Cultural Banach space

A week or so ago, Petya quoted the following definition of “heteronormativity” (March 29th entry):

Heteronormativity means, quite simply, that heterosexuality is the norm– in culture, in society, in politics. Heteronormativity points out the expectation of heterosexuality as it is written into our world. It does not, of course, mean that everyone is straight. More significantly, heteronormativity is not part of a conspiracy theory that would suggest that everyone must become straight or be made so. The importance of the concept is that it centers on the operation of the norm. Heteronormativity emphasizes the extent to which everyone, straight or queer, will be judged, measured, probed, and evaluated from the perspective of the heterosexual norm. It means that everyone and everything is judged from the perspective of straight. [Samuel A. Chambers: The Telepistemology of the Closet; or, The Queer Politics of Six Feet Under. The Journal of American Culture, Volume 26, Number 1, March 2003]

Around 5:00 AM on Sunday, I sent her a short response which she quoted and dissected (April 4th entry). In essence, I had two points, which may or may not be self-contradictory: (1) there’s no qualitative difference between “heteronormativity” and any other cultural norm; (2) “social norms” are basically a bullshit construct to begin with. Of course, given that I wrote the email very early on Sunday morning, I didn’t state either of these points particularly well (or, one might argue at least in the case of the second, at all).

I should say that the above-quoted definition/exposition of heteronormativity is basically correct; in a society in which the majority of people are (or, according to Kinsey et. al., merely identify as) straight, it’s inevitable that, e.g., most people will, in the absence of additional information, assume people they’ve never met before are probably straight. This observation verges on the tautological. Of course, to extend the meeting-someone-new example, most people also assume that people they meet aren’t cannibals and watch a fair amount of television, so it’s not at all clear that there’s anything particularly special about heteronormativity as opposed to non-cannibal-normativity or telenormativity.

At this point, I realize that someone whose brain works differently than mine might think I’m trivializing the whole heteronormativity thing with my examples; after all, cannibals are a damned sight rarer than homosexuals and it’s probably not a good idea to worry to much about whatever psychic damage the non-cannibal norm is doing to them, and people who don’t watch television are unlikely to suffer anything worse than occasional social awkwardness when someone mistakenly assumes that any sentient American will identify and be amused by the phrase “I’m Rick James, bitch!” In contrast, it’s clear that people whose sexual proclivities/identities differ from the heterosexual norm (not just homosexuals) will, at the very least, have to deal with consistent low-grade and occasional acute psychological trauma, precisely because psychological health, self-perception and identity are so intimately related with sex and sexual preferences. In this context, however, please note my careful use of the word “qualitatively” in the opening paragraph. The hetero-norm is no different in kind from other cultural norms, but, because sexual identity tends to be so important to our lives, the deleterious effects of such a norm tend to be felt more intensely than those of many other norms and, hence the difference is quantitative rather than qualitative.

By now, I hope, it’s clear that the statement “[t]he problem with heteronormativity is that it is hardly ever recognized as a norm” is entirely wrong. There are dozens of norms that are hardly ever recognized as norms; I mentioned two above, but other examples include the “bathing regularly” norm, the “education is good” norm, the “democracy is good” norm (intimately tied in with the “voting is good” norm), the “wearing clothes is good” norm, etc. Of course, all of these norms have been pointed out and dissected at by various social critics, academics, etc., but, for practical purposes, they’re not “recognized as norms”. No, the problem (or, perhaps, importance) of heteronormativity derives not from its purported lack of recognition as a norm, but from the relatively greater importance people ascribe to their identity as sexual beings than to their identities as television viewers, bathers, students or voters.

In fact, the notion that “[t]he problem with heteronormativity is that it is hardly ever recognized as a norm” seems to be an expression (presumably unintentional) of the rather pernicious but increasingly popular assumption that norms qua norms are bad. Ironically, this is (or at least has the potential to be) itself a norm. Anyway, norms, in and of themselves, are value-neutral. Certainly anyone who finds him/herself on the wrong side of a norm isn’t going to think much of it, but this isn’t the whole story. For example, although there are people who legitimately suffer from the bathing-regularly-is-good norm (people allergic to soap, people without access to bathing facilities, etc.), I think even they would agree that, in general, it’s better if people aren’t going around smelling like mildew and passing along tinea to all their friends. Even more obvious examples of “good” norms are the one that says killing is bad or the one that tells a woman walking alone late at night in a bad part of town that young males in dark alleys should probably be avoided. The point is, norms in and of themselves aren’t necessarily bad; the ones that are are so because they do damage to those who violate the norm (and, one might reasonably argue, everybody else as well, but this is a bit to psychological for me to deal with right now) without having any (or at least not enough) countervailing benefits.

Looking at the clock, I realize that I really should be going to bed and I haven’t even gotten to my second point, the fact that the two points may well be contradictory, the possibility that I may not even believe some of what I’ve written above, and my issues with Petya’s implicit dismissal of me as someone who does “not want to be bothered with conversations about exclusion, oppression, and -isms of all sorts.” All those will have to be left for another day; in the meantime, I’m curious to hear if anybody thinks the above is at all coherent.

6 Responses to “Cultural Banach space”

  1. Curt Says:

    I responded to Petya’s post on her site, where it’s probably more needed, since I disagree with her more. I should simply point out what I find to be a slight logical fallacy with your point. It’s true that there are many “normative” assumptions that have positive consequences, so you’re point that “normalization” is not a priori negative is well-taken. However, that does not mean that “heteronormalization,” assuming that is even a coherent concept, is one of them. In other words, bathing and not killing people may be good norms, and heterosexuality not. The point is simply that the value of one does not prove the value of the other. Of course, it’s heretical these days among university crowd to argue that maybe this “heternormalization” (God I hate that word) actually does have positive benefits insofar as it tends to propogate the species. But then of course at that point the whole concept begins to look like a pretty superfluous extension of simple Darwinian mechanics. Then again, sociobiology has been roundly denounced by the same people for precisely this reason among others. It all comes down to your principles, after all.

  2. Dave Says:

    What is all this falderal about normative this and that? So, most people are dextronormative. Everything from school desks to scissors are made for right handers. I’m a lefty, so I’ve just had to adjust. Oh! It’s so unfair being a victim of a society’s unfeeling cruelty, Boo-hoo. And my dog isn’t woofo-normative. Instead he just makes a croaking sound. Everyone laughs at me when I take him for a walk. And he’s been excluded from dog shows. We need to change our bad American society so that these injustices can be redressed. But you say these things are trivial compared to the much more explosive issues surrounding sex. To me hyper-equivalence of gays or other sexual variants is not that high on the list of life’s important public issues. In my opinion, persons’ sex lives are best kept private. I think most people will tacitly accept people for what they are nowadays, so controversy is not indicated. There is just no need to parade it around. It’s just too bad if gays can’t get every thing they want. If they did they would be the only ones.

    But, if you want to debate it, things cut both ways. Both those who promote homosexuality and those who accept the majoritarian position have potentially strong emotions invested here. Why do gay activists think that they owed instantaneous public acceptance of their lifestyle while the majority is expected to just stuff it? In the insular subculture of the campus and Hollywood homo-equivalence may be a current fad, along with assorted “isms, exclusions and oppressions? (Remember the Sandinistas?) but don’t lose too much sleep if it turns out to be another dud as a prescription for wi

  3. Brooke Says:

    The discussion you, Petya and Curt are having caught my attention.

    I agree with you in that the problem is not the lack of acknowledgement of heteronormativity’s existence. Generally I think people on both sides of this “norm” recognize the extent to which people are assumed to have a certain sexual preference based upon their biological sex, for better or for worse.

    However, you stated that the norms that are ‘bad’ are so only because they do damage to those who violate the norm. Since ‘damage’ wasn’t elaborated and you mentioned that one could argue those observing the norm are also damaged by others’ norm violations, I assume you were referring to the psychological damage you briefly hinted at.

    If that’s true, I have to say your statement must be taken a step further to be accurate, because not only are people damaged by their norm violation in this regard, they are also penalized for it. When a norm prevents homosexuals from enjoying the same benefits of heterosexuals (such as visiting one’s partner in the hospital during family-only situations, qualifying for their spouse’s insurance, etc.), your norm’s value-neutrality is completely destroyed, and the result is infringement upon citizens’ very rights. The dilemma then is no longer people’s personal views and behaviors toward the infractions of the norm, but how the norm is unjustly made an official prerequisite within institutional codes and governmental laws.

  4. shonk Says:

    Brooke,

    My vagueness in defining damages was intentional. You can interpret the term as broadly or as narrowly as you like and my point still stands.

    That having been said, I assume regular readers of this site are well aware of my opinions on politics and normative legislation. Still, it’s rather silly to say that a homosexual (or anyone else, for that matter) has a “right” to be covered by his/her spouse’s insurance. Sure, we’d all like to get such coverage, ceteris paribus, but rights, if they exist at all, must have some foundation in moral imperative, not in wishful thinking.

    (Note: I’m not saying gay couples shouldn’t get the same insurance coverage as their straight colleagues; I personally think it’s rather silly that many employers will offer insurance coverage to some spouses but not all. I’m just saying they have no obligation to offer coverage to any spouses, nor are they obligated to avoid doing things I think are silly.)

  5. Dave Says:

    “When a norm prevents homosexuals from enjoying the same benefits of heterosexuals (such as visiting one’s partner in the hospital during family-only situations, qualifying for their spouse’s insurance, etc.), your norm’s value-neutrality is completely destroyed, and the result is infringement upon citizens’ very rights. ” Brook

    Good point,however,provisions often get made for ordinary people to get around injustices in the real world. These don’t make front page news. The example of not being able to visit a sick spouse is not terribly realistic. Even under the new $22 billion dollar HIPPA regulations to protect everyone’s privacy in the health care system, if you are conscious you can authorize anyone to visit you that you want. You can also pre-designate anyone to be your confidant or surrogate. As far as health coverage of significant others, many big (i.e. “evil?) corporations provide it. However, if gay marriage is made constitutional many companies could drop coverage except for married gays- see http://www.businessweek.com/bwdaily/dnflash/may2004/nf20040514_1508_db035.htm.

    Many years ago when things were not so complicated, I recall that a pretty young woman had a motorcycle accident and was injured. At the end of visiting hours the nurse informed the apparently male partner who was dressed in jeans and had short hair that “Sir, visiting hours are over.? The visitor wheeled indignantly and said “Don’t call me Sir! I’m a woman.? Perhaps the proper way to address a visitor today would be “Hay you!? The evils of heterosexism have been around for a long time. Good luck to the cultural police in their efforts to reeducating us earthlings.

  6. petya Says:

    i haven’t had time to respond but i will some time today! i promise. curt, there was no need to apologize.

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