Friday, January 29, 2010

Video of the Day

Kinda predictable of me's a classic. What can I say?

Have a good weekend!


I know, you're probably amazed that anything could render me speechless, right?

but...holy shit!!!!

You're just gonna have to read about this on your own, 'cause I'm afraid this one will break my ranting mechanism.

How did I not know about this? How is it possible that there are still people (apparently lots of them) in the world who think this is defensible?!?



via The Unnecesarean

On Sexting and Exploitation

Here we go again with the whole Sexting thing:

The idea behind sexting, or sending a nude picture via a cell phone text, is not so new. Children played doctor long before grade school students were armed with cell phones capable of snapping photos. They just didn't record an image of the offense.

But technology has created a trail of evidence. Children and teens are capturing nude photos or videos of each other and sending them from friend to friend, and that's landing them in court.

"I think there has always been a sort of, you show me yours and I'll show you mine,
and a curiosity there," Porter County, Ind., Prosecutor Brian Gensel said. "The
problem now is the stakes are so much higher because if a juvenile sends a picture of themselves to someone else, well, that can be disseminated now to the entire world within minutes."

And that's distribution of child pornography, Gensel said.

Last week, two middle school students in Valparaiso, Ind., were caught sending nude pictures of themselves to each other on their cell phones. The students were caught when the 13-year-old girl's cell phone rang in class, and her teacher confiscated it, according to a police report. The girl cried that she would get in trouble because a 12-year-old boy sent her a "dirty picture."

The boy sent the girl a picture of his genitals and requested that she do the same, the report said. The girl then texted him a picture of her naked, police said.

The students have been charged with child exploitation and possession of child pornography, both felonies.

I know this issue has already been discussed in a number of feminist forums, but it's gotten me thinking today. I think the phrasing of the prosecuting attorney in this case is particularly telling regarding the issue that is really bothering prosecutors enough to make them file charges in these cases.

Let's think about this for a minute. The students are being charged with child exploitation and possession of child pornography. It's instructive here to think about why we have child exploitation and child pornography laws to begin with. In our culture, children are perceived as being particularly vulnerable and thus in need of protection from older, more powerful members of society. It's less likely that a child will understand the sexual interactions an adult might wish to engage them in, and that the child will feel that s/he can say no (or that s/he will understand the implications of an action). So we have laws in place to prevent the exploitation of the vulnerable by the powerful. In other words, there's a non-reciprocal relationship involved that heightens the risk of exploitation. So far so good. But in sexting cases, the non-reciprocal, exploitive relationship is posited to exist between the child and herself (or himself). And here's where things start to become nonsensical. Can a person have a non-reciprocal relationship with themselves? Can a person exploit themselves? Note that this is a different question than whether one can ever fully consent to being exploited by others. If exploitation requires a non-reciprocal relationship, then self-exploitation appears to be logically impossible.

So what is really going on here then? Well... the thought process of this attorney (and prosecutors in other sexting cases) actually seems to start with the existence of the offending images in the world and work backward. Something like this:
  1. OMG, there are pics of naked children/teens in the world.
  2. The only reason why there would be pics of naked children/teens in the world is if someone was distributing child pornography and therefore exploiting a child.
  3. There is someone who was distributing child pornography and therefore exploiting a child, and that person is the child herself.
  4. Therefore, she is guilty of exploiting herself and distributing child pornography.

This explains a number of things. First of all, it explains why the attorneys in these cases aren't bothered in the least by the deeply problematic claim that children can exploit themselves. After all, there are naughty pictures in the world, and the only way to explain the existence of naughty pictures is with a narrative of exploitation and pornography (in their worldview, apparently). And this also reveals the profound panic that the existence of pictures of naked children evokes in our culture. You get the sense that the mere existence of naked girlflesh (or boyflesh) is so shocking that it can only have been the result of some crime - there's no other possible explanation for it in this worldview. (Incidentally, this line of thinking also seems to have informed the recent case of the WalMart photo center employee who called child protective services on a couple in Arizona for taking bathtime pics of their kids.)

It's also telling that (in other sexting cases) there's zero interest in prosecuting the other students (most of whom are presumably boys) that have distributed the images to their classmates. I mean, if half the kids in the school suddenly have these images on their phones, weren't there a lot of people both in possession of and distributing the pictures? Why aren't they being prosecuted? I'm gonna go ahead and guess that this one is rooted in the old "women as sexual gatekeepers" meme. After all, if girls wouldn't take nekkid pics of themselves to begin with then the boys (who are really just being boys, the poor dears) wouldn't be in possession of nekkid pics. That's logical, right?

The other thing that strikes me from this particular article is the contrast between the sort of innocent "playing doctor" of the good old days versus the infliction of your naked image upon the masses that occurs in sexting cases. The significant changes that have accompanied recent technological advances are certainly things we should talk about with kids, and something they should be aware of. But charging them with felonies, labeling them as sex offenders, etc seems like the most ridiculous way to deal with this reality of modern-day life imaginable. Seriously, if you sat down and asked yourself "what's the worst possible way I can handle the impulsiveness, lack of foresight, and poor judgment inherent in adolescent sexuality," this is the answer you would come up with. Or maybe abstinence-only sex ed. Or both. They're cut from the same fabric, after all.

America: Rocking the Corporatocracy

Text:'The Supreme Court has ruled that corporations may now buy and own as many congressmen as they can afford' and a sign reading 'Puppy Sale' Image: Large corporate execs carrying around and leading small congress reps on leashes like puppies.

Born a girl

From A Softer World

Sometimes I wish I was born a girl.  I'd like makeup and pretty clothes instead of just having this vagina

I often love the way they poke fun at certain social conventions, or highlight our implicit shared cultural beliefs. But this is one of their best yet. I used this as one of our "state the implicit claims" exercises in my critical thinking course, and here are some of the interesting claims that emerged:

  1. having a vagina makes you a girl
  2. having a vagina doesn't make you a girl
  3. all (proper) girls like makeup and pretty clothes
  4. liking makeup and pretty clothes makes you a girl
  5. liking makeup and pretty clothes just is what it means to be a girl*

First, it's interesting how this exercise highlights the seemingly contradictory beliefs that coexist in our cultural views of gender. Roughly half the class identified #1 as the implicit claim (which they saw this comic as rejecting) while the other half identified claim #2. The class was also about evenly split on #3 and #4. It seems like the causal relationship can go either way here: being a girl makes you like makeup and pretty clothes, and liking makeup and pretty clothes makes you a girl. And nobody really seems to instinctively object to either of these statements. But, of course, this breaks down when you start talking about transgressive (to our gender system) identities. Because, after all, if liking makeup and pretty clothes makes you a girl, then anyone who likes makeup and pretty clothes can legitimately claim to be a girl, right? And where does that leave trans women who don't particularly like makeup and pretty clothes? How do they defend their girlness without this essential element? I think this also tangentially touches on the common belief in our culture that when a trans or genderqueer individual claims a feminine identity this just amounts to them liking makeup and pretty clothes as well.

In other words, this comic does a really nice job of hitting on the tangled mess of (rather incoherent) beliefs and attitudes that characterizes our cultural approach to gender. Your thoughts?

* I would say it this way: liking makeup and pretty clothes is constitutive of girlness, with the added fine print that this only applies if you also have a vagina.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Cowboy Culture...Again

The Code of the West: Alive & Well in Wyoming - Trailer from Havey Productions on Vimeo.
So, this movie is currently enjoying some popularity. Many people in my acquaintance find it appealing, and want to tie it closely to the heightened concern with business ethics of the past few years. And I can appreciate that. Clearly, Wall Street is no place to be looking for some coherent, livable code of ethics. But I have some pretty big issues with the idea that the Old West™ (or even the modern day Old West™) is a better place to find it. It seems to me like every time period and cultural framework has its own strengths and weaknesses, and it's important to not mistake the mythology that grows up around it for the day-to-day reality. So here are a few things to think about:
  • There never has been and never will be any culture or social group that's monolithic. Whatever we might imagine the Old West™ to have been like, it simply wasn't a place where nobody would betray you and everyone kept their promises, lived up to their obligations, and refrained from exploiting others. There were cowboys who didn't follow the cowboy code. There were ranchers who were ruthless in achieving their objectives. There were opportunistic drifters who would give their word and a firm handshake as a way to manipulate the situation and exploit others. Of course there were also those who kept their promises and whose handshake was just as good as an airtight legal contract. But it was never the case that everyone followed the "code of the west" or that you could trust everyone you met from the West.
  • In the modern day Old West™, it's still not the case that you can completely trust a person simply because of the geographical region they're from. In my experience, people are just as likely to be trustworthy and ethical in Seattle and LA and Houston and Minneapolis and Jackson Hole. Everywhere you go there are some who are really good people, down to the core. And then there are those who are just scoundrels no matter what context they find themselves in, while the rest are just as good (or bad) as the situation requires or inspires them to be. Of course, this finds different expression in different cultural contexts. But the idea that you're any less likely to be mistreated in Wyoming or Montana as opposed to New York is... questionable.
  • The contrast between cowboy country and wall street is misleading. There are "cowboys" on Wall Street and there are scoundrels out on the range. The thing is, lately all we hear about from Wall Street is the scoundrels, because that's what's newsworthy. No doubt there are many good people working on Wall Street whose handshake is all you need and who keep their word and try to be kind to others. They're just not the ones making the news. Then there's the obvious fact that, if you're handling other people's money and making decisions that impact thousands (or millions) of people, you have the opportunity to betray and exploit people in a much more spectacular fashion. But betrayal and exploitation are betrayal and exploitation wherever you find them.
  • Having certain skills like roping or bullriding does not make you more likely to be an ethical person.
  • Wearing western style clothing and spending the bulk of your time in wide open spaces does not make you more likely to be an ethical person (although I will say that having a good work ethic goes a long, long way).
  • This movie seems to omit a huge chunk of history. In cowboy country, there was one group of people with whom we often did not honor our word or feel bound by a firm handshake. If your skin was brown, all bets were off. We would make agreements with you, sealed by a handshake and a written contract, which we would frequently disregard the minute it became convenient for us. Our word was questionable if your skin was brown and your culture didn't look like ours.  And once again, no culture or group is monolithic, but there was a time when betraying non-white people was pretty widely accepted.  Many white people didn't, but many did.  That's why we have Indian Reservations and wide achievement gaps, y'all.
And beyond all of these critiques, I think that images and conceptualizations like this can be counterproductive if they distract us from really talking about ethics. The rugged reliable cowboy makes a pretty picture, and it does seem like an easy escape from the corruption and immorality we may often experience in a more urban business or political environment. But, in addition to being an attractive fiction, this image doesn't tell us anything about ethics, or what makes people treat others well, or how to raise your kids so that they'll behave in an ethical way in every context they find themselves. It doesn't tell us anything about what ethical people are really like, other than that they have a firm handshake and ride a horse. So, for those who find it appealing, I think this movie is a great piece of regional PR, and it has some great footage of the truly beautiful local landscape. But beyond that...


This is what it looks like:

Fathers to get six months of paternity leave

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Friday, January 22, 2010

What does Trust Women mean to you?

It's Blog For Choice Day, y'all. So here are my thoughts on this year's question.

What does Trust Women mean to you?

"Trust women" means a lot of things to me, and this goes way beyond issues like abortion and reproductive freedom. In our culture there is a deep and subtle lack of trust for women that seems to be a remnant from a time when people were explicit about the fact that women could not be trusted to make their own decisions. The explicit lack of trust for women that was common in earlier periods was supported by a whole conceptual framework that justified misogynistic beliefs and practices. But now we're in a strange sort of transitionary period where most people reject this framework (or at least claim to), but the unspoken, often subconscious, attitudes that accompanied it remain. This is evident in legislation that seeks to force women to view ultrasound images or get consent from a parent or spouse before they can terminate a pregnancy. It's evident in the "pro-life" propaganda that's so prevalent around abortion clinics. But it's evident in a number of other places too.

Most feminists who have experienced pregnancy and childbirth can tell you that the childbirth industry is saturated with a profound distrust of women. Most medical professionals act as if pregnant women are wayward children who need to be managed. From the subtle pressure and intimidation that's routine in examining and birthing rooms, to cases where the state orders a pregnant woman to submit to bedrest, a c-section, and any other medical interventions deemed necessary, this attitude toward women is obvious. Ask most women who gave birth in a hospital what responses they got to their questions or requests or birthing plans. In most cases, a pregnant woman who comes in well-informed, and asks questions, and reserves the right to refuse certain tests and interventions is treated like a trouble-maker, a selfish person who doesn't care about the well-being of her child, and/or a conspiracy theorist. From exaggerated sighs and eyerolling to outright threats and refusal of service, the disdain for a woman's capacity to make informed decisions is more than clear. And this is a reproductive rights issue just as much as access to abortion is. Having choices about the way your body will be treated, and having some control over your birth experience, is central to a woman's autonomy, and the contempt that western medicine shows for the ability of women to make informed decisions reveals their deep distrust for women.

Many of the other areas in which this distrust for women is evident also pertain to reproductive choice. Abstinence-only education, purity pledges, and refusals to perform voluntary sterilization on young women who request it are a few of these. But as a society, we also distrust women in other areas. Most marketing campaigns that are specifically targeted to women are troubling for this reason. In our cultural mythology, women buy things based on aesthetics alone. Computers, cellphones, and other electronics are marketed to women based on their appearance. Occasionally, ease of use is a selling point, but functionality is never emphasized in products targeted to women. And this is insulting in the extreme. Buying a computer is a serious purchase that will effect you for a significant period of time. By assuming that women aren't interested in or can't understand the basic information about the product which will shape their experience with it, marketers send the clear message that women are too incompetent to engage in normal adult decision-making. And this is the implicit message that our daughters are absorbing every time they're exposed to this kind of advertising.

So I guess this is what Trust Women means to me. Our practices and policies should reflect the belief that women are competent and capable of making informed decisions. This means that we make clear and complete information and educational opportunities available to them, but we don't shove the segment of the info that seems the most important to us down their throats. This means that we view pregnant women as the central actors in childbirth, and honor their preferences and desires. Mothers deliver babies - doctors and nurses and midwives and doulas just help them through the process. This means that we advertise products in an informative and straight-forward way, and assume that the consumer, regardless of their gender, knows their own needs and preferences. This means that we talk candidly and openly with teens and young women about sex and protecting themselves and the social and emotional implications of sexual relationships, and then let them navigate their own course. By doing this we'll be teaching them the most important lesson of all - we'll be sending them the message that they're intelligent and competent beings who are fully qualified to run their own lives and make their own decisions. And that's what Trust Women means to me.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Frack: it's not just a faux swear word anymore

According to the natural gas industry, "fracking", a process of extracting hard-to-reach gas reserves by forcefully pumping a mixture of water and chemicals into the ground to break up layers of rock and force the gas out, is perfectly safe. Apparently the gallons and gallons of water and chemicals just magically disappear once they've served their purpose. The don't make their way into our drinking water, or pollute nearby waterways, or damage any of the creatures living in the area.

And just for a little morning laugh to lighten up your day, there's this gem:

"We have no evidence that hydraulic fracturing is causing problems," says Lee Fuller, vice president of government relations for the Independent Petroleum Association of America. Without evidence of problems, he says there's no reason to pile on more regulation.
"I think people need to have more faith in the regulatory agencies that are watching it very closely and their ability to respond to issues if they arise," says Fuller.
Right. There's no evidence of problems because the practice is relatively new, and no doubt the industry has done it's best to prevent any research from being done that would serve as evidence of a problem. And I should have more faith in the regulatory agencies that your industry has in it's pocket? Really?!? Are you kidding me?

Smells like a fracking load of bull to me.

Just sayin.'

Sources here and here.

Suddenly Sick

Commenter K8 posted the link (which I had lost) to this informative chart from the Seattle Times. Reposted here for your viewing pleasure...Suddenly Sick (click on it to view it full-sized).

The number of people with at least one of four major medical conditions has increased dramatically in the past decade because of changes in the definitions of disease. "The new definitions ultimately label 75 percent of the adult U.S. population as diseased," according to calculations by two Dartmouth Medical School researchers.

Does this shirt make my parents look like assholes?

Yes. Yes it does. (But you're still absolutely adorable in spite of them, kiddo)

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Do you suffer from inadequate or not enough eyelashes?

I've seen this ad for Latisse a couple of times now, and it always puzzles me.

"Latisse, the first and only FDA-approved prescription treatment for inadequate or not enough eyelashes, growing them longer, fuller, and darker."

First of all, it seems kind of redundant. Isn't "inadequate" just a synonym for "not enough"? What even counts as "adequate" when it comes to eyelashes? Is there some function eyelashes perform of which I'm unaware and for which there's a minimal number required? If adequacy is not about quantity in this case, is it about length or girth? And do eyelashes even have different girths?

Of course, these questions are largely rhetorical. I'm reasonably sure that in this case "adequate" just means "pleasing to the hetero male gaze" or something like that. So here we have another case of the medicalization of a purely aesthetic perceived failure to measure up to the beauty standard. There's actually something medically wrong with you, which can now be fixed, if your lashes are not thick and dark and long enough. Predictably, a little research shows that this is just another case of a pharmaceutical company scrambling for a new application for an existing drug in order to extend the patent and increase their profits. And once again, the target demographic is women, and the method is to problematize a normal physical feature or pathologize normal behavior.

But beyond this problematic pattern, there are other things we can learn from this ad as well:
  1. Latisse empowers you to smile passively and flutter your eyes appropriately while having something mansplained to you;
  2. Latisse empowers you to seductively (I guess?) shimmy your shoulders and thrust out your tits appropriately while a man leads you around the dance floor;
  3. Latisse empowers you to do the special porn-inspired blowing-out-the-birthday-candles move: bend at the waist, thrust your ass out, shake your tits just a little, and purse your lips in that special, special way.

In other words, Latisse will empower you to be everything a woman ought to be.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Video of the Day

Have a good weekend y'all.

U.S. Stops Lowering BMI Range for Obesity, Rates Plateau

Shocking, isn't it? For quite some time now, we've been freaked out about the "rising obesity rates" in America. It turns out that as long as you keep setting the BMI cutoff for obesity lower and lower, the obesity rates continue to climb. But when you stop it already with the continual adjustments, the obesity rate remains the same. And then everyone celebrates. It's as if you said "hey everyone! I stopped manufacturing drama, and the constant uproar and infighting among my family and friends has subsided. It's so peaceful now! Yay for me!!!" Yeah, yay for you. Give yourself a pat on the back.


Thoughts on Pat Robertson

First of all, wow right? But this, along with a text conversation I had with my dad earlier today got me thinking. The Pat Robertson's of the world often turn the rest of us off to organized religion altogether. The things they say, even if retracted later, often reveal such a hateful and uncompassionate underlying attitude. And I have some big issues with my parents' version of organized religion as well. But in times like this, some important distinctions become clear.

In my parents' church, when word comes of a catastrophe like this, the very first thing these people do, instinctively, is pray for the survivors. No finger pointing, no smug proclamations about how the victims must have had it coming in some way, no speculation about how this will change the country, no dismissive quips about how they already made their contribution by paying their income taxes - just empathetic thoughts and prayers.

Secondly, all year round, on a daily basis, people in my parents' church are gathering donated medical supplies, eyeglasses, clothing, school supplies, etc. to send to places like Haiti. In fact, people from the church often pay their own way to go over for a month and work in the orphanage and neighborhood clinic that the church sponsors, and when they go they take suitcases full of these supplies. A couple of months ago, my parents contributed to a shipment of antibiotics that went to the clinic there, and last month they sent several cases of neosporin and tylenol with a woman from the church who was headed there. As it turns out, she and all the staff and children of the orphanage are safe, and they only had minor structural damage there, and are now able to help some of the survivors from the areas that were harder hit. So even as my parents make a monetary donation to Red Cross that will be useful in the coming weeks, they're comforted by the thought that maybe the contributions they already made are having an impact. In Haiti right now, the most basic generic antibiotic could save the life of a person with a badly broken bone, and those boxes and boxes of tylenol and neosporin from costco have got to be indispensable in the midst of so many scratches and bruises.

So in a time like this, this is how Christianity works for people like my parents - they pray for the survivors and hope that the things they already sent are in the right place at the right time to be comforting and helping someone. And this seems like a totally different thing to me than the smug, judgmental, ignorant, self-satisfied drivel that never seems to stop from people like Robertson. And if I believed that Jesus was the son of god, this is what I would expect him to be doing if he were here right now. Not spewing some hateful nonsense on TV, but going around investigating the best way to help - the most effective way to get people the things they really need - and then quietly and unobtrusively doing it. Yeah, Mr. Robertson, that's what Jesus would do.

P.S. But I'm still not down with the residual patriarchal gender bullshit and the heteronormativity and the purity pledges, etc. etc. etc. Just for the record.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Quote of the Day

"Health and being healthy and being fit is not about a dress size”

Regina Benjamin, U.S. Surgeon General

Monday, January 4, 2010


After a fairly infuriating conversation earlier today I've had a bit of a revelation: Narcissistic people by default interpret other people's actions and motives as being narcissistic too. And words or actions which are not narcissistic make little sense to them.

And now that I've actually typed this out it doesn't seem like such a big revelation. Only maybe it has some interesting applications.

Like maybe this can tell us something about privilege. Maybe a part of being privileged is that it makes you a bit narcissistic, in the self-centered, entitled, lacking in empathy kind of way, and in the sense that you have a hard time understanding anyone else as doing anything differently from what you're doing. Just as narcissistic people tend to understand the words and actions of others as mere performance, and lacking in sincerity, since this is their default mode, it seems that privilege renders us blind to the fact that others have an understanding and experience of the world that is profoundly different from our own. Because of this, we can only interpret their words and actions through the lens of our own experiences, and this leads to some very fundamental misunderstandings and injustices. And overcoming this form of narcissism to the point where we can be perpetually aware of and sensitive to these profound differences in experience and outlook is an ongoing project. And maybe it's only possible to a limited degree. To whatever extent this is possible, it seems like truly developing empathy for those with whom we don't share many experiences, and with whom we don't really share a common worldview, requires a constant struggle against the myopia and narcissism that results from living a privileged life.

Introducing Amanda Simpson, Senior Technical Adviser to the Commerce Department

A smart, confident, ass-kicking trans woman. With a strong activist history. In a government position. It's progress, folks.

Friday, January 1, 2010

The Ethics of Personal Growth

Just to keep you guessing... finally a real post. Or something like it. Out of nowhere. Because going out drinking half the night, and sledding, and horseback riding under a blue moon (in the deep drifted snow of this particular winter) eventually wear you down and you find yourself just wanting to stay home with a cup of decaf on a perfectly good Friday night.

So here we are. All the talk of New Year's resolutions, along with the usual critiques of the practice of making New Year's resolutions, that you get this time of year has gotten me thinking. And I've got some questions. And I'm not sure what I think about this. It seems to me that behind all the talk about New Year's resolutions lurks a basic cultural value that is rarely questioned or considered. The belief that personal growth is always good - that one has a perpetual obligation to improve oneself - seems to be one of those foundational beliefs that is so basic and bedrockish that it's virtually invisible to us, and not open to debate. But when you think about it, it's sort of an odd belief. If you were to say it out loud: "personal growth is intrinsically valuable" or "every individual has a daily obligation to improve themselves and grow as a person," people might find it strange and disagree with you.*

And yet, this conception of personal growth seems to drive so many narratives and scripts in our culture. We're constantly being exhorted to lose weight, exercise, read to our kids more, quit smoking, deal with our addictions, talk to our doctor about the newest prescription drug, try out the latest fad diet, get involved in our communities, plant a tree, stop and smell the roses, be more productive, take some "me" time, spend more time with our kids, floss, exfoliate and moisturize, etc. etc. etc. Of course, advertisements often tap into the person growth/self-improvement script, but so do public service announcements and political speeches. Corporate and administrative bodies often exhort their employees and other administerees to perpetually engage in various self-improving activities, and schools embed all kinds of these messages in the curriculum. The result is that we're so thoroughly immersed in it that it's hard to examine and critique it. But when you do, it seems sort of archaic - like it's some sort of Calvinist or Puritan throwback, or the remnants of some Victorian or early capitalist ethic. It conjures up images of social darwinists admonishing the barefoot unwashed masses for their perennial failings in the personal growth and self-improvement departments.

And of course, it's deeply gendered. Women are more often shamed for their failings in all things related to body-image (after all, it's virtuous for women to count calories, while it's gay for men to eat small portions or the wrong kinds of foods...), and the paternalistic tone of admonishments aimed at women is unmatched by those that are aimed at men. This is not to say that men aren't shamed for their own range of failings in the self-improvement department as well.

But besides this issue of the gendered forms it takes, what do we make of this underlying proposition that personal growth is a good unto itself? Is there any reason to believe it? Is there any reason not to believe it? In other areas, the belief that growth is always good has received heightened scrutiny and critique of late. For example, the (probably related) capitalist belief that economic growth is always good has gotten some serious bad press on several fronts. First, there's the famous observation that growth for growth's sake is the ideology of the cancer cell. Which may or may not prove anything (arguments by analogy are notoriously unreliable), but is generally thought to back the claim that unchecked economic growth is environmentally destructive and unsustainable. Within the business world, there's the concern that undirected growth is frequently unsustainable because it can result in unwieldy businesses or systems that lack a clear vision of their objectives and limitations, and are difficult to coordinate, regulate, or direct. So this idea that economic growth is intrinsically good is not as widely accepted as it once was, but the conception of personal growth as intrinsically valuable doesn't seem to have experienced the same kind of scrutiny or fall from grace.

There seems to be a related belief that the absence of growth always amounts to stagnation or decay. And I realize that this is true in many systems in the world around us. But can we extend the metaphor from physical systems, for example, to our mental/ spiritual/ emotional existence? I get the concept of entropy and the second law of thermodynamics and all that. I understand that, from a biological perspective, ceasing to produce new cells, for example, does amount to stagnation and deterioration in a body. But why do we think there has to be some metaphorical connection between our bodies and our minds in this way? As I read the lamentations of commenters on blog posts about New Year's resolutions every year in which they bemoan the fact that they didn't read enough new books, or meet enough new people, or try enough new activities, hobbies, or exercises, that they didn't learn any new recipes or discover any new bands last year, but that this next year they will accomplish some or all of those things, I wonder why we take it for granted that constantly acquiring new experiences is always a good thing (some new experiences just suck, after all), and why we think we must always be stretching and growing at all.

Obviously I'm not saying that new experiences and personal growth are necessarily bad things either. But I wonder if it isn't true that there's a time for growth and new development, but there's also a time for stability and sustaining who you are and what you're doing and sort of settling in for a minute and taking a few comfortable breaths and feeling like you're pretty damn good (or maybe even unbelievably awesome) just the way you are. And I wonder if this is something of a cyclical process, and if the rhythm of this process evolves over the course of a lifetime. After all, we're now coming to appreciate the value of economic stability, which can trump the value of economic growth in certain situations, so why couldn't it also be true concerning personal growth and stability? But if we adhere to the growth vs stagnation dichotomy that seems to be inherent in this chunk of our cultural bedrock, that's not an option. Allowing oneself to take a break from working on one's personal growth is a sign of moral deficiency, and will inevitably result in decay and degradation. And this just seems overly simplistic to me.

On the other hand, perhaps my current conceptualization of this is overly simplistic as well. Maybe it's the case that, as complex beings, we are generally experiencing both personal growth (or decay) and stability at the same time, in different areas. After all, learning to knit or taking up rock climbing tends to cut into your reading time, so perhaps there's just a constant subtle, complex, hard-to-articulate interplay between growth, decay, and stability in everyone's existence.

At any rate, I'm still not sure how to answer the question of whether personal growth is intrinsically valuable. There's something compelling about the claim, and it's certainly very intuitively plausible. But this might just be a result of its prevalence in my culture. On the other hand it seems so normative that it raises red flags for me. And this could just be a feature of my natural contrariness, or a result of my resistance to religious ideologies and conventions. There is a lot of admonishing and exhorting involved in these cultural scripts, after all, and they easily lend themselves to the preachy and judgmental and holier-than-thou side of things. And all of this is just a big turn-off for me because of my religious background. But that doesn't tell us anything about the truth of the proposition, does it? So I'm interested in hearing your thoughts. Is personal growth intrinsically good? And do we have an obligation to pursue personal growth and self-improvement throughout our lives? What do you think?

*Of course, the second statement doesn't necessarily follow from the first: even if we think personal growth is intrinsically valuable, it doesn't mean every person has a moral obligation to pursue it. These are two distinct claims. But in our culture, they tend to be inseparable, so I'll treat them as such in this discussion.