December 29, 2009

The Falsifiability Talk

Posted in Gender issues, Uncategorized, Women's issues at 3:30 pm by Maggie Clark

We need to talk about falsifiability.

This isn’t an easy conversation, so let’s talk first about why we need to talk about it. There are many different communities that apply the “inner truth” model to their real world actions, especially when seeking respect, tolerance/acceptance, resources, and access. In no chronological order:

1) The traditional feminist movement used it to highlight that gender is externally enforced, though not deterministic.

2) The queer community emphasized that gender roles and their expectation sets do not reflect the real world, with all the varying orientations within it.

3) The trans activist community forwarded the argument that we are who we say we are: If a sex-male identifies as gender female, she should be recognized and addressed as such. She should also be given access to resources to help overcome the perceived division between her sex and gender.

4) The trans ableist community argued that if we are who we say we are, it follows that there should be equal legitimacy and respect for people who feel their actual identities involve a physical limitation — an amputation or deprived sense — whether or not they actually have the physical limitation (yet).

5) The intersex community, having no clear social gender roles externally enforced, takes issue with the notion that physical realities, such as being intersex, can be inner self-identities, too.

In short, we have a discursive plane that straddles two very difficult realms: Personal perception and the physical world. And both are exceedingly important, because the denial of both is responsible for serious oppressions in the real world. But as with anything in life, where there are limited resources, there is conflict for the lion’s share — and in the course of that conflict, grievous missteps allow for the misrepresentation of one realm in the course of promoting the other.

The trans ableist community offers the best encapsulation of this discord, because along with the insistence upon a disabled “inner truth” regularly goes an envy towards the “privileged” who are already disabled. The true farce of this misuse of the word “privilege” can be seen in the case of a hypothetical cancer patient: If someone were to say, “Oh, you’re so lucky — you have cancer, whereas my inner identity tells me I should have cancer, but I’m not privileged enough to have it yet!” we would recoil in horror. We would call the speaker mentally ill, and in great need of medical assistance.

But wait, trans ableists point out: their community isn’t talking about cancer, or other fatal diseases — it’s talking about amputation and blindness and -plegic states. True, but amputation and quadro- or paraplegic states are also fatal in the natural world: Only the advent of science, and whole industries of care-giving, make it possible for someone to lose a leg and not die from gangrene, or be quadraplegic and not starve or dehydrate to death. This is why self-identity is such a tricky basis for real world policy: The only difference between these identities being recognized as legitimate or treated as manifestations of mental illness is the existence of a society that can maintain the livelihood of persons in those states.

The problem is that, working backwards from this theoretical argument, transsexuality also falls into sharp question — quite frequently, in fact, from radical feminists and mainstream discourse — because transsexuality would literally not exist [ETA: as a realized condition] without the advent of science. Eunuchs would, and have, existed throughout history, but these have been socially-imposed male bodies with either feminine manifestations (when cut prior to pubescence) or extremely masculine manifestations (when cut after pubescence). How, then, could one person’s inner identity be transsexual (i.e. a gender female that requires transition for realization) if the very realization of that identity is dependent on the existence of sustainable systems of medical transition?

This is the issue that often arises in radical feminist discourse, which sees any inner identity moored to the medical industry as one inherently moored to a strict gender binary. To this end, TheBeardedLady wrote a stunningly good encapsulation of how women feel in their own bodies here, which highlights the marginalization many born-sex-female women feel of their lived experience in trans/feminist discourse, wherein the central site of gender oppression against women is regarded as something they should feel privileged to have had since birth.

“All right,” you say: “So you’re arguing that inner identity doesn’t count for squat?” No. Not at all. Because, as many people have noted, regardless of whether or not the transsexual identity is moored to medical institutions, there is one clear fact at work here: Medical transition helps some transgendered people. It has a higher success rate than therapy. It lessens depression and related mental illnesses in trans patients. The post-surgical regret percentages are almost non-existent. So, they’re happy as individuals, and their invididual life choices aren’t intrinsically hurting anyone. To refuse a treatment you know will increase someone’s quality of life, when it in no way harms another person’s life, is therefore unethical. Regardless of where transsexuality “lies” in a person, it is in and of itself an outcome that legitimately benefits individual lives.

The trouble only arises when recognizing another person’s right to shared resources solely on the basis of inner identity pushes someone else’s right to shared resources out of the way. And this, sadly, happens in the one place that is ostensibly fighting the good fight against gender oppression on the whole: the activist sphere.

    — It is in this sphere we find lesbians who are uncomfortable with the thought that any male-sex person may, simply by identifying as being gender female, demand access to their safe spaces; and who are furthermore not okay with being called transphobic simply because, being lesbian, they are most often attracted to the female sex, not the gender construction.

    — It is in this sphere we find radical feminists who worry about government mandates saying no space can be female-sex only — and therefore losing funding if they have to choose between finding ways to involve victimized religious immigrant women in safe spaces, and maintaining an open door policy for all people who self-identify as women — regardless of whether they’re post-op or non-op transgendered — in every single women’s centre activity.

    — It is in this sphere we find born-sex-female women in general recognizing people in the women’s washroom who look like men, and (fearing harassment or assault) telling them to get out or calling a cop on them.

    — It is in this sphere we find trans women, post-op and non-op alike, regarding as transphobic the fact that these women in the bathroom question refuse to recognize them as women, too. (The “everyone needs a place to pee” issue.)

    — It is in this sphere we find brutal deaths for non-gender-normativity appropriated by various gender/sex communities with no regard for the actual self-identities of the people being brutalized. It’s bad enough that how you self-identify doesn’t matter to your murderer, who will impose his horrific punishment on you for being what he thinks you are: When activist groups then scrabble to differentiate between an effeminate gay man beaten to death, or a straight man in drag beaten to death, or a trans woman beaten to death, inner identity is again thrown right out the window.

This is why we need to talk about falsifiability — or rather, the lack of it, when it comes to creating gender/sex theory and policy on the basis of inner truths alone. Because no one can know another person’s inner identity, what we then have to operate on is a social system that supports those inner identities wholeheartedly when they do not deny anyone else’s lived experiences or access to resources, and likewise demands further, external measures in setting policy for all instances where two or more groups’ access to resources are in conflict due to dissonant inner identities.

What will these external measures look like? That’s a damn good question. Taking into consideration the conflicts I mentioned above, and any related ones I may have overlooked, I open the floor to you. What do you think we need to ensure our activism helps all people oppressed by their gender or sex?

December 17, 2009

On Gender Normativity, Privilege, and Oppression

Posted in Gender issues, Uncategorized, Women's issues tagged , , , at 11:32 am by Maggie Clark

A very thorough, engaging discussion on another post has finally led to the point where a fuller response is warranted than can be provided solely in the comment threads at hand.

The precipitous comments in question are as follows:

“If you believe in transphobia, you have to believe in cis privilege. An oppression (transphobia) does not exist if there isn’t a corresponding privilege (cis privilege). So, really, if you deny there’s cis privilege, you’re denying there’s transphobia. Because the insistence that transphobia is just sexism or just homophobia or just gender non-conformity or that it’s even some combination of the three or something else again denies all the trans people who also experience those oppressions, have considered the matter, and still say that it’s not.

Which to me seems to bounce off another comment by the same poster here:

I guess the problem I have is when people reject being straight or heterosexual so they can reject benefiting from straight/heterosexual privilege. Because, we agree that it exists right? And it exists regardless of whether the people who benefit from it identify as such or not. If you’re a woman and you are only involved sexually and romantically with men and have no interest in another gender, then you’re straight/heterosexual as far as privilege goes. In fact, one of the usual arguments about and with bi/pan people is how much or even whether they benefit from straight privilege in straight-appearing relationships. Short version: If we only allow the labeling of people who benefit from privilege with whether they identify with it, then we lose the power to talk about the privilege. If there are no straight people, how can we maintain there is straight privilege?

I’m sorry. I don’t see how they don’t mesh. Could you explain how you see them as conflicting?

I was especially thrilled with the bi/pan engagement in this latter question, because it leads quite beautifully into my response. Specifically, in the first comment the poster lumps gender-normativity on par with sexism and homophobia, against which transphobia would then also be equivalent. I’d argue that the bi/pan question especially highlights how this is not the case: in actuality, gender-normativity is the huge umbrella term under which all other gender “isms” fall. This is because when we “pass” — either as a woman who fits all society’s expectations, or as a person who performs the sexuality that fits all society’s expectations, or as a person who fits all society’s expectations of their perceived gender/sex, period — we gain benefits within the gender binary. And anyone can pass: A heterosexual gender female/sex female, a bisexual gender female/sex female, a heterosexual/bisexual gender female/sex male. When any of us do, we achieve the highest state available to us in the gender binary: “woman.”

It then bears considering what this highest state entails. In a gender binary system where society is constructed around “male” being the default gender, the answer is quite obvious: “female” is itself non-normative. (I develop this notion more thoroughly in this earlier post.) It is, however, also the one state of non-normativity deemed “acceptable” — with the boundaries of this acceptable state decided by the dominant, normative gender: namely, male. This state of non-normativity is a behaviour and action set we call “woman.” If you are sex-female, and you fit this behaviour and action set, you are a woman. What does this guarantee you? Tragically, nothing: You may be everything a woman should be, and that may still result your endurance of gross abuses, violence, and discrimination. This is because woman is non-normative, and man is normative, and man sets these rules (here in a social contract sense, as well as in an absolute sense the world over).

This will get very important momentarily. Because what a system that pressures sex females to become the best “women” they can be does provide is an expectation set. If I’m prettier, boys will be nicer to me. If I’m nice, and don’t do anything to upset them, men won’t rape/harm me. The consequences of this are far reaching: Women with these expectation sets hurt other women in an effort to vie for a status that they think will grant them the most protection in the system. Women also often call out difference in others in order to prove themselves as “better” women for this same reason. All because of a desire for gender-normativity — even if, for women, that very normativity is non-normative, and offers no guarantees. This is the survival mechanism that comes into play in a gender binary.

This desire for gender-normativity then creates even huger problems when we realize, as individuals, that while we may pass for our gender-norm, we aren’t actually gender-normative at all. This creates intense fear of being “outed” among queer persons, and I would have to infer also trans persons. If you’re able to pass, and passing means hiding a part of you, that doesn’t feel much better at all. Whether you’re a trans woman who passes, but also wishes she felt safe airing her sex-based past; or a bisexual woman who wishes she felt safe airing her sexuality in full; or even a beauty-normative person who felt much more herself thirty pounds heavier, having to conform for fear of what happens if you don’t is not healthy: it’s oppressive. This too will become important momentarily.

Because then comes the third tier — the inability to pass as gender-normative. This has advantages just as it has disadvantages. The disadvantages are obvious: If you don’t pass, you’re far more vulnerable to the worst of our male oppressive gender binary. You’re vulnerable to violence and abuse and worst of all, the fear of both. This happens to sex females who openly eschew the behaviour and action set prescribed to our sex. This happens to sex males who openly eschew the behaviour and action sets prescribed to their sex. This happens to intersex persons who are proudly, openly so. But there is a slight advantage, too, for those who do not hate themselves for being different: You know who you are, you don’t feel like a fraud. While the bisexual woman feels shame when she keeps her sexuality a secret, or the trans woman bites her lip through a conversation about trans gendered persons being perverts, the people who do not pass and who embrace that they do not pass a) do not expect to benefit in the system, b) understand that only male normative persons truly benefit from the system, and c) draw strength from setting their own standards for success and failure instead.

This is the spectrum of gender normativity in the gender binary. So with this in mind, let’s look at “oppression” and “privilege.” “Privilege” refers to a set of benefits ascribed to a group of people. Often these benefits are described as expectation sets. Clearly, if you are a gender normative woman — either by birth, by happenstance, or by hard work and personal sacrifice — you get benefits for this condition, as outlined in an expectation set (regardless of whether or not they are fulfilled). And let’s be clear that I’ve omitted “without merit” from the privilege definition because, to a person struggling to achieve gender normativity, there is clearly a sense of “merit” in its attainment: but that’s not the kind of merit we refer to, so to lessen confusion I’m leaving it out.

And so here we run into a severe and important consideration: By this understanding of “privilege,” gender normative women have benefits, too. One list of them (not entirely accurate) is available here. These are occasionally legitimate benefits: What isn’t legitimate is how they are used to refute the claim that women aren’t oppressed. What these counter lists identify, in fact, is that benefits do not determine oppression. They can’t.

What does determine oppression is who controls the make-up of those lists. Because the benefits a gender normative woman experiences (in relation to a gender normative man) and the benefits a gender normative male experiences are both decided by one, central source: male dominant gender binary society. By virtue of having a greater overall threat of force, sex males have a dominance advantage over women, and get to set the terms of their societies. This is why we see societies the world over that have varying levels of shared gender power — everything from almost equal access to and representation in the bulk of law-making and day-to-day social structures (as seen in parts of the Western and Eastern worlds), to zero permitted female access to and representation in the bulk of law-making and day-to-day social structures (as seen in Saudi Arabia) — but never female dominance in any of these structures. Because men choose to share, or don’t. Full stop.

Oppression is decided by who or what creates the benefits lists for various groups. White people create the benefit lists for other cultures, and in the process themselves, in Western civilization. Meanwhile, the male dominant gender binary creates the benefits lists for gender normative men, non-gender-normative persons who are women, and anyone who fails to fit either of these two gender classes. Anything women can achieve, in terms of an expectation set that contains some superior outcomes to males, is set by men, and in so being, in no way disrupts the gendered power flow. Power always runs one way: To man.

This brings us back to the original comments, where the poster writes:

If you believe in transphobia, you have to believe in cis privilege. An oppression (transphobia) does not exist if there isn’t a corresponding privilege (cis privilege).

This last line is key, because the jump being made is that there must be a corresponding privilege, and that that privilege must be cis privilege. This poster and I were previously talking about how I don’t use “cis” because it presumes knowledge of my inner gender, and all persons should have the right to self-identify their inner truths. In the second comment, the notion of causal cis privilege is taken in conjunction with straight privilege — even as the use of bi/pan sexuality embodies a complete refutation of its solidity as a concept, because it’s completely contingent on “passing,” not “being.”

I agree there is a privilege associated with transphobia, just as there is a privilege associated with straight persons. Just as this privilege associated with straight persons is contingent on someone passing as straight, so too is the privilege associated with transphobia associated with someone passing as non-trans, or cis. This is gender normativity privilege. This is the ability, if you pass, or seek to pass, to gain benefits from suppressing or neglecting those who cannot, or do not.

I say this with full equanimity: I do not accuse people of straight privilege anymore [ETA: automatically, I mean: obviously when they exert it in their actions I’ll point it out the same way I would a woman exploiting male privilege to oppress other women], because I know full well it’s not contingent on who you are but whether you pass, and that far too many people whose inner truths are not straight adopt this language of oppression in order to do just that. I know, personally, that I pass far too much for my own comfort: This has to do with deep-seated issues with my father that I am trying very hard to overcome. In the meantime, it means that I gain more benefits than many from a system that favours the performance of gender normativity. So I do not say any of the aforementioned to avoid mentioning those benefits I receive for this privilege.

But these benefits, and this privilege, do not amount to oppression. As I mentioned above, there are benefits for most every group, and these amount to privileges for most every group; thus, due to the ubiquity of these privilege lists, privilege cannot alone determine oppression. If both men and women have privileges, does it then follow that no one is oppressed? No. Absolutely not. Because women do not set these privilege lists. We can benefit from them, absolutely. We do, so long as we live up to the standards set externally for us; and so long as those in power do not change their minds. But even the best case scenario for female gender normativity has no guarantees — only expectations. Why? Because gender power lies with the male dominant gender binary. Men set the terms of gender normativity: therefore men also set the terms of acceptable non-gender-normativity (“woman,” with the specific behaviour and action set imbued therein), and unacceptable non-gender-normativity.

Does this give non-gender-normative men, or acceptably gender-normative women, or unacceptably non-gender-normative women, a free pass on discriminating against others, in an effort to survive in the existing male dominant gender binary? Absolutely not. Women and non-gender-normative men alike need to hold themselves severely accountable for the systemic abuses they perpetuate in an effort to survive a system set to favour gender normative males, and reward with unreliable expectation sets those women who perform gender normativity best. This means gay men don’t have a free pass on sexism. This means women don’t have a free pass on homophobia. This means sex-females don’t have a free pass on transphobia against sex-male/gender females. And this means trans women don’t have a free pass on sexism in turn.

There are horrible things done by all non-gender-normative persons in the current male dominant gender binary, out of a desire to survive, and a foolhardy expectation that if we do our best to pass we’ll minimize the threat of harm and marginalization that comes our way. These abuses need to be confronted for what they are, and from whence they stem. This means eschewing privilege wherever it’s confused with oppression, because the real oppressions are all about performing gender normativity — as the male normative, and therefore male dominant, gender binary determines this performance to be.

December 7, 2009

Personal Statement Update (The Short Version)

Posted in Gender issues, Public discourse, Women's issues tagged , at 9:58 am by Maggie Clark

I think I’ve perfectly come to an understanding with myself about gender now.

I know I absolutely refuse any “inner gender” label. I know some (not all! not even close to all!) trans persons would insist that I am female (unless I instead defined myself as gender male), because their own perception of inner gender is something that they have felt “from birth,” despite the social and sex-based cues that told them they belonged to a different gender-sex.

I have not felt female “from birth.” In fact, I don’t “feel” female now. I don’t “feel” present in myself at all in a gendered way. The sex-based cues, which cause such immense problems for my ability to identify whether a personal feeling is “legitimate” or based on where I am in my cycle (seriously — I ALWAYS cry two days before my period, and it’s invariably about something that seemed slight beforehand), are a constant threat to my sense of self-identity. Similarly, the social cues, which have led counsellors to call me “broken” or “damaged” when I say my number one desire is not procreation but adoption, and my father to call me a “failure of the genetic code” for being queer and also for desiring to adopt, are another immensely sore point for me.

I know some trans persons feel that my self-identity — as genderless, as human-first — is an implicit attack on their own self-identities. It is not. I wholeheartedly respect and would NEVER challenge the noumenological identity of another human being. You are what you identify yourself as, and you will NEVER see me refute the gender label you give yourself.

I furthermore acknowledge that gender-normativity is an incredible BENEFIT in the gender-binary system we all presently occupy. And I know that in many occasions, I DO pass as gender-normative. So do many other queer persons. So do many transgendered persons. So do many straight, non-trans persons. But the problem with our gender-binary system — the problem shared by trans persons, queer persons, and women (and some men) alike — is that the MOMENT one of us doesn’t “pass” as gender-normative (as in, not fitting the gender archetype prescribed to our perceived sex), we are all at greater risk of violence and discrimination.

This is especially relevant when we look at cases like Jorge Steven López Mercado, a self-identified gay (NOT trans) man dismembered and decapitated and partially charred and abandoned on the side of the road.

I absolutely do not reference his name to politicize his death for my uses. I am very saddened, though not surprised, that his name, and his brutal death, have been applied in this manner already. I instead reference him to point out that whatever he identified as has NOTHING to do with why he died. Because it truly doesn’t matter what nuanced term a victim uses for him or herself. It matters A WHOLE LOT, however, what term the perpetrator ascribes to the victim. Because in any sensible universe, there would be only one term, for everyone: HUMAN. In reality, however, there are more. And therein lies the problem.

In this way, I am firmly of the belief that the violent bigoted see no difference between trans and gay — that they think of trans women as gay men who are trying to “trick” them into being gay as well, by making them fall for “men” dressed like women. The thought experiment I like to use here is of the father who beats his child for playing with dresses and make-up: This action has NO relation to the outcome of the child. The child might end up identifying as gay. The child might end up identifying as transgender. The child might end up as a cross-dressing straight man (a VERY strong portion of the cross-dressing population!). The child might end up as none of these at all! You just don’t know. The ONLY thing this scenario says for certain is that the FATHER has no tolerance for non-gender-normativity. And in his limited experience with non-gender-normativity, he’s more likely than anything to perceive this action as “gay” (in the effeminate sense), and respond with that notion in mind.

What does this have to do with real world outcomes? Everything. It means EVERYONE who might ever have reason not to pass as gender-normative — either by being a born-woman who doesn’t conform to physical or social expectations for her gendered sex, or by being a born-man who doesn’t conform to physical or social expectations for his gendered sex, or by being a trans woman or trans man confronting similar, oppositional expectations due to his her/his gendered sex — is at risk in our system. It means that the targeted or otherwise violent deaths of queer men and women need to be taken very seriously by society. It means that the targeted or otherwise violent deaths of women, period, need to be taken very seriously by society. It means that the targeted or otherwise violent deaths of trans persons need to be taken very seriously by society. And it means that the exploitation and silencing of lived experience from all three groups needs to be taken very, very seriously as well.

But all of this needs to be done for one very crucial, rarely disseminated, wholly universalizing reason: Because the noumenological truth of our self-identities is OURS ALONE. Just as I have absolutely no right to tell a trans person what gender they identify as, no one can tell me I identify as “female” just because society sets out specific gender-female expectations for the sex I was born into, and I don’t identify instead as “male”.

Which means I have every fucking right to say I don’t have an inner gender identity. I furthermore have every fucking right to say I don’t feel “present” within myself at all in that regard.

And it means I can say this about myself without that determination EVER threatening another person’s equal right to whatever inner identity they recognize for themselves.

This is NOT transphobic. This is NOT cissexist. This is the nature of a system where all individuals should be equal, with equal rights and privileges, and equal assurances to the right of self-determination. It is, moreover, the nature of a system where all individuals are, in reality, only equal when they present as gender-normative; and where a slew of variations on our rights and privileges emerges when we, as individuals, cease to perform to that gender-normative standard.

This is what I’ve learned about myself, and the gender-binary we operate in, over the past few weeks. I welcome all comment, from everyone, about their own thoughts about such matters.

All the best, you wonderful human people you!

November 24, 2009

Questions in the Hope of Furthering Feminist Discourse on Trans Intersections

Posted in Gender issues, Women's issues tagged , , , at 2:43 pm by Maggie Clark

Pursuant to my last post, I’d like to pose a few questions about the kinds of issues I have trouble taking as Not Open For Discussion, or Cause To Be Termed Cissexist/Transphobic, in the much of mainstream liberal feminism. I greatly appreciate any and all insights therein — so thank you, in advance, to anyone who responds to them:

1) How does championing the transsexual necessity of surgery/hormones to achieve external indications of “womanness” within the feminist sphere affect the feminist mandate of teaching all women, including non-gender-conforming born-women, to question their desire for body modification surgeries (like breast augmentation or tummy tucks), love themselves just as they are, and otherwise explode the existing, oppressive gender binary?

2) How, in the sphere of feminist activism, are we to align the transsexual stance that transwomen were female from birth — just without the biology, and without the requisite physicality — when feminism as a whole sees “being woman” as a social construct foisted on born-women by the society we’re engaged with as we grow?

3) Pursuant to 2), how do we both accept (I stress again, “in feminism”) that transsexuals’ lived experience of femininity is that they were women at birth BUT that when they later strive to attain body modifications that are gender-norm-affirming, this is just the inevitable extension of their socially imposed perceptions about “what it is to be a woman”?

4) Why are good born-woman feminists expected to accept a list of privileges that does not conform to our perception of the lived experiences of born-women everywhere, when it is alternately considered transphobic and “othering” even to suggest that transsexuals may harbour residual male privilege that needs to be checked as part of their own, full transition into the feminist sphere?

5) Pursuant to 4), there are plenty of born-women who do not “pass” as a general rule, and a great many more of us who toe the line all the time with our choices, lifestyles, public presentation and actions — just the same as many trans persons do not “pass”, and many trans persons do. So why is it assumed that born-women are always identified by perpetrators of gender oppression as having “legitimate” gender identities, and all the “privilege” that supposedly arises therein?

Even if you only have the time to answer one of these questions, I would be greatly obliged. These are big, tough questions for me, and I would love to have them raised in mainstream feminist discourse: However, from my experiences to date, I have not seen them perceived as at all welcome — the argument being that questioning the actions of transsexuals in relation to feminism (as feminists already, rigorously and critically, question the actions of born-women in relation to feminism) is “othering”, “cissexist”, and/or transphobic. To me, this seems entirely counter-intuitive and unproductive, with huge implications for the calibre of feminist discourse going forward. But what are your insights on such matters?

I’ll be deconstructing each question in its own post in the coming days, so please feel free to jump in whenever you can in the discourse.

Many thanks in advance!

November 19, 2009

My Gender Is Not My Own

Posted in Uncategorized, Women's issues tagged , , , , at 2:02 pm by Maggie Clark

Hi, my name is Maggie. My sex is female, and I was born that way. My gender? Well, it turns out my gender matters a great deal.

It matters because I am a feminist, and feminism is very much concerned with the gendered oppression of women as a sexual class. There’s a lot of unpacking to do in that sentence, and I’ll try to keep it brief: Essentially, we live in a society that was built on a social contract arising from the perception of two classes of gender, male-normative and non-male-normative. (Another way of putting this is “sex-male” and “sex-female”.) The primary benefit of this framework is simplicity: If there are only two classes of gender-and-sex, and one class is given de facto authority as the “superior” gender-and-sex, then society can be structured in a way that maximizes efficiency. This efficiency arises from the distribution of clear gender roles and responsibilities, which are thereafter indisputable because only one sex has the power to decide just what those roles and responsibilities will be. What decides which sex will be regarded as superior? Why, just take a look at the biological differences between male and not-male: Are women on the whole physically stronger? Can they, as a class, make a legitimate threat of violence against men? Well, if not, then clearly they do not have power over men. But are men on the whole physically stronger? Can they, as a class, make a legitimate threat of violence against women? Well, if so, then clearly they do have power over women. And so begins the gender oppression of women as a sexual class.

But not quite, because to leave the last paragraph as it stands is to imply that all male-normative persons desire simplicity, and all non-male-normative persons do not. This is not the case. In actuality, many women also prefer simplicity, and so would not perceive themselves as being oppressed in even the most stringently gendered social structure. Now, some would argue this is not a “free choice”, but a consequence of indoctrination from early childhood; however, such a multitude of different upbringings yield later-life conversions that one would have to argue “No choice is really a free choice” in order to win that argument — at the cost, obviously, of rendering the argument itself irrelevant. And really, does it hinder this discourse to suggest that some women might freely wish to live their lives in such a manner? No, it does not.

Because the distinction is really this: Do the women who crave simplicity want others to crave it too? And this in turn is a trick question, because simplicity becomes decidedly less simple as you accept that more and more people should have the option to prefer complexity. So truly, one needs to crave the complex to perceive social gendering as oppressive. And these people are called feminists.

Now, why do we prefer the complex? Do we just like making a mess of things, or pursuing that which seems more exciting? No. We prefer complexity because we perceive it to be the more accurate representation of the real world. We prefer complexity because we do not hold efficiency as the central standard for human civilization. And we prefer complexity because it’s a natural consequence of choice.

But while all feminists hold the notion of choice as a central tenet of our beliefs and activism (creating choice, protecting choice) two schools of feminism emerge as soon as you look any closer at the movement. These schools are liberal feminism and radical feminism, and they are often at great odds with one another in feminist discourse. What creates this division? The divergent means by which both groups seek out the same ends.

Consider, if you will, a state. The name of this state is “Humankind”. Since Humankind’s governance structure favours simplicity, the state is perceived as being peopled by male-normative persons and non-male-normative persons, with the former holding power and privilege over the latter. The latter, on the whole, don’t like this, so they consider strategies to improve their position within this state. Now, marginalized groups throughout history have responded to their degradation by adopting the language of oppression as their own, and in this reclamation process we find such terms as “Yankee” and “Hutu” and “Nigger”. Similarly, by stripping sexist words of their power to hurt, and otherwise reclaiming those actions and elements of personhood used by oppressors to assert female inferiority, feminists hope to gain legitimacy within the state of Humankind. Historically, this occurs as a consequence of “taking back the language”, because words like “Cunt” or “Bitch” very easily become banners to rally under, and to use for the purpose of creating a shared narrative. In short, they become symbols of nationhood.

So one group in feminism takes this approach in the state of Humankind, and fashions for itself a nation called Woman. And with this nationhood emerges the usual propagandist methodologies for fighting oppression in the existing gender class system: Arguing that sex and sexuality are actually powerhouses for female liberation, making physical “weakness” its own measure of strength, and otherwise forwarding the thesis that women embrace their femininity not for other people’s sake, but for their own. This nation, predicated as it is on individual empowerment, demands equal representation in the state of Humankind for all its members, with all the individual civic and economic rights, responsibilities, and privileges that representation entails. The aim of this activism is to equalize the status of all persons in the state of Humankind, but to do so within the existing gender class framework. This nation is liberal feminism.

But others in this marginalized gender class aren’t so keen on the nation of Woman. If there were another state in this hypothetical scenario, they would have fled the state of Humankind to this Other Realm by now. As it stands, these people feel like refugees in their own homes, and they don’t see how a nation of Woman that even in part reaffirms existing gender roles can offer a way out. This is because no matter how much the nation of Woman celebrates an individual’s choice to, say, work in the sex industry of her own volition, this other group will invariably recall that this choice does not exist in a vacuum: Rather, it exists in a world where the great majority of women in the sex industry are not there of their own volition, or at least certainly are not empowered within that system. In short, this other group champions a universalist approach to combating gender oppression: just as a chain of mountain climbers is limited by the height of its lowest member, so too do these universalists measure their success by the gender-based status of the least of them. These people are radical feminists, and they desire to confront the causes of gender oppression at its source, as opposed to its end-points.

Of course, all ideologies have a way of coming full circle if taken to their extremes, which is why cultural feminism also exists — bridging liberal feminism’s championing of the individual woman and radical feminism’s desire to usurp existing gender norms. The difference between cultural feminism and the other two feminist ideologies is that cultural feminism does not seek equality. Rather, it seeks to supplant the male-dominant gender norm with a female-dominant gender norm, on the basis of a perception that a) simplicity is good, b) women actually have a power store all their own, and c) a system predicated on female-norm/non-female-norm would be of better use to the progress of civilization as a whole. This is the ideology most consistently taken to be the basis of feminism as a whole — which is tragic, because cultural feminism is absolutely an extreme fringe, and nowhere near the discursive norm.

What is the discursive norm is intense argumentation between the schools of liberal and radical feminism, over a wide variety of issues relating to women’s lived experience. This intensity of polemics is neither surprising nor unique: one finds similar spectra in any political discourse, and the lack of surprise arises from how easily individual feminists themselves waver between camps. And why not? Liberal feminism essentially tackles that which might be attained in our lifetimes — goals like sexual empowerment on an individual basis — while radical feminism consigns us to work that will perhaps be on-going for many, many lifetimes to come. Similarly, radical feminism has a measure of lofty idealism to it — meanwhile, liberal feminism can at times put personal choices in conflict with acknowledging the lived oppression of other women, and that doesn’t feel so grand at all. So of course we waver. But more importantly, our collective discourse should waver, because talking about feminist issues — even to disagree about them — does not intrinsically fragment the cause. To the contrary, discussion is the basis of dissemination. So argument is an important part of feminism as a whole.

But can anyone participate in these arguments? This question comes to the fore when we consider male feminist allies. If you recall, I noted near the outset that not all women crave complexity: similarly, not all men crave simplicity. Some recognize that the world is much too diverse for a gender oppressive paradigm to be just. Some recognize that they are also not well-served by a system that regards the non-male-normative gender class as inferior. And some have experienced first-hand what happens when people don’t fit perfectly into either of the two gender classes at all (more on that below). Whatever their reasons, these men want to work to create equality for women — to support women in their self-empowerment, as it were — with varying levels of investment in these outcomes serving male interests, too.

But creating a space where women aren’t told by others what their experiences have been; where they need not fear being silenced for sharing their stories; where, instead, they can etch out a shared narrative and pursue constructive activism from that outlook, is not easy. It never has been. So when male allies enter the feminist sphere there is a need to ensure they actually are there to support, to listen, and to share their own experiences where appropriate instead of a) demanding that women take the time to answer all their questions about feminism, b) demanding that women tell them their full histories, c) denying women’s experiences, or d) dictating what women’s experiences of discrimination “actually are” in relation to men’s experiences of the same.

I’m sure that, to all of the men in this audience, doing such things would seem absurd and ridiculous — as extreme and unfair a cross-section of male involvement in feminist discourse as cultural “feminism” is of female involvement in feminist discourse. But the aforementioned discursive bullying, and worse, does happen. How often? Often enough that feminists get very jittery about male ally engagement in certain subjects or facets of feminism — liberal feminism especially. Why liberal feminism? Because liberal feminism advocates individual choice, and especially houses a great many choices that enhance a woman’s sense of self by “reclaiming” marginalized aspects of her existing gender role. This kind of individual action can be great fodder for male allies, because without being invested firsthand in the “history” of a sex-female body, and all the social ramifications therein, they can champion female choices that favour traditional male expectations of women, and do so in the name of feminism. And will they have questioned their privilege in the course of championing this view? It’s hard for anyone else to tell. And will any comments they add to these discussions feel at all different from the pressure women as a sexual class already receive from men about what we should do with our sexuality? It’s quite unlikely. Women should have the choice to pursue these ideologies themselves, absolutely: but men shouldn’t be trying to influence the outcome. This is where many feminists get concerned.

So in some aspects of feminism, yes, it’s important for male allies to sit and listen. But not always — and certainly not always when we’re talking about “male-normative” and “non-male-normative” gender values, because these issues have extreme cross-disciplinary implications, and many men also have “non-male-normative” gender values themselves. Here, indeed, exist great reasons for various forms of class-based activism (queer activism and trans activism especially) to work together to deconstruct the existing gender classed society. But in what ways? With what limitations? And what on earth do I even mean by the term “non-male-normative”?

Because by now I’m sure you’re wondering if I’ll ever explain why I likened “male-normative and non-male-normative” so readily with “sex-male and sex-female” at the beginning of this post. What about non-male-normative men? What about male-normative women? Well that’s just it, isn’t it? There are many, many ways to be non-male-normative, and thus lack power in the current gender oppressive state: You can be a sex-female who identifies as straight, and gender-male. You can be a sex-male who identifies as queer, and gender-male. You can be a sex-female who identifies as pan-sexual and two-spirited. But it still won’t matter. In a gender classed society predicated on the need for simplicity, in a species with offspring that manifest as one of roughly two sexes, having more than two gender frameworks for those two rough sex types is inherently complicated and inefficient. Two will, and must, suffice.

As such, the two gender classes that exist in this system have very specific traits: “male-normative” has at its root a clear set of values for sex-male persons that “fit”, while “non-male-normative” has at its root a clear set of values for sex-female persons that “fit”. We can call the former set of values “gender male”, and the latter, “gender female”. What, then, of all the rest?

Imagine a small sex-male, maybe five or six. He should have grown out of his baby toys, but he hasn’t. He plays with his sister’s dolls, brushing their hair and accessorizing them while gushing about how pretty they are. If given half the chance, he plays dress-up in his mother’s closet, and smears lipstick over his face. His father, a rather severe man raised on fairly stringent religious values, who regards himself as the obvious head of the household and is not inclined to spare the rod, comes across his son in the midst of such play. His response is to beat the child. What does he see that makes him act this way?

You might say he sees the possibility that his son might turn out gay. You might say he sees the possibility that his son will turn out transgendered. But the latter seems unlikely for someone not regularly exposed to diversity, and even the former seems almost too complete an analysis for such an impulsive, violent response. So what can we confidently, irrefutably say this man sees just before he beats his child? We can say he sees his child acting in a non-male-normative way. And again, we know there are many ways to be non-male-normative, but the only one this man will understand is “gender female” — and that, he’ll further understand, can only manifest in a sex-female person. So what the father sees before him is quite simply incomprehensible from his world view. And the very fact that it’s incomprehensible, that it doesn’t conform to any measure of a simple universe, makes it wrong. And things that are wrong are often met with violence.

Meanwhile, the reality is that this child’s play in no way suggests what his adult identity will be. He might be gay. He might be transgendered. He might be both. He might be neither. The only thing his actions confirmed that day was how his gender was perceived by others — namely, as wrong. Thereafter, in hindsight the incident will similarly be used to explain or even justify his self-identity as an adult. But should it matter even then? What causes a gay or transgendered person to say “I knew I was X because I did Y when I was younger”, except the pressure from a gendered society to legitimize the place of other gender histories? Would that gay or transgendered person be deemed “less legitimate” if they didn’t have a story about Y from their childhoods? And if so, what does that say, in turn, about the external life of gender identity?

This is a crucial point for feminism, because on the basis of such broader gender oppressions the concepts of both “hetero-normative privilege” and “cis privilege” enter feminist discourse — but there is a huge difference between the impact of these two terms on our discipline. (And the omission of “gender conformity privilege” in favour of “cis privilege” is hugely telling.)

What are “hetero-normative privilege” and “cis privilege”? The former notes that one of the values included in both gender norms is the expectation of heterosexuality, the lone sexual orientation permitted in this gender class structure. Essentially, by virtue of having the correct sexual orientation, you “fit”, and thus have certain privileges over those who do not. The latter, however, is quite different, because it asserts that people born into the gender that matches their sex are privileged over those who are not. Essentially, by virtue of having the socially correct gender/sex overlap at birth, you “fit”, and thus have certain privileges over those who do not.

Consider that definition, if you will, while I note that it’s generally liberal feminists who embrace the notion of “cis privilege” — and why shouldn’t they? That nation of Woman is all about taking back the gender identity they were born into: if liberal feminists find pride in being gender-women, however they’ve re-forged that gender set upon them to mean, then of course they’re going to recognize that they get benefits from being the gender they love, and which they were born into through no merit of their own. Except… by that logic, don’t liberal feminists also get such benefits over radical feminists? No, wait, of course not: Because transgendered persons feel their gender is at odds with their sex identity from birth, and (at least) radical feminists… do not?

You’ve caught on to the gist of the problem by now, haven’t you? Because for many radical feminists, the notion of “cis privilege” is an absolute mindfuck. As has already been established, there are a great many distinct gender profiles — but only two of them are recognized as acceptable in the system of gender oppression: “male-normative” (sex-male) and “non-male-normative” (sex-female). All others are wrong. And there’s an important corollary to this: It doesn’t actually matter what you identify as, because society will treat you on the basis of what it sees as your identity. The logical conclusion of this is that people who “pass” as gender-normative gain the same social benefits of gender-normativity: it matters not one whit what you feel is really who you are.

So when radical feminists are told we have gender privilege — that is, when we’re told we are privileged over other gender profiles because our sex matches up with our gender — there is great cause for disagreement. This disagreement is exacerbated when some trans activists say they have been their actual gender from birth, because after all, radical feminists perceive gender as externally imposed, meaning we have two truths at play here: what others see us as, and how we see ourselves. Transwomen should be familiar with this concept, but many nonetheless refuse it in this case, instead interpreting such feminist disagreement as another aspect of rad-fem “privilege” or even transphobia. “Exploding the gender binary is a nice ideal, but not really practical,” the argument goes, “So you have to pick one gender or the other. What will it be? Do you see yourself as male or female?”

But this is precisely the point — and perhaps one that needs to be handled with transwomen just as it would be with male allies (two groups that have both been raised in the sex-male class, with all the gendered social expectations and benefits therein, at some point in their lives): I refuse that false dichotomy. I see myself as neither. My sex is female, but I am human. And above and beyond all sex-based biochemical differences between male, female, and intersex persons, this means the whole notion of gender is a socially-imposed facade — one for which I doubt I will ever have the opportunity to transition into a body where that fact (and with it, the primacy of my citizenship in the state of Humankind) is seen first.

But silly me, maybe that’s just part and parcel of being gender-female in the first place. How would I know, after all? I don’t set the values by which that gender norm is measured. I don’t get to change those values, either, though they fluctuate throughout my life. All I know for sure is that my gender is not my own; and for this reason, that my gender has nothing to do with who I am. So please, to all feminists and feminist allies claiming I have “cis privilege”, keep it coming. Keep telling me I’m privileged because society most often sees me as passing for the gender identity it considers the only acceptable value set for my sex. Forget that in any checklist giving me the option not to answer the gender question, I would provide no fucking answer at all. Forget that my name is Maggie, and that I’m sex-female but still human, and absolutely not comfortable with the external life of my gender identity.

Trust me, you wouldn’t be the first.

June 10, 2009

Egg All Over Our Faces: It’s Not Just Nick Griffin

Posted in Culture Wars, Global discourse, Women's issues tagged , , , , , , , , , , , at 10:21 am by Maggie Clark

When you realize what’s missing in mainstream coverage of the election of two British National Party (BNP) candidates to European Parliament, you shouldn’t be able to stand all at once. Really, the omission should stun you. And if you can’t laugh aloud at it, out of shame and awkwardness at the absurdity of the thing, you might never be the same again. I won’t tell you what it is right away, though: I’m curious to see if you reach the same conclusion — and how quickly you do. In the meantime, let me lay out the story at hand, as it’s been reported throughout the mainstream British and North American media.

After Nick Griffin and Andrew Born became the first members of the BNP, which has a “restrictive membership policy” refusing entry to blacks and asians, to attain such levels of legitimate power, there was much talk of public reaction, and justifications for their election in the first place. Within hours, Griffin had egg on his face — literally — as protestors shouted “Off our streets, Nazi scum” and held up banners condemning the party as fascist. Meanwhile, broadcasters resigned themselves to giving him airtime — a perk necessitated by his new position, but entered into cautiously because of cultural reluctance to give forum to concepts like racism and xenophobia.

And there are indeed both here. While Geert Wilders, of the Dutch Freedom Party — and another member of European Parliament — claims his issue is with “Islam as an ideology, not the colour of people’s skin”, Griffin managed to change his party into something more approachable without veering from “core values” like the following, shared on BBC Radio 5 Live after his election:

“All indigenous people all over the world have certain rights and one of those is to control their own borders so their bloodline and their culture remains dominant in their country without being hostile to anybody else. It is a basic human right.”

He is, of course, also a Holocaust denier (his adolescence in the National Socialist Movement, a group honouring Hitler and responsible for cases of arson on Jewish property, he typifies as “youthful indiscretion”), though he’s cleverly sought to downplay perceptions of anti-Semitism in his party — and why not, when clearly the menace of Islam is such that a few Jews kicking about are small peas in comparison?

So the “global warming is a hoax” shtick he also forwards — condemning an exploitative liberal base for using this issue to over-tax hard-working citizens (see? people who support immigration are just all around jerks to decent white British folk!) when the real issue is clearly peak oil (read: our need to stop being dependent on foreigners for anything) — is really just the cherry on top of one enormous shit sundae.

More interesting still is how the BNP was able to gain so much traction so quickly — a multifaceted development that leaves some thankful they only received two seats in total (Ed West of The Telegraph, writing about the need for a less polemic debate about immigration, reports that some were predicting five, or even eight, handed off). On the one hand, the BNP exploited the hell out of a recent expense claims scandal in British parliament, with Griffin deftly culling the working class vote from the Labour Party after lax rules allowed such expenses as the following to be billed to a nation already struggling with the impact of global recession:

NYT — For the Tories, the worst embarrassments lay in charges for the clearing of a moat, a shipment of horse manure for a garden, the maintenance of sprawling woodlands, the installation of a miniature “duck house” in a country house pond. The more mundane needs of Laborites and Liberal Democrats were met by claims for nonexistent mortgages, dry-rot repairs at the house of a Labor M.P.’s partner, and a Liberal Democrat’s trouser press. Before he resigned over the scandal, the speaker of the House of Commons, Michael Martin, claimed thousands of pounds for a chauffeur-driven car that drove him about his Glasgow constituency, one of Britain’s poorest.

Consequent displays of “breathtaking arrogance” didn’t help, either:

Anthony Steen, a 69-year-old Conservative, told a BBC reporter that $135,000 in claims for the upkeep of his country home were nobody’s business. “Do you know what it’s about? Jealousy,” he said. “I’ve got a very, very large house. Some people say it looks like Balmoral. It’s a merchant’s house of the 19th century. It’s not particularly attractive. It just does me nicely.”

So if it weren’t for the fact that the party turned to in this time of great public anger, resentment, and disillusionment, is itself one of anger, resentment, and disillusionment (to say nothing of being racially motivated in its manifestations of all three), you might even say the House of Commons had it coming.

But then again, the victories weren’t garnered solely on account of the expense claims scandal; Griffin himself said there was “an enormous correlation between high BNP votes and nearby Islamic populations.” Which leads to the other part of their winning strategy: Making the threat of immigration quantifiable, by highlighting how it directly targets the children of good, decent, white British folk.

Enter the high profile subject of Muslim “grooming” of white girls for sex, and the presentation of a calmer, more reasonable-seeming Griffin on the BNP website, where he introduces a series of three “deeply shocking” videos with such moderate caveats as “We’re not putting these up because we want to alarm people or be sensationalist, but because we want to draw attention to a really serious and growing problem in our multicultural society.”

They are upsetting, too, so consider yourself forewarned if you watch them (Part I, Part II, Part III). And they speak to a nation-wide crisis Britain has at present with exceedingly low conviction rates for rape in the country, alongside a systemic problem with cases being dismissed “by officers with a ‘Life on Mars’ attitude based on making snap judgments about the credibility of the victim,” according to The Guardian.

And it’s precious, too, that in follow-up to his comment about the demographics of his voters, even Griffin explains how “the reason for [this correlation between voters and geography] is nothing to do with Islamophobia; it is issues such as the grooming of young English girls for sex by a criminal minority of the Muslim population.” A criminal minority, did you see that? And yet the BNP’s advertising campaign would prey on the country’s horrific overarching track record for sexual assault to demonize the entire British Muslim population. Clever, isn’t it?

But what’s cleverer still — if you haven’t noticed it yet — is that for all the nuanced analysis of causality, and consequence; for all the articles about whether or not Griffin will attend the Queen’s garden parties now, or how the media will handle having BNP members on their shows, or even what kind of public outcry the election of Griffin and Bron has yielded, you will find nothing — NOTHING — in mainstream media articles detailing any measure of comment, expert or personal, from the groups most affected by these elections: the British Asians, and the British Blacks, themselves.

And though we can preach until the cows come home about how offensive Griffin’s election is, and how offensive such xenophobic and racist beliefs are, until we realize that our very discourse on the subject implicitly talks around, instead of including, the very people the media claims are equal and full citizens of the British commonwealth, we are all just as guilty of perpetuating the dangerous myth of “otherness” that presently threatens the very fabric of European unity.

June 8, 2009

100,000,000 Missing Women

Posted in Global discourse, Women's issues tagged , , , , , , , at 11:09 am by Maggie Clark

Two years back I happened upon the Global Media Monitoring Project, a survey conducted every five years to determine who makes the news, and who makes it into the news, on the basis of gender. The 2005 iteration of this survey received data from 76 different countries, monitoring 12,893 news stories (radio, TV, and print), including 25,671 sources, and presented by 14,273 news personnel; and the results were profound:

  • Women are dramatically under-represented in the news

  • Only 21 percent of news subjects — the people who are interviewed, or whom the news is about — are female. Though there has been an increase since 1995, when 17 percent of those heard and seen in the news were women, the situation in 2005 remains abysmal. For every woman who appears in the news, there are five men.

  • Women’s points of view are rarely heard in the topics that dominate the news agenda.

  • There is not a single major news topic in which women outnumber men as newsmakers. In stories on politics and government only 14 percent of news subjects are women; and in economic and business news only 20 percent. Yet these are the topics that dominate the news agenda in all countries. Even in stories that affect women profoundly, such as gender-based violence, it is the male voice (64 percent of news subjects) that prevails. [emphasis mine]

  • As newsmakers, women are under-represented in professional categories

  • such as law (18 percent), business (12 percent) and politics (12 percent). In reality, women’s share of these occupations is higher. For instance, in Rwanda — which has the highest proportion of female politicians in the world (49 percent) — only 13 percent of politicians in the news are women.

  • As authorities and experts women barely feature in news stories.
  • Expert opinion in the news is overwhelmingly male. Men are 83 percent of experts, and 86 percent of spokespersons. By contrast, women appear in a personal capacity — as eye witnesses (30 percent), giving personal views (31 percent), or as representatives of popular opinion (34 percent).

  • Women are more than twice as likely as men to be portrayed as victims:

  • 19 percent of female news subjects, compared with 8 percent of males, are portrayed this way. News disproportionately focuses on female victims in events that actually affect both sexes — accidents, crime, war. Topics that specifically involve women — sexual violence, domestic violence, cultural practice — are given little coverage.

    And the list goes on.

    Now, I have read much in the past two years that confirms women’s issues are not solely the domain of women writers — that men can, in fact, write stories about matters that profoundly affect womankind. Jeffrey Gettleman’s “Rape Epidemic Raises Trauma of Congo War” was a devastating and desperately needed piece about the under-reported incidence of rape as a weapon of war. Alex Renton’s “The Rape Epidemic” provided an outsider’s account of systemic abuses in Haiti. And for all The Globe and Mail‘s sensationalizing of the case, articles like Robert Matas’ “Week 24: Pickton demonstrated how he strangled prostitutes, witness says” made sure we knew full well who Robert Pickton was, and just how many lives he destroyed.

    Moreover, for all the benefits of having a woman talk to other women about sensitive cultural and personal matters, there are the practicalities of a war-torn world to consider, too: Some are simply not safe for foreign women (let alone local women) — and though all journalists can be expected to run grave risks when visiting difficult countries (as Euna Lee and Laura Ling, sentenced to 12 years hard labour in North Korea, recently discovered), those risks are markedly higher for women — both in terms of being targeted in the first place, and in the context of just what can be done to a woman, once targeted. We stand out. We’re generally smaller, with less comparative strength. We can become the personal property of our captors, married off or forced into lives of prostitution. And we can be raped into pregnancy, or else gang-raped for months until we perish. These aren’t just sickening possibilities: they’re maddening ones. And if the gentlemen’s club of inside intel wasn’t enough to make reporting on many parts of the world hard enough, these facts make it damn near impossible to have women representing women with any degree of equality in matters of extremely gendered global conflict.

    But as I read yesterday’s cover story for The Toronto Star, “How did 100,000,000 women disappear?” I found myself too numb for anger, too numb for tears. 100 million women — not all lost at birth, no, though so many cultures kill off female children as often as they can; and not all lost from “accidents” inflicted by families forcing the newlyweds’ to pay their dowry debts; and not all lost from violence most heinous and inhuman; but so many lost over the course of a lifetime from basic, gendered neglect, and the prioritization of access to aid to the males instead.

    Such sweeping and senseless losses, in such sweeping and senseless numbers, makes the true message of the GMMP all too clear: If our primary coverage of women is as victims, then all we will find are more victims. Many, many, many more victims.

    And while there are justifications, yes, for why women do not do more to report on the suffering of fellow women worldwide, there is absolutely no justification whatsoever for why we do not do more to report on the empowerment of women worldwide. It needn’t be so blatant as this; one needn’t write that a woman’s career was a win for all women — but talk, at least, of that career: follow it. Report on it. Introduce more female experts. Cover subjects that preoccupy women throughout the world. It’s not rocket science, but it requires dedication, and patience.

    It’s so simple, in fact, it’s almost painful to state it: Women are victims because of how little they are valued, and how easy it is to devalue them.

    Change this perception, and you change the world — too late, perhaps, for the 100 million dead and gone in the world today.

    But in time, perhaps, for the next 100 million. Or more.

    June 4, 2009

    When the Media’s a Player

    Posted in Media overviews, Public discourse tagged , , , , , at 9:34 am by Maggie Clark

    I hate to speculate on the “why” of CTVGlobeMedia’s omission from a CTV Southern Ontario news broadcast yesterday, June 3 — but the fact of that omission is troubling enough to merit at least a little consideration.

    A few days earlier, The Globe and Mail published a pair of investigative pieces tackling possible misconduct at the Toronto Humane Society: the first, addressing the condition of the animals; the second, building a history of the organization’s long-standing volunteer president. But before the third article, describing the messy bookkeeping associated with lack of funding for essential services, could be published, the Ontario Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (OSPCA) launched a probe into such allegations.

    Though The Toronto Star does not mention The Globe and Mail — unsurprising, as mainstream media generally pretends other media organizations don’t exist (unless they do wrong) — it does state in its brief that this probe was sparked by “a series of newspaper articles in which some people alleged animals were suffering because of a restrictive euthanasia policy.” Seeing as Kate Hammer’s first installment, about just such a policy, was published May 29, and the announcement of the probe came the same day as the second, June 1, it really doesn’t a leap of faith to recognize the correlation between news story and official response.

    Of course, The Globe and Mail also readily explains how its three-piece series opened the floodgates of complaints to the SPCA, and created grounds enough for the search warrant that then allowed them to revoke the THS’s affiliate status — but it was obvious that they’d note their role in the on-going case: again, self-promotion is just the nature of the beast.

    And, in a way, The Toronto Star likewise managed to promote its own interests in the process — reminding readers of the relevancy of newspapers (and the investigative pieces they bring in) without pointing out which newspaper in particular had achieved this staggering level of community response.

    But that’s where it gets especially strange that CTV News avoided any mention about the origins of this SPCA investigation (to say nothing of one launched against the board — and especially the president — by other THS members in the wake of the second series piece): CTVGlobeMedia owns The Globe and Mail, alongside its broadcast networks, so if one medium is so quick to take credit for the upheaval its stories created, why wouldn’t the other even mention this connection — even as it broadcasts photos that the other has in its photo gallery? Thanks to CTV’s news archives, I was able to go back and transcribe their original broadcast, so as to highlight just how many places the omission touches the story of this organization. Bolded text marks content sparked by The Globe and Mail‘s story:

    Christine Bentley: “A dogfight is brewing between two agencies who [sic] make their living caring for animals in need.”

    Ken Shaw: “The THS is showing its teeth after some allegations that it mistreated some would-be pets. The Humane Society says it has done nothing wrong; CTV’s Austin Delaney is in our newsroom working on this developing story, so, Austin, set the table for us.”

    Austin Delaney: “Well, today it’s a bit of he-said, she-said; neither agency is backing down. But the one with the power and the clout says that there are some serious concerns at the THS.

    [cut to video] It is anything but business-as-usual at the THS today: Its power to investigate allegations of cruelty to animals are still under suspension from the OSPCA. On Tuesday [June 1], OSPCA inspectors with police on hand raided the society’s River St. headquarters after allegations that some animals were being mistreated. Today [June 2], those same inspectors announced they found four animals in distress.

    “Their condition was very serious; it required immediate intervention.” [said Kristen Williams, OSPCA.] “As a result of that findings [sic] we issued OSPCA orders to ensure that their standards of care are going to be met moving forward.”

    “You know, we don’t agree with that.” [said Ian McConachie of the THS.] The Toronto Humane society issued its own statement today saying it had been vindicated by the OSPCA. “We feel we are; I mean, their investigation found nothing: they didn’t seize any animals, they didn’t find any major problems at the shelter, and they didn’t find any animals suffering in need.”

    But that’s not what the OSPCA inspectors told CTVNews: “Certainly not. We found animals in immediate distress, requiring immediate intervention,” [said Williams.] “And that is something we’re taking very seriously.”

    We were given these disturbing pictures from volunteers at the THS. They show animals in dirty cages with empty water bowls. “The dogs’ cages were covered with feces, urine. There was no one there to clean them,” [said one unidentified woman.] “The dog walkers, through compassion, were cleaning cages themselves because there were no staff there to do it.”

    There are now calls for the resignation of the THS’s president, and board, ’til the OSPCA investigation is concluded. [cut back to newsroom]

    Much of the debate is about how long animals are allowed to suffer before they’re put down. There are allegations that the THS lets them hang on too long, making the animals suffer needlessly. That, too, is now a part of the investigation. I’m Austin Delaney.”

    That part about the THS president is what really kills me: It’s an absolute orphan in the midst of this framing of the story, unless you know from The Globe and Mail‘s series that president Tim Trow, volunteer president, personally presides over (or interferes with, depending on which side you’re on in the debate) day-to-day operations, and that a monopoly is perceived on the part of the board through the use of an excessive number of proxy votes left in his hands. In the case of this story, The Globe and Mail‘s series thus absolutely represents an aggregate of sources that would greatly aid in viewers’ understanding of the issue — and leaves a lot of unanswered questions in its absence.

    But above and beyond the imperative for journalists to provide as much information as they can about a story (which CTVNews could easily have improved upon by mentioning the original articles) there also exists the need for ownership of allegations — for a measure of responsibility taken at the outset, should it later emerge that allegations spun out of hand or were not fully corroborated in the first place. This especially resonates with me when I recall Tim Trow’s response to The Globe and Mail‘s series, available here, but no longer directly linked (as a related article) with any of the news installments Hammer’s published daily since the OSPCA got involved. There are some interesting counters offered up in this piece, addressing some of the more dramatic elements of the original articles; and it thus surely warrants inclusion in any more complete discourse about what’s going on at the shelter. And yet when The Globe and Mail‘s connection is itself removed from this piece, as it is in subsequent reporting by other news organizations, we essentially see this relevant response become twice removed from the story’s more dramatic and expansive outcomes.

    Now, perhaps it’s just not in our media climate to highlight the paper trail for readers, when that paper trail involves other forms of media (or rival media outlets) as key players in a story’s development. Maybe that’s just the way it’s always been, and it happens all the time.

    But I for one find the casual use of “some allegations” grossly inappropriate when more concrete information is so readily at hand. And I find myself wondering, too, if it’s thus any coincidence that both broadcast and print journalism are so reluctant to cross-reference other media in relation to top stories, while online journalism — that monolithic tide of change culling revenue streams for both — thrives on just such an interplay of sources.

    Maybe CTVNews should do a story on that.

    June 1, 2009

    In the Mind of a Killer

    Posted in Global discourse, Medical matters tagged , , , , , , , at 4:33 pm by Maggie Clark

    What must it be like to live in a world where cold-blooded killers are allowed to walk the streets — where their right to kill is even entrenched in state law, and half the population supports that same purported right to take life after innocent life?

    Ever since word of Dr. George Tiller’s assassination — shot in his church for performing abortions late in pregnancy — by one Scott Roeder, I’ve been asking myself this question, trying to grasp what life must be like for those who believe that a genocide is occurring throughout the world, targeting perhaps the most helpless portion of the population to date. All unborn children are crying out to be let live, the argument goes, and yet either misguided or malicious women are permitted to murder these innocents out of selfishness — aided in no small part by cold-blooded killers like Dr. George Tiller and the soulless liberal leadership that permits his kind.

    What a black-and-white outlook this is on the many complexities of abortion — both its existence, and the often surprising reality of what life without state-sanctioned abortion would look like. And yet, what would you do, if you were told to think calmly and rationally about the grey areas involved in the mass murder of Jews, alongside the Roma and homosexuals, during the Holocaust of World War II? What about the slaughter of Tutsi Rwandans in 1994, or of the Bosnian Muslims (Bosniaks) in 1995, or of the Sudanese today in Darfur? Would you humour even for a heartbeat the notion that you have no right to stop a crime against humanity, if you could; that you just have to hope Nazi, or Hutu, or Bosnian Serb, or Janjaweed forces make the right decision and cease their slaughter of innocents?

    If this is what so many pro-lifers, like the one who took Dr. Tiller’s life, believe, I can’t help but feel an immense sadness for them: what a world without representation they must feel they live in. How on earth can you discuss what makes abortion different from these “post-birth” massacres with a group of people who perceive the death of an unborn child as being equivalent to the execution of a concentration camp inmate? And furthermore, how do you use such argumentation to make extreme reactions, like the taking of one life in the hope of saving thousands of unborn ones, a thing of the past?

    The really tragic part, though, comes from the reality that no one of sound mind takes delight in the process of ending life — because whatever term we use, what grows in a woman’s stomach after conception is life; and human life at that. Our differences arise solely from debating its personhood, and subsequent right to life therein. So really, there are two classes of anti-abortionism at work here: those against the legality of it, and those who wish we lived in a world where no abortions were necessary, ever. And f you took a poll, I think you’d find pro-choicers and pro-lifers alike wishing that the latter option were a reality.

    This is not, however, that world. Granted, it’s filled with a lot of interesting twists and turns — like our collective discomfort with the fact that preemie babies are surviving and thriving at earlier and earlier stages in the pregnancy; or that studies note “forebrain” activity is possible to limited degrees in the last six weeks of gestation. These are twists that often make even members of the pro-choice camp nervous about the legality of late-term abortions, and where a line should be drawn on the rights of a gestating human. This discomfort even goes so far as to create its own arbitrary lines in the sand about when abortion should be legal — 12 weeks and under, 24 weeks and under; or simply, in the case of Dr. Tiller’s late term practice, abiding by the Kansas law that permits late-term abortions of “fetuses that would be viable outside the mother’s womb, but only if two independent doctors agree that not to do so would put the mother at risk of irreparable harm by giving birth” (from The Guardian).

    But ultimately these lines in the sand, and how we draw them, are just that: twists, and turns. Underscoring the entire, ceaselessly nuanced debate about how to create fair and effective abortion law exists, however, two cold, hard facts:

    1) We all want far fewer abortions; and

    2) The legality or illegality of abortion does not change the actual abortion rate — only the number of unsafe abortions, and thus the number of women who die right along with those unborn children.

    If we really were to get into debate here, I’d also bring up the fact that Plan B (an abortifacient most effective if taken up to 72 hours after intercourse), first introduced in the U.S. in 1999, has had a sizable concrete impact on clinical abortion numbers, and so indicates the power of early education, access to options, and personal choice to mitigate those uncomfortable late term abortion rates — but of course, this too deviates in part from those aforementioned facts.

    Those two facts, taken in conjunction with one another, create an insightful context for that perception of fetal genocide among those who want abortion banned: In their reaction to the fact of abortion’s existence, they regard a criminal ban on such procedures as a means by which to eliminate abortion’s underlying existence. If something is bad, in other words, making it illegal must surely be the only ethical response. Some, like Dr. Tiller’s murderer, then go one further — clearly believing that a life must sometimes be taken to spare “innocent” ones: that social ethics invariably demands that all who take innocent life must be stopped at any cost. And they are condemned for this, yes — even among fellow pro-lifers.

    Nevertheless, it’s not much of a stretch to say that all who seek to make abortion illegal believe that by eliminating access to legal abortion, the sad fact of abortion’s existence can somehow be reduced. And they believe this to such a vehemently moral extent that the concrete details of implementation often fall to the wayside — how else, after all, does one account for videos like this one, which asks protesters seeking to ban abortion what the subsequent punishment should be for women who then break the law, and receives no clear response?

    This, then, is where the real discourse between warring camps needs to be made. Shouting about women’s rights (despite their importance; despite their relevance) only triggers counterarguments about possible rights for the unborn child, and from there a back-and-forth tirade about disputed figures and semantics invariably emerges. But accepting, embracing, and welcoming the grief that accompanies abortion’s existence? Saying to an anti-abortionist, “Yes, I also think it’s awful that we have abortion in the world; and that’s why I’m in favour of its legalization — as part of the development of a society that empowers women with choice and information long before their personal situation ever gets to that stage”?

    I am by few means an idealistic person, but I do believe that if we on the side of the debate who do not perceive an institutionalized genocide all around us could just pause for a moment, to understand what it must feel like for those who every day do — and then respect those emotions enough to relate, in turn, our own, shared love for life and sadness at the imperfections in the world around us — we might actually realize a measure of harmony (never peace) in this debate which has for so long, and in so many ways, polarized even the best of us.

    That’s the hope, at least, I choose to bear.

    May 30, 2009

    Twitter: Cons and… pros?

    Posted in Business & technology, Global discourse, Public discourse tagged , , , , at 1:20 pm by Maggie Clark

    It’s no secret that I’m not a fan of Twitter. I have no account, and despite the number of friends who “tweet” with vigour, no desire to acquire one. If I can conveniently ride out this latest bandwagon to the next, Google Wave, I’ll consider myself very lucky.

    From this vantage point, it’s very easy to seize upon any awful news about Twitter and twist it to further my stance. Which is what I was quick to do, when I learned Ashton Kutcher and wife Demi Moore (with 3 million Twitter followers between them) tweeted last week that they would have to leave the site in protest if Twitter pursued plans to make a reality TV show out of the website.

    Yes, you read that right: Twitter has in many ways usurped the role of paparazzi, allowing celebrities more direct control over their interaction with fans (so we can all follow the tedious minutiae of their day-to-day lives) — and even leading celebrities to do the unthinkable: post pictures of themselves in less than flattering lights. They’ve become, in other words, almost human.

    But, hey, there’s no money in that sort of social convergence, right? So why not turn that nigh-on-egalitarian collective into citizen paparazzi, pitting twitterers against one another in an epic competition to stalk celebrities through the website? Wouldn’t that be fun?!

    Do I have a deep and abiding concern for Ashton Kutcher and Demi Moore? No. Do I find it typical of the application to progress actively in directions that yield financial gain at the expense of the community itself (and the welfare of members therein)? Yes.

    Heaven knows, Twitter wouldn’t be the first website to invade people’s privacy. One need look no further than the origins of Facebook — the initial website a vicious Harvard version of Hot-or-Not? entitled “Facemash,” drawing from the official photos of students at the university and tasking site visitors to decide which student in a pair was hotter than the other — to realize that, even in our purported age of enlightenment, technological advancements don’t always emerge from altruistic roots.

    So yes, many a time the social benefit needs to be generated by those participating therein. But there’s fighting tendencies towards elitism and exclusion in supposedly egalitarian circles, and then there’s fighting a company seeking to change much of its original premises.

    Users of LiveJournal, for instance — a blogging site that has remained conspicuously off the grid despite the readiness of most sites to link up through Facebook, YouTube, Digg,, VodPod, and other aggregation modules — know the latter fight all too well. Though founded on a pro-user model wherein developers promised to listen to the needs of actual users, and protect them from the pressures of outside interests, LiveJournal eventually found itself compromising these promises time and again — and not just for financial gain.

    Many of these changes arose from a simple transition of ownership: for instance, when Six Apart first bought Danga Interactive, Livejournal’s operator, it introduced a sponsored ad system — despite the site’s earlier promise of remaining advertisement free — and eliminated basic accounts for half a year so only paid users could be assured of ad-free space, before eventually reversing the decision. (The above link has a far more nuanced list of compromises therein.)

    But Six Apart’s real mistake was mass suspending a slew fan fiction accounts, among other accounts deemed in conflict with the obscenity category in its Terms of Service. Had the company issued warnings, so said communities could properly label and restrict access to controversial content, there might not have been such an uproar; as it was, however, this scandal most assuredly played some role in Six Apart’s decision to sell LiveJournal to SUP, a Russian company interested in the product because of LiveJournal’s huge Russian contingent — and which has since carried on in the tradition of trying to get users to pay for products they’re used to receiving for free.

    And yet, oddly enough, the case of LiveJournal allowed me some measure of perspective in response to Twitter’s misfiring play at a reality TV show — because when LiveJournal was sold to SUP, it wasn’t added costs users feared: it was the possibility of censoring and curtailing the expansive voices of Russian dissent that had gathered on the website. As the SUP owner is closely tied to the Russian government, many feared that the sale would serve to break down the walls of freedom of speech and, well, a kind of assembly that had emerged in LiveJournal’s walls.

    Similarly, Twitter has done incontestable good in providing a public forum for countries that otherwise lack the same extensive rights to freedom of speech and assembly. In countries like Moldova, for instance, Twitter provided a means for outsmarting government censors, allowing protesters to co-ordinate a rally against “disputed legislative elections.”

    And you needn’t ask Jean Ramses Anleu Fernandez if he thinks governments are starting to realize Twitter’s democratic power: For a single tweet urging citizens to withdraw all their money from the state-run bank in response to charges of government involvement in a series of related murders, the Guatemalan faces a ten year sentence for “inciting financial panic.”

    Even Starbucks has reason to dread Twitter, the make-up of which allowed a promotional topic (#starbucks) to be “hijacked” by critics of the company’s union-busting tactics.

    Of course, no new technology is completely safe from censorship — especially from pros. So, yes, China censors Twitter content — big surprise there! Nonetheless, Twitter’s use and reach in many other regions is quite striking, and deserves to be taken into account.

    At the end of the day, though, I still chafe at the direction in which Twitter leads journalistic narrative. It especially dismays me that while we as a society claim awareness of the complexity of contemporary socio-political and cultural issues, members of the media have nonetheless latched on to a medium that allows no more than 140 characters to summarize the gist of any one story.

    As a big proponent of the philosophy that writers teach readers what to expect of the media (i.e. with an excess of short pieces acclimatizing readers to shorter attention spans), this seems an agonizing exercise in the death of sustained interest. Studies like this one, amply represented in graph form, serve only to confirm the frenzy with which Twitter allows people to latch on to, and then drop off from, topics of note.

    So, no, you won’t find me on Twitter. Like I said at the start, I’m hoping to ride out this service to the next big thing. But in the meantime, is Twitter really all that bad?

    Like so much of Web 2.0 technology, it depends what its users make of it.

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