Saturday, October 19, 2013

Being Counter-Cultural: a how-to

Is culture collectively self-imposed? Is there an unspoken cycle of peer pressure and conformity which reinforces our beliefs about the way things work? I started thinking about this a while ago, ever since I came to Reed anyway, and I'm not sure if I have even gotten anywhere. Within a few weeks of being at college, I heard a term I had never experienced before, Stress Culture. hmm... Stress Culture? that sounds like... wait... i have no idea what that sounds like.

Well two years have gone by since this first happened to me. I now have a pretty good understanding of not only Stress Culture, but also Drug Culture, and Rape Culture. These terms  describe an intricately self-organized system of beliefs, habits, behaviors, and customs. This system doesn't have a purpose, it was not designed by someone or even a small group.

It is the result of years of widespread cognitive dissonance. When we, human beings, hold two contradicting ideas in our heads, we have an incredible ability to justify this dissonance, removing the appearance of contradiction. When hundreds of people do this individually, within their own heads, then talk about it, both online or in person, a system is collectively constructed that holds each belief to be true, ignoring inherent dissonance that started it all.

In the case of Stress Culture, something I can only talk about based within Reed College, I can say that the primary dissonance that I have picked up on goes something like this: My teachers don't give me absolute feedback about the quality of work I am producing, yet I know that I am an incredibly smart and talented student who should be able to do very well, yet I don't know if I am doing very well or just well, or maybe pretty poorly, yet that is just a reflection of my lack of confidence in my own work, so I must not be working hard enough.

This might not be very accurate, but this is the way that I have experienced the stress culture at my school. I have been able to keep myself from stressing out too much all the time by focusing my energy on one key component of this way of thinking; 'No matter how hard I work, the reward will not be better if I got through hell to get there'. That has worked for me, but I can't say it will help anybody else.
I have talked to so many people about this, about what specifically stresses them out, it usually is not the work, but their ego's response to being challenged.

Now the issue of Stress Culture is rather innocuous, it can be harmful, but when compared to Drug and Rape Cultures. Drug Culture arises out of the culturally held belief that when something goes wrong, a person can just injest something and that problem will disappear. It is really hard to generalize about drug culture because we all have just different definitions of drugs, and I won't go in_to that here, but if you'll allow it, ill say; when we take drugs to avoid dealing with problems, typically problems of our own inabilities, we simply push that problem onto our future selves, often making it harder to solve.

Drug culture, in my experience at college is the foil to Stress Culture. We get stressed out, so in order to relax we do drugs, and in order to make up for the time we spent drugged out and brain dead, we stress ourselves out some more.

By now, I hope you have picked up on the central point of my analysis of ____ Culture, that its cyclic nature, and tendency to reinforcing, makes these social systems incredibly powerful and difficult to escape. This could not be more true of Rape Culture. By far the most harmful of the examples I have taken. Rape Culture is something that is much larger than a college campus, and I'm sure takes form in many different ways but all that is necessary to break its power over you is to attack the weakest link in the cyclical chain of 'logic'.

I have had non-consensual sex, both sober and drunk, both with significant others, and with first time partners. In fact, looking back on it, I now realize that when I lost my virginity, I was co-oped into having sex. Not by my partner, but by my own interpretations of the culture in which I was living. I'll spare the details to say that because of the other boys in my freshman year dorm at a boarding school in New England, I was convinced that I hooked up with a girl, that I should try and have sex, because that is 'the whole point'. I couldn't even think about being intimate with another person for well over a year after that night. I was swept up in the powerful nature of Rape Culture, and proceeded to damage not only myself, but presumably my partner that night as well. I have no idea though, because we never spoke after that. Even though we spent the next more than three years at the same boarding school. Since that first experience, I have been rather unable to just jump into physical intimacy without learning how to successfully communicate with the other person. In fact, if i can't communicate with a person, that completely rules out the possibility of becoming physical. But this was my own response to Rape Culture, it swept me up quickly and quietly, without my knowledge and the next thing i knew, I didn't know how I had lost my virginity.

More than stress, more than drugs, rape and sexual assault regularly cause personal trauma that drastically changes the route of a person's growth. And Rape Culture just makes it worse.

The foundations of Rape Culture go something like this, according to my personal analysis: explicit consent is a buzz kill so in order to have 'good' sex agreement should be reached without ever talking about it; saying 'no' doesn't mean that everything has to stop, some people want to say no, to try and stop you, it gets them off; being drunk makes this process a lot easier; girls go to parties for the same reason guys do, to get laid; consent can be given when drunk; what’s wrong with buying - or procuring - a couple drinks for a girl to loosen her up, so you can have sex?; etc. Of course it is much larger and more intricate than this. But this conceptualizes a lot of what I was taught about how to meet women, as a white male.

It can be seen in women as well, the implications of Rape Culture that is. I have met many young and beautiful women and girls who have never needed to buy themselves a drink, they simply go and sit at a bar until some guy offers to buy them a drink, or they will directly approach a guy and flirting ask him to buy her a drink, as if that alone will move him one step closer to sleeping with her. They use the existing paradigm for their own advantage, whether or not these girls or women are more likely to be the victim of sexual assault, I have no idea but I would suspect so.

So how does one escape Rape Culture? It starts with a couple key realizations, that consent is paramount, transient, and not at all subjective, that communication, whether verbal or not, is necessary to achieve consent, and that without consent, sexual contact is assault. These realizations can not come from the outside. one doesn’t not simply become a feminist by reading about it, and learning how to talk about it, one becomes a feminist by internalizing the issues that harm our society due to the historical and cultural oppression of the rights of the people we call women.

Where did this feminist thing come from? I thought I was talking about rape culture. In my mind, what it means to be a feminist, is to recognize and try to address personally, the issues faced by women caused by their interactions with society.

Being a feminist, is being aware and critical of Rape Culture, not superficailly, but internally and personally.

The implications of escaping these kinds of Culture are wide and varied, but inevitably, they all include a new found sense of awareness. Let alone the knowledge to stop the cycle of violence, on the self, and on our peers, and on those who are less privileged than us. Because when I say us, I mean the white, male, wealthy, educated and all round privileged people, who so often are at the heart of the damage done to this country.

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