Democracy

Dear Princess ‘Ishka,

Democracy is under attack in many countries. Its main opponents are of two very different kinds: those who express genuine skepticism about democracy and those who damage democracy by having a completely distorted understanding of it. These latter are the most dangerous for democracy, especially because of their great number and because of the ease with which they spread their simplistic views.

In this letter I will assume that democracy is a fundamental value for human political well being. Hence, I will try to defend it from what could be called the “populist understanding of democracy” (PUD).

According to PUD, democracy equals the power of the people. So far, nothing to object. The problems start as soon as we try to understand what “power” and “people” mean from this perspective. In fact, PUD holds that (1) “power” equals the possibility to enact the will of the people, and (2) “people” equals a given majority within the population of a country.

I think that both (1) and (2) are problematic, even if taken independently from one another.

Let’s start with (1), which is already based on the controversial assumption that there is anything to be called a unified will of the people. It is plain to see that the will of the people might be ill-guided and led to bad decisions, as the will of anyone.

If democracy equals such will, however, how could there be any possibility to criticize a wrong decision, if the ruled are those making the rules? There could be no resistance, no parliamentary discussion: the will of the people would decide once and for all, even if it were to deliberate about jumping off a cliff altogether.

Democracy is about the conditions to allow people to exercise their power, starting from freedom. Hence, it can’t surrender to whatever the people decides for itself, for that might be crazy, and no one could stop a bad decision which is the expression of the will of the people as a whole.

The first half of the 20th century has shown the paradox which PUD incurs: the will of the people might be anti-democratic sometimes. If we want to avoid this paradox, democracy can’t allow for authoritarian drifts, even if it were to go against the will of its people.

It is true of course, that a democracy should defend the interests of its people, and do so by listening carefully to the voice of everyone. Still, the modality and the forms must be democratic.

With “democratic” I mean subject to free parliamentary discussions, based on rational argumentation, representation of as many relevant perspectives as possible and well-balanced mediation between conflicting valuable interests. Nothing is further from this conception than the arbitrariness of the people’s will.

Now I come to point (2) of PUD, according to which the power of the people is the expression of the power of the majority. This assumption clashes directly with any sensible conception of democracy, for democracy is about the inclusion of everyone belonging to the democratic system, and not about the dominion of a part of the population over the rest.

The favorite tool for a conception of democracy like PUD’s is the referendum, which is supposed to directly enact the will of a majority.

Although a referendum can be helpful in settling certain matters where a majority is required and relevant, to equal democracy to a practice of deliberating by means of referenda is unacceptable.

As Ireland has unfortunately shown in the last few years, referenda can easily fall into the following paradox: a majority deliberates about matters concerning a minority or about fundamental human rights. The former case was that of the Irish referendum about “same-sex marriages” in 2015; the latter that of last week’s Irish referendum about abortion.

Both matters can’t be held hostages of a majority of individual voters, for they affect only the lives of people belonging to minorities (e.g. lgbt people) or are about fundamental human rights (e.g. the right to abort), which come before the “preferences of the mass”.

Taken together, conditions (1) and (2) do not produce democracy at all. What they produce are demagogy and tyranny, that is political systems orchestrating the will of the majority, which could very easily go astray and give rise to the most horrible forms of oppression, domination and violation of fundamental rights.

Democracy is a political system that reliably protects us from such dangerous degenerations. We need to defend it in turn at all costs, especially from those who attempt to distort its meaning.

Forever yours,

‘Miasha

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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

Homophobia

Dear Princess ‘Ishka,

Have you ever heard that “the greatest homophobes are closeted gays”? Yes, me too. This is often shouted on social media as a progressive statement, both from lgbt people as from non-lgbt. It is declared with a great confidence and greater support, even if it is unclear to what extent it targets homophobes and to what extent it targets gays in the closet.

In this letter I will attempt to show that this statement is not only arbitrary and ill-grounded, but also that it hides a slithering superstition, with an often underestimated homophobic flavor.

To be a “great homophobe”, I take it, is to be known for public homophobic utterances and jokes, for open opposition to extension of rights to lgbt couples, and to laws to protect lgbt citizens from homophobic attacks, either physical or verbal.

Many people, it seems, think that being a repressed gay makes you homophobic in virtue of your “internalized homophobia”, namely the hate toward yourself for being gay. Moreover, this internalized homophobia, which non-gays don’t feel, would cause externalization of “greater homophobia”.

When anti-lgbt politicians and public figures get caught in homosexual sex scandals, this ‘theory’ is applied to stigmatize at once their sexual repression and homophobia. But why is sexual repression to be stigmatized? Isn’t it an effect of homophobia, rather than its cause?

It will be replied: no one is attacking sexual repression, it is just that homophobia and sexual repression together make greater homophobia. Look at what a masterpiece of nonsense we have come up with!

Homophobia makes a person sexually repressed and, because of this repression, the person is even more homophobic. This would mean that the person is not at all to blame for his homophobia! If sexual repression (and not a person’s will) makes it the case that a gay guy is more homophobic, he is just a greater victim, rather than a greater homophobe. The only thing to blame remains the social phenomenon of homophobia, not the specific homophobia of those closeted people!

Our initial statement falls into a tautology about the devastating effects of homophobia on the psychological and sexual integrity of a gay person, and it most probably blames the wrong thing, that is sexual repression rather than homophobia. And if it were to blame homophobia, it doesn’t blame the “right kind” of homophobia: it targets that of an individual, when it is the whole society’s, which stands at the root of the evil.

A couple of years ago I met a gay guy, who makes a perfect “case study” (call him G). He enjoys economical and emotional stability, he has a wonderful boyfriend, but no one knows he is gay at his workplace. G told me, rather proudly, that he was used to mock one of his subordinates for his effeminate manners.

Although the boldness of G to come out as a proud homophobe among gays in a gay bar must be appreciated, I couldn’t negate him the thrill of a homicidal look.

Is G a greater homophobe than homophobes because he still is in the closet? Is his sexual repression a good explanation of his behavior? What if, instead, being a “straight-acting” man in a position of power, he behaves precisely like a very average homophobic straight guy the way it is expected of him in his workplace environment?

This is the point: you don’t need sexual repression to explain homophobia. All you need is to analyze the social phenomenon of homophobia and see that, even those who should be expected to feel affinity to the oppressed because of a common “natural condition”, forget one of the most fundamental requirements of morality: respect.

G is just as disrespectful toward his subordinate as any non-gay homophobe. He is not worse, or greater in his homophobia. On the other hand, his sexual repression or internalized homophobia doesn’t justify his revolting behavior in any way.

What can we conclude about “the greatest homophobes” then? First of all, that people who think we can single out anything like that, have a very poor understanding of homophobia, which is a much wider spread way of thinking and behaving, subtler and more terrible than what the inconsistent utterances of anti-lgbt politicians make us think. Second, that they do stigmatize sexual repression, which is a form of blaming the victims. But there is something more.

If you blame a victim for precisely what oppresses her, you are making a favor to the oppressor. You are complicit in homophobia, because you ascribe it to the wrong entity and implicitly make non-gay homophobes somewhat look less guilty.

True freedom of identity, sexuality and womanhood can be achieved only by destroying a monster which has assumed many names over time, but can sometimes be recognized for its means: witch hunt.

Forever yours,

‘Miasha

Rational-Nazi

Dear Princess ‘Ishka,

Sometimes I have the impression that it is easy to misunderstand the nature of what I call “principles”. Some friends have expressed the worry that the moral, rational and scientific principles I talk about might be too dogmatic. Months ago, after earning the infamous title of “rational-Nazi”, I realized that clarification was needed. Foremost, I was in the need of a little rehab from my “psychological rationalism”, which I have hopefully reduced to livable standards by now.

But the worry remains: how can we understand those principles, which I take to be so important to navigate the insecure waters of our relativistic era, where it seems that climate change can be legitimately held as a “Chinese hoax”, where liberal societies are confronted with the paradox of non-ironic Nazi talks at universities, and where science is held either religiously as a Bible or an opinion among that of the local priest, of tabloid journalists or of your neighbor Joe, who never misses a chance to warn you about the next alien invasion?

Unfortunately, I don’t have the space to explore extensively the implications of my intuitions, so let me just sketch the broad meaning of my “principles”. In few words, principles are parameters framing debates concerning morality, science and topics whose discussion generally requires rationality. Those parameters are constructed through continuous dialogue but, once established, they constrain further discussions in a normative way. In other words, they are always negotiable at a certain level of discussion, that of discussing the best method or the best framework to talk about a certain phenomenon. However, once they have been established, they stop being negotiable in further discussions, and deviance from them is fallacious. The conditions of agreement are given by mutual understanding, mutual recognition of rationality, mutual recognition of sincere intents and probably something else I have not yet figured out.

To put it simple: principles are an outcome of constant dialogue and, in turn, they constrain further dialogues. This does not mean that everyone can question principles at any time. For instance, principles of science are outcomes of dialogues within the scientific community, and can’t take into account, say, inconsistent monologues of bizarre White House’s tenants.

My idea of principles remains very sketchy, but I hope that, at least in this context, it will save me from the direct accusation of dogmatism, given the importance I concede to its dialogical component.

And here we come to today’s topic: Are there cases in which the possibility of dialogue is undermined by the very nature of the topic of the dialogue? Or are there topics which can’t be talked about for their very content? It might sound dogmatic (actually authoritarian), but I think the answer is yes.

Take for instance the following questions: “Are women less intelligent than men?”; “Is homosexuality based on a moral perversion?”; “Are Muslims worthy of respect?”; “Do white people constitute a superior race?”. Consider the first question concerning women. In a dialogue involving a woman, it seems that her ability to discuss at the same level as men is put at stake. Therefore, the validity of the dialogue itself is put at stake. Even if the answer were “no, there is no a priori difference in intelligence”, the dialogue would be based on the suspension of the recognition of the woman’s capacity to argue for a position or another (at least, not at a man’s level).

The same can be said with respect to the questions that follow. If a lesbian were to argue about the possibility of homosexuality being a perverted moral choice, her ability to judge might be deemed as unreliable for a “conflict of interests”. That is, it seems that she would have an interest in defending a position rather than another and her appeal to the evidence of her subjective experience would be unreliable. Even if she were taken as reliable-no-matter-what, given the possibility of a positive answer to the not-yet-settled question, there would still be a chance that she is morally perverted, hence that she is not as reliable as her non-homosexual interlocutors. I think it is clear why the questions about Muslims and white people present the same flaws, for similar reasons.

Should we establish taboos to go side by side with principles then? I don’t think so. Instead, I think we should focus on what level of discussion to adopt. There are certain questions, which require dialogues about the validity of the questions themselves. I think I have shown that some of those questions don’t stand scrutiny. We see how absurd they are and how absurd it would be to engage in debates concerning them.

I don’t know if this way of thinking can be still considered a sort of “rational-Nazism” (term that I abhor). But, if so, I would still by far prefer rational-Nazis to talk at universities, rather than actual Nazis.

Forever yours,

‘Miasha

Taste

Dear Princess ‘Ishka,

When did you first understand that you liked a particular ice cream flavor? You probably had to taste several flavors and you thought that, perhaps, vanilla was your favorite. And after a while, you could have also probably changed your tastes and nowadays you like mint the most, or chocolate, coffee, watermelon, or who knows better than you? Tastes have a certain stability, but they can lose it with time and regain a new one. They don’t really depend on choice, but they definitely depend on experience and they are embedded in cultural practices. The more you experience, the more it is probable for your tastes to change.

Now, scope of this letter is to show that sexual orientation is fundamentally different from sexual tastes. I feel the need of writing this kind of letter because many people see no difference between the taste of ice cream and the fact that some girls like boys and others do not. Instead, there is a distinction, and this distinction matters if we want to better understand the implications of sexual orientation in our lives.

First of all, I think that sexual tastes do exist. Some of them are known as “fetishisms”, but also the simple attraction to a certain body-type is a taste. As tastes in general, also sexual tastes respond to the criteria I’ve already exposed: they are usually stable even if they can vary with experience; culture and experience are the basis upon which one can explore them and eventually change them. But sexual tastes and sexual orientation are not the same thing.

When a heterosexual man – call him Juan, favors casual sex over sex with the same person, he displays certain tastes and certain habits. It has surely happened to Juan that certain sexual partners were more enjoyable than others and he has sharpened his taste in women as sexual partners. At the same time, these tastes are constrained by his heterosexual orientation. He looked for women and not men to have sex with. Someone may object that he didn’t look for women: he chased only “good-looking women” and he would have found distasteful to have sex with bad-looking women as well as with men.

But there are good-looking men also! And I don’t think that a hedonist such as Juan would have denied that certain men can be extremely attractive, also depending on one’s tastes. He simply is heterosexual rather than bisexual, and his tastes are directed at a certain category of women he finds “good-looking”. To argue for the theoretical distinction between sexual orientation and sexual tastes doesn’t mean that the two things aren’t usually strictly related. We always display sexual tastes depending on our sexual orientation.

But then, what is sexual orientation supposed to be? Why doesn’t it respond to the same criteria of tastes? This is a very hard question that experts of human sexuality are still trying to answer. I am not an expert and my aim is not to define orientation, nor taste. I just want to argue philosophically for their distinction and I think that the best way to do so, is to say that orientation shapes our lives long before we develop sexual tastes. In fact, in the scientific literature on the topic, experts are used to refer to children as “pre-straight” or “pre-gay” depending on what sexual orientation they will develop later. But these terms do not only define children negatively – i.e. in terms of what they are not yet. Indeed, some pre-gay children manifest “deviant behaviors” when they have still long to wait before puberty. The “deviance” happens with respect to cultural heteronormative standards and not to supposed “biological standards”. The only issue with homosexuality is that too often, people don’t see that all mysteries related to it belong also to heterosexuality. That is to say that, if pre-gay children manifest their “pre-sexuality” so early, the same might very probably be the case for pre-straight children, with the difference that the social context they grow up into favors their adaptation unlike for non-straight people.

Experience and culture can’t do much to influence our sexual orientation. Sexual orientation and culture are both fundamental and irreducible features of our sexuality: they ground our sexual tastes and shape them. For the same reason, a Catholic priest may avoid sex for his entire life and not develop sexual tastes, but he will always have a certain sexual orientation – surprisingly as it may sound. As a matter of fact, sexual taste is strictly related to sexual practice, whereas sexual orientation is independent of it.

You can’t say that Juan doesn’t know whether he is heterosexual or not because he has not yet tried homosexual intercourse. He knows he is heterosexual the same way most of us know. On the other hand, it is ok to invite Juan to a bdsm party, for he will never know how enjoyable bdsm is if he has never tried it! For the record, I never did. But now I like vanilla ice cream… who knows what I will like tomorrow?

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

Gender

Dear Princess ‘Ishka,

Dualistic gender is a big issue. It poses constraints on our behaviour and on our everyday life, but mostly on the way we think. Dualistic gender means that if you are a man you have to act in the way appropriate to man, and if you are a woman you have to act accordingly to being a woman. This rigidity of roles is both internal, shaping our mental states, and external, determining obligations and permissions as well as prohibitions.

An article appeared last month on Time dealt with the process of redefinition of gender going on among young people in recent years. The “no-gender generation” tries to get rid of the dualism of gender by spreading a countless amount of new labels for those finding “man” and “woman” too tight fitting, if not completely inappropriate. From pansexual to polyamorous, from non-binary to gender-fluid, there seems to be a label for any identification.

What kind of social significance does this identification present? The answer can be tracked in the following distinction I make: there is a personal and intimate dimension of gender and a public and political dimension.

When you call yourself “gender-fluid” in the sense that you don’t recognize your behaviour as conforming to the dualistic labels, and you feel like swinging between various patterns of behaviour, you are trying to give a name to what you feel on the inside. And this attempt of defining yourself will always be an approximation, since the way we experience gender is particularly complicated and resist precise definitions and labels.

However, when you scream to the world that you exist and you deserve the same recognition as a member of society  the way all other members are recognised, then “gender fluid”, “lesbian”, “gay”, “transsexual”,… assume a completely new meaning. This new meaning is a political one, rather than a personal one. It is also very precise, insofar as it categorises you as “politically different”.

When you have suffered homophobia or transphobia or similar forms of discrimination, you are not “just like the others”. Of course, we are all the same on the inside, for there is almost a gender identity for each human being. But on the outside that changes. It changes as soon as you get confronted with the dualism of gender, which structures society.

If you can’t identify as a man or a woman, you are left alone, as a strange beast unable to cope with its “natural” habitat. And when you grow up and come to know that your identity needn’t conform to the dualism, you also need society to know. The habitat must structurally change to welcome you as an authentic member of society.

Bisexuals exist and asexuals exist too. And they are, along with all the other identities, political realities. The intimate dimension of gender remains so far a mystery,  and self-identification can help get through the trouble of alienation. But the category under which a person suffers the pain of systematic discrimination has no ambiguity.

A gender-revolution must be aware of the two battlefronts. One is intimate and based on empathy, compassion and altruism. The other is a categorical vindication of existence and equality.

Forever yours,

‘Miasha