Tuesday, 9 July 2013

A Long, Complicated One

I set out to write a short piece on why I identify as a feminist, and why I didn't always, but I could neither keep it short nor keep it separate from other things that I tend to have a lot to say about.

I have a lot to say about a lot of things, I'm never lost for words. Just lately there have been so many incredible things in the news, that I have so much to say it is all coming out as a squeaking noise. I mean....how do you begin to make sense of the last few weeks in the news? In the end I decided that as most of it was American politics (i.e. "consider the source") I'd just stay out of it, but there's more to it than that.

American politics is not world opinion, to be sure, but the two are not entirely separate either. Society as a whole - that is to say trends in the opinion of our species, are often highlighted in places such as that. There are obviously a few countries around the world that are either instigators, or mirrors - they tend to reflect "what's going on", generally, by their individual obsessions. Sure, if you are a Mongolian yak herder, you may not care particularly about societal trends in the developed world, but there really is such a thing as "modern society" that is international, so its effects are felt far and wide.

Then there's natural events, weather, climate, natural disasters, etc., that tend to ignore national borders anyway, so it makes no difference where you live. And so much of it feels too big, too impossible to do anything about.

So, I don't know about you but I often feel quite helpless. There are too many huge things, way beyond my control; even if I became a full-time activist, I could only tackle one, and my efforts may well be useless. In the course of human history many people have actually died for causes that went nowhere, at least long-term. In any case, we all pick and choose our causes based on what is important to us personally.

I decided many years ago that I was not cut out to be in politics. I can make speeches, I can shout at people if necessary. But I can't lie, not like they do. I am too honest for politics. So my way of "doing something" is to spread information. If I learn something that I consider to be important, I make sure I pass it on to others. The more informed we are, as a population, the better chance we have against lying politicians. The people do have power, but only if they have information. All hail the information age.

But there are two areas I have been able to have a direct impact on. Two areas I feel passionate about anyway, and two areas that are inextricably connected. I'm talking about raising children and the fate of women.

My sons and daughters were raised by a second generation feminist, and none of us knew it. Not even me. When I was busy having and raising children, I was enjoying myself so much that I did not believe I could possibly be a feminist. When people talked about feminism, I had a view of it that was not only unsympathetic, but skewed. It couldn't apply to me, I had opted for dedicated domesticity.

In fact I was criticized by some women for my choices, and the angle seemed to be that I was letting the side down. That I had "settled" for an old-fashioned lifestyle. That I had apparently handed over all my power to my husband, by being dependant on him financially and so on. Quite apart from the fact that there is a great misunderstanding of the power in that situation, there is also the idea that it's a competition. No wonder these people are unhappy with their lot.

So, let's look at the basics of human interaction.

We are a social animal. We live in groups and we do best that way. Hermits are an anomaly in our species, and had we all been oriented that way, we'd never have left the trees. Actually I'm not sure we'd have made it that far. We are apes and apes are social animals.

When you live in groups there have to be rules. They may not be written down, but they exist. They are understood. They involve give and take, co-operation, and ultimately, compromise. Not everyone gets their own way all the time, things have to be shared, and conflict has to be kept to a minimum. Somebody has to be a leader. This general arrangement is the essence of society, and in this way there is some sort of order.

To keep this order there are consequences to those who break the rules. They may be "punished". This could involve ostracism (separation from the group), or perhaps a beating - physical pain, a memory that tends to stick. One way or another they will be, er hem, encouraged to stay in line.

There can be no rule of law without coercion. There is absolutely no point to having rules if there is no consequence to breaking them. If all it took was an explanation, that would be fine, but sometimes that doesn't work. They may not understand the purpose of the rules (too young, too stupid, too stubborn) or for whatever reason, they have to be persuaded. But also, at some point, they may simply reject the rules. Because not all rules are good rules.

There are two things that most humans dislike. One is disorder. We are, at heart, a harmony-seeking creature. Even though we quarrel, it's usually with the intent to achieve peace. It's an odd thing really, but that is exactly how we are.

The other is coercion. We don't like being forced to do anything ourselves, and we tend to disapprove of the use of force when we see it. It offends our sensibilities. But contrarily at times, we are quite happy for it to happen.

Why? Because in order to achieve peace, the non-peaceful must be coerced, mustn't they.

When you look at this contradiction from outside it looks really silly. In practice it is a mess. In our modern world a teacher can be charged with assault for trying to restrain an unruly kid, because of our sensibilities about coercion, while bombs are dropped on foreign kids by US drones and nobody bats an eyelid, because..........................sorry, I have no idea why that's OK. But apparently it is because it continues.

Anyway, two extremes, and you can't begin to explain it. Luck of where you are born.

How the hell do you ever facilitate the keeping of order with a lack of coercion? It's inevitable that some folk are not going to  behave themselves and have to be persuaded to behave by others in the group. So how do you reconcile our sensibility about coercion, with that need?

There is only one way to do it, and that is called equality. In fact, if you give all people equal rights, there will be a minimum of disorder in the first place. But at the very least, by treating all people equally when sorting out problems, there should be a minimum of coercion necessary. Most people, unless there is something inherently wrong with them, are content with rules if they are fair.

Is it so much to ask for that people be treated equally? Apparently. Because in the course of human history we have managed to find every excuse in the book to treat people as "lesser".

Anyone from a different tribe.
Anyone from a different nation.
Anyone of a different skin colour.
Anyone who speaks a different language.
Anyone who follows a different religion.
Anyone who is not "one of us" in any possible way. Including poorer than us.

In fact, different in any way you care to think of, to those in power. That's what it amounts to.

We tend to think of persecuted people as "minorities" these days, but it was never to do with numbers. In feudal times the serfs outnumbered the aristocracy at least 100 to 1, but they were kept in place by threats of brutality, and there were always just enough soldiers to stop a revolution. But in any case if you keep people down enough, they simply don't have the ability to revolt.

Of course, every so often, they do. But from this order always, in time, emerges a new hierarchy, a new unevenness of rights and resources, and a new way to oppress those who are not in power.

When you study history certain patterns emerge. Empires comes and go but one group always hold the balance. Men.

There have been plenty of powerful women, don't get me wrong. But by the simple biological fact that it's women who give birth, and tend to be who raise the next generation, women have always been too busy to run the world. Whether we are waiting for the men to come home with the meat from the hunt, or come home from the office with a pay cheque, we didn't have time to join in because we were watching the kids.

There are kittens in my barn. They have no idea who their father is. Their mother goes hunting while they are left alone. She raises them into fine young cats, so what's the big deal, humans?

Well, it's not uncommon for one or more kittens in a litter to meet an untimely end as they play without supervision. One of them was almost cut in half by the rolling barn door this morning had Tyler not seen it in time. They have nine lives but they use them up fast at that age. Because of infant mortality rates in cats, nature provided a method to keep the population up. Female cats give birth to an average of four kittens at a time, so 3/4 of them can die and the mothers still replace themselves. But they can also do this 2 or more times in a year, and probably around 20 times in a lifetime. In other words, they can give birth to 80 children, and they only need TWO to survive to breed, for the population to remain stable, for cats to continue. As you may have noticed, this seems to work.

The downside to this arrangement is that a mother cat doesn't have an awful lot of opportunity to teach her children how to take over the world. She teaches them to hunt, and......that's pretty much it. Their species continues, but it isn't exactly building cities.

From a cat's perspective that isn't a problem. They sleep in the sun, hunt, and....well, that's pretty much it actually. Apart from making more cats.

Yep, those women sure are independent.

I don't know about you, but while I can see that what you've never had you never miss, and that cats are perfectly content with a life of hunting, sleeping, and occasional sex (twice a year at least), I wouldn't actually swap places with them.

The reason humans have air-conditioned cars, is because we have families. I don't mean we need them because we have families, I mean we reached that level of technology, because we have a family arrangement. Because we left Mom to raise the kids while Dad went hunting. Because of everything that led to.

It was a great arrangement in hunter-gatherer times, and it still is, and I will not hear a word against it. It worked well for me, and it's working well for my daughters. Most importantly it works well for the kids.

And for this reason, for the longest time, I could not identify as a feminist. After all, what is feminism's objective? Equality. What is my personal preference? Equality. What did I HAVE? Equality. I had no use for feminism.

As far as I was concerned, our roles were different but equal. The mother's care of the kids, and work in the home, and in my case, as traditionally quite common, around the farm, was just as important as the father bringing home the bacon. It divided the necessities of life up just fine. Everyone was doing what they do best, everyone was happy with this arrangement. What's wrong with that? Why did feminists want to mess with that? It had worked just fine for millions of years. It was an arrangement that gave rise to civilization itself.

The problem was, I was content. How is that a problem? Well, it prevented me from seeing just how lucky I was. Above all I had a good man. He treated me with respect, as an equal. In fact without ever realising it, I probably had the most equal relationship possible. The understanding and respect of one another's role and work has always gone a long way towards not only our family harmony, but our personal relationship. I was living in domestic paradise, and although I was happy and grateful, I hadn't really given any time to think about the situation of others. I was too damn busy.

Most lack of understanding in the world comes as a result of not taking the time to think about the situation of others. It's not intentional. If you aren't aware there's a question to be asked, you don't ask the question. It's the most common form of ignorance, with an ignorance of ignorance to compound it.

And it's not enough to follow the news because it's biased and selective. It might tell you about wars, and earthquakes, and crimes, and even "movements". But until you look inside that movement, and really make the effort to understand it, you will remain in a situation where you see the world from your own perspective only. Ivory towers.

I didn't go to a very good school, and my education ended at 17. But it wasn't all bad. I had one class that went beyond the "learn these facts and regurgitate them" method, and that was sociology, which opened my eyes a bit. Another advantage I had was travelling to lots of different places. And of course at home I had a good mother, and a library card. I had already begun to educate myself.

Because of the times, my focus was on war, and a bit of left-wing politics, which was soon stifled by home ownership.

So it wasn't until that great free University, the internet, became available to me in my late thirties, that I became aware of a number of other important issues. It also helped me think outside my European mindset. To many, it was a place for games and idle banter. For me it was an education. I cannot stress this enough. Thankfully I ran into those teachers who appear when the student is ready. If any of you are reading this, you must understand how grateful I am for your input, even if it was part of a massive argument. I learned so much, while fighting so hard against some of your ideas.

It's hard to be faced with ideas that seem, on the face of it, to go against everything you believe in. But it's also very useful. If you let your intellect overcome your stubbornness, you can, eventually, see things from another angle. From outside the limitations of your own experience, and your own needs.

The reason people are racist, for example, is based firmly in ignorance. That ignorance can lead to fear, and we only have two ways to cope with fear. We either attack or run away. Fight or flight. With effort it is possible to convince people not to attack. But they will still avoid. So they never learn. If you want to get past racism, you have to talk to people of a different race. You have to listen to what they have to say. Some of it makes you very uncomfortable.

But if you are white, you have another step to take, and it's the most difficult one of all.

The idea of white privilege is not an idea easily taken on board. People fight it every step of the way. We're not talking about white supremacists, no, not at all. We're talking about those who have got as far as acknowledging that a person's skin colour is just that and no more. They have stopped discriminating themselves. They have friends, employees, and so on, who are of a different race. And because they are now treating everyone equally, really feeling the equality, they think that's enough. It isn't. They have to understand the depth of their own privilege, and how it makes their own worldview and life experience different. Yes, and easier.

Because the person of another race is not treated equally. Not even by some members of his own race. Maybe not even by himself. Just because you treat him as an equal will never change that. You are only one privileged white person, in any case. There are plenty of others not as enlightened as you. You don't have to become an activist for racial equality. Oh, there are plenty of things you can do to help, and you should. But the most important thing is to be aware. That all races are NOT equal, and we cannot rest until they are. We have a long way to go, actually.

I can take this section of this blog and simply change the references to race to those of gender. Because the idea of male privilege is not easily taken on board. The belief in female equality, at least in the west, has caused a lot of complacency, but every single day we hear of yet another example of male privilege. In health care rights, in employment, in personal safety, in every possible aspect of our lives.

That doesn't mean that men have it easy, any more we would assume all white people have it easy. Life isn't easy, and depending on all the other factors involved, in fact, your life could be shit. But while you would stand up and insist "Hey! I suffer too!" because your individual situation doesn't look like privilege at all, remember, that's exactly what we're talking about here. Individual experience. When you are that individual, the statistics of average experience, the international trends, and all the data gathered that tell you you've never had it so good mean diddly squat when it doesn't apply to you.

The only way to have equality is to end privilege. Privilege is the opposite of equality. It means that whatever is on offer, and let's pretend it is beans, are not being shared out equally. If there is privilege, somebody is getting more beans than others. Which means somebody is getting less. It is a basic mathematical arrangement.

We have never arrived at a system where money and "stuff" are shared out equally among people. I'm not sure we ever will. Even if we conquer greed (unlikely) there are all sorts of other issues that prevent everyone having an equal share. Some of them make more sense than others though. If a person is lazy, despite being given every opportunity available he simply doesn't want to contribute much effort and is willing to settle for less, we will normally say, OK, leave him be. And if a person is very hard-working, and very ethical too, and winds up with more than average, we may be happy for him to have it.

But holding back money and "stuff" just because a person is different (by race, gender, or whatever) is generally frowned upon (although it still happens) and something most decent people are working on. We have laws, equal pay acts and so on.

So why are we OK with not sharing around rights in the same way?

To notice that isn't happening, one sometimes has to look very hard. The first thing you have to get past is the issue of cost. There is no dollar value on rights. For example, if women's healthcare costs more than men's, that's just too bad. The healthcare of people born with various other differences in their bodies costs more too.

But that's not the real issue that's going on in the United States, no no. It is as clear day that the twin attacks on covering the cost of contraception, and trying to make abortions difficult or impossible, is to get women out of the workforce. I wish the Republicans would just admit that, I might have a bit more respect for them. It's not right, of course, but at least they'd be laying their cards on the table. We know it's true because if you argue with right-wing people, they will always end up at this point, and how it's traditional family values, and the mother is in the home.

Which brings me back to my experience. How can I object to that?

Because I had the choice. I could have had a career instead of, or in addition to, raising a family. I opted not to. Nobody made it difficult or impossible for me to prevent the arrival of children, and I had more than my share. Choice is the key. Being in control of one's own destiny.

Our choices are limited by ability, effort, money, and sheer dumb luck. That's life. When they limited by other humans, we have lost rights. Why would we allow that?

And if we are not sharing rights out equally, why would we select, as those to withhold rights from, half the population, the half that raised us, the half we want to raise the next generation. And why would we, as part of that withholding of rights, allow lies and danger to go right alongside the inequality.

Because it benefits the traditional family to keep women down?

No. It benefits nobody. The best moms-at-home are those who are there by choice. At the same time, women who have a fundamental need to follow a career to be happy and whole and fulfilled are better mothers than if they were miserable because their life was put on hold to raise children. It is none of my business what choices other women make in this area, and the moment I realised that, I was well on my way to understanding the bigger picture.

I realised that the women who criticised me for choosing the more traditional arrangement were not feminists at all. They were opposing choice, not advocating it. I learned, gradually, that feminism is about choice, and about equality. I wasn't the only person who had to learn slowly.

A LOT of men understand the purpose (and the benefit) of feminism. I showed a few more of these catchy graphics here:  http://chovblog.blogspot.ca/2013/04/girls-short-attention-span-edition.html

And other writers have expressed it quite succinctly (something I never could do):

“As long as women’s natural body hair is called disgusting and inappropriate while men’s isn’t, I am a feminist.
As long as I can’t watch an episode of a popular sitcom without having to sit through multiple sexist comments or “jokes”, I am a feminist.
As long as women have to face the rational fear of being sexually assaulted every time they walk home past dark while men don’t, I am a feminist.
As long as misogyny exists in any country in this world, I am a feminist.
As long as women are being raped, then stoned to death or forced to marry their rapist, I am a feminist.
As long as companies promote men to manager when there are women who are equally as or better qualified, because they find that men look more authoritative, I am a feminist.
As long as women (her choice of clothes, her friendly nature, her weakness, her choice to drink alcohol) get blamed when men rape them, I am a feminist.
As long women’s opinions on online social networks are dismissed with phrases like “tits or gtfo”, “get back to the kitchen”, “are you pms’ing?”, I am a feminist.
As long as dressing like a women is degrading for men and as long as men are insulted with phrases like “you throw like a woman”, clearly implying that being like a woman is shameful, I am a feminist.
As long as both men are women are expected to work, but taking care of children and the household are still largely considered a woman’s job, I am a feminist.
As long as boys and girls are treated differently, expected to act differently, and surrounded by different toys and colours from the day they are born, I am a feminist.
As long as topless women aren’t allowed in public unless they’re on the cover of a men’s magazine, I am a feminist.
As long as women who have sex frequently are generally told they are “sluts”, “lacking self-respect” and “lacking morals” by both men and women, while men who frequently have sex are “just being men” and it’s “natural for them”, I am a feminist.
As long as there are places where women have to pay more for health insurance than men, I am a feminist.
As long as men experience situations with equal gender representation as female-dominated, and don’t consider a group discussion equal unless there are significantly more men then women participants (as has been proven), I am a feminist.
As long as there are men who think it’s their wife or girlfriend’s duty to have sex with him whenever he wants, I am a feminist.
As long as the word feminism (“the movement aimed at equal rights for women”) has a negative connotation, I am a feminist.
As long as misogynist people exist, I am a feminist.”

~ LE CHRYSANTHÉME: I am a feminist.

I was late coming to the party, but I'm here to stay.


  1. I know you addressed a LOT of different issues, but this one stood out to me:

    "As long as women who have sex frequently are generally told they are “sluts”, “lacking self-respect” and “lacking morals” by both men and women, while men who frequently have sex are “just being men” and it’s “natural for them”, I am a feminist."

    I am one of those women who had a lot of sexual partners throughout my life. That being said, I have NEVER cheated. Ever. But when I am single, I am very single. And I've received criticism for my enthusiasm over the years. I just laughed and told them they were jealous... but men don't get these comments about a high number of partners. He is virile and I'm a slut? With whom do people think he is being virile??? It cuts both ways.

    1. I know. Because of course there are a tiny group of anonymous women who are giving all the sex to squadrons of men. They don't sleep much.