Growing up in a religious household, there were many rules about many things. Since there was an emphasis on “purity,” and keeping “clean thoughts” in one’s head, there were rules about which books and music and art and food were “good” and which were “bad.”
These rules, though, often seemed to my young mind to be quite arbitrary, and more about resulting in compliance than purity. Being told to read “the best books,” and to “seek out learning” from them — well, that seemed like a fantastic idea, until those books left me asking uncomfortable questions about the power structures of the church, or finding approved messages conveyed with unapproved language. Music was much the same — being told to listen to “uplifting” music was no problem, except when my choice of music ran counter to someone else’s idea of what should be considered “uplifting.”
I remember finding an mp3 of the old gospel hymn “Wade In The Water” when I was in my teens, and that recording moved me — it moved me in exactly the way that I had been taught that all good music, especially religious music, should move me. I went to share my joy with my dad, from whom I learned much of my lifelong love for music, and he asked who had performed this particular version. When I told him it was Chanticleer, he frowned and told me, “Well, you might not want to listen to that. I won’t tell you to delete the file, but… they’re gay.” I deleted the mp3, and all the other recordings of that song that I had. Oh, sure, he offered to play me some tracks by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, as an example of what good religious music ought to sound like, but I had heard them plenty of times before, and while they did have some stuff I enjoyed, their performances didn’t really do much for me.
Or there was Steppenwolf — which I was cautioned “might have some small treasures of knowledge” but that to find those required a metaphorical “trudge through miles of raw sewage” to find, and then an equal or greater trudge to get back out with those few pearls, and that I was better off avoiding the piece entirely. Or a number of visual artists whose work I knew very little about, because even though it fell within the larger categories of “kinds of art that are worthwhile and beautiful,” some artists “dared” to show the human figure without being fully covered in clothing. The horror! There were plenty of books by church scholars, or by authors who promoted a specific message, made available to me, as well as pointers towards “tasteful” art… but I kept going back to the fold-out cover on an issue of Smithsonian magazine with The Garden Of Earthly Delights which was in the massive stack of back-issues in the bookcase — because it had naked women, and I found the whole thing both fascinating and arousing… both of which I thought were very good things!
So, along with many other things I intentionally left behind when I walked away from my parents and moved out on my own, I rejected their idea that some things must always be forbidden, no matter what good might be gleaned from them, as well as the notion that anyone else could tell me what I stood to gain or lose from an experience. I began actively seeking out many kinds of art and music and books and philosophies, trying on each thing I encountered and seeing what fit, and what didn’t. I spent a fair bit of time with a small group of misogynist, atheist (in the “let’s get together so we can sit and talk about how we’re so much better that those stupid fools who don’t think the same way we do!” meaning of the word), gamer dudebros — and I learned a lot about myself in that time. I hung out briefly with a lot of different people with different approaches to the world. Every time I found places that I didn’t belong, and every time I learned more about myself.
Then I ended up finding the concept of feminism, and wrote a whole blog post about that discovery. Aha! This is it, I thought. Here’s where people make sense, where “my body, my choice — your body your choice” was an obvious thing, where (at least in the circles I found myself) being able to choose to wear high heels and lipstick was as critical as being able to choose to forgo shaving body hair and to avoid all penetrative sex, where eliminating the oppressive power structures that prevent women and men and people of every other gender from being able to choose was the goal! And because so much of the talking, and much of the acting, was (on its face, at least) in service of that goal, it took me a long time to see that I had simply found myself back in the same situation I had walked away from several years before.
I listen to Lady Gaga, and enjoy much of her music. I have my own issues with some of her songs and lyrics, but those are my issues. Then… I started hearing shouting by people who claimed to be all about personal choice, “Don’t listen to her! She did that whole disgusting, offensive, appropriative thing with traditional Islamic dress, she’s just exploiting oppressed populations for her own profit and public image!” At the same time, I was told that I should be listening to Beyoncé, because her music was “really great” and “so perfectly feminist” and way better than all the other people “pretending” to get it.
Or being screamed at for recommending one of my childhood favorite novels, The Secret Garden, to MFP, because I was a horrible person to enjoy a book that was so obviously racist and championed Colonialism as a wonderful thing, and the fact that it was written in 1911 was irrelevant because I was mentioning it as something positive in the current day… although there were plenty of other books that she would gladly suggest if I wanted to do “better.”
See, I don’t think that anything in this world is beyond questioning, beyond examining for what benefit it brings, what harm it does, what it supports, and what can be learned from it. I also know that, as Benjamin Franklin said, “If all printers were determined not to print anything till they were sure it would offend nobody, there would be very little printed.” I know that the music I listen to, the books I read, the other things I take in on a regular basis — they’re going to offend somebody. They’re also going to please other folks very much! And I don’t worry nearly so much about what others feel about the things I enjoy, because I know that I continue to do what works consistently: seek pleasure first and foremost. Within that, maintain a constant re-evaluation of myself and my surroundings, constantly adjust as I find things which no longer benefit me (and leave them behind) and likewise adjust as I find things which serve me well (and embrace them.)
And I’ll keep doing that until I find that it no longer works, and then I’ll do something that does. It’s simple, it’s effective, and it feels good. And though I’m the only one involved in making those decisions, I know that others are positively affected by it, which is just further motivation to stick with it!