Thursday, July 10, 2008

Americans and their crazy social taboos

I keep meaning to write about Everything That Is Clearly Wrong With This Strange Country, but not doing. I could say I don't know where to begin, but a lot of it dispirits as well as confuses me, and then I have to think of the things America does right instead of getting on the internets and typetty typetty type. (I'm only blogging now because I have some immigration paperwork due. Srsly). Things America does right include icecream, butterflies, the cost of videogames, children (though I am sure that every nation on earth has better children than the UK), mainstream gay clubs, shoes, icecream and icecream. But some things here are terrible to contemplate. I am never going to an American mainstream straight club ever again. (And I really want to write about that here, but damn, it'd be hard). I get a lump in my throat every time I remember that most Americans do not know the taste of bread. (I am going to make them some next weekend. Disaster awaits).

And sometimes I just trip over stuff that I know isn't their fault really. My belief that they urbanised wrong is clearly biased and unfair. They have a whole vocabulary for being polite, and I am not fluent in it. And their social taboos are in places I never expect them. (If I knew what my social taboos were, I couldn't possibly tell you).

I am c/ping from my own Deadjournal here:

Look. We (that is, a large and assorted group of relations) were off foraging for lunch and I ended up in a car that also contained M (driving) and two smaller people - his stepbrother (aged 16) and his half-nephew (aged 11). I was asking the elder of these about his tatts and piercings, pretending I took his replies (and him) very seriously, like you do when people are 16. Nod, smile, He then starts talking about his atheism. Nod, smile, a few supportive comments, 'it's good that you've thought about this for yourself', nod. It seems to me that the two boys have had this discussion before, and the younger is not happy with it. We reached our destination right then, and M's sister is already there, and the 11-year-old is fretting and going over to her.

So I get chastised by M and his sister for not being a responsible adult and somehow putting a stop to that conversation. I have always thought that afflicting the comfortable was part of my remit (at least when I am not being a giant wuss), but no, I am supposed to be shutting the closet door and leaning hard against it. Of course it wasn't that they disapproved - they were concerned about what their elder half-sister would say if her little boy told her of this shocking thing, that a teenage relative talked about atheism and an adult openly encouraged this. Never mind that he surely already knows his step-uncle is an atheist; responsible adults are not supposed to facilitate that kind of conversation. Never mind that neither M nor his sister are Christians themselves.


This kind of thing leads to me feeling anxious.

I've tried discussing it with both of them and they seem to be making mental leaps that I am not capable of at all. (I have an unhelpful belief that one closet is much the same as any other; just a place between two high walls). M says I have it all wrong and I'm just thinking of the elder kid but his thoughts are of the younger; myself, I don't see any reason for an 11-year-old to be shielded from the fact that not all of his family are devout Catholics. Worse, I don't see why anyone would want their child to assume that no one doubted his religion. What am I not seeing?


Eileen said...

If I may hazard a guess:

I would guess that perhaps what you are missing is that many Americans are more concerned about what other people think of them then they are about their own welfare or that of their family.

Or, maybe that Americans treat religion a little like Santa Claus.

Eileen said...

Oh! Er. Here's another one, especially if you're on the East Coast:

A lot of Americans who practice or are liberal toward "alternative" lifestyles (especially atheism and homosexuality) have this idea that it's Very Bad to interfere with someone else's children by exposing them to these lifestyles. It strikes me as sort of a weird apology that they make subconsciously for being liberal.

kyrias said...

If it makes you feel better, I don't see it either.
I am of the mindset that information shouldn't be hidden and there's nothing that disturbs me more than when people deliberately hide things. Especially relatively "normal" things such as atheism. I'd be entirely fine if they didn't want to come out of the gay closet or the broom closet -- but atheism? I don't get it.
Then again, it seems to me that the 11 yr old is a pansy and too sheltered. If the concept that someone might not agree with your ideas disturbs you that profoundly, maybe they ought to be exposed to other ideas as opposed to protected from them.
Sorry, I'm not helping. But I'm rather incensed that they would want you to help shove the 16 year old back in his closet and muffle him. So it's not ok to disturb the younger one, but it's alright to cut off the older and potentially make him feel ostracized/estranged? That's beyond stupid.

thene said...

East Coast, yes. :( (Southeast, though one of those children was a PA resident staying with other relatives for the summer). I feel very closeted round here, both sexually and religiously. More religiously, even, because that's not something I can explain to the dominant culture with one or two words. I didn't mention my own faith (such as it is) to any of these people. Perhaps one day I shall do so, just to watch them tie themselves in knots trying to 'respect' it. It does seem like Americans are very nonconfrontational - even passive-aggressive - about religious and (maybe to a lesser extent) political differences. Lots of Don't Ask Don't Tell. British people ask more tough questions; that's because we're all hostile to the point of sociopathy and we don't care about anyone else's feelings. :)

How do they treat it like Santa Claus? Do you mean that they want their children to enjoy pure, ignorant faith, even if they don't, because isn't that just so sweet of them? (A few months ago I started asking that question of friends who say they'd want children; would you get them to believe in Santa Claus? It starts some interesting discussions).

I love how it's totally okay to interfere with children so long as you're part of whatever the dominant paradigm is. It's cool to force institutionalised heterosexuality on them, for instance. (The whole 'prom date' idea scares me). Christianity enjoys the same status. M's mother was quite canny about this interference; she put the confirmation of her two eldest children off until their teens - by which point both had abandoned Catholicism and refused to go through with it. So she had M done when he was 8. Not that I can nitpick - my mother did much the same.

thene said...

kyrias - sorry, crossposted with you there. Yeah, it does make me more wary than I might be about the gay closet. Though when I stayed here in 2005, I didn't de-closet to anyone except housemates and that felt all kinds of crap. :( At that time I was only meeting people in a workplace, which didn't help. Strange that you see the queer closet as less permeable (if I get your meaning) but my experience is that it's easier to talk your way out of.

That said...I think that in the minds of the many, anything queer is automatically read as a) more sexual/vulgar and b) more political than an equivalent statement about heteros. This is a conclusion born of observing my mother-in-law, and of my own memories of dismantling the closet myself years ago. And it pisses me the hell off.

And yes, yes - we were in frigging Alabama that weekend, and I hardly thought the younger kid needed my help. I doubt he is that sheltered - what I thought was that it was an ongoing argument between the two and the younger desperately wanted the adult to be on his side. M wasn't so sure, though. But: If the concept that someone might not agree with your ideas disturbs you that profoundly, maybe they ought to be exposed to other ideas as opposed to protected from them. Oh yes. The comfortable, afflict them!

thene said...

M is trying to set me straight again; one detail that I omitted, which he thinks is of GREAT IMPORTANCE, is that the child who was talking about atheism is disabled - he had part of his frontal lobe removed due to a tumour in early childhood. I don't see how this affects anything either way, especially not my responsibilities when this person chooses to talk to me about atheism.

(Besides, double standard; there's a seriously autistic 10 y/o child in the same family, and his guardian gets him to recite the Lord's Prayer before bedtime every night. I admit that this creeps me the hell out. It might even creep me out even if it weren't for the disability. I am not the only person who is creeped out by this. But no one is calling the guardian on it, noway, because it's Christian, and besides, she's an adult).

It is possible that I just suck at tact, period; I am told that allowing a disabled teenager to talk about atheism was tactless, but I don't recognise religion as a tact issue. Maybe I am just bad at recognising tact issues. But it's interesting how tact issue=moral issue in this case, supposedly. imo shutting the boy up would've been immoral, but everyone else seems to think the opposite.

kyrias said...

Ok, no offense against M, but WTF?
Want to buy logic here.
Firstly, whether or not the frontal lobe thing really affects anything depends on how young the kid was when it got removed. The human brain is amazingly elastic and if things are removed when they're young enough, the brain just kind of reroutes, humming a little ditty all the while.
Secondly, the frontal lobe, C/Ping from wiki:

The so-called executive functions of the frontal lobes involve the ability to recognize future consequences resulting from current actions, to choose between good and bad actions (or better and best), override and suppress unacceptable social responses, and determine similarities and differences between things or events.

The frontal lobes also play an important part in retaining longer term memories which are not task-based. These are often memories with associated emotions, derived from input from the brain's limbic system, and modified by the higher frontal lobe centers to generally fit socially acceptable norms (see executive functions above). The frontal lobes have rich neuronal input from both the alert centers in the brain-stem, and from the limbic regions.

So..I'm actually thinking that if the kid has the ability to think about what religion he's going for and why -- then it doesn't appear that his frontal lobe functions are too messed up. Or is there some other pertinent information that I'm not getting here.

Thirdly, I agree whole-heartedly that trying to shut someone up when they're potentially trusting you enough to talk to you about something potentially vulnerable-making is HORRIBLE and should NOT be condoned ever and ever AMEN. Irony intended.

Anyways. I might have to blog about santa claus and my kids. Oh joy.

thene said...

Oh, he's definitely slightly 'off' socially, and I am told by other relatives that he has poor impulse control. But I don't see how that affects his right to his religion one way or another. Nor does it affect whether it's cool to talk about it in front of a younger, Christian child. Of course it is. Under all circumstances. Ever.

Daisy said...

I wrote about the Confederate flag today, Thene! Enjoy! :D

I was raised by a mostly-atheist/agnostic who thought religion existed primarily to morally train children, not to take it seriously... so I ain't exactly the person to ask!

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