Kenji Yoshino's Covering

I picked up Kenji Yoshino's Covering: The Hidden Assault on Our Civil Rights when it came out, but I was very slow to get round to reading it, and did so finally because Ms NOLA had read it and liked it very much. I knew I was going to like it - and that was just the trouble. I thought I knew the book's contents, on the basis of an article in the Times Magazine and an interview with Leonard Lopate. Don't scoff - all too often, writers spill all the good beans that way, and there's nothing to discover in their books. But Mr Yoshino hasn't fallen into that trap. The last part of Covering is devoted to a magnificent concept, a real tool for getting from here to there. I couldn't believe it: a critic who delivers a solution! But first, a word about covering.

Everyone covers. To cover is to tone down a disfavored identity to fit into the mainstream. In our increasingly diverse society, all of us are outside the mainstream in some way. Nonetheless, being deemed mainstream is still often a necessity of social life. For this reason, every reader of this book has covered, whether consciously or not, and sometimes at significant personal cost.

That's how Covering begins, with a challenge to the reader to acknowledge the ubiquity and the inescapability of covering. Socialization requires it. We must learn to control our tempers in public - if we have them. We learn not to steal things that we want. Society requires a certain minimum of covering of each of us, and since we're taught to believe that we're better off for the habits that cover our antisocial urges so well that we hardly know they're there, we don't think of personal sacrifice. The covering that interests Mr Yoshino could be thought of as "optional" covering. Failing or refusing to cover won't land you in jail. If you're willing to forego the benefits that require covering, you're free to do so. But there is something vaguely theoretical about this freedom, because exercising it can be very lonely, and few people have the resources to live truly solitary lives. So we refrain from singing at our supper.

Everyone covers everywhere on earth, but the United States is a unique arena for the activity. In most places, even today, you are assimilated into your society simply by growing up in it. That has only recently become true for the majority of Americans, and it is obviously not the case for immigrants and their families. But few native-born baby-boomers can have worried very much about appearing to be American. Within the span of a few generations, then, the country has gone from being a place in which folks went out of their way to display their American ways of doing things to being rather like any European country. No longer driven to prove their own nationality, many Americans have begun to listen seriously to those for whom personal differences, whether physical, emotional, or even elective, have required paying an uncomfortable price. Blacks, women, the handicapped, and homosexuals have all insisted on speaking out about the price of conforming. They are looking forward to a world in which these differences won't have to be covered, and their struggle is the subject of Mr Yoshino's highly personal treatise.

The treatise is personal, because Mr Yoshino has a lot to say about his own Bildung, about accepting his orientation, coming out to his parents, and so forth: at each stage, he would cover a bit less, but he would still be covering to some extent, and he uses his biography to show how complicated and multifaceted covering can be. He makes it clear (by implication), for example, that the young gay man who comes out to his mother but not to his father has not really accomplished very much, because his homosexuality still can't be recognized within the family. While keeping secrets is a matter of stark consciousness, however, covering is vague, and it often persists after efforts to root it out have seemed successful.

But Covering is indeed a treatise, because Mr Yoshino both identifies a problem and specifies a solution. His solution is something he calls the "reason-forcing discussion." He deploys it in a cluster of cases involving personal appearance. There is the Las Vegas worker who won't wear makeup and the teacher who wears too much. There is the accountant whose manner is too masculine; there is the postal worker who is insufficiently masculine. The judgments in these cases are a dog's breakfast of ad hoc principles that attempt to find a theory that would explain why some covering demands are legitimate while others do not. When Mr Yoshino sets forth the "reason-forcing discussion," we see that none of the cases ought to have gone to court at all. And that in itself is an important point: Mr Yoshino is the unusual lawyer who wants to shift the scene from the courtroom to the plaza. If we consent to reason-forcing discussions, we're not going to have much to litigate.

In the reason-forcing discussion, the employer who favors a certain kind of behavior in his employees will be obliged to explain his preference. "Because I'm the boss" is obviously no reason at all - no reason, that is, for treading on the personal liberty of an otherwise productive employee. Nor are "that's how we've always done things" or "our clients prefer it." If clients prefer something, then their preferences must be explained. In most case, appearance-based covering is a vestige of the patriarchy that all enlightened souls wish to put firmly behind, but that persists in the minds of many uninquisitive managers.

Ultimately, the gay-marriage question would be settled in this manner. Is the word of God, as believed by some but not all members of society, a reason for interfering with someone's happiness? I think not. Is defense of the family a good reason to discriminate against homosexuals? Quite manifestly not. There is simply no good reason for withholding the very material benefits of marriage from those who seek them but are barred by the fact of gender. There are just a lot of bad ones. Similarly - as Mr Yoshino holds in an important discussion - there is no reason to come to a consensus about "appropriate gay behavior." Just as heterosexuality is a very, very weak bond among straight men and women, so it will become one among enfranchised homosexuals. It becomes a poor predictor of other behaviors, and it loses the "essentialist" characteristics that nowadays keep comment threads spooling endlessly. Two of my favorite bloggers have utterly opposed views on the subject of assimilation, and that's perfectly okay; there's room for everybody. As I wrote when I mentioned this book a while back, nobody can't be a drag queen - except at a funeral.

Preliminarily, it would appear that courts will have to adopt the "reason-forcing" principle, just to make it clear to employers that their unequal bargaining power won't help them out here. And waiting for today's courts to adopt such a standard is discouraging. Legislatures may be encouraged to enact it. Either way, it will be a principle of law that's rarely tested in court, because it will encourage a culture in which people think twice before saying, "You can't do that," or "Behave more appropriately, please." It will do more to urbanize our society than anything else could, and that's going to be important as increasing transport prices force us to live more closely together.

Covering is a brief book, one of two hundred smallish pages of text. It is extremely readable and always clear. Mr Yoshino is an appealing autobiographer. There is simply no good reason not to read this book. (July 2006)

Permalink  Portico

Copyright (c) 2006 Pourover Press

Write to me