29 April 2014

The following offers the third part of an experimental harangue directed at the resurgence of popularity of the beard in US culture as a sign of a reactionary assertion of male power meant to respond to or counteract increasing female power. In vulgar terms, the gay slur “my balls on your chin” represents the flip side of “the hair on my chinny chin chin” as a sign of my balls potency, &c. I suggest reading the piece in a spirit of outrageous assertion but also very much as an experiment, if perhaps a failed one.

This is part III of VI (or more); you may find parts I and II here and here.

Guns and Abraham (Re-Fire)

Just as one cannot plausibly deny that guns afford intimidation (along with whatever else they afford),[i] neither can one plausibly deny that the religions of intolerant monotheism[ii] afford intimidation (along with whatever else they afford). For this essay, religions of intolerant monotheism means, without being limited to, all manifestations of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam; by intimidation I mean any act experienced in the public domain that threatens the presence of others in that public domain; and by public domain I mean any time when two or more people are capable of impinging on one another.

To unpack the above:

First, the parallel between “gun” and “religions of intolerant monotheism” may seem inappropriate; that is, while a gun does, by design, afford inflicting injury or death on others and thus also intimidation, by contrast, the religions of intolerant monotheism—despite a historical record and contemporary events that make clear that such intolerant monotheisms most assuredly do afford inflicting injury or death on others and thus intimidation as well—do not afford these things by design. This objection amounts partly to a matter of taste. Prevailing social discourse merely provides less resistance to declaring guns afford intimidation than religions of intolerant monotheism afford intimidation,[iii] since according to the current prejudice and fashion in the United States people tend to express less fondness for guns than religion.[iv] We display a similar prejudice when agreeing that religions of intolerant monotheism at a certain time or in a certain place have, did, or can afford intimidation but then insist this is not everywhere and always the case—particularly not for the time and place of one’s own sect of intolerant monotheism.[v] De gustibus non est disputandum. But this objection also rings disingenuously, since religions of intolerant monotheism afford intimidation not only in the denial of the reality or the validity of others’ beliefs[vi] but also by acting and speaking about and toward those others who have different beliefs in terms of the (often horrific) consequences of those others’ unbelief.[vii] Consequently, guns and religions of intolerant monotheism alike afford intimidation by design.

To object that on this view anyone could be intimidated by anything misses two key points. (1) What something affords (whether a gun or a religion of intolerant monotheism) consists of the set of anticipated uses of that something as recognized by a particular individual [viii] or community of users. What something affords is not merely or only whatever subset of those anticipated uses a particular individual or community of users makes use of it for.[ix] Any argument based on how one person or a community might be or might not be intimidated therefore is a non sequitur, since any given use by any individual or community of users does not preclude, negate, or erase the other affordances an artefact might have for other individuals, other communities of users, or even the same users or community of users at a different time.[x] Moreover, while different people may interface rather differently with the same artefact … [none] can claim to have privileged access to what the artefact ‘really’ is even when someone may consider one meaning [of an artefact] more important than another, even by settling on a definition for it. (2) Not everything affords intimidation by design. A teddy bear affords suffocation; a steak-knife affords slitting someone’s throat; religion affords intolerant monotheism—but not by design. Those who have been terrorized by religion, teddy bears, or knives might well have intimidated (or other negative) responses in the presence of those things again, but this does not negate the other affordances of those things. Quite obviously—and perhaps to the astonishment of others around them—such a person makes visible an affordance that had previously been hidden or non-realized.[xi] In contrast, weapons and intolerant monotheism do afford intimidation by design. So while, indeed, anyone might potentially be intimidated by something in the public domain, for any individual or group to say that the something is intimidating exposes a claim of privileged access to that artefact, which can only be maintained by violence outright or indirectly (by intimidation, by preventing access of some people to the social process of acknowledging the affordances of an artefact, &c).

Just as guns by design then afford intimidation apart from any gun-carrier’s intention or reason for carrying one, the religions of intolerant monotheism also afford intimidation by design regardless of any believer’s intention or practice of one.

To characterize public domain in this way disagrees with the property rights-based public vs. private distinction usually encountered; here, instead, an image of the public domain might be seen not only in the public area of a (privately owned) café but also in Tahrir Square, Zuccotti Park, or any site where police answered Occupy Chicago’s peaceful public protests with violence—times when two or more people who were capable of impinging on one another experienced promised or carried out threats to the presence of others in those places.[xii]

Keeping these illustrations in mind, attention then falls on those acts that, by design, afford intimidation (as threats to the presence of others) in the public domain.[xiii] Such a threat to the presence of others in the public domain may take many forms of course. Overtly, this may be an enforced, classical get out! Or might manifest more subtly as someone leaving the area without explanation. More frequently, and more saliently, intimidation impinges on the activity of another, who then declines to act in some way otherwise afforded by the public domain. It is an act that, by design, rules out one of the alternatives another might choose from among the affordances available (even if on this day and at this time that alternative is not one you’re inclined to pick). Hopelessly abstract? Try this.

You are a person who finds racism distasteful and are enjoying a cup of something in your favourite café, characterized by a notable diversity of races. And one of the customers—perhaps a newcomer—makes some loud racial slur about the inferiority of some people. It doesn’t matter why the person said this; the discourse of supposed racial superiority of one over another has such long-standing and multifarious ties to physical acts of violence that its offensively absurd to pretend such a comment is not, by design (even if not by intent), intimidating. But split all the hairs we want, the fact that one almost never hears—from amongst all who heard such a depressing remark—any loud public rebuttal points to how intimidation suppresses the range of affordances in the public domain available to everyone listening at that moment. Most assuredly, the hearers will not reply for whatever “personal” or “subjective” reasons, but that’s a private matter that remains non sequitur for this public matter. The couple holding hands who approach protesters with “God hates fags” signs equally experience intimidation, whether they stop holding hands or not. After the mayor of Memphis, Tennessee declared segregation undesirable (at least in downtown Memphis lunch counters), it came to light that 80 per cent of the population surveyed opposed segregation at all—20 per cent had held a majority four times its size hostage and intimidated people into allowing segregation to continue.

Intimidation, as a threat to the presence of others in the public domain, is any act that by design affords inhibition of a person’s capacity to act as the public domain affords.

Immediately it must be said, the very fact of laws prohibiting certain activities in the public domain make clear already that the State practices some measure of coercion, when not intimidation outright, in the public domain. One might try to ignore this, arguing that since it is in effect for everyone in the public domain, it’s a kind of (cultural) default; the price of doing business in whatever where and when one lives. However, even in an ideal sense Laws do not apply equally to all people. Ignoring laws that have by design or by accident disparate impacts on people of colour, the racially variable operation of the judicial system (all the way from who gets arrested to the cost of affording legal representation to treatment on parole, &c) make the notion of pretending the Law is equal in effect to all people in the public domain. Moreover, to ignore the ever-present coercion or intimidation by the State swerves toward arguing for its necessity—and one can, in a certain kind of way, argue for the desirability of certain kinds of enlightened despotism.

Like wearing a gun in public, to wear in public symbols from the religious iconography of intolerant monotheisms affords intimidation as well. The objection that this is a personal expression of faith is non sequitur given that expressions of intolerant monotheism in public afford intimidation apart from the wearer’s intention in wearing it. Various objections here will fall once again under the category of popular prejudice. Consider the general lack of controversy surrounding a case where a woman—in a jurisdiction where openly carrying handguns is legal—is asked by an owner of a café to leave because the handgun she wears makes patrons uncomfortable compared to the controversy of asking a Jewish man wearing a yarmulke to leave a café on similar grounds. Or compare the uproar decrying the injustice and irrationality of asking a girl not to wear a cross at her high school and the rationales and justifications offered for prohibiting an Islamic girl from wearing a hijab at hers.

This remains the case no matter what spiritual orientation a person has vis-à-vis some dominant Western religion, just as guns afford intimidation regardless of a gun-carrier’s purpose in doing so. In this way, the religions of intolerant monotheism, by design, afford threats of physical and metaphysical violence.

As symbolic proxies of those religions, religious iconography such as people wear similarly affords this intimidation. To the extent that beards intersect with religious iconography as religious symbols they too afford intimidation as well. This remains the case no matter what personal use or intention a person has for wearing a beard, just as guns afford intimidation regardless of a gun-carrier’s purpose in doing so.

Intimidation through threats of major injury or death as well; here again such intimidation arises from witnessing past or present examples in person or otherwise such violence or intimidation in our own culture or elsewhere.

An “artefact” (such as a gun, a religion, a religious symbol, a beard) is the set of anticipated uses of something as recognized by a particular individual or community of users. On this view, artefacts for one discourse community may have entirely different, even incommensurable meanings for members of another discourse community. Thus, while different people may interface rather differently with the same artefact … [none] can claim to have privileged access to what the artefact ‘really’ is even when someone may consider one meaning [of an artefact] more important than another, even by settling on a definition for it[xiv].


[i] Gun advocates specifically cite the intimidation factor of guns as a reason for carrying one. While 8 percent of “defensive gun uses” (DGUs) involve a fired gun, for “most DGUs, a firearm is merely displayed by the intended victim, and the criminal flees. No one is injured. Civilian gun ownership clearly gives the edge to the law-abiding defender, because in 82 percent of DGU situations, the criminal has no gun” ( %20statements/Guns%20and%20crime.htm)

[ii] In The Creation of Patriarchy, Lerner (1987) identifies “intolerant monotheism” particularly in the revisionist cults of Ezra and Nehemiah (circa 450 BCE). This revision involved not simply an advancement of one deity above all others but also the assertion that all other deities were necessarily false. In principle, it is easy to sense the difference between “your god is weak” and “your god does not exist.” It must be doubtlessly the case that various theisms (poly- and otherwise) since the dawn of human conflict must have confronted one another and said at different times “your gods aren’t real” (and not only “your gods are weak” or “your gods can’t prevail over ours”). Thus, it is not that intolerant monotheism is a “game-changer” interculturally (given that cultures can and will mutually accuse each other of apostasy all they like) but intraculturally. Unlike polytheism, which typically acknowledges that its neighbors are believers, however barbarous, intolerant monotheism views its neighbors either at worst as godless unbelievers who threaten to destroy the world and the truth or at best potential converts to the truth.

[iii] This is not to say that guns do afford intimidation and religion does not (nor to say the reverse), but simply to note that current fashion and taste makes the former easier state outright than the latter.

[iv] Please note the intentional generality of this. There are assuredly gun-toting intolerant monotheists who would place “god” and “gun” above other things (like “life”) as what they’ll sooner not give up. It’s more germane to note how current prejudice and fashion (that more readily defends intolerant monotheism than guns) ignores the guns in the hands of the police, the military, and other armed authorities. They direct their opposition, in general, toward private citizens with guns. This underscores how, at root, their opposition is not to guns but rather to the increased sense of risk to their safety that the presence of guns in the hands of private citizens (or armed criminals as well of course) pose. The notion that one is necessarily safer in the presence of guns wielded by the police, the military, and other armed authorities is not only dangerously naïve, but also racially informed insofar as only people who believe they are safe in the power structure (around here, that means White people) cannot be subjected to violence or intimidation by armed authorities. Recently, at least three activists in Chicago were desaparecidos in the old-fashioned Chilean and Argentinian sense of the word—under a test of Illinois’ new trumped up anti-terrorist law; one might ask why a state has an anti-terrorist law in the first place—and only swift and intense pressure by citizens brought them to light, their fate still uncertain. Any number of (White) citizens around various Occupy events of late have come to realize the intimidation afforded by guns in the hands of armed authorities first hand; safety is an evaporating conceit. (One of the great bragging points of neoliberalism under Reagan and Thatcher in the 1980s was that it was accomplished without the kind of repression, violence, torture, and bloodshed characteristic of the not so anonymous Latin American meat packing glitterati. Apparently it was only that not enough noticed then or not enough were affected; things would appear to be different now, and the old methods have made a comeback.

[v] while different people may interface rather differently with the same artifact … [none] can claim to have privileged access to what the artifact ‘really’ is

[vi] A tendency one can encounter in intolerant polytheism and intolerant atheism as well.

[vii] If the atheist’s “your god isn’t real” is analogous to the intolerant monotheist’s rant in the same vein, it at least does not come also with positive threats of eternal torment, predictions of (and even social mandates to) shame and misfortune for one’s descendants, or more proximal beheading.

[viii] By saying that an artifact affords “the set of anticipated uses of that something as recognized by a particular individual or community of users” (Krippendorff, 2007), this may seem to imply precisely that a particular individual’s use of an artifact trumps, or at least equals (under a notion of cultural relativity), what any other one individual (or perhaps even a group) might afford for the artifact. Rather, what this phrase points to is that when an individual interfaces with an artifact, they will do so in their own way according to what the artifact affords. That’s all. This personalized use does not then become the definition of an “appropriate” (or “inappropriate”) use of the artifact.

[ix] To repeat: while different people may interface rather differently with the same artifact … [none] can claim to have privileged access to what the artifact ‘really’ is even when someone may consider one meaning [of an artifact] more important than another, even by settling on a definition for it. This being so, it remains the case that groups can, will, and do claim privileged access and can get away with that when there is force of some sort to enforce it, directly or through threats. A new robotic process in a factory might be viewed by the workers’ union as a “human laborer replacer” while the factory owners may see it as “a cost-saving measure.” The robotic process affords both, and neither the union nor the owner can claim privileged access, even by definition, to what the robotic process is. Whether a union strike proves an effective threat or whether the owner decides ultimately to outsource all labor costs to Malaysia or elsewhere is not immediately apposite to the robotic processes’ affordances.

[x] Except as groups or individuals are able to enforce certain affordances. Participation in the public political process includes protests, but the established powers are busy articulating laws to define certain affordances of that political participation as terrorism, causing social unrest, and whatever other disingenuous term is invented for the occasion. Similarly, at a certain level of articulation, we can understand any act that limits access to resources (by established powers) as moves against affordances. That resources afford ownership was one definition that Native American peoples contended with as White colonizers spread in their midst. The amount of violence needed to secure that definition has still not been fully calculated.

[xi] Creativity may often consist of finding affordances for technologies that were not originally foreseen or intended by the technology’s innovator(s).

[xii] An attentive reader may notice that this description of public domain makes a family a public space. Certainly for children growing up in that space, the sense of what they do as being at least analogous to “public” is apposite. The objection will be raised that construing “family” as in the public domain opens all kinds of dangerous floodgates to invasions of privacy. Once again, this deliberately misses a key point. This essay is about intimidation in the public domain, and so if there is any extension of “public domain” to family, then its concern in doing so is to oppose intimidation in the public domain of the family. Already the laws are arranged such that intimidation in the family (such as that resulting from domestic and child abuse) do already permit the State to step in and “meddle”. There is little doubt that if the State wants to infringe on rights to privacy even further, it will draft Laws to do so—and it may, precisely, construe the need for such legislation in light of preventing some alleged “intimidation’ going on in families (since we shall be hard-pressed to find someone in favor of intimidation in families). Such slippery moves by the State, as an eternal necessary gesture of Statehood under capitalism at least—modern capitalism begins, ironically, with the apotheosis and inviolability of property rights and then a subsequent history devoted in many ways precisely to rescinding that assurance—entails claims of privileged access to what something is and so must necessarily be enforced by violence, intimidation, and limiting people’s access to the process of legally acknowledging affordances for the item or issue under consideration. At the same time, it seems disingenuous to ignore the vastly more quantitative amounts of violence and intimidation committed every day in families by family members—particularly by husbands toward wives, by parents toward children, and by older children toward younger. The hierarchy of intimidation is obvious and a mirror of culture more broadly.

[xiii] As human beings, we are always already in the public domain of these places; it is not a question of our being invited into or included in it. On this view, notions rooted in gestures to include someone or a group of people in the public domain, however well-intentioned, involve a fatal misunderstanding, insofar as all people already and always are members of that public domain. It is, then, rather a matter of recognizing presence and/or correcting those historical wrongs that have hitherto not recognized presence in the public domain. The brouhaha around the discourse of “gay marriage” points to this. Opponents of “gay marriage” have voiced the concern—for bigoted reasons or not—that “gay marriage” essentially asks that “gays” be given special rights (i.e., specifically the right of “gay” marriage, as opposed to standard marriage). Now, we can say that what the phrase “gay marriage” really means is, exactly, formal legal recognition of life-long (or temporary) partnerships formed by people who are same-sex identified, but by phrasing it as “gay marriage” there is indeed a distinction (between that and “regular” marriage) that is introduced, unwisely, into the discourse. What the phrase “gay marriage” points to is a misunderstanding rooted already in the notion that people who are same-sex identified have been excluded (or not included) in the benefits of marriage—as if someone failed to give us our entire rights. Rather, we have always already had those rights and it is a matter of those rights being recognized, not given. ¶ More precisely, visibility and presence are not proportional; that is, a person may in various degrees be present and visible, present and not visible, not present and visible, or not present and not visible in the public domain. On this view, the visible presence of Israeli soldiers in Palestine or US soldiers in Kabul and the visible absence of African-Americans at segregated lunch counters in Memphis, Tennessee circa 1962 make equally clear points. While the invisible presence of Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s financial backers during the (still-ongoing) protests against his administration and the invisible absence of the subaltern in general will both easily be overlooked if attention is not paid. These various interactions of visibility and presence may or may not afford intimidation.

[xiv] Italicized text is taken or adapted from Krippendorff (2007). See footnote 3.

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