Wednesday, May 08, 2013

universal feminism

Why isn’t every man I meet a feminist?

I believe that it is because of a perceived difference between objective ideology and subjective experience.

I know a lot of different types of feminists because basic ideas of inequality and feminism are encapsulated in political, social and religious laws, rules and beliefs that are applied objectively to women. But everyone’s awareness and experience of inequality, everyone’s reaction to and interaction with inequality is personal, specific and subjective.

I will, as always, start with a personal story. I wrote what I now think of as my first two proto-feminist essays in Year Twelve Religious Education as one of the Liturgy Prefects of a Catholic all girls school. I call these essays proto-feminist now, but at the time I remember that I was just following a line of logic to its conclusion.

The first essay was on abortion, and I still remember the comfort I felt with the argument I made because I was in love with God at that time, and he was in love with me. Love was, literally, all around, and my logic was all about love.

In the essay I agreed that the statistics seemed to indicate that abortion was a terrible thing for most women to have to go through, but it was clear to me that it was an option that was absolutely necessary for women because of the conditional love of the society they belonged to.

I didn’t even touch on the contraception debate and rape was a word, not a concept I knew anything about. I had been brought up in a Catholic household and in Catholic schools, so sex was only for procreation, between people who loved each other, and sometimes only within marriage.

Instead I made an impassioned and utterly naïve call for society, law and religion to treat each child as precious no matter the circumstances of their birth, to ensure all the decisions made, religious views held, politics presumed and history claimed by the parents never rested on their innocent heads. As soon as children were born society would view them as untouched and would provide equitable funding, education, love and support under the law, religion and society. I was arguing for the concept of the village raising the child, which would negate the need for abortions in all but the most serious circumstances, by destroying discrimination that may otherwise make abortion a viable option.

I was told to rewrite the essay because I was not regurgitating Church teachings, those illogical teachings that everyone must be judged by the actions of those related to them. I was cross that, as a Liturgy Prefect who knew more of the Bible, Church history and Church tradition than my teachers, I had been told to stop thinking. I am pretty sure I just dismissed the criticism as one from a bored and ignorant teacher, and went my merry way.

Until our second assignment, which was about abuse. 149 girls wrote their assignments on domestic violence, and I wrote mine of the failure of the Australian Education system to teach boys effectively.

It was an uncomplicated argument, ably backed up with research from Steve Biddulph’s defining book, and again I remember a great feeling of happiness while putting forward my arguments, because I cared greatly about my two brothers and how they were being educated.

I finally woke up from my innocence when I was told, again, to rewrite my essay because

‘men were not victims of abuse’

(and believe me, the irony of that phrase used in a Catholic school was lost on me then, but is not lost on me now)

I was aghast at this second instance of being told not to exercise the Christian values of love, social responsibility, compassion and activism in my essays for Religious Education.

They had asked me to write on abortion and I had argued that if a Christian society loved each child and never discriminated against them because of their parents, abortion would only be necessary due to abuse, rape, health circumstances or the choice of a woman who made her decision genuinely unaffected by the potential for a negative social view of her decision. What more did they want? I was applying Christian principles of love and forgiveness to the topic and I was … wrong?

They had asked me to write on abuse and I had written about the waste of the educative years of young men’s lives through policies that were not giving them what they needed to be men. Again, what more did they want? I was applying Christian principles of equality (I know, irony warning again, but I was clearly naïve enough to think that because I considered myself equal to all, others thought me equal as well) and social conscience to the topic and I was … wrong?

Six months later I studied Anthropology and Politics at University and my political awareness arrived at last. It became clear to me that the individual and collective experience of laws, rules and beliefs come in a minimum of four permutations:

1. How you apply them objectively
2. How you apply them subjectively
3. How they apply to you objectively
4. How they apply to you subjectively

The great pity is that these four aspects are still argued as if a difference between them impedes progress rather than informs progress.

If you were to look at my youthful beliefs on abortion for instance:

1. Abortion would become less necessary if all children are loved and cared for by society as discrete individuals free from any association with their parents.
2. Abortion is the right of every woman who is free in a society to act according to her own conscience without having to consider possible social reactions to her decision.
3. I could carry a child to term at any point in my life and my society would guarantee equitable funding, education, support and opportunities to all children, including mine, as the situation of myself or other parents would be irrelevant to the rights of the child.
4. I could carry a child to term at any point in my life and my society would never judge that child by the social, political or religious decisions I made before they were born.

One illogical ruling in any of these areas and inequality is entrenched. In the case of the Catholic view on abortion, all these areas are inequitable. Funding, support and opportunities for children is based on the social, economic, political and religious decisions of parents, rather than the rights of the child. This is wrong; no matter what the parents do, children should never pay for it.

Eliminate all discrimination of children for the actions of the parents, and the flow on effect for the potential of all life will be, I suggest, profound. And there would incidentally have been no need for my second essay, because children would be equally treasured by society, and all abuse of and inequality for either gender would be swiftly punished.

Despite my teachers, I felt my job as Liturgy Prefect was done, Christian values had been defended, Humanist principles had been applied, it was time to graduate to University and encounter more than just Christian values and Humanist principles.

So what has this to do with men not being feminists, women being feminists, and the lack of what should be a logical uptake of the fight for equality by both genders?

I suggest it is because, useful as it would be to be able to see inequality from all four aspects so it can be identified and rectified, we cannot. Injustice between the genders is currently half invisible to half of the population.

How many men have had the discrimination women experience each day applied to them objectively?

Men mostly experience the discrimination women experience each day subjectively, through the specific experience of the women they know.

How many men then take the laws, rules and beliefs that formed the basis of the discrimination communicated to them and act decisively to change them so discrimination does not happen again?

How many men then take the personal experience of the woman they know and change their behaviour permanently so they never perpetuate that discrimination, or let that discrimination be tolerated in their presence?

Men cannot be expected to experience gender discrimination themselves, but they can be expected to listen to experiences of it and act accordingly to prevent it happening again through their actions or the actions of others they can influence.

Women cannot and should not be expected to tolerate objective policies that are discriminatory towards them.

Women cannot and should not be expected not to communicate subjectively and repeatedly each time they are discriminated against. To witness is not our only obligation however, education is essential so those who have not experienced discrimination still act to change the situation.

Women can listen to the subjective experiences of discrimination from other people and identify the underlying policies that encourage discrimination and act to change those policies.

Women can ensure that their understanding of the objective policies that enable discrimination are identified and challenged each time they are used in their presence, and they can encourage those around them to do the same.

If men can only see half the picture, it is our job to communicate the other half of the picture, to educate them to be aware of objective and subjective experiences, to show the logic of universal understanding and the universal drive for equality.

Women are the only ones who can communicate fully the experience of gender discrimination, we are ideologically bilingual after all, and we are the only ones who can fully communicate the changes that need to be made.

And we owe it to our children to start educating their fathers and listening to their mothers right now.


MWBLesq said...

This was an interesting read for me, however I feel that I must disagree with one point;

"Women are the only ones who can communicate fully the experience of gender discrimination"

Now I have been scoffed at, had eyes rolled at me, been ridiculed and laughed at for claiming that I can claim experience or understanding of gender discrimination as a male, but the fact is that it is true.

This story is odd, unique and a little like the Jane Elliot social experiment, but I doubt the situation or results engineered were intentional.

Whilst I was in primary school there was a strange trend amongst the teachers there. I don't blame the teachers, or even claim to understand their motivations. If they seem like two dimensional villains it could be because I am writing this from memories more than 20 years old. For whatever reason (likely to combat embedded chauvinism in the boys)we had it drummed into us on a daily basis that girls were superior in every single way.

Continued =>

MWBLesq said...

"Boys cannot do well in school."
"Boys cannot follow instructions."
"Boys are dishonest and naughty."
"Boys only get upset because they want attention."
"Boys are worse spellers. Worse at art, cannot read as well."
"Boys make poor leaders because they cannot make strong choices."

etc, etc, etc

This had far less of an effect on the boys than it did on the girls. They stepped into the role of our superiors. They lorded over us, put us down, parrotted the teachers and made snide remarks. They inhabited that role and for the most part were abetted by the teachers. The most extreme response took place amongst a group of Year 3 (8 year old)girls who took it upon themselves to travel in groups and beat the ever-loving crap out of any boy they found alone. Later, I saw the documentary "The Wave" and was struck by the similarity to this experience.

This went on for almost a year and certainly illustrates how extreme the problem became. I was a victim violence only once and am ashamed to say that I hurt one of the girls in making an escape. A group of eight girls gathered around me as I tripped while running away from them and began kicking me as I lay on the floor. I got on my feet and punched one of the girls in the head, knocking her to the floor. I was bloody and bruised all over, but the bruise I gave that girl insured that I was the only one punished. It was explained to me in no uncertain terms that I must never, ever strike a girl even if 10 of them have surrounded me and are kicking me or spitting on me. I took this to heart. Over the next four years, whilst I was never beaten again I was bullied by the girls constantly. Food thrown at me and spat on daily, getting stabbed with sharpened pencils, my schoolbag tipped into trash cans. Any complaints the teachers was met with incredulity and occasionally punishment. At one stage they took to telling me I had AIDS. After a few days of that I had to ask my father what it meant. When he inquired of the school what was going on I was given detention for lying. My dad never backed me up under the assurance that the girls were 'good kids who wouldn't do that'. With hindsight I learnt that the concept of the 'good girl' and 'naughty boy' is a construct of a patriarchal society as well, but at the time I could not have understood that the reason why these girls were getting away with this behaviour due to a major gender bias AGAINST women.

Essentially I went through a system, a process of several years that protected one gender over the other. The dominant gender was privileged, abusive and cruel. By the time I got to high school I had a near-pathological fear of any girl that was a similar age to myself...and yet although I was afraid of them, I never hated them.

Continued =?

MWBLesq said...

As life went on, those girls grew up and changed (of particular hilarity was when the group of physically violent girls from that turbulent Year 3 all began lusting after this one teen they had picked on very badly who would never have anything to do with them). None of them grew up to be violent criminals; in fact some of them are facebook friends with me today. I changed too. I learned women were rarely the bully or aggressor against a male victim. Later still, I learned that what I and my male classmates went through was highly unusual, even the opposite of the norm...and I considered what it would have been like in other 'normal' schools for the girls.
Even as I lived in fear of females, even though I went to school with dread and feelings of inferiority, I went home at the end of the day to books, movies and day-to-day experiences that celebrated the power, genius and supposed superiority of men.

When I thought about all the schoolgirls in the reversed situation going home after school and finding no relief, how they lived in a culture that constantly looked down upon them and treated them as inferior, when I imagined such an experience and measured it against my own I became a feminist.

True, I had to make a leap through empathy to 'fully' comprehend gender discrimination, also true is that what I went through cannot compare to a world and lifetime of such experiences, but I do believe that I tasted enough to feel the frustration, the helplessness and the anger.

I know this is odd and strange, that being mistreated by a privileged group of girls might lead a boy to grow into a feminist, but if it happened to me, it could happen to others. In particular, I can imagine men who have been discriminated against on the basis of their race having similar experiences to those of women. A little insight and a little empathy can paint for a man a pretty vivid picture of what it would be like to live as a woman.

Incidentally, now I am a primary school teacher and take some time out of every day to try and eradicate the gender divide in my classroom. I have boys loving 'My Little Pony' and girls choosing the dragon colouring-in instead of the princesses. I have girls telling me that they want to grow up to be astronauts and boys saying they want to teach primary school just like me.

The world is wide, strange and vast. No one will ever 'fully' understand what it is like to be someone else, but that is why we have empathy. The human experience is ultimately one of attempting to understand and especially to understand one another.

I believe that three traits are necessary to make a man into a feminist; logic, empathy and humility. Any man that can order his thoughts, feel what others feel and place others ahead of himself will one day find himself a feminist. That is what I believe and that is what I teach.

Claire Madeleine said...

This is an important story and it is exactly what historians talk about now when discussing the impact of feminism on the Australian Education System - Australia was a unique case. My mother's fight to have her clever and obliging sons spared the ridiculous claims you mention is why I did my project on 'Boys in Schools'. I knew that there was nothing wrong with boys, they just had different needs, just as girls did and were now getting thanks to feminism.

Your story is important because you clearly outline that children are TOLD to value one gender above the other, they don't know it instinctively. The patriarchy has a place for everyone, especially men, and it is communicated to children. And you are right, those girls went home to a society that did not enforce their feeling of superiority, whereas the boys did. If society is truly equal, if education is truly equal, then when one becomes unbalanced, there are alternatives. Drastic steps by adults indoctrinating children was the only way they could produce such an uprising of otherwise politically neutral children. Nothing else in society was going to give those girls a backbone.

The great problem that women face is clearly outlined by your conclusions on how you learnt to understand the logic of your experience. Learning empathy through the personal experience of overarching discrimination is something I am not prepared to endorse. I was incensed about the lies about boys in education at seventeen for christssake, no one is ever going to get me to agree to reverse discrimination. And I think you will attest that the mental acrobatics and mental stamina you need to crawl past the effect of overwhelming discrimination is pretty extensive.

There is a key reason only a small amount of women admit to being feminists, although I have to presume that 100% of women are because, well, we all bloody know we are equal. We've struggled enough getting past the bullshit fed to us as children and young women to deal with more bullshit for lifting our head above the ideological battlements in the adult world.

So the answer it what you are trying to do in your classroom. Watch for unseen bias, actively promote equality, TALK ABOUT unseen bias, TALK ABOUT equality. TALK. ABOUT. THE. PROBLEMS. Because children are only what we make them, and if an entire generation of them grow up thinking that equality is universal, and they grow up talking about inequality when it is found, they won't teach their children bad thinking.

Annnnnnnnnnd, preaching to the choir. Nice work sir!