18 October 2007

"Oh, you people and your quaint little categories..."

Among the classes I am taking for my master's this semester is a class on Environmental History.

I can hear you now. "But Adjunct Slave, you've outed yourself as a conservative. Why are you taking an Environmental ANYTHING class?"

Okay, allow me to explain.
1. I am a fiscally conservative, socially moderate-liberal libertarian. (Basically, I'm hated by both major US parties because they have no idea how I'll vote.)
2. As T has pointed out to me (in one of the many "Must call the Slave on her shit" moments), I'm actually a Roosevelt Environmentalist. Basically, I am in full agreement that certain places need to be set aside, but not to the point where we call them "wilderness" and disallow any human animal from stepping foot in the area without filling out reams of forms.
3. I'm always up for a good, reasoned discourse.

I digress, the background there was to illuminate the context, not to create a perception issue. In a recent class, the discussion was on Gender and the Environment. [Even though I don't come from a hard science background, I've always been taught that "sex" is the proper way to refer to male/female issues and "gender" is reserved for linguistics. Apparently, that is true, but in history we prefer to use gender for language and sexual biology, and sex is used as a descriptor for the act. Who knew?] Back to the thrust of this post.

One of the articles we read was on the Ski Bunny culture of the 20th century and the shift to Shred Betties. As a result, I brought in some photos of the Lange Girls from the 1980s. In fact, I brought in these images:
Now, I'll be the first to admit that I don't fully understand the entire "OMG, Offensive!" attitude, because I brought these images in as an example and a prop to encourage conversation (something the seminar classes I'm taking seem to lack), so while they may be seen as offensive to some, they were in context for this course and the topic of the day.

I like to give my professors warning before I toss out something that people might have an "OMG, PRON!" reaction to, so I brought these (crappy, black and white) printouts to the attention of the lead professor before the class started. I hadn't even been able to explain my logic in bringing them because he took one look at the images, flipped the pages upside-down, and tucked them under his paperwork. When I said "that's for discussion when we get to the ski culture article," he removed them from his possession and put them on the table.

Personal bias much?

Here's my bitch. Either we're historians or we're playing at being historians. If we are actual, honest to Bast, historians, then we cannot afford to wear our biases on our sleeves. I am fully aware that I view the world through a filter. My filter is one of an educated, upper-middle class, white, Northern American (United States, not continent), female (there are subsequent filters, but that set is the primary one). If the professors aren't willing to realize and tamp down their socio-cultural biases, then we have a problem. If we're just playing at being historians, let me know so I can look at other programs. Needless to say, personal and professional respect has been rethought.

Here's the deal. We historians (or junior historians) are constantly engaged in different cultures and time periods. We do not have the luxury of wrapping ourselves in our biases to the point where it prohibits us from doing our goddamned jobs. We are trained to look at evidence and analyze it. We are told to check our personal baggage at the door. We are attacked by professors and colleagues if we dare slip into anachronisms. If those who are teaching us are wrapping themselves in their own biases, they are playing the role of both Zeus and Prometheus, chaining themselves to the rocks for their own transgressions.

During the course of this seminar, we discussed sex (and I mean "historian" sex) and euphemisms. A student traced the paradigm shift of Earth from Mother to Whore. Images of nymphs and cavorting women. But my documentation was immediately offensive. Is this because of the distance of 20 years as opposed to 200? Are we so incapable of distance ourselves that we have to rely on the construct of time?

Now, if the scandalized professor's concern was that someone might be offended and think he brought in these objectified images of women, I understand. But you know what? I have no problem with everyone knowing that I brought them in. If someone is offended, I want to know why. If someone complains, it goes through a process, and the professor should point out that I brought in the images. I'll happily go up before the ethics board (I don't understand why they're so scary) and defend my choice to bring in potentially offensive images because they were in context to the potential conversation. I will happily step forward and defend my right to free speech (that one hasn't been taken away in academics, yet, right?) and freedom of academic discourse.

There are not many times that I regret what I did not say (because those moments where I don't say something are rare), but this was one of them:
"Oh, you Americans and your puritanical view of sex. I'd wager that most people here have
had it, and if you haven't had it, you think you might like to. Even if you have had sex,
you'd probably like to do it again. Sex has been around for thousands upon thousands of
years. Why is it such a sacred cow? Someone, somewhere in the world is having sex right
. And you know what? Good for them."

Now, there are certain people that I won't talk about sex around because, well, I just don't ever want to see them as sexual beings. Whether it's because of a pre-existing relationship or because I find them physically or mentally unattractive, that's my thing. But as an exercise of intellectual and academic discourse? It's just sex, people. It should be something that is enjoyable to talk about and discuss, not feared.

How on earth do people today have romantic or intimate relationships? If the "good stuff" is so scary or "bad" to talk about, how does anyone get their sexual and emotional needs met?

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