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Mondialisation : différents visages, différentes perspectives

Thinking Critically about Globalizing Homosexuality

Approche critique de la mondialisation de l’homosexualité
Jonathan Sanders Lang


L’homosexualité se trouve au centre de la mobilisation pour comprendre la sexualité humaine, vieille maintenant de deux siècles. L’épidémie du SIDA a endurci cette mobilisation et a remis sur le devant de la scène les incertitudes et les conflits qui entourent notre approche de la sexualité humaine, offrant une nouvelle manière de penser la sexualité, l’identité et la santé sexuelle. J’analyse cette re-conceptualisation dans un contexte écologique qui contourne les dichotomies analytiques. En conclusion, je suggère une manière de nous libérer des binarismes linguistiques qui nous emprisonnent dans le besoin endémique de s’évaluer par rapport aux autres en termes de supériorité et d’infériorité. En reconnaissant la signifiance de notre expérience sensuelle, nous pouvons vivre le moment présent et établir des connexions avec les autres sans sombrer mentalement dans un rapport de supériorité ou d’infériorité.

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“The shirt seemed heavy until he saw there was another shirt inside it, the sleeves carefully worked down inside Jack’s sleeves. It was his own plaid shirt, lost, he’d thought, long ago in some damn laundry, his dirty shirt, the pocket ripped, buttons missing, stolen by Jack and hidden here inside Jack’s own shirt, the pair like two skins, one inside the other, two in one.” 

 E. Annie Proulx, Brokeback Mountain


1During the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, sexuality was studied with three methods (Robinson, 1989). Chronologically they were: (1) Havelock Ellis performed narrative analyses of mostly homosexual men’s lives in case studies of a biographical and autobiographical nature. (2) Alfred Kinsey studied human sexuality through the survey instrument revealing a continuum along a six-point scale of engaging exclusively in homosexual acts at one end, and, at the other end, of engaging in exclusively heterosexual acts with graded variations in between. (3) Masters and Johnson explored the human sexual response in the laboratory where careful, minute physiological measurements of sexual intercourse between opposite sexed partners were clinically conducted, in order to reveal the secrets of the orgasm.

2The impetus for these three methods, which were utilized to study sexuality, was the deviance of homosexuality; moving from literary, to behavioral, and finally to physiological analysis. But note that the flesh of our bodies never was the subject of investigation. Our lived bodies were always abstracted away and replaced with representations, texts, and discourse, or with answers to survey questions, or with digitalized recordings of analog events that moved from real time to virtual reality.

1. Social Scientific Constructions of Homosexuality

3From Plato down to Jean Baudrillard, theorists have speculated that our world is thoroughly virtual consisting only of images in a vast simulation. However, along with several recent writers (Altman, 2001; Dowsett, 1996; Plummer, 2000), I argue that we must recognize our embodiment, and study how we live our lives through the experience of our fleshy, messy bodies. The pandemic of HIV/AIDS has done more than anything to draw out contradictions and inconsistencies in our understanding of sexuality. But this has not occurred in a vacuum. Twentieth century academic work has been bent on disrupting the triumvirate of racism, sexism, and homophobia together with questioning the colonization of Southern hemisphere by Northern hemisphere and rich against poor. Although homosexuality may have been at the center of the study of sexuality, these other challenges against class, race, gender, ethnicity, and colonialism have been intricately involved in working through the scourge of HIV/AIDS world-wide.

4Since these early studies of sexuality, late twentieth century academic discourse in Anglo-American countries has been concerned to disrupt conceptual distinctions that pit one term of a binary against another. Such binaries are not innocent divisions but are made in order to privilege one term over the other. Several of the contested distinctions are worth mentioning together as they comprise what has become the analytics of race, gender, and sexuality: white versus black, man versus woman, and heterosexual versus homosexual. Through social histories and cultural studies, we have acknowledged that “whiteness” and “blackness” are constructed “racial” categories. In Making Whiteness: The Culture of Segregation in the South, 1890-1940, Grace Hale (1999) shows her readers:

5“how what W. E. B. DuBois called the “color line” came to define American identity itself: whiteness became the standard, desirable image of aspiring middle-class life while blackness was consigned to the margins, to the back of the bus, and became a marker, for a white majority, of social pathology. Nowhere was the identification of blackness with inferiority more obsessively enforced than in the South, where the law cast a blind eye on lynching as public entertainment and where white children were taught that Negroes ‘must be kept in their place” (430).

6It is important to emphasize that the distinction is not merely one of naming but results through a complex and insistent practice of segregating people who are white from people who are black. Of course, intercourse across interracial lines produced progeny that were of mixed “racial” membership. Nonetheless, any tainting of “white” blood lines cast the offspring as belonging to the “black race” which was invariably less valued and less privileged than whites. It would be alright to acknowledge that people have different colorations in skin tones but morally unacceptable is the insistence of making one group superior to the other. And, since the AIDS pandemic has hit the countries of Africa hardest with over twenty-four million people infected with HIV, it is clear that racism has played a large part in the reluctance of wealthy Western countries of the Northern hemisphere to address the sexual health of Africans.

7The same differentiation and concomitant depreciation occurs with the other two binaries — man is superior to woman, and heterosexuality is better than homosexuality. The attribution of a normative character to these distinctions is what is unwarranted by the materiality of our perceptions. Feminists, in questioning the deleterious effects of gender discrimination, have helped us to recognize that even such fundamental distinctions as “man” and “woman” are constructed socially through our everyday discursive practices (Butler, 1990). In much the same way, we understand that “heterosexuality” and “homosexuality” are binaries that are linguistic creations or inventions that serve our purposes of dividing up the world of our perceptual reality into finite and discreet objects or things (Butler, 1993). Historians such as Jonathan Ned Katz (1995) have located the invention of homosexuality as a category of human sexual identity around 1869. The relatively late invention of a homosexual identity should not be taken to mean that before then no one engaged in homosexual behaviors. The silence around the naming or labeling of persons who engaged with same-sexed partners in activities that brought about or produced sexual pleasure was over-determined by many variables. Let us consider first the long view historically and epistemologically speaking.

2. What has history taught us about the possibility of homosexuality?

8Michel Foucault (1980) helps us to understand the shifts in linguistic and social practices that contribute to the possibility and development of homosexuality. Foucault (1988) shows that homosexual behaviors were prevalent among men in Ancient Greece. No doubt relying on Plato’s Symposium he culls the idea that mature bearded men and younger beardless adolescent boys (vividly displayed on Greek urns and other artifacts of antiquity) engaged in flirtatious relationships that were beneficial for each member of the duo. Much of Greek education transpired in the context of a relationship between an older man and a younger one. According to Foucault (1985), in ‘the care of self’ practices, Greeks would keep diaries detailing attempts at perfecting the body’s behavior and development. Emphasis was on the external beauty of the body. But in discussing the invention of the Roman Catholic confession, Foucault marks the development of a more internal reflection on desire, perhaps even a self-conscious and artful production of sexual desire. Diaries during the Middle Ages substantiate the claim of Foucault that the Roman Catholic Church creates a dividing practice, in which the human subject takes the form of a Cartesian disembodied immaterial, historically and culturally un-embedded spirit. With every age—we find it in Plato’s Two-World Philosophy and again in the Philosophy of Saint Thomas Aquinas—there is a strong tendency to abstraction through which universally enduring qualities are separated from the material world of culturally and historically embodied persons (Lang, 2010).

9Foucault’s articulation of the last epistemological break represents our modern age in which we make ourselves through technologies of the self. This is another kind of abstraction in that selves are somehow over and above the materiality of our bodies. Foucault (1988) captures the nature of the commodifying of self with his notion of practices of the care of self. But modern scientific and linguistic philosophies make no concessions to a supernatural or extraterrestrial realm in which Platonic forms of beauty, truth, and the good are sanctified. Ours is a secular world cleansed of the mysticism and dogma of religious practices. But we should acknowledge that our secularizing is itself parasitic on the domain of religious practices.

10History develops yet we cannot say that it does so with efficiency or in the direction of progress. Change is omnipresent yet we hardly control it nor do we have the full means, conceptually and linguistically, to understand it. History is part of the humanities and as such is mostly ad hoc speculation, construction, and argument that serve a particular group interest or cultural need. I would argue that we can never achieve a complete representation of reality. Rene Descartes’ dream of a realm in which reality could be depicted completely by our mental representations was just that, a dream. Our distinctions are pragmatically produced; they must serve the purpose of functionally meeting our needs for sustaining life. Abstraction should be appreciated as a sifting process through which we find and extract shared aspects and meanings of things, but not as constituting something which belongs to another realm of permanence and stability. Were our world to achieve stability, really stasis, it would end, and we would perish. Life just isn’t like that!

11Chilean born Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varella (1988/1998), the former a Medical Doctor and the latter a Research Biologist, offered an impressive, detailed, and comprehensive evolutionary and developmental explanation of life and our knowledge of it to the Organization of American States, which eventually took the form of their book The Tree of Knowledge: The Biological Roots of Human Understanding. They describe how the universe and its plant, animal, and human life evolved from the “Big Bang” of a cosmic explosion (or perhaps implosion) that makes sense by providing us with a politically progressive account of our relationship to the material world, which is itself a creation out of our collective histories of experience. They explain life by saying that it is self-maintaining, self-reproducing, and self-transcending. And they do this without mentioning any of the parts of plants, dirt, animals, humans, and sky that result from the familiar ways of dividing them up. Their explanatory framework treats our ecological niche as a living system consisting of processes that are interconnected, interrelated, and interdependent. Living things maintain, perhaps even remember their physical structure. They reproduce themselves in their progeny. And, they transcend themselves: contrary to Darwinian Theory, which claims that species evolve through natural selection or adaptation to their physical environment, living things create new forms just for the hell of it. They transcend the purposes that were part of our original nature. Maturana and Varella and others are participating in an ecological way of thinking in contrast to the Cartesian way of thinking that has dominated so much of our epistemological understanding of the world and its events.

12Perhaps Maturana and Varella were able to construct this new way of thinking in part because they too were caught up in an “unhappy” binary of North versus South, as in Northern and Southern hemispheres. As Latin Americans they experienced the subjugation of southern people and their lands by northern people of Western origins. I like to think that although there are costs of being the target of colonization and oppression through practices of discrimination, there are benefits as well. People, who are not interested in disrupting the dividing practices that have only an arbitrary basis, morally speaking, enjoy the fruits of social injustice (Fanon, 1963). And this brings me to the divisions of social and economic class, and of nationality.

3. Globalization and the International Gay and Lesbian Movement

13Denis Altman (2011) laments the American-centric focus of several journals in the field of gay and lesbian studies, he writes that “debates on globalization are particularly relevant to what appears to be a rapid spread of gay/lesbian identities, and indeed the emergence of a politicized homo-sexuality in countries as different as Indonesia, Peru, and Zimbabwe may be one of the most potent markers of globalization itself (1)”. And he clarifies the connection between globalization and the world-wide or international gay and lesbian movement in the following:

14If by globalization we understand all those processes--social, economic, political and cultural--by which people, goods and ideas move increasingly across borders, then changes are in our understanding of and attitudes to sexuality are both affected by and reflect the larger changes of globalization. Moreover, as with globalization itself, the changes are simultaneously leading to greater homogeneity and greater inequality. As all but insignificant pockets of the world’s peoples are brought within the scope of global capitalism a consumer culture is developing which cuts across borders and cultures, and is universalized through advertising, mass media and the enormous flows of capital and people in the contemporary world (1).

15When Globalization is understood as the spread across the globe of commerce, it has been occurring for centuries. However in recent times it has a more restricted meaning. And this is mainly due to the advent of multinational corporations. Of course, the West Indian Tea Company and East Indian Tea Company as well as banks in Europe were international. There is one important distinction between these earlier forms of global commerce and multi-national corporations, namely the latter work to erase national boundaries whereas the former sought to maintain them but to increase the wealth and standing of the ruling classes. Today globalization takes on a different shape. Some claim it is a result of market capitalism having morphed into a viral beast that knows no bounds. Neil Smith (2005) described it this way:

16“Broadly conceived as the process by which capital erodes and minimizes the significance of national and local borders, opening the way for global markets, trade, and capital flows, globalization is often assumed to be the inevitable--even natural--outcome of a capitalism that has swept away all competitors and stilled the regulatory instincts of national states. These states are displaced, supposedly rendered obsolete by technological advances in transportation and electronic communications. Globalization represents the apex of democracy, we are told, as previously excluded parts of the planet are connected to the most powerful, “the playing field is leveled,” and equal economic opportunity becomes a reality where separation and disconnection had once enforced poverty. (...) Globalization is inexorable, the logical conclusion of capitalism unleashed (124-125)”.

17Some think it a good thing (Bagwati, 2007) while others mourn the loss of focus on people over profits (Stiglitz, 2003). And most important there is not one seamless globalization but many processes happening on levels spanning numerous contexts. In addressing the near collapse of the global economy and international financial and banking institutions in 2007-2008, Joseph Stiglitz (2010) claims that “it became evident that economic globalization had outpaced political globalization: the world had become more interdependent, and what happened in one country could have profound effects on others (ix)”. With the growing gaps between the incomes and wealth of the rich and poor in countries throughout the globe it appears that not all are equally advantaged.

18I am arguing that cultural globalization of homosexual identities has also outpaced changes in economic and political contexts. Indeed, advances in transportation and communication may have enabled people who identified themselves as gay or lesbian (bisexual and transgendered would also need inclusion here) to move more freely about the globe igniting the liberation movements of people in otherwise oppressed and exploited nations. I am thinking here of India where a divorced or widowed woman is “damaged goods” and must remain in the company of others like herself. A controversial film by director Deepa Mehta called Fire (1997) shows the plight of sister-in-laws who find themselves in loveless marriages, seek emotional and sexual intimacy between themselves, thereby experiencing a kind of love which has no name in their language. A good research question might be found in discovering whether, in these Indian homes for unwanted women, there is a kind of institutional homosexuality similar to that found in US prisons where men and women, who otherwise identify themselves as straight not gay, have same-sex relations. Pleasure is a currency that knows nothing of national borders or distinctions of class, race, gender, and ethnicity (Bronski, 1998). It is a universal gift of our embodied natures.

19Dennis Altman (2001) and before him John D’Emilio in “Capitalism and Gay Identity” (in Parker & Aggleton, 1999) contextualize and historicize the notion of a homosexual or gay and lesbian identity by showing how expansion of consumer markets throughout the globe in what has been called “globalization” is responsible for re-thinking sex, identity, and sexual health. D’Emilio shows that a distinct homosexual or gay identity was made possible by capitalism and the flight from rural areas to urban ones. His argument is most convincing. Others have tried to make the connection between capitalism and homosexuality clear but none to my knowledge has explained it so well. And, by linking the cultural category of gay identity to the movement of capitalism in the United States, we are able to understand that gay identity and gay liberation are phenomena resulting from changed economic and political circumstances. Through globalization and especially through the world-wide attempt to address the AIDS crisis, the cultural messages of gay United States have spread rapidly through the communication links of the global networks.

20Richard Parker (1999) has pointed out that the categories of “gay” and “heterosexual” do not transfer readily to the Brazilian context. In Brazil, anal intercourse is popular among gay and straight persons, male and female. Parker claims that western categories breakdown and become inapplicable to indigenous contexts. But I (Lang, 2003) have argued elsewhere that Parker (1999 & 2002) is as caught up in the academic and Western spread of molecular biological paradigms as the people he criticizes. He applauds the success of condom distribution, low cost generic medicines for treatment of HIV/AIDS disease, and expansion of health rights to all citizens, and even proposes that the Brazilian model be generalized to the global context. But, as I have tried to show, he colonizes the indigenous people with biomedicine and western gay rights movements, and thereby occludes the possibilities inherent in indigenous forms of healing. Note that prostatin from the bark of a Samoan tree, Homalanthus nutans, found in the Solomon Islands of the Pacific is being studied under the auspices of the National Cancer Institute for its property of blocking the spread of the HIV virus (Balick & Cox, 1997). Richard Parker’s Brazilian bodies are treated as representations, texts, and discourse and not in their rich lusty contexts of development and life. He does address the duo of distributive injustice and discursive injustice that Nancy Frazer (1997) distinguishes as stemming from the spheres of the material and the cultural realms.

21However, Ken Plummer (2000) and Gary Dowsett (1996) return us to the grittiness of lived lust through what Plummer calls sexual action and sexual order. The latter being ways of organizing our sexual experiences through variations in the former—sexual action, which does not preclude human agency as do some social structural approaches set forth in twentieth century academic discourse, especially much of sociology. Plummer (2000) is not tempted to return us to the duo of biology and psychology; instead he proposes that we balance the conceptual duo of globalization and glocalization. He reminds us of the sixties slogan — Think globally while acting locally. I couldn’t agree more. One of the key concerns I have in addressing the spread of infectious diseases as HIV/AIDS and Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) is that our discursive interventions must proceed in as close association with the bodily experience of our lust and sexuality. Not so harshly as to prevent the experience of bodily pleasure but enough so that its pursuit is not laden with danger of infection and disaster of disease. That means we need to avoid refinements in describing and measuring behaviors, or refining the kinds of questions we pose in survey instruments, or inventing ever newer and more intrusive means of experimentally measuring and documenting our physiological responses to pleasure. Instead we should be developing in collaboration with the affected people in communities throughout the globe the telling of stories on the part of the people so that their lives and bodies are affirmed and recreational sex minus the high risks that have previously been attributed to it is appreciated as having great value for human development. AIDS is not a punishment for engaging in evil acts!

22As I mentioned before, new ways of thinking are made possible with the advent of changes in our circumstances. No one understood this better than US philosopher John Dewey (1920/1948), who explored the human body through the latest therapies of his day, e.g., the Alexander technique. In his pragmatic philosophy of instrumental reasoning, John Dewey claimed there is no absolute good or evil; they are relative terms in accord with purpose and context. Instead, there is evil only as deficiency of our present circumstances. And, there are no rules that can be applied externally to the present circumstances so as to eradicate it. According to Dewey, we must plod along just as we do in scientific investigations: imagine alternative ways to remedy our presently recognized deficiencies and attempt their implementation. Then, we observe and measure the results. There is no substitute for human judgment. There are no foolproof formulas for living our lives in interdependent relationship with other living things. This includes the earth which is the generative context of our living. Too bad we in the continental North America have devalued the wisdom of Native Americans who, despite all the torture and oppression we have heaped upon them and their culture, still understand that we are always connected to the earth. Abstraction of the Cartesian type is just another way of trying to avoid such realizations and what should follow from such knowledge. I am afraid that the tradition of abstraction continues with late capitalism making bodies into mere signifiers, utterly lacking in substantial material suchness as Buddhists are fond of calling brute reality that smacks us in the face just as swiftly as a monk’s stick would strike a novice apprentice who asks too many questions instead of seeing what is right in front of him. Jacques Derrida and deconstruction went too far in rejecting the presence of phenomena in the lived experience of our bodies. Not all perceptions are culturally inflected, and bodies are not blank slates as thought John Locke who conceived of mind as tabula rasa.

4. On the lookout for transcending culturally permitted pleasure

23I would argue that sexuality is one of the most emphatic ways that we living things transcend ourselves. It is a playful activity through which we develop, as Maturana and Varella (1988/1998) claim, by our participation in living systems. We maintain, reproduce, and transcend ourselves. Homosex is engaged in for the sheer pleasure of bodily contact and not for the purpose of reproduction. Women’s movements with its emphasis on abortion rights and access to safe methods of birth control also pursue the goal of sexual pleasure as necessary for sexual health. What globalization of homosexual identities has done for the world is thrown open the mostly covered up possibility of engaging in sex for the sheer fun of it. And, shame on those who have used the HIV/AIDS epidemic as an occasion to discriminate against those afflicted with this most devastating sickness. As a concern for public health always brings with it a prima facie surveillance of individuals we should always try to safeguard our civil liberties. In associations marked off by the moniker of ACT-UP, which stands for AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (Elbaz, 1992), Western gay men and lesbians have turned the tide on discrimination against people with AIDS (PWA) or people with AID- related condition (ARC), let us hope that further progress will be achieved.

24Just as is the case with other social movements there is progress and then regression; sad to say for every few steps forward opposing, resistant forces of the status quo push back requiring progressives to re-engage and move forward yet again. Though I should like to characterize this movement as two steps forward and one step back, it is increasingly apparent that the forces of domination and conservatism are erasing some of the gains made to date. Consider the progress of the LGBT community: In the area of gay rights, the year 2011 has so far in the US made gains in repealing the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” Law, which banned gays from serving openly in the US military. The repeal was officially certified by President Barack Obama on July 22nd. However, DOMA the Declaration of Marriage Act, which states that marriage is only between a man and a woman, still stands. However President Obama has instructed his Department of Justice not to defend it when law suits are brought against it from now on. How to count this? Is it one step backward (DOMA) and a half-step forward? [Note on June 26, 2013 the US Supreme Court in Windsor v. United States ruled that DOMA was unconstitutional under the equal protection clause. Thus, elevating gay marriage on a par with heterosexual marriage and giving married gay couples the same access to federal rights on taxes, etc. as other married couples.]  Or consider another change: Under the political leadership of New York State (NYS) Governor Andrew Cuomo, a gay marriage bill passed the NYS Senate in June 2011. It has always passed through the NYS Assembly but until now it never achieved passage in the Senate. New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg helped apply pressure and bolstered up those supportive yet fearful Republican Senate members, promising to pledge campaign contributions to support and defend their re-elections as they will face a backlash from cultural (Christian) conservatives in future. The NYC Mayor decided the fairest way to accommodate the barrage of applications for marriage by gay and lesbian couples who wanted to be among the very first to obtain marriage licenses was to hold a lottery.

25Not wishing to end on a sad note we must nonetheless recognize that there is still much work to be done. In Africa, Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe who had some pretty unconventional, some might have called them superstitious, beliefs about the cause of HIV/AIDS, admitted in 2008 that his family had been affected by the AIDS epidemic. He told CCTV that compulsory vaccinations have been carried out for diseases such as smallpox, measles and swine flu and wondered why a testing program for HIV could not be agreed to regionally or internationally. Mugabe said the testing results would only be used by health professionals to identify those in need of drug treatment while helping those with HIV to make behavioral changes. Results would remain between doctor and patient. According to New HIV infections declined from a high of 25 percent in 2000 to the current 14 percent (in 2010). In 2005, the Joint United Nations Program on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) indicated that approximately 1.6 million adults 15 years and older were living with HIV/AIDS in Zimbabwe (​en/​dataanalysis/​tools/​aidsinfo/​).

26Just when you thought you had seen the last of bigotry and hatred our heads are turned to the Uganda Anti-Homosexuality Bill also known as the “Kill the Gays Bill” (​world/​2012/​feb/​08/​uganda-gay-death-sentence-bill) ; if enacted, it would have broaden the criminalization of same-sex relations by introducing the death penalty. On 26 January 2011, Uganda’s most prominent gay activist, David Kato, was found bludgeoned to death in what authorities characterized as a robbery. To the credit of several Christian sects, namely Anglican and Roman Catholic, the Anglican Church took the position that the bill would become state-legislated genocide and would make pastoral care impossible. Catholic authorities maintained that the bill was unnecessary and at odds with the core values of Christianity. Instead of the death penalty, homosexuals should seek rehabilitation. That view is echoed in recent political campaign coverage of the clinic of Michelle Bachmann’s husband which promotes a “Pray Away the Gay” form of therapy (​Blotter/​michele-bachmann-exclusive-pray-gay-candidates-clinic/​story?id=14048691#.UA74yGhj7FI). In her congressional district, there have been nine suicides in recent years by gay students; one teacher has had seven of his students kill themselves because the State of Minnesota has a law called “No Promo Homos” (​2011/​07/​27/​nine-teen-suicides-bachmann-bullying-has-dire-consequences/​) It outlaws any response on the part of teachers to gay or suspected or confused or troubled gay students except a neutral one. It is well-known that Republicans win elections by fooling the electorate with their socially conservative (hateful) positions on abortion and homosexuality. Once in office they do the nasty work of passing policies into law that transfer massive amounts of wealth to the super rich who do not pay their fair share. Considering how much the corporations and the rich gained during the Bush years from two war-like interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan and a decade of the Bush tax cuts it is outrageous that the US Congress in recent times held the country hostage during what at other times has been a pro-forma matter of raising the country’s debt-ceiling, which allows for borrowing in order to cover deficit spending in the national budget.

5. Dividing Practices: Colonized by Binaries

27It appears that binaries run rampant. Rich versus poor, male verses female, gay verses straight or whatever dividing practice you choose, it all amounts to evaluative practices in which we compare ourselves with or to others. I believe that this constant vigilance of seeking to determine how well or poorly one measures up could be circumvented by a more embodied practice of meditation from one of the Buddhist traditions (Brazier, 1996). “Mindfulness” as Ellen J. Langer (1989/1997) calls it brings your focus and attention to the movement of your breathing -- inhaling and exhaling -- so that you move out of your head and into your body. Being fully present permits one to “hear,” “see,” “feel,” and witness without judgment your thoughts and especially your comparisons and self-consciousness of an undesirable sort. Letting go of this compulsively comparative-state-of-mind and embracing our embodied and embedded lives in ecological contexts brings about a predominance of compassion in contrast to the usual hatreds and suspicions generated through the binary way of thinking and evaluating so that one position of the dichotomous non-overlapping binary is valued as good or better and the other is devalued as bad or worth less.

28We might wonder how to really break out of our encapsulated feeling of estrangement and alienation. Recent cognitive neuroscience has revealed that our bodies have a wisdom that our minds cannot fully understand. What I am referring to is the work of Italian neuroscientists on what has been called our mirror neurons (Iacoboni, 2008). Their research on non-human primates has shown that neurons in the prefrontal cortex respond in anticipation to what they observe as other primate intentions. Evidently, these neurons “mirror” the intended action of another primate. For example, when one observing monkey sees another monkey reach for a reward, either a peanut or raison, the same neurons that precede the act of reaching in the rewarded monkey “fire” in the observing monkey. In humans we would call this imagining what another human being intends to do; some would call it “reading another’s mind.” But since my proposal is to supplement living in our bodies instead of just our “heads” I imagine that our observing bodies have a way of resonating with the bodily movements and energies of another human being. Resonating might be performed or processed in these “mirror neurons.” However we should understand the limitation of this anticipation of another’s actions: though we might be somewhat “psychic” in this regard, merely appreciating or anticipating how others will act and even how they might be feeling supplies a basis for recognizing what might be going on in the life of someone who has an identity foreign to ourselves--think of a straight person feeling what a gay-identified person might feel about their sexual intimacies--there is no automatic acceptance of the intentions or actions of that other as morally worthy of acceptance. We must always understand that moral evaluations or assessments are the result of imaginative rehearsal and ultimately of choice. When it is understood that pleasure is one of the “goods” that makes life meaningful and the evaluating person empathizes with the other’s life, alien as it might be from one’s own choices, we can impartially accept what the other chooses is good for them. Therein lies my solution to avoiding solipsism--the incapacity for understanding and/or knowing other minds than our own--and applying the virtue of compassion to those different from ourselves.

6. Assessing the psychological harm of dividing practices

29What remains is to contextualize the origins or determination of these pervasive dividing practices. I should argue that it is living under real or supposed conditions of scarcity that produces the insecurity which leads to most of the world’s people to live in constant vigilance over how they are perceived and valued or devalued by others. Consider research on young people in the United States which compares levels of confidence and self-esteem back in the 1980s and today: Citing psychologist Jean Twenge’s impressive review of a large number (289 to be exact) of comparable studies of anxiety levels in the US population conducted between 1952 and 1993, which surveyed over 52,000 individuals, Wilkinson & Pickett (2010) report on a continuous upward trend over forty years that reveals increasing anxiety and depression. How Twenge accounts for this is by examining self-esteem and social insecurity. “Twenge says that in the 1950s only 12 percent of teenagers agreed with this statement ‘I am an important person’, but by the late 1980s this proportion had risen to 80 percent (36)”. She explains the incongruence between apparent increases in self-esteem and higher levels of anxiety and depression by pointing to a defense. In response to the growing anxiety over how we are seen and what others think of us we use a defensive attempt to bolster our confidence in the face of mounting insecurities. Twenge concludes that “the defense involves a kind of self-promoting, insecure egotism which is easily mistaken for high self-esteem (36)”.

30Tests were developed to tease apart people with healthy and those with unhealthy self-esteem. Wilkinson & Pickett characterized the differences as follows:

31“The healthier kind seemed to center on a fairly well-founded sense of confidence, with a reasonably accurate view of one’s strengths in different situations and an ability to recognize one’s weaknesses. The other seemed to be primarily defensive and involved a denial of weaknesses, a kind of internal attempt to talk oneself up and maintain a positive sense of oneself in the face of threats to self-esteem. ... This unhealthy high self-esteem is often called ‘threatened egotism’, ‘insecure high self-esteem’, or ‘narcissism’. [Twenge] found that by 2006, two-thirds of American college students scored above what had been the average narcissism score in 1982 (37).”

32Barbara Ehrenreich (2010) attributes this exaggeration of self-esteem as having been the product of thirty years of teachers and parents telling their children to think positively. I often remind students that if you want to feel good about yourself you need to do good. Unlike the positive thinking and self-esteem movements, I would argue that feeling good is not our birth right but must be earned. It is up to each of us to evaluate progress toward our goals whatever they might be and to make assessments and develop alternative plans for achieving what we have set for ourselves as worthwhile endeavors that create meaning in our lives. Having the freedom to do this is of course another problem for people living under conditions of political and economic oppression.

33Wilkinson & Pickett remark about the connection between Quality of Life for all and National Standards of Performance. They say :

34“National standards of health, and of other important outcomes are substantially determined by the amount of inequality in a society. If you want to know why one country does better or worse than another, the first thing to look at is the extent of inequality. There is not one policy for reducing inequality in health and another for raising national standards for performance. Reducing inequality is the best way of doing both. And if, for instance, a country wants higher average levels of educational achievement among its school children, it must address the underlying inequality which creates a steeper social gradient in educational achievement (29-30).”

35In explaining how inequality gets under our skin, they claim that “the powerful mechanisms which make people sensitive to inequality cannot be understood in terms either of social structure or of individual psychology alone. Individual psychology and social structure relate to each other like lock and key (33)”. The failure to understand the relationship between them is the reason why the effects of inequality have not been properly understood before now.

Conclusion: Global Public Health: Reclaiming Our Bodies/Our Selves

36Rising self-esteem and rising narcissism are caused by an increase in social evaluative threat. And this is stressful. It is now recognized that living with high levels of stress is harmful to health. Primatologist and MacArthur Prize winner Robert Sapolsky (2004) has demonstrated in his research on baboons over thirty years that where a baboon resides in the troupe hierarchy determines their life chances: The lower ranking they are the greater the amount of stress. Sapolsky measured epinephrine (adrenaline) and corticosteroid levels--both are stress hormones--in blood samples taken in the wild. He found that lower ranking baboons had greater ill health they than those of higher rank. From a National Geographic film, Stress: A Portrait of a Killer (2008), featuring Sapolsky’s research and the Whitehall studies conducted over forty years by Sir Michael Marmot on British Civil Servants, it is clear that living in hierarchies as subordinates is deleterious to health. All things considered were equal, e.g., civil servants all had access to universal health care and no toxic industrial exposures, and baboons got the same diet and leisure time. And whether human or baboon, the lower you are in ranking the greater the stress and the greater ill health you will have. Early death from stroke and heart attacks is prevalent among low rankers.

37Something really remarkable happened to the Kiko Rock baboon troupe which Sapolsky first studied some thirty years ago. Alpha males died from eating tainted food disposed of improperly by tourists in a nearby lodge. Alpha males are not very affiliative; they don’t share in grooming and have high levels of stress as there is always some baboon looking to defeat them and take over their high ranking status. Sapolsky reports that he was devastated by this mishap. However it turned out that something remarkable happened. Without the alpha males (actually 50% of Kiko Rock males had died) the females created a more gentle and affiliative troupe culture. And as new adolescent males migrated into the Kiko Rock troupe from their birth troupes they learned within six months that you don’t take out your frustration on subordinates. For example, if a baboon had been defeated in a contest for status and rank they were not allowed to take it out on someone lower in the troupe (a female or an infant) hierarchy. Within a generation the Kiko Rock troupe established a change in their culture. A more egalitarian culture has unfolded and continues to this day. Sapolsky and Sir Marmot challenge us humans saying that if baboons could change their culture, why can’t we?

38An obvious clue to how to go about establishing a more gentle, egalitarian culture gleaned from the comparison between baboons and humans living in social hierarchies is to minimize the extent of disparities between rich and poor. We can do this, if only we become cognizant of how wasteful our “life-style” under late capitalism has become. Friendship is important. It has the protective benefit of feeling more secure and at ease with friends. Although Psychoanalyst Alfred Adler claimed that “to be human is to feel inferior” we can understand that this is not some biologically-engendered disability but one that is socially derived. Wilkinson & Pickett found that “the further up the social ladder you are, the more help the world seems to give you in keeping self-doubts at bay. If the social hierarchy is seen as if it were a ranking of the human race by ability, then outward signs of success or failure all make a difference (34)”.

39Think of the ways in which shaming has hampered, when internalized, the lives of countless gay men and women. It often leads to overachievement as compensation for low status resulting from the binary of heterosexual verses homosexual. Queers manage the social stigma with which we have been unjustly saddled by overachieving. And shaming practices are not the exclusive prerogative of gays and lesbians. Anyone who falls on the wrong side of one of the binaries suffers from shame. It would be best if we could do away with such harmful practices altogether. At least this is what I have attempted to show in the above discussion of the stress caused by living in hierarchies results from the shame of being a subordinate. I attribute the degree of stress to the gaps in income and wealth that lead to the use of dividing practices so we fight with each other instead of turning our attention to the real causes of human misery, namely the distortions in the global political economy. According to Wilkinson & Pickett (2010):

40“Rather than being entirely separate spheres, how much status and wealth people achieve--from unskilled low-paid work to success, money and pre-eminence--affects not only their sense of themselves, but also how positively they are seen even by friends and family. ... Social status carries the strongest messages of superiority and inferiority, and social mobility is widely seen as a process by which people are sorted by ability. ... Greater inequality seems to heighten people’s social evaluation anxieties by increasing the importance of social status. ... Surveys have found that when choosing prospective marriage partners, people in more unequal countries put less emphasis on romantic considerations and more on criteria such as financial prospects, status and ambition, than do people in less unequal societies (43-44).”

41As this is a French publication it seems fitting to refer to the demand during the French Revolution for “liberty, equality and fraternity”. The slogan shows just how long attention has been focused on dimensions of social relations which matter most if we are to create a better society and make a difference to the real quality of our lives. Let us find ways to resist the forces of globalization that exacerbate disparities in income and wealth by rejecting and refusing to participate in the dividing practices that serve the interests of capital and not the majority of us. Thus, at least we will be playing our part in spreading liberty, equality and fraternity to all of the global village.

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Jonathan Sanders Lang, « Thinking Critically about Globalizing Homosexuality »Études caribéennes [En ligne], 22 | Août 2012, mis en ligne le 15 août 2012, consulté le 10 décembre 2023. URL :

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Jonathan Sanders Lang

BMCC of the City University of New York,

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