have already and not with promises or hopes that are grounded elsewhere.

Recall the motive of death in the Harry Potter saga. J.K. Rowling often underlines the fact that Harry survived the lethal enchantment of Voldemort because of the love of his parents, Lily and James Potter, who sacrificed their lives to save him.

The story might have gone in two ways: Lily and James Potter were overwhelmed by a feeling of love which made them forget about the fear of death, or they were conscious of the risk but they told themselves none the less the “love story” and suddenly their death made sense as a cost to be paid for something more valuable. The second way is much more heroic, but needn’t be more imaginary. Indeed, we often need reason for action and, unless we want to say that Lily and James Potter acted on a bare stronger feeling, we shall admit that a story like the one Rowling tells us is precisely what the characters were telling themselves.

The philosopher Baruch Spinoza claimed that a passion can be contrasted only with a stronger passion but, in the case of the thought of death, the fear of death strongly depends on our imagination and on a story we tell ourselves. Does this mean that we can tell the story we prefer? Not quite, for the stories about ourselves are “monitored” by our friends and can’t be manipulated as we like.

The coolest part of stories is that they don’t belong only to their inventor. They become public and they are shared between audiences and story-tellers. The more other people know about your story, the less your story stays a burden of yours. In this sense, the “love story” between Lily, James and the little Harry created a context where the death of the parents wasn’t a burden for them individually, but it was shared in the wider narration of the saga. Accordingly, it might have been a little less scary and less meaningless.

We are not alone. We value things and people first-personally, it’s true. But people do value us as well – and certain nonhuman animals too. To a certain extent, “we live in their eyes” and we live in the stories we tell and that are told about ourselves. As a consequence, the more we share our stories, the less we need to face death on our own.

The love story didn’t only save Harry that night. It saved all its protagonists.

Forever yours,

‘Miasha

Fat-shaming

Dear Princess ‘Ishka,

Chicken wings, French fries and Coke are irresistible for some individuals, who often display a certain aversion to physical activity. But if they are happy, why bother?

Nowadays, there seem to be two very wide spread opinions on fat people: one is to consider being fat detrimental of the physical and psychological health of a person, and the other supports overweight people in loving themselves against a society of fat-shamers.

At a first glance, I don’t see why the former view should be discriminatory, or the latter crazy, nor why they should be incompatible. Indeed, under the right description, being fat can be a symptom of an unhealthy lifestyle, whereas the social stigma on fat people is pervasive in (at least) western societies.

The easy way of solving this apparent opposition would be to say that being fat is ok for you insofar as you have a healthy lifestyle. Fat-shaming, on the other hand, is never ok, period. But what does count as a healthy lifestyle?

The body-positivity movement has emphasized in recent years the importance of loving your body no matter what and the total opposition to “unrealistic beauty standards”. But what does “no matter what” mean? Does it perhaps mean “independently of an active lifestyle and a healthy nutrition”?

The risk of the ideology behind the body-positivity movement is not really that having an unhealthy lifestyle becomes ok, but rather that taking care of one’s body is somehow less important than taking care of one’s own feelings. The most valuable thing in “love your body” is love, not your body.

In a society with such a heavy stigma on overweight people, what is this ideology leading to if not delusion that one is valuable independently of one’s body? I can love myself, even if I am led to hate myself for being fat. That means that I don’t really love my body, I rather love my personality or my intelligence. But what are we if not body and our understanding of it?

To love oneself truly, and without delusion or repression, one must seriously take care of one’s “materiality”. We are flesh and bones, and there is beauty in the way we cultivate the matter we are made of.

I would thence underline the strong individuality of this process in the face of social stigma or “beauty standards”. This individuality doesn’t mean “everything goes”, but it is regulated by a coherent, unified and consistent personal system of values, which poses the body at one of its focal points.

Can you be content with your body, given the attention with which you treat it? If the answer is yes according to your system, then you truly have nothing to worry about.

Essential for a body-positivity movement is then the focus on self-appreciation through self-cultivation and not on unconditioned self-love. You always need criteria to assess your own beauty, your own worth and your own essence. Without any such criteria, your judgment will remain arbitrary and unreliable, and you will be left to laziness and excessive self-indulgence. How can you trust your self-love if it is always present under the same motto and doesn’t tell you what to do to actually feel better?

I still think that the greatest health issue overweight people face is the discrimination they encounter on a daily base. That is a public battle for recognition and positivity to be fought in the media industry and in ordinary life, by means of supportive actions. But for an individual to feel better about his body, reliable plans and objectives are fundamental.

Self-confidence depends on our world view inclusive of a robust comprehension of our own bodies. If you don’t mind about what you are made of, how can you mind anything at all?

Forever yours,

‘Miasha

 

Trolley

Dear Princess ‘Ishka,

If you were the driver of a tram out of control, on its way to run over a group of five people unable to move away from the tracks, and you had the chance only to deviate to a second track and kill instead only one person, would you turn to the second track?

This dilemma is known in moral philosophy as the “trolley problem”, and its many formulations have produced a whole literature of their own. The intuition underlying this problem is that, even if killing one person instead of five would produce the least pain and loss, that wouldn’t make the decision to turn to the second track much easier.

Indeed, I have the feeling that the trolley problem is an insoluble puzzle, and that there is no way for the poor tram driver to take a clearly more sensible decision. My approach, which I consider the most widely shared among adults, could be however not as popular among children.

In a short video appeared on YouTube around two years ago, the child of a professor of moral psychology was confronted with the trolley problem, and gave an original solution. He decided to move the lone person on the first track. “Cute child”, I thought at first, “he understands that there is no way out and that all six people are equally deserving to live. He thus liberated the second track to proceed peacefully with his miniature train”. Well, apparently I was wrong. He disposed the sixth miniature person on the first track just to run over everyone at once.

Now, independently of the funny interpretations of the child’s psychology you can read in the comments of the video, which has by now received more than 11 million views, it might seem that there is nothing philosophically interesting in the child’s solution. The child has not solved anything at all, he hasn’t even understood the problem – or his father has not been clear enough.

But this trivial considerations shouldn’t necessarily be the whole story. Independently of what that child thought, what he did was peculiar in another sense. Facing the trolley problem means facing a tragedy, no matter what. And the fairest way to handle an inevitable evil, as the child has shown us, could be that the evil be shared by the greatest amount of people.

A very minimal (and insufficient) conception of justice would work perfectly without any idea of the good: “just” or “fair” is the condition, which equally applies to each individual we are considering within a society, independently of how good that condition is. As much as utility would require us to sacrifice one person for the sake of the other five, this minimal conception of justice would require us to create equal conditions for all people on the tracks. Given that in the trolley problem someone must inevitably die, the tram driver should run over the five people on her way, and then go back to finish off the last one standing.

The trolley problem is not only a puzzle about utility in moral philosophy, it is also a puzzle about justice. And in just the same way a form of utility imposing the sacrifice of the few for the well being of the most can be sometimes tolerated, a form of justice imposing a shared negative condition could be sometimes tolerated, just for the sake of justice.

Isn’t this crazy? Isn’t it crazy to take seriously the “miniature train example”? What would it mean to “share a negative condition for justice’s sake”? I am not completely confident about this conclusion myself, but I think that, at least temporarily, it could be good for many people (me included) to truly grasp the extent of their privilege and the tragedy of injustice. Understanding the meaning of true justice would indeed require us to coherently follow its minimal dictates and be equal to the most disadvantaged, to the discriminated and the emarginated. To women when you are man, to blacks when you are white, to immigrants when you are a local, to the needy when you are wealthy.

This wouldn’t mean to put oneself in someone else’s shoes, for you will never know what it feels like to be something you simply are not, and which has not determined most of your life. It can be however a good exercise in self-criticism.

The trolley problem might be insoluble, and only a crazy person would apply utility and justice to that situation. But the world is not always an insoluble dilemma. Indeed, many of its dilemmas are insoluble only insofar as you defend the status quo as a standard of morality and justice. But we can do better than the status quo. We can think, at least since the time we start playing with miniature trains.

Forever yours,

‘Miasha