Teaching Good Sex

“First base, second base, third base, home run,” Al Vernacchio ticked off the classic baseball terms for sex acts. His goal was to prompt the students in Sexuality and Society — an elective for seniors at the private Friends’ Central School on Philadelphia’s affluent Main Line — to examine the assumptions buried in the venerable metaphor. “Give me some more,” urged the fast-talking 47-year-old, who teaches 9th- and 12th-grade English as well as human sexuality. Arrayed before Vernacchio was a circle of small desks occupied by 22 teenagers, six male and the rest female — a blur of sweatshirts and Ugg boots and form-fitting leggings.

“Grand slam,” called out a boy (who’d later tell me with disarming matter-of-factness that “the one thing Mr. V. talked about that made me feel really good was that penis size doesn’t matter”).

“Now, ‘grand slam’ has a bunch of different meanings,” replied Vernacchio, who has a master’s degree in human sexuality. “Some people say it’s an orgy, some people say grand slam is a one-night stand. Other stuff?”

“Grass,” a girl, a cheerleader, offered.

“If there’s grass on the field, play ball, right, right,” Vernacchio agreed, “which is interesting in this rather hair-phobic society where a lot of people are shaving their pubic hair — ”

“You know there’s grass, and then it got mowed, a landing strip,” one boy deadpanned, instigating a round of laughter. While these kids will sit poker-faced as Vernacchio expounds on quite graphic matters, class discussions are a spirited call and response, punctuated with guffaws, jokey patter and whispered asides, which Vernacchio tolerates, to a point.

Vernacchio explained that sex as baseball implies that it’s a game; that one party is the aggressor (almost always the boy), while the other is defending herself; that there is a strict order of play, and you can’t stop until you finish. “If you’re playing baseball,” he elaborated, “you can’t just say, ‘I’m really happy at second base.’ ”

A boy who was the leader of the Young Conservatives Club asked, “But what if it’s just more pleasure getting to home base?” Although this student is a fan of Vernacchio’s, he likes to challenge him about his tendency to empathize with the female perspective.

“Well, we’ve talked about how a huge percentage of women aren’t orgasming through vaginal intercourse,” Vernacchio responded, “so if that’s what you call a home run, there’s a lot of women saying” — his voice dropped to a dull monotone — ‘O.K., but this is not doing it for me.’ ”

In its breadth, depth and frank embrace of sexuality as, what Vernacchio calls, a “force for good” — even for teenagers — this sex-ed class may well be the only one of its kind in the United States. “There is abstinence-only sex education, and there’s abstinence-based sex ed,” said Leslie Kantor, vice president of education for Planned Parenthood Federation of America. “There’s almost nothing else left in public schools.”

Across the country, the approach ranges from abstinence until marriage is the only acceptable choice, contraceptives don’t work and premarital sex is physically and emotionally harmful, to abstinence is usually best, but if you must have sex, here are some ways to protect yourself from pregnancy and disease. The latter has been called “disaster prevention” education by sex educators who wish they could teach more; a dramatic example of the former comes in a video called “No Second Chances,” which has been used in abstinence-only courses. In it, a student asks a school nurse, “What if I want to have sex before I get married?” To which the nurse replies, “Well, I guess you’ll just have to be prepared to die.”

In settings outside schools, the constraints typically aren’t as tight. Bill Taverner, director of the Center for Family Life Education for Planned Parenthood of Greater Northern New Jersey, said that his 11 educators are usually given the most freedom with so-called high-risk youth, those in juvenile detention, or who live in poor neighborhoods with high teen-pregnancy rates. “I wish I could say it was for positive reasons,” he said, “but it’s almost as if society has just kind of thrown up their hands and said, ‘Well, these kids are going to have sex anyway, so you might as well not hide anything from them.’ ”

Sex education in America was invented by Progressive Era reformers like Sears, Roebuck’s president, Julius Rosenwald, and Charles Eliot, the president of Harvard University. Eliot, according to Kristin Luker, author of the book “When Sex Goes to School,” concluded that sex education was so important that he turned down Woodrow Wilson’s offer of the ambassadorship to Britain to join the first national group devoted to promoting the subject. Eliot was one of the so-called social hygienists who thought that teaching people about the “proper uses of sexuality” would help stamp out venereal disease and the sexual double-standard that kept women from achieving full equality. Proper sex meant sex between husband and wife (prostitution was then seen as regrettable but necessary because of men and their “needs”), so educators preached about both the rewards of carnal contact within marriage and the hazards outside of it.

It wasn’t until the 1960s and 1970s that the pill, feminism and generational rebellion smashed the cultural consensus that sex should be confined to marriage. And for a “brief, fragile period” in the 1970s and early 1980s, writes Luker, a professor of sociology and of law at U.C. Berkeley, “opinion leaders of almost every stripe believed sex education was the best response to the twin problems of teenage pregnancy and H.I.V. AIDS.” It was around this time that the Unitarian Universalist Association started its famously sex-positive curriculum, About Your Sexuality, with details about masturbation and orgasms and slide shows of couples touching one another’s genitals. (The classes are still going strong, though in the late 1990s, the program was replaced with another one without explicit images called Our Whole Lives, a joint project of the U.U.A. and the United Church of Christ.)

Back then, even public schools taught what came to be called “comprehensive sex education,” nonjudgmental instruction on bodies, birth control, disease prevention and “healthy relationships” — all geared to helping teenagers make responsible choices, one of which might be choosing to become sexually intimate with someone. But by the end of the 1980s, sex ed had taken its place in the basket of wedge issues dividing the right and left. This created the opening for abstinence instruction (the word “abstinence” wasn’t part of the sex-ed vernacular until the 1980s) to bulldoze any curriculum that didn’t treat sex as forbidden for teenagers. But Kantor and many others in the field remain “comprehensive sex ed” believers. To them, the license Vernacchio has to roam the sexual landscape is almost unimaginable.

Sitting in the conference room at Friends’, a tall, striking girl told me after class one day last winter that she was on the verge of getting involved with someone she really liked but was hesitating because she knew he had a reputation for juggling multiple girlfriends. The girl, who’d had sex twice in 11th grade with a boy she later discovered was sleeping around, wanted to be monogamous with the new guy but didn’t know how to broach it with him. (She was one of 17 students in Sexuality and Society who spoke to me privately; while Vernacchio is happy to discuss any personal information the kids bring up, he doesn’t seek it.)

Another young woman, who tended to treat her tiny desk in Vernacchio’s class as a lounger, flinging her legs out toward the center of the room, told me that she enjoyed sex for its own sake — the way guys do, as she put it. While she could express this with some bravado now, she came into Sexuality and Society in the beginning of the year uneasy about this aspect of herself, she said. A third girl, who called herself a “really anxious person,” still got choked up discussing a false rumor someone wrote on Facebook last fall: that she’d drunkenly offered oral sex to a boy at a party, who, as it happened, also was enrolled in Sexuality and Society. That young man, who didn’t post the lie and was predictably unfazed by it, had fallen for another classmate. That girl was equally besotted, but because they were in “sex class,” the couple always positioned themselves across the room from each other, never side by side; otherwise, they told me, they’d feel like animals in a zoo. Not that the pair weren’t still on display. With the exception of Vernacchio, everyone knew their status and found it impossible not to notice them locking eyes periodically, smiling briefly, before she’d duck her head, push her long, shiny hair behind her ears and turn her gaze back to her teacher.

“Mr. V. takes every question seriously,” another girl, the student-council vice president, told me. “You never feel like it’s the wise sexuality master preaching to the young.” Yet Vernacchio also doesn’t give off the vibe that he wants to be young, or imagines that he still is. His attire every day for the two weeks I attended the class in February was a sweater vest over a button-down shirt and tie, except for Valentine’s Day, when he shed the vest for a ruby red shirt and a tie decorated with hearts. That day Vernacchio gave all of his students brightly colored origami hearts he made himself; the members of Sexuality and Society reciprocated by sending him a singing Valentine (a “Glee”-worthy rendition of “Everytime We Touch,” by the boys’ barbershop choir).

Vernacchio is nothing so much as a mensch. Gay, with a partner of 17 years, he has ruddy cheeks, a quick smile and a plane of brown hair overhanging his brow, from which he must regularly wipe away sweat during intense discussions. He lectures with plainspoken authority while also conveying a deep curiosity about his subject — the consummate sex scholar.

During a lesson about recognizing your “crumble lines” — comments that play to your vulnerability and may make you “act against your values” — Vernacchio, a self-described “short, round, hairy guy” who struggles with body-image issues, revealed his own tendency to fall for anybody who compliments his appearance: “You say you think I’m pretty. I’ll do anything for you.” He was exaggerating a bit for effect, but the poignancy of the self-disclosure wasn’t lost on the class.

Friends’ Central, a Quaker prep school that prides itself on both its academic rigor and its ethic of social responsibility, is tucked away in the bucolic hills of suburban Philadelphia. Vernacchio joined the school’s English department in 1998, and when, three years later, he asked to start Sexuality and Society, administrators were delighted. “He teaches at the very highest level,” said David Felsen, who in June retired as headmaster of the school after 23 years. Because Vernacchio was such a gifted instructor, Felsen said, he didn’t worry about parents’ reactions. And in fact, Vernacchio says that no one has ever complained or even voiced reservations about something he discussed in class.

The parents I spoke to — ranging from a father who said he loves his son “to pieces” but wishes he knew him better to a mom who gets frequent updates from her daughter now in college — seemed grateful for the class. “My daughter is sometimes private,” another mother said, “and I appreciate that there was another place she could go to get good, healthy information.” Early in the year, Vernacchio gives an assignment asking students to interview a parent about how he or she learned about sex, and the father said his son handled it with aplomb: “He was very natural, and I’m the one thinking, This is embarrassing. He was a lot more mature about the conversation than I was.”

Sexuality and Society begins in the fall with a discussion of how to recognize and form your own values, then moves through topics like sexual orientation (occasionally students identify as gay or transgender, Vernacchio said, but in this particular class none did); safer sex; relationships; sexual health; and the emotional and physical terrain of sexual activity. (The standard public-school curriculum sticks to S.T.I.’s and contraceptive methods, and it can go by in a blink; in a Kaiser Family Foundation survey, two-thirds of principals said that the subject was covered in just several class periods.) Vernacchio also teaches a mandatory six-session sexuality course for ninth graders that covers some of the same material presented to the older kids, though less fully.

The lessons that tend to raise eyebrows outside the school, according to Vernacchio, are a medical research video he shows of a woman ejaculating — students are allowed to excuse themselves if they prefer not to watch — and a couple of dozen up-close photographs of vulvas and penises. The photos, Vernacchio said, are intended to show his charges the broad range of what’s out there. “It’s really a process of desensitizing them to what real genitals look like so they’ll be less freaked out by their own and, one day, their partner’s,” he said. What’s interesting, he added, is that both the boys and girls receive the photographs of the penises rather placidly but often insist that the vulvas don’t look “normal.” “They have no point of reference for what a normal, healthy vulva looks like, even their own,” Vernacchio said. The female student-council vice president agreed: “When we did the biology unit, I probably would’ve been able to label just as many of the boys’ body parts as the girls’, which is sad. I mean, you should know about the names of your own body.”

Vernacchio is aware that his utter lack of self-consciousness in conversing about sexual matters is unusual. “When God was passing out talents,” he likes to say, “I got ease in talking about sex.” But any plan of God’s, whom Vernacchio, a practicing Catholic, often references, was nudged along by two earthly happenings. “As a little kid,” Vernacchio said, “I got pegged as a good public speaker, so I started narrating all the school plays and reading at church; I got over the fear of speaking really early.” Then, around age 12, he started to research sex, having known from kindergarten that he was different in a “way that had to do with boys and girls.” He looked up homosexuality in the family dictionary, then took to going to libraries and planting himself in the sexuality section of the stacks. “I used to have the Dewey-decimal number for homosexuality memorized.” He was entirely on his own. There was no discussion of being gay at Vernacchio’s all-boys school; none from his parish priest, who at the end of sermons offered a prayer for “veterans of foreign wars, people who live near nuclear power plants and homosexuals”; and not from his parents, either, even after he came out to them at 19. Indeed, one night several years later, his mom was doing dinner dishes at the sink and his dad was plopped on the couch a few feet away in their tiny South Philly house, and Vernacchio mustered the courage to tell them that he was happily dating someone. “My mom never turned around, never reacted in any way, and my dad turned to me, didn’t miss a beat and said, ‘Whatever happened to the metric system?’ ”

It was drummed into him as a human-sexuality master’s student, Vernacchio said, to never be explicit merely for the sake of being explicit: have a rationale for every last thing you say. Which occurred to me one day listening to him answer an anonymous question — there’s a box on the bookshelf where students can drop them — about whether a girl’s urge to urinate during intercourse might be a precursor to female ejaculation. He laid out a plethora of explanations for the feeling, everything from anxiety about having sex to a bladder infection to the possibility that the young woman was getting “some really good G-spot stimulation” and in fact verging on ejaculation.

“If kids are starting to use their bodies sexually, they should know about their potentialities,” Vernacchio told me later. “It’s O.K. that boys ejaculate, that’s totally normalized” — wet dreams have been standard fare for middle-school health class for decades — “but girls, gross! Girls will think they’re peeing themselves, and it’s really shameful.”

“I just love this class — you can ask anything,” a member of the girls’ basketball team told me one day in February. She wears her long blond hair in two braids and shyly divulged that she was in love with her boyfriend of eight months. “You may not be able to get the best information on the Internet, but you can ask Mr. V., and he’ll either know it or ask his sex-ed friends,” she said, referring to a sex-educators’ e-mail list that Vernacchio consults.

Two boys who told me they’d been masturbating to Internet porn since middle school said they found themselves disoriented at the real-life encounters they had with girls, but Vernacchio helped them grasp the disjuncture. Pornography “gives boys the impression that the girl is there to do any position you want, or to please you, or to, you know, role-play to your liking,” one of them said. “But yesterday, when Mr. V. said there is no romanticism or intimacy in porn, porn is strictly sexual — I’d never thought about that.”

One young man in the class told me he had intercourse with 10 girls, but he was a relative outlier. While most of the students had had intercourse — 70 percent of teenagers do so by their 19th birthday, according to the Gutt­macher Institute — only 4 of the 17 I spoke with reported having three or more partners; 10 had had one or two; the other three were virgins.

But the numbers fail to capture the variation within the sexual histories. Of the two girls with more than two partners, one was the girl who appreciated purely sexual encounters. The other told me that during the summer before ninth grade, she was raped one night on a beach by a stranger. She told no one, she said, and she subsequently got together with a number of boys in what she now saw as a misguided effort to “take control” of her sexuality.

As to whether his class encourages teenagers to have sex — a protest perennially lodged against even basic sex ed (though pretty firmly disproved by research) — Vernacchio said that he portrays sex in all its glory and complications. “As much as I say, ‘This is how orgasms work, and they’re really cool,’ I say there’s a lot of work to being in a relationship and having sex. I don’t think I have the power to make sex sound so enticing that kids are going to break through their self-esteem issues or body stuff or parental pressures or whatever to just go do it.” And anyway, Vernacchio went on, “I don’t necessarily see the decision to become sexually active when you’re 17 as an unhealthy one.” His goal is for young people to know their own minds, be clear about what they do and don’t want and use their self-knowledge to make choices.

To that end, he spends one class leading the students through a kind of cost-benefit analysis of various types of relationships, from friendship to old-school dating to hookups. When he asked his students about the benefits of hookups, the kids volunteered: “No expected commitment,” “Sexual pleasure” and “Guarding emotions,” meaning you can enjoy yourself without the messiness of attachment.

“Yep,” Vernacchio said, “sometimes a hookup is all you want.” Then he pressed them for drawbacks.

“You may not be able to control your emotions,” someone called out.

“O.K.,” Vernacchio said approvingly. “What else?”

“It’s confusing,” said the student-council vice president.

“Yeah,” Vernacchio said, explaining that two people may have different ideas about what it means to hook up, which is why communication is so important. (“If you can’t talk about it, you probably shouldn’t be doing it,” he says.)

“People saying, ‘Oh, she’s a slut,’ ‘Oh, he’s a man-whore,’ ” floated a boy who described himself to me as a “lonesome outcast” until 11th grade, when he finally started to make friends. “I guess for women it’s usually seen as more of a bad thing.”

“Right,” Vernacchio agreed, “but there’s pressure on guys too. Guys get the, ‘Oh, yeah, he’s a player,’ but what if you’re really not? And then you feel pressure to maintain that.”

Vernacchio rarely misses a chance to ask his students to examine gender bias in their sexual attitudes or behavior. The girl who “admitted” to liking sex as much as boys did said that Vernacchio’s consistent affirmation of the variety of sexual preferences (“Guys aren’t necessarily naturally hornier than girls — there’s a huge social piece of this,” he told the class) helped her shake her sense of deviance and shame. In fact, she felt confident enough to debate her point of view in class with the girl who was nervous about embarking on a relationship with the guy known to be promiscuous. That young woman told me she’d been moved by the exchange: “I’m like, ‘That is nasty to hook up with someone for one night.’ She was like, ‘Well, I don’t care, sometimes I don’t want a relationship.’ We were going back and forth, but then I had to respect her. Before I took this class, I probably would’ve thought she was a whore, but she knows what she wants. That’s not something I want, but it doesn’t make her wrong, it doesn’t make me wrong.”

Above all else, what Vernacchio can do that his colleagues envy is to simply assume the pleasure of sex and directly address it with unharried ease. During one class, he handed out a worksheet with the five senses printed along the top and asked the students to try and list sexual activities that optimized each. (There were examples to prod their thinking: under hearing, for instance, was “listening to your partner read an erotic story.”) While Vernacchio knew the exercise would be a challenge for the kids — and he didn’t expect them to share their answers — its purpose was to open their minds to a broader sexuality.

Regarding the statistic that Vernacchio alluded to earlier — that 70 percent of women do not orgasm through vaginal penetration alone — one boy exclaimed when we talked, “That shocked me, a lot.” The other boys also told me they’d been in the dark about the mysteries of female sexual satisfaction. “I think I sort of knew where the clitoris was, but I didn’t know it was, like, under something,” one said. Another declared, “It’s almost like a wake-up call.” He paused. “To not just please yourself.”

The female students were nearly equally surprised. “I always thought, Is it weird that I don’t get an orgasm from, you know, just like vaginal penetration?” said a girl who’d had intercourse with one boy, though she’d had orgasms before that from being touched genitally. “It was comforting to hear that for most people it doesn’t happen. I mean, I’d heard it, but it was nice hearing it from Mr. V., who knows so much about it, and other people saying, ‘Yeah, yeah, that’s right.’ ”

Not that information was always power for these young women. One girl said that while she could advise her boyfriend on how to increase her pleasure, she wouldn’t, because he’s “very insecure” about his lack of experience. Another estimated she’d had only two orgasms with her boyfriend of longstanding, each during intercourse, though she climaxes on her own through masturbation. Somehow, when she and her boyfriend “do anything, we just end up having sex,” she said, seeming both a little perplexed by the situation, and a little afraid to make waves.

Who gives oral sex to whom is common fodder for Vernacchio’s gender-parity conversations. All but one of the students told me they’d had it, but sometimes only once or twice, and the vast majority within monogamous relationships.

Although Vernacchio encourages students to think about fairness, he certainly doesn’t encourage a direct quid pro quo for oral sex — and the girls, the main givers, were not terribly enthused about being the recipients. “[My boyfriend] completely offered, and I did not want that,” one said. Another agreed: “It just creeps me out.” None were thrilled about performing it, either, and they seemed to be wrestling — in thought and deed — with why they continued to do so. “I do think girls like to take care of people,” the student-council V.P. mused, “and I know that just sounds horrible, like you should send me right back to the ’50s, but my mom is like the most liberal woman I know and still is so happy to make food for people. To some extent, women are just more people-pleasers than men.” One girl said she’d come up with “tricks” to make giving oral sex more enjoyable for her, and that she’d set “strict rules” for herself: “I only do it if they do something on me first, and it has to be below the belt.” And another said she doesn’t enjoy cunnilingus, but taking the personal is political to heart, she asked her boyfriend to do it anyway: if she was expected to service him orally, he should have to return the favor.

All the boys said that Vernacchio had increased their sensitivity to the girls. One recounted how in an effort to consider his girlfriend’s feelings he’d asked her if she was willing to give him oral sex — none of that pushing her head down in the heat of the moment — and she’d considered it for an excruciating hour. Or maybe it just felt like that. “Do you have to think about it this long?” he finally pleaded. Eventually, she agreed.

Pleasure in sex ed was a major topic last November at one of the largest sex-education conferences in the country, sponsored by the education arm of Planned Parenthood of Greater Northern New Jersey. “Porn is the model for today’s middle-school and high-school students,” Paul Joannides said in the keynote speech. “And none of us is offering an alternative that’s even remotely appealing.”

Joannides, who is 58, made sex education his life’s work following the success of his sex manual for older teenagers and adults called, “The Guide to Getting It On.” Lauded for its voluminous accuracy and wit, the 900-plus-page paperback took him 15 years to research and write. Joannides argues that pornography can be used as a teaching tool, not a bogeyman, as is apparent in a short Web video he made called “5 Things to Learn About Lovemaking From Porn.” “In porn,” he affably lectures, “sex happens instantly: camera, action, crotch. . . . In real life, the willingness to ask and learn from your partner is often what separates the good lovers from those who are totally forgettable.” (Another of Joannides’s assertions is that the best way to reach heterosexual boys — who he believes are the most neglected in the current environment — is to play to their desire for “mastery,” because by middle school, they’ve thoroughly absorbed that to be a man is to be a stud.)

One of sex educators’ big problems, Joannides told the New Jersey audience, is that they define their role as the “messengers of all the things that can go wrong with sex.” The attention paid to S.T.I.’s, pregnancy, rape and discrimination based on sexual orientation, while understandable, comes at a cost, he says. “We’re worrying about which bathrooms transgender students should use while teens are worrying whether they should shave all the way or leave a landing strip,” he said. “They’re worrying if someone special will find them sexually attractive, whether they will be able to do it as well as porn, whether others have the same kind of sexual feelings they do.”

In other words, as much as Joannides criticizes his opponents on the right, he also tweaks the orthodoxies of his friends on the left, hoping to spur them to contemplate how they themselves dismiss pleasure. His main premise is that young people will tune out educators if their real concerns are left in the shadows. And practically speaking, pleasure is so braided through sex that if you can’t mention it, you miss chances to teach about safe sex in a way that young people can really use.

For instance, in addition to pulling condoms over bananas — which has become a de rigueur contraception lesson among “liberal” educators — young people need to hear specifics about making the method work for them. “We don’t tell them: ‘Look, there are different shapes of condoms. Get sampler packs, experiment.’ That would be entering pleasure into the conversation, and we don’t want that.”

While the conference attendees couldn’t have agreed more with Joannides about what should be taught in schools, much of the crowd thought he was deluded to imagine they could ever get away with it. Back in 1988, Michelle Fine, a professor of social psychology at the City University of New York, wrote an article in The Harvard Educational Review called “Sexuality, Schooling and Adolescent Females: The Missing Discourse of Desire.” In it, she included the comments of a teacher who discouraged community advocates from lobbying for change in the formal curriculum. If outsiders actually discovered the liberties some teachers take, Fine was told, they’d be shut down.

More than two decades later, at the conference, an educator from Pennsylvania told me that one school asked her to teach a sex-ed class but forbade her to use the words “sex, ” “sexy” or “tampon.” (She declined.) A chipper young Unitarian sex educator from Brooklyn, Kirsten deFur, who led a workshop titled “Don’t Forget the Good Stuff,” gave tips on how her colleagues could avoid uttering the words “pleasure” and “orgasm.” “Ask open-ended questions about what feels good,” deFur recommended. And, she added, the P-word might even be acceptable in the proper context: “If you have healthy sex, it’ll be more pleasurable,” an instructor might dare to say.

That more expansive sex education has to be done in code was something I came across repeatedly. A veteran advocate in the field gave me a short list of teachers to contact who might be willing to talk to me but then warned, “I don’t know if any of them are going to want to have what they’re doing out there.”

“What if our kids really believed we wanted them to have great sex?” Vernacchio asked near the end of an evening talk he gave in January primarily for parents of ninth graders who would attend his sex-ed minicourse. “What if they really believed that we want them to be so passionately in love with someone that they can’t keep their hands off them? What if they really believed we want them to know their own bodies?”

Vernacchio didn’t imagine that his audience, who gave him an enthusiastic ovation when his presentation ended, wanted their 14- and 15-year-olds to go out tomorrow and jump into bed or the backseat. Sex education, he and others point out, is one of the few classes where it’s not understood that young people are being prepared for the future.

Sex, of course, can come with emotional confusion and pain, and be enmeshed with violence, which Michelle Fine knows well. She said that what all adolescents crave is a “safe space” to pull apart and ponder the stew of relationships and sexual activity — including intimacy and desire and betrayal and coercion.

Vernacchio’s classroom is such a setting. Owing partly to his devotion to his job, partly to the individual relationships he starts developing with students in ninth grade as their English or sex-ed instructor or adviser, he looks out at a roomful of people whom he really knows, and who depend on him for discerning and generous counsel. This was especially true for the young woman who was raped — she told Vernacchio about the assault before anyone else at Friends’ — as well as the girl who was undone by her scorching on Facebook. She relied on Vernacchio all year for support, she said.

For every single question that Vernacchio pulls out of his anonymous question box about female ejaculation, there are 10 like these: How do you handle your insecurities in a relationship? How do you stop worrying about being cheated on? How do you know when it’s time to break up? How do I talk to my partner about wanting to spend more time together without being annoying? Watching how closely the students attended to Vernacchio’s often lengthy answers was a moving reminder of how young 17- and 18-year-olds are.

“As a society, we always tell kids, ‘Work hard, just focus on school, don’t think about girls or guys — you can worry about that stuff later, that stuff will work itself out,’ but the thing is, it doesn’t,” said a boy who had told me he had a disconcerting one-nighter with a girl he’d talked to only electronically. The class taught him to be more cautious about choosing the right time with the right person, he said, with a forcefulness that didn’t quite cover the hurt in his eyes. “You learn about the psychological after-effects that could happen to you.”

The girl who was contemplating getting serious with a boy, but only if they could be exclusive, told me she finally figured out how to approach the guy after Vernacchio talked in class about the difference between “nagging” and asking for what you want. “I never thought of saying to him, ‘You know, just tell me if you’re having sex with someone else.’ I don’t want to pressure him, but I feel like it would make me comfortable.” This seems like pretty simple stuff, especially for someone who repeatedly called herself “strong,” but somehow it wasn’t until Vernacchio said that it was O.K. to make such forthright requests that she could conceive of it.

“The campaign for abstinence in the schools and communities may seem trivial, an ideological nuisance,” Michelle Fine and Sara McClelland wrote in a 2006 study in The Harvard Educational Review, “but at its core it is . . . a betrayal of our next generation, which is desperately in need of knowledge, conversation and resources to negotiate the delicious and treacherous terrain of sexuality in the 21st century.”

It’s axiomatic, however, that parents who support richer sex education don’t make the same ruckus with school officials as those who oppose it. “We need to be there at the school boards and say: ‘Guess where kids are getting their messages about sex from? They’re getting it from porn,’ ” Joannides exhorted. “All we’re talking about is just being able to acknowledge that sex is a good thing in the right circumstances, that it’s a normal thing.”

Of course, sex isn’t all pleasure or all peril, it’s both (and sometimes both at once, though that lesson may have to wait for grad school). Vernacchio has a way of getting at its positive potential without ignoring the fact that, however good sex may feel, it’s sometimes best left off the menu. “So let’s think about pizza,” Vernacchio said to his students after they’d deconstructed baseball. The class for that day was just about over. “Why do you have pizza?”

“You’re hungry,” a cross-country runner said.

“Because you want to,” Vernacchio affirmed. “It starts with desire, an internal sense — not an external ‘I got a game today, I have to do it.’ And wouldn’t it be great if our sexual activity started with a real sense of wanting, whether your desire is for intimacy, pleasure or orgasms. . . . And you can be hungry for pizza and still decide, No thanks, I’m dieting. It’s not the healthiest thing for me now.

“If you’re gonna have pizza with someone else, what do you have to do?” he continued. “You gotta talk about what you want. Even if you’re going to have the same pizza you always have, you say, ‘We getting the usual?’ Just a check in. And square, round, thick, thin, stuffed crust, pepperoni, stromboli, pineapple — none of those are wrong; variety in the pizza model doesn’t come with judgment,” Vernacchio hurried on. “So ideally when the pizza arrives, it smells good, looks good, it’s mouthwatering. Wouldn’t it be great if we had that kind of anticipation before sexual activity, if it stimulated all our senses, not just our genitals but this whole-body experience.” By this time, he was really moving fast; he’d had to cram his pizza metaphor into the last five minutes. “And what’s the goal of eating pizza? To be full, to be satisfied. That might be different for different people; it might be different for you on different occasions. Nobody’s like ‘You failed, you didn’t eat the whole pizza.’

“So again, what if our goal, quote, unquote, wasn’t necessarily to finish the bases?” The students were gathering their papers, preparing to go. “What if it just was, ‘Wow, I feel like I had enough. That was really good.’ ”

Laurie Abraham wrote “The Husbands and Wives Club: A Year in the Life of a Couples Therapy Group,” which began as an article in the magazine.

__________

Full article and photo: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/11/20/magazine/teaching-good-sex.html

The power of lonely

What we do better without other people around

You hear it all the time: We humans are social animals. We need to spend time together to be happy and functional, and we extract a vast array of benefits from maintaining intimate relationships and associating with groups. Collaborating on projects at work makes us smarter and more creative. Hanging out with friends makes us more emotionally mature and better able to deal with grief and stress.

Spending time alone, by contrast, can look a little suspect. In a world gone wild for wikis and interdisciplinary collaboration, those who prefer solitude and private noodling are seen as eccentric at best and defective at worst, and are often presumed to be suffering from social anxiety, boredom, and alienation.

But an emerging body of research is suggesting that spending time alone, if done right, can be good for us — that certain tasks and thought processes are best carried out without anyone else around, and that even the most socially motivated among us should regularly be taking time to ourselves if we want to have fully developed personalities, and be capable of focus and creative thinking. There is even research to suggest that blocking off enough alone time is an important component of a well-functioning social life — that if we want to get the most out of the time we spend with people, we should make sure we’re spending enough of it away from them. Just as regular exercise and healthy eating make our minds and bodies work better, solitude experts say, so can being alone.

One ongoing Harvard study indicates that people form more lasting and accurate memories if they believe they’re experiencing something alone. Another indicates that a certain amount of solitude can make a person more capable of empathy towards others. And while no one would dispute that too much isolation early in life can be unhealthy, a certain amount of solitude has been shown to help teenagers improve their moods and earn good grades in school.

“There’s so much cultural anxiety about isolation in our country that we often fail to appreciate the benefits of solitude,” said Eric Klinenberg, a sociologist at New York University whose book “Alone in America,” in which he argues for a reevaluation of solitude, will be published next year. “There is something very liberating for people about being on their own. They’re able to establish some control over the way they spend their time. They’re able to decompress at the end of a busy day in a city…and experience a feeling of freedom.”

Figuring out what solitude is and how it affects our thoughts and feelings has never been more crucial. The latest Census figures indicate there are some 31 million Americans living alone, which accounts for more than a quarter of all US households. And at the same time, the experience of being alone is being transformed dramatically, as more and more people spend their days and nights permanently connected to the outside world through cellphones and computers. In an age when no one is ever more than a text message or an e-mail away from other people, the distinction between “alone” and “together” has become hopelessly blurry, even as the potential benefits of true solitude are starting to become clearer.

Solitude has long been linked with creativity, spirituality, and intellectual might. The leaders of the world’s great religions — Jesus, Buddha, Mohammed, Moses — all had crucial revelations during periods of solitude. The poet James Russell Lowell identified solitude as “needful to the imagination;” in the 1988 book “Solitude: A Return to the Self,” the British psychiatrist Anthony Storr invoked Beethoven, Kafka, and Newton as examples of solitary genius.

But what actually happens to people’s minds when they are alone? As much as it’s been exalted, our understanding of how solitude actually works has remained rather abstract, and modern psychology — where you might expect the answers to lie — has tended to treat aloneness more as a problem than a solution. That was what Christopher Long found back in 1999, when as a graduate student at the University of Massachusetts Amherst he started working on a project to precisely define solitude and isolate ways in which it could be experienced constructively. The project’s funding came from, of all places, the US Forest Service, an agency with a deep interest in figuring out once and for all what is meant by “solitude” and how the concept could be used to promote America’s wilderness preserves.

With his graduate adviser and a researcher from the Forest Service at his side, Long identified a number of different ways a person might experience solitude and undertook a series of studies to measure how common they were and how much people valued them. A 2003 survey of 320 UMass undergraduates led Long and his coauthors to conclude that people felt good about being alone more often than they felt bad about it, and that psychology’s conventional approach to solitude — an “almost exclusive emphasis on loneliness” — represented an artificially narrow view of what being alone was all about.

“Aloneness doesn’t have to be bad,” Long said by phone recently from Ouachita Baptist University, where he is an assistant professor. “There’s all this research on solitary confinement and sensory deprivation and astronauts and people in Antarctica — and we wanted to say, look, it’s not just about loneliness!”

Today other researchers are eagerly diving into that gap. Robert Coplan of Carleton University, who studies children who play alone, is so bullish on the emergence of solitude studies that he’s hoping to collect the best contemporary research into a book. Harvard professor Daniel Gilbert, a leader in the world of positive psychology, has recently overseen an intriguing study that suggests memories are formed more effectively when people think they’re experiencing something individually.

That study, led by graduate student Bethany Burum, started with a simple experiment: Burum placed two individuals in a room and had them spend a few minutes getting to know each other. They then sat back to back, each facing a computer screen the other could not see. In some cases they were told they’d both be doing the same task, in other cases they were told they’d be doing different things. The computer screen scrolled through a set of drawings of common objects, such as a guitar, a clock, and a log. A few days later the participants returned and were asked to recall which drawings they’d been shown. Burum found that the participants who had been told the person behind them was doing a different task — namely, identifying sounds rather than looking at pictures — did a better job of remembering the pictures. In other words, they formed more solid memories when they believed they were the only ones doing the task.

The results, which Burum cautions are preliminary, are now part of a paper on “the coexperiencing mind” that was recently presented at the Society for Personality and Social Psychology conference. In the paper, Burum offers two possible theories to explain what she and Gilbert found in the study. The first invokes a well-known concept from social psychology called “social loafing,” which says that people tend not to try as hard if they think they can rely on others to pick up their slack. (If two people are pulling a rope, for example, neither will pull quite as hard as they would if they were pulling it alone.) But Burum leans toward a different explanation, which is that sharing an experience with someone is inherently distracting, because it compels us to expend energy on imagining what the other person is going through and how they’re reacting to it.

“People tend to engage quite automatically with thinking about the minds of other people,” Burum said in an interview. “We’re multitasking when we’re with other people in a way that we’re not when we just have an experience by ourselves.”

Perhaps this explains why seeing a movie alone feels so radically different than seeing it with friends: Sitting there in the theater with nobody next to you, you’re not wondering what anyone else thinks of it; you’re not anticipating the discussion that you’ll be having about it on the way home. All your mental energy can be directed at what’s happening on the screen. According to Greg Feist, an associate professor of psychology at the San Jose State University who has written about the connection between creativity and solitude, some version of that principle may also be at work when we simply let our minds wander: When we let our focus shift away from the people and things around us, we are better able to engage in what’s called meta-cognition, or the process of thinking critically and reflectively about our own thoughts.

Other psychologists have looked at what happens when other people’s minds don’t just take up our bandwidth, but actually influence our judgment. It’s well known that we’re prone to absorb or mimic the opinions and body language of others in all sorts of situations, including those that might seem the most intensely individual, such as who we’re attracted to. While psychologists don’t necessarily think of that sort of influence as “clouding” one’s judgment — most would say it’s a mechanism for learning, allowing us to benefit from information other people have access to that we don’t — it’s easy to see how being surrounded by other people could hamper a person’s efforts to figure out what he or she really thinks of something.

Teenagers, especially, whose personalities have not yet fully formed, have been shown to benefit from time spent apart from others, in part because it allows for a kind of introspection — and freedom from self-consciousness — that strengthens their sense of identity. Reed Larson, a professor of human development at the University of Illinois, conducted a study in the 1990s in which adolescents outfitted with beepers were prompted at irregular intervals to write down answers to questions about who they were with, what they were doing, and how they were feeling. Perhaps not surprisingly, he found that when the teens in his sample were alone, they reported feeling a lot less self-conscious. “They want to be in their bedrooms because they want to get away from the gaze of other people,” he said.

The teenagers weren’t necessarily happier when they were alone; adolescence, after all, can be a particularly tough time to be separated from the group. But Larson found something interesting: On average, the kids in his sample felt better after they spent some time alone than they did before. Furthermore, he found that kids who spent between 25 and 45 percent of their nonclass time alone tended to have more positive emotions over the course of the weeklong study than their more socially active peers, were more successful in school and were less likely to self-report depression.

“The paradox was that being alone was not a particularly happy state,” Larson said. “But there seemed to be kind of a rebound effect. It’s kind of like a bitter medicine.”

The nice thing about medicine is it comes with instructions. Not so with solitude, which may be tremendously good for one’s health when taken in the right doses, but is about as user-friendly as an unmarked white pill. Too much solitude is unequivocally harmful and broadly debilitating, decades of research show. But one person’s “too much” might be someone else’s “just enough,” and eyeballing the difference with any precision is next to impossible.

Research is still far from offering any concrete guidelines. Insofar as there is a consensus among solitude researchers, it’s that in order to get anything positive out of spending time alone, solitude should be a choice: People must feel like they’ve actively decided to take time apart from people, rather than being forced into it against their will.

Overextended parents might not need any encouragement to see time alone as a desirable luxury; the question for them is only how to build it into their frenzied lives. But for the millions of people living by themselves, making time spent alone time productive may require a different kind of effort. Sherry Turkle, director of the MIT Initiative on Technology and Self, argues in her new book, “Alone, Together,” that people should be mindfully setting aside chunks of every day when they are not engaged in so-called social snacking activities like texting, g-chatting, and talking on the phone. For teenagers, it may help to understand that feeling a little lonely at times may simply be the price of forging a clearer identity.

John Cacioppo of the University of Chicago, whose 2008 book “Loneliness” with William Patrick summarized a career’s worth of research on all the negative things that happen to people who can’t establish connections with others, said recently that as long as it’s not motivated by fear or social anxiety, then spending time alone can be a crucially nourishing component of life. And it can have some counterintuitive effects: Adam Waytz in the Harvard psychology department, one of Cacioppo’s former students, recently completed a study indicating that people who are socially connected with others can have a hard time identifying with people who are more distant from them. Spending a certain amount of time alone, the study suggests, can make us less closed off from others and more capable of empathy — in other words, better social animals.

“People make this error, thinking that being alone means being lonely, and not being alone means being with other people,” Cacioppo said. “You need to be able to recharge on your own sometimes. Part of being able to connect is being available to other people, and no one can do that without a break.”

Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas.

__________

Full article and photo: http://www.boston.com/bostonglobe/ideas/articles/2011/03/06/the_power_of_lonely/

Beyond Understanding

I ought to have known better than to have lunch with a psychologist.

“Take you, for example,” he said. “You are definitely autistic.”

“What!?”

“I rest my case,” he shot back. “Q.E.D.”

His ironic point seemed to be that if I didn’t instantly grasp his point — which clearly I didn’t — then, at some level, I was exhibiting autistic tendencies.

Autism is often the subject of contentious and emotional debate, certainly because it manifests in the most vulnerable of humans — children. It is also hard to pin down; as a “spectrum disorder” it can take extreme and disheartening forms and incur a devastating toll on families. It is the “milder” or “high functioning” form and the two main agreed-upon symptoms of sub-optimal social and communication skills that I confine myself to here.

Simon Baron-Cohen, for example, in his book “Mindblindness,” argues that the whole raison d’être of consciousness is to be able to read other people’s minds; autism, in this context, can be defined as an inability to “get” other people, hence “mindblind.” 

A less recent but possibly related conversation took place during the viva voce exam Ludwig Wittgenstein was given by Bertrand Russell and G. E. Moore in Cambridge in 1929. Wittgenstein was formally presenting his “Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus,” an already well-known work he had written in 1921, as his doctoral thesis. Russell and Moore were respectfully suggesting that they didn’t quite understand proposition 5.4541 when they were abruptly cut off by the irritable Wittgenstein. “I don’t expect you to understand!” (I am relying on local legend here; Ray Monk’s biography of Wittgenstein has him, in a more clubbable way, slapping them on the back and bringing proceedings cheerfully to a close with the words, “Don’t worry, I know you’ll never understand it.”)

I have always thought of Wittgenstein’s line as (a) admittedly, a little tetchy (or in the Monk version condescending) but (b) expressing enviable self-confidence and (c) impressively devoid of deference (I’ve even tried to emulate it once or twice, but it never comes out quite right). But if autism can be defined, at one level, by a lack of understanding (verbal or otherwise), it is at least plausible that Wittgenstein is making (or at least implying) a broadly philosophical proposition here, rather than commenting, acerbically, on the limitations of these particular interlocutors. He could be read as saying:

Thank you, gentlemen, for raising the issue of understanding here. The fact is, I don’t expect people in general to understand what I have written. And it is not just because I have written something, in places, particularly cryptic and elliptical and therefore hard to understand, or even because it is largely a meta-discourse and therefore senseless, but rather because, in my view, it is not given to us to achieve full understanding of what another person says. Therefore I don’t expect you to understand this problem of misunderstanding either.

If Wittgenstein was making a statement along these lines, then it would provide an illuminating perspective in which to read the “Tractatus.” The persistent theme within it of “propositions which say nothing,” which we tend to package up under the heading of “the mystical,” would have to be rethought. Rather than clinging to a clear-cut divide between all these propositions ─ over here, the well-formed and intelligible (scientific) and over there, the hazy, dubious and mystical (aesthetic or ethical) ─ we might have to concede that, given the way humans interact with one another, there is always a potential mystery concealed within the most elementary statement. And it is harder than you think it is going to be to eliminate, entirely, the residue of obscurity, the possibility of misunderstanding lurking at the core of every sentence. Sometimes Wittgenstein thinks he has solved the problem, at others not (“The solution of the problem of life is seen in the vanishing of the problem,” he writes in “Tractatus.”) What do we make of those dense, elegiac and perhaps incomprehensible final lines, sometimes translated as “Whereof one cannot speak thereof one must remain silent”? Positioned as it is right at the end of the book (like “the rest is silence” at the end of “Hamlet”), proposition number 7 is apt to be associated with death or the afterlife. But translating it yet again into the sort of terms a psychologist would readily grasp, perhaps Wittgenstein is also hinting: “I am autistic” or “I am mindblind.” Or, to put it another way, autism is not some exotic anomaly but rather a constant.

I am probably misreading the text here — if I have understood it correctly, I must be misreading it. But Wittgenstein has frequently been categorized, in recent retrospective diagnoses, as autistic. Sula Wolff, for example, in “Loners, The Life Path of Unusual Children” (1995), analyzes Wittgenstein as a classic case of Asperger’s syndrome, so-called “high-functioning autism” ─ that is, being articulate, numerate and not visibly dysfunctional, but nevertheless awkward and unskilled in social intercourse. He is apt to get hold of the wrong end of the stick (not to mention the poker that he once waved aggressively at Karl Popper). An illustrative true story: he is dying of cancer; it is his birthday; his cheerful landlady comes in and wishes him “Many happy returns, Mr. Wittgenstein”; he snaps back, “There will be no returns.”

Wittgenstein, not unlike someone with Asperger’s, admits to having difficulty working out what people are really going on about. In “Culture and Value” (1914) he writes: “We tend to take the speech of a Chinese for inarticulate gurgling. Someone who understands Chinese will recognize language in what he hears. Similarly I often cannot recognize the humanity of another human being.” Which might also go some way towards explaining his remark (in the later “Philosophical Investigations”) that even if a lion could speak English, we would still be unable to understand him.

Wittgenstein is not alone among philosophers in being included in this category of mindblindness. Russell, for one, has also been labeled autistic. Taking this into account, it is conceivable that Wittgenstein is saying to Russell, when he tells him that he doesn’t expect him to understand, “You are autistic!” Or (assuming a handy intellectual time machine), “If I am to believe Wolff and others, we are autistic. Perhaps all philosophers are. It is why we end up studying philosophy.”

I don’t want to maintain that all philosophers are autistic in this sense. Perhaps not even that “You don’t have to be autistic, but it helps.” And yet there are certainly episodes and sentences associated with philosophers quite distinct from Wittgenstein and Russell, that might lead us to think in that way. 

Consider, for example, Sartre’s classic one-liner, “Hell is other people.” Wouldn’t autism, with its inherent poverty of affective contact, go some way towards accounting for that? The fear of faces and the “gaze of the other” that Sartre analyzes are classic symptoms. Sartre recognized this in himself and in others as well: he explicitly describes Flaubert as “autistic” in his great, sprawling study of the writer, “The Family Idiot,” and also asserts that “Flaubert c’est moi.” Sartre’s theory that Flaubert starts off autistic and everything he writes afterwards — trying to work out what is in Madame Bovary’s mind, for example — is a form of compensation or rectification, could easily apply to his own work.

One implication of what a psychologist might say about autism goes something like this: you, a philosopher, are mindblind and liable to take up philosophy precisely because you don’t “get” what other people are saying to you. You, like Wittgenstein, have a habit of hearing and seeing propositions, but feeling that they say nothing (as if they were rendered in Chinese). In other words, philosophy would be a tendency to interpret what people say as a puzzle of some kind, a machine that may or may not work.

I think this helps to explain Wittgenstein’s otherwise slightly mysterious advice, to the effect that if you want to be a good philosopher, you should become a car mechanic (a job Wittgenstein actually held during part of the Great War). It was not just some notion of getting away from the study of previous philosophers, but also the idea that working on machines would be a good way of thinking about language. Wittgenstein, we know, came up with his preliminary model of language while studying court reports of a car accident in Paris during the war. The roots of picture theory (the model used in court to portray the event) and ostensive definition (all those little arrows and labels) are all here. But at the core of the episode are two machines and a collision. Perhaps language can be seen as a car, a vehicle of some kind, designed to get you from A to B, carrying a certain amount of information, but apt to get stuck in jams or break down or crash; and which will therefore need fixing. Wittgenstein and the art of car maintenance. This car mechanic conception of language is just the sort of thing high-functioning autistic types would come up with, my psychologist friend might say, because they understand “systems” better than they understand people. They are “(hyper-)systemizers” not “empathizers.” The point I am not exactly “driving” at but rather skidding into, and cannot seem to avoid, is this: indisputably, most car mechanics are men. 

My psychologist friend assured me that I was not alone. “Men tend to be autistic on average. More so than women.” The accepted male-to-female ratio for autism is roughly 4-to-1; for Asperger’s the ratio jumps even higher, by some accounts 10-to-1 (other statistics give higher or lower figures but retain the male prevalence). Asperger himself wrote that the autistic mind is “an extreme variant of male intelligence”; Baron-Cohen argues that “the extreme male brain” (not exclusive to men) is the product of an overdose of fetal testosterone.

If Wittgenstein in his conversation with Russell is suggesting that philosophers are typically autistic in a broad sense, this view might explain (in part) the preponderance of male philosophers. I went back over several sources to get an idea of the philosophical ratio: Russell’s “History of Western Philosophy” (about 100-to-1), Critchley’s “Book of Dead Philosophers” (30-to-1), while, in the realm of the living, the list of contributors to The Stone, for example, the ratio narrows to more like 4-to-1.

A psychologist might say something like: “Q.E.D., philosophy is all about systemizing (therefore male) and cold, hard logic, whereas the empathizers (largely female) seek out more humane, less mechanistic havens.” I would like to offer a slightly different take on the evidence. Plato took the view (in Book V of “The Republic”) that women were just as philosophical as men and would qualify to become the philosopher “guardians” of the ideal Greek state of the future (in return they would have to learn to run around naked at the gym). It seems likely that women were among the pre-Socratic archi-philosophers. But they were largely oracular. They tended to speak in riddles. The point of philosophy from Aristotle onwards was to resolve and abolish the riddle.

But perhaps the riddle is making a comeback. Understanding can be coercive and suffocating. Do I really have to be quite so “understanding”? Isn’t that the same as being masochistically subservient? And isn’t it just another aspect of your hegemony to claim to understand me quite so well? Simone de Beauvoir was exercising her right to what I would like to call autismo when she wrote that, “one is not born a woman but becomes one.” Similarly, when she emblazons her first novel, “She Came To Stay,” with an epigraph derived from Hegel ─ “every consciousness seeks the death of the other” ─ and her philosophical avatar takes it upon herself to bump off the provincial young woman she has invited to stay in Paris: I refuse to understand, to be a mind-reader. Conversely, when Luce Irigaray, the feminist theorist and philosopher, speaks — again paradoxically — of “this sex which is not one,” she is asking us to think twice about our premature understanding of gender — what Wittgenstein might call a case of “bewitchment.”

The study of our psychopathology, via cognitive neuroscience, suggests a hypothetical history. Why does language arise? It arises because of the scope for misunderstanding. Body language, gestures, looks, winks, are not quite enough. I am not a mind-reader. I don’t understand. We need noises and written signs, speech-acts, the Word, logos. If you tell me what you want, I will tell you what I want. Language is a system that arises to compensate for an empathy deficit. But with or without language, I can still exhibit traits of autism. I can misread the signs. Perhaps it would be more exact to say that autism only arises, is only identified, at the same time as there is an expectation of understanding. But if autism is a problem, from certain points of view, autismo is also a solution: it is an assertion that understanding itself can be overvalued.

It is a point that Wittgenstein makes memorably in the introduction to the “Tractatus,” in which he writes:

I therefore believe myself to have found, on all essential points, the final solution of the problems [of philosophy]. And if I am not mistaken in this belief … it shows how little is achieved when these problems are solved.

Which is why he also suggests, at the end of the book, that anyone who has climbed up his philosophical ladder should throw it away.

Andy Martin is currently completing “Philosophy Fight Club: Sartre vs. Camus,” to be published by Simon and Schuster. He was a 2009-10 fellow at the Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers in New York, and teaches at Cambridge University.

__________

Full article and photo: http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/11/21/beyond-understanding

Should This Be the Last Generation?

Have you ever thought about whether to have a child? If so, what factors entered into your decision? Was it whether having children would be good for you, your partner and others close to the possible child, such as children you may already have, or perhaps your parents? For most people contemplating reproduction, those are the dominant questions. Some may also think about the desirability of adding to the strain that the nearly seven billion people already here are putting on our planet’s environment. But very few ask whether coming into existence is a good thing for the child itself. Most of those who consider that question probably do so because they have some reason to fear that the child’s life would be especially difficult — for example, if they have a family history of a devastating illness, physical or mental, that cannot yet be detected prenatally.

All this suggests that we think it is wrong to bring into the world a child whose prospects for a happy, healthy life are poor, but we don’t usually think the fact that a child is likely to have a happy, healthy life is a reason for bringing the child into existence. This has come to be known among philosophers as “the asymmetry” and it is not easy to justify. But rather than go into the explanations usually proffered — and why they fail — I want to raise a related problem. How good does life have to be, to make it reasonable to bring a child into the world? Is the standard of life experienced by most people in developed nations today good enough to make this decision unproblematic, in the absence of specific knowledge that the child will have a severe genetic disease or other problem? 

The 19th-century German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer held that even the best life possible for humans is one in which we strive for ends that, once achieved, bring only fleeting satisfaction. New desires then lead us on to further futile struggle and the cycle repeats itself.

Schopenhauer’s pessimism has had few defenders over the past two centuries, but one has recently emerged, in the South African philosopher David Benatar, author of a fine book with an arresting title: “Better Never to Have Been: The Harm of Coming into Existence.” One of Benatar’s arguments trades on something like the asymmetry noted earlier. To bring into existence someone who will suffer is, Benatar argues, to harm that person, but to bring into existence someone who will have a good life is not to benefit him or her. Few of us would think it right to inflict severe suffering on an innocent child, even if that were the only way in which we could bring many other children into the world. Yet everyone will suffer to some extent, and if our species continues to reproduce, we can be sure that some future children will suffer severely. Hence continued reproduction will harm some children severely, and benefit none.

Benatar also argues that human lives are, in general, much less good than we think they are. We spend most of our lives with unfulfilled desires, and the occasional satisfactions that are all most of us can achieve are insufficient to outweigh these prolonged negative states. If we think that this is a tolerable state of affairs it is because we are, in Benatar’s view, victims of the illusion of pollyannaism. This illusion may have evolved because it helped our ancestors survive, but it is an illusion nonetheless. If we could see our lives objectively, we would see that they are not something we should inflict on anyone.

Here is a thought experiment to test our attitudes to this view. Most thoughtful people are extremely concerned about climate change. Some stop eating meat, or flying abroad on vacation, in order to reduce their carbon footprint. But the people who will be most severely harmed by climate change have not yet been conceived. If there were to be no future generations, there would be much less for us to feel to guilty about.

So why don’t we make ourselves the last generation on earth? If we would all agree to have ourselves sterilized then no sacrifices would be required — we could party our way into extinction!

Of course, it would be impossible to get agreement on universal sterilization, but just imagine that we could. Then is there anything wrong with this scenario? Even if we take a less pessimistic view of human existence than Benatar, we could still defend it, because it makes us better off — for one thing, we can get rid of all that guilt about what we are doing to future generations — and it doesn’t make anyone worse off, because there won’t be anyone else to be worse off.

Is a world with people in it better than one without? Put aside what we do to other species — that’s a different issue. Let’s assume that the choice is between a world like ours and one with no sentient beings in it at all. And assume, too — here we have to get fictitious, as philosophers often do — that if we choose to bring about the world with no sentient beings at all, everyone will agree to do that. No one’s rights will be violated — at least, not the rights of any existing people. Can non-existent people have a right to come into existence?

I do think it would be wrong to choose the non-sentient universe. In my judgment, for most people, life is worth living. Even if that is not yet the case, I am enough of an optimist to believe that, should humans survive for another century or two, we will learn from our past mistakes and bring about a world in which there is far less suffering than there is now. But justifying that choice forces us to reconsider the deep issues with which I began. Is life worth living? Are the interests of a future child a reason for bringing that child into existence? And is the continuance of our species justifiable in the face of our knowledge that it will certainly bring suffering to innocent future human beings?

What do you think?

Readers are invited to respond to the following questions in the comment section below:

If a child is likely to have a life full of pain and suffering is that a reason against bringing the child into existence?

If a child is likely to have a happy, healthy life, is that a reason for bringing the child into existence?

Is life worth living, for most people in developed nations today?

Is a world with people in it better than a world with no sentient beings at all?

Would it be wrong for us all to agree not to have children, so that we would be the last generation on Earth?

 

Peter Singer is Professor of Bioethics at Princeton University and Laureate Professor at the University of Melbourne. His most recent book is “The Life You Can Save.”

__________

Full article and photo: http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/06/06/should-this-be-the-last-generation/

Friendship in an Age of Economics

When I was 17 years old, I had the honor of being the youngest person in the history of New York Hospital to undergo surgery for a herniated disc. This was at a time in which operations like this kept people in the hospital for over a week. The day after my surgery, I awoke to find a friend of mine sitting in a chair across from my bed. I don’t remember much about his visit. I am sure I was too sedated to say much. But I will not forget that he visited me on that day, and sat there for I know not how long, while my humanity was in the care of a morphine drip. 

The official discourses of our relations with one another do not have much to say about the afternoon my friend spent with me. Our age, what we might call the age of economics, is in thrall to two types of relationships which reflect the lives we are encouraged to lead. There are consumer relationships, those that we participate in for the pleasure they bring us. And there are entrepreneurial relationships, those that we invest in hoping they will bring us some return. In a time in which the discourse of economics seeks to hold us in its grip, this should come as no surprise.

The encouragement toward relationships of consumption is nowhere more prominently on display than in reality television. Jon and Kate, the cast of “Real World,” the Kardashians, and their kin across the spectrum conduct their lives for our entertainment. It is available to us in turn to respond in a minor key by displaying our own relationships on YouTube. Or, barring that, we can collect friends like shoes or baseball cards on Facebook.

Entrepreneurial relationships have, in some sense, always been with us. Using people for one’s ends is not a novel practice. It has gained momentum, however, as the reduction of governmental support has diminished social solidarity and the rise of finance capitalism has stressed investment over production. The economic fruits of the latter have lately been with us, but the interpersonal ones, while more persistent, remain veiled. Where nothing is produced except personal gain, relationships come loose from their social moorings.

Aristotle thought that there were three types of friendship: those of pleasure, those of usefulness, and true friendship. In friendships of pleasure, “it is not for their character that men love ready-witted people, but because they find them pleasant.” In the latter, “those who love each other for their utility do not love each other for themselves but in virtue of some good which they get from each other.” For him, the first is characteristic of the young, who are focused on momentary enjoyment, while the second is often the province of the old, who need assistance to cope with their frailty. What the rise of recent public rhetoric and practice has accomplished is to cast the first two in economic terms while forgetting about the third.

In our lives, however, few of us have entirely forgotten about the third — true friendship. We may not define it as Aristotle did — friendship among the already virtuous — but we live it in our own way nonetheless. Our close friendships stand as a challenge to the tenor of our times.

Conversely, our times challenge those friendships. This is why we must reflect on friendship; so that it doesn’t slip away from us under the pressure of a dominant economic discourse. We are all, and always, creatures of our time. In the case of friendship, we must push back against that time if we are to sustain what, for many of us, are among the most important elements of our lives. It is those elements that allow us to sit by the bedside of a friend: not because we know it is worth it, but because the question of worth does not even arise.

There is much that might be said about friendships. They allow us to see ourselves from the perspective of another. They open up new interests or deepen current ones. They offer us support during difficult periods in our lives. The aspect of friendship that I would like to focus on is its non-economic character. Although we benefit from our close friendships, these friendships are not a matter of calculable gain and loss. While we draw pleasure from them, they are not a matter solely of consuming pleasure. And while the time we spend with our friends and the favors we do for them are often reciprocated in an informal way, we do not spend that time or offer those favors in view of the reciprocation that might ensue.

Friendships follow a rhythm that is distinct from that of either consumer or entrepreneurial relationships. This is at once their deepest and most fragile characteristic. Consumer pleasures are transient. They engulf us for a short period and then they fade, like a drug. That is why they often need to be renewed periodically. Entrepreneurship, when successful, leads to the victory of personal gain. We cultivate a colleague in the field or a contact outside of it in the hope that it will advance our career or enhance our status. When it does, we feel a sense of personal success. In both cases, there is the enjoyment of what comes to us through the medium of other human beings.

Friendships worthy of the name are different. Their rhythm lies not in what they bring to us, but rather in what we immerse ourselves in. To be a friend is to step into the stream of another’s life. It is, while not neglecting my own life, to take pleasure in another’s pleasure, and to share their pain as partly my own. The borders of my life, while not entirely erased, become less clear than they might be. Rather than the rhythm of pleasure followed by emptiness, or that of investment and then profit, friendships follow a rhythm that is at once subtler and more persistent. This rhythm is subtler because it often (although not always) lacks the mark of a consumed pleasure or a successful investment. But even so, it remains there, part of the ground of our lives that lies both within us and without.

To be this ground, friendships have a relation to time that is foreign to an economic orientation. Consumer relationships are focused on the momentary present. It is what brings immediate pleasure that matters. Entrepreneurial relationships have more to do with the future. How I act toward others is determined by what they might do for me down the road. Friendships, although lived in the present and assumed to continue into the future, also have a deeper tie to the past than either of these. Past time is sedimented in a friendship. It accretes over the hours and days friends spend together, forming the foundation upon which the character of a relationship is built. This sedimentation need not be a happy one. Shared experience, not just common amusement or advancement, is the ground of friendship.

Of course, to have friendships like this, one must be prepared to take up the past as a ground for friendship. This ground does not come to us, ready-made. We must make it our own. And this, perhaps, is the contemporary lesson we can draw from Aristotle’s view that true friendship requires virtuous partners, that “perfect friendship is the friendship of men who are good.” If we are to have friends, then we must be willing to approach some among our relationships as offering an invitation to build something outside the scope of our own desires. We must be willing to forgo pleasure or usefulness for something that emerges not within but between one of us and another.

We might say of friendships that they are a matter not of diversion or of return but of meaning. They render us vulnerable, and in doing so they add dimensions of significance to our lives that can only arise from being, in each case, friends with this or that particular individual, a party to this or that particular life.

It is precisely this non-economic character that is threatened in a society in which each of us is thrown upon his or her resources and offered only the bywords of ownership, shopping, competition, and growth. It is threatened when we are encouraged to look upon those around us as the stuff of our current enjoyment or our future advantage. It is threatened when we are led to believe that friendships without a recognizable gain are, in the economic sense, irrational. Friendships are not without why, perhaps, but they are certainly without that particular why.

In turn, however, it is friendship that allows us to see that there is more than what the prevalent neoliberal discourse places before us as our possibilities. In a world often ruled by the dollar and what it can buy, friendship, like love, opens other vistas. The critic John Berger once said of one of his friendships, “We were not somewhere between success and failure; we were elsewhere.” To be able to sit by the bed of another, watching him sleep, waiting for nothing else, is to understand where else we might be.

Todd May is a professor of philosophy at Clemson University. He is the author 10 books, including “The Philosophy of Foucault” and “Death,” and is at work on a book about friendship in the contemporary period.

__________

Full article and photo: http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/07/04/friendship-in-an-age-of-economics/

Two Friendships: A Response

Earlier columns in The Stone have raised the question of what philosophy is. Surely among its tasks is to think about matters that are at once urgent, personal and of general significance. When one is lucky, one finds interlocutors who are willing to share that thought, add to it in one way or another, or suggest a different direction. In the comments from readers of my earlier post, “Friendship in an Age of Economics,” I have been fortunate.

I would like to linger over two friendships described in the comments. One, offered by Echo from Santa Cruz, describes a life-long friendship with someone from whom she was physically separated for many years, and who eventually died of cancer. (I am inferring from the context of her comment, that Echo, as in Greek mythology, is a woman, though she never says so explicitly.) The other is from E. Kelley Harris in Slovakia, who recounts the example of an intimidating seaman named Frank with whom, over the course of intense theological dispute, a moment of intimacy arose in an unexpected way. 

The friendship described by Echo is one that many of us will find examples of in our life. I am still close friends with the person who sat by my bedside 38 years ago, even though we live far from each other. Regarding her friendship, Echo comments that, “There was no work to that friendship. Our instincts told us what to do, in the same way as a new mother takes her child and holds it to her breast.” I am sure Echo would agree with me that a friendship without work is not something that is given; it is an achievement. Friendships take time. They must be cultivated, sometimes when one is in the mood, sometimes when one is not. That is part of its non-economic character. What Echo describes in personal language is an achieved friendship, one that likely started with a spark, but has been tended over the years and allowed the two friends to continue sharing with each other up to the end of one of their lives.

Several comments insisted that one would never become friends with someone unless there was something to be gained. This is certainly true. Close friendships are not simply exercises in altruism. Friendships that come to resemble relationships between donors and recipients begin to fray. Eventually they come to look like something other than friendships. The non-economic character of friendship does not lie in its altruism, but in its lack of accounting. We are friends not solely because you amuse me or assist me, but more deeply because we have rooted ourselves together in a soil we have both agreed to cultivate. Echo has provided an example of the fruit of that cultivation.

What E. Kelley depicts is a more unlikely friendship between someone who can best be described as a bully and another person, the author, who found himself in the unenviable position of bunk mate. Over time, passionate theological conversation developed between them, leading to a moment where the author put himself in a vulnerable position before the bully, who declined to play his expected role. As with Echo’s example, there is the accretion of shared time that is necessary for that moment to occur. It would hardly have happened the first night Frank stepped from the brig. But there is something else as well. There is the development of aspects of oneself that otherwise might have gone neglected or even unrecognized. E. Kelly displayed a kind of courage that seemed even to surprise him, and Frank lent himself to passionate discussion without having to overpower his conversational adversary. This is what I meant when I wrote in my column that in close friendships we step into the stream of another’s life.

One might say that there is, among seamen — as among military personnel and those facing collective harm generally — a motivation for a common bond that helped drive the two together. BlueGhost from Iowa says this explicitly in his discussion of his son’s decision to join the military. If so, this would be another example of the idea in the column that we are always creatures of our time and our circumstances. There were some who worried that in criticizing the consumer and entrepreneurial models of friendship, I might be suggesting that there was a previous period in which friendships were better or more pure. That would be, as the comments noted, naïve. Each age has its context, and people in that age — or in one specific aspect of it — cannot escape engaging with the themes of that context, its motifs and parameters. Consumerism and entrepreneurship are dominant themes of our age; if my column is right, they are a threat to our friendships. Other ages have had different themes and their friendships different dangers.

There is, of course, much more to be said about how consumerism and entrepreneurship endanger our friendships. I neglected to do so in the column because my goal in that short space was not so much critique as a description or a reminder of how we often still participate in relationships whose value is not the subject of most of our public discourse about them. To trace the development of consumerism and entrepreneurship in their particular character over the past 30 or 40 years, as well as their effects on our relationships, would require a much longer discussion as well as an engagement with many contemporary theorists and social scientists — basically, a book. What I counted on in the column was that there would be a resonance among readers for what was being suggested. If the comments are any indication, I was fortunate there as well.

A last note. Several comments suggested that there may be other ways to characterize friendship than by appeal to the Aristotelean distinctions I invoked. This is undoubtedly true. It is also true that there is a certain oversimplification to any categorization of friendship. There is more to Echo’s and E. Kelley’s friendships than the themes I have isolated here. What Aristotle offers us — and this over two millennia after his death — are tools that help us think about ourselves. It is not that there are three and only three types of friendships. Rather, in thinking about Aristotle’s categories of friendship in the context of our time we can begin to see ourselves and our relationships more clearly than we might otherwise. This is also true of many other philosophers, a number of whose names were invoked in the comments. It is what philosophers who stand the test of time offer us: not rigid categories to which we must conform, but instead ways of making sense of ourselves and our lives, of considering who we are, where we are, and what we might become.

Todd May is a professor of philosophy at Clemson University. He is the author 10 books, including “The Philosophy of Foucault” and “Death,” and is at work on a book about friendship in the contemporary period.

__________

Full article: http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/07/13/two-friendships-a-response/

Beyond the Veil: A Response

I’m extraordinarily grateful to the many people who posted comments on my piece, “Veiled Threats?”  I note that many have come from educated and active Muslim women (in countries ranging from the U. S. to India), who have expressed a sense of “relief” at having their convictions and voices taken seriously.

I’ll begin my reply with a story.  The day my article came out, I went to a White Sox game (the one in which my dear team took over first place!).  I was there with two friends from Texas and my son-in-law, who was born in Germany and now has a green card.  So, in Chicago terms, we were already a heterogeneous lot.  Behind me was a suburban dad with shoulder-length gray hair (an educated, apparently affluent ex-hippie, like the “Bobos” of David Brooks’s book), who took pleasure in explaining the finer points of the game (like the suicide squeeze) to his daughter and two other preteen girls in fashionable sundresses.  On our right was a sedate African-American couple, the woman holding a bag that marked her as working for the “U. S. Census Religion subcommittee” of her suburban county.  In front of us were three Orthodox Jewish boys, ages around 6, 10, and 18, their tzizit (ritual fringes) showing underneath their Sox shirts, and cleverly double-hatted so that they could doff their Sox caps during the national anthem, while still retaining their kipot.  Although this meant that they had not really bared their heads for the Anthem, not one person gave them an ugly stare or said, “Take off your hat!” — or, even worse, “Here we take off our hats.”  Indeed, nobody apart from me seemed to notice them at all.

I don’t always feel patriotic, but I did then.  I would not encourage a child or relative of mine to wear tzizit or, outside of temple, a kipoh.  I’m a Reform Jew, and I view these things as totemism and fetishism.  But I would not offend strangers by pointing that out, or acquaintances unless they were friends who had asked my advice.  And that’s the way I feel about most of these things: it’s not my business.  Luckily, a long-dominant tradition in American culture and law agrees with me.  From the time when Quakers and Mennonites refused to doff their hats, and when both Mennonites and Amish adopted “pre-modern” dress, we Americans are pretty comfortable with weird clothes, and used to the idea that people’s conscientious observances frequently require them to dress in ways that seem strange or unpleasant to the majority.  To the many people who wrote about how immigrants have to learn to fit in, I ask: what would you have liked to see at that ball game?  The scene I witnessed, or three Jewish boys being ejected from the park because they allegedly failed to respect the flag?  (And note that, like most minorities, they did show respect in the way they felt they could, without violating their conscience.)

Before addressing a series of points raised in the comments, two prefatory notes:

1.  Throughout, I am speaking only about liberal democracies, not about autocratic regimes.   It’s only in such democracies where liberty of conscience is a reality anyway, so I think that examples of autocracy in Saudi Arabia are beside the point.  We’re talking about what limits liberal democracies may reasonably impose on freedom of conscience and expression while remaining consistent with their basic principles.

2.  To those who described me as in an “ivory tower,” let me point out that I have spent many years working in international development organizations and that I have particularly close ties with India, home to the second-largest Muslim population in the world (the largest being in Indonesia).  I’ve written a book about interreligious violence in India (“The Clash Within: Democracy, Religious Violence, and India’s Future,” 2007), which turns out to be largely a story of Hindu neo-fascist organizations fomenting violence against Muslims.  So in fact I am not in the ivory tower so far as these issues are concerned, and I’ve spent many years working with organizations that foster education and other opportunities for poor women.

All right, now to my argument.   Remember that my contention was that pursuit of conscientious commitments is a very important human interest, closely linked to human dignity, which can rightly be limited only by a “compelling state interest.”  I then went on to argue that none of the interests standardly brought forward against the burqa is compelling, and, moreover, that any ban on the burqa in response to these reasons would require banning other common practices that nobody objects to because of their familiarity.   As Annie rightly summarizes (126): “Hypocrisy isn’t democratic.”

1. The position of the Catholic Church. Stephen O’Brien points out helpfully that the “Catechism of the Catholic Church,” in sections dealing with religious liberty and conscience (sections 1782 and 2106) takes a position that has been used by the Catholic Church in France to oppose a ban on the burqa.   O’Brien and I once acted in a play together, during the time that both of us were undergraduates at N.Y.U., and in fact we had an intense argument about propriety in dress, which turned into a lasting collegial relationship.  So I thank him for his intervention and his urging my  study of the Catechism!

2. The special case of France.  I did not discuss France in my piece, but since some readers did, let me comment.  The French policy of laïcité does indeed lead to restrictions on a wide range of religious manifestations, all in the name of a total separation of church and state.  But if one looks closely, the restrictions are unequal and discriminatory.  The school dress code forbids the Muslim headscarf and the Jewish yarmulke, along with “large” Christian crosses.  But this is a totally unequal burden, because the first two items of clothing are religiously obligatory for observant members of those religions, and the third is not: Christians are under no religious obligation to wear any cross, much less a “large” one.   So there is discrimination inherent in the French system.

Would French secularism be acceptable if practiced in an even-handed way?  According to U.S. constitutional law, government may not favor religion over non-religion, or non-religion over religion.  For example, it was unconstitutional for the University of Virginia to announce that it would use student fees to fund all other student organizations (political, environmental, and so forth) but not the religious clubs (Rosenberger v. Rector and Visitors of the University of Virginia, 515 U. S. 819 (1995)).  I must say that I prefer this balanced policy to French laïcité; I think it is fairer to religious people.   Separation is not total, even in France: thus, a fire in a burning church would still be put out by the public fire department; churches still get the use of the public water supply and the public sewer system.  Still, the amount and type of separation that the French system mandates, while understandable historically, looks unfair in the light of the principles I have defended.

3. Terrorism and safety.  A number of the commenters think that the burqa creates unique risks of various sorts, particularly in the context of the legitimate interest in preventing acts of terrorism.  All I can say is that if I were a terrorist in the U. S. or Europe, and if I were not stupid, the last thing I would wear would be a burqa, since that way of dressing attracts suspicious attention.  Criminals usually want not to attract suspicious attention; if they are at all intelligent, they succeed.  I think I’d dress like Martha Nussbaum in the winter: floor length Eddie Bauer down coat, hat down over the eyebrows, extra hood for insulation, and a bulky Indian shawl around nose and mouth.  Nonetheless, I have never been asked to remove these clothes, in a department store, a public building, or even a bank.  Bank workers do look at my ID documents, though, and I’ve already said that at this stage in our technological development I think it is a reasonable request that ID documents contain a full face photo.  (Moreover, I’ve been informed by my correspondence that most contemporary Islamic scholars agree: a woman can and must remove her niqab for visual identification if so requested.)   In the summer, again if I were an intelligent sort of terrorist, I would wear a big floppy hat and a long  loose caftan, and I think I’d carry a capacious Louis Vuitton bag, the sort that signals conspicuous consumption.  That is what a smart terrorist would do, and the smart ones are the ones to worry about.

So, what to do about the threat that all bulky and non-revealing clothing creates?  Airline security does a lot with metal detectors, body imaging, pat-downs, etc.  (One very nice system is at work in India, where all passengers get a full manual pat-down, but in a curtained booth by a member of the same sex who is clearly trained to be courteous and respectful.)  The White Sox stadium searches all bags (though more to check for beer than for explosives, thus protecting the interests of in-stadium vendors).  Private stores or other organizations who feel that bulky clothing is a threat (whether of shoplifting or terrorism or both) could institute a nondiscriminatory rule banning, e.g., floor-length coats; they could even have a body scanner at the door.  But they don’t, presumably preferring customer friendliness to the extra margin of safety.  What I want to establish, however, is the invidious discrimination inherent in the belief that the burqa poses a unique security risk.  Reasonable security policies, applied to similar cases similarly, are perfectly fine.

4. Depersonalization and respect for persons. Several readers made the comment that the burqa is objectionable because it portrays women as non-persons.    Is this plausible?  Isn’t our poetic tradition full of the trope that eyes are the windows of the soul?  And I think this is just right: contact with another person, as individual to individual, is made primarily through eyes, not nose or mouth.  Once during a construction project that involved a lot of dust in my office, I (who am prone to allergies and vain about my singing voice and the state of my hair) had to cover everything but my eyes while talking to students for a longish number of weeks.  At first they found it quite weird, but soon they were asking me how they could get a mask and filter scarf like the ones I was using.  My personality did not feel stifled, nor did they feel that they could not access my individuality.

More generally, I think one should listen to what women who wear the burqa say they think it means before opining.  Even if one feels convinced that depersonalization is what’s going on, that might be a reason for not liking that mode of dress, but why would it be a reason for banning it?  If the burqa were uniquely depersonalizing, we could at least debate this point: but, as I pointed out, a lot of revealing clothing is plausibly seen as a way of marketing a woman as sex objects, and that is itself a form of depersonalization.  The feminist term is “objectification,” and it has long been plausibly maintained that a lot of advertising and other aspects of culture objectify women, treat them as sex objects rather than as full persons.  The models in porn (whether films or photos) are usually not conspicuous for their rich individuality.   (Indeed, in the light of the tremendous cultural pressure to market oneself as a sex object, one might feel that wearing a lot of covering is a way of resisting that demand or insisting on intimacy.)  In any case, what business is it of government to intervene, if there is no clear public interest in burdening liberty of conscience in this way?

At this point, I want to address the point about respect raised by Amy (115).  I agree with her that we needn’t approve of the forms of dress that others choose, or of any other religious observance.  We may judge them ridiculous, or revolting, or even hateful.  I do think that one should try to understand first before coming to such a judgment, and I think that in most cases one should not give one’s opinion about the way a person is dressed unless someone has asked for it.  But of course any religious ceremony that expresses hatred for another group (a racist religion, say) is deeply objectionable, and one can certainly protest that, as usually happens when the KKK puts on a show somewhere these days.

I do not think that a burqa is a symbol of hatred, and thus not something that it would be reasonable to find deeply hateful.  It is more like the boys and their tzizit, something I may feel out of tune with, but which it is probably nosy to denounce unless a friend has asked my opinion.  Still, if Amy wants to say that it is deeply objectionable, and that she does not respect it, that does not in any way disagree with the principles I expressed in my article.   Her intervention prompts me to make a necessary clarification.   I am not saying that all religious activities ought to be respected.  Equal respect, in my view, is rightly directed at the person, and the core of human dignity in the person, which I hope Amy will agree all these people still have.  Respecting their equal human dignity and equal human rights means giving them space to carry out their conscientious observances, even if we think that those are silly or even disgusting.  Their human dignity gives them the right to be wrong, we might say.  One religion that makes me cringe is an evangelical sect that requires its members to handle poisonous snakes (the subject of long litigation).  I find that one bizarre, I would never go near it, and I tend to find the actions involved disgusting.  But that does not mean that I don’t respect the people as bearers of equal human rights and human dignity.  Because they have equal human rights and human dignity, they get to carry on their religion unless there is some compelling government interest against it.  The long litigation concerned just that question.  Since the religion kept non-consenting adults and all children far away from the snakes, it was not an easy question.  In the end, a cautious government decided to intervene (Swann v. Pack, 527 S. W. 2d 99 (Tenn. 1975)).  But that did not mean that they did not show equal respect for the snake-handlers as human beings and bearers of human dignity and human rights.

What respect for persons requires, then, is that people have equal space to exercise their conscientious commitments, not that others like or even respect what they do in that space.  Furthermore, equal respect for persons is compatible, as I said, with limiting religious freedom in the case of a “compelling state interest.”  In the snake-handler case, the interest was in public safety.  Another government intervention that was right, in my view, was the judgment that Bob Jones University should lose its tax exemption for its ban on interracial dating (Bob Jones v. U. S., 461 U. S. 574 (1983).  Here the Supreme Court agreed that the ban was part of that sect’s religion, and thus that the loss of tax-exempt status was a “substantial burden” on the exercise of that religion, but they said that society has a compelling interest in not cooperating with racism.   Never has the government taken similar steps against the many Roman Catholic universities that restrict their presidencies to a priest, hence a male; but in my view they should all lose their tax exemptions for this reason.  (The compelling interest standard is difficult to delineate, and courts can get it wrong, which is one reason why Justice Scalia prefers the Lockean position.)

Why is the burqa different from the case of Bob Jones University?  First, of course, government was not telling Bob Jones that they could not continue with their policy, it was just refusing to give them a huge financial reward, thus in effect cooperating with the policy.  A second difference is that Bob Jones enforced a total ban on interracial dating, just as the major Catholic universities (Georgetown excepted, which now has a lay president) have imposed a total ban on female candidates for the job of president.  The burqa, by contrast, is a personal choice, so it’s more like the case of some student at Bob Jones (or any other university) who decides to date only white females or males because of familial and parental pressure.  Amy and I would probably agree in disliking such behavior.  But it does not seem like a case for government intervention. Which brings me to my next point.

5. Social Pressure and government intervention. When is social and familial pressure bad enough to justify state intervention with a conscientious observance?  I have already said that all forms of physical coercion are inadmissible and should be vigorously interfered with, whether they concern children or adults.   I would even favor no-drop laws in cases of domestic violence, since we know that a woman’s withdrawal of a complaint against a violent spouse or partner is often coerced.  My judgment about Turkey in the past — that the ban on veiling was justified, in those days, by a compelling state interest — derived from the belief that women were at risk of physical violence if they went unveiled, unless the government intervened to make the veil illegal for all.  Today in Europe the situation is utterly different, and no physical violence will greet the woman who wears even scanty clothing — apart from the always present danger of rape, which should be dealt with by convicting violent men, not by telling women they can’t wear what they want to wear.   (And this too the law has now recognized: thus, in the case that became the basis for the excellent film “The Accused,” a woman’s sexually provocative behavior was found not to give the men who raped her any defense, given that she clearly said “no” to the rape.

Thus, in response to Samuel (44), my point about Turkey is not one about numbers: if even a minority were at risk of physical violence, some government action would be justified.   Usually, what government will rightly do is to stop the assailants from beating up on people, rather than banning any religious practices.   For example, the Supreme Court said that Jehovah’s Witnesses have a constitutional right to say negative things about Catholics in the public street, and the sort of government intervention that would be appropriate would not be a ban on insults to Catholics, but rather a careful defense of the minority against coercive pressure both from the state and from private individuals (see Cantwell v. Connecticut, 310 U. S. 296 (1940): Connecticut’s action charging the Jehovah’s Witnesses with a breach of the peace for their slurs against Catholics violated their rights under the First and Fourteenth Amendments).  The situation in Turkey was different, because the violence toward unveiled women was thought to be so widespread and so unstoppable that only a total ban on the veil could stop it.  If the facts were correct, the decision was (temporarily) right.

When the pressure is emotional only, the case is much more difficult.  On the whole, we tend to favor few legal limits for adults: thus, if someone is in an emotionally abusive relationship, that is a case for counseling or the intervention of friends and family, not for the police. Even when we can see that what is going on is manipulative — e.g. the man says, “I won’t date you any longer if you don’t do this or that sex act” — we think that is the business of the people involved and those who care about them, not of the police.   I think that emotional coercion to wear a burqa, applied to an adult woman (threats of withdrawal of affection, for example, but not physical violence) is like this, and should be dealt with by friends and family, not by the law.

What about children?  This opens up a huge topic, since there is nothing that is more common in the modern family than various forms of coercive pressure (to get into a top college, to date people of the “right” religion or ethnicity, to wear “appropriate” clothes, to choose a remunerative career, to take a shower, “and so each and so on to no last term” as James Joyce wrote in “Ulysses.”  So: where should government and law step in?  Not often, and only where the behavior either constitutes a gross risk to bodily health and safety (as with Jehovah’s Witness children being forbidden to have a life-saving blood transfusion), or impairs some major functioning.  Thus, I think that female genital mutilation practiced on minors should be illegal if it is a form that impairs sexual pleasure or other bodily functions. (A symbolic pin-prick is a different story.)  Male circumcision seems to me all right, however, because there is no evidence that it interferes with adult sexual functioning; indeed it is now known to reduce susceptibility to H.I.V./AIDS.   The burqa (for minors) is not in the same class as genital mutilation, since it is not irreversible and does not engender health or impair other bodily functions — not nearly so much as high-heeled shoes, as I remarked (being a proud lover of the same).  Suppose parents required their daughters to wear a Victorian corset — which did do bodily damage, compressing various organs.  There might be a case for a ban then.  But the burqa is not even in the category of the corset.   As many readers pointed out, it is sensible dress in a hot climate where skin easily becomes worn by sun and dust.

At the limit, where the state’s interest in protecting the opportunities of children is concerned, is the denial of education at stake in the Supreme Court case, Wisconsin v. Yoder (406 U. S. 205 (1972)), in which a group of Amish parents asked to withdraw their children from the last two years of legally required schooling.  They would clearly have lost if they had asked to take their children out of all schooling, but what was in question were these two years only.  They won under the accommodationist principle I described in my article, although they probably would have lost on Justice Scalia’s Lockean test, since the law mandating education until age 16 was nondiscriminatory and not drawn up in order to persecute the Amish.  The case is difficult, because the parents made a convincing case that work on the farm, at that crucial age, was a key part of their community-based religion — and yet education opens up so many exit opportunities that the denial even of those two years may unreasonably limit children’s future choices.    And of course the children were under heavy pressure to do what their parents wanted.  (Thus Justice Douglas’s claim that the Court should decide the case by interviewing the children betrayed a lack of practical understanding.)

6. How much choice is enough?   Annie (126) and several others have pointed out that we all get our values through some type of social indoctrination, religious values included.  So we can’t really assume that the choice to wear a burqa is a free choice, if we mean by that a choice that has been deliberated about with due consideration of all the alternatives and with unimpeded access to some alternatives.  But then, as Annie says, we can’t assume that about anyone’s choice of anything — career, romantic partner, politics, etc.  What we can do, I think, is to guarantee a threshold level of overall freedom, by making primary and secondary education compulsory, by opening higher education to all who want it and are qualified (through need-blind admissions), and to work on job creation so that all of our citizens have some choice in matters of employment.  Moreover, the education that children get should encourage critical thinking, expansion of the imagination, and the other humanistic ideals that I discuss in my recent book, “Not For Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities” (Princeton University Press 2010).  If a person gets an education like that (and it is not expensive, I’ve seen it done by women’s groups in India for next to nothing, just a lot of passion), then we can be more confident that a choice is a choice.

Thanks to you all for taking the time to respond!

Martha Nussbaum teaches law, philosophy, and divinity at The University of Chicago. She is the author of several books, including “Liberty of Conscience: In Defense of America’s Tradition of Religious Equality” (2008) and “Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities” (2010).

__________

Full article: http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/07/15/beyond-the-veil-a-response/