Saturday, December 16, 2006

Rage, Rhetoric, and the Tiny Minority

There's a discussion going on at Feministe about a rather atrocious article which appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle about a terribly punk rawk woman (now in her 30s, as I am a terribly punk rock woman in her 30s) who really resents the fact that her best friend has completely changed since having a baby.

Fair enough. Somewhere along the line, in the comments, the discussion morphed to talking about the way the dedicated childfree, usually the really militant ones (much in the sense that there are militant atheists or anti-feminists or anything) use a particular derrogatory vocabulary to talk about people who have children and don't parent. For those of you not familiar with the insider vernacular (and, keep in mind, it is an insider vernacular), they tend to refer to these people as "breeders," and the male versions as "duhs" and the female versions as "moos." (Contrary to the folks at Feministe, I don't actually think there's any intentional sexism going on there, since I can see the parallel construction between "duh" and "moo.") They also tend to refer to babies as "crotchfruit" and other slightly unsavoury epithets, and they generally refer to specific examples of same as "Twitney" or "Bratley," or other variations on a theme.

I understand this phenomenon. This isn't, I think, about sexism (which seems to be the lens most of the feminist crowd uses to look at it); this is exactly analogous to the rhetoric of any marginalised group that has a lot of anger and hostility towards the dominant group.

In this case, the dominant group is so dominant, we have to deal with people who genuinely believe human beings really have no other purpose other than to reproduce themselves, which is the classic definition of a natalist. Me, I'm the kind of person who, when confronted with the question "What is the meaning/purpose of [grand abstract ideal]?" likes to answer "Why do you assume that [grand abstract ideal] has an intrinsic meaning/purpose?"

I've seen this over and over again, mostly because I've been in-group enough in a number of self-vernacularising groups to have absorbed a lot of insider terminology. Atheists do it -- they talk about the "Invisible Sky Fairy" and have all kinds of other shorthand to refer to themselves and the religious. Geeks do it -- they talk about "lusers" and use acronyms like PEBKAC (Problem Exists Between Keyboard And Chair) and like to talk about "ID10T (pronounced "eye-dee-ten-tee") errors" and so on. I've also seen IT people by the hundreds refer to their obnoxious officemates as "cow orkers." (If you want a good look at how brutal and cutting geek-speak can be, take a look at the main glossary page of The New Hacker's Dictionary, AKA "The Jargon File.") Science fiction fans do it -- they refer to themselves as "fen" and anything that isn't SF as "mainstream." The Society For Creative Anachronism has so much insider jargon (and a set of internally differing insider cultures! Cultures, plural!) that it takes a couple of years of determined effort to acculturate, and they even offer classes in how.

The main difference between most of these in-groups and the subset of people who self-identify as childfree is that nobody much gives a damn if you're really into computers. They're not going to actively evangelise you to become an accountant. Very few people care if you're sitting at home reading The Demolished Man instead of Anna Karenina or Paradise Lost or even the latest pick on Oprah's Book Club. People might think you're weird if they find out that your hobby is dressing up in funny clothes on weekends and hitting people with duct-tape covered sticks, but they're unlikely to tell you that your funny-clothes-wearin', forsoothly-speakin', Pennsic-War-goin' self is a) unfulfilled, b) selfish, c) going to Hell, d) thwarting some grand human purpose, e) immature.

All of which you may reasonably expect should you declare that you do. not. ever. want. to. have. children. end. of. story. In some ways, it's very analogous with being an atheist, particularly in the United States (where I am not, thank my lack of god). People will literally try to evangelise you, insist that you'll change your mind (shades of "you just need to open your heart and Christ will find you"!) once you meet the right person, constant questions for those of us in publicly-acknowledged relationships ("So, when are you and So-and-so having kids?"), and, perish forbid, interrogation by the Pregnancy Police -- such as the well-meaning, paternalistic medical professionals who won't give a nulliparous woman under, say, 35 a tubal ligation (I have not had this problem, either, but I suspect it's because I'm Canadian), or the neurologist who informed this woman (who already has a child) that he wouldn't put her on drugs that would better control her epilepsy and stop her catastrophic weight loss because "You're a newlywed. You'll want a baby."

With all of that going on, it's rather easy to see that some of us could get a little hostile, even to the point of referring to members of the dominant group -- while talking to members of our own in-group -- with derrogatory terms, and expressing some extremely hostile wish-fulfillment fantasies (such as being able to opt out of paying taxes for schools, which I personally don't support out of self-interest -- a well-educated, stable population means less crime and downstream social costs, thanks; I'll chip in to that while it's still cheap!). Someone on another blog suggested that a lot of the inflammatory rhetoric was exactly that, spleen-venting in a safe space, and that once people had gotten over their initial hostility, they tended to drift out of that space and become more well-adjusted.

I know that's sort of what happened to me. When I first found very hardcore childfree sites, compleat with inflammatory rhetoric, I read them and I felt quite validated -- hey! I'm not the only one with a missing mothering instinct! I'm not the only one who really genuinely dislikes children (rest assured, I'm an equal-opportunity opprobriumist; I'm just your basic misanthrope, really, so it's nothing personal). And yeah, I don't particularly think that babies are cute (they're not; they look like little old men with characterless faces), or baby animals are cute (meh -- I love cats, but have you seen a newborn kitten?! Urgh!). I also generally think that kids are evil little bastards and the only thing that separates kids from adults is a thin veneer of socialising we put on the adults to keep some of their intrinsic evil bastardness at bay (but yeah, adults are certainly capable of mind-blowing evil bastardness, far more than a kid could ever be capable of).

Similarly to atheism, we have to deal with natalist propaganda. Hell, religious propaganda is so pervasive that in English, there's practically no way of discussing certain topics without using words that invoke frames of (Pauline Christian) dualism (the body/soul split) -- even if you do not believe in a soul, and you do not believe that the body and intellect are two different things, you pretty much cannot talk about certain things without using terminology that references dualism. Likewise, in terms of being childfree, you have to deal with a society where large parts of it consider that having kids is just something that you do, the expected thing. The dichotomy is very clear, and becomes more and more explictly stated the further right you go on the political spectrum: There are certain societal milestones you are expected to achieve -- you are supposed to leave the age of minority, become self-sustaining, pair off in a heterosexual, monogamous relationship, and breed. If you don't do that, you're some kind of social outlier. A freak. If you don't conform, for whatever reason, you're going to pay a price. In some circles, you don't really get an out, because the socio-cognitive landscape is such that you're born into a web of interconnecting social obligations, and once you become an adult, you're expected to step into your adult role, and there is very little tolerance or opportunity for deviance from convention allowed. People who don't conform to that life path are thereby "immature" and just prolonging their childhood to a socially-unacceptable degree.

That dichotomy can make us kind of mad, since we don't see the other option as being any more worthy or valid than the one we've chosen. (If you don't believe that the purpose of existence is to reproduce yourself, that argument kind of falls down in a hurry.)

I think that's probably true of a lot of these people who write in the above-described fashion. Like out-of-the-closet atheists, who are generally harassed and never given a moment's peace about their lack of religious beliefs and either proselytised or informed smugly that they just haven't seen the light yet, childfree people can often build up a huge reservoir of resentment for pretty much exactly the same reason. Being repeatedly informed that "You'll change your mind" or "You just haven't met the right man/woman yet" when your own mind and inclinations show absolutely no signs of changing (me, I'm on my 17th year of formally not changing my mind) is patronising, insulting, and yeah, it pisses us off.

Never confuse pissed-off misanthropy for misogyny. It might look similar, but the root causes are pretty much entirely different.


Blogger imfunnytoo said...

What part of "my personal life and/or belief system is not your concern...don't they get...and after 17 years they'd best leave you be.

4:22 PM  
Blogger Interrobang said...

I think they don't get that private life is supposed to be private, and I think they also don't get that maybe some people just don't want kids. I mean, if you really and truly believe that the purpose of being a human being is to have kids, then the idea of not wanting to have kids, or opting out seems a little weird. If you take that as your base premise, then you'd have to assume that someone who wasn't interested in having kids was either profoundly antisocial or repudiating their own humanity.

I think that's why a lot of deeply religious Christians also find the idea of atheism to be pretty incomprehensible, why they seem to interpret atheism as "being mad at God" or something.

Some people are just not very good at getting outside of their own conceptual frameworks.

6:07 PM  

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