Tattoo

Dear Princess ‘Ishka,

I am far from being a “tattoo victim”. I just have two little tattoos and I am going cautiously for the third, but that doesn’t hold me from being a great fan of tattoo art. I love tattoos of all styles and shapes, decorative, dramatic, profound, funny, classic, Japanese, mistaken… all of them!

Writing and drawing on our skin has yet become a mainstream practice, especially among young generations. Tattoos are usually known as a form of art, but can also play a role in religious practices and in cultures in general, especially with respect to rites of passage. They have been studied extensively by cultural anthropologists, who often consider tattoos important mediums for the “construction” of Men (and Women). As a matter of fact, it is a position often defended in anthropology that no human being is born a Man, but it is rather through cultural practices that the human being leaves her animal nature behind to become part of the human society.

But why are so many people driven to get their skin inked permanently in the spoiled, globalized and capitalistic societies of nowadays, where everything appears to serve the logic of profit, without any space left for artistic and cultural value? Are we really nothing more than roving zombies, selling the brands we are marked by, just to follow the last trend and buy again what is being sold by the skin of others?

No. At least, I don’t think that self-determination has been entirely replaced by capitalist determination. We still can see the traces of a cultural phenomenon, not based on strictly economic structures.

As some contemporary philosophers have noted, the Cartesian separation of body and mind has never completely abandoned the way westerners conceive of themselves as persons. The body is usually considered a dead vehicle, carrying around our living “thinking substance”. This enables us to think about our bodies as being plastic, modifiable, almost replaceable, like products on the market.

At the same time, I think that having a tattoo could be interpreted in the opposite way, as the attempt to reconnect body to soul. To make concrete something our elusive and forgetful mind could lose track of. To shape our bodies according to our minds, not for mere conformism, but in order to make our bodies look more similar to what is going on in our brains.

One of the dearest friends of mine showed me once the pair of wings she was carrying on her back, those with which her sister is flying up in the sky, now that she has passed away. The cousin of another friend had a black, straight segment tattooed on her forearm, which reminds her of one of the best holidays she has ever had. I have a Greek Ф (phi) on my wrist, which connects me to the realms of philosophy, nature (physis), and friendship (philia), among other things.

Getting oneself tattooed is part of the endeavor of building bridges between the physical and the psychological dimensions of ourselves. We are still trying to “construct ourselves” with tattoos, but not from scratch, nor to get rid of our “animal nature”. We try to resew the mind-body rip our frenetic societies have enlarged. We try to “pull ourselves together”, against the external pressure aimed at tearing us apart to make ourselves more efficient and productive in the marketplace.

Whatever we are, we are also made of our personal histories and stories, and tattoos offer a new possibility for our bodies to tell them. I think no one should worry about getting a tattoo, but rather of doing (or refrain from doing) something which doesn’t belong to one’s true inclinations. Also, not being excessively thoughtful often helps to make the right decision.

Forever yours,

‘Miasha

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Progress

Dear Princess ‘Ishka,

To bring progress in a culture is something way harder than what is suggested by many idealistic political speeches. Cultural models shape our behaviors and thoughts in such a rigid way that they can even resist opposing principles of utility and morality. Sometimes, it takes much more than being open minded to appreciate the progress I am talking about, because were it to occur, it would subvert the very definition of ourselves, open-mindedness included.

At the same time, culture changes constantly, and everyone can observe how easily we adapt to new trends. Think about the many flashes in the pan of fashion, like wearing leggings for girls or red snickers for boys, to name just two (relatively) recent ones. But consider also the sudden spread of viral activities like doing Yoga or playing Pokémon Go. These cultural phenomena don’t bring usually the systematic and long lasting change is needed to talk about progress. They come and go, without there being any true criterion to think they are progressive. What could those criteria be then? Well, for instance, utility and morality are two very good candidates to define progress. But to outline what is progressive and what is not is no aim of this letter.

This time I would like to talk about a possible proof of current cultural progress. The proof is indirect, for it took an external and contingent factor to make it emerge. As a matter of fact, it was the uncommon heatwave the UK faced a couple of weeks ago that moved dozens of pupils in Exeter to protest against the rigid dress code of their school in a quite unexpected way. As you have probably heard, they started wearing skirts given that the school was forbidding shorts for boys.

The happening was reported world-wide and it was echoed by a similar protest from bus drivers in Nantes (France). Are these protests examples of cultural progress? They were definitely respecting criteria of utility, for the boys and the men were too uncomfortable wearing long trousers with the infernal temperatures. Moreover, they were subversive enough to cover the front pages of many national and international magazines. If there is no direct moral reason to praise their gesture, it is however clear that their intent wasn’t to mock girls, and it required a good dose of courage to show up dressed in a way widely considered inappropriate for boys.

But true progress is not only made by pupils and bus drivers wearing skirts because of the heat. It was already there, like gunpowder waiting for the spark to ignite. It was in the parents’ thoughts as they helped the boys find the skirts and supported them. It was in the thoughts of the bus drivers, because someone made it thinkable in the first place.

It is plausible that I am too optimistic about the possibility to overcome current dressing standards based on gender. After all, it is hard to think that men will soon abandon the idea that they can’t be elegant or “authoritative” enough without a suit. But I have the feeling that we are on the right track and that, step by step, we will eventually get to live in a society where women won’t be forced anymore to shave their legs and armpits to be “decent” and where men won’t base their self-confidence on looking as normal and uniform as possible.

Putting on a dress is an experience everyone should have the opportunity to try. Once you overcome the fear of abandoning the comfort of your gender based habits, you experience a whole new kind of freedom. A dress doesn’t make you adapt to the rest, like suits do. It rather adapts to you, embracing your shapes and reflecting your taste and personality.

Still, men won’t abandon their dull and unoriginal way of dressing that easily. At least, not before we will have abandoned the idea that women grow make-up spontaneously on their faces, that their legs and armpits are naturally hairless and that “woman” equals “fashion-beauty-standards”.

No, “woman” doesn’t mean “beauty”. A strong personality means beauty, independently of one’s gender. And that’s precisely one of the directions of cultural progress I think we should strive for, in general and for ourselves individually.

Forever yours,

‘Miasha

Hope

Dear Princess ‘Ishka,

Last Saturday my hometown hosted a gay pride for the first time in its history. I already knew the event was to take place, but interestingly I found myself filled with awe as I scrolled the photos on Facebook and Instagram. It was striking for me to see the very place in which I grew up experiencing homophobia and bigotry on a daily base being invaded by rainbow flags and people of all ages and colors reunited to celebrate inclusion and the value of life in all its orientations.

I don’t live in the city I was born anymore, and I wouldn’t like to go back to live there in the future either. My city rejected me when I was most in the need of being accepted, it suffocated my personality and clipped the wings of my aspirations. It burned the soil around me, hindering my youth from flourishing and attempting to force me into madness. How can I love a place like that? How can I appreciate the perks of a hometown, which smashed the foundations of my positivity?

Back then, my city was grey and disheartening. The best people were the hypocrites, because “honesty” meant verbal harassment to me.

Now everything looks different. Last Saturday, thousands of people gathered together, swarming through the streets of the city center saying out loud that equality is no empty word to embellish political correctness. It must be substantial and it must be for everyone, unconditionally. Noticing my cousin with her husband, their two-year-old twins on the respective shoulders, and their third daughter marching along with the crowd, felt as if they were liberating the places of my oppression. I saw it as a cathartic parade, to purify the moral pollution my city was saturated by.

I wasn’t there, and I would agree with anyone accusing me of cowardice. My case is even worse, since I have not contributed to the liberation in general. I went away, leaving my past behind irremediably.

As time went by, my resentment got milder and more rational, but it has always underlied my feelings. However, something new has recently burst into my emotional spectrum. It’s a feeling I have always mistrusted, for all it usually brings is stagnation, indulgence and delusion. It is what the strong tell the weak to feel, in order to control them and justify injustice. But now I have reasons to let it grow in me. My ex fellow citizens have shown a courage and a dedication which is more than admirable, it brings hope for the future. Hope is what they make me feel for the hopeless place of my youth.

Maybe I don’t have the right to feel something as lazy as hope for people who are fighting for the ongoing liberation. Maybe they would prefer “less words and more facts” from me. Unfortunately, I doubt that I have anything to share with my hometown anymore.

I still would like to humbly dedicate this letter to them, if you will allow me to, my princess. I dedicate it to the strength they have that I lack, because they didn’t give up when I did. So, thank you, even if you won’t read this letter. Thank you because a tiny piece of world is a better place thanks to you. And my little me of the past would have been very proud of each one of you.

Forever yours,

‘Miasha

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 thighs 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 thighs. 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