Tuesday, April 17, 2007

basis of my thesis

I think the core of my thesis is this: how do you defend someone whose identity is stigmatised?

My central idea is that this is usually done very badly, e.g. stigma is often deflected (like the Lebanese vying to be included in the category of "White" in early twentieth century Australia, or asylum seekers described as "not criminals"), and often reasserts the dominance of what I call (following Goffman) the normals .

Something I've been exploring is how stigmatised groups can be appreciated for their strengths, rather than trying to hide their difference. I think this is best done in artistic forms. For example, Merinda Epstein has drawn a gorgeous cartoon about a woman with a mental illness going to a job interview and talking about her qualities; she states that she has "exquisite sensitivity" and "deep insight into human suffering." Lest this representation become too sentimental, Merinda undercuts this with several less desirable qualities, the last of which is that "sometimes my medication makes me fart."

I read a theory that the internet was created by people with aspergers syndrome, as a tool to be able to communicate in more comfortable ways. Ever since, this image has stuck in my mind. Why have I never before realised that there are other relationships to have with people who have a diagnosis of a mental illness, besides pity.

This Margaret Cho quote celebrating gay men I have to include in full:
"What I love most about gay men is the way that they are about sex. ... There is a kind of fun and frivolity that surrounds gay men and their sexuality that is not there for straight men and sex. I think if you are oppressed over who you wanna sleep with, when you actually go and do it, you're going to have a really good time. If you are hated for who you like to fuck, you are gunna kick up your heels and fuck. And it is such an inspiration to watch."

I love that she talks about fucking. Because too many (defensive) representations of queer life talk about us as if we don't fuck. They sanitise our lives, as if that will make us more acceptable, as if by not drawing attention to the central aspect that we are hated for, maybe we'll be accepted, maybe the bigots will overlook the fact that we desire to fuck each other. I love that Cho values this as a strength of queer culture, not some embarrassing aspect that is better hidden.

In my own experience, I've realised that my queer experiences of negotiating being/not being "out" has given me a genuine insight into privacy and disclosure, in the context of negotiating stigma. Last week I was chatting with a colleague about whether or not I could tell a mutual friend that this colleague and I work together. Our job has a certain level of taboo to it, and I knew instinctively to pause to consider whether the information was disclosable, or whether I should ascertain how "out" this colleague was about her job, before telling anyone what she does. I have a similar instinct with the other information people have disclosed to me. I'm not claiming some high moral ground for queers, but rather, I'm arguing that there is a certain empathy that comes from having a "discreditable" (to use another of Goffman's terms) aspect to one's life.

Finally, I've also heard young Muslim women talk about their relationships with each other, about how Islam-influenced gender relations have brought them closer to each other, to a level of intimacy with other women that was absent in my teenage years, despite being in an all-women's environment.


I've also been thinking a lot lately about how ahistorical much progressive thinking is. I mean, it really wasn't that long ago that queers were forcibly institutionalised and given shock treatment to "cure" our homosexuality. And of course, the Nazis were gassing us (well, gay men predominantly) along with the Jews, the Communists, the Gypsies and the "mentally feeble." I read somewhere that the Nazis first tested their gas chambers on inmates of mental asylums - people were already locked up and whom no one cared much about anyway - they were incredibly expendable. So, I feel like to act as if being queer is very ordinary is to forget this past. I'm not sure how one does draw on this past, but I like how Margaret Cho deals with it - to acknowledge that this past has consequences for today, that it influences how we exist in the world.

Conversely, I think a lot of people act as if Islamophobia is a relatively new phenomenon, especially since the word "Islamophobia" is such a recent coinage. Apparently, according to the Oxford dictionary, it was first used in 1976, but became more popular in the 1990s. That's a pretty short history. But the more I read about the historical relations between Muslim-majority nations and Christian-majority nations, the more I realise how deeply embedded Christian fear of Muslims is, going right back to the Crusades, maintained throughout the Ottoman empire, many wars, historic events, etc. Always ready to thrive in a new context.

As for mental illness, well Beyond Blue really is incredible in its work to make depression more acceptable. But I don't think schizophrenia or personality disorders have become at all "acceptable." I think that depression is somehow easier to dissociate from the person's identity - depression is represented as something that is transitory, unlike something like schizophrenia or a personality disorder, which are understood as part of the perso - even if they are "in remission" or their condition "under control," there is still a shadow of potential "craziness."

Maybe it's because there are frameworks for "good people" to relate to the "good, pitiable Other": pity is certainly a relationship that has a long and respectable history - pity for the orphans, pity for the handicapped, pity for the half-caste, pity for the starving Ethiopians. But the one who is pitied must be well-behaved. Of all the mental illnesses, depression is one of the "better behaved" varieties.

Pity extends to the poor oppressed Afghani women, who need to be liberated by the heroic US. We don't have many cultural templates for pitying adult men - the prototypical pitiable creature is a child.

And i've been thinking about how queers aren't typically pitied. We're reviled.

I'm trying to trace some of the ways that we deal with the Other, in the sense of pity or denying their difference, or normalising them ...

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