February 01, 2010

Subversive Stereotyping

We always have the best conversations at weekly Opinion Section meetings. They are chaotic and far-ranging, full of interruptions and interjections and non sequiturs. We rarely accomplish much, but we have a good time.

This week we discussed stereotypes in response to last week’s impromptu sex theme in the section. Jake, with his “crunchy conservatism” (his characterization) and “Christian luddite” (my characterization) tendencies, often has trouble in dialogue with other conservatives, who paint him with the broad socialist brush following any reference to environmental sustainability, after which he feels excluded from any conversation, written off. I pointed out that I have often found it to my advantage to “own my stereotypes,” because that gives me the opportunity to shake people up when I act outside of them.

I have always seen this as a kind of passive-aggressive strategy, and it has served me well in debate. However, passive-aggressiveness is typified by a kind of mostly silent obstructionism, and silent is one thing I am not. I can be a very loud obstruction when I put my mind to it (and sometimes against my own better judgment). I lay wait. Perhaps I was a jungle cat in my last turn ‘round the wheel, or a like a baseball player, I wait for the pitch before I swing. It even shows in my fencing. I taunt an opponent into attack with a false opening or feint, then parry and score on the riposte.

Is this clever or merely deceptive? How often have I railed against stereotypes even as I turn them to my use?

In relation to last week’s section, I wrote from a very sexually liberal stance. People are surprised to discover I hold such opinions. I dress fairly conservatively, “thrift store chic” if one is charitable about it, without showing skin or curves. I don’t talk about drinking, partying, or “this guy I met the other night.” In addition, I am sexually liberal but I am also very picky about my relationships. Sexually liberal people should be having lots of sex, right? They should dress provocatively and have all kinds of thrilling stories, right?

At the same time I respect other people’s opinions about sex, especially in regard to religion. I don’t disregard religious teachings in contradiction to my own liberalism as “old fashioned” or “dogmatic.” So while Jake and I hold entirely opposite views on the topic of sex outside of marriage, we find a platform for mutual respect. As a result, we had a lot of fun editing each other’s columns this week, helping strengthen each other’s arguments. Too often people assume that someone with a strong opinion one way or the other will naturally “poo-poo” an opposing viewpoint. They are surprised to be engaged in civil debate.

Is this “laying in wait” an effective strategy for shaking people up, helping them move beyond conceptual thoughts and categories? Am I just doing it for my own amusement? Or am I just passing? In sociology, passing is the ability to present oneself as a member of other social groups such as race, gender, class, etc., usually in order to gain social acceptance. Do I spend most of my life passing and then only “shake things up” when I feel safe or want attention?

When I first moved to Lincoln, I got a job with the Army ROTC. It took them six months to realize they’d hired a pacifist (and worse, a vegetarian), but by that time I was already embedded in their minds as a person, an individual worthy of consideration and respect. We had many quite lovely debates in the office and I never felt excluded. In fact, it is one of my favorite times here at the university because it added to the diversity of my experiences. At the end of my “tour” they gifted me with the soapstone buddha who now graces my very informal shrine at home.

I am forced to admit I get a kick out of delivering the surprise. I like being other than what people take me for at first glance. It’s the chance to be Cinderella at the ball. (Did I really just use a Disney metaphor?) It also prompts good conversations, a favorite activity I don’t get to indulge enough. People assume I’m younger, more conservative, and more acquiescent than I am. It’s fun to be otherwise. I always feel a little subversive.

It’s useful, in any discussion, to be seen as an “insider” rather than an outsider. This was true at the ROTC. This is true when I worked in customer service and learned to fake various accents because people were nicer to me if they felt I was one of their own. This is true when I do projects in rural Nebraska and toss around the names of my parent’s small town homes as proof of my “credentials.” A “radical” suggestion from an insider isn’t usually seen as radical at all, whereas even the most commonplace suggestion from an outsider is viewed with suspicion.

Am I perpetuating false dichotomies? Am I perpetuating stereotypes? Am I working to break these things down? Or merely doing the best I can with imperfect cultural paradigms, trying to build a house with a broken hammer?

I try to never consciously present myself as something I am not (I don’t work in customer service anymore, so no more fake accents), however, I am aware of and do capitalize on the conclusions people draw on their own. I am not obligated to announce all of my preferences, affiliations, opinions, and quirks to everyone I meet, not least of which because this would be impracticable. Yet I have to be aware that I sometimes tread a thin line between ego, deception, and skillful means. This concerns me, as well it should, and is something I must continue to contemplate.

In the meantime, I'll try not to twitch my tail too much in the tall grass.

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