Am I capable of learning to like anything?

I conducted psyche experiments on myself when I was a child. You can’t blame me. There were things I needed to know, and I was my only cooperative subject. For instance, were all my preferences acquired tastes? This was important. If they were, then maybe I would eventually like beer, which was good because this appeared to be a necessary component to getting along as a teenager. On the other hand, it meant I might eventually wear pink polyester stretch pants like my mother, which was a horrifying concept. Either way, I had to know.

teaI also drank hot tea as adolescent, and somehow ended up with a box of Lapsang Souchong tea. If you’ve never tried it, it has a strong smoky taste and the first time I had it I gagged, then realized I had the perfect tool for my experiment. Could I change my own mind, and learn to love the taste of this tea?

I made an impressive effort, concocting strange myths about the origin of the taste relating to magic creatures in the woods drying the leaves over tiny bonfires and telling myself the burning embers imparted unknown powers to the daring humans willing to sip the strange potion. It worked. I slowly convinced myself that the taste was mysterious and intriguing, and once I began to enjoy it I could acknowledge that the myths were hogwash and it just plain tasted good to me. I still like it to this day, and story of how I came to do so makes me smile.

bonfireMy twelve-year-old brain didn’t think to take this to the next step, and I’m glad it didn’t. Lapsang Souchong tea is all well and good, but could I have forced myself to like, I don’t know, human blood, or, well, fill in any number of things for which I’m glad that I don’t have a yen. I was happy finding out that I could convince myself to like something if I worked hard enough at it. The question I didn’t ask was: could I get myself to like anything?

Or maybe the better question would have been: could I get myself to want to get myself to like anything?

I’m writing this blog on January 20, 2017, the day of inaugurating a president for whom I have no respect. In spite of my Midwestern working-class roots, I do not identify with his supporters. I consider my experiment with Lapsang Souchong tea, and wonder if I could feel differently?

I realize that there are three very different things are going on.

One, there is politics. I mean actual policy preferences. Mine are the result of a lifetime of observation and analysis and they reflect my core beliefs. I’ve agreed with some U.S. presidents more than others, and none of them completely, but I have respected that every single one of them was trying to do what he thought was best. But I don’t even know what this president believes in; he’s been conducting a reality show for over a year, not sharing his vision. I do dislike most of his choices in advisors, but I realize that is not the real source of my disrespect. I may not agree with his selections but these men (they are mostly men) are entitled to their world view. As an adult, I can hold a certain amount of understanding for the opinions of others.

barbecueThen there is style. Not his style; he acts like a flashy rich guy who is full of himself and I don’t think anyone actually likes that. I mean the style of his supporters. I don’t feel commonality with them because mostly their tastes aren’t mine. But they could be. I can teach myself to like a lot of different things and I still am. I could enjoy country music and barbecue instead of yoga and wine and I would be every bit as happy and fine a human being. That’s what Lapsang Souchong tea taught me. Taste is taste. Mine isn’t better than yours, and no one’s taste is unworthy of respect.

But it’s the third component that is the driving force behind my lack of regard, and that is trust. I don’t trust this man because he has raised saying anything he pleases to an art form. Half-truths, quarter-truths and complete falsehoods are trotted out as needed. People are insulted and belittled to serve his quest for popularity, much like in the world of an adolescent. Slights are responded to without reflection on the consequences, to him or to his country. And I don’t think you can teach yourself to like being led by, or being at the mercy of, someone you cannot trust.

Picture3Forget the politics, forget the style. The heart of the matter here is the heart. There is some inherent core decency, a certain regard for truth and a desire for kindness that I cannot define in words so much as I can feel in my heart, and no amount of effort will get me to want to embrace a lack of this. In fact, nothing would make me want to make the effort to do so.

Looks like it took a few decades for me to finish answering my own question, but I finally did.  No, I cannot get myself to like anything, and I’m glad that I can’t.

The kinky of the future

I don’t know a better way to develop an open mind than to read science fiction. The very nature of creating alternate worlds has a way of making us question the assumptions of our own society. If done well, a speculative story leaves us with empathy for characters whose behavior causes no harm and yet would be offensive here and now. In short, we’re forced to question the rules we live by.

That’s not to say there is no wrong in science fiction. Villains continue to be mean, sadistic, greedy souls, and heroes still struggle to let the love in their hearts win the day. In world after world, the key points on a moral compass transcend time and space, even as authors acknowledge all the grey area in between. But as to the rest of those rules? In no arena is the arbitrariness of acceptable and perverted more apparent than in the world of science fiction sexuality.

good sign 4Creatures come in three genders in Isaac Asimov‘s 1972 Nebula award winning The God’s Themselves and regularly change gender in Ursula Le Guin‘s The Left Hand of Darkness from 1969. Hero Rydra Wong is part of a three way marriage in Samual Delany’s Babel-17, written in 1966. Decades before the LGBT movement reached the hearts of the average straight person, science fiction writers were pushing readers to question their heteronormative assumptions.

Other questions they posed still make me uncomfortable. I don’t member the name of the short story about a world in which normal healthy parents were expected to introduce their children to loving sex, but I remember how the very idea made me cringe. The story about a world which kept the strongest babies born each year and ate the rest still makes me nauseous when I think of it, but the writer’s description of the inhabitants horror at discovering that we ate animal flesh hit a nerve. I got it. I don’t have to change my own behavior or preferences, but it is worth knowing that my normal could be someone else’s disgusting.

Many clever writer’s have used the flip side of this to make their world more vivid. Once something becomes socially unacceptable, it has the ingredients for kinky sex. Of course, the more ridiculous the rule, the sillier the kinkiness becomes. The hero in Margaret Atwood‘s The Handmaid’s Tale lives in a world where women are not allowed to read. The man who essentially owns her takes her to a secret place to do something depraved. Her worst fears are groundless. The man wants to play scrabble with her.

I’m now about a third of the way into Frederick Pohl and CM Kornbluth’s 1952 satire The Space Merchants, and I’m enjoying it very much. I just finished a scene in which a most likable character disgusts our hero with his perverse behavior. It should be said that the hero is a work in progress, an advertising executive slowly learning the ramifications of his work. The perverse act we witness? His friend likes to read alone in a library that is filled with countless books with no advertisements at all. So much space with no attempt to sell anything is considered obscene in this dystopia.

“I’m not a prude about solitary pleasures when they serve a useful purpose. But my tolerance has limits,” our hero says. Point well made.

(For more about why I think The Space Merchants is a clever and under-appreciated story, see my posts I Know Sexism When I See It?, Predicting the Future or Shaping It? and Through the Eyes of Another.)