The Pleasures of Determinism

Date:         Sat, 2 Aug 1997 12:13:39 -0400
Reply-To:     Queer Studies List <QSTUDY-L@LISTSERV.ACSU.BUFFALO.EDU>
Sender:       Queer Studies List <QSTUDY-L@LISTSERV.ACSU.BUFFALO.EDU>
From:         Callan Williams <TheCallan@AOL.COM>
Subject:      The Pleasures of Determinism

What do terms like racism and sexism mean?  To me, they mean racial determinism, sexual determinism, the notion that some part of your anatomy determines much about you.

We have been fighting this notion of determinism for years. The idea that the color of your skin determines what water fountain you can use, or even if you can be owned by another person is anethemetic today, no matter how widely accepted it was in years past.  The idea that the shape of your reproductive organs determines your capacity to vote, or you ability to do any other task is one that women have fought against.

The problem comes, though, not when we see determinism that limits us, but when we see determinism that comforts us.  When we see determinism that we can use as a reason for our lack of success, or determinism that keeps us separate in a way that we like, we often embrace it -- and embracing determinism in any form maintains determinism.

There was a woman on the Today show who was happy being called "the Black Martha Stewart."  What separation by race meant to her is that she didn't have to compete with the "Martha Stewart" Martha Stewart but had her own separate ladder to climb where she could be the black version of someone who made a name for themselves in the broader culture.

Separatist feminists, while saying that women should not be limited by their sex, also say that women should be able to limit males by their sex.

The argument is simple: "We have been separated so long that we don't stand a chance of success in the culture at large, so we deserve our own space to develop beyond cultural pressures."

This, of course, is the argument for Affirmative Action, the notion that there should be separate ladders based on anatomical characteristics that have social implications.

What comes after affirmative action, though?  Do we really want a society where there is only one big ladder, or do we want to continue the separations based on sexual & racial determinism where they benefit those groups?

The answer from almost everyone is that we do want an equal playing field, that everyone should have a fair chance.

However, some argue that now is not the time for moving beyond determinism, that more change has to come, more wrongs redressed before we can move beyond determinism.  Determinism was "negative" for so long that it must be continued as a "positive" force for longer until we can drop the walls and boundaries.

The challenge we have is not giving up the deterministic separations that oppress us, it is in giving up the deterministic separations that comfort us.  White men resisted strongly giving up the benefits of racial and sexual determinism that benefited them -- why should women or people of color want to give up their benefits from the same systems any easier?

To be on an open playing field is to lose our edge, our benefits and our excuses.  We want to believe that our actions and choices will only be seen in our own context, that we don't really have to deal with people and situations that challenge us and make us uncomfortable.

The truth of dropping determinism, though, is that we will be challenged by everyone.  We will have to play in the big world, not just on our isolated playing ground.  Just as American business had to face global competitors as boundaries dropped, and white men had to face women and blacks as barriers dropped, everyone had to face the challenge of the whole world when the barriers drop.

I think of the reaction to bisexuals by both homosexuals and heterosexuals.  If your partner is bisexual then you don't just have to compete with other women, but with other men too.  This can be a scary concept, and rather than focusing on how you can make your relationship so good that your partner won't look elsewhere, often we look to ways that we can wall off our partners so we won't have to compete.

This is the question that we have to answer: Do we really secretly like the pleasures of determinism, of separating people by sex, race or any other way?  Are we arguing for a truly boundary free world, or simply arguing that determinism that limits us should go away?

This is the secret of heterosexism: people gender themselves not simply to avoid the stick of stigma, but to gain the rewards of compliance with the system of separations.  By fitting nicely into a group, assimilating well, we get the benefits of that group identity, including people who desire us, support systems, and our own separate ladder to climb on.  Desire is a primary force in creating separations -- to be normative -- is to be open to being desired by your counterparts.  There is a cost to being a good woman, but there is also a benefit, for when the costs outweigh the benefits people start fighting.

As long as we keep listing ourselves as the "first woman to," "the highest ranking black,"  "the only gay man who," we maintain the separations that also limit us. We continue a determinism that says our gender, sex, race, sexual orientation, or any other factor make us different from the people around us.  People can then use that difference to give us benefits or to deny us those benefits.

Prejudice is simple: it assumes that we can use some sort of determinism to know something about a group, that we can prejudge people on their classification.  Blacks are this, Methodists are that, Lesbians are the other thing.   When that prejudice leads us to decide to benefit that group, it is privilege, and when that prejudice leads us to decide to deny that group, it is discrimination.

Prejudice depends on grouping people along some deterministic lines.  To erase prejudice, to accept people as individuals, is to erase both discrimination and privilege.

Are we really ready to give up determinism, grouping of people by a single characteristic and assigning values and prejudices to those groupings?  Does giving up determinism simply mean changing all the prejudices about a group to positive ones, or does it mean dropping the prejudices altogether?  Are we ready to be judged on our individual characteristics, or do we like having a group identity to defend?

These are hard questions.  Determinism, like any other separation, is often very comforting and useful, while also being limiting and destructive.  To drop determinism and the prejudices that come with it is to drop bot the pain and the pleasures.

And for many, the pleasures of the separations of determinism are too hard to give up.

Callan
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