“F*ck the Bourgeoisie”: In Which I Infiltrate a Socialist Gathering

Yesterday some friends took me to the annual conference co-sponsored by the Center for Economic Research and Social Change and by the International Socialist Organization. The conference is called, quite simply, Socialism 2012.

Now. I am not in any way, shape, or form a socialist. However, I’ve always been curious why that particular political affiliation carries such a stigma, especially in the United States. I’ve met quite a few people over the years who sympathize with Marx or with other socialist thinkers and keep those sympathies meticulously secret.

In my own life, socialism has been presented to me as Very Very Bad and Very Stupid. I have parents from the former Soviet Union, after all. Whatever value socialism may or may not hold, I will never, ever begrudge them for hating it, because it (however inadvertently) turned so many people’s lives into a living hell all over the world.

(Yes, yes, I know that wasn’t “real” socialism. But it’s pretty hard for people to stay objective when their friends and family are dying, so I’m not going to be the asshole who minimizes their suffering by telling them that.)

That said, I generally prefer to learn and experience things for myself. I don’t buy for a second the argument that one should stay away from these things for fear of being “brainwashed,” which I’ve heard many times before. In fact, I’m actually pretty insulted when people tell me that. I think everyone should know by now that if there’s only one thing I’m good at, it’s thinking for myself.

So, let it be known that I did not come back from this conference a changed woman. I’m not any more a socialist today than I was two days ago.

What I do have is a new appreciation for socialists and for the spaces they create. It must be nice to belong to a collective like socialism. Everyone there seemed to know each other, and I saw people from all walks of life–young people like me, middle-aged respectable-looking people, aging college professors. There were people of all shapes and colors. Tons of queer people. People with various interesting hairstyles. Aside from the issue of their politics, I felt somewhat at home.

I went to a talk on Marxism and queer theory, which, amazingly, I understood most of. While this is nothing all that different from something I might come across in a class at school, there is nonetheless something special about the fact that hundreds of people got together to talk about this on a Friday night. Not for a grade. Not for their resume. Certainly not for social approval, since going to a conference on socialism is pretty far down on the list of things people do to fit in.

The most amazing part of it, to me, was that I had entered the sort of space that I consider sacred–a space in which “serious” discussion is the norm, not the exception. A space in which it’s normal, upon first meeting someone new, to ask them about their views on a particular political issue. A space in which nobody thinks you’re weird if you’re checking out the bookstore and freaking out with your friends about all the great books you’re finding. A space in which politics is something to get emotional about, something to loudly, clearly express your emotions about, whether by cheering, clapping, hissing, booing, shaking your head, snapping your fingers, or putting your fist up in the air.

And I, who have been told ever since childhood to “calm down” and “stop getting so emotional about it” and “go get a life,” felt comfortable among these people with whom I otherwise disagree quite strongly.

That disagreement, which lurked beneath my consciousness for most of the time I was there, surfaced strongly during a break between talks, when people were chanting. Most of the chants were exactly of the sort that you’d expect–one amusing one went like this: “One, two, three! Fuck the bourgeoisie! Four, five, six! Fuck the bourgeoisie!” And so on.

But then there was a chant that repeated the word “Intifada” over and over. I don’t remember exactly how it went because I tend to block these things from memory somewhat. I’m Israeli by birth, and Israel is something I almost never write about for various personal reasons. My stance on the issue is even-keeled and probably in line with that of most American liberals and progressives and so on. That said, I will tell you that it is incredibly alienating and deeply painful to hear a room full of people chanting something that, to you, could mean the deaths of friends and family. I know that’s not what it means to Palestinians. And it’s especially not what it means to white American socialists. But that is what Intifada means to me.

I know where they’re coming from. I’m quite well-versed in the “terrorist as freedom fighter” line of thought. They’re entitled to their opinion as I am to mine. But shouting something like this seems gauche and callous, like chanting “USA! USA!” when America invades another country, or like gathering to watch a public execution as entertainment. I’m choosing to believe, though, that these people are well-intentioned and believe that what they are chanting about is some convoluted form of peace.

This is not a political statement. This is not a statement about equivalency, who’s right and who’s wrong, whose land it is, who committed more war crimes and human rights violations, etc. This is a statement that is entirely moral: I believe it’s wrong to glorify killing innocent people, no matter to what end.

And, just for the record, I’ve been in countless pro-Israel spaces before, including an AIPAC conference, and I’ve never heard an equivalent sort of chant there. I’m sure it happens, but I’ve never seen it. And when it does happen, whatever the setting, I would find it as disgusting and wrong as I found this Intifada chant.

In any case, I was determined not to let that spoil the whole evening. It was a reminder, though, that it’s not only my lack of socialist politics that ultimately makes me unwelcome there. It’s something as incidental as the circumstances of my birth.

It would be nice if, someday, I find a group with this sort of energy and passion that I do actually agree with. But I’ve long given up seeking a spiritual, political, or cultural home anywhere.

For now, it’s enough to occasionally go to things like this–and things like Pride and Occupy Chicago and Friday night Shabbat dinners–and witness other people experiencing that feeling that I want so badly for myself.

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“There are no hot girls at Northwestern.”

The other day at a certain user-submitted news website, a new Northwestern student was asking for advice about “the party scene” at our school. He also inquires about the attractiveness of the “females” at our school (I think he means “women”), and several dudebros inform him not to get his hopes up. One writes, “No offense to the girls, but Northwestern is just not an attractive campus overall; guys and girls complain about it all the time.”

Lest you think this is just Reddit stupidity, it’s not. The alleged unattractiveness of Northwestern students is something that I’ve heard referenced many times. There’s even a related term: “Northwestern Goggles.” Urban Dictionary says that “Northwestern Goggles” is “when a female student from Northwestern University is considered “hot” only because most of her fellow students are ugly.” Dictionary db has a lengthy explanation of it too, except it references men rather than women. (Northwestern Goggles is, apparently, an equal-opportunity phenomenon.)

A student review of Northwestern at Vault.com states, “And if you’re looking for attractive male students, look elsewhere. Students develop “Northwestern Goggles” where people who, outside of NU, wouldn’t be considered dating material quickly become eligible and desirable bachelors or bachelorettes.” Campus media references the term, too. A few years back one of Daily’s sex columnists pondered this issue. And, of course, there’s a GIF.

I don’t believe the Myth of the Ugly NU Student. First of all, it just doesn’t jive with my experience at Northwestern and that of the friends that I’ve talked to. I know that’s circumstantial, but I think it’s still worthwhile to point out that some of us disagree. Some of us think that there are plenty of people at NU who look like they could be models. I can think of a number of qualities that are lacking on this campus–for instance, compassion–but attractiveness is not one of them.

Second, I’m somewhat disinclined to even consider the validity of this myth until someone designs a reliable, scientific measure of human attractiveness, applies it to representative populations of a number of universities, and shows me that Northwestern’s Attractiveness Quotient is lower than average.

And “I visited my friend at a state school once and the girls/guys there were so much hotter” does not count. That’s circumstantial evidence, and it’s also confirmation bias: we’ve all heard the Myth of the Ugly NU Student since we got here, so as soon as we get off campus we’re probably eager to try to find attractive specimens to validate our expectations.

Third, I’m not exactly sure what people hope to accomplish by constantly restating the Myth of the Ugly NU Student. While I’m not a huge believer in karma, I’m still pretty sure that it doesn’t exactly do wonders for your love life if you go around moaning about how ugly everyone at Northwestern is. And since most people do realize that beauty is subjective, “There are no hot girls/guys here” is really more a statement of “Look how Cool and Picky I am” than of any actual lack of beautiful people at Northwestern. Congratulations, you’re really Cool and Picky.

Ultimately, whether or not you find attractive members of your preferred gender(s) at Northwestern is entirely up to you. I think it’s pretty judgmental and shallow to dismiss our school with terms like “Northwestern Goggles.” If anything on this campus is ugly, it’s that.

What You’re Really Saying When You Say that Suicide is “Selfish”

I’m still thinking about the Chet Hanks suicide thing from last week and the various responses to it that I saw online. Specifically, I cited two comments that referred to suicide as “selfish.”

“Selfish” has to be one of the most common adjectives people think of when thinking about suicide. Those of us who are involved in mental health advocacy could probably rant at you for hours about how this word perpetuates the stigma that mental illness and suicide carry in our society, how useless and counterproductive it is to accuse a suicidal person of being “selfish,” and so on. In fact, if you get nothing else out of this post, I hope you reconsider using that word to describe suicide if you’ve done so before.

But I can understand where this sentiment comes from. While everyone loses loved ones at some point in their lives, relatively few people experience suicidality first-hand. For this reason, people understand the latter situation much less than the former. Faced with the thought that someone you love might kill themselves and put you through all the resulting grief just because of some inner turmoil that you can’t see or understand, it makes sense that you might feel that suicide is selfish.

At the same time, though, conceptualizing suicide as a “selfish act” sends the message that people somehow “owe it” to their loved ones to stay alive despite immense emotional pain. When you say that suicide is “selfish,” you’re implying–even if you don’t mean to–that the individual’s pain, as well as their potential to improve, isn’t what matters. What matters is how they’ll make the people around them feel.

I don’t mean to discount the grief that people feel when someone they love commits suicide–that’s real, valid, and deserves attention. And, obviously, I believe that people should not commit suicide. But I believe that because I also believe that people can recover from the pain that’s causing them to consider suicide, not because they owe it to others to live.

What all of this comes down to is that most people do not (and perhaps cannot) understand what actually goes through a suicidal person’s mind. Maybe they assume that suicidal people are just sad the way all of us sometimes get sad, except maybe a bit more so. (I honestly don’t know how mentally healthy people think about suicide because I haven’t been one for a while.) It would indeed be rather selfish to put your friends and family through so much pain just because you felt sad one day.

But that’s not how suicide works.

The way I see it, the tragedy of suicide is not (or is not only) the fact that an individual’s suicide also hurts others. Rather, it’s that the individual could have found a way to heal, be happy, and live out the rest of his or her life. Calling suicide a “selfish” thing to do erases that latter tragedy and implies that our primary purpose in life is not to create a meaningful and worthwhile life for ourselves, but to keep our friends and family happy at all costs.

Our first priority should be to convince those who want to take their own lives that those lives are intrinsically valuable and should be preserved for their own sake. Only when they’ve accepted that premise can they even begin to think clearly about their obligations and interactions with other people.

Telling a suicidal person that suicide is “selfish” only reinforces the guilt they already feel. People should choose to live because their lives feel worth living to them, not out of a sense of obligation towards others.

Note: Since this is quite a sensitive topic both for me and probably for many readers, please try to be especially careful with your comments. I reserve the right to delete any comments that I feel may trigger people, even if they’re completely on-topic.

Why I Think Proselytism is Wrong

I was so happy to see this outside the psychology department.

The whole controversy on our campus surrounding Cru and their “I Agree with Markwell” campaign has gotten me thinking about proselytism. (Proselytism, in case you don’t know, is just a fancy word for trying to convert people to another religion.)

In my view, proselytism is wrong.

I have two foundations for this view. One of them is my knowledge of psychology. Research in social psychology has confirmed, over and over again, that people are much more susceptible to peer pressure and manipulation than we’d like to believe. (For the sake of time and space, I’m not going to list studies here because I’m assuming most people have taken Psych 101 and have learned about them. But if you’re curious, ask, and I’ll send you a dozen.)

The success of dubious religious ventures like witch hunts and cults suggests that adding a spiritual element makes peer pressure even more potent. If people can be persuaded to do even such ridiculous and terrible things, how hard will it be to persuade them to take a pamphlet, give out their email address, come to church, donate money, gradually abandon the beliefs they’d had before?

This is especially harmful when it comes to non-Christians, who are a minority in the U.S. (and, in fact, in many other places). In many ways, it’s difficult enough as is to maintain your own beliefs and practices when the entire surrounding culture immerses you in another belief system. If you don’t believe me, talk to a Jewish kid at Christmastime. I still remember how indignant I felt when other kids got a big present from each of their extended family members and I got just one.

But in all seriousness, science typically shows that people are very suggestible. Proselytizing groups may claim that the only people who convert are people who really, genuinely, truly want to be Christians, I’m not so sure that you can always tell the difference between really, genuinely, truly wanting something, and being subtly manipulated into wanting that thing. And while I concede that Northwestern’s Cru chapter represents only the mildest, most harmless form of proselytism, I oppose any action that implies that you, the proselytizer, know better than everyone else.

Which brings me right to my next point. The second foundation for my opposition to proselytism is my moral code. I believe that, with a few exceptions, we have no right to try to alter the beliefs of others. I place religion on the same plane as several other areas of human experience, such as sexuality–things that are personal and that have no impact on anyone but ourselves. For instance, would you ever attempt to convince someone to have sex the way you have sex? I would hope not. So why would you attempt to convince them to believe the things you believe?

I obviously don’t think that all forms of persuasion are wrong. Arguing about politics is valuable and important because political decisions affect all of us. Influencing people’s purchasing decisions via marketing is necessary for our economy to work. If done sensitively, talking to someone who seems to be making a harmful decision about their career, relationships, etc. could be very helpful.

But ultimately, a person’s inner life belongs to them alone, and most people value that inner life and resent attempts to intrude upon it. I think intruding upon it is wrong.

Now, as a disclaimer, I’m not saying that mine is the best moral code in the world and that everyone should adopt it and that people who do not adopt it are Bad. If I thought that, it would make me no better than the Markwell people.

But I do think that we’d have less conflict in our society if people lived by a code such as this one, and it works for me because it helps me feel like I’m treating others with respect.

Is this moral code completely incompatible with evangelical Christianity? Yes. Christians and others who proselytize genuinely believe that others need to be saved/brought to Jesus/what have you, or else they’ll go to hell. However, it’s important to note that this brand of Christianity is incompatible with all other belief systems, including most Christian ones. In this brand of Christianity, only two types of people exist in the world: good Christians and people who haven’t been converted yet.

And before anyone goes all First Amendment on me, note that I would never suggest that proselytism should be illegal. After all, it’s a form of free speech. Laws have nothing to do with my argument.

After all, not everything that’s legal is right. It’s perfectly legal to spread rumors, use the n-word, and cheat on your partner. And yet these are things that we almost universally agree are wrong. Why? Because they hurt others.

Proselytism may not hurt in the same way that getting cheated on does, but it hurts in a more insidious way. It erodes minority traditions and belief systems and destroys trust between different religious groups.

For instance, if you ask Northwestern students whether or not they’d be willing to engage with Cru in any way, many of them will now tell you no. It’s not hard to figure out why: Cru members made their condescension and disrespect for others’ faith blatant when they expressed their wish to convert us all to Christianity. (In fact, this whole episode inspired me to join Northwestern’s chapter of the Secular Student Alliance. Apparently I’m not the only one.)

The various forms of backlash that “I Agree with Markwell” has inspired, much of which has taken on a deeply anti-Christian tone, only proves my point. While I obviously don’t condone insulting people or their religious beliefs and wish that people would be more civil, I’m not surprised that so many Northwestern students are so annoyed and angry at Cru. After all, they basically told us that we’re going to hell. Their proselytism has, in a way, torn this campus apart.

I don’t think that my moral code is one that will ever be adopted by our majority-Christian society. But I do think that the world would be a better place if people learned to leave each other alone. You may disagree.

My opinion is not a personal insult to you.

[Snark Warning]

It never ceases to amaze me how the act of expressing an opinion opens you up to the most outlandish assumptions about your personality.

Good girls, I know, don’t blog. Or at least, they don’t blog about anything substantial, and they definitely don’t do it using their real names.

Blogging about your personal life is okay, although then you’ll get derided for making your diary public. Posting photos of your friends, family, pets, and outfits, posting recipes and craft projects, posting favorite song lyrics–all of that is okay, if irrelevant.

But when you start blogging about Issues–those things you aren’t supposed to discuss at a dinner party or with your boss–that’s when things get dicey.

A few weeks ago I interviewed for a position on the executive board of the sexual health peer education group I’m involved with on campus. I’ve been involved with it since my freshman year, and now I was interviewing for a position that would put me in charge of, among other things, doing outreach to sororities on campus.

At the interview, they asked me about my blog. Specifically, they mentioned that I’ve expressed the fact that I dislike the Greek system, and wanted to know, wouldn’t that affect my ability to do this job?

Honestly, I was completely flummoxed by this question. Because I disagree with the Greek system, I’m incapable of interacting with sorority women? Because I disagree with the Greek system, I’m unwilling to present educational programs at sorority houses? Because I disagree with the Greek system, I don’t care about sexual assault in the Greek community and don’t want to start an initiative to help prevent it?

I must’ve produced an acceptable response because I got the position. But the experience made me realize how naive I’d been, in a way. I thought that people would take my writing for what it is–ideological positions for which I (usually) provide sound reasoning. I didn’t realize that they would take it and extrapolate from it beliefs and character traits that I do not have.

Disliking the Greek system doesn’t affect my ability to create an outreach program for sororities. It doesn’t affect my ability to empathize with individual women who happen to be sorority members. It doesn’t affect my ability to do anything. It’s just an opinion. Not a personal attack on anyone. An opinion.

The only thing it could possibly affect is other people’s opinions of me. Other people may read about my opinions and take them personally. They may assume that I don’t like them–personally. They may assume that I’m a callous person.

But these are their problems, not mine. If they’ve never learned not to make assumptions about others, I’m not taking responsibility for that. And I’m not going to stop writing, or “tone it down,” for the sake of someone else’s comfort.

I love writing, and I specifically love writing about Issues. It’s my way of leaving my mark on the world, and, hopefully, of leaving the world a better place than I found it.

Other people find other ways of doing this. They volunteer, play music, do scientific research, start businesses, make art, get into politics, whatever. I write.

My greatest fear right now–aside from perhaps that I won’t get into graduate school and will end up living in a cardboard box, or that I’ll never get married and will end up living in that cardboard box alone–is that I’ll have to stop writing when I start my Career.

Why would I have to stop writing?

Because of other people’s unfounded assumptions about what my writing says about my character.

Because in the culture we’ve created, you can get fired from your day job for what you write on your blog, using your internet connection, in your home, on your time.

Because good girls are sweet and sensitive, and never express opinions that might offend someone.

Because people haven’t learned that others’ opinions are not personal attacks on them.