Posts Tagged ‘Philosophy of Self’


A Queer Pedagogy

7 February, 2018

I worked as a public-school literature teacher for just shy of a decade. I had the privilege of introducing pre-teen and teenage children to good stories well-told and the honour of hearing them tell their own stories. It was never easy, and if I am honest, it was often grueling. Some classes, of course, are more difficult than others. Some were even resistant to what I had to offer. But, every few years, I got a class that was just the right make-up of kids at just the right time with just the right experiences to make the stories live, to make the words sing and the narration dance. But whether it was a difficult class struggling against every lesson or a shining class stretching the words beyond the author’s own limited horizons, I told them all the secret to finding meaning: seek the seed of truth; look for the human experience that tells you what it is like to be alive and together in the world.

Every class found this, at least at first, to be queer. They were right; it is queer. Certainly, in the literal sense of the word it is. To have an instructor insist on multiple answers to the important questions even as the school system administers tests that demanded a single right answer, is strange. The encouragement to empathise with an antagonist’s anguish and to grapple with the darkness lurking in a protagonist’s heart seems perverse to good girls and good boys. Though, as a mentor told me when I was a student, as a storyteller you cannot ever be the good girl.

It’s this last truth that makes the perspective I taught them queer in the outcast sense, in the beaten and bleeding sense, and in the passionate and holy sense. I was asking my students to place themselves on the margins. To see the world through the eyes of the other: the other belief, the other gender, the other morality. To take what they held as most normative and twist it round, viewing the world upside down and inside out. To stop trying to be the good girl who is quiet and accommodating or the good boy who derives his value from his strength and to queer their perspectives, running at oblique angles to the rest of the world. In the final years of my teaching career, this was intentional, but in the early years, when I was struggling to be the good girl who arrived early and stayed late, who attended school concerts and sporting events all while being the virtuous spouse of Proverbs 31, this queered pedagogy only seeped in when I was exhausted and could no longer maintain the tweed-jacket expectations. It happened when I was in my most vulnerable and honest place. I believe that stress and exhaustion reveal our inner character and what I learned was queer perspectives came naturally to me because I was a queer woman.

Perhaps, it’s better to say, what I re-learned. My earliest sense of self was as a queer girl. I was four when Mrs. Peterson informed me I was standing in the wrong line: I was in the girls’ line and I belonged in the boys’ line. I did not have the word queer—with all its danger and strength—at that age, but what I felt was distinctly queer. I knew who I was and who I wasn’t with the same surety that Mrs. Peterson believed she knew which line each child belonged in. That sense of queerness stuck with me throughout my half-day kindergarten class. I played with the girls, I ate with the girls, and I sat with the girls during story time. But at nap time I was told to lay my sleeping mat—a rug woven of earthy greens and reds and purples—alongside the boys and be quiet.

That evening, as my parents drew me a bath and prepared to wash the day’s play off me, I asked them how they knew I was a boy and not a girl. I had been thinking about this and it occurred to me that some girls had short hair and some girls had Smurf t-shirts and some girls looked like boys and they were still girls. My parents recited primer biology; the biology adults still recite authoritatively to children, and to transgender people in a disgusted and vicious tone, and to themselves when they are most desperate for reassurance: boys have penises and girls have vaginas. Even at the age of four that didn’t square with my understanding and now, as an adult woman of transgender experience, it feels queer that some girls are believed when they yell, “I’m not a boy; I’m a girl!” and some girls aren’t.

The attempts to exorcise me of my queerness and to turn me into a good boy fractured me. I hid my true face from people, presenting them with what they wanted to see while I viewed them over my shoulder through a compact’s shattered mirror. It was in this way, I learned the importance of stories. The stories we tell to keep ourselves safe, the stories others tell about us to maintain the illusion, and the early seeds of our stories, the ones we bury deep inside ourselves.

These seeds are the ones I encouraged my students to seek. Kernels buried deep and choked out by all the “good” vegetation planted by professors and politicians and pastors and parents. I taught them to dig their hands into the earth, rip out those straight rows of pedestrian flowers, and look for the bits beneath. Find what is sleeping in the dark, waiting for its chance to stretch deep roots and poke green shoots into the light and burst with vibrant reds and purples.

I worked as a public-school teacher for just shy of ten years and I am transitioning out of that season into something new. I have exhorted students to engage with human stories well-told and I suspect what comes next will be radically different than what has come before. Still, the essence inside me is queer and I know that I will carry my queer pedagogy into whatever I do next.

This post was written for the Queer Theology Synchroblog 2018 – check out others’ posts here


Quantum Physics, Philosophy, and Self Determination (a Caitlin On . . . post)

29 September, 2011

I’m sitting in a room talking to my therapist [Every good transsexual has a therapist.] and I am intimately aware of the fact that I am in a room. Think about it. We go through our day only vaguely aware of our surroundings. Yet for some reason today I am alert to the space around me. The near perfect cube I find myself in, the eight feet between ceiling and floor, the door and the infinite space beyond it, and the four and half feet between the therapist and myself. There is the couch I am on and the chair she is in and the finitely-infinite space between us. It is that space between us and the vast space beyond the office door that intrigues me. Intrigues is the right word because I can’t help but notice and wonder about it. There is a vaguely film noir feel about this space; it is simultaneously tight and crushing and vast and unnavigable. It reminds me of John Fords’ classic “Stagecoach.” The vast expansive plains the occupants of the claustrophobic stage travels through mirror the vastness of the surroundings we cross in our tiny, fragile bodies. I don’t just see, but feel the space between the therapist and myself. Or, more accurately, I see through the space, I experience it as a vast emptiness separating her and me. Despite this appearance of pristine emptiness, the space is actively filled by trillions of vibrating atoms that are affecting the jostling, bouncing, gyrating atoms that make up my therapist’s and my persons. We are intimately connected, we are physically affected by the other. This might seem a minor connection, but it is not. How can we say we are alone if the vibrations of billions of people touch us, if the movement of distant stars set-off even the faintest of vibrations within our cells?

As much as we may joke about playing poker with Hegel in his inconstant universe, Quantum Physics and String Theory seem to be rooted in this idea. Physicists who adhere to quantum mechanics argue that every piece of matter in the universe connects to every other piece of matter in the universe. That there is a measurable bond between my body and the child starving to death in Uganda and the CEO who has just embezzled a hundred thousand dollars into a personal account. Consider for a moment the findings of Japanese scientist Masaru Emoto. Emoto studied the effects of human thought on water crystals. The most significant finding from his experiments concerns the emotional impact we have on our environment. Positive thoughts create beautiful, intricate crystalline structures; water that received a bombarding of negative thoughts resulted in a yellowed, disfigured crystalline structure. How do we account for these findings? How do we account for the fact that quantum physicists have run experiments where the observer’s expectations determine the outcome? As strange as that might seem to us who view science as beyond the influence of the personal, there have been reproducible experiments where the outcome is observer-dependent. Even Einstein, despite his resistance to the idea, admitted that quantum physics supported the theory that the universe is observer-created. As Lee Baumann said in God at the Speed of Light, “Many scientists maintain that the universe exists primarily as waves, coalescing into particles only under the act of observation.” In other words, the very act of being observed changes the way the universe functions. If observation alone can create such a dramatic change in behavior how much more so the intentional act of will upon the universe?

Practical observation supports this. Alcoholics Anonymous has long taught that what a person thinks has a dramatic impact on their life experience. If you think positive thoughts then you will draw positive outcomes and a variety of opportunities toward you, but if you expect the negative you will receive negative experiences. The authors Paulo Coelho and James Redfield voice this philosophy in their books. Coelho argues in The Alchemist and Warrior of the Light that what we think will impact what we receive. If we expect positive things, if we seek the good and virtuous, we will receive an increasing number of positive experiences. In the Celestine Prophecy series Redfield suggests a similar theory, the more we anticipate positive outcomes the more likely we are to receive them and the more we expect negative outcomes the more likely we are to be recipients of the tragic. He argues, the observer’s soul and it’s expectations of negative and positive results creates reality. If we accept this, it must impact our philosophy of self. We cannot ignore the other if we are physically affected by their vibrations, nor can we treat ourselves poorly if in doing so we send negative vibrations out into the world. This thought smacks of the Golden Rule, vibrate unto others as you would have them vibrate unto you.

But this raises serious issues for me. How do we survive in a universe where we are under the influence of others? How much of who we are is self-determination and how much is the byproduct of what those around are observing, or more accurately what they are expecting their observations to reveal? A more experienced transsexual woman mentioned at a meeting of the Metropolitan Area Gender Identity Connection (MAGIC) that how we appear to those around is dictated by their initial perception. If, upon viewing us for the first time, we appear feminine in build and presentation, we are perceived as female but if we seem to have a masculine bearing no matter how often we wear a skirt we will be seen as a guy in drag. Of course, it is not quite as simple as that, as the vibrations I am sending out will influence their perception of me. This seems a proof of the argument that if one goes through life feigning confidence ze will convince the majority of people ze is competent and capable. But this is only half of the equation for me. There is also a matter of how I am affected by those around me. Does their perception of who I am have an effect on my ability to be who I am? If the majority of people around me, such as the adults and students I work with, view me as male do I take on more masculine attributes than I would when I am with family or friends that view me as female? Will my presentation of self suffer subtle shifts due to the other’s beliefs? Are we unwitting and unwilling subjects of how those around us perceive us? [This leaves me feeling like Schrödinger’s cat.]

This question is of importance to those who are not transitioning as well. If you were the “bad girl/boy” in high school and you never move out of your small town, are you forced to continue in the vein because those around you perceive you as such? Is change truly possible if those around you are constantly thinking you back into old habits of being? Can the warrior become a pacifist or is ze forced back into more aggressive patterns by the expectations around them? Can the geek ever be cool? Can the bleach bottle blond ever be smart? Does the persistence of stereotypes become a limiting factor in our ability to achieve?

I think, perhaps, we can overcome what others perceive us to be, but it takes an exhausting amount of energy on our end to counter the vibrations sent out by those around us. We have to be willing to act against the universe’s natural flow. Like salmon swimming upstream, we are resisting the definitions and expectations slamming into us and driving us into the expected norm, into the mundane and impersonal. Change, the ability to move asynchronously to those around us, must be the result of commitment and the ability to force our right to self-determination on to the perceptions of society.


The Problem of Self and Regeneration (a Caitlin On . . . post)

24 September, 2011

MtM (Me to Me Transitioning)

The process of regeneration (transitioning) calls a number of basic assumptions about yourself into question: how you move, how you speak, how you interact with others. We see ourselves in a new way and others perceive us in a new way. We alter how we interact with others and they alter their interactions with us. It is a new dance and often times we step on each others toes in the process. This new way of viewing myself, as a woman moving through the world as a woman (as opposed to a woman moving through the world as a man), has sparked the inquisitive and introspective side of me. I have always been one for the deep end of the pool, regardless of how much or little water was in it, but with this new issue I am nervous about plunging in headfirst, as I might go so deep I forget where the surface is. Nevertheless, I take a deep breath and dive into the issue of identity and selfhood.

To begin, a brief explanation of why this is an issue of import to me. Part of being a transgender person is having a repressed sense of self. Every trans* person I have met has had at least a few years in their life where they were denying their true self or hiding it from others. This comes from fear. Fear of how others will react. Will they approve or disapprove, support me or leave me, shower me with (at times an uncomfortable amount of) praise for my bravery or will they just beat the ever-living-hell out of me? Also, fear of how we will react. Am I strong enough to do what is necessary, mentally and emotionally prepared for the consequences, willing to risk everything I have for something I believe I need? We locked our selfhood away and developed characters, perceived selves, that we could don in the appropriate social settings. I was a drinker and a playboy when I was at the poker table, I was a protector with my wife, I was the physically able always ready to haul a stack of wood or fell some trees country boy with my dad and brother. But I was never me. Never wholly and never intentionally. As my Jewish professor told me, if you act a part long enough, you become that part. My sense of self was wrapped up in who I was pretending to be and at the start of the transition I did not know how to be me. I had to learn this and am still learning it, but now I am much closer to me than I have ever been. And this is where my concern about selfhood comes in. I have changed physically, emotionally, and mentally. How do I know that this person who is Caitlin is still the same person who was once A?

Three Theories

There are three major theories to how we know we are who we are. Let’s take a look at them before I raise my issues with them and drain all the water out of our philosophical pool. After all, you can’t drown if there’s no water, right? ::shrugs::

Theory one suggests that we are the same person we were because our current self is recognizable as our previous self. I can look in my mirror and say that person is, on the whole, the same person that was staring back at me yesterday and the day before, and the day before that. When my friend is walking down the street, I can recognize hir because ze still looks like the person ze looked like before, maybe a few pounds more or less, a scar here, a wrinkle there, but overall the same person. It is the very condition of sameness that links us to who we were and who we will become. But is theory one too easy to be true?

Theory two proposes that we are who we are not because we resemble our previous selves but because we have memories of being the previous self. I remember being a little girl-boy in a rural town in northern Minnesota. I remember being an outcast and feeling ostracized. These memories link me to my past and define me as a separate self over and against every other person in the community. This theory sounds more convincing than theory one, but I take greater issue with it than with the previous theory.

Theory three is the most convincing of the theories. This theory states our personalities define who we are. I think, act, and behave a certain way. I have a certain sense of humor and a specific outlook on life. These elements combine to form a distinct personality that is constant through time and links all incarnations of my selfhood together. Perhaps.

Physical Consistency Equals Self Continuity

The idea that we are the same person because we bear a physical resemblance to the person we were yesterday and will be tomorrow is a weak attempt at a theory of selfhood. On the surface it looks good, but if you plan on examining who you are in your depths you better have some back-up theories because this one is like trying to SCUBA dive with a snorkel. You’ll be sucking more water than air. The most glaring problem with this is childhood and puberty. Other than a few qualities such as eye shape and an innie bellybutton there is very little that links who I am now with who I was as a toddler. So, immediately, we have the theory breaking down on a closer inspection.

But let us say, for a moment, that the selfhood of a person does not develop until a relatively stable physical appearance has developed. The Hebrews said that a boy becomes a man at thirteen so set that as our approximate age. The wonderful experience of puberty! ::shudders:: If you were to look at photos of who I was at thirteen and compare them with who I was at nineteen, twenty-five, and thirty-something, you would be able to identify each snapshot as being the same person despite the difference in age. True, one picture may look dorkier than another and I may have long hair in one and short in another, but the general features are, subtle differences aside, the same. A is recognizable as A consistently. But if you were to compare a photograph of me now with a photograph of thirteen year-old A, you would be hard-pressed to recognize the one as being the same as the other. The characteristics altered in the transition process have become disassociated with the characteristics of my former self. And this is more than a matter of having breasts. Physical changes in the face, hips, waist, and tuchus has resulted in an over hauling of this lassie’s chassis. Thus, by the standards set by this theory, Caitlin and A are not the same person.

And this is not unique to those of us who have regenerated. A myriad of things can happen to a person and result in the same disconnect. Survivors of traumatic accidents that result in severe burns or amputation. A person who undergoes corrective or enhancing plastic surgery. Sometimes just plain old aging is enough to make us unrecognizable. Even before transitioning I caught glimpses of myself and couldn’t figure out who the old person was in the mirror, I’m still nineteen! No, I’m afraid that as a functional theory of selfhood physical resemblance just isn’t enough.

I Remember Mama, Therefore I Am

The idea that we are the same because we have memories of being the previous incarnations sounds like a firm theory. We don’t run into the problem of growth spurts and the majority of accidents are incapable of altering our indelible sense of self. I remember what it was like to sit and have a cup of coffee on the patio with my mum in 1998, therefore I am the person who sat and had a cup of coffee on the patio with my mum in 1998. My life, if viewed from a four-dimensional perspective would look like one of those time-lapse photos, a blur of memories connecting A in 1998 to Caitlin in 2011. But there are so many things that can interrupt that flow of memories that this is a dangerous way to define our selfhood.

When I was in college I was sitting in the dorm room of my then girlfriend, J. J and I were talking about the psychology course we were taking and how one out of every three people experienced some form of abuse as a child. One case study in particular, a boy who was sexually abused by an older boy, sparked something inside me and I was suddenly flooded with the awareness of being in the babysitter’s basement and being confronted with the demand to give oral sex to the babysitter’s oldest boy. A repressed memory had risen to the surface of my mind. An event I had no previous recollection of had now become a pivot point in my memory. If I am my memories then the person before the spontaneous recall and the person after the spontaneous recall are not the same person.

Now, let’s take it the other direction. My grandmother is showing signs of Alzheimer’s. She is forgetting more and more things. She has trouble remembering events that have occurred and muddles the past in with the present. According to this theory of selfhood, my grandmother is becoming a different person, because the memories that link her to her previous selves are being stolen by the disease. This is also the case for people who experience traumatic brain injury, drink to the point of blacking out, and suffer from amnesia. If this theory holds, the moment they lose their memories they become another person, which would make helping them recover their memories a unique type of murder as we would be eliminating one person in favor of another. No, this theory is too volatile and too many things can end that chain of memories to make it safe to hang our understanding of self on.

I Am What I Am and That’s All That I Am

I think of this third theory as the Popeye theory of selfhood, the idea that we are the same person we were because we demonstrate a consistent character throughout the course of our lives. My sense of humor, my indignation at injustice, my compassion, and my skill with words define me. These things are important parts of my personality and they are fundamental cores that have not changed with regeneration. If personality is taken solely as these elements then yes the person who was A is the same as the person who is Caitlin. My personality, however, is more than just those things. Personality consists of traits and characteristics across a wide spectrum and can include style, preferences, outlook, and demeanor. If we look at who A was and who Caitlin is we can find as many differences in their personalities as similarities. A liked spicy food, Caitlin not so much and A couldn’t stand strawberries, but Caitlin loves them. A was the type of person to get violently angry when pushed by a situation. Caitlin withdraws in the same situation. A was animated and enjoyed tossing himself into any given debate, but Caitlin is more the type of person to listen and absorb while others carry the conversation. A was disorganized, not very good at self-care, and difficult to motivate. Caitlin is more put together and initiates the things she needs to do to preserve; she makes things happen while A waited for them to happen to him. By the standard of the Popeye theory, A and Caitlin are nowhere close to being the same person.

This holds for people who aren’t regenerating also. Consider the Type A business person who has a heart attack leaves hir high-profile, high pressure job and takes up Zen meditation. Or the religious fundamentalist who watches hir friend slowly waste away from cancer and loses hir faith in god. People are inconstant and constantly changing who they are and how they deal with the world based on their present circumstances and even who they are with. This theory cannot work because it ignores a fundamental characteristic of the human self.

So, Where Are We? Who Are We?

With all three theories failing to hold up to honest examination I find myself stuck in a selfhood purgatory. All rational thought argues that who I am now and who I was then are two completely different people, that Caitlin and A are not and could never be the same self. Yet, there is something inside me that recognizes who A was as who Caitlin was and who Caitlin is as who A is. I feel like the same person. But is a gut feeling enough? I wish had the answer. All I can say with certainty is none of the current thoughts on the consistency of self survive exposure to the human factor. Each looks nice on the surface, but each is incapable of sustaining us for deeper reflections. The pool of identity is deep and clouded by a plethora of psychological detritus; if we’re going to go diving in, we better bring more sophisticated equipment than philosophy offers thus far.


Turn and Face the Strange

9 April, 2011

Flitting through my mind is a melodic phrase from David Bowie:

Ch-Ch-Ch-Ch-Ch-Ch-Changes! Turn and face the strange.

Bowie’s song “Changes” features heavily in my life now. My entire life is in flux and the changes occurring (some wonderful, some terrible, and many of them strange) leave me feeling as though The Divine thrust a hand into my reality and drug the internal out of Plato’s cave and into the painful light of the mundane everyday. From my marriage to my friendships to my presentation of self to my inner monologue, everything is changing.

Yeats said:

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold.

And I agree with him, in part. Everything is crumbling back into the lumps of red brick clay from which they were fashioned, but the center, ah yes! the center, Dearest Reader, must hold. It must hold because it does not have a voice in the matter and because without it the world, my world, will go gyrating wildly through the inky void and careen into the sun. This is how the world goes out not with a bang but a puff of fission created smoke.

So, to help stabilize the center, the essence of who I am. I have joined the mass of people tapping their neurotic musings out into the net’s ether. Stick around and watch from your secure vantage in font of your screen as I journey down the rabbit hole.