I know I kind of wrote a whole book on this, but I find myself thinking about it again today, this ongoing way of finding insights into human nature by comparing our behavior to animals’. Often it’s wolves or dogs. There’s alphas and betas, these folks say. Putting aside the fact that alpha wolves don’t exist in nature (PDF link), there’s really no reason why we should believe that studying animal behavior can clue us into our own.
Actually, there are two reasons to do this:
Your understanding of (or faith in) evolutionary psychology is such that you believe our current behaviors are dictated, even unconsciously, by Darwinist notions (e.g., survival of the fittest, sexual selection, etc).
In looking at what’s natural in human behavior, you focus on the natural while equating animals with The Natural.
If you’re a #1 person I, an evolutionarily aberrant homosexual, don’t know what to tell you. If you’re a #2 person, I’ve got a guy for you to read: Thomas Nagel (another PDF link).
Okay I haven’t read him either, but I’m going to after having come across his ideas on sexual perversions in my research. Plaguing philosophers (among others) for centuries has been the question, What’s natural human sexuality look like? Most folks follow St. Thomas Aquinas in looking at the “natural” part of that construction. And most folks fall into his “animals = nature” trap.
So: because animals only have sex to procreate, natural human sexuality = procreative sex.
Again, lots is factually wrong about this, but Aquinas died almost 750 years ago so we can forgive his not knowing about dolphins or penguins or bonobos. But you can see how this idea (along with all kinds of religious dogma) has made it easy—indeed, made it “feel natural”—for people to hate / kill queers.
What Nagel does is say, Shouldn’t we focus on the human part of “natural human sexuality”? That is, what separates us from the animals and puts us in the category of Human? In that sense, what’s unnatural is only having procreative sex (again, in Aquinas’s ancient formulation). Or, more up-to-date, because animals seem not to take partners’ mutual pleasures into consideration, human sex that does the same is unnatural.
To Nagel, you’re a pervert if you refuse to recognize your sex partner(s) as mutually aroused and interested in sexual pleasure, and you’re a pervert when you disallow yourself to become your partner(‘)s(‘) sexual object.
More complicated? A little. But look at how Nagel refuses to let specific genital mash-ups or partner-numbers or any of those details get in the way of finding a path to moral evaluations of sexual behavior. I know this isn’t new, this idea (Nagel’s paper dates to ’69), but it’s new to me as a way to shut down animal behaviorist arguments.
“We are not animals, we are given them,” is how I resolved the question. Nagel’s seems more to my speed today.
I. I am trying here to figure out what happens in my body and my mind when I click on Today’s Crossword and see this:
I remember, when it happened, that I gasped lightly, a noised breath-intake, and then I held it. What was that about? Gasping seems to be a reflex of feeding the body oxygen in preparation for a willed temporary paralysis. Like with fear reflexes, turning a corner and coming upon someone who might harm you, or who you really don’t want to know you’re there. You gasp, and you still yourself. In most environments motion catches the eye more than color. Paralysis is a way to hide. Even the rhythms of breathing are too much to risk.
But in arousal or excitement? Do I need to explain it, for those who don’t do crosswords? Every puzzle is beautiful if you love symmetry (I’m ambivalent on the issue), but behold the 6 answers that span the width of the puzzle, all of them 16-letters long, and all fitting together to produce so many new vertical words! Notice also the nooked-out arrangement in the middle, how access to those squares is protected from inroads made vertically from other vectors! It’s not impossible, but the challenge of it is made bare before you’ve even entered a single letter.
What I’m saying is that there’s a promise broadcast instantly by the image of this puzzle, a promise or an invitation, maybe. The puzzle is posing and showing off, and asking me to come in and play around with it a while, knowing it knows how much I’m going to enjoy it.
Compare that image to this one:
Again, I gasped. (Never mind where I found it.)[**] I imagine also my eyelids retracted, or flared, whatever the physiological reaction is called, as though to let in more of the image’s sense data the way we flare our nostrils to gather more of a smell. And I know that in beholding these men in their hot springs, their shapes and arrangement, I felt a very similar promise or invitation as I did with the crossword.
Was it the same promise, is what I’m trying to figure out.
II. Let’s get back to gasping in fear and excitement. From what little I know I think “arousal” is a term biologists or ethologists give to the physiological process of the brain feeding hormones rapidly to the body once it’s arrested from a relaxed or dormant state. Whatever does the arresting—a fearful object, an erotic object, sunlight after sleep—doesn’t change the process.
Arousal, then, can be pleasant or unpleasant, given one’s needs or desires at the time, or given (some theorists say) whether you identify as an extravert or introvert.
The gasping, then, is functional, instinctive, and thus I’m less interested in it (call it a fault), though I do still find it interesting that I had the same bodily reaction to first encountering both images. But the shared feeling of invitation or promise is interesting, because the outcomes they point to seem so different.
III. I imagine I’m not the only person who has kept mind and body separate for most of their lives, and more specifically who has seen intellectual and sexual pursuits as operating in separate spheres. There’s nothing dumber than a hardon, is what I’m saying. But this question of shared promise is blurring lines I’ve probably spent too much time maintaining.
The puzzle makes me want to solve it, and the photo makes me want to touch the men inside it. So those actions—thinking quietly in solitude and filling in letters, being a body amid other bodies—seem very disconnected from one another. What accounts for my equal reaction is something regarding arousal I hadn’t considered before.
It’s like arousal is about the sudden stirring of potential, and because desires are manifold, I can feel as equal a pull toward an amazing crossword as I can an erotic body. What pulls me is promise, potential, newness. Novelty? It seems like this wants to be a post about novelty, and being aroused by hot new (brainy, erotic) things.[††] Except that both of these images still stir the imagination. It’s been long enough that I would happily solve that crossword again. Maybe I don’t gasp anymore, but the arousal is still there.
And the crossword isn’t new, exactly, any more than every crossword is. It presents me not with a novel experience, but another challenging one, which I can tell from the shape of it will be rife with one of the pleasures I go to crosswords seeking out: watching words and phrases materialize and fit unexpectedly together.
Which is not at all far from the pleasure of writing.
IV. I’ll wrap up on the realization I now just got that I feel a similar arousal when a new idea (like the one I just ended the section on) comes to me. That solving crosswords is like writing the way paint-by-numbers is like painting makes a lot of new exciting sense for regarding why I enjoy doing them at the end of a day of writing and reading.
But that’s a post for another time. What’s arousing about a new idea isn’t its newness so much as what I might do with the thing, and so I’m back again to these images’ promise and invitation. If arousal is the state of waking from dormancy or relaxation, I am probably aroused by arousal. I might always find it pleasant. Guy Hocquenghem calls love “the desire to desire and be desired,” so I’ll need to think some more about what to call this. Other than a risky habit.
Footnotes (↵ returns to text)
And any criticisms (ad hominem, postcolonial, feminist, etc.) that may come my way for posting such an image I’ve already worked through and accepted, discovering that, in these matters, while I can come away unashamed, there’s no coming away unscathed.↵
I’ve seen the studies that aim to show how pornography (and in a world of “food porn” or “house porn” let’s admit this is a post about varied pornographies) instills or increases one’s demand for newness and novelty, and I’ve seen the studies that show skepticism of those studies’ findings.↵
I. I posted this to Instagram last week, with a caption: “But woke people never dream.” It got minimal likes.
My point is clear, but I’ll also add that studies show[*] sleep deprivation has adverse impacts on memory and cognition. So: bad advice. “STAY WOKE” is bad advice.
There’s also the problem of Wokeness itself. Merriam-Webster tells me its origins came from an Erykah Badu song and then shifted, as language does:
The word woke became entwined with the Black Lives Matter movement; instead of just being a word that signaled awareness of injustice or racial tension, it became a word of action. Activists were woke and called on others to stay woke.
That’s not the problem, those origins. Those origins are noble and good. The problem is that things with “woke” have continued to shift. Being woke indicates little about the content of the woke person’s thoughts or beliefs. You can now be woke about chemtrails, or the “Jew-run media”, or how men have a harder time of it nowadays than women etc etc.
Being is one thing; it’s the staying that bothers me. The condition of being on all the time, permanently at watch. The image “STAY WOKE” brings to mind is the paranoiac with foil on their head. Or better: all the fearful kids in Nightmare on Elm Street, trying hard to never sleep. I don’t think anybody’s life is improved—I don’t think society is improved—by their living in watchful, waking fear.
So: if I were to make a sign in my window with postits, what would it say?
“DON’T STAY WOKE”?
“LET YOURSELF SLEEP”?
“GET INFORMED BUT DON’T, Y’KNOW, LET IT MAKE YOU CRAZY”?
The problem with nuanced arguments is that their language is always so fucking feeble.
II. I’ve written before about my uneasy relationship with activist language, and maybe I’m picking up that discussion here. But when I thought about how I wanted to write a blog post about this pic and my general argument, I hit a wall, and the paper on that wall read: YOU ARE PATHETIC.
First: I wasn’t calling to any action so much as writing against someone’s call to action. If my argument was for anything, it was for moderation, and when I saw this I felt like any of the centrist Democratic presidential candidates I have zero interest in getting to vote for next year.
Second: When I thought about this as a writer, I saw the connection between the position you take and the power of your words. Any argument I had might be itself be strong, but the language or form of it would be weak. Certainly weaker than “STAY WOKE”. And what effect does weak and feeble language have on its audience?
In other words, I could (once again) have a strong rhetorical position that had no effect on my readers. And if a tree falls in the forest etc etc.
III. There’s another connection here to the Call To Action in an essay, which comes up from time to time in NF workshops, usually when a student writes a non-narrative essay, something with an argument or lamentation. Examples are failing me, but more than once students (or I, most of the time) wonder in discussion what solutions or new ways of being the writer might imagine in the piece. What can we do, we ask, given the case you’re making? What would you like us to think or feel instead?
A common refrain from the student is, “I didn’t want to end with a call to action.” What I’ve always taken this to mean is that the writer wanted mostly to explore what they’ve been observing or thinking. They didn’t want to feel forced into the role of problem-solver.[†]
But now I think something different. The Call To Action does something to language, or asks for a certain kind of language, and this something feels at odds to the nuances of complicated and sustained thinking—an essay being a written record of complicated and sustained thinking.
In other words, just as my feeble “Let’s Be Reasonable About How Woke We Are All The Time” would fall on bored ears, so would a Call To Action in an essay make the lofted cloud of a complex thought process fall like so much fog.
An even longer post for next time: bless the activists their language gifts, like the poets, and the advertising copywriters. I’m not of them, but I’m not against them.
(Well, maybe the copywriters.)
Footnotes (↵ returns to text)
“Today, prolonged wakefulness is a widespread phenomenon.” Indeed, NIH.↵
I see every situation, and most people, as a problem to solve. A puzzle. Ask my partner about how well this proclivity serves me outside the classroom.↵
I thought to title this “The Feelings Factory”, but social media isn’t a feelings factory, exactly, in that feelings are manufactured in our minds and bodies. Social media is more a place you go to get something you don’t have or can’t make right now. A Feelings Cafeteria? Let’s go with The Feelings Cafeteria.
Here’s where this post is coming from:
The characteristic that best describes the difference between people at various points on the scale[*] is the degree to which they are able to distinguish between the feeling process and the intellectual process. Associated with the capacity to distinguish between feelings and thoughts is the ability to choose between having one’s functioning guided by feelings or by thoughts. The more entangled and intense the emotional atmosphere a person grows up in, the more their life becomes governed by their own and other people’s feeling responses.
It’s from a book on family psychology (Kerr & Bowen’s Family Evaluation) I’ve been reading for research, and the moment I came across it I could only think of Twitter—replacing, that is, one’s family of origin with one’s online “fam”.
The science of it may be wrong and off, in that one is not raised at formative stages over years by one’s Twitter fam, but the comparison feels apt to me. I would call social media an intense emotional atmosphere engineered to get one entangled. And opening Twitter while bored or between life events, I’ve very quickly felt that my life had become governed by other people’s feeling responses.
I’ve felt that people online are usually feeling and not thinking. I didn’t judge them for it. (Or I tried not to but I’m coming off a couple decades where judging others has been the only thing that makes me feel secure.) I saw that one of the gifts of social media, besides its manufacturing the feeling of social connections, is how amid the dull periods of one’s life it can provide some emotional simulation.
That emotion is usually rage or disgust, but it’s still a stimulation.
Like with certain books or activist language, I felt it wasn’t the right place for me to engage in the world—politically or otherwise—because I’m feeling dozens of things about the world already, and I’d like to think through some stuff to help. And while posts might link to places where thinking is happening, wading through the mess of social media to find those links is like looking for a sunny spot to read and heading to a protest rally.
Twitter is a place where I can’t think—where I think thinking is discouraged. I’ve felt this for months, and so what a discovery in my reading yesterday to see some psychology about why this is so.
Is one reason why more and more I can’t be there.
Footnotes (↵ returns to text)
i.e., the “scale of differentiation”, which is Bowen’s admittedly arbitrary way to measure the degree to which someone has emotionally separated from their family of origin (and therefore become a more distinct self).↵
In the Richmond airport, I watched an old, bald, overweight man who open-mouth chewed his gum heave himself up from his chair, waddle over to a man standing by the check-in counter, and give him a thumbs up, one he pressed-forward twice, and then, once he’d made eye contact, point up to the red MAGA hat the other guy was wearing.
The guy in the red MAGA hat was also wearing a black hoodie that said NRA on the back and NRA over the left breast. By the time I got on the plane I found this man sitting in the front row of first class, and while waiting to board I surreptitiously snapped a pic of him with my phone. In my head, I composed a Tweet, or maybe an Instagram caption. Glad to be leaving Richmond, I thought. Or maybe just, Richmond, Virginia. I got to my seat. I had Neal to text, and another friend who was updating me on his happenstance stay at the United Club at SFO, where I’d eventually land. I didn’t get a chance to post the pic before the door closed and we started taxiing.
I know you can still use your data plan after the door closes. I know it’s not a barrier.
My routine on flights now is, as we start taxiing toward the runway, to stop whatever music or movie that’s playing in my ears and close my eyes and clasp my hands together and pray to Jesus. What I do is I imagine I’m in the old library in the town I grew up in, the one that was in a two-room building, with old cracked tiles around the fireplaces and a damp, musty smell I’ll never forget. Jesus—a nerd among his peers, a kid who ditched his folks in the big city and spent all his time in the temple just to argue with the older nerds there—sits over by the microfiche machines, and I picture myself walking around the corner and finding him. He stands and says my name. I say, “Hi Jesus,” and we hug, and we stand there holding each other. Then I ask him, in so many words, to watch over everyone on the plane and get us to our destination safely. Jesus says, “I’ve got you, I’ve got you,” and I feel less anxious about the possibility of dying.
Probably somewhere in prayer did it hit me that I didn’t have to hate the men I saw at the gate, even if I felt that I did. And I didn’t have to post the pic. I could post it, and I could spend the next day or do reopening Instagram to see the likes rack up, all 35 of them maybe, reminding myself I’m not alone in what those men made me feel: anger, despair, and a portion of fear. I’m afraid that, as those of us who’ve had power, privileges, and rights kept from us, punishingly, for so long continue to speak up and demand equal treatment, men like those men are not going to share without a fight.
A fight, specifically, with guns. Like, this week, in Christchurch.
I could post, I could get my likes, and then what? I tried, holding on to Jesus, to think about what kind of love it would show. Love for my friends, surely? But even if sharing hate for our shared enemies is a form of love it didn’t seem to be a sort of love that would feel good. Jesus reminded me that I should try to love those men, and I tried to imagine what that would feel like.
It’s the part of Jesus I have the hardest time with: what do I gain from loving men who hate me, other than that Christian brand of smug righteousness that turns me off from being a Christian?
I was flying home from visiting my parents, and I was reminded of my dad, who displays at times a poor imagination for the lives of people unlike him. Which is to say he holds everyone—regardless of their background, upbringing, or social standing—to the same standards he holds himself to. We disagree often about poverty, its causes and effects.
We feel differently about people in poverty but probably exhibit similar forms of condescension. I feel unqualified to decide that a person’s homelessness or poverty is Their Fault. But mostly I walk around feeling that the poor should be Pitied and Helped. I feel a largesse when I buy the Street Sheet, say, or hand over change. I’ve been lucky and you haven’t been, so let me share a little tiny bit of it.
But not too much, of course.
But back to the NRA/MAGA guy, and his fan. I know that pity isn’t love, but the closest thing to love I could muster to feel for them was a pity at how stupid they’ve been allowed to become. Who neglected you so much for so long that you’ve lived this long on the planet and come to believe the stupid things you do? And why aren’t they the ones you’re mad at?
#MAGA people on Twitter like to say that liberalism is a mental disorder, but I’ve yet to meet an intelligent person who believes that the president has done good things for the country. And even though it feels good for a little while, amid this time of so much perpetual stress and fear, to hate-post to my friends, or for them, for the shared likes, I no longer feel it’s any kind of creative act.
This guy exists. You know he does and I know he does. Here’s proof:
He doesn’t deserve your pity, and I don’t imagine he wants it. Scared, stupid men are dangerous, but they are still scared and stupid. I may not yet know how to love these scared, stupid men, but I’m learning how not to be afraid of them, and why not to hate them.
There’s lots I feel ashamed of, maybe half of it sex and sexuality-related. I thought stepping out of the closet would mean stepping away from shame, but no. No no. That’s not how shame works.
For me, shame is a chorus of voices in my head that tell me I’m a bad person for what I just thought or wanted. Sometimes it’s for something I did, but usually it’s just for what I’ve imagined. The chorus is full of pristine, confident people with genius IQs and spotless records when it comes to their sexuality and moral behavior.
If you are a person I’ve met and spoken to face-to-face, odds are I’ve convinced myself you’re another one of these perfect choristers. Rationally, I know it’s not true. I know you’re not perfect, but I don’t yet truly believe that you’re not.
That’s how good shame is at making me stupid about the world.
Now: I’ve felt shame enough to know I shouldn’t feel it so much, and so when I do, I join the chorus of voices and tell myself I’m a bad person for being ashamed of myself. I feel ashamed of my shame. It’s a perfect trap, and I say “trap” because when I get in this shame spiral it’s very hard to do anything other than sit and hate myself for hating myself.
I didn’t use to have a way out, but one day, outside of a shame spiral, I came up with one I’m going to share with you, just in case you’re not a perfect person and might feel shame, too.
Step One: Say this out loud: “It’s okay that I’m feeling ashamed.”
Shame itself isn’t a bad thing. If I forget your birthday for the third year in a row, or make plans and then flake on you more than once, feeling ashamed can help me look more closely at what’s going on with me, what my commitments are, how I want to live my life, etc. (Some folks might quibble here that what I’d be feeling is guilt, not shame—because it’s about what I’ve done, not what I am—but after 2 years of thinking it over I can report back that discerning the differences between shame and guilt won’t help you conquer either.)
Step Two: Say this out loud: “I should be proud that I’m even capable of feelings.”
Optional if you’re a person who readily and easily feels your feelings, and has always at your fingertips the right name to put to those feelings. This is not me. So I like to congratulate myself when I do a good job in this regard.
Step Three: Acknowledge that you’re standing in a hall of mirrors and seeing only distortions of yourself.
This is the one that took a lot of time and work to realize. (Dr. Heisler, I salute you!) I used to think that a shame spiral felt like being in a dark hole, but you can’t see anything in a dark hole, whereas in a shame spiral I can see only myself, or rather, I can see only the parts of myself I’m unhappy about at the moment. Also: I can only see myself. There’s nothing else I’m capable of at the moment. It’s Narcissus in the classic scene, except he’s loathing the image that’s looking back. Once I saw that narcissistic image of myself staring at myself, I felt less shame and more disgust and annoyance, which are also strong emotions, leading me to…
Step Four: Smash the fuck out of those mirrors and find someone to ask questions to or otherwise engage your head and heart in.
Other people are a gift I keep forgetting the world got me last Christmas.