Monday, May 28, 2018

Life; a Disturbing Dream; plus Jordan Peterson side-note

It's been a busy life lately. I tutor college students in English by day (some days), teach English to lower-level immigrants in the evening during the week, and higher-level immigrants during the early parts of Friday and Saturday. Since the locations I am at are geographically remote (two sites in Vancouver, two sites in Surrey, and me still living in-between in Burnaby), I end up commuting long hours. Since the immigrant-teaching job runs on a CLB/ PBLA model, I also have to spend a lot of the time when I am not at work planning - because there are no CLB textbooks; the government would rather spend its money on theory than practice, apparently, creating a complex model of teaching that comes complete with a 200+ page document, saying what approach you should take, but not going so far as to design a textbook, curriculum, or lesson plans, so all the actual practical, what-do-I-do-in-class-today work is outsourced to the teachers (thanks a bunch!). PBLA/ CLB also requires weekly testing of the students, but again, you gotta design (or at least find) those tests, then you have to mark them; the government model again tells you HOW to test them, but it no more tells you WHAT to test than it does what to teach. Lotta work, in short. At least the tutoring gig is zero prep, zero take-home.

Anyhow, with all of that, and daily life stuff like housework and very occasional writing gigs, I have very little downtime. Saturday evening and Sunday are my only real days off. Yesterday, Erika and I went to the Cloverdale Flea Market for a road trip, where I found a few LPs and CDs that fill some holes in my collection. It was a pleasant day, despite a rocky sleep the night before. My insecurities about identity that I'd been having while suffering from my kidney stone ordeal of the last few months have pleasantly faded, and I'm shoring up my sense of myself with stuff I love, listening to a lot of stuff from my teen years (like the Blue Oyster Cult, say), acquiring some fun vinyl items, and interacting a bit with the great John Terlesky (AKA Brother JT, of the vastly-underrated American rock band the Original Sins). I feel pretty good, actually, especially now that I'm not pissing flaming blood. Plus being busy is better than being idle; and it's nice having a little money to play with (I mean, I'm still living paycheque-to-paycheque, but I get to go "whee" a little for a few days after each arrives).

So if life is, all-in-all, fairly good, why did I have this creepy-ass dream last night?

In the dream, I am a mentally challenged person (perhaps inspired by my recent watching of Tropic Thunder, where one of the lead character's past acting roles is in a film called Simple Jack). I am in a strange town, where I have to wait for someone or for something to happen. It's a variant on my old recurring dream, I guess, but instead of being responsible for rescuing someone, I seem to be the one who is to be rescued. I am in some peril, but being a bit simple, I don't realize it. I'm staying in a hotel, while my rescue is orchestrated from without; my only company is a pet animal, some sort of strange ferret/ possum creature who (make of this what you will) rides around under my pants and sometimes peeks up and smiles at me from below. (Note that in the dream I am both the main character and, as myself, a member of an audience watching a movie about the character; I find the animal as adorable as anyone). I am not in a very good part of town, and someone seems to wish me ill, so it would be wisest - and I believe the person responsible for me, coming to rescue me, or such, tells me this over the phone - that I stay in my hotel room.

Of course, I go out. I forget why; I walk around a few stores, look at things in shop windows. There is a diverse and busy crowd on the sidewalks, paying no attention to me; there is one particularly menacing looking guy, but he is ignoring me. This changes when a woman - possibly a prostitute, trying to start a conversation - approaches me and says, "hey, do you want to listen to music with me?"

I brusquely indicate that I do not. She takes offense, and says to the menacing-looking guy, "That guy over there just insulted me. If you were a real man, you'd kick him!"

So he does; he comes over, and kicks me really hard, aiming at the crotch or the gut. Then he walks away. Except it is my animal, not me, that takes the blow. It looks up from my crotch, and at first seems to be fine, but - concerned - I pull it out, and its guts are hanging out, it is all bloody, it is in pain, and is obviously dying.

As the viewer of this story, in the audience, I am crushed. We all loved this friendly animal and its smile. We are crying. The main character of the movie - also myself, but I will shift to third person here, as my dream also does this, sort of - is on his knees on the sidewalk, cradling his dying animal friend, as people gather round, observing. Then my character places his hand on the animals head and - this is heartbreaking to watch - he takes out a knife and stabs into the head - putting it out of its misery, we in the audience assume.

Except not exactly: he continues to cut a generous chunk of the animal's head away, including the left eye, and then pops this rather large piece into his mouth and begins to chew. Suddenly the audience has gone from crying to gagging; and though I am mostly watching this from without along with them, I am able to taste and feel this chunk of my friend in my mouth as I chew.

And then - as the kneeling man, the protagonist - I say, loudly, so everyone can hear: "Saves me breakfast!" And I grin around my "food."

I do not why I say this; maybe it is calculated to disgust and frighten, so people leave me alone. Maybe it is some twisted way of coping with grief. I am, in my role as an audience member, as grossed out as anyone by what I've done and said.

Maybe this is all informed by going off the vegetarian diet I was on for a bit? Erika and I did six months without meat last year, some of which was near vegan; but that has fallen away, something I am not so happy with, but am kind of having to accept at the moment.

Anyhow, that's when I wake up, unsettled, "saves me breakfast" echoing inside my head. ...And what will I make for breakfast for my wife and I, today?

In other news, I am presently taking some interest in the work of (academic/ clinical psychologist) Jordan Peterson. Peterson's ongoing ascendancy is an interesting phenomenon; there's suddenly a billion pundits out there - including an apparent (former?) friend of Peterson's - getting as much attention as they can from slagging him. Save from occasionally reading such articles, decrying his supposed cryptofascism, I had no idea who he was or actually thought, or if he was being fairly represented by his "ideological enemies," at least one of whom has made a very public ass of herself for willfully misinterpreting him. (If you haven't seen this clip, do so. With friends like Cathy Newman, feminists/ leftists don't NEED enemies, actually...). Save for some vague awareness that he was against Bill C-16, the only thing I knew about Peterson was that he was controversial. Eventually I got curious enough by the fuss - since, as a friend used to say, "no one kicks a dead dog" - to buy his new book, 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote for Chaos.

...which I will talk about in a minute, but first, a bit more on C-16, however, in case you've missed some of the controversy. That bill - now either law or in the process of becoming law - adds transsexuals and people with non-normative gender expressions to groups protected from hate crimes, hate speech and so forth. It may be interpreted - and certainly this is where Peterson has gone with it - as mandating that people be required by law to call transpeople by their preferred pronouns, lest they be accused of hate speech/ a human rights violation. He has said he will not be compelled by law to do this - because having any politically-correct language mandated by law is frightening to Peterson, who has - I believe sincerely - pointed out the free speech implications of this, and drawn somewhat hyperbolic parallels to Maoism and Stalinism and such, essentially saying that Bill C-16 places us on the slippery slope to totalitarianism. 

I think that's wrong, personally, believe - as do other commentators on the case - that his reaction to C-16 is a bit histrionic, and at the very least a good-faith misunderstanding of how human rights legislation works. It all looks - from my less-than-expert vantage - like just another example of a conservative chicken-little backlash to a fairly unthreatening and probably very positive progressive change in the law, akin to the old rage from some quarters against Sikhs wearing turbans in the RCMP or gays and lesbians being allowed to marry, both of which changes spawned ample slippery-slope speculation in their day. He may be smart and articulate, and his worries about politically correct speech and identity politics may be reasonable, but he's overreacting to C-16. I doubt that bill will ever lead to people who make a simple pronoun error - which is very easy to make, especially when you're being asked to refer to a single person as a "they" - being called up before a tribunal or such; human rights violations tend to require something more extreme than slipping up with a his/ her/ their/ zir - especially when given that that sort of error often has nothing much to do with transphobia but the ability to count. For something to classify as "hate speech" - which is what the bill is designed to protect the transgendered against - it has to be clearly deliberately motivated by bias and hate. As a human rights lawyer has explained it to me, context is very important. If someone calls me a "fag," for example, that MIGHT be hate speech, if it occurs during a random attack on the street - but it might not; even if it is meant hostilely, if the context is a heated argument or fight that has devolved into name-calling, the term is no more hate speech than someone calling me an "asshole" or such. It's not a human rights violation; it's just a fight. So if you slip up and call someone by the wrong pronoun, without meaning to, even if it embarrasses them, it surely won't be counted as "hate speech" unless there is some proof that it was ill-intentioned and not just a mistake. Any other implementation of the bill would be ridiculous and could never stand up in court. I mean - try conversing with someone for half an hour about Joshua Ferguson, born a man, transitioned to being a transwoman, and now identifying as neither male nor female, while appearing as the latter and having a name that suggests the former. Ferguson prefers to be a they or them, but if you can consistently call them "them" over the course of a natural conversation, and never revert to either "him" or "her," I applaud your conscious command of the language. It's beyond me to do this (though I am embarrassed that I revert to "him" when I slip; no doubt "they" would prefer "her," if I'm going to get it wrong).

All this does speak to the absence of (and need for) a gender-neutral single pronoun in English, but that also is a can of worms, since it will be (I think) a very long time before any one single gender-neutral pronoun is agreed upon and comes into common usage, even if it is legislated. I'd be all for a single gender-neutral pronoun if one should be settled on, but in the absence of a common practice, as Peterson has pointed out, having dozens of different variants to choose from makes requiring well-meaning people to use whichever one someone chooses simply untenable, ungainly, even idiotic. As my wife quipped: "So if I want to be called 'potato,' you have to call me 'potato?'" Yeah, exactly! Language is simply too complex, and too based on habit, to accommodate every personal taste or whim in this regard; in the absence of a common practice, at the very least, we need to legislate a correct pronoun for people to use. It might not catch on, but it might; I mean, I've been calling police officers "police officers" for most of my life, having been raised on "policemen," so who knows? Just pick a single pronoun we can all agree on, and not only will I attempt to re-train myself, I will even teach my students to use it as well (good luck revising all those textbooks, by the way). 

The thing about all this, however, is that it has almost nothing to do with Peterson's actual work, at least as far I see it. It may be what has drawn some of the attention/ notoreity he's received - and it has probably helped sell his book - but, having read only the first chapter, so far, of said book, I have seen a) nothing remotely phobic of any group; b) nothing speaking to the controversy over Bill C-16, in his writing (though don't rule out that he'll get there sometime); c) nothing even that controversial; and d) nothing that I actually disagree with (yet). His first chapter focuses for a good part, as some of you may know, on dominance hierarchies among lobsters. He basically argues - as he explains to Newman - that hierarchical impulses are deeply ingrained in our biology, and not a mere artifact of any social system, so that if you want a better life, you should try to stop slouching around like a one-clawed defeated weak lobster and look at helping yourself through improving how you carry yourself, how you stand, how you walk, and how you think of yourself. Treat yourself (and behave) as someone who deserves respect, and you will find you get more respect, feel more respect for yourself, and be better equipped to make other productive changes in your life. 

It's pretty straightforward, and it is not bad advice at all - and if you think that there's no need for advice like that in today's world, I would argue that you've come from a very privileged position - maybe not financially; but you've obviously been spared some of the huge existential/ emotional/ political and personal insecurity of modern life, if you can't see how advice like the above might be useful. Y'see - I write all this as someone who, through much of my 20's, was deeply, deeply lost in the world, confused about how I should be. Even back in the early 1990's, my head was filled with identity-politics, feminism, socialism, punk rock, and - maybe even more destructively - Nietzsche, Robert Anton Wilson, and Tim Leary. I was a virgin. I was fond of certain psychoactive drugs. I had self-harming habits, cutting crosses into myself with razorblades (since a Catholic upbringing was also part of my baggage). I watched way too much porn. I was in bad health. I had dropped out of school, and when I took jobs, they were shitty, gas-station/ convenience-store type jobs, at the low end of the employment spectrum. I had no idea what I was going to be, or how to face the challenges ahead of me, and was filled with fear and confusion and self-disgust. Chaos - which Peterson sees himself as offering a remedy for - was a very real and very destructive companion to me, back then, and I was probably headed down a very unproductive path, maybe even mental health issues, so much so that I volunteered at Riverview for awhile, to see if I might have insight into what patients were going through, that I might use to help them (I considered being a psychiatric nurse before I ever thought to become an ESL teacher; ultimately I decided against that).

Being given a whack upside the head really helped, back then. In my case, it came from a Lakota "teacher" I encountered, a rather remarkable (and very much conservative) man who kind of reoriented me, kicked the shit out of some of my weird pretensions, and encouraged me towards a "Life Skills" training course. He basically changed the direction of my life, around age 26; without his input, I might never have completed my degree, picked a profession, gotten published, gone to Japan, gotten married, or made any of the changes that lead me to my current state, which is vastly superior to where I was at back then. I'd be an artsy, stoned, maybe institutionalized, certainly marginal weirdo/ loser. Or I'd have killed myself. Because the fact of it was, at age 26, I had lost all grip on how to be in the world, how to live a good, productive life. I had no idea what such a thing would look like. The core values of how to be a good person in the world were all eclipsed by noise and bad weirdness. This fellow helped me immeasurably, and I owe him a great deal.

And posture was indeed part of what he talked about; in fact, much of what I gather Peterson discusses, while coming more from an academic/ Jungian-Campbellian point of view than that of Lakota warrior/ pipe carrier, reminds me of stuff said guy taught me (later reinforced by that Life Skills class). Since, as I mentioned above, my last few months of bad health - to say nothing of other major life changes in recent years, from the death of my mother to losing a chunk of my tongue to cancer surgery - had me feeling a bit lost and confused as to who or how I should be. Getting back to the basics - looking at our biology, our psychology, our traditions, and our myths and literature, all of which are concerns of Peterson's - seems welcome and productive. I absolutely understand why so many young men have described his writing as "life changing." It isn't, for me, but nor does the amount of rage against him we are seeing make sense to me, yet. I mean, maybe there are things he's going to say later in the book that are going to raise my eyebrows, but he hasn't so far, and mostly what I'm seeing in places like the Newman interview or the commentaries by pundits are misrepresentations or evasions of his ideas. (Or are comments written on social media by people who haven't read ANY of his book; at least I've read the first chapter).

So far, my reaction to Jordan Peterson is pretty positive, actually, even if I think he's wrong about C-16. And rather than write further - since I am allowing myself a few more hours off this morning before I get down to lesson planning - I am now going to go back to bed with the 12 Rules for Life and see about finishing chapter two. 

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