Time Heals All Wounds.. And Then Kills the Patient
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Evening
Evening
Sun Oct 9 16:22:22 2011
In Defense of Beauty
Topics:

(Note that while I marked this (thinking mainly about the first topic) with the Feminism tag, that is because it is relevant to feminism; I hold that it is perfectly compatible with (but not inspired) second-wave feminism but not compatible with third-wave feminism)

Three topics, starting with beauty: First: Beauty is an attribute we judge in people and things around us. Aesthetics, as the regularities between our judgements of beauty, is partly innate and partly developed. The development of a person's aesthetic sense is significantly cultural, and we have evidence of a wide variety of aesthetic content over the span of years and cultures in known history. On the biological side, aesthetics in the human form probably came from selective pressure; highly asymmetric features or signs of poor health were not signs of genetic or actual fitness. As adults, we deal with our aesthetics as a mostly-monolithic whole; to whatever extent our notion of the beauty of women comes from having seen Highlander (I confess to finding Sean Connery very attractive) or a succession of disney princesses during our youth, it is difficult-to-impossible to imagine what we might be had we been raised differently; we both lack access to whatever an uninculturated aesthetics would be and lack bridges to easily understand very different inculturations (I believe it is possible to do so, but it takes considerable effort).

I identify in third-wave feminism a tendency to deconstruct beauty, in the name of anti-ableism, anti-transism, anti-obesity-phobism, and a number of other things. I largely reject this element in third-wave feminism.

Instead, I suggest reasonable empathy and politeness towards everyone in society, regardless of their traits along these lines. We can still celebrate beauty and health, but we can also celebrate other traits too. We admire Hawking, despite his illness and deformity. We admire Lincoln for his political savvy and what he was able to accomplish (and often wrongly for his stances) despite his terrible ugliness. We cannot deny that some people are broken or ugly in some ways without losing the ability to admire people being exceptional, and we can't lose the latter without giving up part of what makes us human, but we can also remember that people have more than one attribute; someone with a stupid haircut is still a person, a person with Asperger's has the kind of rich mental life that the rest of us have, and while some aspects of how we are can't be changed in adult life, there are always many ways to excel and many talents and traits worth picking up. By contrast, the notion of "it's all the same to me" and a denigration of aesthetics when it does not let everyone be over average is a perspective best considered ill.

Note that one task for feminism that's related to this is destroying the double standard for beauty; there should be no higher obligation for women to be attractive than for men. While as individuals we might legitimately decide to pay more attention to the attractiveness of people of our preferred gender(s), we should aim to form a society that on average does not do that, and one which in areas where attractievness is not strictly important it's not used as a strong factor in how successful people are. We don't have to want to date people who strike us as ugly, but we should not judge them unfairly in non-aesthetic judgements based on that either; we waste their potential that way.

Next: A commentary on 「Check your privilege」, a phrase commonly used (and linked to the above) in third-wave feminist discourse. I reject and condemn this phrase, even if some of the sentiment behind it is reasonable. I recognise the notion of privilege; some people have invisible things that make their life easier, and they may not be accustomed to the difficulties of those of us off the beaten path in our perspectives, orientations, and lifestyles. It is sometimes reasonable to inform/remind them of that privilege. Unfortunately, 「Check your privilege」 is about the worst way to do that. For those completely unaccustomed to the idea of privilege, it is a capital-t term that's a very unwelcoming introduction to this style of thought, and for those who are already accustomed to it but missing an angle, it adds nothing to what should be that kind of broadening discussion. Instead, it feels like a disqualification argument, particularly (but not only) if not paired with perspective-broadening discourse. It is simply not worth saying, and should be met with scorn.

Commentary on smaller parts of the linked document:

I do heartily recommend pretty much every point the author makes under "Treat us like humans".

Finally: As an application of the general principle that people may define themselves as they choose but others are not obligated to recognise them the same way, I think the current discussion on whether Mitt Romney (and mormons in general) is a Christian is an entirely fair one. The differential-definitions of Christianity have long been a point-of-contention, even with attempts like the Nicene Creed to define it more solidly. A reasonable person might have many different clouds of what it means to be Christian in their head (just as we might reasonably find it tricky to judge whether the Bahai are Muslim, even with the Five Pillars as definitional for many). I am bothered by the context of the question, in that I don't think it's important whether Romney's faith is Christian or something else (I in fact would strongly prefer nonreligious people leading nations), but it's at its core a valid question, and it cannot be obligatory for people to accept a professed identity from others as the foundation for their categories.

From the last point in that (long) cut, I want to point out some term usage (as I use them):

Applied, I can say that I am categorised as being bisexual, but I only mildly identify as such; my bisexuality is an almost insignificant part of what I think knowing me is about. I also only mildly identify as male. I am categorised as having brown hair, but it is not at all an important part of me. I do strongly identify as being liberal, but others who categorise things differently than I do might decide not to categorise me as such. Applying this to that last point, Romney identifies as Christian, but it is legitimate for varying people not to categorise him as such.