Archive for category Communication

Sex and Love

sexlove

I’ve posted a lot about consumerism and the corrosive aspects it has on our culture and our ability to be happy.  Two articles I’ve read in the last couple days convince me that the problems underlying materialist consumerism are also influencing love and sex, and not in a positive way.

One story involves the growth of completely impersonal “hook ups” solely for sex, especially among young people.  It was a Wall Street Journal review of the book The End of Sex by Donna Freitas.   It isn’t that I morally condemn such promiscuity — it’s not for me but hey, everyone has to make their own choices.    It’s more that as Freitas notes, the “hookup culture” (which apparently 70% of college students admit to participating in) increases the risk of assault and abuse.   That comes from the impersonal nature of the encounters.

In the ‘hook up’ culture two people are supposed engage in sex totally devoid of emotional connection.   The other is just a body to be used for sexual gratification.   Freitas notes that this is using humans as a means to an end, rather than treating them as an end themselves.     Much of the time, especially with emotionally vulnerable young women, this puts them at real risk of abuse.

Perhaps more disturbing is that this emphasizes the mechanistic side of sex over the emotional or even spiritual.   If young people learn to see sex as nothing more than a pleasurable physical act, it may be hard to be open to intimacy — indeed, the “hook up culture” seems predicated on a dismissal of romantic and intimate love as naive.

This mirrors the way our materialist consumer culture focuses on “stuff” over values.   The spiritual and sublime aspects of human existence give way to a cold mechanistic view.    Approaches like Carl Jung’s intuitive and spiritual psychology are replaced by evolutionary biology, where humans are just mechanisms used by genes to try to keep the genome alive.   If there is only body and no soul, then love is just an illusion.

Look at our culture now – how easy it is for people to use others as means to their ends.   People cheat others, treat them unfairly, rationalize the obscene behavior of banks and mortgage companies during the real estate bubble, and look the other way when someone is suffering.   If we’re just stuff on a spiraling rock in space, then nothing matters.  Collect sexual encounters and material objects.   What else is there to life?

Consumerism and the hook up culture breed cynicism and a kind of despair – if there is no meaning, then there is only sensation.   But sensations get boring and thus more excitement is needed.   Without meaning the material can never truly satisfy.  Sexual encounters need to have more drama, consumers need to always buy more, and people live trying to fulfill  needs that cannot be met.   Not by the new Porsche, nor by the wild (and usually drunken) hook up.

The review said that the writer, a Religious Studies Professor, doesn’t condemn casual sex (though she spends two hundred pages detailing its corrosive effects) but argues instead for a more open, healthy view of sexuality.   And that leads me to the other article.

Allegheny College hosted in its chapel a talk “I heart the Female Orgasm” which included (from the previous link):

• An emphasis on individuals making sexual decisions that are right for them, including whether to use the information now or when married or in a serious relationship
• Analysis of the messages women receive about their bodies and sexuality from media, religion, families, and elsewhere.
• Body image, and the links between “befriending your body” and experiencing physical pleasure
• The value of learning how to say “no” to sex—and the problems college-age and adult women sometimes encounter when they realize that’s all they ever learned
• An opportunity to talk openly in same-gender groups during part of the program
• Female anatomy
• Tips for partners about being patient and respectful
• The problems with pressure to have an orgasm, to orgasm faster, to have multiple orgasms, to orgasm with a partner, to fake or not fake orgasms
• Answers to the most common questions about orgasm

This created a visceral reaction from some conservative commentators who accused Allegheny College of hosting a session on “how to masturbate.”   They said the talk was smut disguised as education, put on by the radical left to denigrate religious values.   The fact it was in the chapel got others riled up.

I could go on and on about what that says about the politics in play (is the next chapter of the ‘war on woman’ the ‘war against the female orgasm’), but I won’t.    I find the increasing openness to talk about sexuality refreshing – sex is universal, almost everyone wants it, and most people know very little about it.   The idea it is never to be talked about is irrational – something so important should be understood and discussed.   Now more than at any time in the past that is happening.

To me the best defense against the corrosive effects of the “hook up culture” is for people to learn about, understand and talk about their sexuality.    Sex is pervasive in the media, often in very unhealthy ways.   The messages given culturally tend to increase ignorance and misunderstanding, creating numerous problems such as low self-esteem, intolerance and fear.   Knowledge about ones’ sexuality – and an openness to talk – is power: Power to reject abuse by those who will manipulate the situation to treat people as objects.

Call me naive, but ultimately I believe the capacity not to see others as only a means to a sexual end makes true love possible.   Just as materialism devoid of spirit becomes a cold playground of things that cannot satisfy the hunger one has for more, sex devoid of love becomes a playground of momentary thrills without meaning.   And everything is better with meaning.

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Mood Shift?

President Obama’s handling of the debt ceiling crisis may ultimately turn out to be seen as political mastery, a symbolic point where the country shifted from a dissatisfaction with the Democrats to frustration with the way the tea party prevents the Republicans from pursuing the rational policies voters thought they’d get.

Right now Obama isn’t getting a lot of credit for how he handled this.  Many Democrats compare Obama to past leaders and say he could have pushed the GOP harder.   I do not share that assessment.  Too much was on line, especially the nascent recovery that Obama will rely on to bolster his chances at re-election.   A default, a shut down of much of the government to avoid default would do tremendous damage to the economy.   Misuse of the 14th amendment would have started a constitutional crisis, severely damaging the economy and leading many to believe Obama was abusing power.  Any of those scenarios would have destroyed the Obama Presidency.

If Obama were to have played this differently, he would have had to have done it starting last year.   Perhaps even as late as May he could have framed the issue differently and forced an earlier decision.  Even that might not have worked.      Still, criticism of Obama has been rather muted compared to the anger at the tea party.   That is the narrative coming out of this drama, not one of a weak Obama.

When the public and especially independents shifted to the right to vote in a Republican House, they did it for one reason: to force the two sides to compromise and work out solutions together.   The country is moderate and pragmatic, even if the political activists are ideological and partisan.   They thought the 111th Congress pushed too hard to secure the Democratic agenda, over reaching their mandate.    But as the President said, people wanted divided government, not dysfunctional government.

President Obama comes out of this looking Presidential.   He called for a balanced compromise on national TV.  He then stayed aloof from the final negotiations once it was clear the “grand deal” of a $4 trillion mix of cuts and new revenues — a deal that would have been good for the economy — was rejected because the tea party cannot abide ANY tax increase.

He let Reid, Pelosi, McConnell and Boehner do most of the dirty work.   He was criticized for not leading when he spent four days outside the public view making phone calls and having private meetings.    Those saying he wasn’t leading have fallen victim to the idea that media presence = leadership.     It appeared at one point Reid and Boehner were close to a deal that would have been worse for the Democrats, and a private meeting with Obama stiffened Reid’s spine.   Boehner complained, but it was clear that Obama had set down markers that the Republicans could not pass.    As blame grew on the GOP for turning down an historic compromise, Boehner realized he’d gotten all he could get.

The result — a compromise that does nothing, and doesn’t even start making cuts until 2013 — simply pushes the debate down the road.   That is a victory for Obama.   Moreover, it does not harm the economy going into 2012.   The year the cuts could damage the recovery is 2013 — setting up a huge debate for the election.   Not agreeing to any cuts would have assured bond downgrades and loss of investor confidence in the dollar, doing considerably more harm to the economy than spending cuts or tax increases would.

Congress is getting approval ratings lower than any time in history.   Those on the right who were pointing to low approvals of the Pelosi House have gone silent; the GOP is no more popular.   GOP candidates walk gingerly among the tea party brigades.   Some like Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman realize they’ll never win over the far right, they have to neutralize their strength.  I suspect this fight has improved their chances.   Moderate Republicans don’t oppose tax increases as part of the mix for debt reduction, and they certainly don’t approve of risking default over a principle.   Many have been horrified by this spectacle and worry about the direction their party has taken.

I’m not predicting certain re-election for Obama, but the chance that it will be either Obama or a moderate Republican like Romney or Huntsman is greater than before.    People like Bachmann will still rile up the party faithful.   The Democrats may not take back the House, but strident tea partiers in unsafe districts face a good chance of losing — even Michelle Bachmann could lose.

In short, public disgust at this whole spectacle — not so much the result but the way in which it played itself out — is going to have political ramifications.   The tea party has, as the saying goes, “jumped the shark.”   They’ve peaked and over reached.    In essence, Americans are becoming sick of the ‘politics of emotion.’    People are tired of angry rants, demonization, refusal to compromise, and mistaking rigidity for principle.    We’ve got real problems, they want people to solve them.   We’ve got real disagreements, they want people to compromise.

Whichever party can appear more adult, level with the American people, and show a capacity to compromise and reach out to the middle, will have the upper hand in 2012.   President Obama played that role in this last crisis, making him the only one of the principles who could truly condemn the ‘manufactured crisis’ with credibility.   John Boehner’s image was tarnished by both outbursts and bravado — bragging the Senate will “fold like cheap suit” while the country is heading to catastrophe doesn’t make him look very dignified.

Democrats may hope that this continues, and that the tea party divides and exerts undue control over the GOP.   That would help the Democrats in 2012.   But that would not be good for the country.   Best for the country would be if the majority of Republicans who do not agree with the tea party stand up and reassert their power.    I’d much rather the face of the GOP be Senator Olympia Snowe than Representative Michelle Bachmann!   This country needs real debate and engagement of diverse ideas, not partisan war.  With the public no longer as entertained by or fooled by the emotion-laden spectacle of Glenn Beck’s rants and tea party calls for revolution, it’s time to settle down and take a pragmatic approach to the problems facing the country.

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A New Generation

On Wednesday evening President Obama addressed the country to inform us that the war in Afghanistan was winding down and would be ended ‘responsibly.’   10,000 troops will return this year, and another 23,000 by the middle of 2012.  He neglected to say that over 65,000 would still be there, promising only to continue the draw down as security responsibility is handed over to the Afghans, with a goal of completing the process by 2014.   A NATO/Afghan conference next May will work through the details.

Thursday morning in Summer Experience the class watched a shaky Youtube video of Obama’s speech, and critiqued it having read a number of pieces about war, and an article by Howard Zinn about our double standard when it comes to violence.  Students were uniformly critical of the wars, though some said they understood why we went into Afghanistan in 2001 before Iraq pushed us off course.    It’s interesting how in 2001-04 students showed a strong burst of patriotism and support for even the Iraq war, which by 2006 had shifted to anger about the on going wars, and since 2009 or so has become a kind of an apathetic cynicism.   One fascinating aspect of teaching is seeing how attitudes can quickly change with new groups of college students.

Another piece we read was about Kent State.   Most students don’t know what happened in May 4, 1970 when the Ohio National Guard killed four students and wounded others when confronting an angry student protest.   To give background I played some of President Nixon’s speech announcing the invasion of Cambodia, which he gave on April 30, 1970.   That speech sparked the protests that led to the shootings.   What students noticed (and I hadn’t really expected) was the similarity between some of what each President said.   Nixon was also announcing a draw down of forces from Vietnam, over 100,000.   His explanation (have the Vietnamese take over responsibility for their own security – Vietnamization) and rhetoric about the US role was often similar to what Obama said.   To be sure, Obama didn’t announce the invasion of another country, though one student noticed the parallel between the importance of Cambodia in that war, and Pakistan in the current one.

They were shocked about the protests and especially the fact live ammo would be used on students.   One student compared that to China at Tienanmen Square, though clearly the scope was far less.   They were surprised that many people even supported the shootings at the time, and said that this is another example of groups of people not understanding each other and thus rationalizing conflict and violence.

We ended up discussing the conditions my generation is handing off to them:   a number of on going wars that need to be ended (they’ve cost over $1 trillion so far), government debt that started growing dramatically in the early eighties,  private debt and credit card debt that has grown even faster (the public has mirrored the government in that regard),  the current account deficit that has made the dollar and the US very vulnerable to outside shocks, and the growing gap between the rich and poor.   I showed the charts that showed that the wealthy have done very well during the last thirty years, while the middle class and poor have actually lost ground.   Finally, we talked about energy and touched yesterday on the environment.

Most of the problems, especially the economic ones, are rooted in choices made in the early 80s after the last recession when tax rates were cut and spending/debt increased.   Thirty years of imbalances, and these 18 year olds now have to face the fact that unless this gets fixed, their future will not be as comfortable as the lifestyles enjoyed by the previous generation.  They expressed disdain for the ideological bickering between the political parties and said that if people listened to each other (the point of a Walter Lippmann piece they read for today), we’d realize that the problems were real and we have to solve them.

It also seems that in a world of constant communication and technical sophistication, the allure of ideological thinking is fading.   The reality of the problems we face and the messes such thinking has caused in the past presents them with a challenge: their future depends on shifting our political and economic thinking in a profound manner.    We discussed the naive thinking of economic ideologues — those on the left who think government can plan and run an economy without markets, and those libertarians who think markets are magic and can operate without regulation and the state.   A little common sense can cure such ideological blindness, and for all the faults people find with the ‘facebook generation,’ they seem to have little patience for putting theory ahead of reality.

I’ve taught summer experience for 12 years now, starting in 2000 in the midst of the dot.com crash.   In the late 90s many students had bragged about making money through day trading and some thought they might never have to work since their investments could just keep proliferating.   In the years since as technology progressed and the country has gone through extended wars and now a deep recession, I find myself more impressed than ever by the young people heading into college.   There seems to be more pragmatism behind youthful idealism (I can’t imagine them burning down ROTC buildings and the like, regardless of how opposed they might be to a war), a willingness to consider and try to understand a variety of perspectives (I credit both the internet and globalization with this) and even improved knowledge about world events.

I hope my faith in the new generation is well placed, since I am losing faith in mine to actually start listening to each other and working for compromise and a pragmatic solution of the serious problems we face.   If ideological screaming by the left and right continues, with elections zig zagging between parties as the public becomes frustrated by the inability to collaborate on creative solutions, we’ll need young people to come forth with new solutions.   And, given their command of technology and the information revolution, they just might be able to do it — it’s not just Egypt that needs the youth to rise up and demand change!

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Ideal Communication

In my last blog entry I started writing about the physical characteristics of humans, and got into a tangent about an ideal of truly honest communication.   I’ve had a fascination with human communication for some time.  Back in the University of Minnesota I saw a German film Homo Faber, wherein a man falls in love with his daughter, not knowing it’s his daughter.  To make a long story short, everyone’s lives get ruined because the characters don’t communicate.  Whether due to shame, concern for the other, or fear, they keep their real thoughts secret and the film ends in tragedy.

We humans have this great form of communication called language, but we could use it better.  Sure, we give instructions well, we can think through problems, and can try to get things we want.  We engage in lots of small talk.  But when it comes to really connecting with other humans and sharing what we feel and believe, we lock up more than we show.   How many families have drifted apart due to bad communication?   How many friendships fail (or never develop), how many lovers never connect, how much tragedy comes about simply because we are afraid to communicate?

I thought about this more today as I worked on my research.   New media is having a side effect of dramatically increasing the amount of print communication between young people.   In print there might be a bit more honesty.  Not only can one take the time to contemplate how to say something (not fearing it’ll come out wrong, or that the other person will interpret and not allow a full statement to be made), but there isn’t the pressure of having the other person looking at you while you communicate.  With print, you are in control of the message, it’s timing, length and delivery.   You can also decide when to read a response, and how long to contemplate it.

Yet while that may enhance honest communication, there is some reason why we fear being completely honest with each other.  Some of it is simple cultural baggage.   Issues involving sex, inner fantasies and personal habits often are areas people wall off.   We all need private psychological space, and freedom to explore our own minds without having to share it with others.   I think, though, we fence off far too much territory, and keep far more to ourselves than need be the case.  The reason is that people are both too quick to judge, and they are fearful of others judging them.

We self-censor constantly.  We self-censor communicating thoughts that involve violence or hate, often feigning collegiality when we want to kick someone in the shins.   If a racist or sexist thought pops up, we self-censor.  If we were an honest society, we could state our anger, frustrations and even bigoted reactions and work through them.  Now anything politically incorrect is considered offensive.   People are expected to be of such low self-esteem that they cannot handle a comment that may be honest, but offensive.   Self-censorship becomes a social and often a legal necessity.

Even outside those examples,  we self censor communication with others because we worry what they will think of us, or how they will judge us.   It’s easier to be safe than to open up.  In so doing we give up the most powerful aspect of being human, the ability to deeply connect and communicate with others.

This one reason why humor and satire are so important to our culture.   In humor the taboos are lifted.   Comedians can joke that they’ve not had a girl friend for so long that they’ve developed some interesting masturbation techniques.   People enjoy this not because it’s crude,  because it’s a part of life that we don’t talk about — it’s liberating to have someone talk openly about things normally not mentioned.   I saw a film where a couple are chatting over a meal, but a voice over showed what they were really thinking.  It was fun to watch, in part because we know that happens a lot.

In day to day life people learn to repress what they think and who they are, putting on a show to fit expectations of cultural norms.   Often those feelings and thoughts aren’t released and thus build up, coming out later in real aggression, anger, hostility or self-loathing.  What we fear becomes what we experience.  Humor is an important antidote to this, if we joke about things we can be more honest, and expand the boundaries of social acceptability.

It’s not humor that does this alone, it’s the fact that with humor we suspend judgment.  If an acquaintance started to talk about masturbation, one might get nervous, leave the room and say “that guy’s weird.”  But we don’t judge a comedian.   I saw a male comedian make jokes about a woman’s breast size — try doing that in polite company!   George Carlin’s entire comic career was built on poking holes in the ridiculous nature of our judgmental society.  That was key to his genius.

If we are to move to really improving human communication at all levels, we have to learn not to be judgmental.   I don’t mean in cases where people are being physically harmed, defrauded, or abused, I mean in terms of how we react to other people talking about things that might go outside social norms.   People want to open up more, but don’t if they fear that doing so will cause another to shut down, judge them, or talk poorly about themselves to others.    As someone who is extremely non-judgmental (that even shows on the Myers-Briggs test where I score to the radical side of “P” on the perceive-judge axis), I get frustrated by the way people get hyper-critical of others, often over petty things.   That just makes it harder to connect and accept others.

Key to this is not judging oneself — and some of the most judgmental folk are also harsh on themselves.  If one can accept oneself with all ones’ own faults and idiosyncrasies and say, “hey, I’m human but I love myself and understand my own imperfections,” then it’s easier not to judge others.  If one is harsh on oneself, it’s almost necessary to be harsh on others or else risk self-hatred.    Yet not judging others is not itself enough.   There are always areas where we need help.   We aren’t satisfied with life as it is, with a relationship, or with our ability to handle various life situations.  We may need help overcoming a bad habit, or dealing with bad decisions of the past.   The goal of communication has to help others and oneself — to connect with others, overcome difficulties and improve the quality of life.

Not judging is only the first step, it allows communication to open up.   The next step is to connect and communicate about how things can be better.     You could say there is an implicit judgment there — that a situation can be improved — but that’s a judgment of the situation not of the individual.     So to me, in my life, I’ll focus on doing my part to work towards better communication:  try to use humor as often as possible, avoid judging others or myself, and then try to understand and help others and myself improve situations.   Connection with others is important because no one can handle this life completely on their own.

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