Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Lessons Unlearned

In the aftermath of Boobquake (the boobwake, if you will) I saw a few (generally female) bloggers despairing at what they perceived as a "highjacking" of boobquake by what a film geek might call the male gaze - a sort of objectifying ray emitted by the eyes of men. In all seriousness, it was a good concern; the focus of boobquake was primarily humour and skepticism...T'n A being a pleasant - if non-critical - side benefit. Men who went into Boobquake day looking for nothing more than a show of tits were clearly misapprehending the point. Worse still, I think, is that they were in a way undermining a part of Boobquake's thesis. You'll recall that in Hojatoleslam Kazem Sedighi's clerical error (oh, snap?) he professed that it is female immodesty that causes male infidelity (and presumably that of women as well)...and that somehow this affects plate tectonics. And how did some of us supposedly enlightened western men react? Well, kind of offensively, actually. I don't have statistics, to be sure, but I think what's important here is to recognize that freedom of clothing choice isn't the endpoint of equality. The objectification of women is still something to be reckoned with in our society, and the blithe equation of Boobquake with "yeah, shake 'em baby" does worse than NOT help the cause. It transforms an event dedicated to satirizing ridiculous pronouncements and the mistreatment of women into little more than us ramming our culture down another culture's throat. How DO you like them American hooters, mr. Muslim?

You see, it just trades the spark of genius for the spectre of racism and bigotry.

I'll come back to this, but first I need to work something out that's been bothering me for a while:

" How is this "feminist" response anything but an attempt to squash female expressions of our sexuality, for fear of whipping men into an uncontrollable frenzy?

How is it anything other than blaming women for the fact that many men behave badly?"

I've been going over this sort of reasoning in my head for a while. On the one hand, I think there's a point missing: Heterosexual dudes are genetically programmed to be aroused by the female form, or at least I'm pretty sure we are. I mean, it's not a very good meme for a species that reproduces sexually to be ambivalent about the process. Ah - I can hear the yells forming in your throats and I am not done yet thank you very much! Genetic predisposition isn't really an excuse, but neither is it nothing at all. Dress and manner are means of communication, often nonverbal, but communication they are. Friends of mine will recall the ladies' T-shirt I proposed with only "The medium is the message" emblazoned upon the bosom. It was my own little way of satirizing T-shirts that said things like "my eyes are up here" in bright, eye catching text across the wearers' breasts. Both of these T-shirts are saying the same thing, when you get down to it. When you wear a particular style and cut of clothing you are sending people messages. I admit full well that I try to wear snug T-shirts these days because I've got a little muscle in my upper body and it's nice to have it show. But I am under no illusion that I have a right to complain if someone makes a remark about it on the street, in class, wherever. I'm trying to show off, the least you can do is notice!

No style of clothing is to be taken as a declaration of consent, duh. I still don't think it's really a consistent position to try and separate medium and message. I might not know whether your message is targeted at a particular individual or the world at large, but what "immodest clothing" tells me is that you think you have a body worthy of aesthetic consideration. So while I do not dispute in any way shape or form that physical security is your constitutional, heck your human right when you - and I mean dudes and ladies - run amok with only strategically-placed bands of cloth...a public display is a public display. We do have a sort of content filter when you only want to control access to your sexuality, both in the visual and physical capacities. It's called modesty, and it shouldn't be a dirty word just because some people think it needs to be enforced. It's also not a binary choice of covered/uncovered, there's a lot of room I think to choose an image that you're comfortable with projecting. Now, if you want justification I am going to have to tread carefully on this ground...but hear me out: common critics of Anarchy allegedly miss the point when they talk about total chaos in the absence of law. If you ask an Anarchist you'll probably hear something about "social norms" and "unwritten codes of behavior", possibly "natural-" or "divine" law, maybe even "common sense". You would be foolish to equate the absence of a code of law with the complete absence of guidelines and cues for behaviour. Similarly, you would be unwise to confuse the absence of religious persecution against your chosen style of dress with a complete obviation of your responsibility for your own image! We are likewise never free of our responsibility for our own perceptions of other people; what I am - in essence - arguing for is clarity of communication. Don't send wrong messages, and don't get the wrong ideas. Just don't be surprised if you're showing off your tits or pecs or whatever - and someone pays them a compliment. Is it regressive to believe that people shouldn't toy with each other and send mixed messages under the pretext of "I can do anything I want without consequence"? I hope not.

But back (sort of) on the track that I was intending to go upon. If we indeed wish to show that we as individuals and as a culture have an enlightened attitude toward women, let's do that with respect, consideration, and solidarity. This isn't accomplished by clamoring for tits, nor by indulging those who do.

On the matter of solidarity, I bring your attention to "Everybody draw Muhammad day". Look at the comment thread, even just the first few will do. Is this how to advance the cause of free speech, by calling Islam a "death cult"? How blind and shortsighted we are, then; historically we have been blessed with the gift of arabic numerals (way, way easier than those dumb Roman ones!), the concept of zero (or at least Europe got wind of it by way of muslims) fact, the preservation of classical philosophy that would spark the Renaissance? That was totally Muslims! So their civilization is not at its height now, but are we going to pass judgement on the whole of their culture and religion while observing only such a narrow slice? One might as well characterize Europeans as being the peddlars of dogmatic barbarism (middle ages and the crusades) or America as being inherently racist and oppressive (slave trade). Worse still we're talking about a narrow cross-section of a narrow cross-section! So much for this farce of the Western thirst for knowledge and reason! Ok, you know this; what I wonder about "Draw Muhammad Day" is whether or not I should participate. On the one hand, I see a noble purpose and intent: to become one with a group of people who have faced death threats and even death itself (RIP. Theo Van Gogh) for the sake of free artistic expression. As the Blag Hag says, to "dilute the pool of targets" seems a pretty funny, interesting way to deal with some of the hostility that has greeted people who are critical of Islam. Ironically, Christianity is vehemently opposed to idolatry/graven images (depends on the brand/translation), it just happens to be one of those "pick and choose" things that gets discarded and under rug swept. Actually, I recall there being vocal outrage in the West when an artist chose to depict Jesus Christ as a black woman. So on some level this isn't cool. I don't imagine all the people taking part are hypocritical, but it bears a striking resemblance to the problem with Boobquake: this event invites people who aren't here to celebrate free speech, but to denegrate Islam. I think that if we desire logical consistency, we desperately need to expand the scope of this day! I think we need a "Depict God and Jesus as not-exclusively-white-people Day", for starters! it's easy to talk trash about Islam because it has some differences in the value system, and a thriving militant streak that the media loves to talk about. But there are militants of all stripes, and maybe if we did more to provoke them, they'd come out of the woodwork. Hell, just look at the utterly braindead response from the religious right at the abolition of that national prayer day in the US.

You can say perhaps that there aren't any death threats at work here, that we're dealing with a religion that does seek to impose upon others versus some that don't. That's an awfully thin argument. Sarah Palin wants to base US law on the 10 commandments: does that mean the manufacture of graven images would become illegal, 'cause that would just be TOO GOOD right now! In any case, that's an imposition right there, one that has a lot of undesirable implications for those who do not share in her faith. You could even argue (successfully, I might imagine) that inherent to the "don't tread on me" 2nd ammendment-happy ethos are death threats, ie. when those arms you so proudly bear come in handy for overthrowing an oppressive government. For once I'm not trying to make fun of gun culture: I think "Governments should be afraid of their people" doesn't seem much too much more conducive to good policy than the converse (think about the kind of distaste people have for legislative deadlock, and imagine if you will the kind of paralysis you might see if the lives of legislators depended upon their never crossing a rather nebulous line). Everyone has their violent streak - from Marxists to Margaret Thatcherites (ESPECIALLY these, even). It seems pretty hypocritical to condemn another culture because their soft spot is your sacrament, doesn't it?

I think these two issues boil down to a very similar core: people are constructing freedoms in the absence of responsibilities. We have freedom of expression, but we are not without responsibility for the content we express. That is not to say that you "get what you deserve". Clearly, physical attacks are not the correct way to respond to expression that confounds or offends you!

On this general theme of getting things wrong, I saw on BoingBoing the other day a link via Wired to a piece that examined the role of mercenary bloggers in documenting the war on Afghanistan. Some of the comments were very vitriolic, wishing death and ruin upon these individuals, generally to the tune of:

"Mercenaries are the scum of the Earth, I hope they all die."

I'm sorry, I forgot that the purpose of learning about someone in their own words was to justify your kneejerk reaction to their superficial qualities, what was I thinking!? I had imagined in a fever dream for a moment that reading the words of combattants on the ground would humanize them in a way that might challenge our assumptions about who these people are. Yes it is morally questionable that they are effectively paid to kill. Good job. Does the above statement reflect a more developed morality? It would be very hard to argue that it does. Again, you can see that we are receiving information, but not everyone is learning the right lesson. There's something that Christianity says, something like "love the sinner, hate the sin"? You can Godwin that to death if you like, but how else can we approach unsavoury professions like "mercenary"? Are we to decide that some people can be judged solely on the basis of their employment...but not us, oh no! We're just office drones on the weekdays; on weekends we're gorgeous unique butterflies free from the stale cucoobicle! So you don't kill for money - you waste away your life unsatisfied for money. Should I wish death upon you for squandering your human potential five days out of seven? Come on!

These are human beings. Fact. Why do some people refuse to learn that? I don't think any more kindly of the profession, but I can now put words and maybe even a face on these people. I think that makes for a better debate, somehow, if we discard this notion that we are fielding armies of demons abroad in a vein effort at...something, I dunno what. Actually, if you read some of these blogs they are often quite critical of the war effort itself: the uncertain terms of victory, the corruption in government and police forces that we turn a blind eye to...even the anti-war crowd will find some common ground here! In fact, reading these blogs has given me more reason to doubt the war than I might have ever had. I have a much better perspective now, I think, of what we have done wrong. What's very interesting is that there is a palpable level of culture shock going on. Some of the blogs I read bordered uncomfortably on racism, but it did make me think. We're talking about how best to prosecute this war in terms of drone strikes and troop surges, and we're really just not trying to talk about the cultural barriers between our peoples! It seems dangerous to have heavily armed people becoming increasingly jaded and disoriented in a country that we wish to have good relationships with, don't you think?

1 comment:

Daydream Believer said...

The trouble is drawing the line between "appreciation of aesthetics" and being deliberately offensive. Guys don't whistle at a woman walking down the street to say "I think you're gorgeous" or because they think it's a good way to strike up a conversation with someone they find attractive, they do it to belittle her and make her uncomfortable. Guys don't pinch women's backsides on public transport because they'd like to take them out on dates, it's about power because they can do things like that and no one bats an eyelash.
While I accept that by wearing clothes in a certain way, I'm allowing, even inviting, people to look and "appreciate", no matter how tight my jeans are or how much skin I'm showing, the fact that I'm wearing my clothes that way doesn't give anyone the right to belittle me, let alone feel me up on the bus.
The moral of the story: It's fine to look, comment with caution, but don't touch.

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