Sunday, June 30, 2013

Not Nice: I am a Female Misogynist Asshat

So, keeping in mind that I am supposed to be writing about Being Nice, I would like to acknowledge that I am a product of my upbringing and I am a Misogynist Asshat, albeit a Female one.

One of my least favorite instances of manifesting this dirty little habit was when my boss insulted two female superiors to my face using some of the traditional weapons ranged against women in the workforce:

1. When they got their way they were horrible people instead of better political players

What I call the Help, The Ladies Are Beating Me (Up) argument


2. To his taste they were not feminine in the way they interacted with people

What I will call the Ewww, The Ladies Are Revolting (When I Don't Fancy Them) argument

So there he was, aggressively undermining my female superiors in terms of his perception of how they should behave, not because of what they had actually done. And I was showing signs of that incomprehensible reaction to superiors being Asshats that I always show. I was completely unable to speak, I was confused by the vicious and faulty logic and I couldn't think because he clearly wasn't.

And then he did that thing that I really hate, he told me that

3. Unlike them, I was okay because I still acted like a lady at work

This is the much despised and quite disturbing Don't Worry, I Only Hate Other Ladies (I Definitely Don't Hate You Behind Your Back) argument

Already in the still and silent land of shock, this last utterly unsuccessful attempt to reassure me actually prompted me to act. And I acted in that cowardly way a Female Misogynist Asshat does, I finally moved, and I moved to unfurrow my brow, force my mouth into a neutral line and try and get my widened eyes back under control.

It was a pretty standard show of political cowardice because he was my supervisor, and clearly he only valued Ladies that show stereotypical female attributes. And I didn't want to go to work each day to have to deal with his Asshattery, so I became an Asshat so as to be in the Asshat Circle of Trust.

When far away from the Asshat Circle of Trust I did look at my bright accessories, dresses and pretty shoes and wonder how things would have played out if I had still been in my sneakers, trousers and novelty t-shirt phase - the novelty t-shirts that used to proclaim proudly 'Girls Do It Better' and 'Prick'. I miss those t-shirts, and at the time I thought I was buying them because they were in bright colors, but somewhere in my head those sentiments must have made me happy too.

Outwardly I appear to have many stereotypical and superficially feminine characteristics, but I can pretty much attribute each of them to a decidedly non-stereotypically feminine choice. They are non-stereotypically feminine choices, but they are very, very pragmatically feminine choices. Not that Misogynist Asshats would care, they only want the stereotypical and superficial feminine characteristics in a woman.

Which brings me back to my Female Misogynist Asshattery; I still don't know what I would have said to shatter the Asshat Circle of Trust. Although right now I hope one day I get to simply say that – ‘Please don’t include me in your Asshat Circle of Trust!’ I mean, how does one go about claiming that one is, in fact, not a real lady at work so as not to be assumed to be accepting the outrageous claim that I was ‘okay’ because I make some superficial choices of clothes and delivery that, when conflated with my professionally appropriate following of his business directions, all contributed to his feeling of security?

In that situation I needed to have followed Janine’s steps.

NOTICE – As the only woman in the room I could have asked him to stop expressing views on how women should act in the workplace as opposed to how everyone should act in the workplace
INSPIRE – I could have said I would judge these female superiors by the actions that I witnessed myself
CEASE – I could have stopped trying to control my face and let my instinctive and natural disgust and disappointment show
ENQUIRE – I could have asked why he felt compelled to assure me that I was not judged on the same grounds as these women if the criteria of his judgment were relevant and fair

Deprograming yourself from the instinct to keep oneself safe from dangerous Asshats is a big job, but I can only do it for myself.

Saturday, June 29, 2013

Be Nice

I was very much enjoying the civilised pace and educational inclination of my writing on travel for Frances when the politics of my country became decidedly uncivil. And while I tried, unsuccessfully, to stay on the windy side of being positive and general when I wrote about current affairs, my own opinions eventually became so strong I decided to discuss them under the topic Janine had given me, which was ‘why aren't people nice?'

Janine has a philosophy of life - 'be nice' - that I respect because in her hands it is robust and has a strong emphasis on thinking outside yourself, of service. Janine is an educator of medical staff, and of the many responsibilities she has the most important is giving her students the tools to deal with the complexities of the life ahead of them in their profession. I rang Janine to let her know that I was addressing her topic next and we had a lively conversation on the techniques of being nice and the benefits and drawbacks of being nice.

She proposes that the first thing to do is to ask yourself every day if someone has thanked you for being nice. If they haven’t, you probably haven’t been nice, and you should cast your mind back over the day to see where you could have been nice. I really like this concept because it presumes that the key to social interaction is awareness of your own actions, and it encourages you to be truthful with yourself.

I also can’t help feeling that a daily quota of thanks is a powerful thing to try and achieve every day. It is a positive quota, because thanks cannot be forced from people. But to head off any sense of entitlement, it is your actual actions that are the catalyst for thanks, not the mood or inclination of the people around you.

Because, once you are actually nice every day, the next step is to be nice to people who are nice to you. If you are extending a level of niceness towards people and they are not extending the same level back to you as a minimum, stop. Stop being nice. Don’t attack or withdraw, but stop, stand your ground and stop wasting all that nice on people who can’t reciprocate. This concept I admire because it is an anti-Doormat rule and it places an emphasis on being nice to yourself as well as to others.

I like the idea of stopping and standing because it brings strength to this positive agenda. It puts a value and a price on being nice, and it encourages you to value the work you are putting into your life and recognize it in the people you interact with. It is a positive and supportive feedback loop.

Which does mean however that once you have put your foot down, you do have to speak up. The question to ask is ‘What have I done to make you treat me with such unkindness?’ The circumstances may require the How, Where, When or Why variation of this question, but Janine feels a basic enquiry is a good way to learn more, to challenge your assumptions that the lack of niceness is deliberate rather than situational. It is a final exercise of respect, letting them make a case for their actions so that you may learn more about them and yourself.

As a framework for evaluating the actions of others, I think these ideas could be a strong and positive guide for discussion and assessment. And I would like to apply them particularly to the notions of civil society, both of the society that prizes civility above all in its participants, and the society that is civil to all the citizens it involves and influences.


Friday, June 28, 2013

Emotional range

I ran my first impressions of Animal past the director before posting it, and his questions on three important aspects of the play inspired an early morning reply that I think should sit beside the original piece.
The director asked if I had picked up the theme of absent fathers and I had to admit that while that theme would have registered with me, my opinions on the situation presented to the characters by absent fathers would not be put forward because I am not a man. I can only write what I know, and I know how social systems treat women. It is as plain as the nose on my face that the patriarchy project is just as destructive for men as for women, but I am not tempted to put forward opinions on how men mediate their own sense of identity. My only legitimate concern is how they create their identity in relation to women, and I have no problem expressing my opinion in that area. How men deal with their male role models is the remit of men, and I simply hope that they will steer away from the old model of manhood being constructed on the foundation of domination over and the inequality of others.

The second point was a very good one, he pointed out that I had not discussed Pongo’s mother and her personal actions. These actions were based on political ideas that were only widely accepted as right and civil decades after her actions were carried out, to her grave disadvantage in her lifetime. I had not really needed to discuss her heroic and progressive ideas because I know that, no matter what the patriarchy project communicates through cultural mediums, large numbers of women dissenting and acting on that dissent is a millennia long tradition.

I expect to find people with modern political ideas in the past because it is a legitimate and essential part of being a historian. No matter WHO or WHAT you are looking for between the lines of Great Man History, the great project of history is to find the statistics and sources that show the people not seen by the patriarchy project. What always gives me pause is when a punter whose only consumption of history is mediated by the patriarchy project dismisses the existence of dissenters because they simply haven’t heard of them. The generation of Pongo's mother were the best of dissenters, as the director points out, because they resisted social norms because it was right, not because there was a society that supported the legitimacy of their ideas.

For me it is even more interesting that this generation of women participated in the workforce for five years and clearly demonstrated that men and women could contribute equally to the public and private sphere. These women showed extraordinary grace when that contribution was ignored and reversed, they showed great forgiveness towards the wilful blindness of the men in power and they paved the way for the feminist movement. The fact that I expect to see such women respectfully portrayed on stage, as in Animal, reminds me of the privileged position I hold as the student of history illuminated by feminism and other challenges to Great Man History. I am an anomaly on Earth now and in history in general because I am allowed to voice these opinions openly and without the grave disadvantage Pongo’s mother endured.

And finally the director asked me to unpack my dislike of female hysteria on stage, and while I would really like to reframe my reply, I think it is better that my raw dissent (although edited for plot spoilers, personal information and sense) is communicated as I framed it this morning:

“Dr Lee is portrayed with even emotional delivery almost all the time, and when the play has moments of what I regard as moments for an actress to show 'typical hysteria', her reactions are real and logical, not hysterical. Sally really got to me with her brief but utterly lost emotions.

I really respect you and Sally for not using the shorthand of ‘the mother/woman who brings womanly humanity to her job because she can't separate her private emotions from her public emotions.' Most people see an actress on stage giving an emotionally stable and even delivery of large emotional changes as cold and impersonal. I find that kind of direction of actresses more useful. I hate female hysterics on stage. I hate it. I hate it in Shakespeare; I hate it in modern work, I HATE FEMALE HYSTERIA ON STAGE.

Just so we are clear! :)

I dislike Ophelia and most direction of Kate in Shrew. I really, really disliked Rylance's fluttering and hysterical Olivia in The Globe's Original Practice Twelfth Night (although the actor playing Maria was amazing, not a trace of hysteria and he was utterly convincing as a woman). The notion that female characters on stage communicate strong feeling with hysteria is archaic and holding a lot of actresses back from the way they would like to portray characters.

GAH. Sorry. I just really, really hate hysterical women portrayed as the norm in characters.

Women are tough, we enter the world of being an adult at thirteen with hormones and blood and the potential to be raped almost inherent in our lives, we are the emotional rock of entire networks of families that never thank us and mock us for our emotional range, and then we have to endure the dramatic conventions of making angry male characters powerful or dangerous and angry female characters screaming, crying messes. Fuck. Angry men get weapons and wars and great speeches and cold fury and terror. And we get crying. I really, really fucking hate it.

And that is my early morning rant.

Yay for F Word Friday ...”

Freedom in civil disobedience

I saw a theatre production last night that had a special significance for me and this blog. During the F Word Fortnight, I was engaged in a very interesting conversation about feminism and women on stage with the director of Animal as his cast was in their rehearsal period. The director was sure that Animal would be of interest to me, and happily, when I got to be in the audience, it really was.

The director had told me that there was only one female character on stage, but she was not the only woman in the play, and indeed I discovered that the women in the play were numerous, active, dissenting and subverted some very interesting stereotypes. The single female and two male characters actually on stage conjured these women into life in very different and interesting ways.

The character of Pongo adds his beloved and lovely mother to the population of unseen women onstage. Pongo is the every-person character, and in Kingsley Judd’s incredible hands he is the essential rage of men and women that in its expression derails the civil lives of the angry.

I was happily challenged by Dr Lee, the new mother and state funded doctor working towards eradicating violence. Sally Bruce playing her as collected, focussed and tired, which made her brief and stressful breakdown triggered by a deeply personal situation more effective because it was the moment of 'stage femininity' that showed how admirably un-'stage feminine' she was at other times. Personally I find the physical and vocal hysteria written and directed into many female characters on stage to be an archaic creative convention, but more of that anon.

And then we have Elmo, the unreconstructed male with the unrelentingly misogynist language and ideas, who gradually tells us the stories of the many women in his city who are engaged in acts of civil disobedience to protest the waging of a war. Patrick Downes' Elmo introduces these women through the prism of his desire to fuck them, his terror of them not laughing at his jokes and his respect for the dedication they show to expressing their anger.

The only visible woman in the play, Dr Lee, is a perfectly modern realisation of the moral ambiguity of a person (not a gender) pursuing science in the name of an ideology that wishes to restrain humans. She is also a functioning modern mother, and that element of ceaseless service to family and society is well overdue to be seen on stage.

Elmo’s women are another kettle of fish altogether, they are political, angry, dissenting and active, they have strong reason, physical and mental courage and they pose the threat of a descent into anarchy as long as they are engaged in civil disobedience. I am really glad that the unseen women on the stage in Animal were not there to focus on building the character of the men on stage; they were to pull the two men along in their wake, educating them on resistance and commitment.

All in all I enjoyed the extraordinary language of the playwright, the director and actors who made a lot of good choices for the unseen women, and the truly accomplished performances of the three actors. I look forward to Upstart Theatre Company's next discussion of humans, I can tell you that much.

I sent the draft of this review to the director before posting it, and his reply held some important questions that prompted me to write even more!

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

When civil blood makes civil hands unclean

There is something very uncivil happening every day in the world, and it depends on where you are as to what part of it you watch and which part you speak up about.

Today I was watching America during the wait to see what happened in Australia, because on the same day two extraordinary legislative dramas were played out in the Texas Senate and the Supreme Court. Today the Supreme Court struck down a section of the Civil Rights Bill that seeks to prevent electoral discrimination, and Wendy Davis attempted a 13 hour filibuster to block a Senate Bill restricting the operation of abortion clinics in Texas.

From inside American I suspect the issues are complicated and partisan, clouded by history and political polarization, but to me it still seems surprising that legislators are still restricting the health and birth control choices women are allowed access to, and that the legislators in power think that they no longer need to check their own privilege. When those with legislative power consider their opinion and privilege to be the only alternative for the whole of society, uncivil society is legislating.

Legislators are not entitled to tell women when they can or cannot make the choice to carry a pregnancy to term. Legislating on one particular medical procedure whose legality only impacts one particular section of society is damn uncivil. Especially when that section of society is underrepresented in membership of the legislative body and when the majority voting on the legislation are not impacted by the procedure or the outcome of the legality of it. They are not qualified to legislate and they should not legislate; as with every other medical procedure, it should be decided upon legally and on medical grounds between patient and doctor.

The legislatively powerful are not entitled to remove checks that prevent them holding discriminatory power over the route to legislation itself. From my own point of view, I feel weary each time a privileged legislator speaks out from a mob of privileged legislators to claim that we the people no longer need to worry about discrimination because it doesn’t happen anymore. "How (unfucking) civil" I think, "the privileged legislator is not being discriminated against, hence there is no discrimination."

Half the population of the world is women, but not half the membership of legislative bodies. How do these legislators know if sexism is still happening or not? How do the legislative bodies reached by set social and education pathways know about discrimination according to ethnicity, ability or education? Neither America or Australia are made up only of men and women of one type of education, ethnicity or time resident in the country, so even if we achieve a baseline of half female legislators, we still have to make sure we have proportional representation for all the populations of our countries. And that is not even the start of legislative reform, that is just leveling the playing field numerically.

The real fight is when the legislatures of the world are filled with voices for all the people of the world, and then the real civility will have to kick in ... because political, religious, ethnic and social affiliations will have to fall before the vast weight of the need to be humanly civil. Once there is no privilege, only equality, the key deciding factor of each decision will have to be a human one. And then maybe civil hands will be clean of civil blood.

NOTE 27 JUNE: And just when I thought I was being original, The Economist got there first!

Monday, June 24, 2013

A concern for one's safety


From: Mr Les
To: Mr Mike, Miss Claire
Subject: Disruption of Access to Shared File Server


Mr Boss after a bit of deliberation dropped the request for this .hence it fell off the weekly meeting radar


From: Mr Mike
To: Mr Les, Miss Claire
Subject: Disruption of Access to Shared File Server


Claire – please cancel letter.


From: Miss Claire
To: Mr Les, Mr Mike

I can’t tell you how happy I am to receive this email.

I’d like to thank Mike, for always providing me with emailed drafts of many colours and holding many exotic images extracted from PDFs.

I’d like to thank Les, for always putting a space before the full stop, and not after it.

I’d like to thank Mr Boss, for his eternal search for medicinal honey, which lightens my day (reading about honey is pretty fun)

*cries* *is led off stage*


From: Mr Les
To: Miss Claire
Subject: wp rev 2 letter and attachments


Did Mr. Boss get a copy of the letter sent out on Friday ?


From: Miss Claire
To: Mr Les
Subject: wp rev 2 letter and attachments

Just sent it

From: Mr Les
To: Miss Claire

My hero

From: Miss Claire
To: Mr Les

Keep it under your hat though

From: Mr Les
To: Miss Claire

No room already 2 chickens, a piece of string ,2 apple cores and 3 ideas stuck there

From: Miss Claire
To: Mr Les

*slight panic*

Sheesh, I know your sleeve is full too, what with the tissues, assorted aces and some 'lerts' for when you need to be extra alert.

Try the sheath on your ankle, the knife that used to be in there is still stuck in a back somewhere, I saw it last week ...

From: Mr Les
To: Miss Claire

Not fair - knife is at grinders along with teeth ... anyway a hatchet job is always better ... maybe need nice police belt with stun gun etc ?

From: Miss Claire
To: Mr Les

I popped out at lunch and got you one of those hard hats with drinking vessels on each side and long plastic straws ... that'll suffice


I sent Mr Les my paen to my time working alongside him, and he replied with more advice from his wife and some encouragement towards telling good stories instead of sticking slavishly to the truth. Still one of my most legendary bosses!

It pulls me in, you know?

For Frances, on the theme of travel.

For readers of multi-volume stories, the characters you grow up with always have a special place in your heart. For me Granger, Weasley, Snape and Potter were the much loved companions of my twenties, both in books and on screen, and I felt I was setting a slice of my imagination in amber after watching the last movie. It was a sad thought that I would always look back now at the Twins and Dumbledore, rather than forward into the endless future with Joanne and her fabulous friends.

There are other books that are solitary outcrops of emotion for me, and those emotions loop back on themselves each time I encounter the ideas that drive the book. One such book is The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid, which I was handed in 2008 by a rather legendary manager of mine. Mr Les was an extraordinary man, a sailor and engineer who did Honours in feminist literature before his Engineering degree, he taught me some of the best professional hustle around.

We were working as the thin and exhausted insulation between Saudi and Kuwaiti industry on one hand, and Australian, Persian and Eastern European industry on the other. It would take a longer and more carefully worded piece of writing than this to tease out the extraordinary cultural fault lines that made that job such a gift in hindsight and a horror at the time, but the way he armored me to take on the floor of sixty men I helped mediate each day was unique and wonderful.

The tools he gave me for life were varied; I still aspire to be as good as him at offering three options to every workmate. Mr Les’ three options seemed on the surface to be equal, yet two quickly become completely untenable, and the one that was the only possible solution was always the one Mr Les wanted. He also encouraged me to get my frustration out in imaginative ways, and one method in particular is still a favorite of mine. The trick is to think of a song with ‘heart’ in the lyrics and change ‘heart’ to ‘arse’. Simple, yet guaranteed to coax a smile from any girl in the middle of editing three pages of chemical engineering bumph for translation into Arabic.

And then there was the book he lent me as the world watched the Obama and Clinton nomination race, as the Egyptian mathematician crunched the Electoral College numbers for me each day, as I had discussions on the difference between the Bible and the Qur’an in the corridors with my workmates and as I managed the medical appointments for the wife of my terrifying Saudi boss, who was dangerously old to be pregnant again. At the time my writing was crippled by my own Honours the year before, and I was trying to negotiate a resignation that would not leave everything I had worked for in the job as a steaming pile of nothing. So the intricacies of family, culture and art that Erica and Changez were negotiating were strangely applicable to me at the time.

Last week I watched the movie based on the book, and while it has changed immensely in its journey to the screen, it still spoke to me on the same personal level as the book did five years ago. Just as I treasure a quote from Erica in the book (sadly she is a much reduced character in the film, although Kate Hudson gives her more character than the script often allows), I think I will be quoting the Changez on the screen more than a few times in the future. I am relieved that the ideas that drove the book, although now driving a film, still reach inside and sit comfortably in the grooves of my heart.

Hmmmm … the groove is in the heart …

“it doesn’t help anymore,” she said “I used to turn to it, my writing, when I needed to get something out that was stuck inside. But I can’t get it out now. It pulls me in, you know?”
“It’s whether there’s something left,” she explained, suddenly and unsettlingly calm, “or whether it’s all already happened.”

The Reluctant Fundamentalist
by Mohsin Hamid

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Stick them with the pointy end

For Frances, on the theme of travel.

I was so happy to be watching three episodes of Game of Thrones in a row to catch up with millions of people in the world, that I suspended all my knowledge of The Red Wedding while watching Episode Nine. When the classical Romantic-Comedy-style first half of the Tully and Frey Wedding turned into the Westerosi version of the Glencoe Massacre / Night of the Long Knives in the second half I reacted without restraint, gasping, covering my mouth in shock, and involuntarily saying god knows what during the starkly drawn horror of those scenes (starkly drawn with Stark blood). The writers of Game of Thrones are utterly superb; they deliver short and powerful scenes that move the politics along so tightly each episode feels like twenty minutes.

The short and powerful scenes of the TV series may be sexy and visceral and shocking, but they are only the barest highlights, the main points from the novels that develop a world of characters that keep you company long after you close the book. My respect for Martin as a writer grew in leaps and bounds as I read A Song of Ice and Fire, mostly in leaps and bounds inspired by death, devilishly clever politics and a long, arduous journey with the characters. It was his nonchalant killing of main characters that really got my attention at first – he reminded me painfully of Robin Hobb and her cruelty to her characters, except she didn’t kill with Martin’s obvious delight and lack of warning.

Then I began to grasp just how good Martin’s politics really was as the books developed. I was already deeply pleased to have both High Fantasy and Sword and Sorcery Fantasy on one planet and in one giant war, and I was thoroughly enjoying the War of the Roses being fought out again for my continued anguished pleasure. But it was the first swift and devastating reduction of the reasons for great dishonor, bloodshed and betrayal to a childhood slight that tipped Martin into 'Godlike Author' territory for me. He dismissed the reasons for his first books in a few sentences, and I was beginning to grasp the fact that Martin had politics, plotlines and character to spare, so killing one or all of them was just not an issue.

After his first enormous betrayal of the conventions that lesser writers adhere to, he went on to create some of the mightiest characters operating in the grey areas of morality ever written, their morality so perfectly real to us now that we cannot help but feel they could counsel us if we needed it. He went on to seduce us with characters we had been callously set up to hate, but once we got into their skin we could not remember how we used to feel about them. He even introduced characters that were simply created to torture the reader, to remind us that we can never actually leave these characters to suffer on their own, and that he would be the only one that could finally strip all of Westeros away from us until we were nothing but a flayed and sobbing mess.

I am never silent when I read Martin, even at 3am in the morning. Ploughing through a chapter of horror to get to the next one so I can work out if someone I love is going to survive, I make unconscious noises in reaction to the world on the page. Travelling for years through your own life and also through years of a character’s life is a bonding experience inexplicable to someone who is not much of a reader, but the secret language of anyone who loves books. And sometimes it may be a secret language, but it is not a silent one, as the wails of Martin-induced horror rising up from his readers and now watchers can attest.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

We'll strive to please you every day

For Frances, on the theme of travel.

I miss London immensely, mostly for my marvelous friends and the fabulous museums. My favorite birthday in London was a guerilla birthday in the Silver Galleries of the V&A – no drinks, no food, just beautiful objects and a lot of talking amongst very intelligent people. The security guards only approached us once to ask why we were lounging in the window seats, and I made up some story about giving an impromptu lecture and waiting for some stragglers. They accepted it because my accent indicated I was a teacher and I was standing at the time with my three sixteen-year-old English friends, and all seemed legit. There are many stereotypes of Australians in London at are not flattering, but the one that we are mostly teachers is a positive one.

Unfortunately for me, I was not much of a fan of theatre in London, so I never roused myself to attend a single play in the West End bar Wide Sargasso Sea in the first two months and the essential Shakespeare at Stratford Upon Avon and The Globe. Thankfully my years working with the mighty actors of Perth turned me from a theatrical philistine to a fully paid up fan girl of live theatre. I even, god help me, dabbled in the art of writing plays myself this year. And although I am not in London, I can still see some of the best of London stage in Perth.

In four weeks I have seen Henry V and Twelfth Night from The Globe and This House from NT Live, and mighty productions they were too. I love how The Globe makes Shakespeare a cross between a rock concert and a comedy set, I love the groundlings' interacting with the actors and the many talents on display on the stage. When you stand as a groundling you are traveling back in time to an age when stage plays set the mood of the crowd, when the language soared up taking all listeners with it. The spectacular This House, written by James Graham (born only a year after me) and in production impressive beyond my limited experience to capture, was close to perfect in every way and produced in me a moment of utter respect for such a young writer able to capture the feel of a very difficult time before his birth.

At the start of any filmed theatre production the stage acting on screen is difficult to get used to, but like Shakespeare, you get used to the theatricality and soon you are so engrossed in the play you forget you are not in the theatre yourself. When watching theatre on film in Perth I like to watch the audience as well, because I will always see some interesting people. For This House the audience was made up mostly of the older set, the people who grew up with live theatre on an equal footing with TV and Film and grew up during the time depicted on stage. They included my much beloved English Literature teacher from school and the only State politician that recognizes me in the street because her daughter and I have argued with each other since we were six years old. Of the young there was a short story writer from my writers group and two friends who are also talented actors.

It doesn’t take much to travel far from the place you are sitting, all it takes is a willingness to abandon yourself to the magic of another person’s story. I am frequently in the theatre alone because, as with attending museums, not many people outside the theatre industry have my voracious and universal appetite for narrative. But once in the theatre, I am seldom surrounded by strangers only, and by the end, we have all experienced something unique together, and we are friends, if only in the spirit of the moment.
Theatre on Film in Perth

Friday, June 21, 2013

Big ideas in a small town

For Frances, on the theme of travel.

Voluntarily attending lectures after work is not everyone's idea of fun, I must admit. It is a learned discipline to get back into concentrating on new topics for that length of time, although I do find it is easier to relax and go along for the ride because there is no assessment riding on my recollection of the points presented. There are a few aspects of the lectures I attend that have the ability to charm me away from the TV and couch at home again and again, taking me down roads I would have otherwise never traveled. I enjoy the skill and experience of the presenters – they are people that inhabit a very different world to me, and are prepared to talk about it. I enjoy watching the audience and taking the measure of the people who share one characteristic with me – the urge to learn more. And I love the ideas presented to me in the politest of terms – new ideas, old ideas, ideas that I agree with, those that I don’t agree with.

The big draw for me of most of the people presenting is that they are almost always visitors from overseas, or if Australian, very experienced and eminent. Most of the time they are both from overseas and eminent! One of the most impressive talks I attended was by Sir Kenneth Keith ONZ KBE QC, one of fifteen judges of the International Court of Justice, the principal judicial organ of the United Nations. It was humanly interesting for the fascinating look he gave into the workings of something like the prosecution of Bosnian war criminals, but its subject matter was so far beyond my limited understanding that I felt worst than lost, more like an organism that has wandered into the wrong rules of physics. The only reason I knew that I didn’t know what he was talking about was because my limited political studies at least gave me the knowledge that there existed concepts linked to words he was using, I just had no idea of the concepts!

I am such a people watcher that observing the multitudinous audience takes up a lot of the time I spend in the room, especially if they are the audience of a specialist lecturer. I have been to lectures for which the audience was made up almost exclusively of a specific faculty of the university and the questions afterwards are always more focused and interesting in such circumstances. I greatly enjoyed the audience at a fascinating curatorial talk for a feminist exhibition at the Art Gallery - an audience of elegant, stylish and beautiful sixty-year-old women, with a smattering of very young, consciously stylized young women in bright colors. I may have dressed with the right combination of black and color as the rest of the audience, but I did not have the statement perfectly groomed silver hair of the older women, or the political tattoos of the younger women. I particularly love the headline lectures from proper celebrity thinkers because in those you see the real movers and shakers of the mind. I have rubbed shoulders with ex-Premiers and ex-Governors, religious leaders and social scientists, ex-classmates from my undergraduate and my Honors supervisors.

The big names come out for the big ideas, and it is those big ideas that keep me devoted to the free lecture after work model of traveling without moving. I never know what to expect when I attend a lecture in a subject unknown to me, but I know that if I am to get the most out of the information that is going to be presented to me, I must engage with the topic from the very first word. And it is that discipline, the discipline of undefined taste except to say everything is interesting, the discipline of listening hard and actively so that new ideas can become comfortable in a short space of time, the discipline of submitting your brain to the guidance of someone who knows something different to you. Learning and travel both require you to focus on something other than yourself for a period of time, and it is in that space of openness that great thoughts can enter our heads.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

STEM and the human atom

For Frances, on the theme of travel.

Travel is a wonderful thing; to live amongst others is a great source of wisdom for people of all ages. I love physical travel, but I also love intellectual travel, and one of the best ways to travel with one's intellect is to keep learning. I am a particular fan of learning something that is not in your area of expertise, which is why I am so dedicated in attending lectures given to increase the public understanding of Science, Technology, Engineering and Math.

I grew up alongside a STEM man, I have been lucky enough to have amazing STEM women as friends and I have worked with the men and women of STEM since I was 18. As a proud social historian, I have made it my mission to understand as many STEM first principles as possible by attending lectures, engaging in discussions with friends and absorbing everything I can in the workplace. I have always found that the way that STEM practitioners think is incredibly useful to frame ideologies in my area of social history, allowing a new perspective on some of the oldest prejudices in history hidden in the sources and literature I love so much.

I dubbed the last month of Institute of Advanced Studies lectures at UWA "Marvelous May" for the extensive program I attended, two of which were given by the Chief Scientist of Australia and the WA Chief Scientist. Ian Chubb's lecture on the need for a Scientific Enterprise for Australia to provide leadership in schools, universities, industry and government to encourage and utilize STEM graduates was timely and challenging. Lyn Beazley's lecture took the concept of vision and mapped out one of many knowledge trajectories from the photoreceptors of human and animal eyes through the advances in Australian bionic eye technology to looking at the stars and talking to Indigenous Australians about the Milky Way. It was an incredible talk that was informative, inspiring and grand in scale.

The most exciting thing about STEM is the ability to travel through every layer of the world. The open communication of STEM is a worthy travel companion and it can expand and contract at your wish. Perth is home to some of the best STEM thinkers and communicators in the world right now, ready to expand our minds and understanding of our place in the universe with the building of the Square Kilometre Array, the development of the attendant technologies and the reporting of the discoveries made. Perth is going to be a top-level intellectual travel destination, and I am thrilled to be along for the ride.

In addition to the pure STEM issues involved in each talk, both talks also provided me with the chance to travel in other intellectual directions. Ian Chubb made room in his speech to address my relationship to STEM directly by championing the role social sciences have in contextualizing STEM. I gave an internal cheer! The communication of STEM is important, and social scientists can be a communication channel as well as STEM practitioners. Following on the heels of the Chief Scientist of Australia including the artists of Australia in his Scientific Enterprise, the WA Chief Scientist was the epitome of the most extraordinary STEM communicator. While she was taking us on a dizzying ride through intricate cross sections of STEM endeavor in Australia, she touched on one of my other great interests, the place and number of women in STEM.

I am vitally interested in the rights of women across the world, how we may secure full rights for all women, and how to enhance the world by the full involvement of women in all areas, including STEM. I personally think that intellectual travel is one of the finest ways to spend one's time, especially if one is hunting down that elusive and irreducible human atom, equality. And I am interested in the strengths of the intellectual rigor of STEM processes practised by women to be used in that hunt.

CHUBB lecture (recording available)

BEAZLEY lecture (recording available)

Climate Change: Human Behaviour and Economic Modelling

Carmen Lawrence, Centre for the Study of Social Change, speaking on the ways in which the actions to mitigate climate change sit in the weaknesses of human psychology.

Richard Denniss, The Australia Institute, speaking on the ways in which economic modelling is used to circumvent democracy and shut down debate.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Traveling without moving

During the fortnight of illness that resulted in my many thousands of words on feminism, my writing prompted some pretty interesting responses from people. Some readers actively engaged with the ideas I was writing about and those people I asked to write something for this blog because, you know, they hadn’t done enough by engaging with me, I wanted them to give up their spare time to write more! Other friends showed their support in a more restrained by no less appreciated manner and those people I asked to set me a topic to write on. I was given three very different topics, but all three providing me with additional inspiration to that already animating my writing.

The topic I wanted to tackle first was that of ‘Travel’, suggested by Frances. Frances is a great traveler herself, and she wanted me to talk about how important it is to travel, but discuss also those who are not inclined to travel physically. I found the brief aligned well with one of the lessons I learnt in my twenties – traveling educates you with fun, but staying at home educates you with discipline. This entire blog started because I was in another country, and I wanted to be able to write about all the traveling I was doing. The funny thing is that precious few of my adventures whilst traveling around the United Kingdom and Europe are published on here, but many small discoveries made in every day life are.

I resigned myself long ago to the fact that I do not feel comfortable with a backpack as my only home. When I moved to London and started to visit Europe I discovered I could stand hostels for about three days, and I disliked traveling to places without a companion or a local to show me around. However I was extremely good at living in new places, feeling at home, making local friends and becoming a local myself. I always presumed it was because I liked to feel the history of each place, so being a local or knowing a local was the way to go, but I have since learnt it was because I don’t need to be somewhere exotic each time I experience a great and exciting change to my way of thinking.

Carving out my life in Perth has given me additional ideas on what I consider to be the essence of travel, whether that be actual physical travel in another culture and land, or be it the lessons of travel learnt in your own routine. I regard the discipline of the examined life to be the constant thread between a world traveler and an armchair traveler. I have heard complaints about Contiki Tours with young people drinking their way around the tourist attractions with their companions, and I have heard complaints about people who form opinions on far off countries from reading or hearing about them but not visiting them. I would always argue for people to think about the place they are, no matter if it is exotic or mundane, and I always wish to see places that I read or heard about, so I could experience it for myself.

On the topic of travel then, instead of ticking off the places I have been or the places I would like to go, I would like to talk about the disciplines I have had to learn to make sure I travel every day. I may be sleeping in my own bed each night but each day I can make the decision to travel through knowledge, narratives and neighbors.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

The patriarchy project

The last week in Australian politics has been pretty instructive for any woman reading the news. No matter who you actually agree with in the perfect storm of views on women and how women in the public eye are discussed, it has become blatantly obvious that some sections of the Australian public express views on women that produce overblown opinions and startling venom in other sections of the public.

What I find intriguing is that my own perfect storm of formless anger at how women are discussed is now quiet in the face of last week. My conviction in the morality of speaking up often and loudly has become overwhelming, although now there is another feeling joining it. Before last week I felt as if I had to discuss the daily misogyny of the patriarchy project, because I felt that it needed to be illuminated, so invisible was it to the people trapped in it.

But in the last week I saw that everyone knows exactly what the patriarchy project is about - from the Adam Goodes story showing up the intricacies of the astounding racism on which Australia is founded to the clusterfuck of sexism in the last week - the structures of the patriarchy project and its methods of dividing us are clear for all to see.

There are great thinkers who can communicate the ideological soldiers of the patriarchy project better than me, giving us all the weapons to fight our respective fights. I will read them with great pleasure, but I feel easier about not trying to lend my reedy voice and slender understanding to their conversation. Their job is huge, and it includes all the divisiveness of the patriarchy project along lines of religion, politics, race, sexuality and ability, but their power is growing because the ideologies they are fighting are failing.

Instead, I feel a very seductive urge not to discuss the patriarchy project unless it is in relation to the good parts that can be taken into the future. I feel the urge to embrace my favorite activity - travelling into the future with only the very best of the present and the great potential of change as my companions. The best thing about travelling into the future is that you are utterly free to ignore whatever you please so as not to take weakness with you. And ignore the patriarchy project I will, because I am no longer remotely worried about its survival.

It is going to die a horrid but entertaining (to me) death, because it is clearly in its decline. Due to the incredibly hard work of the mighty women of history - which is every woman, just in case you were wondering - women everywhere know what they have to do. Women everywhere can see that the patriarchy project has failed: it has failed women, children and men; it has failed the environment, equality and liberty. At this moment the women of the world, the women who under the incoherent and illogical patriarchy project kept their sanity, progressiveness and humanity, are ready to strike out on their own path.

And I know I want my path to be projecting the future through speculative writing. That path has long been lined with women despite great efforts to exclude them, and speculative fiction of all genres is going to be the creative part of the larger political project that will see women be the saving of this planet. And now I don't even have to argue for the visionary nature of women and their work by directing my audience to observe the disintegrating present.

The present patriarchy project is not just broken, it is apocalyptic, and there is nothing like an apocalypse for destroying the underperforming and destructive aspects of society. The only better result is when the destructive aspects of society destroy themselves, and the patriarchy project is doing just that, with all the inherent arrogance and blindness of divisive domination.

For those who dodged the bullet of being in Australia while this all happened ...

The Australian Prime Minister, Julia Gillard addressing misogyny in Parliament

The Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard and Howard Sattler

The Australian Army

Some of the very interesting responses of female commentators and public to this new political environment ...

The Misogyny Factor by Anne Summers

Destroy the Joint

And maybe just one man ...

John Birmingham

Monday, June 10, 2013

The C Word

Throughout the F Word Fortnight, I was lucky enough to have some wonderful people read and react to my writing. As a dubious thank you, I invited the most engaged to write their own thoughts on the same topic. This post was written by Pia Quartermaine, and I want to thank her for the time and thought she put into communicating this slice of her personal experience.

“The word was at one with its meaning and was almost onomatopoeic. The smooth-hollowed, partly enclosed forms of its first three letters were as clear as a set of anatomical drawings.”
Ian McEwan, Atonement

Imagine if you will, that you are an African-American, socialising with a group of your fellow African-Americans, in say, the 1920s. Conversation is flowing, when one member of the group tells a joke with the n-word in it. You are deeply offended, naturally. This is a word that has been used by the dominant group, of which you are not a part, to oppress, degrade, insult and humiliate African-Americans.

Or pretend that you are a gay person, socialising with a group of your gay friends in say, the 1960s. Conversation is flowing, when one member of the group utters a quip with the word “faggot” in it. You are offended, naturally. This is a word that has been used by the dominant group in society, of which you are not a part, to oppress, degrade, insult and humiliate homosexuals.

What would you do in those situations? Imagine that you decided to speak out, to let the speaker know that the word they had used was offensive and ask them not to say it again. Imagine further that the speaker responded, not with shame or regret or even an apology, but with defensiveness. And that other members of the group defended the right to use this word, some claiming to dislike the word just as much as you, but it was a joke and this person didn’t mean to offend anyone. After all, we all have the right to free speech. You respond, reminding your acquaintances that this word is by its very nature designed to offend, any substitute could have been used and the joke would still have been funny. You’re simply asking that the word is left alone, knowing how deeply offensive it is to you. Imagine that all the other people who join in this discussion defend the use of this word and joke about your delicate nature. Not a single member of the group speaks in support of you.

I am a woman, in the early 21st century. I found myself in a group of fellow women when the c-word was used. Not for the first time, but I’d had enough. I asked politely, and out of respect for my strong feelings on the matter for the word not to be used. Imagine my surprise when the women turned on me, accusing me of not having a sense of humour, of being the free-speech police, of being easily offended. Imagine my disappointment when not a single woman spoke out in support of me.

Those who know me could hardly accuse me of not having a sense of humour, or of being easily offended. I don’t tell other people what to do and I try to live my daily life with respect to all others. I am tolerant. What I am not tolerant of, however, is hate speech. And when that c-word came out, I chose not to ignore it for the first time in my life. I thought to myself, where else would I get a better reception to my feelings on the matter than within an entirely female group? Apparently I was wrong. How silly of me to be disappointed and surprised by a reception not too dissimilar to one I would have expected from my former work colleagues, a group of male bouncers.

The c-word, for those who are otherwise unaware, is primarily a noun referring to female genitalia. And originally, that was all that it meant. But over the centuries the meaning has been extended, and now (as it has been for some years) it is also used to denote women in general, as well as men or any other noun that is seen to be particularly unpleasant. And in every possible use, it is pejorative. When a woman is called this, or when a man is called this, it is never in a good way.

My encounter with the rabid defence of the c-word got me thinking. I remembered a conversation I had with one of those aforementioned bouncers. In hindsight, he was in short an embodiment and exaggeration of some of the worst characteristics that are valued in today’s concept of masculinity. Yet he told me that when a woman uses the c-word, it repulses him. At the time, I thought this: the word is so obviously intended to oppress and humiliate women, that for a woman to embrace it was such a deep betrayal to her own gender that it repulsed this man. A na├»ve view even for me, as if he placed any value on a woman’s positive self-identification.

Now that I think about it I realise why it was such a turn-off for him. This word has traditionally been used by men to degrade women. That is what the word was designed to do. Nowadays, despite it being the most obscene word in the English language, it is heartily embraced by men of all shapes and sizes, namely (and I realise I’m stereotyping here) men of lower socio-economic status and men in blue-collar employment. I’ve had conversations with men in trades that lead me to believe that the use of this word is directly proportional to your masculinity, to the amount of effort you put into your work.

If one were to complain about a hard job saying something along the lines of, “That job was fucked” the response would be lukewarm. “That was a c*** of a job” on the other hand, would merit recognition for your hard graft, empathy from your fellow worker. The use of the c-word is directly proportional to how seriously you should be taken. Someone at work is giving you a hard time: call them a c*** and mean it, and they get the picture. Want to establish some camaraderie among your colleagues? Jokingly insult someone’s masculinity by calling them a weak c*** and you’ll have everyone laughing. Want to join in on some blokey chauvinistic banter: casually mention some c*** you were sexually intimate with on the weekend.

What better way to assert your own masculinity than to contribute heartily to the persecution of women? Whatever the topic, whoever the speaker, dropping the c-word is a sure-fire way to gain respect from your male colleagues. Unless, of course, you’re a woman. And this bouncer found it a turn-off because a woman is not supposed to claim any masculinity, power or strength for her own. She is supposed to be weak and submissive.

Why is it the ultimate insult for anyone, male or female? Because it speaks about the least desirable, the most unwanted, the ultimate source of fear: the vagina. It’s not enough to liken someone to a woman as a whole; the reference must be to what is biologically perhaps the most identifying aspect of being a woman, her very essence summed up in a body part. To a large proportion of men, the vagina is at best a mystery, at worst, a source of disgust. To have linked the most vulgar word in the English language to the most essential part of femininity is no mean feat.

But it should not be so. Two other predominant swear words that come to mind refer to experiences that are shared by most adults: sex and defecation. But they’re not taboo enough, they simply don’t conjure enough disgust or shame. The c-word trumps them on all counts. It enrages me that something so beautiful has been misrepresented so strongly. The vagina is a sacred body part, something that every woman should be proud to have, not simply for the fact that it is there but also because of the power it holds: the power of giving pleasure, the power of giving life.

This is not the only instance where the vagina is made taboo and shameful, but it is one that I am interested in, as it is insidious. Words have strength and meaning behind them beyond semantics; they are the windows through which we see the world. And it is not okay that our womanhood is undermined and disrespected daily with a word like this. It is not okay for men to use it, and it is not okay for women to use it. Although I’d argue that men have no reason at all to use it, women possess nothing even remotely close to an excuse for using the c-word, with the amount of harm it carries. And I am aware that for a lot of people, they simply wouldn’t have thought about it at all. And that’s okay. But maybe it wouldn’t be such a bad thing if we spent a little bit of time thinking about what we say and the words we use to say it. The women I referred to at the start may well have not considered the harm the word carried. But I let them know how I felt and why and they still felt the need to defend it. I wonder if they would defend the use of the n-word to a black person?

Now, I’m not perfect. I cannot honestly say that I have never uttered the word myself. I have, once. I am not proud of it, and ironically it was in a moment that preceded an instance of emotional and sexual abuse. It was an (ultimately unsuccessful although stereotypical) attempt to assert my own strength, regain a position of power and to express the disgust with which I viewed my opponent. It saddens me that I reinforced male abuse of women in a time when I was most vulnerable, a situation where it was the least appropriate. I know better now. And I refuse to stand for it.

But what am I going to do about it? Black people reclaimed the use of the n-word (although not universally) as a term for their own use, to denote some measure of ‘soul’. Gay people have reclaimed the use of the word queer and now wear it as a badge of honour, a positive self-identification. I have to admit, I am very uncomfortable with the idea of reclaiming the c-word as a positive term. Not because of the end-goal but because of the means. This is a word that has centuries of pejorative weight behind it; not only would it take generations for any real shift in value or tone to occur, but it would require the preceding generations to use the word freely. Selfishly, this task is too much for me. So I’m not going to urge all of my fellow women to adopt the word, incorporate into their lives, use it freely when referring lovingly to their vagina (although this would be lovely) because I can’t do that myself. But I wouldn’t have thought it would be too much to ask for women to reject the word in its typical disrespectful sense.

On the 24th of January 2015 Pia shaved her head to raise funds for Greener Pastures Sanctuary. She made this video, which I think is an elegant delivery of many interesting ideas.