Life update

I haven’t written a blog post for a while, and that’s because all the ordinary things I might say didn’t really seem relevant to life today – for most of us in the UK, life now under a form of lockdown. My life has changed a lot because my partner has come to live with me for the duration. Moving into my space isn’t easy – I live alone for a number of good, clear reasons, and I have a flat which I’ve furnished to suit me – and we both have to make compromises. We have already had discussions about, for example, whether it’s helpful to fold someone else’s laundry, and what meat can be brought into my usually vegan kitchen. On the other hand, at least we have each other, a flat with several rooms, and a good internet connection; and we live close enough to a park to be able to go and exercise outside easily – our once-a-day outing, keeping a safe distance for people who aren’t members of our household, as permitted by the government.

I don’t know when I’ll get back to regular blogging. I’ve thought of lots of words beginning with F but none that I want to write about at the moment. I might leave that for later, or write about other topics. At Woodbrooke, we’re working hard to offer all sorts of stuff online, in new formats and experimenting with teaching through different technologies. I wouldn’t have wanted it to happen this way, but there is suddenly a surge of interest in possibilities which I have always thought were exciting – and if we can find ways to make our learning accessible to more people and help provide social contact alongside our physical distancing, that seems to me to be a good idea.

In an odd way, this situation seems familiar. When I was a teenager, there was a time when my whole life changed in a few weeks, when I went from living ‘normally’ to being stuck at home almost all the time. The internet became my lifeline then, too, so it feels natural to turn to it now (indeed, I’ve never entirely turned away, because communicating in writing suits me much better in some ways than this ‘socialising’ of which you speak). I don’t talk about that time of my life very much – the diagnostic labels I was given, like ‘ME/CFS’, seem to me to lack explanatory power and are more stigmatised than useful – but it seems right to mention it now because of that sense of familiarity.

So, for the time being, I’m working and waiting. I’m also still writing and checking book proofs and the other things which go into being an author – I’ll share publication information here when I have it.

Fear and facts in decision-making

In talking about making difficult decisions (when Rachel Muers and I ran a Woodbrooke course on this recently), one of the things we talked about repeatedly was that difficult decisions are sometimes only partly difficult decisions – they are very often decisions which involve difficult relationships. And when a decision which needs to be made makes a relationship difficult, we identified fear as a frequent component in the problem.

I want to start by saying that I don’t think it’s bad to feel fear. When I was a school fear was something one could be bullied for – being a scaredy-cat, being timid, being shy – and the pressure not to show fear came strongly from adults as well as a children. (In fact, it’s embedded in that classic and often ineffective coping-with-bullying advice, “ignore them and they’ll go away”. Not showing fear or any other emotion is integral to that strategy.) I think this is probably a mistake. Fear, like other emotions, gives us information – not necessarily about the situation itself, because our assessment may be mistaken, but about our assessment of it. “Feel the fear and do it anyway”, as in the book title, may be a more helpful approach. Perhaps, more precisely, “Feel your fear and use it as part of a wider consideration of whether or not the thing is worth your while doing it”. I don’t think that’ll catch on as a self-help book title, though!

Thinking about the decisions which might need to be made in a Quaker community specifically, we considered a situation in which a meeting might want to make a policy about what food is acceptable at shared meals. Sometimes this is obvious – a local ban on ingredients to which someone in the community has a life-threatening allergy. Sometimes this can be a matter of compromise – aim to bring things which meet most people’s dietary needs, even if not everyone can eat everything. Fear around those questions might focus on fear of being or making someone ill unnecessarily, fear of upsetting and excluding, or fear of making a mistake.

This issue can also touch on questions which go beyond the practical to matters of principle and livelihood. For example, some in the community might be committed to making food choices based on sustainability. This comes to affect the community when they eat together. They might have different understandings of what eating sustainably actually means or what should be the top priority – vegan? local? organic? There might be fear around the topic of climate change, both for those who have made such commitments and those who haven’t or have focused their work on the issue somewhere else. There might be an existential threat, the fear that a change attacks the very core of your way of living: this can happen anyway with food, and even more so if people in the community are involved in food production. (In the story we used for teaching, we made this especially dramatic by imagining that a member of the meeting was a dairy farmer – it might not always be that obvious, but lots of us are invested, financially or emotionally, in the current systems of food production.) For some, changing eating patterns have health implications, and those interactions can be intensely complicated. Food is also cultural; changing ways of eating can mean letting go of traditional dishes and childhood meals, and while this might be welcome, easy, or at least possible for some people at some times, it’s inappropriate, difficult, or impossible for others.

So far, so dismal! Fear is real and important and needs to be addressed. What can we do? In conflict and emotion avoidant cultures, there is a strong tendency to ignore it – to try and put off the decision, or talk around the topic in terms sufficiently vague or abstract that nobody has to discuss their real feelings, or to be dismissive. In particular, I sometimes see people who have made a specific dramatic lifestyle change dismissing those who haven’t or can’t as lazy or ignorant. I don’t think this is helpful; it might be better to acknowledge both that there may be other factors which aren’t being discussed (like emotions and personal circumstances) and that we can just disagree. Faced with the same set of facts, people may have come to different conclusions.

If that’s what is happening, repeating the same facts won’t change any minds, and making people feel guilty or annoyed won’t help either. In a community setting, it might be possible to check that everyone is working from the same set of facts – sharing and testing the sources you are working from – and to get into the deeper levels of the issue, too. This takes time and effort (in our discussions of process, we also talked about cases where it might not be possible to do this work and it’s better to say so rather than do it badly). How do we share the facts we think are important? It’s tempting to circulate lots of information in a written form, but this doesn’t always reach people or explain why some people identify one fact as important or striking and others don’t find it relevant or as significant. Within a Quaker community, can we find ways to share facts and their practical and emotional impact? There are lots of possibilities, and this is one of the purposes of a threshing meeting.

I wrote this post a couple of days ago and have hesitated over whether to publish it now. There is a lot of fear around at the moment about the coronavirus. People are sharing facts and their reactions to facts – and governments around the world are trying to take decisions which are difficult in just these ways, affecting relationships, involving some necessary but difficult changes in order to avoid other tragic effects, with all the options likely to harm people and their livelihoods in complex ways, and all under a lot of time pressure. Not everyone can be involved in the decision making, so we have to trust those who are – which is harder when they have been elected in a competitive system and are consequently the disliked ‘other lot’ to a whole section of the community. I’ll be thinking of all those affected, by the virus directly and by the measures against it, and those doing the research and taking the decisions.

Ellipsis and elision

Ellipsis and elision are processes of missing things out. The ellipsis, often signalled by three dots, ‘…’, is something left unsaid – perhaps for brevity (you can use an ellipsis to cut down a long quotation), perhaps tailing off because you aren’t sure what the options are (a text message: “do you want to go for dinner or…?”), or perhaps leaving something unsaid because you think it’s obvious or want the other person to draw their own conclusions (for example, ending with, “hence…”).

In the Quaker eldership & oversight handbook Quality and Depth of Worship and Ministry, there’s a list of words for the divine – for things we might be “seeking to worship” – which ends, “God…” One of the things that suggests, I think, is that readers are expected to be able to add other items to the list. People in Quaker discussion groups, for whom this document was written, are welcome to use lots of language for the divine: to see the list as welcoming and the ellipsis as a space into which they can speak, putting in their own preferred terms. Another things this suggests, especially in the Quaker context, is that the list can never be complete and at the end it trails off into silence. After we have put in all the things we can think of to say about God, there will still be more to say and we won’t know what that is. We can respond with silence.

That single ellipsis, then, is a gap in which, in my research, I found both a community process – people contributing – and a theological approach. Other things are also commonly left out in Quaker speech and writing. Elision in linguistics is the process of missing out sounds and bringing words together, as when “I am” becomes “I’m”. It can also be used more abstractly to describe the ways in which multiple complex matters can be brought together and confused – think of a politician who, in arguing for their particular policy, focuses on a few positive outcomes and glosses over numerous other possible effects and interactions. Sometimes this a problem (if you oppose the politician’s idea and think they’re missing or hiding something which would means everyone opposing their policy, it’s a very important problem). At other times it’s a technique for getting things done without having to settle questions which are at a tangent to the core issue at hand.

Consider a common Quaker phrase, “led to”, as in “I was led to oppose this policy” or “We were led to make a statement”. The main business of these statements is the action to which someone was led, and in the process they elide another issue – who or what did the leading? (At this point some readers may be thinking of the phrase “passive voice” – please read this Wikipedia paragraph which I think explains that it’s not the issue here.) The one leading us is God, or the Light, or the Spirit, or that of God within us, or the Ground of Being, or the Universe, or Love, or… – or something of which we cannot fully speak, someone whose Being is incomprehensible to us human beings and hence ineffable. Hence the need for elision.

Of end notes and Endnote

And also Zotero, Mendeley, footnotes, referencing, and citation styles, although they don’t begin with E!

Accurate referencing, in the style required by the situation, is a great help to many readers and a cause of anxiety for many academic writers. The reasons for wanting to get it right range for the moral – it is right that we acknowledge our sources, for their sakes, for the sake of transparency, and so that future researchers can trace our steps – to the practical – it’s easier to read and easier to get something published. However, there are several major referencing styles in use and also every academic journal or university department has their own ideas. These can range from the opinions of an individual with which you can disagree if necessary to strict rules which can lose you marks or a significant career opportunity.

When I was studying a joint honours degree as an undergraduate, each of my two departments, philosophy and theology, had a home-grown set of guidelines. They were, of course, completely different. (It might have been even harder if they were similar and slightly different!) I had to learn to use both. I also developed an opinion about which was best!

Actually, my opinion about referencing styles isn’t so much a matter of which I prefer to use in writing. I find that inline citations and footnotes are about the same difficulty level in the writing process, even entered manually into a word processing programme (both are quicker if you can get a computerised system set up well). End notes are slightly to write harder because they just are further away from the text they reference. It’s more a matter of what I prefer to read. I find inline citations, usually a version of the Chicago author-date system, visually annoying. I think they disturb the flow of the text and make it harder to grasp a whole sentence or paragraph quickly. I also find that author-date systems where the date is the publication referenced drive me up the wall when historical authors are in play; how does it make sense to write (Plato, 2009) or something like that? (I’m well aware that there are chains of logic and it does, at some level, make sense, but I find it hard to process as a reader, and although the Plato example might be obvious, some nineteenth or early twentieth century authors produce very confusing references under that system.)

Instead, I prefer footnotes. In an academic book – and even in other nonfiction – I like to see the references on the page as I read. I can skip them if I’m not that interested, but I can see whether there’s a sensible-looking reference even if I don’t look it up. (Have you ever read a dodgy book which is apparently full of Science with References but when you actually read some of the end notes, the evidence for ‘snails self-medicate by eating mint’ turns out to be someone’s Instagram post of a snail on a mint plant? This is a fictional example but similar experiences can be had in the popular science or self-help aisles of most bookshops.)

Perhaps I read too much Pratchett at an impressionable age, but I am also fond of the footnote as a device for including extra information, asides, tangents, jokes, understatement, sarcasm, and other bonus content. It is possible to separate these out, using footnotes for comments and inline citations or end notes for references, but the advantage of doing both is that readers are able to see everything in the same place. As a reader, I can judge whether a footnote needs detailed attention by the length and shape, so I don’t find it annoying to have both right there on the page.

Do you have a preference? Are you one of the many academics who has grumbled about having to change referencing styles in order to submit to a journal? Are there advantages to end notes which I’ve missed?

Dictionaries

I have a love-hate relationship with dictionaries. Dictionaries can be an amazing tool, and they can be a great read, but sometimes they also seem to stifle creatively, foster errors about how language works, and generally get very badly used.

What is a dictionary? It’s a list of words with their meanings – the dictionaries I’m interested in here are mainly same-language, where the words are described (people often say defined, and I’ll come back to that) in their own language. Cross-language or translation dictionaries are tools for a different purpose and have their own benefits and misuses. How does a word get into a dictionary? Some people decide to put it there. How do they decide? They look at examples of how the word is being used. There are dictionaries which claim to tell you what use is right and what is wrong, and this can be helpful when it prevents miscommunication. But the rightness and wrongness of the use of a specific word rests on how other people have used it in the past. A word is correctly used when it follows the pattern of use within a specific community, so that it can be understood.

What a dictionary is not is absolute – dictionaries are updated all the time, and can’t keep up with the latest changes. (Have you ever bought a new road atlas and found that it didn’t have an even newer section of motorway marked? Like that.) A dictionary is also not an authority. It’s a source of evidence, and there are cases where you can use an appropriate dictionary to give evidence for your argument that, for example, the phrase ‘shagging machine’ existed as slang for the vagina in 1885. (That’s Jonathan Green’s timeline of vagina slang, based on his Dictionary of Slang.) There are also cases where the wrong dictionary provides no help whatsoever, or even actively undermines an argument. For example, if in a philosophy essay someone refers to an ordinary dictionary (like the OED) for a definition of a technical term, it tends to suggest not only that the author of the essay hasn’t understood the term from other sources, but that they’ve missed the fact that this might be a word with a different use in the philosophical community. (Actually, ‘argument‘ is a case where this sort of misunderstanding might occur!)

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A close up of the word ‘dictionary’ in a dictionary, by PDPics from Pixabay.

So, what are good and bad ways to use dictionaries? In my opinion, a dictionary is great for browsing. It’s great for inspiration (especially if you were, for whatever reason, determined to write two blog posts for each letter of the alphabet, or something dotty like that). It’s great for some kinds of information: how is this word used most often? what is the history of this word? what grammatical patterns does this word usually follow?

It’s not so good when a dictionary shuts down options. There is, Michael Rosen once said, not a noun in English which can’t be verbed – but of course such new coinages, while following perfectly cromulent English rules, do not appear in dictionaries unless they catch on and lots of people start using them. (Cromulent, having caught on from the Simpsons, probably will appear eventually.) If you only use words as they have already been used, there can be a loss of playfulness and creativity, and of course no space to say anything new. We invent new things and start talking about different experiences all the time, so we need to create and establish new patterns of use or entirely new words. Mouse, gay, television, asexual, Brexit, woke… words grow and change as the conceptual needs of the language using community develop.

And a dictionary needs to be a tool. It should be used to build confidence and aid understanding, not overrule instinct or add confusion. Using tools appropriately is part of learning any skill, and the right dictionary at the right time is as important as the right screwdriver for the screw: dictionaries which give history, or current use, or grammatical tips for formal settings, or the use within a particular community, or help to check a spelling, are all very good in the right place. Getting the wrong one, or assuming that they are interchangeable, or that words always have to mean the same thing regardless of context, or that the origin of a word tells you what it means now, can all lead to serious mistakes.

Asexuality, aromanticism, and Quakers

This week it is Aromantic Spectrum Awareness week. It’s also a week when I found “quaker asexual” in the search terms – the phrases people put into an internet search before they ended up on my blog. Although asexuality and aromanticism are not the same thing, I think they’re related or at least easily confused enough that it makes sense to discuss them together. I’m not asexual or aromantic but I’ve chosen to write about this because I think it’s helpful for the whole community to be more aware of those of us who are aromantic and asexual, and how we might exclude people accidentally by making assumptions about what is ‘normal’.

Before that, though, I want to clarify how these terms are being used. ‘Asexual’ might bring to mind asexual reproduction, like single-celled organisms which just divide – a proper use in biology, but not the meaning of the word in this context! Here, we are talking about human experience, and asexuality refers to the experience of not feeling sexual attraction. There are different ways someone might be asexual – they might simply never feel sexual attraction or arousal. They might feel a small amount, sometimes or in particular circumstances, but not as much or in the ways expected by their surrounding culture. They may or may not experience other feelings often associated with sex, such as romantic feelings. The AVENwiki, produced by the Asexual Visibility and Education Network, gives more information from the point of view of people who are asexual.

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The Aromantic Pride flag, created by Cameron Whimsey and in the public domain.

Someone aromantic doesn’t experience romantic feelings. They may or may not experience sexual attraction – someone can be aromantic and asexual, or aromantic and sexual. They may have strong platonic connections with people – aromantic people aren’t automatically loners or introverts. Identifying what is and what is not a romantic feeling can be complicated and being aromantic, like being asexual, is not always clear-cut. Someone might experience very few romantic feelings, or only in very specific circumstances, and still identify as aromantic.

Terminology in this field continues to develop as people find ways to connect with others who have similar experiences – experiences which haven’t previously been validated or accepted by wider culture. These experiences are often regarded as damaged or pathological, with people assuming that an asexual must have a physical problem with sex or an aromantic just hasn’t met the right person yet. Neither of these things is necessarily true and leaping to such conclusions can be very dismissive of someone’s experience and feelings.

So, is there anything which Quakers can say about these experiences? Firstly, I think it’s important to say that the Quaker emphasis on personal experience and truth-telling means we start from a position of accepting people’s accounts of themselves. Secondly, Quakers value diversity in community and see no reason to encourage everyone to be the same – the existence of sexual and asexual, aromantic and more romantic, people of all sexual orientations and none within our community is well documented, and if we are able to create an atmosphere of trust so that everyone can be open about their experiences we will be the stronger for it.

We might be able to go further. As the Religious Society of Friends, we should be especially good at valuing friendship! Actually, I don’t know that we are any better than our surrounding culture at celebrating platonic friendship – we certainly like to make more of a fuss of weddings and traditional romantic and sexual relationships – but perhaps this is something we can work on. Being honest and accurate about people’s relationships and the importance of connection in people’s lives means not just avoiding errors (not describing a lesbian couple as ‘friends’, but also not downgrading a non-sexual friendship to ‘just friends’) but naming and celebrating them. This takes courage. Perhaps it can begin with an increased appreciation of nonsexual and nonromantic relationships in all our lives – having a romantic and/or sexual partner is not the end of a relationship game, tick, married, you’re done. I think sometimes we do okay at recognising this, in our pastoral care for one another, but it isn’t described or discussed openly as often as might be beneficial.

What would it look like if we did better at this? Being more aware of the range of human possibility, as brought to light by these and other emerging descriptions of identities and experiences, would be helpful. We could make sure that people in our local Quaker communities know that the Quaker Gender and Sexual Diversity Community includes asexual people. Treating experiences like getting married as just that, experiences, rather than inevitable life stages, would be good too, and being positive about sex but not treating it as essential. Alongside that, some assumptions we ought to be dropping anyway would have to go – no more hinting about having children, no more assuming that single people are lonely, and asking rather than guessing when we aren’t sure about the nature of a relationship. But do note the case recently reported on Twitter of two visitors at meeting who were asked “are you two friends?” and heard “are you two Friends?” Careful phrasing may be required!

Review of ‘Nephi’s Courage’

Nephi’s Courage: Story of a Bad Mormon by Rory McFarlan is about a man who is actually a good Mormon, but also gay. The story follows his life as he tries to balance the demands of his church with his real beliefs about a loving God and his own nature. There is so much here that interests me! And some things which had me questioning or made me uncomfortable.

If you are interested in religion and sexuality I recommend this book, with a few caveats. The first of those is that it might be a very distressing read – the whole plot turns on homophobia, which is extensively and realistically depicted, including the horrible consequences it can have (family conflict, psychological distress, need for mental health support, drug abuse, suicide), and there are cases of family abuse. The second is that the writing is not always great. There’s a lot of dialogue which is sometimes stilted – not bad, but slightly short on contractions and sometimes full of info which the reader might need but the characters would already have. I found I was reading some of it in Data’s voice, which is enjoyable in a different way but not I think the intention! With those things in mind, I thought it was a good example of a niche book which wouldn’t find an audience at all pre-internet, but can now be shared internationally and reach people, like me, who are interested in this specific subset of things.

There will be spoilers in this post, so if you want to read the book unspoiled please go and do that now and come back!

I learned a lot about the Church of Latter-Day Saints from this book. I was already reasonably well informed, I think, and had read up on feminist Mormon perspectives before. However, because Nephi is both deeply committed to the religious practices (and loves them, and so they are described from an insider and sympathetic point of view) and deeply entangled with the community and its structures (which don’t always treat him well), there’s a level of detail which I didn’t have before and an engaged and affectionate perspective which is sometimes difficult to get. For example, I was aware of the practice of performing rituals, including baptisms, for deceased family members – like many amateur historians and genealogists, I’ve benefited directly from work done to enable this, but also like many people outside the church (and as a member of a faith community which is specifically not interested in baptism) I’ve thought of this as ethically disturbing because it feels like imposing a religious ritual on someone who can’t consent. Seeing this from Nephi’s point of view, where the sense of love and desire to be close to his ancestors is strong, puts a different perspective on this.

I already knew a good deal about homophobia, and although some of the details of the depiction are interesting, what makes the story compelling is Nephi’s commitment to bringing together his faith and his sexuality – having tried living alone, he decides to try and forge a new path, one in which he keeps not just God and Jesus but the church in his life, while also dating and then marrying a man. There are some tragi-comic episodes as he experiments with the wonderful and confusing world of online dating (perhaps not handled entirely realistically, since most people would do some Google searches to find out about otters and bears and twinks… but Nephi’s decision to ask a friend instead produces some entertaining scenes, so I’m not complaining). Among other things, Nephi comes into contact with a series of people who are also in his position but making different decisions or failing to cope with the tension between the church and their lives. One character is rejected by his family and dies by a drug overdose. Another rejects the church, and some within the church fail to understand why anyone gay would want to remain.

This is the core conflict of the novel and one which is very relevant to me – and resonates with Tina Beattie’s The Good Priest which I reviewed last year. In a church where being gay makes you a bad church member, how do you strive to stay right with God? (Side note: I know you all know this, but just in case – this is not all churches and certainly not all religions, lots of people who believe in God are also gay and happy about it, so if reading about this is filling you with dread why not check out some affirming faith groups instead?) One of Nephi’s answers is to try and stay as involved with his church as that church will allow, even when they’re trying to kick him out. His consistency in this, and struggles to balance his need to attend church with other demands (like his partner’s desire that they attend a Pride parade together), is admirable even as it sometimes reaches the point of damaging stubbornness.

Another of Nephi’s answers, and a more theologically interesting one in some ways, is that he tries to work out what God’s commandments for a gay man would look like if they treated homosexual and heterosexual relationships fairly. Accepting as much as he can of the church’s rules, and taking on board – after a struggle – his own conviction that he is loved by God and worthy of human love, not called to remain entirely single or celibate, he tries to adjust the rules the smallest amount possible to make space for his own happiness. From a Quaker perspective, this story of trying to incorporate new light, fresh revelation not accepted by the hierarchy, into an existing structure is perhaps especially compelling – and frustrating, since nobody shows much sign of listening to him. For example, he knows he can only be attracted to men and decides to pursue a relationship with another man, but he commits to not having sex before getting married. (I really thought he wouldn’t succeed… but we don’t have Vegas in the UK!) Although eventually convinced, people around him find this very hard to believe – and after his marriage, he continues attending church services in a single’s ward, partly because he now has a group of friends there but also because the church don’t recognise his marriage.

Overall, I enjoyed this book and found it well worth reading. I braced myself to be horrified at several points (as well as the homophobia, there are extensive shooting and hunting sequences, which were actually fine for this relatively unsqueamish anti-gun pacifist vegan, but could have been much harder to read). I had questions sometimes (I can’t always tell what’s artistic license for the sake of the story and what’s genuinely vastly different systems in terms of the treatment of mental health, for example – there’s a massive lack of waiting lists). I recommend it to anyone interested in the overlapping issues of religion and sexuality, especially if you want to learn more about the Church of Latter-Day Saints, and I hope Rory McFarlan will continuing exploring these questions in fiction.