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.

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 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.

April 18, 2009

The Heart of the Matter: A Shifting Social Discourse

Posted in Global discourse, Public discourse tagged , , , , , at 2:57 pm by Maggie Clark

A very important transition is occurring in North America, and I suspect it will still be another year or so until we grasp its full implications. Just a few weeks back, Chinese financial leaders suggested changing the world’s standard currency from the dollar to a global currency reserve, and UN economists have since backed this proposition. This move would mark a shift away from the U.S. as the source of global financial stability, and towards a preexisting global discourse that will at last be given its own voice, even if North American still plays a large role in the debate.

I suspect the same is very much true for socio-religious discourse: While George W. Bush was in office, the rise of right-wing Christianity in conjunction with the U.S.’s wars in Afghanistan and Iraq launched a polemic debate between Christians and Muslims — a West meets Islam, “U.S.” vs. them affair. Moreover, the rise of a particular brand of Christianity — politically-motivated Evangelical Christians — created in its own right a series of related conflicts on the home front, such that Evangelical resistance to the theory of evolution in classrooms, global warming in government policy-making, expansive rights for women and the LGBT/IQQ community, and various issues pertaining to “morally acceptable” content on national airwaves garnered excesses of media attention and political sway.

Now, though the politically-motivated Evangelical Christian community still amounts to a sizable social force, the media portrays a very different, more long-standing socio-religious battle: the conflict between Israel and the Arab world.

In this ideological warfare, North America undoubtedly still plays a crucial role, but in the last few years this role has shifted from one of proactive engagement to one of passive response. The U.S. has always been deemed pro-Israel, regarding the country as a beacon of hope for stability and the eventual spread of democracy in the Middle East. However, the U.S. simultaneously relies upon strong business relations with nations in the Arab world, and to this end has equally supplied many such countries with arms, money, and the maintenance of dictatorships that suited U.S. interests. This has always made its involvement in the region self-motivated.

Post 9/11, that involvement necessitated a stronger alliance with those who would fight against U.S. enemies in Afghanistan; later, it also meant stronger alliances with those who would support Americans in Iraq. But times have changed. Immigration from the Arab world into Europe created stresses from which controversial national leaders and extreme anti-foreigner stances have emerged. The two-state solution between Israelis and Palestinians, once a viable discourse with its very own “road map” to peace, is no longer a welcome solution for many in the region. And here in North America, every political decision is becoming increasingly mired in questions of perceived Islamophobic, Zionist, anti-Semitic, pro-Israeli, pro-Palestinian, anti-Israeli, anti-Palestinian, pro-terrorist, and anti-terrorist allegiances.

This is not by any stretch of the imagination to argue these terms weren’t bandied about before — of course they were. But what has been lost in recent months, from a socio-religious context, is a sense of North American values having any measure of relevance in the debate. Even terrorism is not being engaged as something feared again on home soil; rather, those terms, like their aforementioned brethren, time and again reroute discussion to the matter of the Middle East.

An excellent example of this arose quite recently, in the matter of George Galloway. Galloway is a five-time British MP expelled from the Labour party for extremely controversial comments made in response to Britain’s invasion of Iraq. He has toured Britain and the U.S., working with many causes: some clearly humanitarian, many others complicated by statements that have brought UN condemnation upon him, and actions that have blurred the lines between humanitarian aid and front organizations for personal gain. (I won’t make a habit of this, but there are so many controversies pertaining to his views, actions, and travels that I’m going to recommend reading his Wikipedia entry — no one mainstream article on the man comes anywhere near as close.) On March 20, 2009, he was denied entry into Canada, on the basis of his ties to Hamas: though he has gone on record stating that he does not agree with Hamas, Galloway gave the government $45,000. As Hamas is on Canada’s list of terrorist organizations, this was enough to deny him entry, though Canadian immigration ministry spokesman Alykhan Velshi’s comment on the issue is a little more dramatic than that:

The Telegraph — Immigration ministry spokesman Alykhan Velshi said the act was designed to protect Canadians from people who fund, support or engage in terrorism.

Mr Velshi said: “We’re going to uphold the law, not give special treatment to this infandous street-corner Cromwell who actually brags about giving ‘financial support’ to Hamas, a terrorist organisation banned in Canada.

“I’m sure Galloway has a large Rolodex of friends in regimes elsewhere in the world willing to roll out the red carpet for him. Canada, however, won’t be one of them.”

Galloway contested the ban, lost, but got around the ruling by being broadcast via video-link from New York to Canadian locations. And so life went on, with the news turning to “Tea Parties” in the U.S. and Canadian outrage towards the Afghani rape law. Yes, we have plenty of political matters to attend to at home; there is no shortage of issues. But the question posed by the high profile case of Galloway — to say nothing of audience reactions to North American portrayals of recent Israeli-Palestinian disputes and Somali pirates– remains: Which is the greatest? Not in the world at large, per se, as so many cultural wars are played out on that stage every day — but here, at home, in North America? Does our ultimate socio-political investment lie with home turfs, and all the multicultural challenges upon them, or quite literally with foreign lands, and the conflicts waged there instead? If the latter, does this tie our future directly to their outcome? What are the implications (not necessarily negative!) of a national discourse set primarily by the happenstance on foreign soil?

April 17, 2009

Making allowances for human nature

Posted in Public discourse tagged , , , , at 8:28 pm by Maggie Clark

What better way to spend Easter than reading the Bible — am I right?

It’s not the most likely thing for an atheist to say, but I’ve been mulling over the application of Bible verse to contemporary beliefs: in particular, as they pertain to Evangelical stances on issues like climate change. As a friend sagely reminded me, all religious culture comes first — then canon is interpreted to fit it. This is why so many Bible verses might be accepted in one generation, and ignored in the next: Other aspects of human culture change, and with those changes, our engagement with the original texts is also transformed. (One need look no further than the treatment of slavery in the Old Testament to recognize that Abrahamic faiths pick and choose which “hills” they’ll defend in public practice; there are other, social factors that play in to the application of faith.)

And yet, alongside reading the Old Testament, this past weekend I picked up a CBC Massey Lecture series installment — five short lectures from the 1980s by Nobel Laureate Doris Lessing, known best for literature with strong political and feminist leanings. This volume of hers, Prisons We Choose To Live Inside, tackles a most curious social juxtaposition: the fact that we are, as a civilization, more aware than any generation before us of overarching trends, tendencies, and themes in human nature — and yet just as unable as individuals to apply this knowledge to our everyday lives. Lessing herself was drawn up in a Communist party as a young woman; this was in direct response to the egregious abuses of power enacted in her childhood nation, apartheid-torn Zimbabwe (then Rhodesia), but as Lessing develops in her lectures, there was just as much propaganda and groupthink necessarily at work among her chosen group as among the corrupt society those Communists were striking out against.

From such personal experiences and relevant academic experiments, Lessing develops the argument that all groups have this propensity towards thinking themselves in the right, and all dissenters as in the wrong; and that this righteousness furthermore flies in the face of the temporary nature of all human resolution. However, argues Lessing, if we were only to make ourselves more aware of the transience of our beliefs — and more willing, too, to accept as human nature the inclination to various trains of thought (polemic argument, for one; and with it an “us vs them” mentality) we might be able to maintain more critical thought even as time entrenches us in one camp, or one label, above all else. We might even be able to make a greater difference in the world: Lessing writes at one point about how the broad condemnation of war will never suffice to eradicate its existence if we don’t acknowledge and accept that some people do, and always will, actively enjoy the exercise of war itself. These more complex analyses are harder, yes, but likely more useful in effecting real-world change, and so at the very least merit an attempt.

But to return to the Bible: Lessing notes that religious and political beliefs share a common propensity towards absolutism and fanaticism — an observation we are all too often loathe to make, though the acceptance of this similarity might help us learn to better converse with those whose viewpoints differ from our own. The depressing truth is that most people are so long trained in empty rhetoric, and so short on the experience and tools needed to engage in formal debate, and most of all so comfortable in their own righteous certitude as to see no reason to second-guess their way of thinking, that even getting everyone to engage in open dialogue is a pipe dream in and of itself.

And yet, let’s say it could be done. What would that look like? How would it be achieved?

These are the questions I was asking myself while poring through the Old Testament this Easter, because I’m still holding out hope that some measure of formal debate might be attained if we in the media are willing to engage believers on their “home turf.” The problem is, is that home turf the religious texts themselves, or the empty rhetoric that often passes for argument in public spheres? (I’m referring here to the singing of songs in response to critical inquiry, the rattling off of catch-phrases, and all in all the extreme use of circular and straw man fallacies to avoid scholastic scrutiny of the verses themselves.)

In the case of climate change, my starting point was simple: Is there any reason Christian Evangelicalism can’t be united with theories of climate change? For many years now, a culture of vehement denial has been maintained in these communities, but why? Does climate change necessarily threaten the precepts of Christian belief? Is it necessarily a challenge to the faith of so many Americans?

From what I’ve been able to discern, there are a few places — some obvious, some less so — where the existence of climate change seems, at least on the surface, to be a threat. The most obvious is a sense of entitlement: Many believe their god gave them this land, and all that exists upon it, to do with as they would. This permits a rather regal lifestyle upon the earth — one in which the fruit of one’s labour may be applied to whatever one deems fit. If climate change has a human origin, and with it comes the cry for the curtailing of excess, this would to many seem a direct challenge to that entitlement. Worse still, it threatens a sense of hierarchy on the planet: God, then man, then the beasts of the earth, then everything else. If the preservation of one species suddenly trumps man’s full enjoyment of god’s gifts, how can that not be considered a threat?

This is where Bible-reading comes in: I wondered if that entitlement were as textually concrete as many Evangelicals make it out to be. True, in the Genesis story the world is created with man its crowning achievement… but that’s Eden. And humankind gets kicked out of it. Much of the New Testament ennobles man’s place at the top of the planetary food chain, but there’s really nothing to suggest that man should feel entitled, after the Fall, to a world as stable and nurturing as Eden. And, after all, Christian nihilists (those who see no intrinsic good in humanity, or this life, without the presence of a god) already regard this world as bleak and secondary — so why can’t the instability of the environment, and human responsibility for the quality of the land they live on, be reconciled with Evangelical thought?

I suspect the answer lies in a deeper threat felt by Evangelicals: namely, that climate change — and with it, the threat to the stability of human life on Earth — has grave consequences for proponents of intelligent design. Evolution presents elements of the world, and all who dwell within it, as “just good enough” — with first successful drafts, as opposed to perfect creatures, being the product of evolution. But intelligent design is argued from a position of precision and perfection, with the human eye especially (bewilderingly, too, for it has many weaknesses and blind spots) used to argue for the “impossible complexity” of the world we live in. From this standpoint, it’s easy to see where climate change can be threatening: If humankind could so easily tip the balance so as to make the world inhospitable, so much for that perfect construction!

And yet, here too, it’s so easy to spin the message so as to fit Evangelical parameters: God gave us a world built so that its fate is determined by human action. Gay marriage = hurricanes, floods, and stabbing death on Greyhound busses (okay, that last is a little extreme). Gluttony and greed = deforestation, unchecked industrialization, and climate change. Causal, not just correlative, relationships are the lifeblood of much religious thought: in a sphere of argumentation that already permits leaps of faith to fill in where empiricism fails, there is no intrinsic reason for Evangelical belief to side against the existence of climate change.

So where does this leave the matter of critical discourse? Well, if it were possible to foster open dialogue about such issues, the aforementioned route seems the likeliest to succeed. But more importantly, I think it has to succeed: in the last week alone we’ve seen much in world news highlighting the need to address intersections between religion and human rights, but still the topic remains taboo. Why? Is it really impossible to talk about the differences between religion and culture, group and individual, or contextual and universal rights without brewing a maelstrom of polemics, empty rhetoric, and broad accusations of various -isms and -phobias from the general public?

Lessing would argue that it is impossible to avoid these manifestations of human nature — but that even then, it is still possible, with an awareness of past behaviours and social constants, to react to these inclinations in a way that counteracts what would otherwise have us forever defining ourselves, and others, in uncompromising blacks and whites.

I really hope she’s right.