As distance education students, our geography remains unchanged but our minds unfurl like flags as we play with and try out new ideas. The project of identity extends to our minds as we challenge preconceptions about ourselves and our social environment. This process allows us to glean sociological insights into how authoritarian power structures may be straining and crumbling in the face of revolutionary impulses. Never before has our sense of self been so labile; we can literally be a he or a she or a they, and with the click of a mouse or a few deft keystrokes we can adjust our academic major. Yet, bastions of traditional norms still obtain: the institution of property rights, the rules of academic research, and the norms of cultural educate.
In America’s White House a “genderfluid” person was hired and this person lets their freak flag fly. Until, that is, they were charged with stealing some designer luggage in an airport. “The complaint says Brinton removed a luggage tag from the bag, placed it into a handbag he was carrying, and ‘then left the area at a quick pace’” (Gockowski, A. 2022). No matter how we envision our liberated pronoun identities the lifting of someone else’s possessions remains a matter not up for dispute, a boundary not to be crossed for pleasure or play. Plagiarism is the corollary in our studies; no matter the expansiveness of our minds, we must cite all of our sources.
At AU we adopt ideas and make them our own even as we share them with others while feeling free to acquire and discard theories at will. Likewise, going off topic on exams or essays is akin to trespassing. Tutors rarely reward an excess of essay rambles, thus illustrating invisible disciplinary boundaries. So, as we write those essays, let’s remember that our lives are a project in all that we do, and few accoutrements are more valuable than a degree from AU.
From Property to Propriety
Meanwhile, while tangible and ephemeral property mark the limits of identity development and self-fulfillment, cultural norms also have discursive boundaries. Invisible laws of decency abound. As George Orwell noted, social taboos can be vexations to creative spirits: “even a single taboo can have an all-around crippling effect on the mind, because there is always the danger that any thought which is freely followed up may lead to the forbidden thought.” (167). Yet, in our times it seems that almost any freedom will be granted if it opens up a new marketplace between free individuals; anything that lubes the passage of wallet to till is fair game. One taboo never to be breached is the one that falls under the old theology term mine and thine. The closer to one’s heart an idea is the more the backlash when it is threatened with reformulation.
Whereas not threatening consumer confidence through theft is utterly sacrosanct, cherished beliefs lead to taboos in talking about certain topics. Recently another taboo-breaking incident, criminal in a social way to some, occurred. During a church service (itself a fascinating sociological realm, morality writ large in any given cultural climate) the following occurred “Heath, whose doctorate in theology was supervised by former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, claimed that in one of the medieval paintings he displayed to the congregation, the spear wound in Jesus’ side ‘takes on a decidedly vaginal appearance.’ In another, he pointed out how the blood from his side flows to his groin” (Brown, J. 2022) I mean, whoa! A transgender Christ as an idea is nice, but for many it’s a bit much to equate a stab wound with a vulva, no matter how symbolic. Nevertheless, though stealing from a person is illegal, challenging suppositions about an icon like Jesus Christ occurs on a different spectrum of taboos even if (as the report mentions) audience members were driven to tears.
Boundaries and punishments vary, to be sure, but the body and its ornaments remain touchy topics. And, as neo-Freudian feminist Luce Irigaray’s philosophy reveals, corporeal and ideational realms combine to form the core of identity: “Sexual difference is probably the issue in our time which could be our ‘salvation’ if we thought it through.” (Irigaray. n.d.) Her writings suggest that identity itself is not only historically constructed and alterable over time, but also a means to challenge subservient subjectivity. Social theory provides a playground for us to challenge personal beliefs and even our own identities; we literally evolve to a new sense of self when we immerse ourselves in sociological research. Playing with identities through theft of other people’s version of normality here appears to be a precursor to a truly liberated culture. Yet, even as the bounds of ownership are challenged in terms of our bodies, the economic rules of the cultural game remain unchanged.
To truly attain sovereignty over our bodies we may have to consider what sort of culture would truly put our identity as a project ahead of our identity in a marketplace. After all, what we feel deep inside about our identity is not something consumer goods can address. If that were the case, dressing up boys as boys and girls as girls wouldn’t elicit a whit of resistance. Likewise, when the gender of a mythological figure such as Jesus is made problematic, we see that almost any topic can be questioned so long as no one really steals what matters most: economic power.
As scholars, then, the value of our studies is partly in being able to rephrase reality in a way that addresses issues anew; in this sense, identity is theft in a good way, theft of normality that lives on a spectrum with theft from the prevailing wisdom of the political powers that be. All this, hopefully, with a sense of humor. As the poet Allen Ginsberg intoned with a smile, “when can I go into the supermarket and buy what I need with my good looks?”
Creativity and critical thinking is all about twisting and tweaking reality so that we can see new facets of the enigma that is human social life. Our studies reveal that any idea is tenable, any revolution winnable, when we research our ideas and question our assumptions. To be rewarded for thinking a topic through and expressing it in writing is perhaps the ultimate aspect of identity gained through our Athabasca education. And happily, unlike in the world of commerce, in scholarly writing nothing is theft if we cite our sources properly. As the 19th Century anarchist Pierre-Joseph Proudhon claimed, “property is theft!” and this is certainly true if we feel that our ideas are ever truly our own and not the outcome of countless personal and academic influences. Unlike the labyrinthine rules of society, academia actually allows expansive opportunities to act out our rebellious impulses; in the social sciences almost any topic, from toilet habits to totemic rituals, is fair game. At AU, we can break almost any cultural boundary with the gleeful weapon of rational reasoning.