“For the commanding man”: lathering up the male ego

A few days ago I was in the supermarket when I happened upon Old Spice body wash. I’ve seen the commercials so even though I’ve never bought this product I was somewhat prepared for the ridiculousness that is Old Spice marketing.

What kind of guy looks at this packaging and thinks, ‘Oh yeah, that sounds like me! Maybe now that uptight bitch at the office will notice me’?

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Of course, it’s all intended to be ironic in the ‘Yes, I know it’s stupid and that’s the point’ hipster vein. But acknowledging that something you’re deliberately doing is stupid doesn’t make it any less stupid (quite the opposite, actually).

If I recall correctly, at some point while I was in university men started to care about what kind of body wash they use. Deodorant was no longer just a way of making sure you didn’t reek. It was a surefire way to turn any woman close enough to smell you into your own personal sex slave. If I had to take a guess I’d say the marketing team at Old Spice wasn’t satisfied that metrosexuals were doing a good enough job of defending masculinity.

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The Old Spice family is a diverse one. Whatever your self-image and olfactory orientation, they’ve got you covered.

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Are you a big, burly bear? A swift-minded hawk? Or perhaps you’re a howl-at-the-moon type? No? That’s okay. Old Spice has loads of other manhood-validating options.

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DANGER!

I would love to set up a hidden camera in this aisle. Some of this stuff doesn’t even make sense. I can understand a forest being fresh, but what exactly does it mean to be fresher than nobility?

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“Life success”? UGH.

Now for a painful confession: there is one that I actually liked but I won’t say which one. I don’t want to give these weirdos any credit. Though I will say it’s not Denali – which is either really popular or sucks so much it doesn’t get restocked.

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Who knows? Apparently it smells like wilderness, open air, and freedom.

Anyway, whichever variation the Old Spice man chooses, at least he can be sure he won’t feel insecure in the shower. Because the male ego should never endure one second of not being stroked. Even while one is scrubbing one’s nether regions… or maybe that’s when it’s needed most?

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Children don’t need to change – gender stereotypes need to go

Folks who see equality as a good thing readily agree that gender roles are discriminatory and oppressive. Despite this, it appears that many people have difficulty applying this knowledge to everyday situations. Perhaps this is because it’s far easier to agree with concepts when they’re presented as straightforward and conciliatory rather than as confrontational or requiring critical analysis. Acknowledging the harm caused by gender roles often incites derision and dismissal, which speaks to the reality that these tropes are status quo. They’re so ingrained in our culture that overcoming them is a constant, violent struggle.

Gender roles stretch across the globe and dictate not only how females should behave but also how males should behave. The key difference, however, is that whereas males are punished for non-conforming, females are both punished for non-conforming and made to be subordinate when we conform through a host of expectations designed to make us passive and submissive. No matter what we do we’re set up to fail because not only are we never dominant like males are, but we’re never even equal in the gender hierarchy.

Patriarchy is the most oppressive system in the world. Save for whatever minute percentage of people who might live in matriarchal or equal circumstances, patriarchy controls everyone, impacts everyone negatively, and subordinates half of the world’s population. When we throw in the additional trauma of discrimination based on race, age, socioeconomic status, sexual orientation, and every other form of oppression, it’s a miracle that people who are marginalized and oppressed multiple times over are so resilient.

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Children have a tough time trying to make sense of this when they realize that the things they’re supposed to like and do don’t always match up to their own interests and personalities. They don’t yet have the experience or analytical tools to understand that there isn’t anything wrong with them and that the source of this cognitive dissonance is a system that was deliberately concocted well before they were born. This is mass psychological torture. It’s not up to kids to figure this out. It’s up to parents, teachers, relatives, and other adults. This is not a personal problem, a family dispute, or an identity crisis first and foremost. It’s a social issue. A moral issue.

Yesterday, it was reported in the news that a seven-year-old child was banned from using the girls’ washroom at a Catholic school in Edmonton, Alberta. The child identifies as a transgender girl.

The parents say they knew from the beginning that something was different about their child…

As soon as she could speak, she would articulate that she is a female and would gravitate towards feminine objects,” the mother said.

“I just told my mom I felt like a girl,” the seven-year-old recalled.

That’s when her parents say they knew their child wasn’t “a boy who liked girl toys — she was a girl who had a penis.”

This is where I have to call a time out. It seems highly tenuous that an individual at that stage in his or her life can know the difference between being “a boy who liked girl toys” and actually being a girl. What does it mean to think or feel like a girl, exactly? How does a boy who is learning to speak know enough about language – about anything – to know that they’re in fact a girl? Surely we should approach cases of potential gender dysphoria in children with extreme caution given their lack of maturity. I don’t know that anyone should be comfortable trusting the judgement of a child on a subject so complex it makes the heads of educated adults spin.

I’ve thought about what I would do if this were my child. Here’s what I’m thinking. A boy who likes stereotypically “feminine” things or has stereotypical “feminine” qualities is simply a boy who doesn’t conform to how society has decided boys are supposed to be. That doesn’t make him female. Associating traits like sensitivity or vivaciousness and an interest in dresses, pretty things, dance, soft colours, dolls, etc. with being female does nothing except reinforce gender stereotypes. There is absolutely no logical basis for associating the things our society identifies as feminine to the condition of being female. Being female means being a member of the female sex and no doctor will deny that being a member of the female sex means having a female anatomy, which necessarily includes a vagina. It means nothing else and it certainly doesn’t involve having a penis. Of course, no one is disputing that the child is of the male sex, so what we’re left with is the question of what their gender is.

This is where what is considered controversial to some people is simple for others. If you believe that there is in fact no basis for thinking that being male must involve expressing a prescribed masculinity and being female must involve expressing a prescribed femininity, then you are gender critical. While gender criticism is often described as a central element of radical feminism, it’s also key to feminism at large because it’s impossible to challenge sexism without challenging gender stereotypes.

It’s one thing to acknowledge that discrimination against females exists but in order to challenge this discrimination we need to understand how and why it manages to organize different cultures, geographies, classes, and generations. In order for an ideology to endure so many barriers of time and space it must consist of a subliminal and self-perpetuating set of beliefs. Every oppressive system assigns unequal value to different groups of people. This requires that we develop a set of attitudes and assumptions about them that serve to make them unworthy relative to another group. At the same time, these people, should they use their voice or exercise any degree of autonomy or power, are seen as a threat and are summarily ignored, silenced, threatened, harmed, and murdered. How else can we explain white American police officers killing black women and men in cold blood and in plain view time and time again? How else can we explain the alarming number of missing and murdered indigenous women and girls in Canada, which Stephen Harper shrugged off as not “really high on our radar”, the blame for which was largely laid at the feet of indigenous men?

How else can we explain why discrimination persists despite the fact that many people who discriminate do so unintentionally and unknowingly? Patriarchy, like white supremacy, only requires that people with privilege go about their daily lives. That’s why even those who are aware of these systems and try to avoid contributing to them end up making mistakes. This is what it means for oppression to be systemic. To be systemic is to be effective.

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Growing up, I was very close to my older brother and was surrounded by boys more so than girls. This influenced my taste in music, my language, my sense of physicality, etc. I did all sorts of “masculine” things as well as “feminine” things and it never once crossed mine or my parents’ mind that this called into question my identity as a girl or a female. I have no doubt that the males who surrounded me rubbed off on me but they weren’t the way they were because of something innate. It was because they were raised to be that way from infancy as a result of the school curriculum, teachers, spiritual leaders, parents, friends’ parents, advertizing, books, movies, etc. It’s telling that this process actually hedged the female socialization that I was simultaneously subjected to. I also have a mother who exhibited femininity in many ways, but not consistently – and this didn’t escape my notice. My mom could be fairly tough with me and I saw that she was brave, outspoken, and did the same hard labour as her male co-workers. She told me about some of the misogynistic things they would say and do. It’s no wonder we’ve always shared a love of Bette Davis movies. Overall, the message was clear: never let people push you around and never let a man tell you that you’re inferior. I wouldn’t be the strong, independent woman I am today if I hadn’t had her example to follow.

Not long ago, I was taking a walk with my aunt, her 10 year old daughter, and two male cousins of around the same age. As she watched them my aunt said to me, “Boys and girls are so different.” I responded, “That’s because we tell them they are.” Silence followed. Later that evening I was teasing her husband and my brother for comparing their scars, which they seemed to think were badges of honour but were nothing to be proud of considering that they were sustained through pure stupidity. I remarked that they were lucky they didn’t have to go through the shit women do, neither through stupidity nor by choice, simply for being born with a reproductive system destined to hemorrhage every month unless it was transformed (usually accidentally) into an incubator that would eject a baby way too big for the hole it’s supposed to come out of. Whatever the method of delivery, I explained, a woman gets ripped open, leaving a scar that will rival anything they can dream of bragging about. At this point my younger cousin – bless her heart – added that girls have to suffer the job of doing their hair and make-up too. “That’s your choice!” my brother countered. And therein lies the difference between sex and gender.

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Femininity and masculinity are arbitrary social constructs. Each of us should be free to express whatever traits come naturally to us without having to worry about how they supposedly relate to our anatomy. If we’re really concerned about equality and the well-being of children who will become adults who make important decisions, this is what we need to teach them.

Going back to the article about the transgender child:

The family has found an ally in Catholic school trustee Patricia Grell, who has publicly criticized the administration’s decision.

“I’m really worried about the impact of this stance we’ve taken on that child,” Grell said. “I’m very worried about that child’s mental health and wellbeing.”

I’m worried too. I’m worried that adults can’t seem to let children like what they like and act how they act regardless of their sex and leave it at that. There’s nothing wrong with these kids. They don’t need to change. Our society does.

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When Workaholics exposes the contradictions of pop feminism, you know something’s gone horribly wrong

Workaholics is not the sort of thing I watch when I want to put my thinking cap on. It’s also one of the last TV shows I’d expect to dutifully analyze gender dynamics or present a feminist perspective, so you can imagine my surprise when the show inadvertently made a very interesting point about pornography and agency.

Every good sitcom needs an ethically compromised character to drive the plot to places where it would otherwise never go. This would be Adam DeMamp. Adam is a sex-crazed narcissist with sociopathic tendencies. While he’s perfectly happy being reduced to his vices, however, he manages to be incredibly astute in his attempts to feed them.

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WARNING: contains spoilers! One of the storylines in ‘Dorm Daze’ (S5 E1 – you can view the full ep here) involves Adam’s obsession with an amateur porn webseries. He’s thrilled to discover that the college where he’s been assigned to recruit workers is in fact the same one where the movies were filmed. As he desperately searches for the dorm where these greasy escapades take place he stumbles into a gender studies class and is grilled by what we can only assume are supposed to be “feminazis”. He’s placed in front of the class and asked to describe what he likes about porn (in part, “all the gagging”). But at the same time the professor is explaining to him how women are exploited and plied in various ways, we’re shown exactly this happening to his socially awkward friend Blake, who has been lured onto the porn set under false pretenses. Adam eventually snaps and agrees that the objectification of women in porn is bad (moms shouldn’t go home after doing porn and make ham sammiches for their kids) and they all set off to liberate the female porn actors.

Of course, instead of finding a vulnerable woman he finds his friend freaking out because he can’t bring himself to perform. When Adam turns to the actress and tells her she’s been brainwashed, she informs him that she’s actually a producer and part owner. Adam asks her if it’s really true that some girls enjoy doing porn and matter-of-factly, she says, “Yeah!”.

And then, with a strained look on her face, the feminist prof chimes in: “That’s right, Adam. No man has the right to tell a woman what to do with her body. Even if she’s being sexually exploited.”

“I knew you were an idiot!” Adam exclaims. If you’re familiar with Workaholics, you knew this was coming.

This is the impossible position that women are in today thanks to pop feminism. Certainly, there’s a valid point to be made that men, who possess male privilege, should be very careful not to be paternalistic. That doesn’t mean men shouldn’t step in and call out sexism. They might get pushback for it but taking one for the team is what it means to be an ally. One example that comes to mind is when Benedict Cumberbatch said he didn’t like the term ‘Cumberbitches':

I just went: ‘Ladies, this is wonderful. I’m very flattered, but has this not set feminism back a little bit? Empower yourselves if you’re going to get silly about a guy with maybe a little bit more of a sort of, you know, a high-regard, self-regarding name!’

Imagine this! A man knowing better than women what sexism is and actually having to explain to them why they should stop doing it. This is alarming. If we’re at all interested in ending patriarchy, how does it make sense for any of us, male or female, to let these things slide? How can we possibly expect males to take the idea that they’re responsible for ending sexism seriously if they’re being actively discouraged from doing so?

We’ve gotten to a point where it’s assumed that women are incapable of perpetuating sexism. Feminists are frequently admonished for critiquing such behaviour because according to liberal feminism, we’re all just individuals and anything we do that we’re not blatantly forced to do is necessarily empowering and off limits to comment. In trying to protect the concept of agency at all costs, many people who consider themselves to be feminists often end up obscuring the harm that internalized misogyny causes to women individually and collectively. Being silent isn’t an option when women argue that men are the new second class citizens and try to hijack discussions of #EverydaySexism.

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Most feminists feel comfortable calling this sort of thing out because it’s typical conservative tripe but conservative females aren’t the only ones making mistakes. I know I’ve made my share only to look back and think, What the hell was I thinking? The primary focus should be on male behaviour because it’s male privilege that creates gender inequality. The problem we have now, however, is that women are frequently admonished – usually by other women – for suggesting that men not sexualize and objectify women because apparently this is an affront to female agency. I’ve been part of many conversations about common depictions of women in porn and how it shapes attitudes about gender, sex, and power. Without fail, there are always women who skip over this analysis and go straight to defending women’s right to perform for men. Questioning this approach will invariably get you labelled as a jealous prude who wants to police women’s sexuality even though most heterosexual porn is produced for the male gaze. More importantly, males are exposed from a young age to a version of sexuality that is violent and devoid of any sense of human connection. Although females might legitimately enjoy nudity and depictions of sex, we’re also groomed to think that it’s all a natural, realistic expression of sexuality and we’re pressured to conform to what males have come to expect from us.

Why is it that when the word ‘radical’ appears in other anti-oppression scenarios it’s cool, but it’s bad when it’s articulated through a feminist lens? Colonialism endures in part because it teaches oppressed people to self-sabotage. The bottom line is this: when chauvinists are happy with your feminism because it allows them to rationalize their behaviour, your feminism isn’t feminism.

We know that people who have been affected by the addictions of others usually need to undergo treatment themselves in order to break the cycle of codependency. The analogy applies here. Yes, men need to smarten up, but that won’t happen if we keep enabling them.

Many things are so normalized in our imagination that we’ve never had the chance to look at them objectively and ask what they really mean. Until we have an honest conversation about pornography not just as a social phenomenon but as an industry designed to generate profit and fuel exponential demand, we won’t fully understand the impact it has on our society. Gail Dines has been researching this topic for decades and makes some very solid points in this talk. Check it out:

If you’re a fan of Noam Chomsky, you might also be interested to hear what he has to say about pornography here:

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Dogma is the problem: religion, secularism, and moral “progress”

In my last post I wrote about the morality of vegetarianism, specifically why being vegan or vegetarian does not necessarily represent a form of moral progress or enlightenment. Recently I came across an article by Michael Shermer entitled Bill Maher is right about religion: The Orwellian ridiculousness of Jesus, and the truth about moral progress in Salon. Sometimes Bill Maher is funny and he’s made some good points. But his tendency to be proudly ignorant and disrespectful, especially where culture and religion are concerned, makes him one of the last people I would turn to for guidance on the topic of moral progress.

My ethics in this area can be summed up thus: Never allow yourself to be silenced because you have something inconvenient to say, but don’t be an asshole about it. Most people avoid pompous blowhards for good reason. One can hardly trust the motives of a person who has already decided they know everything.

I’m not here to defend religion. I’m a Buddhist, first and foremost, with a lot of nature-based spirituality in the mix. Even though there’s something about Wicca and witchcraft that have always attracted me I don’t perform rituals or cast spells. It feels silly and contrived to me. I don’t pray or worship, although reverence toward nature is part of my worldview. I practice Vipassana meditation which involves an exercise called metta bhavana, commonly described as loving-kindness meditation or the cultivation of benevolence. Deities don’t figure into my spirituality; I don’t believe in God if by God we mean anything remotely resembling the Judeo-Christian male godhead. I was raised in a Catholic family but I’m not Christian in the sense that I don’t believe Jesus was born of a virgin and remained celibate, and that he rose from the dead as described by the Bible. I don’t agree that simply believing that he’s the Son of God will save me from Hell (which I don’t believe in either). I will never accept something as fact simply because someone somewhere wrote something down. I’ve always felt inspired, however, by Jesus of Nazareth, a man who preached love and stood up to injustice and was predictably murdered for it. What about reincarnation? I’ve never really given the idea much importance. Doing the right thing out of fear or a sense of insecurity doesn’t seem very right to me. And while I don’t think it’s lights out when our bodies cease to function, I’m willing to accept that this could be how things end. The Law of Thermodynamics tells us that energy can neither be created nor destroyed. If this is all that underpins the concept of eternal life or resurrection, I’m okay with that. I think it’s healthy for me to accept that everything is impermanent. Everything is also energy and energy never really ‘leaves’, nor is it distinct in the way we like to think it is.

Paulo Coelho theorizes [YouTube] that when we die, the question that will be asked of us won’t be what sins we committed but rather: Did you love enough? Truth is, when our candle goes out, none of us knows what will happen until it happens. Some of us have had what we believe to be paranormal experiences. There’s a lot we don’t know about our planet or our universe and science may not be able to answer many of our enduring questions. Humans are also capable of believing what they want to or what others want them to. I think a lot of people believe crazy things, religious and otherwise. But there are more important things in life than who is right about spirituality and religion. What good is your faith if you don’t respect others? Likewise, what good is your rejection of religion if you don’t do the same?

Michael Shermer writes:

Most moral progress is the result of science, reason, and secular values developed during the Enlightenment.

Woah. What?!?

What about societies that existed before the “Enlightenment” and those that emerged (and continue to exist) outside of Western science and culture? Are they primitive? Does the fact that a society isn’t secular preclude it from offering values we can learn from? Why would their values be inferior, or any different, for that matter? Why aren’t we counting the knowledge and stewardship of indigenous peoples in what is termed moral “progress” by those who control popular discourse?

Clearly Shermer has made no attempt to educate himself about the incredible work done by many non-secular people across cultures and traditions over time including (imagine this!) Islamic scholars, thinkers, and technicians such as Avicenna, dubbed the father of early modern medicine. Wise women (witches), wise men, and shamans are frequently portrayed as superstitious charlatans in the modern imagination. What isn’t so well known is that many witches and healers were demonized because they were less invasive and more successful than doctors whose outlandish theories (science, back then) led them to violate the bodies of the living and the dead. When we heap praise on Ancient Greece for its contributions to Western civilization, let’s not forget that the Greeks were Pagans, and that didn’t stop them from being brilliant human beings.

The suggestion that reason and sound morality can only come from a secular mind is rendered preposterous by even a cursory review of world history. More importantly, however, this type of posturing is irresponsible. The Western liberal glorification of secularism not only disregards the legitimate experiences of many people; it also continues to be used in order to justify colonization and genocide. Although Shermer and those like him aren’t coming right out and saying it, what people are really saying when they claim that “most moral progress is the result of science, reason, and secular values developed during the Enlightenment” is that European men are the moral compass of the world and without them, we would be savages. What a steaming, putrid pile of horse shit.

I think we need to be very careful in equating secularism with enlightenment. There are many illusions we can cling to and an awful lot of damage we can cause (and have) outside of a spiritual or religious ideology. We need to look at the core problem as one of dogma. Western science preaches reductionism, which seeks to isolate phenomena, introducing the notion of separateness into our perception where none exists in reality. We live in a world in which everything is interconnected and interdependent. We barely understand these processes today even with all of our modern technology. Discovery Channel’s Earth From Space [YouTube] is a mind-blowing documentary that helps us to understand how so many of our planet’s systems overlap and work together through the use of satellites, and yet this knowledge has not inspired us to stop devouring the planet’s resources at an unsustainable rate. A paradigm shift in thinking, not data or gadgets, is the key to determining our future. Western science will not save us. Western values, whatever we believe them to be, aren’t doing much good on that front either.

We’ve also lost a great deal of knowledge precisely because we’ve been told that there’s a special strata of people who are more intelligent and more worthy. If this doesn’t feed the idea of supremacy, particularly white/European/Western supremacy, I don’t know what does. We must eliminate this intellectual cancer from our psychology permanently.

Reductionism misses much of what we can’t see, measure, or articulate even through our own languages. It represents a compartmentalized framework that can’t grasp a holistic reality. Atheism and secularism aren’t in and of themselves antidotes to this problem. And what about science? Science is nothing more than a human construct that we’ve put into practice in order to better understand our world. It has never been confined to one continent or one period in time. And yet, it’s still not “the whole truth and nothing but the truth”.

The very concept of moral progress is false. How can we possibly say we’re more evolved today as a species than we were even one thousand years ago? We subjugate sectors of the population based on race, gender, economic standing, etc. A tiny percentage of the global population owns and controls the world’s wealth and resources and nowhere is this more pronounced than in Western, secular countries. That’s moral progress? The consumption on which our lifestyle is based requires resources plundered from elsewhere. This necessitates corporate and state imperialism and even war. We are the new conquistadors. Technology may have advanced, but where has that gotten us? Who’s benefiting? Who’s paying the price for this “progress”? Morality is quite frankly nowhere to be found in all of this and yet Shermer wants us to believe that the boogeyman we should fear is religion. I don’t buy it.

While Carl Sagan was critical of religion, more specifically he was critical of dogma and recognized that atheists don’t have a monopoly on the truth:

An atheist is someone who is certain that God does not exist, someone who has compelling evidence against the existence of God. I know of no such compelling evidence. Because God can be relegated to remote times and places and to ultimate causes, we would have to know a great deal more about the universe than we do now to be sure that no such God exists. To be certain of the existence of God and to be certain of the nonexistence of God seem to me to be the confident extremes in a subject so riddled with doubt and uncertainty as to inspire very little confidence indeed. A wide range of intermediate positions seems admissible.

I’m tired of atheists and secularists advertizing their ideologies to the rest of the world as though they’re not just as susceptible to errors in perception and judgement as everyone else. Religion brainwashes people. It gives them a crutch. A reason to hate. A reason to die. But also a reason to live. Sometimes a reason to love. After tragic events such as the recent attacks in Paris, I inevitably hear people say that perpetrators who call themselves Muslims are ruining it for all the “normal” or “good” ones. Why? Why should members of any religion have to prove they’re not homogenous or inherently crazy and violent? Are the rest of us, who are supposedly so much more reasonable than these extremists or mentally unstable individuals, really not capable of figuring that out on our own? When NATO members bomb innocent people in countries whose governments aren’t actually invading entire regions for geopolitical control, how can we say that this is all happening because they’re backward people who don’t share our values and need to be saved by us? Messiah complex, anyone? This is the modus operandi of imperialism.

Western morality as defined by state and corporate puppets is largely self-validating. Why are countries like Saudi Arabia and Israel not sanctioned while others are? Why does our anti-money laundering and anti-corruption policy deem certain businesses high risk when they operate in particular jurisdictions but not in terms of how they turn a profit in the first place? We’ve increased our scrutiny of financial institutions and the precious metals trade only to scale it back or fail to enforce laws altogether. Most industries exploit workers, natural resources, and local communities unless there’s regulation or public resistance preventing them from doing so. Our leaders don’t question “free” trade and globalization schemes that involve the privatization of local resources, land grabs, vulture capital-backed polluting industries, austerity (i.e. the gutting of social programs), and export-driven markets that weaken local economies. They want us to believe that this system is a natural expression of modern economics because identifying ourselves as the winners means we have to talk about the losers. Our hypocrisy is sickening. Once again, I ask: Is this moral progress?

In contrast to the capitalist banking system, Islamic banking actually prohibits the charging of interest, specifically money earned on the lending out of money itself. The Institute of Islamic Banking and Insurance explains that:

Money in Islam is not regarded as an asset from which it is ethically permissible to earn a direct return. Money tends to be viewed purely as a medium of exchange. Interest can lead to injustice and exploitation in society; The Qur’an (2:279) characterises it as unfair, as implied by the word zulm (oppression, exploitation, opposite of adl i.e. justice). [Edited to correct one grammatical error]

You know what? I’m not about to convert to any religion but I absolutely agree with this tenet and I don’t see why we should have to determine its merit based on whether it’s secular or religious. Obviously it can be both, so there goes the assumption that values have to fit into an ‘either/or’ type of classification.

I’d like to sit Michael Shermer down over a nice cup of tea and ask him why, if we’ve developed so much, we have more global conflict than ever and we’re jeopardizing our own survival and that of millions of other species. Even as our own scientific process proves this to be true, nothing we’re doing offers a systemic solution to this problem.

Who gets to define enlightenment? Shouldn’t it be up to all of us? Don’t we all have that right, whether we’re spiritual, religious, agnostic or atheist? Don’t we share this planet with each other? Don’t we need each other?

Arrogance is another form of dogma and just like every other type of dogma, it arises from ego. Anyone who forgets this is prone to reproducing the same sort of closed-mindedness they criticize in others. Religion is just one possible vehicle of delusion. Anyone can get behind the wheel of their mind and drive it into confusion. As long as we’re convinced that the enemy is some external threat, personal responsibility is no longer necessary. This is fertile ground for binary thinking, xenophobia, racism, exceptionalism, and, of course, war and misery, among other things.

Governments should be secular because neutrality is necessary in order to respect the diversity and freedom of the people. But that doesn’t mean we should pretend we’re something we’re not. It also doesn’t mean we should be hostile or disrespectful toward what is an important part of many people’s lives. Especially when we’re talking about marginalized people who are targets of institutional violence. Karl Marx was under the impression that people would have no need for spirituality in a post-capitalist world. We haven’t gotten there yet but I sincerely doubt that we’d all suddenly become secular or atheist simply because we own the product of our own labour.

Maybe it’s tempting for secularists to cling to the idea of moral progress because it gives them hope that someday they’ll have proof that humans aren’t inherently spiritual after all. The reality is that some people are spiritual and some aren’t, and every individual can change their status at any point in time for pretty much any reason or no reason at all. Leftists – and I count myself among this broad category for better or for worse – exist within a culture of secularism to the extent that many chanted “Je Suis Charlie” while denying vehemently that Charlie Hebdo is racist. They’re wrong. If you’re a so-called progressive and you won’t stand up to Islamophobia because you don’t like religion, you don’t get social justice.

Our biggest threat doesn’t lie in other people or in other ideologies. It’s in ourselves; in the ego’s tendency to seek self-gratification over the self-denying work of observing our own emotions, thoughts, and actions. Being a Muslim doesn’t make one a better person than anyone else. Neither does being Jewish, Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Pagan, atheist – whatever. It’s one thing to be proud of our heritage and traditions but quite another to delude ourselves into thinking that because we’ve come to believe or reject a spiritual precept, that makes us superior to anyone else. The only thing that makes us good people is how we treat other beings.

Have we loved enough?

The very purpose of religion is to control yourself, not to criticize others. Rather, we must criticize ourselves. How much am I doing about my anger? About my attachment, about my hatred, about my pride, my jealousy? These are the things which we must check in daily life.

– Dalai Lama

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The case against vegetarianism

It might seem odd, even hypocritical, for an environmentalist and Buddhist such as myself to come out in favour of eating meat. There are many great reasons to practice vegetarianism and it’s a personal choice that I respect. I’ve noticed that at social gatherings the topic comes up frequently and there’s a growing awareness of dietary diversity. I think it’s great that people are willing to accommodate each other now more than ever.

Another thing I notice, though, is that when people talk about eating meat they often express guilt, like it’s not the socially evolved or politically correct thing to do. So in today’s post I’d like to share some of my thoughts on the topic and explore the discourse around vegetarianism.

I’ve taken a shot at being a vegetarian and it wasn’t my thing. Ultimately, I just don’t believe that eating meat is wrong. Not only do I not feel bad about it, but it’s a conscious choice that reflects my understanding of how I fit into the natural order of things.

To start with, animal rights are important to me. No, really – they are.

PETA

I’m not a big fan of PETA but I do use their search engine to identify cruelty-free companies. Some might say it’s a contradiction for me to be concerned about testing on animals while, well… eating them (and enthusiastically, at that!). Following are some valid questions along with my best crack at what I trust are sensible answers.

“But aren’t you a Buddhist?”

In spiritual traditions that sanction a carnivorous diet there tend to be rules around how it should be approached. Of course, in some religions it’s altogether forbidden. Many (and possibly most) Buddhists are indeed vegetarian. Buddhism teaches ahimsa – the principle of non-harming – and of course this is part of the more fundamental teaching that it’s wrong to kill. However, there are many variations of Buddhist practice. Some Buddhist texts discuss the concept of “clean” meat and some Tibetan Buddhists including Tenzin Gyatso (the Dalai Lama himself) are not vegetarian. Ultimately, if a Buddhist is truly concerned about contravening the texts and teachings on this matter, the safe bet would be to cut out meat entirely or to only eat certain types of meat as directed. It’s evident why anyone regardless of persuasion would believe that killing is wrong, but the Buddha had a much more nuanced understanding than categorical dos and don’ts. Surely there are instances in which it might be acceptable. Personally, I’m satisfied that nutrition and hence sustenance are good reasons, in keeping with certain conditions which I’ll address further below.

“You’re an environmentalist, right?”

Much has been reported about the ecological impact of Western meat-heavy diets. I think it’s fair to say that we eat way too much meat and need to cut back substantially. Livestock do contribute to global warming by releasing an awful lot of methane, which is a much more powerful greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. There’s no getting away from the fact that the list of environmental impacts is long, but it’s important to ask why. For me the overriding problem is the way we produce food – namely factory farming and industrial agriculture. Methane emissions can be largely attributed to the diet that livestock are fed. Cows simply shouldn’t be fed corn, soy, or other grains because they can’t properly digest these foods, so I’m happy to see that grass-fed beef is becoming increasingly accessible. While this means that more land will be required for pasture, less land will be necessary for the crops dedicated to this feed. Monoculture or cash crops themselves are bad for biodiversity and involve the use of GMO seeds, pesticides, herbicides, etc., all of which are prevalent in this model of food production. This system treats both animals and plants as just another raw input or commodity. The only value they’re assumed to have is in the profit they generate and that’s not a healthy, mindful or ethical way to nourish our bodies or participate in the processes of nature.

“Shouldn’t we know better by now?”

While I think it’s legitimate and commendable that many people are analyzing their food consumption and make changes out of consideration for animal welfare and our environment, it’s also part of a popular trend. There’s a degree to which being vegetarian, and vegan even more so, gives one an image boost in some circles. But honestly, I don’t see why it should. It’s one thing to use persuasion to further important causes; it’s another to wear one’s vegetarianism as a badge. You’re vegan? Okey dokey. But really… so what? It shouldn’t be an excuse for self-congratulation.

I simply don’t believe that observing a vegetarian diet makes one a better person. Part of my reason for saying this is the logical insinuation inherent in such a belief. Is vegetarianism actually a criterion for enlightenment and civilization? Did our non-vegetarian ancestors just not know any better? What about indigenous peoples who not only live off the land and depend on animals for their survival (food, clothing, etc.) but have woven the existence of these life forms into their very cosmologies? Are these people somehow less evolved than modern vegetarians? Certainly not. There’s no correlation whatsoever between a culture’s propensity to eat meat and their evolution as human beings. In fact, it’s the societies that live closest to nature, firmly embedded within it, that are most involved in hunting animals.

Why do such people have a profound understanding of and respect for animals and yet see nothing wrong in eating them? It’s a matter of cultural paradigm that involves a deep and complex appreciation for the interdependency of all life forms on our planet. Relationship is key. So is an understanding of the origin and meaning of life.

Organic matter is composed of both plant and animal matter. It’s not as though Mother Nature places dead plants and dead animals in different compost bins; it’s all part of one cyclical system. All organic matter originates from the same plant-animal process of death and rebirth. We can follow a vegan diet, and there’s nothing wrong with that, but understanding the process of life on this planet means understanding that even the plants we eat ultimately come from both plant and animal sources. Any separation of the two is entirely illusory. It’s socially constructed.

“How can you kill something you love?”

Quite simply, life is death and death is life. We as a species would have never evolved to the present had we not eaten animals. We are animals. We can choose whether to eat other animals (at least those of us who feel being vegetarian wouldn’t be detrimental to our health) – but having that choice doesn’t say anything about what that choice should be. When we observe carnivores or omnivores we see that there is some natural law whereby they never cause unnecessary suffering, and yet they don’t hesitate before eating each other alive. Nature doesn’t ‘think’ that this pain or death is wrong. It’s just part of life. It’s part of nature itself.

From a Western modern anthropocentric standpoint, death is bad. But every spiritual tradition teaches the cyclical nature of existence and treats life and death as interchangeable. Even in Judeo-Christian religions that place human beings above other species, nature is still understood as being simultaneously destructive and creative. The idea of resurrection and the salvation it supposedly brings is based on the reality that death is life.

It’s the practice of cooperation and respect that determines the dignity of relationships between entities. I have a feeling that the deeper our disconnect from nature, the easier it is to forget this. There’s something about vegetarianism that for me personally would represent a kind of implied separation between myself and other forms of life on Earth, as weird as that might sound. I just don’t feel guilty when I eat meat. Instead, I’m grateful for that sustenance.

“Life and death are one thread, the same line viewed from different sides.”
– Lao Tzu

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What do Stephen Harper and Hitler have in common?

In so-called Western democracies like Canada, people often complain about corrupt and self-serving politicians but there doesn’t seem to be much fear that an individual could come along and change the very foundations of this country. A fascist government? In Canada? Never! We look at politically unstable countries and assume that we’re immune to the problems they face. But we’re not. All it takes is one person. It’s happened countless times in many different countries around the world. Some of these leaders seize power through a coup or some other violent or underhanded method. Sometimes, they’re elected.

People seem content to rest on the assumption that if a head of state ever did want to transform our nation, we would know. Somehow, we would see it coming. And granted, Harper did warn us that we wouldn’t recognize Canada once he was through with it. How far along does one suppose we’ve gotten at this point? When the Fair Elections Act was introduced, I read that only 23% of those polled indicated that they were aware of the proposed legislation. Something as important as a plan to make substantial changes to our electoral system – and one that was actually being discussed in the media – escaped the notice of so many people. Clearly we don’t even pay attention to the big things.

We’re all very busy and these announcements often occur on Fridays when we’re least likely to notice. And to be fair, so many alterations have been made that it’s almost impossible to keep up. It’s hard to know which ones are worth really worrying about. But that’s the point, isn’t it?

The next time someone suggests we’re overreacting when a new law is passed, another “action plan” is advertized, more scientists are muzzled, or additional research programs or departments are crippled or shuttered altogether, feel free to quote Adolf Hitler:

 

ahmk

 

While we’re talking about Harper and Hitler, I would submit that the topic of genocide is relevant here too. Every iteration of the Canadian colonial government from its inception has either exacerbated or failed to challenge the racist nature of its policies with regard to First Nations and Métis peoples. Not a single major political party has called our government out for what it is: a tool for racist oppression. Even leaders who talk about cooperation and reconciliation are rationalizing the foundations of what is still a paternalistic relationship. The only answer is to decolonize, and that would require the government to relinquish its control over indigenous peoples in this country and thus much of the land and natural resources. Recognizing indigenous rights means abandoning a centralized economic policy that would see the extraction of natural resources as perpetual fuel for a capitalist fire. And every party wants to stoke that fire – but that does not mean that they are interchangeable. Stephen Harper is the ringleader for those who wish to do more than maintain the status quo; he seeks to address the “Indian problem” with far more malice and surgical precision via his First Nations Termination Plan [PDF].  As Russ Diabo details in this presentation, the Harper government is expanding on an aggressive program whose goal is to eliminate First Nations title, status, and rights altogether. How else can we describe this but as genocide in a neocolonial context?

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Feminist Thought of the Day – The Third Wave – Gail Dines

Lavender Blume:

Third Wave Feminism in a nutshell.

Originally posted on Dead Wild Roses:

Just a handy reference slide for your perusal.

Thirdwavefems

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