I was totally planning on writing some Tooth and Claw tonight. But as I lay in bed this morning, drifting in and out of sleep among interminable Snoozes with NPR talking at me, I had something of a dream. I was in an academic setting, probably informed by whatever was on NPR, and I realized at some point that I wasn't actually going to be able to talk to people about this in an academic setting. At least, not right then. So I'ma talk about it here.
In my dream - and maybe, possibly on NPR, I was half-asleep and I'm not sure - they/we were talking about societal happiness and well-being. In my head, regardless of the scenario, I rifled through a pile of half-remembered statistics and surveys, as well as multiple pieces of writing on the two subjects and how they seem to maybe be the same thing but really aren't. I mean, to a certain point, happiness and well-being are correlated. If you're in a truly shitty situation, nothing going your way, everything flushing down the tubes, you're not going to be happy. And if you're on a hot streak, yeah, you're probably going to be happy about that.
It's the middle thing that's kind of the problem here.
I've been thinking about this all day, and now my primary link refuses to give me source material. Maybe you can find it. The article is called Oral Sex, Yoga, and God's Eternal Wrath: Inside the New Hipster Megachurch that Tells Modern Women to Submit. It's by Michael Sautter and hosted on AlterNet, and I can't get the damned thing to pull up in my browser. I'm not even gonna try caching it, because it was paged, and I think I need stuff that's not on the first page. OK, so now I'm just riffing, I guess, straight off the cuff. Look, it's been a long day, I had a well-deserved night at a bar, and I just gotta get this out. I'm not letting a little thing like internet hiccups get in the way here.
There are two main things about this "new hipster megachurch" that you need to know: 1) it's a cult, and 2) its members are happy. And I don't mean "hurr hurr drink the Kool-Aid" happy, drinking the Kool-Aid means you die. These folks are thriving and surviving, and in all honesty, I can't blame them. I don't blame them. I blame their stupid brains (for being wired how they are) and their stupid culture (for being constructed how it is). (To be fair, all our brains our stupid, and their culture is the same as my culture here.) These folks, from what I remember, felt lost and alienated - adrift in a rootless cultural vacuum where... umm... how can I say this charitably and honestly? Where their own moral compasses weren't steering them aright, and the moral compasses offered to them didn't seem any better. There. I had to struggle a bit to say it that way, but yeah, that seems to be about the size of it.
Their happiness is genuine, I gotta give 'em that. The things they are doing are real, as opposed to fake or imaginary or pointless: they're getting married, having kids, and making lives for themselves. But the root of their happiness, men and women alike, is submission: accepting another's plan for them and then living it out. All the steps are laid out. All the choices are made. All the thinking is done. Now they just follow that life plan like IKEA instructions, and pow! Life stages unfurl before their eyes in a steady stream of progress from one event to the next. OK, sure, on the ground it's not gonna seem that tidy to them. These are real people, I gotta remind myself, with inner lives as complex and rich as my own, and they're actually probably struggling from moment to moment just to make ends meet. But they're happy, is the point. One of Sautter's respondents says at some point that she was all into the feminism or whatever (I'm paraphrasing here - remember, can't do research), but it wasn't making her happy.
Sautter responds that feminism was never about happiness; it's about choice.
What the cult does for them is to remove choices. Difficult choices. Soul-wrenching choices. Choices you have to make without knowing how it's going to turn out. Now, again, in fairness to the cult members, they still don't know how it's going to turn out. So, OK, there's that. But what they get for joining the cult is a larger context where they're told (and, by joining the cult, they believe) that this path is the right path, and the choices made for them are the right choices. And that's where the mistake is.
There are two sides to this mistake, two versions of it to make, which usually go hand-in-hand but they are actually separate mistakes to make with subtle but important differences. I thought at first that there was a "big" version and a "little" version, but that's not quite right; then I thought there was a "general" version and a "specific" version, which is closer but not quite there; it's more like a "heads" and a "tails" to the mistake, where they're two sides to the same shitty coin. The mistake comes when they try to evangelize, when they try to advocate their lifestyle as a plan for society: either they say, "Well, this worked for me, so it should work for you too," or they say, "This works for me because it's the right way to live." One side tries to pigeonhole the subject of the advice they're giving, and the other side says that the pigeonholes are legitimate and everyone ought to be able to get the same results. (EDIT: Though they often come together, and may even seem the same, they are separable. When accused of saying it's the "right" way to live, they can respond, "Oh, no, I'm not saying it's the only right way to live, I'm just saying that it works for me." Or if you say that that's just what works for them and doesn't work for everyone, they can say, "Oh, I'm not saying it will work for everyone, I'm just saying it's the right way to do things." What connects them is that the thing that makes it work or makes it right is God's seal of approval: the idea that the Almighty King of the Universe planned it this way.)
Either way, the fundamental mistake lies in assuming that people are made from cookie-cutter templates and so are all fundamentally the same. Which we aren't. The mistake lies in thinking that men are this one way and women are this other way and that's the way things ought to be and deviating from that is wrong. And no matter how tolerant and accepting these people may seem on the surface, or may even actively try to be, towards others, the mistake is written in stone (as it were) on their very template for life, because what's giving them their sense of happiness is that this is God's plan for them. This is designoid thinking, categorizing people into boxes, and here I'd normally link my post on top-down vs. bottom-up universes, but I wasn't able to do research before and so I'm not about to start now. The point is that people simply don't come in these categories, and this is easy to see if you just look closely.
The relevant scholarly article here is The Five Sexes: Why Male and Female Are not Enough, by an author whose name escapes me because I'm not doing my research tonight. Wow, that slipped quickly into a foolish consistency. Whatever, going with it. In the paper, the author lays out the basic categories of "male" and "female," then goes on to point out that there are hermaphrodites who are kind of in-between. What's more, the hermaphrodites themselves can be further subdivided into three other categories: the male-ish "merms," the female-ish "ferms," and the really in-the-middle "herms." When you try to categorize these three groups of people into the "male/female" dichotomy, you fail, because the traits just don't align properly. A simpler and more clear-cut example is Complete Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome (CAIS). CAIS folks have a Y chromosome, but testosterone simply doesn't do its job on them, so they look to all appearances like regular females except that they've got streaked gonads. But aside from that, they're able to live the very same lives as any XX woman who's had a hysterectomy, except for the tiny little fact that they've got a Y chromosome and so ought to go into the "male" category. From there out, all along the LGBTQQ spectrum, you've got all sorts of people who are able to live full and complete lives but don't fit the standard heteronormative "male/female" dichotomy.
What sort of place do these people have in the Mouth-Sex/Yoga/God's-Wrath cult? The short answer is: none. But if that's the right way to live, the One True Path, the plan that God has for everyone, then... what? What does that say about God and his plan? Did he just leave some people out? Are they "abominations"? Are they Calvinistically fated to have no place in the Kingdom of Heaven? Yet they were made this way from birth, and don't fit into the top-down model that's constructed by this cult. On the cult's model, if you don't fit in and/or aren't happy doing it, then there's something wrong with you, because men are one way (made to serve God) and women are another way (made to serve men).
But maybe, the cultists can respond, all the misfits could find the same happiness if they'd just give it the old college try. Sure. Maybe. By ignoring a huge amount of difficult choices and plowing down the path laid out for them, they might actually find some happiness and things might actually work out for them.
But this loses sight of the point, yet again: it's not about happiness, it's about choice.
Happiness here is kind of a red herring. There are two excellent articles on Cracked about why our idea of happiness is wrong, and things we think will make us happy but won't (and again, not doing research tonight). Neurologically speaking, happiness is not something we can attain in any lasting or permanent sense; it's a Red Queen sort of thing, called the "hedonic treadmill" in some circles, because you have to run faster and faster just to stay in the same place. The knowledge of the neurological underpinnings of happiness has, in the last couple of years, made me skeptical of any version of utilitarianism that relies on a "happiness/suffering" model; I think an improvement would be a "benefit/harm" model, because it allows for the subtleties of benefits that bring suffering with them and harms that bring happiness with them, regardless of the actual amount of happiness/suffering that comes from these problematic benefits/harms. It's tough to articulate, because it calls into question the very standard of value on which most utilitarian theories are based (as my friend Wolf asked, "If these benefits are so great, fine, but what's the point of them?"). Nevertheless, I think the very nature of happiness and suffering as short-term, momentary feelings lends them to replacement by long-term benefits and harms irrespectful of the feelings brought about thereby. But it's not a fully-articulated theory at this point, it's more of a backburner kind of thing.
In any case, this is exactly the sort of thing that's been pushing me in that direction: these cult members are blocking off choices for themselves, and gaining happiness. Yet I think they're doing harm to themselves and also to the culture at large by advocating such a worldview/life-plan: even though their happiness is real, they're gaining it by losing a truer vision of a subtler and more nuanced world. This loss may never bring any suffering to them, but the harm done seems too big to ignore. While it could be argued from a hedonistic-utilitarian standpoint that it's wrong because of the suffering it will cause to all the LGBTQQ folks who don't fit their mold and would be marginalized if their views became the norm, in a niggling sort of way I think that's missing the point. What's wrong isn't that it will bring suffering with it - although that's regrettable, suffering is a part of life - what's wrong is that they're incorrect. So even though they may be gaining happiness for themselves, they're doing so at the cost of the harm of putting on blinders. While we could take a longer view and say that these blinders will cause them suffering down the road, I again think this misses the point: even if there was zero suffering caused down the road, I think the blinders are problematic in and of themselves, and that's not possible to work into a utilitarian framework without reference to any resultant happiness or suffering.
But then we've got to talk about theories of truth, and consistency versus coherence, and the complicated interplay between them. Which... OK, it's a discussion worth having, to be sure. But that's a topic for another day.
(DOUBLE-EDIT: Oh, fuck. I completely forgot to talk about the tenuous connection between societal well-being and individual happiness. OK, so societal well-being is usually looked at in terms of objective metrics, like poverty rate, crime rate, homelessness, teen pregnancy, literacy, unemployment, and the like. The thing is, doing well by any of those metrics doesn't make a person happy. Consider the example of a daily shower: to be able to take a hot shower every morning, you need to have a roof over your head and live in a society with the infrastructure to support such a thing, which brings with it a level of wealth almost unheard of in the ancestral condition. Yet it's something that I personally take for granted, and you the General Internet Reader probably do as well - if I don't get my morning shower, I feel gross and cranky and my day doesn't start right. But there was a time when nobody ever got a hot shower first thing in the morning, and there are places in the world today where it's still not the norm. The reason for this goes back to that hedonic treadmill: humans habituate. We adjust. As Randall Munroe writes on xkcd (still not doing research), "Our brains have one scale and we resize our experiences to fit."
Happiness from achievements like that is a fleeting and ephemerous thing, because it's not based on how well our lives are going in any objective sense, it's based on the general trend things have been taking recently, relative to the background noise of our experience. And so it makes a little more sense, then, that Nigerians rate themselves highest on self-reports of happiness, despite living on the equivalent of about $300 a year (which wouldn't pay one month of my rent), because their lives are based more around reinforcing social bonds (which doesn't appear anywhere on any measure of societal well-being). That's why I said "it's the middle thing that's kind of the problem here" all the way back up there: when things are going relatively well, you feel relatively good; when things are going relatively bad, you feel relatively bad; but when things are kinda samey, it doesn't matter how well you're doing on any objective scale, you're going to feel kinda samey.
And while you can make yourself feel pretty good by making more and more money on a steadily-climbing career trajectory, this only works up to a point: after about $75,000/year, you're pretty damned financially secure (as long as you don't get fired) and will have enough money to take care of all your needs. Money doesn't make you happier after that point, you just start accumulating rich people problems. So even if there one day arose some "ideal" society that scored perfectly on all the metrics (zero crime, zero unemployment, zero poverty, 100% literacy, 100% high school graduation rate, etc.), we'd still know nothing about how happy those people are, for the same reason Roger Williams (author of The Metamorphosis of Prime Intellect) says people worth a hundred million dollars will risk it all for another hundred million: because it's not about the number at the end, it's about whether you accomplished something. Don't get me wrong, I think the people in such an "ideal" society would be very well off, and mainly because they're educated and empowered to be able to seek their own happiness (however much they find or don't find). What I'm saying is that, no matter how happy or unhappy they are, they're better off than a society with 100% happiness where disease, poverty, crime, ignorance, and other social ills run rampant (and, to stick to the subject up there in the title, everyone is forced into prescribed rigid gender roles).
This is part of the reason why I think choice is more important than happiness: because happiness is a feeling you can only have so much of, not a status you can achieve. Every time you read the words, "And they lived happily ever after," your Bullshit-O-Meter should be blaring; and yet we say or imply it at every single happy ending: yay, the problems are over, and now everything's going to be just fine forever. Nothing ever works that way in reality. A better ending would be, "And then they rose above the bullshit and were able to make their own difficult choices in life, even though they still had problems and their moods went up and down over time." But that's kind of a mouthful. END EDIT.)