Cognition & Reality

Sunday, 24 April 2011

Disease, Disorder, Distraction

Responsible scientists who are familiar with the research but want to preserve the disease concept of alcoholism have had to redefine their terms. They define “disease” as whatever doctors choose to call a disease (Jellinek, 1960)! The point of using the word, they acknowledge, is “social” rather than medical. There is a lack of consistent self-control that leads to harmful consequences (Vaillant, 1990). Of course such sweeping uses of the term make almost every human and social problem into a “disease.”

In the above passage, from a book chapter published over 20 years ago, Herbert Fingarette prefigured the current obsession with attributing any troubling behavior to an underlying disease. The extension of medicine into areas where it does not belong, because its methods do not apply, is an insidious ongoing process. We have not only given doctors great power within the legal domain, but we have also permitted the ideology called “medical science” to dominate the cultural definition of many types of behavior.

Sadness and worry are now perceived as symptoms of an underlying disease, although they could result from a wide range of potential causes. To be in a down mood is the natural response to various circumstances, such as a bad marriage or financial difficulties; and events, such as the loss of a job or loved one. As the beginning of this piece from The Guardian suggests, however, the medical community and the pharmaceutical industry have succeeded in redefining a psychiatric condition called “depression” as a common disorder. Because it is presumed to have an underlying physiological cause, a critical feature of this newly redefined disorder is that it can be addressed with certain expensive medications.

Accordingly, the official numbers indicate that 9% of the US population count as “depressed,” with 3.4% meeting the criteria for Major Depressive Disorder, while doctors write millions of prescriptions for antidepressants yearly, at a rate that continues to accelerate. From one perspective, these figures raise questions about a society with a tenth of its members bummed out, some seriously bummed out, many of them dependent on daily doses of drugs having limited efficacy and unknown long-term effects. From another perspective, the same figures raise questions about what counts as a mental disease or disorder such that so many people suffer from such conditions.

Our society had become addicted to medicalizing social, moral and spiritual problems. As Fingarette predicted, many troubling behaviors have been reconceived as disease states. Doing so puts money in the pockets of pharmaceutical companies and physicians, while it reassures members of both the medical profession and the general public. Insurance companies and government agencies like it, too, because the treatment of medical disorders usually involves medication and other courses of treatment that are much less expensive than traditional psychotherapy, with its emphasis on developmental issues.

First of all, there are “food addiction,” and “sex addiction,” new names for otherwise normal activities that have reached an unacceptable level of excess. Although eating too much can be injurious to one’s health,and reckless promiscuity can wreak havoc, putting these problems into a category with dependence on intoxicants places them within the same disease-oriented framework. As discussed in a previous post, conceptualizing substance abuse as resulting from “disease” is misleading as a guide to treatment and unjustified by empirical evidence, and the same is true, of course, for destructive patterns of behavior to which the addiction metaphor has been extended. Nevertheless, there are many intensive, expensive treatment programs, modeled on programs for substance abuse, dedicated to treating overeating and promiscuity.

The emergence of Asperger syndrome as a diagnosis shows that the redefinition of human behavior as disease does not stop with sadness, overeating, and fucking too much (however much that is). Most people realize that this “syndrome” is nothing more or less than “nerdiness,” as it was called before it became a disease. A look at the diagnostic criteria for Asperger’s illuminates its shaky foundation. A child need only meet two diagnostic criteria by exhibiting “impaired social interaction,” and “repetitive and stereotyped patterns of behavior”; other criteria, such as having “inadequate relationships,” or “impaired nonverbal communication,”among others, belong in the “Maybe” category. Treatment for this “syndrome” is a joke, consisting mainly of medications insurance companies will pay for, and therapeutic modalities that, by their nature, are limited in duration: physical therapy, occupational therapy, cognitive behavioral therapy, social skills training, and parenting classes. It need hardly be said that none of these has yielded reliable improvement of the identified problems. Nerdy children may suffer some pain as a result of their behavior, although the very nature of the “syndrome” presupposes that they don’t notice the inadequacy of their relationships. For sure, children who fit the criteria for Asperger’s are annoying, and they can grow into adults with horrible manners, which may explain the amount of attention this “disorder” has received from physicians and psychologists.

Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is another instance of the “diseasing” of behavior that is deemed to be troubling and disruptive. The controversy over ADHD is so old and so fraught with emotion that there is no point in revisiting it here. Suffice it to say that a recent study, conducted under the auspices of the National Institutes of Health, found that, despite initial improvement, children treated for ADHD through a variety of different recognized modalities, either singly or in combination, fare far worse than children who have not been diagnosed with ADHD. The children received the best treatment the medical establishment can offer, including advanced medications, for at least 14 months, and some were still receiving treatment years later, when they were assessed for their school performance and many other variables relevant to social  and psychological adjustment. Nevertheless, as the results summarized in this table show, they compared unfavorably with comparison subjects on almost every measure chosen by the investigators, who undoubtedly believed in the efficacy of treatment. If ADHD is a disorder with physiological substrates that reflect a genetic disposition, as has long been claimed, “medical science” has not succeeded in discovering how to treat it.

Much the same can be said about the medical approach to the other problems surveyed here. Recidivism by alcoholics and drug addicts who have gone through draconian rehabilitation regimes is notorious. Depression remains a significant problem, as one can tell from the number of commercials one sees for antidepressants. No one is suggesting that there is a reliable treatment for Asperger’s or ADHD. In spite of this abysmal record, physicians continue to operate under the questionable assumption that these conditions represent underlying, circumscribed causes, and continue to treat these conditions as if they know how to ameliorate their effects.

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Saturday, 5 March 2011

Date Rape Drugs And Other Evil Spirits

This article from a couple of years ago sums up nicely the factors contributing to the urban mythology around so-called “date rape drugs.” It is interesting that, as the article mentions, the response in some quarters was to perceive the reports debunking the role of drugs other than alcohol in “date rape” as blaming the victim and as ignoring a danger that, however rare, remains real. No matter how many studies demonstrate that the only “date rape drug” of any consequence is alcohol, the false message about the threat posed by other substances remains strong. For example, the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN) blankly (and falsely) states, “Memory loss can result from the ingestion of GHB and other ‘rape drugs.'” As I have indicated elsewhere, a substantial threat of being “roofied” is often assumed on TV and in films. The argument is essentially over, and the side with the false, hysterical message has prevailed.

Fear of “date rape drugs” clearly serves purposes so important that, confronted with the evidence that they are a tiny problem compared with the “date rape” potential of alcohol, society as a whole persists in maintaining that they represent a severe hazard requiring stringent precautions. As I thought about what those purposes might be, I realized that they are the same ones served by the persistence of other myths I find troubling, those about “chemical imbalances” and behavioral genetics. All of these combinations of myth and metaphor have in common their dependence on alleviating guilt while elevating powerful institutions. Because belief in them is therefore identical with a deep faith in the powers at the center of our culture, to deny their truth is an attack on those same powers.

These quasi-scientific constructs involving chemicals and other elements of medical science are the modern version of identifying what is fearful with invisible demons that can only be quelled through rituals dictated or performed by an authoritative elect. They not only resemble religious beliefs in being dependent on little else but faith and repetition; they are religious beliefs, embedded in our culture because they derive from a widely shared system of doctrines, values and commitments. Just as humans have always done with regard to cherished practices sanctioned by the powerful and believed in by the many, our modern society marginalizes anyone who questions such articles of faith.

I did not realize it until I started Googling about this topic, but young women are now instructed, when at a bar or other public place, to carry any drink with them wherever they go, even into the ladies’ room, accept drinks only from a bartender, drink only from freshly opened bottles, and use available test kits for “date rape drugs.” Thus, they ward off evil spirits who might invade their otherwise harmless alcoholic spirits, transforming the latter into a supernaturally potent, honor-destroying sex potion. In addition to involving young women in established forms and beliefs, these restrictions serve alcohol manufacturers in two important ways: First, they assure that young women consume alcohol in its most expensive, “safe” form, straight from individual bottles and cans; second, they distract attention from the “date rape drug” of the ages, the alcohol they sell.

According to beliefs descended directly from alchemy and other pre-scientific systems, disequilibrium within the fluids of the body produces spiritual disorders that can be cured only by using mysterious concoctions dispensed by medicine men. As I have discussed perhaps more than many of my readers might like, belief in “chemical imbalances” as the cause of at least some forms of emotional disturbance persists as a social and literary trope despite having been abandoned by most of those who originally promulgated it. The reason for that may be that it addresses primitive fears while justifying forms of treatment that satisfy the imperial requirements of the medical profession, save insurance companies money and fatten the purses of pharmaceutical companies. To believe in “chemical imbalances” as the cause of “mental disorders” is therefore a way of paying obeisance to the powers that be.

It all seems rather silly until you confront the fierceness with which these notions are defended. To believe that a child is psychotic because of some physical substance inadvertently passed on through the “blood” is unpleasant, but it is infinitely preferable to believing that his or her condition is the result of bad parenting . Likewise, to believe that one’s daughter was raped by a man who slipped her a mickey is far more tolerable than to believe she made it easier on the rapist by choosing to get shitfaced on Jack Daniel’s at the local bar. One need hardly say that a drug that destroys memory is the perfect antidote to a night one would rather forget, and the perfect explanation for a police report long on histrionics and short on details. No wonder belief persists in some manifestly crude, naive, and false explanations of behavior that serve a host of social and cultural functions.

(BTW, this is in no way intended to let rapists off the hook. Far from it: I find it difficult to imagine circumstances in which it is OK to fuck a semi-conscious woman. In another post, I unpack this issue more fully.)

Friday, 4 March 2011

Drinking, Double Standards, And “Date Rape Drugs”

Filed under: Medical Morality,Propaganda,Psychomyths,Sex & Love,Urban Myths — drtone @ 11:39 am

Since time literally immemorial, men have being “having their way” with women by getting them drunk first. For most of human history, no respectable woman would obtain her own alcohol, nor would she, without male escort, enter an establishment where alcohol is served. That was in the the olden daze, not so long ago, when women were the property of their men.

In a world in which a woman is free to come and go as she pleases, however, she is in a position to get herself drunk with no male assistance and thereby assumes some of the responsibility for the consequences of doing so. If she leaves the bar and is broadsided by another driver who has run a red light, she is still guilty of drunk driving, regardless of whether she was technically at fault, and may bear some legal responsibility for the accident on account of her negligence in driving drunk. It is, moreover, reasonable to assume that she would have been more likely to arrive home safely had she not been as intoxicated as she was. In the same way, if she makes herself an easy target by getting drunk and dropping her guard, she is partly responsibly if she is raped.

This is not the same thing as saying that, because she was three sheets to the wind, it was morally or legally acceptable for Jack to rape Jenny. It is saying that women are responsible for the consequences of their own behavior in every sphere of action, just as men are. Otherwise, we would simply be reinventing a world of double standards in which women are protected because they have no minds of their own.

As I thought about this topic in connection with my interest in society’s fantasy about “date rape drugs,” I realized that it gets us pretty fast into some pretty murky territory. Because women are typically smaller and weaker than men, they are more vulnerable to attack. To own that fully, however, leads directly into regarding women as “the weaker sex,” a designation our society has attempted to leave behind. We are thus confronted with two opposing images of woman: the tough, smart free agent, in every way the equal of men, who must and will make her own way; and the dependent, vulnerable bearer of children, constantly in danger from a hostile society and the men in it. As much as we might want to endorse the former as the real truth about women, men and women both know that there is some truth to the latter, as well.

If we allow women the full freedom of men, which we are legally and morally bound to do, we allow them to enter situations that are potentially more dangerous for a woman than for a man. At a bar, people get drunk. Women are people. Therefore, they get drunk at bars. In that frame, a woman is the exact equal of a man, with the exact same right to get shitfaced and to act shitfaced, which could include interacting with the other patrons at the bar. A man does that, gets drunk and talks to the other bar patrons, and the chance that he is attacked, sexually or otherwise, is very low, unless he directly or indirectly provokes such an attack. That is where the “same situation” is actually a different situation for a woman. Whether it is a matter of social convention or biology, what counts as “provocative” for a woman is simply not the same as for a man. A woman who does not recognize that is being foolish. For a variety of reasons, the same rules do not apply to her as would apply to a man walking into the a bar alone. That is a matter of fact directly contradicting the completely understandable and also true claim that, as a bar patron, she is the moral and legal equal of a man. Wow! What a problem.

One way out of this conundrum would be to invent an evil genie that is not an accepted part of the a-woman-walks-into-a-bar scenario. The right evil genie would transform the situation into one in which it is permissible, within the framework of laws and beliefs specifying that men and women are equal, to see them as unequal nevertheless. One bottle of beer is the same as another, and men and women have an equal right to buy one. What if, however, one of the bottles, the one the woman buys, is surreptitiously spiked, after it is opened, with a chemical that will incapacitate her, rendering her an easy rape victim? In that way, it stays cool that men and women can come into bars and buy beers for themselves, but there’s an evil force emanating from outside that cool situation magically changing it into one in which women are under greater threat then are men.

That evil force would be the “date rape drug,” such as Rohypnol or GHB, recognized pharmaceutical preparations that are far less familiar to most people than is alcohol. That unfamiliarity makes the demonic powers ascribed to them seem plausible, at absurd variance from reality as they may be. It is an established fact, that such drugs are rarely, if ever, used in the context assigned to them as “date rape drugs.” Studies have confirmed that women who believe they were “roofied” and raped, with the tiniest number of exceptions, did not receive any other drug besides the alcohol they chose to drink (and occasionally other drugs they chose to consume). As we saw, however, that reality does not square with the nice picture of men and women as equals in the cozy atmosphere of the local tavern, safely drinking together. It hardly needs be said that it does not square with the nice picture that, say, Anheuser-Busch would want to promote, nor with the picture that women have of themselves as free agents in society, able to go anywhere and do anything. The hugely exaggerated fear of “date rape drugs” therefore acts as a kind of de-equalizer operating outside the prevailing social equality of the sexes, readjusting the focus and keeping everyone happy in their legal, friendly alcoholic haze.

One need only look at the rules one is supposed to apply in order to protect against the use of “date rape drugs” to understand the implicit assumption behind them is that alcohol by itself is safe, something every child knows to be false. These rules were formulated within the context of  a society in which alcohol consumption is a factor in at least half of all auto accidents and homicides–and in many rapes, of course. They are further evidence that the “date rape drug” is part of an urban mythology the function of which is to preserve the status quo.

Thursday, 3 March 2011

“The Hangover,” Roofies And The Liquor Industry

Filed under: Propaganda,Psychomyths,Urban Myths — drtone @ 8:16 am

“The Hangover” is among the worst movies I have seen all the way through. Usually, if a movie is that bad, I shut it off in ten minutes. Sometimes, it takes me longer than that when a film has an actor or two I like, and I keep waiting for it to get better. “The Hangover” has Zach Galifianakis, whom I liked in the HBO series “Bored to Death.” Maybe that’s why I kept watching it.

It says almost everything that need be said about it that “The Hangover” introduces a number of plot points that it resolves through exposition in the end credit sequence. Therefore, most of the movie, which depends on creating suspense about how its main characters entered a bizarre predicament that includes finding a tiger in their hotel room, is a red herring consisting of props and characters that don’t fit into any story worth telling at length. Inexplicably, “The Hangover,” which apparently was a big hit, has a 7.9 rating on IMDB, and received positive reviews when it came out a couple of years ago.

Perhaps the most annoying feature of “The Hangover,” and the one that makes it a topic for this blog, is that its central premise involves the presupposition that taking Rohypnol–referred to repeatedly throughout the movie as “The Date Rape Drug”–will cause you to forget everything that happened in the eight hours or so after you take it. When the characters discover that they have taken “roofies,” the first question one of them asks is whether he was raped the night before, as if that were the central feature of the preparation. It does not matter that, as I have mentioned here before, it has been long established that the use of Rohypnol for “date rape” is largely, if not wholly, an urban myth. I no longer have the Blu-ray disk, but I believe that the substance in question is sometimes referred to as Rohypnol and sometimes as GHB, which are not the same drug, inattention to detail not surprising in a project so ham-handed and sleazy.

I am not a big fan of conspiracy theories, but the continuing appearance in films and TV shows of fabrications about “date rape drugs” other than alcohol, which is the undisputed champion in the category, smacks of a propaganda campaign supported by the liquor industry. Many women believe that, rather than becoming so drunk that they let their defenses down, they have been lured into unwanted sexual situations by men who have spiked their drinks with GHB or other substances. It is rare, however, for any drug other than alcohol to play a role in non-consensual sex, something that has been true since approximately the beginning of time. One can see, however, that it would serve beer, wine and liquor manufacturers to introduce the idea that what they sell is not the main culprit in “date rape.”

Wednesday, 9 February 2011

The Book Circle

Filed under: Behavioral Genetics,Human Evolution,Psychomyths,Race,Science — drtone @ 10:10 am

The other day, passages in the book I just finished, The Metaphysical Club, regarding the succession of “truths” in science triggered me to look up “sociobiology” in Wikipedia, and I wrote a short post on the subject. In a striking coincidence, the Wikipedia article on sociobiology referred to a New Yorker review of a Steven Pinker book by Louis Menand written about the time he finished the The Metaphysical Club, suggesting to me that perhaps he saw a connection between the content of his book and foolishness of evolutionary psychology. Indeed, Menand’s book is filled with discussions of Darwinian evolution and its uses within debate about social issues, discussions that had stimulated me to post on scientific racism and specifically on Louis Agassiz, making the point that the scientific consensus is often misleading, The same Wikipedia article referred to a 1985 book I had long meant to read, Not In Our Genes, by Lewontin, Rose & Kamin, a famous work deeply critical of  biological reductionism. I decided that it was past time for me to read it, given my own longstanding interest in the subject, and I ordered a copy from Amazon. Almost before they start, the authors of this latter book discuss both Agassiz and the often bogus authority of “science.” It is as if an invisible teacher is guiding my reading.

Monday, 7 February 2011

The 4 Humors & Chemical Imbalances

Filed under: Chemical Imbalance,Psychomyths,Science — drtone @ 12:33 pm

Not entirely as a matter of coincidence, the first sentence of the Wikipedia entry on “chemical imbalances” and the first sentence of the Wikipedia entry on the Four Humors of ancient (and not-so-ancient) medicine each describe the corresponding concept as “discredited.” The latter theory (if that is a historically correct term) dominated medicine until fairly recently, the middle of the 19th century. A hundred years later, in an attempt to bring mental and emotional disorders within the structure of Western medicine, physicians of the late 20th century reinvented the concept of humoral imbalance to explain something they could not quite explain otherwise, probably without recognizing the historical significance of what they had done.

Although the Wikipedia article on the chemical imbalance hypothesis denies its validity, it makes two other moves that are worthy of mention. First, it quotes a prominent expert who describes chemical imbalances as a “useful heuristic” for understanding mental illness. Let me say that it’s difficult for a construct to be misleading and useful at the same time. Second, it mentions that “no other demonstrably superior hypothesis has emerged,” as if that somehow supplies validity to an otherwise discarded framework. It is a way of keeping “chemical imbalances” on life support and at the service of the pharmaceutical industry.

Saturday, 5 February 2011

Menand On Pinker

Filed under: Behavioral Genetics,Psychomyths — drtone @ 1:12 pm

In a 2002 review of Steve Pinker’s The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature, Louis Menand (who is, coincidentally, the author of the book I’ve mentioned here recently, The Metaphysical Club) captures perfectly my own experience of Pinker, who is among the most arrogant individuals I have ever met and, at the same time, one of the worst informed. The afternoon and early evening a couple of friends and I spent with Pinker was an eye-opener, not at all because of any wonderful revelations he was conscious of offering. On the contrary, he was the revelation, because he showed us how a person who had never had an original idea in his life (and would not know one if it bit him in the ass) could combine sheer chutzpah and a studied ignorance into a successful recycling of things he had heard other people say. That was before Pinker had become a “public intellectual,” but had already begun to attract a great deal of positive attention with a combination of surprisingly good writing and a complete disregard of history and logic. I have subsequently heard Pinker interviewed, and it is amazing how quick he is to toss off bizarre statements as if they were facts with phrases such as “we now know…,” the reference being to the newest scientific discoveries about human nature.

I was therefore pleased to discover Menand’s review, which captures this same quality in Pinker, how his annoying naiveté combines with the aforementioned arrogance. Menand indicates, for example, that Pinker based some of his argument in The Blank Slate on a misquotation of Virginia Woolf that inverts her original point from one that corresponds to Pinker’s world view to one that expresses the exact opposite. Similarly ignoring the obvious, Pinker does not seem to realize that science is far from perfect: As I have pointed out recently, and as Menand emphasizes in his review and demonstrates in The Metaphysical Club, today’s “science” can become tomorrow’s embarrassment. His great talent is a total lack of self-reflection and self-awareness. Not caring that he doesn’t know what he’s talking about is at the heart of Steve Pinker’s act.

Saturday, 15 January 2011

“Drugs, Inc.”: Reinventing The Sensitization Wheel

Filed under: Medical Morality,Propaganda,Psychomyths,Television — drtone @ 3:36 pm

I couldn’t help myself. I had to watch “Drugs, Inc.: Cocaine,” on the National Geographic Channel, once I inadvertently tuned into it. I knew it would annoy me. The few things I’ve  seen on National Geographic have all annoyed me, which is why I seldom watch it. This documentary tread the thin line between being open-minded and non-blaming enough to seem “scientific,” and at the same time sufficiently condemnatory and scary to satisfy the PTA at your local Christian high school. In that universe, powder cocaine is a lesser evil than crack, which of course has nothing to do with anything except the way US laws are currently written. The powder cocaine user they showed was a highly paid, sophisticated family man in the British TV industry, who happened to be Black (must have had to look high and low for him). The crack addict they showed was a snaggle-toothed, impoverished American degenerate with no family, who had to be Black (must have had to look high and low for him, too). It was both hilarious and sad, but not what I’m here to talk about.

Near the end, they included an extended segment featuring a Mexican-born American physician with a Russian name who studies cocaine addiction, because her uncle was an alcoholic (???!!!). In between all her moralizing, disguised as “science,” the documentary introduced her “revolutionary” discovery that “merely seeing video of someone lining out coke stimulates the dopamine centers in the brain,” which proves, of course, that cocaine is addictive (????!!!). This “revolutionary” finding is so old that it has great-great-grandchildren, so old that it has been rediscovered and renamed many times.

In essence, it is the most basic finding in Pavlovian conditioning: The “conditioned stimulus” (CS), in this case the lining out the cocaine, but in the classic experiments, the bell signaling the delivery of food powder, becomes associated with the “unconditioned stimulus,” in this case the cocaine, but in the classic case, the food powder, eliciting the “unconditioned response,” the cocaine high, or salivation in the classic case. The response thus established is called the “conditioned response” (CR). Junkies know about this relationship and will, desperate in the absence of drugs, prepare an empty fix, boiling up some distilled water in a bent spoon and injecting it, as if it had dope in it. In spite of knowing that it is a placebo, they get some relief from their “Jones.” The most recent rediscovery of this phenomenon–before this Mexican-American-Russian  rediscovered it again, this time having to use brain scans–is called “sensitization.”

Note: As I peer deep into my Google results, I notice that the name of the Mexican-American-Russian doctor, Volkow, may actually be associated with research showing the very opposite of the way it was portrayed in the National Geographic documentary. In my experience, this is par for the course with what passes for science on TV.

Tuesday, 11 January 2011

Fantasy Drug

Filed under: Chemical Imbalance,Medical Morality,Propaganda,Psychomyths — drtone @ 3:04 pm

For someone like me who believes that there is a great confusion around the meaning and effectiveness of psychiatric medications, it can get pretty discouraging. What I mean is that the idea that psychiatrists and pharmacologists can develop medical cures for what ails us is so embedded in our culture that it will be decades before people will be able to get a genuine perspective on the causes of and cures for psychoemotional distress. Sometimes, it’s hard to tell whether a given cultural product was deliberately created as a piece of psychiatric propaganda or the creators simply take for granted that eventually there will be a medicine for every form of disturbance.

The latest case in point is an episode from the first season of “The Closer,” starring Kyra Sedgwick (Mrs. Kevin Bacon). The plot revolves the development of an “antidepressant” that can “cure” teenage drug addiction while also treating teenagers’ anxieties. Problems arise in the development of the drug, but not because, strictly speaking, it doesn’t work. It does seem to “cure” all the worst ills of adolescence (from many parents’ point of view), but it also has potentially fatal side effects. Early in the episode, moreover, mention is made of the various drugs of abuse the new medication sort of works against. The implication is that merely trying these drugs (Ecstasy, speed, etc.) is highly likely to do permanent damage. So the faith in drugs works both ways: Drugs are so strong, for good or ill, that we are helpless before them, as if the world is a giant 12-step meeting.

Tuesday, 28 December 2010

Time For A Vagina Dialogue

Filed under: Medical Morality,Propaganda,Psychomyths,Sex & Love — drtone @ 3:00 pm

I suggest that it is possible to read The Vagina Monologues as a hegemonic discourse that embodies a particular Western, white, heterosexual notion of female bodies/vaginas and values, even while appreciating its effort to bring to the public a discourse that in the United States is usually treated as unmentionable and unspeakable. From “One Vagina To Go” by Wairimutilde Ngarutildeiya Njambi

I have long wondered if I’m the only person in the world who sees something wrong with the international campaign against “female genital mutilation” (FGM). To me, it has a fishy smell (so to speak) reminiscent of the 19th century missionary movement, similarly launched by do-gooders in the First World to benefit inhabitants of the Third World. In this structure, the latter are conceived as ignorant savages who need to be saved from the primitive perversity of their own culture. That the campaign against FGM is about vaginas and sexuality does not alter the essential fact that it has been conceived (again, so to speak) in the West as a “solution” to something not necessarily experienced as a problem by those targeted to be “saved.”

A central flaw in the campaign, as Njambi points out in “One Vagina To Go,” is that it treats a wide range of practices relating to female genitalia as equal. In much the same way, differences in and among the “native” cultures to which they were bringing Christianity did not matter to members of the missionary movement. With few exceptions, missionaries were uninterested in values of the dark peoples they visited, nor in the relative sophistication or unsophistication of the religions they intended to supplant. To them, Buddhism, Taoism, Jainism, Islam and the various forms of “animism” they encountered were the same because they were not Christianity, and the practitioners of these religions were all, furthermore, superstitious “heathens,” lucky to come in contact with superior Western ideas and modes of worship. The campaign against FGM operates from similar racist, ethnocentric assumptions, concealing contempt for the dark people it is supposedly helping behind a smokescreen of ideology and propaganda.

For example, the FGM movement dismisses the term “circumcision” for the practices it condemns, comparing those practices with the amputation of the penis, and making much of the “crude instruments” supposedly involved, comparing them with the razor blades used in brawls. As Njambi suggests, it is impossible to defend an activity labeled “mutilation.” In addition, the relative absence of factual evidence regarding the tools actually used by the people involved, rather than calling into question the blanket condemnation of the practices in question, simply emphasizes their apparent barbarity. This is a perfect example of how propaganda can capitalize on the absence of evidence for the claims it makes. “…associating female genital practices with penis amputation and street fights is an important rhetorical strategy because it invokes the image of torture and attack on women’s sexuality, which is then taken as an undisputed or uncontested ‘truth’.'”

Consequently, once FGM was presented in the 1970s as a form of oppression from which African women must be rescued, the movement against it acquired a momentum that mows down any objections, characterizing those asking questions as defending barbarity and unspeakable savagery. Therefore, the existence of local opposition to anti-FGM programs provides proof that the ignorant women in backward countries  passively accept the values of their male oppressors, and that those same male oppressors are uncaring monsters. Likewise, as Njambi suggests, all claims that the supposed “mutilation” does not interfere with sexual pleasure are taken to demonstrate that the oppressed women do not know what is good for them.

Armed with purportedly certain knowledge, just as their 19th century predecessors were, modern-day anti-FGM missionaries have spread a gospel they have not recognized as rooted in their own parochial concerns. Women in the US and other Western countries, absorbed in a new consciousness of their own sexuality, not perhaps fully reconciled with their own culturally defined discomfort regarding the vagina, fixed their attention on the vaginas of women living far away, under conditions incomprehensible to most Westerners. Thus a movement was founded that has a lot more to do with the lives of those who founded it than with the lives of those it is designed to save. Reproducing in another form the sins of colonialism, which invariably brought oppression in the name of liberation,  Western women have carried their own “monologue” to a context where it does not fit, clumsily forcing their own values onto people uninterested in those values or actively hostile to them.

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