Some thoughts on "choice"

I'm currently working on a scholarly piece in which I challenge the way "choice" is used in a lot of feminist writing as our go-to word for reproductive decision making.  I am passionately in favor of reproductive justice, but I don't call myself "pro-choice" anymore, in part because I find "choice" to be a sort of shopping term, suggesting ease and convenience, and in part because "choice" is very individualizing. 

What did you choose?  Just make a choice!  Well, it didn't turn out well, but that was your choice.  These are ways that we put decision making entirely in the lap of a single person, implying or stating that they are entirely responsible, and entirely to blame.  And rarely (ever?) is a major decision so completely individual. 

Tonight I went to an event about women and business that started with a video.  In this video, an unnamed white guy (an economist, I think) said that the gender-based pay gap is a myth.  Yes, yes, statistics show that white women make 77% of what white men make, but this, the economist said, isn't based on sexism.  It's based on women's choices.  They choose to major in things that don't pay as well--like education rather than engineering.  Then they choose to have kids, and they choose to take time away from work.  These choices are responsible for the pay gap, not gender.  Hey, ladies:  make better choices, and you'll make more money!

If I were showing this video in a class, I might ask the students to tell me some things that are problematic about this economist's presentation.  Here's what my students might say:

  • Why do you think that women major in education and men major in engineering?  Could this be linked to the stereotypes that affect how math and science are taught and marketed in middle school and high school?  Boys who score moderately well in math are encouraged to consider engineering.  Girls have to score significantly higher to be encouraged to consider that field.
  • And should we maybe find it a tiny bit problematic that education is one of our low paying careers?
  • Women may be the ones actually pushing the babies out of their vaginas, but very often in families there's more than one adult.  So we might just as accurately say that men choose to have kids.  Why, then, do men's choices to become fathers not have the same effects on their careers?
  • We should have a look at the "choices" mothers make.  Would they like to take some time off work and return?  Would they like to work but recognize that they don't make enough money to pay for preschool?  Would they make different choices if different choices were available?
  • The same set of questions should be asked about men:  what might it mean if more choices were available for folks who are fathers?
  • Finally, I think my students might point out that his information isn't accurate.  A recent AAUW study showed that women who are majoring in the same thing as their male classmates make 81% of what their male classmates make a year after graduation.  So "choice" doesn't really explain the pay gap.
Even though it's incredibly important that individuals have the right to make decisions about their lives, to suggest that "choice" is somehow the explanation of things that are wrong with the world, or to suggest that "choice" alone will solve the problems, is to significantly diminish complex lived experiences.  We're all living our lives in communities, in cultures, in institutions and systems that help to determine the value of who we are and what we do.


Damn you, Eating Animals

The College of Charleston picks a book each year for our College Reads program.  It's a book that everybody on campus is encouraged to read so that we can have all kinds of chewy conversations throughout the academic year.  Our 2012-2013 book is Eating Animals, a nonfiction book by Jonathan Safran Foer.

It's a book about factory farms and other forms of meat production--about how they're destroying the environment, they're cruel, and they don't actually do anything good for the world.  They make world hunger worse.  They compromise--even threaten--our human decency.

Shortly after the book was announced as our College Reads selection, I was having breakfast with some colleagues.  (For what it's worth, I was eating a muffin--no meat!)  I made mention of the book.  "I'm going to read it," I said, "but I already have plenty of stuff that I feel guilty about.  And I've already gone through my vegetarian years.  I'm going to read it, but I'm going to keep some distance between myself and Foer's claims."

"That's what I said going into it," one of my colleagues replied--a geologist, so not a big-time feminist scholar or anything.  "Particularly with the fish section.  I said, 'I'm not going to stop eating fish!'  Now I don't eat fish anymore."

This comment filled me with dread, but despite that, I read the book.  And here's what I have to say about it:  it has added to the level of guilt I now feel on a daily basis.  I haven't yet changed my diet, but every bite of meat I eat, I think about motherfricking Jonathan Safran Foer and the compelling points he made.

For instance, he's basically convinced me to stop eating chicken.  99.9 of chickens are from factory farms, and these chickens--whether they're "cage free" or not--are living inside a space that's a bit smaller than the double-page spread of a typical paperback book.  Their beaks are cut off, without anesthesia, and they're killed in ways that are careless at best, incredibly cruel at worst.  This last fact, as it turns out, is true of virtually all meat animals these days.  He does quite a bit with the slaughterhouses and really makes you start thinking about how bad cruelty is not only for the animals but for the folks who do it for a living.  How corrupting it is to their humanity.

Then the chicken corpses are cooled in a communal tank of water called "fecal soup."  These days 11% of the weight of the chicken you buy from the store is the fecal and germ-infested water it soaked in.  Our chicken is filled with E. coli, salmonella, and campylobacter. Yum!

He knows his reader.  He knows that he's writing for a thoughtful, liberal audience, so he continually lobs things like this at you:

We can't plead ignorance, only indifference.  Those alive today are the generations that came to know better.  We have the burden and the opportunity of living in the moment when the critique of factory farming broke into the popular consciousness.  We are the ones of whom it will be fairly asked, What did you do when you learned the truth about eating animals? (252)
He wants his readers to become vegetarians, and he makes many, many good arguments to convince us to do so.  You want to say, "Yes, yes, Jonathan Safran Foer, but I've already got too many political commitments!  I don't have room for one more!"  And he responds with comments like the quote above.  You think, "But I love bacon so much!" and Foer says, "Our response to the factory farm is ultimately a test of how we respond to the powerless, to the most distant, to the voiceless--it is a test of how we act when no one is forcing us to act one way or another" (267).

Then you think, "Well, crap."

Here's what else I'll say:  I figured this book would be a guilt-tripping nightmare (true!) that I had to force myself to read (not true!).  The pleasant surprise is that the book is a page turner.  Foer is a strong enough writer that he's able to make the whole book really fascinating and fast paced, even as he's encouraging your feelings of despair.  He also provides some reassuring case studies of individuals doing ethical family farming, so it's not all nausea-inducing.


Dancing at church

As I've shared here before, one of the reasons I agreed to keep coming to church with Biffle and Maybelle was because of the religious education program at the Charleston Unitarian Universalist congregation.  The religious education director is fantastic, and she's helped to create an environment that is entirely comfortable for kids and their parents.

Earlier this week, she emailed me and a bunch of other parents asking if our daughters wanted to take part in some dancing at the beginning of this morning's church service.  I believe the phrase she used was "graceful spinning down the aisle."  She knows Maybelle well, so I emailed her back and said that Maybelle loves to dance, but that she'd be equally likely to get Maybelle running down the aisle yelling, "Dance!  Dance!" as gracefully spinning.  She said absolutely Maybelle should take part.

So this morning we shared with Maybelle that she'd be dancing at church.  She loves going to church, and she loves dancing, and it was pretty clear that she got the excitement of both of these things going together.  As we were getting our bikes loaded up, Maybelle stood on the front porch saying, "Go to church!  Dance!  Dance!"

She and the other kids had a great time, and the teenager who was "choreographing" the dance was a good sport about the fact that not many of the kids were paying attention to her.  Maybelle did a wonderful job, particularly considering that she was the youngest kid up there (getting great support from some of the older kids).  Please notice her stunning fall-to-the-ground, diaper-exposing dance move at the end. It's possible she decided to insert some of the choreography from "Ring Around a Rosie."

If you want to see more of Maybelle's fun morning at church, click here for the video of Maybelle taking part in the choir rehearsal, which happened right after the dance rehearsal (but before the church service had begun).  These videos give a sense of why I'm so happy with our church.

After church, several people asked me if Maybelle would now expect to dance at every church service.  I'll tell you what I told them:  I have no idea.  We'll find out next week.


Academia and accessibility

At the conference my students and I attended last weekend (the conference where I got two beautiful nights of sleep), I had the opportunity to interact with and listen to a lot of wonderful colleagues and scholars.  Truly, for a regional conference, this one had an impressive number of people my students and I have read.

One of the things that struck me is how important I find accessibility to be.  As a scholar, I want to be writing and presenting work that a broad audience of thinking people can understand.  Let me be clear:  I really like doing scholarship--work that has lots and lots of footnotes, long paragraphs full of analysis, lengthy (lengthy!) close readings.  What that means is that I don't ever plan to become a mainstream writer in more than the occasional sense.  But I don't want my scholarship only to be understandable to those Ph.D. students who are enrolled in a seminar of mine.  I want curious undergraduates, thoughtful bloggers, zine creators, and my own mom, to be able to read my stuff and engage with it.

This isn't the case for all scholars.  I know that when I was fresh out of grad school, I felt like being a scholar meant speaking a language that other folks didn't/couldn't speak.  My first book, Out in Public, was loaded with good ideas, but some of those good ideas are so masked in theoretically dense language that it can be hard to figure out exactly what I'm saying.  For instance:

As the following chapters will demonstrate, a completely constructionist or poststructuralist reading of the bodies of nineteenth-century women inadequately accounts for the real bodily limitations these women faced.
Theory, of course, can function as a kind of useful shorthand, but for me it was as much a vocabulary I was trying to wield to show that I belonged in the club:  Take me seriously!  I'm a real scholar!  Really really real!

I guess that way of speaking, of processing ideas, can become habitual.  Or maybe it's legitimately a good fit for certain scholars.  For me, as I've gotten older and more settled into academia, I've gotten more and more comfortable being less and less stuffy.  I got books published.  I got tenure.  Students of mine went on to various PhD programs and did really well.  I got quoted in various sorts of things.  It started dawning on me that I am, in fact, a really really real scholar.  I'm so comfortably in the club that I get to change the rules a bit.

So now my academic writing almost always has a personal component.  I started my most recent academic article with an anecdote about why many memoirs piss me off, and the piece also made reference to Biffle asking me to please stop reading memoirs.  Like most of my academic writing these days, in this piece I try to make my points clearly, without a lot of unnecessary name dropping (for instance, Foucault doesn't appear there at all, and you don't have to understand poststructuralism to get what I'm saying).

Now, I recognize that some of you may have opened up that article, started reading it, and then thought, "Yikes, not for me!"  That's okay.  What I hope, though, is that you didn't think, "Yikes, I can only understand 25% of what she's saying here!  Not for me."  In part I'm an academic because I love the conversation, and I want it to be a conversation that a lot of people can choose to be part of.