Critical Dharma for Thinking Minds
Today Engage! introduces Xander Fraum and his response to Natalie Wynne, aka “Contrapoints”, on the subject of “Beaty” in a transgender and feminist context. The video is posted so that you can see what Fraum is responding to. Engage! has featured Natalie Wynne’s videos in previous posts.
I’m not going into any leftist future without the me I left behind when I went running for the finish line
As a white cis male using the starter-pack, entry-level identity society threw at me, I don’t have too much experience issues that you’ve been plagued by. It’s not my place to really comment on the relentless grip of feminine beauty standards when my gender role allows me to roll out of bed, throw a business casual shirt and khakis on, run my fingers through my hair and call that “getting ready for work”.
But I do have Asperger’s, and while doctors call my Asperger’s “mild”, from the perspective of my life there is nothing mild about it. I have never been able to connect to people and am plagued everyday by incurable pain and loneliness. Conversation feels like a mine field. I need company but I also can’t handle it. I don’t know what people are thinking unless they directly tell me. (I even have hard times connecting with leftists, so go figure!) I think that my desire for friends is somewhat analogous to your desire to be respected for your beauty, because the desire is both internal and external, they’re both desires we would have naturally but are complicated by social norms.
But it made me really mad to hear you disparage yourself and exalt beauty standards instead, putting beauty on a pedestal before your own existence. Isn’t this what all bullied people do? I’m around the same age as you, and since I threw in the towel and got diagnosed with ASD last year I’ve been giving up on trying to connect with people through conversation. I’m just plain bad at it, and I have enough experience to know that if I was capable of becoming comfortable with others through forcing myself, I would have made it by now.
When I was growing up, every morning the alarm clock would go off and I would let out a frustrated sigh because it was just another day of impossible living. I dreaded going to school because I could never understand what was going on around me. It was like they were speaking another language. Natural conversation scared me so when I’d walk to the bus stop I’d practice my lines for the conversations that might happen, and when I’d walk home from the bus stop I’d curse myself out for every pause or social misstep I made. But every night, I would tuck myself into bed and I would hope to be better the next day.
Not letting life get you down is well and good, but where there’s an up there’s a down, and the downside of aspiration is hatred for failure. So I developed an intense self-hatred of myself that lasts to this day, a near-spiritual belief that I was inherently no good, as if my very soul were stained, and because of that I deserved to be left alone, and a voice grew in my head screaming at me every day “GET RIGHT ALREADY!” How else could I explain why I had been so bad at making friends and just simply being with other people? What else could it be other than my own permanent badness?
Well when I got to college I got hooked on social theory. That allowed me some comfortable explanation for why I was in so much pain; capitalism fostered a competitive, cruel, materialistic, me-first society to sell products. Things like compassion and understanding were unquanitifable. But I had a hard time connecting to compassionate, kind and understanding people too, I couldn’t understand how they could have such relaxed attitudes. How could they be so happy with their friendships and relationships when I was in so much pain? Could they just not see my pain? Were they like me and were just in denial of their pain? Or were they actively avoiding hearing bad news? Marx, Zizek, George Ritzer and false consciousness explained why everyone else seemed to happy, and also gave me a solution for my pain: if you radically change society you will feel comfortable again.
I’m not saying social theory isn’t true, far from it, I think it’s the best way we can articulate the brutality we do to ourselves and each other. All I’m saying is that for the years of pain I’ve been in, to put all my hopes for psychological well-being on something as not-in-my-hands as massive social change feels desperate. It’s just another way that I am insubstantial but the mass of society is powerful.
Also I can tell when people have psychological issues. I live in a poor city, we all come from fucked up backgrounds, mental illness is practically indistinguishable from the culture of the city. So if I’m messed up in the head, and so is everyone else to some degree or another, why would I pin my hopes for psychological recovery on people who are just as messed up as I am? And it’s not like the self identified leftists are so psychologically stable either! Most leftists as individuals can barely take care of themselves, much less other people. You know this!
And still the punishing self-hating thoughts come down like hail, pelting me when I wake up, when I go to work, when I come back to work, when I’m alone, and even when I dream.
For all my life I prayed that there would be a finish line, a definitive line where once I crossed it I would not have any problems anymore and I would be happy. I believed in it with all my heart, and every time I thought I made it, it turned out to be a fake. “But the next time it will be real!” I said to myself. So I got back on my feet and ran after it again.
I am too old for that shit. I am too old to believe that there will ever be a place where I am better off than where I am now. There never was anything wrong with me, I was just different and weird and didn’t know how to manage that. To believe in a solution is to believe that there’s something wrong with you, to believe that you need to be cured. It doesn’t matter if it’s a Marxist cure, a Socialist cure or a Self-Help cure. Don’t try to fix me, I’m not broken. I have dignity and self-respect for all the shit I’ve been through.
Can we talk about trauma survivors for a second? (My therapist says I have PTSD from growing up Autistic and being the descendant of Holocaust survivors, so those are my credentials for talking about it.) One of the most horrifying things about trauma is that the defense mechanisms you pick up in response to trauma only work part of the time, so did my defense mechanisms keep me safe? Yes! But only safer, and there were so, so many times when all those techniques and strategies failed me too.
To be alive is to be vulnerable. We didn’t ask to be born, we were thrown into the world against our will. Life just plain sucks. You’re going to feel pain against your will every day, as predictable and common and every day as the feeling of your feet on the ground. And it’s not your fault. It is SO NOT YOUR FAULT, AND I WILL NEVER STOP SAYING THAT TO THE WHOLE WORLD. You are entirely correct to wonder if there’s a God out there who just hates us or who created us just to make us miserable. Life is the cruelest thing there is. (It’s why I’m such an ardent supporter of sex ed.) We are so vulnerable, beyond words, and the only pleasures in this world are the times when we’re distracted from that awful truth, like laughing at people we feel better than (Nigel Farage and his lactose intolerance), pinning our hopes on the future (FALGSC), reassuring ourselves how safe we are (look how many Twitter followers I have who’ll defend my takes!) or washing our lives away in addictions.
On this cursed earth you can obey that Superego in your head, that teller of “oughts”, do everything by the book and still lose. It’s cruel and self-obsessed. It doesn’t care about you or anything really, it only cares about looking right all the time, and it will push you down to push itself up.
There is no finish line. There is no promised land. It’s a myth. There is only now, the feeling of glass against your lips as you drink a glass of water, the feeling of stray hairs on your skin, the contorted face muscles of a frown. The pain will fall on you like rain anyway. Day and night, cruel, heartless, unconcerned about what you do about it. There is only now and what you do with it. Once you know you’ve been diagnosed with a terminal case of life, what do you do with yourself, bleeding and fucked up as you are?
I’m not a revolutionary. I’m not even sure that being this in touch with your feelings will lead to revolution. That’s part of the pain too, the conflict between feelings and what I think are “political practicalities”. I’m just saying that seeing myself honestly, as limping around mortally wounded on a godless, solution-less planet has begun to free me from worrying about pain and what other people think about me. (Though maybe that’s just the male privilege speaking.) They put their energy into pretending like they aren’t as vulnerable as I am. I put my energy into writing the most important things I think people need to hear.
Please don’t think that this article is trying to get you to abandon aesthetics, or get you to become an eco-terrorist. Hair is power. Nails are power. But they’re not the only power and I want to free you from the compulsion that says that you have to be beautiful. You don’t have to be anything before you look get in front of a webcam.
Stay with the trouble, Natalie. It will make you strong in a nonbinary, unconditional way. (But you already knew that.) I thought you were super, super brave to sing like that.) You can still be whoever you want to be, you don’t have to be Mother Teresa, you don’t even need to get sober. But I’m not going into any leftist future without the me I left behind when I went running for the finish line.