November 9, 2005


Consent is an extremely basic and crucial concept. Elsewhere I've written that "anything negotiated consensually is ethical". Possibly an overstatement -- but if so, not by much. As I understand it, consent is the very foundation for ethics.

My sense is that most philosophical discussion about consent has revolved around sex. I was first introduced to the concept of consent by Paul Edison and Moira Bowman (or was it Jeannie LaFrance?), who were at the time associated with the Portland Women's Crisis Line (and/or Bradley-Angle House). I explored the concept further while working with the Reed College Rape Awareness Project. Later I discovered other models of consent being created by the BDSM community.

In this particular essay, I'm most interested in exploring the concept of consent as it may be used by Youth Liberation. I am not interested in exploring issues of sexual consent for youth at this time. I am mainly concerned with non-sexual scenarios: e.g. when a parent wants their son/daughter to do or not do something, but their will is in conflict with that of the youth. While my starting point for discussion will be sexual models of consent, I intend to abstract general principles.


A) "An enthusiastic 'yes' without fear or confusion."

The first definition of consent that I learned was this: Consent is an enthusiastic "yes", without fear or confusion.

It's useful to think of consensuality as being a continuum. On one end of the continuum you have perfectly consensual interaction, on the other end you have force (rape in this context). The definition of consent presented above is an ideal. "Yes" is seldom going to be overtly "enthusiastic", and there's usually going to be a little bit of ambiguity because people haven't talked through every detail -- but still, there's an intuitive sense of which direction an interaction is leaning in. The ideal is worth articulating, in part, because it represents something to aspire toward.

B) The Antioch policy

During the early nineties, students at Antioch college -- grappling with the issue of date rape on campus -- created a written policy regarding consent. In essence, they said that it was a man's responsibility to explicitly ask for permission at each step along the way toward having sex.

A strength of this model is that it deals with the fact that date rape often isn't a matter of sudden, surprise assault -- there's a point at which the woman doesn't want to go farther, but the man presses in. Consider this data collected by Karen Rapaport & Barry Burkhart (quoted by Robin Warshaw in her 1988 book "I Never Called It Rape", pp. 96-97):


Kissed her: 53
Placed hand on her knee: 61
Placed hand on her breast: 60
Placed hand on her thigh or crotch: 58
Removed or disarranged her outer clothing: 42
Removed or disarranged her underwear: 32
Touched her genitals: 37
Had intercourse: 15

The data, of course, is out of date -- what I want to focus on here is the structure of the information. Personally, I think it's rather ingenious, walking through a serious of steps toward a point that can be identified as rape. I include this table to help illustrate that coercion tends to not be a simple matter of disregarding one "no" -- but rather of pressing past multiple boundaries.

The Antioch policy has been much criticized, on several accounts. (1) It puts the entire burden for communication upon the man; what responsibility does the woman have for speaking up? (2) It is potentially awkward to have to explicitly, verbally negotiate each "next step" in a sexual encounter; isn't there room for non-verbal cues? (3) The model doesn't acknowledge even the possibility that a woman may be a sexual initiator, potentially violating a man's boundaries. (4) The model fails to acknowledge sexual encounters between people of the same sex.

Despite these problems, I think that the Antioch model is valuable, in that it presents an additional model of consent, and furthers discussion.

C) Creating safety for a partner to say "no"

Saying "no" can be hard. When things are beginning to not feel alright, it can be difficult to speak up and break the flow of what's happening. As the person being hurt, you may be sensing that things are starting to go wrong -- but you're hoping that you're imagining things, hoping that the situation will right itself without having to say anything. Speaking up may lead to the other person getting defensive, it may lead to an argument. And then what may have been a generally OK time, is entirely spoiled. So you wait -- and as the situation gets progressively worse, it becomes increasingly difficult to speak up: you'll have to explain why you waited so long, both to the other person and to yourself.

Saying "no" gets easier when you do it more frequently. When "no" isn't so uncommon, it doesn't seem like such a big deal -- either to the person saying it, or the person hearing it. Saying "no" also gets easier when the person hearing it encourages you to say it, and has demonstrated that they won't react defensively or angrily.

Toward the goal of making it feel safer to say "no" for my partners, I've developed a set of personal principles about how I want to be receptive. These are five ideas that I make a point of communicating:

  1. You can say no at any time, and I must stop immediately.
  2. You can say no even if we're in the middle of doing something.
  3. You can say no even if we've done this same thing fifty times before.
  4. You can say no without being nice about it, shouting if necessary.
  5. You don't have to explain why you're saying no.

Generally, I feel good about the atmosphere of respect that these principles create. However, I recognize that in practice an ideal consent remains problematic. For instance: if a partner is about to orgasm, it almost seems mean to stop things just at that point -- there's a sense of guilt and/or generosity that can goad one into just waiting through something uncomfortable. Similarly, when you've been together for years, consent can in some ways become more difficult, rather than easier... Rather than being on your best behavior, as on a first date, routine and sloppiness may creep in so that you're not as attentive or communicative as you once were.

D) "Willingness"

So far, it's been assumed that one should be aspiring to an ideal consent: "an enthusiastic 'yes' without fear or confusion". In terms of one's personal relationship to sex, there is an implied principle: "I should only be sexual if I am truly feeling sexual." This can be more difficult that it seems at first. When you stop and really check your emotions, you may find that there is complexity: part of you is interested in sex, but part is feeling depressed, part is just tired, part is thinking about other things. Should you really only have sex if you're 100% enthusiastic?

In the context of women healing from sexual abuse, authors Ellen Bass and Laura Davis offer up an alternative model in their book "The Courage To Heal" (p. 254):


One of the most pervasive myths about sexuality is that you have to feel desire or excitement to enjoy making love. Loulan exploded this myth in her revised version of the female sexual response cycle. Previous models of women's sexual response cycle (Master and Johnson, Helen Singer Kaplan) cite either desire or excitement as the necessary starting point for sex.

In Loulan's model, the sexual response cycle begins with neither of these. It begins with the willingness to have sex. Willingness simply means that you are willing to enter into the sexual realm with yourself or another person and to be open to what you might find there. Willingness is an attitude. It doesn't commit you to anything more than beginning.

The concept of willingness as a legitimate entry point for sexual activity makes sex much more accessible to women who don't experience desire. It means you can have sex even if you're not feeling physical longing, emotional excitement, or desire of any kind. This is a radical and liberating approach to female sexuality.

The reasons you are willing may vary. You might be willing because you want the pleasure sex brings, because you know you will enjoy it once you get started, because you want to work on sexual issues with your lover, or because you want to practice making love to yourself.

For many women, the idea of willingness is a tremendous relief. Instead of asking yourself "Do I want sex?" or "What's wrong with me that I don't feel desire?" you can ask instead "Am I willing to begin?" The concept of willingness gives you the permission to explore sexually from exactly where you are. Instead of trying to generate desire out of nowhere, you can simply say, "Yes, I'm willing to try."

"Willingness", in my opinion, is a good addition to our thinking about consent. It gives us a more sophisticated and accurate picture of how decisions are actually made. My one concern about this model is that over time, when you're with a partner, and if you're not actively pursuing some sort of healing work, it can begin to squeeze out checking in with your emotions. "Willingness", in my opinion, is best decided on a case-by-case basis -- rather than as a matter of policy, which emotionally prevents saying "no" in the future.

E) Under what circumstances does a person say "yes"?

A great deal of the discussion about consent revolves around saying the word "no". Slogans decry "No means no!" and "What part of 'no' don't you understand?"

But "no" is only half of the puzzle. It also helps to know what a person really means when they say "yes". How does the individual you're interacting with decide "yes"? Does YES mean "I enthusiastically agree"? Or "well, you have the stronger opinion, so I'll follow your lead"? Or "I can't explain why I feel like I do, so I'll just do what you suggest"? Or "I feel defeated because you won't stop arguing, so I surrender"?

No means no -- but if a person isn't very good at asserting themselves, and is likely to cave in to whoever has the strongest will -- perhaps "yes" should not be accepted at face value. "How do you decide 'yes'?" can be a very enlightening discussion.

F) Safe words

The community of people who play with Bondage/Discipline, Domination/Submission, and Sadism/Masochism (BDSM) has survived serious political attacks from feminist activists, and legal attacks from the mainstream culture... In large part because of these attacks, BDSM activists have developed a lively discussion about consent that rivals that of anti-rape activists and sexual abuse survivors. As a popular slogan goes, BDSM play should be "safe, sane, and consensual".

The BDSM consent model works like this: two (or more) people negotiate about what activities they want to engage in and what their boundaries are, in a non-sexual setting; when the "scene" begins, no further negotiation need occur; however, there are "safe words" with which a person can stop or slow down the scene if it's getting out of hand.

Advantages of this arrangement: It allows the people involved to avoid formality while they are playing, and go more with their feelings and intuition. In many feminist dialogues, there has been a sense about sex that it should be very gentle; this model embraces the notion that sexual rough-housing and wrestling can be very satisfying for both parties -- if it's what they're looking for. It allows for role-playing where one party gets to be playfully saying "no" without stopping the action -- until they say the predetermined safe word. The safe word model seems to promise that you can do anything you want sexually -- so long as you can negotiate for it beforehand.

Of course, there are also difficulties with this model -- which have been commented on even from within the BDSM community. (1) It can be difficult keep D/S dynamics out of the negotiation period -- particularly if one or both of the parties involved are hungry for play. (2) When one is doing pain play and is flooded with endorphins, the mind can go away, and it can become very difficult to collect oneself enough to say a safe word. (3) Doing D/S play for prolonged periods, such as weeks at a time ("24-7"), can wear down a submissive's sense of self so that it's very difficult for them to get back to a place where they can truly negotiate with their play partner in an egalitarian fashion. (4) When the person doing the dominating stays in their role for a long time, they can become sloppy about paying attention to the person they are playing with, risking doing real harm.

These are significant issues. In addition to physical risks, there are psychological risks involved with BDSM that aren't seen as much in "vanilla" sex. One needs to take a great deal of responsibility for oneself entering into "contracts". BDSM has been likened to an extreme sport, such as football, skydiving, or bungee jumping: there are risks, but a person who is conscientious about safety can also have a lot of fun.

G) "Power play" and "equality play"

[Here I may be digressing from the topic of "consent". Consent, in essence, is about the moment in a decision-making process where a person says "yes" or "no". Here I'm making a move to talking about the larger process of decision-making. For a decision to be made, someone has to make a proposal -- someone has to initiate. We tend to recognize consent when an explicit question is raised: do you want to do this or not? But for the vast majority of the time, things are in motion already -- someone has initiated a script or agenda of some sort that is playing out. How do we understand the role of the person who is "steering" a situation?]

The BDSM model of consent is interesting here because it offers us another option to consider. Most people won't be interested in trying the activities that it was developed to deal with. However, I think that there is a reason why people who are interested in egalitarianism should not simply dismiss this area of thought...

People involved in Domination and Submission talk about "power play". For "doms" there is a pleasure in getting to say how things are going to be, getting to be in control and have your way. For "subs" there's a pleasure in being taken care of, not having to make decisions, getting to relax and simply experience what another person provides for you. Doms and subs are well served by "switching", exchanging roles and getting to see what the other person experiences.

...Note that D/S need not be sexual, nor involve any sort of pain play. It can be as banal as picking someone in a large group to be the "designated control freak" who will figure out what restaurant everyone will go to for dinner, who'll see to it that the necessary steps happen to make the plan work. It can be likened to dancing: who's going to lead, and who will follow?

"Vanilla" folks often look at "power play" askew -- why would anyone want to engage in dominance and submission? However, from the D/S perspective, normal social interactions are drenched in power dynamics -- most people who claim to be egalitarian simply don't acknowledge them -- and probably can't even see them. Engaging in "power play" helps teach one to see the often subtle power dynamics in daily life. "Power play", then, is nothing so special -- it's merely doing what happens in daily life, but conscientiously.

Given how ubiquitous D/S dynamics are, it might be more accurate to think about egalitarianism as "equality play". We'd like it to be the norm, but in reality it takes some conscientiousness to make sure that all parties involved are equally determining events. I offer up D/S play, and "switching" in particular, as a way to help train egalitarian-minded people to see the power dynamics at work around them.


Consent is well-imagined as a continuum, with an ideal consent on one pole, and coercion on the other. An ideal consent might be expressed as "an enthusiastic 'yes' without fear or confusion".

In the context of sex, there are a great many points where consensuality can be checked on the way to intercourse. It's useful to begin seeing many small boundaries: touching a knee, touching a breast, removing a piece of clothing, etc. Each of these boundaries is an opportunity to check how one's partner is feeling.

It can be challenging to break a silence and say that something's not right. Much can be done to create a safer environment, where a sexual partner will feel comfortable speaking up.

It should be recognized that people generally, at any particular moment, have a number of thoughts and feelings going through their minds. So long as these are noticed and considered, a "willing" rather than "enthusiastic" yes is perfectly adequate.

It's good to know what a partner's criteria for saying "yes" are. To what extent are they motivated to advocate for their own desires, versus prone to passively following another person's will?

With advance negotiation, almost any activity can potentially be engaged in, in a consensual fashion. Safe words are a useful tool in this "advanced" sort of play -- however, they are liable to break down if the pain or time spend "in scene" are too extreme.

So long as events are in motion, there is a decision-making process. Who is the main person initiating and guiding the situation at hand? Intentionally playing with the roles of "lead" and "follower" can help train one to see these power dynamics.

Consent only tends to be noticed as an issue when a question is articulated, or when a problem arises. All of these ideas are geared to helping make one more aware of when to check-in with a partner about consent. Consent tends to be assumed -- but a safer path is to intentionally discuss it.

[Note to self: Loose threads... I could have dealt more with the topic of "non-accommodation". I could have said more clearly that "power is about decision-making". I probably should have said more about threatening contexts, e.g. a boyfriend who hits the wall or kicks cats. I'm tempted to say something about how I think that while masculinity plays a role in rape and battery, the better part of the phenomena can be attributed to boundary, consent, and entitlement issues.]

Posted by Sven at 8:44 PM | Comments (1)

April 22, 2005

Don't Learn Your Ethics In "Sin City"

My questions: Is Sin City sexist? Not only is the fantasy world it portrays sexist -- but also, does creating a film like this promote sexist thinking in the real world? (If so, what should we do?) Putting aside how it portrays women, what "moral lessons" does Sin City teach me as a man? Beyond the ethics of personal relationships, and beyond just Sin City, how does author Frank Miller think men of honor should confront corrupt institutional power?


I want to address "Is Sin City sexist?" Starting point:

"I think it's a bit ridiculous saying [the vignettes are] misogynistic when several women actually have both prominent and powerful roles. Nudity does not equal misogyny. Additionally, cruelty to women is punished harshly in the movie."

This post sums up the way a lot of people feel about Sin City, so... Let's begin with the word "misogyny".

I agree that Sin City is not misogynistic, not in the strict sense of "woman-hating". It's true that its world is populated with men who abuse women -- but, yes, the misogynists get punished severely for their crimes.

Misogyny is just one flavor of sexism, though. I can describe several models of sexism, and show how Sin City meets the criteria for most of them.

[Aside: There are several widely-recognized branches of feminism: Liberal, Marxist, Radical, and Socialist being the best established. See "Feminist Politics and Human Nature" by Alison Jaggar, or "Feminist Thought" by Rosemarie Tong, for a good introduction. Since dictionary definitions of "sexism" derive from feminist thought, but only succeed insofar as the dictionaries' authors are familiar with feminist thought, I choose not to ground my arguments there. ...Nor, do I see a need to choose one variety of feminism as the "correct" one here. Looking at a variety of definitions makes for a richer discussion.]

One approach to defining sexism taken by Liberal feminists is to equate it with stereotypes. Men are strong, women are weak, and anything that contradicts this notion is anti-sexist. This is a line of thinking that helps fuel the "girls kick ass too" strain of films, exemplified by La Femme Nikita, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Tank Girl, Xena, etc.

A weak case can be made that Sin City is non-sexist or even pro-feminist using this standard. Certainly some of the female characters shoot guns, wield swords, and kick ass. On the other hand, you also have a fair number of women whose sole purpose seems to be being precious objects, to be protected from the misogynists, abusers, and women-killers by other strong men. If all sexism boils down to is the notion that "men are strong, women are weak", then the movie goes both ways.

Another line of thinking in Liberal feminism looks for double-standards, rather than just at caricatures.

Double-standards in Sin City? Heck yeah. I certainly agree that "Nudity does not equal misogyny." But isn't it interesting how much female nudity we get relative to male nudity? Why not show us Bruce Willis' penis? We got to see the lead male's penis in 28 Days Later... My impression is that we get to see a lot of women's breasts because that's what the male target-audience is going to enjoy.

That's just one instance of a double-standard. On the other hand, you have both men and women wielding guns -- so the movie also has an equalizing effect, at least on this one point. But probably the most commonly cited double-standard, the "virgin / whore" paradigm -- that's in full force. The only woman in the film that I can think of who's not literally a virgin or a whore is the lesbian parole officer -- who, according to the traditional pulp script for homosexuals, is promptly killed off. It's almost comical, the way in which Sin City universally divides women into those who must be protected from sex, and those whose sole purpose is sex.

Another line of thinking about sexism focuses on "androcentrism" -- male-centeredness. Using this criteria, I notice that none of the protagonists in the vignettes are female. The voice of the narrator is always male. The movie is a fantasy designed to be enjoyed by a male audience. In itself, perhaps that's not necessarily a bad thing. But look -- women are constantly in the position of having to be saved by the men. Even the gun-toting prostitutes are going to be in a world of trouble, if this one male hero can't get control of the severed head back.

...If even strong women have to be saved by a man, then doesn't that undermine any real sense of their strength?

If androcentrism is the essence of sexism, then to be anything but sexist, we need to see women existing independently of men. Here's a useful test to apply to any film: (1) Do two women talk to each other? (2) Do they talk to each other about something other than men? ...Sin City fails miserably on both accounts.

One more model of sexism -- the one that I personally find most useful, and the one that seems most damning for Sin City: women as men's property.

In the world of Sin City, bad men abuse their female property, and good men protect their female property by murdering the bad men. The only control that women can hope to have in this imaginary universe is preemptively selling themselves to men as prostitutes -- renting their bodies, rather than being in the clutches of possessive boyfriends. [And, as mentioned before, even as seemingly self-possessed prostitutes, their safety really depends upon being saved by the male protector.]

See, sexism is more than just women-hating. Reverence for women can be sexism too. In every instance, our male narrators -- in their quest to defend their angelic women -- wind up knocking them unconscious, slapping them, ignoring them, or lying to them. The consequences of this reverent urge to protect look pretty abusive and disrespectful to me.


OK -- that's enough of surveying different interpretations of "sexist". My original question was "Is Sin City sexist?" ...Really there are two ways of interpreting that: (1) Is the fantasy world created within this piece of fiction governed by the rules of sexism? or (2) Is the production and propagation of this film in the actual world an act of sexism?

Me, when I consider all of the different definitions of sexism that can be applied to this movie, I think it's pretty clear that the imaginary world of Sin City is governed by sexism.

As for whether creating and distributing this film in the real world is an act of sexism -- well, let's look at that.

You could laugh the movie off and say that it's just a fantasy. We all know the difference between reality and fiction, so even if the movie's content is sexist, it has no impact on the outside world.

You could acknowledge that the movie's content is sexist -- but then minimize that point. You could say that the story is situated in a time-period or sub-culture that was overtly sexist, and so to be accurate about the period, you must show sexism. ...You could even argue that omitting the sexism would be a white-washing of things as they really were!

Counter-arguments: Our lives are governed by fantasy. I watch Star Wars, in part, because I enjoy projecting myself into the role of Luke Skywalker. Conversely, I don't watch Steel Magnolias or other "chick flicks" because I don't enjoy projecting myself into the characters presented therein.

If the author and director of Sin City had any commercial interest at all in making this film, then they must have been concerned with getting men to the theater who enjoy this particular fantasy. This film not only reiterates past fantasies of being a possessive hero-protector of women, but also generates stronger feelings of identification with such characters. I feel comfortable saying that the film expands the influence of sexist thinking, rather than shrinking it.

So? What if the author and director of this film are guilty of promoting sexist thinking? Am I advocating that this film should be censored? Or that activists should picket the theaters where it's being shown? Or that we should minimize its financial success by not going to see it, not buying the DVD? Am I calling for movie producers to make films that are more "politically correct"? Or urging the male audience to balance out their psyches by going to see movies like Steel Magnolias once in a while?

Frankly, I don't have a prescriptive measure. But I don't think that means I shouldn't say: "the fantasy world of Sin City is sexist" or "the popularity of this movie is actively bolstering sexist attitudes".


Sin City is a visually stunning movie. And though the performances were occasionally wooden, I still found it emotionally compelling. I too have sexist fantasies of being a possessive hero-protector in my head.

So, turning 180-degrees from my first discussion about the movie's attitude towards women, now I want to ask this question: "What does Sin City tell me about how to be a good man?"

The heroes in this film were criminals. But in a universe where the government and police are corrupt, only criminals can truly be just. [The exception of course, is Bruce Willis, who was a cop bucking the system -- and whom had to consent to being treated like a criminal in order to do the right thing.] Regardless of which side of the law these characters fell on, however, they all had strong personal codes of ethics. You could say that they followed a higher law than the laws of men. [Yes, "men".]

This film says to me: "the most important thing in the world, in order to be a good man, is to protect women". I should protect little girls from being raped. I should avenge women who are murdered. If a new boyfriend is mistreating my ex, I should beat him up. If a group of women is in trouble, then I should be truly noble and risk my own life to save them. I must be made of steel; I must be ready to do violence in the name of protecting women; I must be a loner, ready to over-rule the will of women if they're not talking sense.

And my reward for this behavior? I may have to die -- but I'll know that I'm good, because I've saved a woman. I'll be recognized by strangers as a potential protector, and consequently get laid for the only time in my life. I'll get my ex-girlfriend back -- not the wussy one who dated an abuser, but the sexy one who's full of fire.

Wow. That's a thrilling image.

And I don't think that this ethical ideal is limited to Sin City. I won't try to make a critique of contemporary male role models in general -- but at least with Frank Miller, there seems to be continuity. I can't even say that I'm a Frank Miller aficionado -- but within the "Dark Knight Returns" universe, there's a scene where an aging Batman is arguing with his frail heart, trying not to have a heart attack just long enough so that he can do the right thing. The similarity to Bruce Willis' character in Sin City is so striking, I have to assume that Miller actually believes this stuff. It's not just making fun of the old pulps -- Miller truly wants us to look up to these characters, view them as legitimate ethical role models.

As a man who aspires to remove sexism from my own behavior, I think I should explicitly contradict at least two of Miller's "moral lessons", so as to not let them sink too far into my unconscious:

(1) Women do not need my protection. It's not my job to be a bodyguard. Women are perfectly able to fight off attackers. If my partner wants to bolster her ability to fight back, she can take a class. If I want to take a self-defense class, too -- that's cool. But a safe escape is almost always going to be preferable to a knock-down drag-out fight. Turning myself into a killing machine to protect women's virtue -- just makes me a killing machine.

[This point goes for little girls, too. Better to arm them with the self-determination to get away on their own, than dependence on me as some kind of savior who'll swoop in after the assault.]

(2) Don't get too invested in being one of the "good men". Seeing the men-who-hit-women as such embodiments of evil in this film, I'm encouraged to imagine the real world as being populated by good and bad men. Investing my identity in being a "good man" can lead to defensiveness against any implication that I've done wrong. If my "honor" makes me deaf to criticism, then I don't progressively learn how to be a better person -- I simply make it difficult for the loved ones I've hurt to confront me. Personally, I'd rather see "bad men" as persons who've taken negative ideas, ones that exist in my head too, to extremes. If all men have received sexist training, there's no guilt in harboring sexist thoughts -- just responsibility for making changes when you become aware of them, particularly if the revelation is via someone telling you you've hurt them.

Maybe this is my answer about what to do in response to Sin City's sexism: explicitly discuss the how the fantasy shows men treating women in sexist ways -- but then move on to focus on how it depicts men. The story's anti-heroes excite my imagination; yet, I don't want them to implicitly be held up as role-models for being an "honorable man".


Let's take the "how to be an honorable man" theme beyond men's relationships with women.

In Miller's universe, everyone who has institutional power is corrupt. The only solution is to become a vigilante. [Both points are true in Miller's Batman stories, too.] ...Given my Lefty perspectives on the tradition of police brutality, officially sanctioned use of torture at American detention centers around the world (such as Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo bay), the efforts of COINTELPRO to squelch radicals within the U.S., etc. -- there's something that feels... refreshingly honest? ...about how Miller depicts institutional power.

I'm an activist -- I'm interested in changing the institutions that govern our lives. ...But the vigilantism that Miller seems to lionize is street justice. If I really believe in Miller's worldview, then I need to be out on streets hunting down sexual predators -- perhaps with a gang of other gun-toting vigilantes behind me. [No thanks!] Or, I need to become a hard-boiled cop who doesn't follow rules. [Also, no thanks!]

In Sin City corrupt officials are as untouchable as gods. In Dark Knight Miller finally reveals what his alternative to corruption is: the "good guys" need to forcefully set up a global totalitarian regime.

[Hm. Do you suppose that George Bush II is himself playing out a similar fantasy: acting as the infallible Superman, pushing aside checks and balances, in order to become the sole arbiter of what's right?]

If the question is now "How do we uproot official corruption?" -- then I don't have a proposal of my own... But I know that I don't like what Miller would have us do.

* * *

So, in conclusion:

NO to Frank Miller's vision of honorable manhood.

NO to Frank Miller's vision of fixing the government with vigilantism and global totalitarianism.

...Sin City is exciting in part because of the force of it's internal ethical code -- but Miller's code is one that we should vocally reject.

Posted by Sven at 3:17 PM

December 9, 2002

COMPASS [a poem]

NOTE: Please adjust the width of your browser window so that the line breaks appear properly.

I. North
Over there, in the North
in Edmonton Alberta
is where I was born.

In a University hospital wing that's since been torn down
where Barb & Charlie live, my mother's sister and her husband.

II. East
Over there, in the East
in Orono Maine
is where I grew up.

Going to Orono High School
living near the University of Maine with my family
in a house that we sold and moved away from.

III. South
Over there, the South
is where my family moved to.

Tucson Arizona:
Where my Mother & Brother went after leaving Maine
my Granny & Grampa after having lived in Wisconsin.
Texas: Where my father moved after Corvallis Oregon,
which is where he went after leaving Maine.

I'll probably visit my family again soon.

IV. West
Over there is the West
Portland Oregon
where I live now.

With Jacque, in a duplex
after having gone to Reed College.

Where I was partners with Argie
Matt & Malia before that
Hilary (in a way), Miwa
Amanda from Maine
Lara, first of all.

V. Above
Up there, Above
the Sky
is where I came from.

Outer space, a Big Bang
matter and energy coalescing into a solar system
the Sun
this planet, the Earth
formed from the dust of galaxies.

VI. Below
Down there, Below
in the ground
is where I will go.

A ball of iron and nickel
with trace elements on the surface rusting,
being bombarded with nuclear rays
forming a thin, inhabitable layer where life could emerge

One day I'll go back to the ground
worms will eat me, my body decompose
I'll become soil once again.

VII. Center
The Center, inside
this is my life.

This flesh which has been passed on generation after generation
as a seed by a species mating with itself
my mother and father creating this being
that I exist now.
These breaths, this blood, this flesh
this is my life
these thoughts and feelings and sensations:


Sven Bonnichsen
December 9, 2002

Posted by Sven at 4:02 PM | Comments (5)

October 10, 2002

Property and Ownership - part 5

V. Collective Ownership
This essay's exploration of property and ownership has focused on privately held possessions. However, I would be remiss if I didn't touch on property owned collectively by groups of people. Think about large business corporations and nation states.

In both cases you don't have a single "self" -- you have many, many people working together in collaboration. Nonetheless, a unity of "will" emerges through formal decision-making processes. Perhaps there's a chain of command with a single person at the top making decisions for everybody. Perhaps there's a democratic vote, from which collective decisions proceed, dictating the group's direction -- even for the dissenters.

Both businesses and nations can own money, material assets, and land. With nation states, there are national parks and public land that is said to belong to all citizens -- though it's managed by government agencies. In actuality, all land within the borders of a nation is claimed by the government; privately owning parcels of land is contingent upon governmental sanction. We live in a time when all of Earth's landmass has been divvied up into countries -- yet, we need not think of the nation state as a natural phenomenon.

In a sense, we have all been colonized, all of us living inside of nations. In true colonialism, a foreign government invades a geographic area outside of its current boundaries, either setting up a governing body for the first time, or replacing the native government with rulers of its choosing. Like a colonized people, persons born inside a nation are subject to policies that they have not consented to -- because they have been automatically inducted into the citizenship. "If you don't like it, move to another country," some would say -- the trick is that there's no place left where you won't just be moving into some other government's space, coming under another group's set of rules. The difference between being a colonized people and being the citizenship of a representational democracy such as the U.S., of course, is the ease with which the land's inhabitants can change governmental policies. Still, in any group that is not joined voluntarily (such as a nation), questions of consent must arise.

National governments deal with their citizens as if they are property of the state. Various laws prohibit assailants from doing damage to the state's human possessions -- whether those assailants be other citizens (e.g. rape, child abuse) or the "possessions" themselves (e.g. suicide, drug use). Should it feel the need to do so, the government may even impose forced labor that leads to death -- e.g. drafting citizens to act as soldiers in war. In this last case, the nation state looks most like a would-be owner of slaves, if and when citizens object that the war is an unjust cause that they do not want to participate in.

Despite the critical tone of this section, I would not call myself anti-government. This essay is an exploration of property and ownership, and my point here is to show that groups (such as national governments), like individual persons, may claim human beings as their possessions. I believe in the necessity of imprisoning persons who demonstrate a threat to others by doing violence. [I do not, however, agree that this nation's current prison industry and justice system have achieved a humane implementation of the idea.] Imprisonment implies that one owns another person. Thus, I condemn treating persons as property in interpersonal relationships -- but feel compelled to bracket off the issue of governmental ownership of citizens as a separate issue, on which I have no clear opinion at present.

In a long, panoramic essay such as this, it can be helpful to review the overall arc of ideas. Therefore, let me conclude by offering a summary of main points:

...I recognize that this final point was really only touched on as a passing comment. It seems to me the direction that everything I've discussed points toward. However, a truly adequate exploration of "what projects ethics should take on" falls outside of my current topic's parameters. I hope to revisit this matter in future essays.

-- END --

October 10, 2002

Posted by Sven at 4:38 PM | Comments (1)

October 9, 2002

Property and Ownership - part 4

IV. Persons As Property
In the first section of this essay I described "property" as things that are treated like extensions of the self. Here I will discuss the idea of privately owning another person: its appeal and difficulties, how claim is laid on another being, and how the powers of ownership get applied to humans.

(A) The Appeal and Difficulties of Owning Another Person
The benefits of having another person become an extension of yourself are obvious: then you have twice as many hands, twice the mental power, and can accomplish twice the work. What's more, because you don't experience their senses directly, you can avoid the unpleasantness of tasks that you don't like by assigning them to the second person.

However, there's a serious problem. This other person has an independent mind, a will of their own, and cannot help but keep reasserting their separateness. This is an issue also inherent in owning animals -- but their minds are less intelligible to us. With other humans, issues of mind and will come to the foreground, unignorable. ...No matter what, another person will move, speak, and respond in ways that the would-be owner does not fully expect. Perfect control is impossible; some leeway for uncontrolled actions must be accommodated.

To make having another person as an extension of your self work at all, they must internalize a sense of being obligated to obey commands. You're not going to physically move their arms and legs for them; they have to decide to do so on their own. This is where threats of punishment come in, as a means to motivate obedience. If I strongly don't want to plow your field for you, the only things you can do to motivate me are to make me fear being beaten, fear losing the means to get food for myself, or fear the loss of some other possession / relationship that is more valuable to me than my time and energy.

It is the fear of suffering -- not suffering itself -- that will keep me in line. I have to feel that my compliance buys me escape. If I experience nothing but constant punishments, I grow used to them and stop fearing them as much. When there's no room at all for safety or free action, resistance becomes imperative.

Owning someone is most effective when the threat of force fades into the background, the command / obey relationship comes to seem natural, and the dependent person is kept in check by their own conscience -- an inner voice that tells them they're bad if they break "the rules". Control can be accomplished by carrot as well as stick, once the permanent potential for punishment has been established. The would-be owner can make themselves look nicer and better by giving treats and allowing periods of free time / areas of free action. Then the subordinate can almost forget the reason why they're being obedient, and focus just on living life day to day. ["Rules" are a nicety of owners, an attempt to establish predictability and make the owned person feel more safe and willing. However, rule-making is an outgrowth of the basic command / obey relationship -- which is all that matters -- so they can be changed at any time, according to mood.]

People aren't robots; even at the height of slavery in the U.S. there was allowance for free action -- ignoring behavior that wouldn't impact primary mission goals. Still, inherent in treating someone like they're part of you, like your will's second set of hands, there is a raw desire for control. It is not simply asking for (or rather, *stealing*) help to accomplish limited goals; being obeyed becomes an end in itself. Even the "nice" would-be owners have limited tolerance for insubordination: questioning the rightness of commands, complaining, rolling of eyes and sighing, sarcastic responses ("back-talk"), responding slowly or putting off until later, being angry or cold or unhappy instead of warm / polite / grateful. Such responses prompt the would-be owner to cause some sort of pain; they feel their authority is under attack, so they fight back to put the subordinate "in their place".

[For most, I suspect, this isn't an enjoyed act of sadism. They would prefer to see themselves as kind, noble, and generous. ...But to *not* strike back would (as they perceive it) undermine their identity as adult / male / white / etc. -- whichever group membership they feel entitles them to be an owner, to be on top.

It is the act of punishment that most makes a person feel they are a legitimate member of a ruling class. For someone who feels their group should be on top, actually putting someone down is the only way to definitively demonstrate membership. Even if their body physically matches the social category, belonging may be fragile -- they risk being outcast for not behaving in-role. In a sense, it's a question of loyalty... Will you uphold the right of all adults to be in power by making an uppity teenager sorry? Do you embody the culture of manhood -- or do you sympathize too much with women, and thus deserve to be treated like one -- or be treated worse, because you've betrayed men as a group?]

(B) How Claim Is Laid On Another Being
In the U.S., the first (and perhaps only) thing that comes to mind with the phrase "persons as property" is our own nation's history of abducting Africans and forcing them to do hard labor. However, in this exploration of property and ownership, we should dig deeper and look at relationships that share qualities with slavery, but go by a different name. Let's first approach the breadth of "persons as property" by considering how would-be owners could come to acquire other human beings.

• During the period when the U.S. (among other countries) engaged in slave trade, typically foreigners crossed the ocean and forcefully abducted native Africans. Sometimes, because there was a profit to be had, rounding up was also done by other Africans. For the most part, though, slave-traders constituted a special merchant class.

• Going further back in time, to the Roman Empire, we find a society also dependent on slaves, but which primarily procured human beings for enslavement through war campaigns. In this case, the country's soldiers were responsible for procurement.

• In pre-biblical times, slaves were generally taken captive during intertribal conflict. ...That is, if you wanted to own somebody, you had to go out and capture them by yourself, or with your buddies.

• Gerda Lerner has suggested in her book "The Creation of Patriarchy" that intertribal conflict was the origin of patrilocal marriage in western society. Females, by virtue of attachment to the children they bore, were easier captives to keep than unencumbered males. As the practice of male warriors owning female slaves spread, the entire balance of sexual power within the community shifted. Over time, the entire relationship between men and women became very similar to slavery. "Marriage" institutionalized the transfer of human property (females) and cloaked it in ritual, so that we're hardly aware now of its unsavory origins. Unlike slavery based on capture, a husband could generate a daughter by having sex with his wife; this father could then "give away the bride" to another man in exchange for a bride price, status, etc. Virginity, in essence, was "proof of purchase". Marriage, as it has existed for hundreds of years, looks different from enslaving people from other countries -- but its history bears all the hallmarks of "persons as property": husbands being legally entitled to demand sex, to be "honored and obeyed", and to use violence to enforce their will.

• Though childhood is a temporary status, it is also largely about ownership. Early in our nation's history, families with ten or more children were common -- in part because procreation was a means to generate laborers. Since then, an amount of power has shifted away from the parents; instead of tending fields (most) children now do school work -- arguably labor in service of the state. However, parents still have near absolute power to issue commands and discipline with corporal punishment. It's telling that youth may be "disowned" or "emancipated" -- words derivative of slavery. Again, this is a case of generating new persons to be owned via procreation. In some times and places laws have allowed slaves to buy their way out of slavery. It is remarkable that in recent centuries (male) children have been automatically emancipated upon reaching a particular age.

• With indentured servitude, a person would essentially sell themselves into slavery (though some were abducted for the purpose), but for a limited time -- typically seven years. Could a person become the property of another voluntarily? Apparently, for the right price -- such as transport from Europe to America. It seems that becoming "property" is not so much about involuntary capture, as about the degree of subordination that one experiences.

• Work camps have existed (and continue to, in some places) where employees are receive money, but they are still essentially slaves. They are paid pitiful wages and then forced to spend all they earn on essentials from an over-priced company store. Typically geographically isolated, such systems trap the workers and place them in perpetual debt to the employer. Again, the would-be owner acquires human beings from a pool of volunteers -- but for the most part, volunteers whose circumstances have forced them to consent to a bad deal.

...To summarize, a would-be owner might acquire another person from:

Reviewing this list, I feel it's worth saying a little more about employment in general. Most people earn money by doing some sort of labor -- literally selling their time and energy. If you collected money by selling your material possessions (a favorite coffee mug, a couch), then you would be severing extensions of your self, and the imaginary perimeter that encompasses all your possessions would shrink. How far could this go? Could you sell your own foot? The energy sold in doing labor is a also part of your body -- but it's renewable (unlike your foot). The question I'm creeping up on is this: at what point in selling off bits of your person to an employer do you actually give away your self and become owned, voluntarily become property?

I suppose that the self is permanently independent, therefore a "property" that cannot be accidentally lost. However, the more you consent to obey commands, the more you take on the appearance of being an extension of somebody else. An employer can *attempt* to lay claim on you and treat you like property. I said earlier that I would presume in this essay that "uncontested claims of ownership are legitimate". When an employer tries to treat someone as property, this is a situation that should be contested! A slave with wages still suffers slavery.

I feel that trying to make humans into possessions is unethical. The great challenge of practical ethics is just this: to escape the subtle ways in which command / obey relationships arise. ...Or more modestly, at least to find ways to minimize violation of will, should some hierarchies prove unavoidable or even necessary. *Most* jobs have a strong element of heirarchy -- but we can make distinctions. The more an employer "bosses" you around and acts punitively towards feedback / criticism, the worse the job is; the more an employer solicits feedback and gives you the ability to improve the workplace, the better the job is.

(C) Powers of Ownership Applied to People
A great deal of effort goes into acquiring another person to be property, and into disciplining them to obey commands. Given the resistance that a human being can put up, any comparison between them and an inanimate object may seem absurd. In this section I'd like to revisit the "powers of ownership" that one wields over inanimate possessions (see above, "II. Control Of Your Property"), and spell out how they are sometimes applied -- inappropriately -- to people.

[For the sake of clarity, my examples will be extreme cases: slavery and abuse done to women and minors. However, let us hold in mind that many of these same dynamics exist in more subtle forms, permeating normal, day-to-day social life.]

(1) Permission to touch. When you own a thing, you don't need permission to touch it. If another person was your possession, then you could touch them whenever you wanted, however you wanted. It would be your right to cop a feel, stick your hand down their pants, and demand intercourse. You could flog them, slap their face, punch them in the stomach, spank them on the bottom. ...And just as it would anger you to find that someone had been rifling through your inanimate possessions, you'd probably get angry if someone had sex with your human property without your permission. [Think about how some men react when a girlfriend sleeps with (or just talks to!) someone else, or to an "under age" daughter having sex with a boyfriend.]

(2) Staying put. You expect inanimate possessions to stay where you put them. With the same motive, a white owner might put shackles on their slave to keep them on the plantation. An abusive husband might insist that his wife stay at home and not work ("barefoot and pregnant"). A parent might insist that their offspring be in school during the day, under the supervision of a chaperone in the afternoon, and back home after curfew. In the day of slavery, there were people whose job it was to catch runaway slaves. In current times it remains illegal for minors to run away, and truant officers pursue youth who avoid attending school.

(3) Moving things. Your body is your most basic property. For most people, it obeys their will and goes into motion at the speed of thought. When another person is your possession, you expect them to act as a second set of hands. The common slave is told to plant and harvest the fields. A female slave may be put in charge of nursing a baby, caring for children. The special house slave sets the table, cooks the meals, cleans house, acts as butler / maid. White women of the early 20th century (in the U.S.) were often expected to provide these same services in the home: cooking, cleaning, bearing and rearing children -- without negotiation or compensation, and under threat of physical punishment. On top of these exploited labors, for women add sexual service and emotional warmth / nurturing on demand. In the early years of U.S. history, children were forced to work in the fields; now they're put to work in the compulsory schooling system. Forced child labor in fields and sweatshops continues to exist in places around the world.

(4) Physical alteration. You get to paint your car -- and if someone scratches it, you can expect them to pay for repair of the damages. By the same token, you get to change the external appearance of human property as you see fit: choose clothing, cut hair, pierce ears (or deny ear-piercing), deny tattooing -- or put a tattoo on the prisoner's arm. With a human being, you can also alter what's inside -- the mind. You can terrorize, train new behaviors, force the subordinate to use your language, and force them to quit practicing their native religion.

(5) To destroy or create. Because my dishes belong to me, I can break them if I so choose. Owning a person, I could break bones, blind them, amputate, or kill them. Because their body is mine, I could also choose to impregnate them. Just as the wheat that grows from my seed belongs to me, a child born from the woman I claim to own also becomes my possession. From one owned person, now I've generated two.

-- to be continued --

October 9, 2002

Posted by Sven at 4:37 PM

October 1, 2002

Property and Ownership - part 3

III. What Can Be Owned?
Up to this point, discussion of property has mainly been limited to inanimate objects: coffee mugs, books, clothes, furniture, houses, automobiles. The one main exception has been a person's own body, which I've described as the epitome of personal property. Now I would like to open the discussion and consider the full breadth of things that people may claim to own.

(1) Material Things
Inanimate objects. When one says "property", this is what most people think of: non-living, frequently human-made, physically discrete objects, which for the most part can be picked up and moved from one place to another. [Houses and buildings, by virtue of size and being attached to the ground, straddle the line between place and thing. See "land / territory" below.]

Plants. Plants are worth specific mention because they are living, growing things -- unlike the book or coffee mug -- thus (more) changing. The seed becomes the wheat, which we can then grind into flour and make into bread. ...In a sense, by changing, the plant accomplishes labor for us. When I use paint and a canvas to make a painting, I have to move the paint around myself; when I give a seed soil, water, and sun, it becomes the plant because it is in its own nature to do so.

Animals. People lay claim on animals as pets for amusement; as beasts of burden to carry us or pull plows; as livestock to be killed and eaten, or exploited for milk, eggs, wool, etc.; as subjects for scientific experimentation; as trophies of sport hunting. Unlike the coffee mug, but like the wheat, an animal grows and changes substantially -- it is not static. Unlike both the mug and the wheat, the animal is autonomously mobile, walking or flying around under its own power. By this motion and by its physical structure, we see in the animal a mind. Yet, the mind of an animal is an alien intelligence to us. Our species has established actual communication with gorillas using American Sign Language. We've also achieved an unequal, mainly non-linguistic report with other species, such as service dogs and dolphins. Still, we are unable to know the thoughts of any animals (besides ourselves) with great precision... Which eases most people's conscience, where owning these beings is concerned.

People. Many today are convinced that it is absolutely unethical to own a person (other than yourself). Nonetheless, throughout history people have claimed that others belong to them. Slavery is the most obvious (that is, *explicit*) form of treating persons as property -- yet, we should also consider other relationships that operate on the same principles, but by a different name. There is so much to say on this topic, I will dedicate the following section of this essay to it ("IV. Persons as Property").

(2) Material Things with Fuzzy Edges
Land / territory. A person can claim to own land. Unlike discrete objects, a parcel of land is contiguous with the other lands around it. To make it into an ownable thing, one has to draw an imaginary line around the area, defining what all is included. Natural features of the landscape -- such as a river or mountain range -- have often been used to define boundaries, but this can cause problems, such as when the course of the river changes over time. Land is typically dealt with as if it is two-dimensional, like on a map. Ownership is generally presumed to extend upward into the sky and down into the Earth -- as if an enormous cookie-cutter had fallen from space to the center of the planet. That which exists inside the territory belongs to the proprietor (including trees and wildlife) and may be manipulated, altered, or destroyed like any other property. [That is, in principle. In actuality, governmental regulation places a variety of restrictions on land use -- but we'll touch on that later.] To a certain extent, a person who trespasses on another's land also becomes the owner's property, by association. Throughout history trespass has been seen as cause for using lethal force -- destroying the invader as one might rightfully do to one's own possessions.

Airspace. If you own a square acre of land, then its boundaries extend upwards -- hence the U.S. prohibits airplanes from entering its airspace without authorization, and a homeowner might clip the branches of a neighbor's tree that hang over into his / her yard. Just as airspace is associated with stationary territory, each of us also has a mobile bubble of proprietary airspace that we carry with us while we walk around: "personal space". How close a person may come to you without getting in your personal space varies from culture to culture, and also depends on situation. However, when someone does stand inappropriately close to you, the experience of surprise and anger is similar to when a stranger touches one of your possessions (that they should not have) without asking. As with material property, the air surrounding a person is an extension of their self. [On a similar note, interesting issues come up regarding how loud one should be in a public / shared space. At what point are you violating other people's personal audio bubbles?]

(3) Immaterial Things
Money. Money straddles the line between material and immaterial possessions. You can hold a dollar bill and coins in your hand, but really they're just stand-ins. The U.S. uses the gold standard, so your physical currency is really just a symbol meant to represent ingots held in the federal reserves. That gold, in turn, is also largely symbolic. Though pretty, gold has little use in daily life; we use it as a yardstick for value, something that can be exchanged for goods and services. Already two times symbolic, money moves further toward being truly ineffable as the bills in my pocket are replaced by a bank card, which I originally gave value to by using an "electronic transfer of funds". Like magic, money is now a matter of magnetic strips and electricity!

Money-producing ideas. When I create something out of raw materials that I own, then the product belongs to me. If I can take the contents of my mind and create a new idea, I can claim that too. Under U.S. law, I can even seek punishment for people who "steal" my brainchild. Given how easily ideas are transmitted and reproduced, "intellectual property" is a rather bizarre notion. However, a paragraph of text, the blueprint for a better mousetrap, or the chemical processes used to create a new plastic are all knowledges that can be used by businesses to make money -- so laws have been written to protect copyright, patents, and industrial secrets. A new idea is treated as property basically because it is seen as an extension of the money one owns: money was spent to discover it -- and by keeping control of the idea, more money can be created. ...It seems like once an idea has left the secrecy of your mind, and another person has generated their own rendition of that thought within their own head, that there'd be little point to treating it like other, material possessions. But, where money is involved, a means will be found.

Personal opinion. The contents of your mind -- knowledge, beliefs, opinions -- belong to you. This is a strong basis for laws that attempt to guarantee freedom to speak your thoughts, freedom to put them in writing, and freedom to hold any variety of belief regarding God. With exceptions made for money-producing "intellectual property", any thought that finds its way into your head (or spontaneously erupts there) is your own possession. The main significance of this here, is that it's your right to decide what you believe is true or untrue. Others can present evidence (so long as you consent to listen), but it's wrong for them to try to browbeat you into submission. To do so is to alter a possession (the belief) that does not belong to them. An example: it would be unethical to press someone to change their religion after they've already said that they're not open to the discussion. [This point of ethics has bearing on how activists should and shouldn't conduct demonstrations / protests, but does not necessarily prohibit such actions.]

(4) Labor
In considering the full breadth of things that people can own, thus far all items have been nouns. Labor, however, is about verbs: to cook, to clean, to serve, to care for. The reason I want to say that labor can be owned is because it is the product of two other things, two nouns: time and energy. Just as my body is my own, the chemical energy contained in my muscles is mine; how I expend that energy is rightfully mine to choose; time is one of the units we can use to measure out how much is being spent. Because my time and energy are my own, I'm not obligated to cook you a big, fancy meal, just because you want me to. Described as "an expenditure of energy over time", we can see that work is being done when I fix the plumbing, tidy the living room, make love, or patiently listen to someone telling me a story. Indeed, each of these actions is a service that a professional might be paid for: plumber, maid, prostitute, therapist. Often people in intimate relationships come to feel entitled to these sorts of labor from their partner -- without giving compensation or having fairly negotiated an exchange. Their entitlement is a kind of ownership feeling... But not a legitimate one.

-- to be continued --

October 1, 2002

Posted by Sven at 1:35 PM

September 26, 2002

Property and Ownership - part 2

II. Control Of Your Property
The United States of America is a very property-oriented society. It is a global advocate for market-driven capitalism, promoting the dream of achieving personal luxury through innovative business. We have many laws in place to protect the possessions that a citizen accumulates -- and many lawsuits pursuing enforcement.

A word needs to be said here about distribution of wealth in the U.S.. I have no complaint about protecting ownership rights -- I've yet to hear a truly compelling argument for the abolition of private property, and see a number of ways in which owning things (one's body, clothes, books, home) protects individuals' well being. However, I'm deeply troubled by the disparity in how much stuff different people own -- the ever-widening gap between rich and poor. Where does extreme wealth come from? And how just is inheritance? Without actually labeling myself a socialist (yet), I have to say that I favor placing some kind of upper limit on how much money a person can earn, and making some sort of safety net that places a lower limit on poverty. On a personal level, I eagerly await a well-reasoned proposal for how people of conscience ought to go about redistributing their assets, independent of a change in government. That said, I will set aside the question of how people come to possess what they own, and proceed on this philosophical exploration of property with the presumption that uncontested claims of ownership are legitimate.

In the U.S. it is generally recognized -- socially and legally -- that it is the right of the individual to control their property. This right borders on the absolute; attempts by government or citizen agencies to intrude on this privacy tend to elicit the strongest kind of outrage. Control of a thing means being able to change or maintain its current condition according to one's will. Let's consider what this means in some detail.

(1) Permission to touch. You are not allowed to (not supposed to) physically touch anything I own without my permission. This is a rule riddled with exceptions based on social norms and intimacy: it is accepted that strangers may knock on your door, and a guest in your home is expected to take toilet paper without asking. Yet, the rule holds true more often than we realize. Imagine your surprise, walking toward your parked car and seeing that someone is leaning against it. Or if you caught someone stroking your laundry as it hung from the clothes line. Or if within the first few minutes of meeting someone, they reached across the table and touched your nose. Most people don't hoard permission to touch -- they give it away freely as soon as they know a person better, often expecting the intimate other to simply know that they have become welcome. However, the person who presumes too much (e.g. copping a feel on the first date) may receive a punishing rebuff.

(2) Staying put. When I put a piece of my property somewhere, I expect it to stay there. If I put my coffee mug down on the breakfast table, I don't want to come back in five minutes and discover that it's been moved to the kitchen counter. When I go looking for a book on my shelf, I don't want to discover that someone has moved it to God knows where. The coffee mug is like an annex of my stomach; the book is like an auxiliary memory cartridge for my brain. I want these extensions of myself to stay in order. Just as I'd feel unsettled to lose control of some other part of my body, finding that my possessions don't stay where I put them makes me feel helpless, angry, or violated.

(3) Moving things. Whereas others are prohibited from touching -- let alone moving -- my things without permission, it's my right to freely pick them up and move them whenever I choose. I can drive my car to the other side of town and park it there. I can rearrange my furniture to suit a whim. I can stand up, stretch my body, and go out for a walk (so long as I'm not infringing on anyone else's property rights in the process).

(4) Physical alteration. If something belongs to me, then I can substantively alter it in a physical way. I could dye my hair green or pierce my ears. I could write in my books and fold the pages. I could repaint my car and put in a new engine. I could cut a hole in the wall and build an addition onto my house. I could chop down the tree that's part of my backyard. As the Fats Waller song goes, "'t ain't nobody's biz-ness if I do."

(5) To destroy or create. That which I own I may also destroy. I could seize this coffee mug and smash it on the floor. I could take my hair and chop it all off. I could burn my books. I could have my car crushed into a cube. I could rent a crane with a wrecking ball and turn my home into a pile of rubble. On a similar scale of transformation, if I own the raw materials to make something entirely new, then the resulting product must belong to me. If I had lumber, nails, and land, the house I built would belong to me. If I took some ingredients out of my cupboard and baked a cake, the cake would be mine. If I swept up my hair and wove it back into a toupee, then that wig would be my property too.

...A final word about the powers of ownership. The things you own are an extension of yourself, so you are entitled to use them as you see fit. But just as you are responsible for your actions, so too are you responsible for the actions / impact of all those things connected to you. if you park your car on a hill, the brakes give out and it rolls down, smashing into someone's house while you're away -- it's your problem to deal with. If I invite someone to sit in my big comfy chair, which then collapses in a heap, breaking the guest's leg in the process -- then I'm responsible for breaking their leg. As much as I might want to sever the possession from my self at this point, put blame for the accident on "an act of God", the logic of treating my possessions as part of my self carries through.

-- to be continued --

September 26, 2002

Posted by Sven at 4:32 PM | Comments (2)

September 25, 2002

Property and Ownership - part 1

The concepts of property and ownership are a cornerstone in the practice of writing and interpreting legal code. As the saying goes, "possession is nine-tenths of the law." The same could be said of ethics. In western philosophy, the guiding light in ethics has been the golden rule: do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Various thinkers have embellished on the concept (e.g. Kant's categorical imperative), but I think their work usually boils down to the same thing: be kind, play nice. Simple enough. The tricky part is in explaining "nice" -- what exactly would you have others "do unto you"? This is where property and ownership comes in. ...What goods or services do other people owe me? What do I owe them? ...What stuff belongs to me? What belongs to them? ...Where do I end and you begin? ...Whether you're designing a personal ethics, the code of ethics for an organization, or the legal code for a nation-state (a sort of de facto system of ethics), it seems to me that you need a well defined understanding of property and ownership as its foundation.

My intention in this essay is to begin articulating the ethics of liberation activists. Much of this system is identical to the liberalism of the United States' founding documents (e.g. "We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal..."). Some of the ideas come from the writings of progressive and radical activists -- some from living discussions that I've been privileged to listen in on. Much of it, however, is my own formulation, which I've put together to satisfy my own sense of completeness, and to remedy areas of thought that often seem muddled among our communities.

I think property is the key concept to understanding what our inherent rights are. It tells us what treatment we should expect from others. By telling us how things should be, it also gives us the key to understanding how things go wrong: in our daily relationships, in extreme cases of interpersonal abuse, and in oppression at a societal level. Most social wrongs can be explained by pointing to an individual's poor sense of boundaries, or to how someone expects to receive goods or services that were not fairly negotiated for, or to how one person / group has chosen to take what rightfully belongs to another. By becoming more aware of ownership issues, one gains a powerful tool for self-defense. It gives you the ability to identify what's gone wrong in an intimate relationship -- or to analyze and strategize against a group that's harming a whole category of persons.

Let's now take a closer look at the concepts of property and ownership.

I. Defining "Self" -- The Owner of Property
What is property? For the moment let's just deal with private property that's owned by one person rather than many. For now, let's also limit ourselves to dealing with inanimate objects -- for instance, a coffee mug.

There is no coffee mug that is a "property" in and of itself. "Property" is a symbolic status that we assign to the object -- it means "this coffee has a relationship to something else." In this case, the mug has a relationship with me -- I say (and hope you'll agree) that this is *my* coffee mug. A rough definition: "property" is some material object that is owned by a person.

[Could property be immaterial, as with copyrighted "intellectual property"? Could property be owned by a non-person, like a doghouse belonging to a pet dog? Perhaps -- but let's not quibble just yet. My intention here is to describe the basic nature of property, not to exhaustively address each potential loophole.]

What, then, does it mean to "own" a piece of property? I think we (human beings) understand the things we own as extensions of the self. It's as if everything that I own is actually connected to me -- physically -- by an invisible string. Imagine, if you will, me standing out on the sidewalk in front of my apartment, a huge bundle of twine looped around my neck. Strands of string trail behind me, leading inside to where they're tied: to each one of the books in my library, to each chair and piece of furniture, to each piece of food in the fridge. A big thick rope is looped around the entire house, and another around my car in the driveway. If you look closely, you see that a string is tied to the watch on my wrist. Strings drag behind my shoes, attach to my hat, and to all my articles of clothing.

If you follow all these strings back to their origin, you find the "self". Consciousness is the most striking feature of the self. However, for our purposes here, it's at least equally important to notice that the mind is located and constrained to a specific place in the world. The self of any person could be identified with a point in space; for simplicity's sake, let's say a point that is coterminous with their brain.

Defining the self in terms of a geographic point is useful because it allows us to broach some traditional philosophical questions without leaving the framework we've begun to establish. For instance, I start to wonder: is the body itself property? I'd say yes -- I think the body is the epitome of the self's personal property. I've heard students of philosophy ponder over what the essence of a person is... If a person loses a hand, is it still them? Or if they lose all their limbs, or somehow survive as a brain in a jar...? Personally, I find these questions distasteful, and am perfectly content to encompass all of the naked body in my notion of the integer self -- for most purposes.

[Thinking about the self as a point in space is also useful because it invokes "point of view", which generates the (philosophical) possibility for "conflicts of interest". If, assuming the godlike ability to turn dust into flesh, I was able to conjure up a mind from the nothingness and wrap it in a physical body, immediately upon opening its eyes this being would have a point of view. it would consider its situation and then imagine its needs / wants / desires. Some could be accomplished alone, working upon a non-sentient landscape -- but others would require the presence, resources, and/or labor of another being. If that second being does not want to conform to the plans of the first, then there's a conflict of interests. Two parties negotiating about their interests until some resolution is achieved: this is the story of two people in love, and the history of nations at war. How to do the negotiation well -- is the stuff of ethics.]

"The mind's eye" may be situated on a point in space, but we experience the self as something larger than that -- extending, we perceive, even beyond the naked body. Clothes conform to the body so well, we think of them as a "second skin". It's often been commented that while driving a car the machine becomes an extension of your self -- moving how you tell it to. When you own something, that possession becomes grafted onto your self-image. When you try to picture yourself, do you imagine yourself naked? Probably not. Do you imagine yourself as a homeless person who's been fortunate enough to find temporary living quarters? No -- "person who owns living space" (rental included) is somehow a part of you. The things we own become the outer perimeter of the self. [Somewhere a Buddhist monk -- or one of those New-Agers who say they're "a spirit having a worldly experience" -- is laughing at me.]

Imagine, if you will, figuring out how much everything you own weighs. All the books, the furniture, the car -- how many tons? It's a thought we're most keenly aware of when moving to a new home -- how many car loads (or truck loads) does the move require? In a very real sense, this volume of mass is a measure of how big you are. Imagine if you could swallow all those possessions, absorb them, and become a giant who weighed that much! Or perhaps you own very little, and see the wealthy like these giants walking around, so easily able to ignore your existence, carelessly crushing you with a misstep... Fortunately all that mass is distributed into separate objects.

A mark -- perhaps the essence -- of *owning* a thing is that one feels and acts as if it is a physical extension of one's self. Excluding the body, all the things we own are detached (or detachable) from the self. Yet, it is almost as if all of those invisible strings attaching my property to me are nerve fibers, giving me direct sensory information. Like stubbing a toe, I'm pained when I break a favorite plate. When my house is broken into, I feel violated. The body is the epitome of personal property -- and just as my hand moves when I wish it to move, or stays still when I want it still, I want equal *control* over objects (the coffee mug) that are part of me, despite being physically separate.

-- to be continued --

September 25, 2002

Posted by Sven at 8:07 PM