Tag Archives: equality

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 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.

kinder
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. What exactly is meant by feminine objects? Females have specific sex characteristics, so it makes sense to describe females and their unique physiology as feminine; but how are inanimate objects feminine? What about them is in any way female – or male, for that matter? For example, in an episode of Food Network’s Southern at Heart, Damaris Phillips describes her coconut lavender macaroons as feminine. On its face this statement doesn’t make any sense but the viewer understands what’s implied; something about these cookies reminds her of abstract qualities she associates with the female sex. This is the essence of gender and it’s where the problem starts.

It seems highly tenuous that an individual at the age of seven is at a stage in their life where they can elucidate the difference between being a boy who likes “girl toys” and actually being a girl. Children as young as four years old are now being asked to declare their gender identity. So what does it mean to think or feel like a boy or 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 involves primary and secondary female sex characteristics, and absolutely includes a vagina. Whether any given female can become pregnant is irrelevant; a properly functioning reproductive system is required for pregnancy and gestation and any human being who’s ever been born was given birth to by a female. Being female cannot mean 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. While sex and gender are often conflated, they are separate concepts.

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 (radical feminists are gender abolitionists, to be more precise), 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 indigenous men are expected to shoulder all on their own with no consideration of the effects of colonial patriarchy?

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. To me, they just looked like reminders of 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 added, 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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Filed under Feminism & Gender, Politics & Society

What will it take to end sexism?

The topics of gender-based discrimination and abuse continue to pop up in the Canadian media. Personally, I’m still rattled about how conversations about the Jian Ghomeshi scandal have exposed our limits to addressing sexism. It brought me to many videos and articles that helped me probe how I feel about these topics more deeply, especially since I realized how much this has affected me on an emotional level. Looking back on my past, I realized that I’ve been sexually assaulted many times but have never really acknowledged it. Firstly because each time it’s happened it became more normalized in my imagination and secondly because it was almost always at the hands of men I knew and trusted. With each incident, I told myself it could have been worse so it wasn’t that big a deal. They weren’t things you could tell the police about and expect action to be taken. Ubiquity and powerlessness lead to acceptance. But together, these things add up. And while it may seem like we’re getting somewhere because we keep hearing about new allegations of sexual harassment even within government, this isn’t what I would call progress.

While we’re okay with discussing violence against women and sexual misconduct in the public sphere, we should pay close attention to what happens when we land on the concepts of patriarchy and privilege. It quickly becomes apparent just how resistant many people are to acknowledging the fundamental machinations that produce gender-based injustice.

In a recent article, writer Denise Balkissoon articulated something very important while making many men uncomfortable in the process (take a look at the comment section). In Sorry, we haven’t reached a ‘watershed’ on violence against women, Balkissoon says:

I don’t get what is known now that was a mystery yesterday – or why what was ignored yesterday is now so urgent to address. All that’s different now is that we know one guy’s name, and that guy happens to be famous.

This is a sobering point. Why haven’t all the shocking stories we’ve heard jolted us into making substantial progress? What will it take to change things? Every time we try to take a step forward we’re met with a backlash. Expecting that the problem would go away if only women would come forward is unrealistic and unfair. These things don’t happen because of the conduct of the victims. And in addition to being discouraged from coming forward or fighting back, doing so may actually place us in greater danger, as comedian Amanda Seales explains in the video below. She cites the case of a woman who was murdered in Detroit after rejecting a man who asked for her number (of course, the clueless dolt debating her thinks she could have solved the issue by carrying a gun). As much as this guy pisses me off though, watching this is a guilty pleasure because Seales’ facial expressions are priceless.


I’m sick and tired of being smeared for standing up to sexism. There’s a plethora of labels and insults reserved for women like me. The moment I try to get to the root of the problem, I’m met with hatred and disdain. It happens all the time and it can’t be dismissed simply because it’s trollish behaviour. These trolls work with us and ride the subway with us. They’re real people and this is not a game. We need to stop bullshitting each other about how serious this problem is. And not only does the “not all men” excuse do nothing to neutralize the impact of sexism, but as Michael Laxer explains with razor-sharp precision, actually, it is all men:

We, collectively, and most commonly as individuals, are responsible for creating the conditions that not only facilitate Ghomeshi, but that ensure he will exist. This is a very uncomfortable and inconvenient truth. It is all men and the society that they produced that allowed a misogynist, alleged serial abuser to rise to and feel comfortable within the halls of media and fame, despite the now known and clear indications that he was a predator all along and that many, many people could have done something about it but did not.

That’s the ugly thing about privilege: even individuals who aren’t actively abusive benefit from it. Another great point by Root Veg quoted from the comment section of Laxer’s article:

You all benefit from the Jian Ghomeshis of this world, not just because it ensures men’s dominant status, but because other men’s terrorism of women lowers the bar for your qualification as a Good Guy to the absolute bare minimum.

This one hit me like a punch to the face. Now I understand what had me on high alert when I learned about the social media campaign known as MANifestChange. MANifestChange among other things encourages men to speak out by snapping a picture of themselves and pledging to help fight violence against women. Awesome! Or is it?

What I like about this idea is that it places the onus on males to do something. I’m glad there are men out there who want to end patriarchy. I’m just not sure that challenging male privilege means taking cookie-winning selfies. If you’re a man with a conscience, the best thing you can do to help us gals out is to actively challenge your male privilege on a daily basis. It’s hard work. You probably won’t relish the effort involved or the flack you’re going to get. But guess what? If it’s not inconveniencing you, it’s not really helping.

While participating in initiatives like MANifestChange can be just a part of the work someone does, this aspect of the campaign still bugs me. It’s cute. It’s fun. Guys score brownie points with the ladies. And see, I think that’s the problem. This isn’t supposed to make you look good whether you mean it to or not. That’s not what this is about. I don’t need to see a closeup of your mug so we can appreciate how nice a guy you are. Just be that guy. Do it anonymously. Like the philanthropist who donates to a hospital but refuses to put their name on a plaque. That’s how you make sure it’s 100% not about you.

I know we all want to support each other in solidarity and be nice by acknowledging that every little bit counts. But is it really true that every little bit counts in a good way?

How effective is a campaign like HeForShe in addressing oppression, for example? Sometimes what we gain in attracting attention to our cause by putting a celebrity in front of the microphone is erased when they stumble over their own privilege and ignorance, thus undermining our ability to have a really deep conversation. These incidents remind us that within movements of the oppressed, some of us (e.g. white females) still don’t get it and that’s usually because we have privileges of our own that need to be checked. Mia McKenzie’s Why I’m Not Really Here For Emma Watson’s Feminism Speech At the U.N. is a must read because it elevates some important caveats about privilege and how centering these issues on the privileged (e.g. “Guys suffer from patriarchy too!”) is a really good way of protecting them from acknowledging that they’re, well, privileged.

Thankfully, the folks at MANifestChange seem to have a lot more up their sleeve:

Like many people who possess privilege, many males are willing to acknowledge that sexism exists but tend to assume they’re not part of it. By looking at the representations of women in video games, Anita Sarkeesian holds up a mirror to society and the results are horrifying. Yes, we know that women are constantly eroticized and objectified, but does its deeply systemic nature blind us to just how bad it is? I don’t play the kinds of games that Sarkeesian reviews in the video below (not many women do), so I was legitimately shocked when I saw how normalized it is in the minds of boys and men alike (please note the content warning):


Challenging your own privilege isn’t supposed to be fun because it means denying your ego and giving something up. That’s why people feel threatened when they’re called to do it. It means being silent and letting people share their views and experiences, and then taking the time to seriously think about what they have to say. In our rapid fire culture of communication, the fact that we’re hardwired to react doesn’t help. But I don’t believe that sexism is any less of an issue than it was three decades ago. So while sympathy may be a nice gesture, it’s just another way of avoiding the problem. And empathy is the bare minimum we should be able to expect from decent people anyway. Much work remains to be done.

 

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Filed under Canada, Eastern Philosophy, Feminism & Gender, Health & Environment, Politics & Society

The hypocrisy of grief

Nelson_MandelaOne of the greatest visionaries and leaders of our time has passed away. Judging by all of the outpouring of sadness I’m hearing and seeing, pretty much everyone is sad. And they should be.

My personal feeling is that most people have shown genuine respect and admiration for everything that Nelson Mandela accomplished and represented, even if they wasted no time in hopping on to their social media accounts to log their grief. The reactions seem to suggest that we’re all staunch supporters of freedom and justice.

It’s easy to love Nelson Mandela. It’s easy to appreciate the ideals of love, integrity, peace and justice. Most people do on principle. But not everyone. And because they know that they would be vilified and shunned if they admitted who they really are, every politician – whether a true devotee of Mandela or not – is tripping over themselves to make sure that we know that they’re sad he’s gone.

Primer Minister Stephen Harper:

“He showed how people can shape better tomorrows and do so in their own time. Nelson Mandela’s long march to freedom, his grace and humility throughout that walk, and the bridge to the future he built for his people as he proceeded along it ensures that his remarkable example will inform others for generations.”

This, from a man who has categorically denied Canada’s colonial history and completely ignores sweeping protests for human rights by First Nations. What did he have to say about the group of brave young people who trekked over 1,600 km through the harsh North earlier this year in the name of freedom and solidarity? Not a word. I guess that wasn’t worth the brownie points.  (I wrote about this at length here).

Toronto Mayor Rob Ford:

“We join the people of South Africa in mourning the loss of Nelson Mandela, a true leader and advocate for freedom and democracy. Mandela dedicated his life to social justice in South Africa and around the world. As President of South Africa, he introduced a new constitution and launched numerous reforms and policies for the benefit of all South African people.”

This, just a few days after this wealthy self-described defender of the poor and marginalized said, “I don’t believe in all this public-funded health care, we can’t afford it. If you want health care, you pay for it.” When responding to a proposal that councillors hold public meetings to consider establishing new homeless shelters, he asked, “Why don’t we have a public lynching?” (video link)

Oh, the hypocrisy.

As for the rest of us who so readily grieve the passing of this great man, can we say that our own values and actions truly align with his message? Or do we come up short when our attention returns to our own interests? In so-called Western democracies, although we hail figures like Mandela as beacons of courage and hope, we do so only to the extent that our own comfort – both physical and ideological – will allow. Let’s face it: while Nelson Mandela was always respectful and kind, he was an unapologetic radical who never compromised when it came to condemning systems, practices and regimes that place profit or self-interest above justice, peace, and equality. Hoarding huge amounts of wealth while millions starve? Unacceptable. Denying people healthcare and critical support because they can’t afford it? Unacceptable. Austerity programs that gut public education while subsidising billion-dollar corporations? Unacceptable. Military occupations, indefinite detention and secretive surveillance programs? Unacceptable! If we connect with the essence of Mandela’s goals, we can’t possibly allow these types of policies to continue.

To hear some people lament the passing of Mandela, one would think that all is lost. “They don’t make people like him anymore,” they say. And why exactly do they think they are so not “like him”? He deserves all of the praise he gets, and all of the mourning too. But we’re wrong if we think we can distance ourselves from our responsibilities by placing him on a pedestal. No one appointed Mandela the saviour of South Africa. He was not a privileged man, or a prodigy with special talents beyond the capabilities of each and every one of us.

Now is not the time to pay lip service to ideals. Let’s think of Mandela the next time we read the newspaper, see a protest or cast our vote, and not remain silent and complacent. Instead, let’s remember how just one person can transform the world when they transcend their own self-interest and identity to channel the spirit of the people. Let’s carry on his work – our work – with dignity, clarity, openness, honesty, and love. If nothing else, what Mandela proved was that it can be done. In his own words:

“I had no epiphany, no singular revelation, no moment of truth, but a steady accumulation of a thousand slights, a thousand indignities and a thousand unremembered moments produced in me an anger, a rebelliousness, a desire to fight the system that imprisoned my people. There was no particular day on which I said, Henceforth I will devote myself to the liberation of my people; instead, I simply found myself doing so, and could not do otherwise.”

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Royal pain: Class worship and social justice

There is a word my legendary English teacher, Shelva Rodgers, introduced me to that I still use. I reserve it for describing those situations that I find particularly vexatious. That world is kerfuffle.

Now, this kerfuffle about the British royal family has gotten out of control again, as it always does. There seems to be a lot of disagreement over whether the event of a birth signifies more than just the physical act itself.

My first concern is that this baby did not ask for the celebrity or the scorn that will be heaped upon him. So let me say outright that I wish no harm to him or any member of his family. It is just as unfair to harbour hatred for people who by accident of birth are born into wealth and privilege as it is to judge people based on the fact that they are poor or otherwise marginalized. Although I don’t know Will or Kate personally, I have no reason to think that they are ‘bad’ people. But the content of their character, or any good they might do, is entirely irrelevant here.

I read a comment by a self-professed anti-monarchist who wrote that he was celebrating because a healthy baby was born to a lovely family and nothing else matters. Perhaps that would be true if I was not having to hear about this everywhere I went. And perhaps that would be true if the reason why thousands of people were gawking at this spectacle wasn’t precisely because of the social status of the family in question.

I know it would be radical to suggest that members of the royal family turn their backs not only the privileges they were born with but also the responsibilities that fall on their shoulders as a result. I don’t think Diana’s life was easy, that it consisted only of photo ops, dinner parties and sunny sojourns along breathtaking coasts. It seems possible that many people liked her not simply because of her status, but more so because she seemed down to earth despite it. Maybe there is something comforting and even dignifying about seeing the humanity behind the privilege.

What really shocks me is how ‘ordinary’ and even underprivileged people are so willfully addicted to this ritualistic idolatry. We canonize figures like Gandhi, Mandela and King for their epic contributions to the well-being of humankind, through their courage, wisdom and kindness. Every day we’re reminded that we are all equal and therefore must treat each other with equal respect. Most of us recognize this understanding of human relationships to be self-evident and inherently valuable, even essential.

Yet the moment the rich and famous are paraded in front of us, all of this wisdom seems to be forgotten. We ooze admiration and envy, some of us probably unaware of a deep-seated jealous resentment. By getting caught up in the media circus and living vicariously through those who symbolize the things we want, we’re distracted from a very important question: Why do we pay so much attention to certain people just because of the positions they hold in society, especially when those positions are purely accidental? Is it that we can’t get over the fact that we could have easily been born to a different family in a different part of the world? Do we secretly suspect that the gods amuse themselves by assigning our births through a cruel lottery? Has religion instilled in people a saviour complex that predisposes us to look up at people rather than inward? Whatever the reason, when we idolize the powerful and the wealthy, we’re perpetuating injustice because we’re actively participating in a system that stratifies us. We do this voluntarily to ourselves, to our own detriment, and to the detriment of others. We betray the truth that no person is more deserving of admiration or praise than any other simply by virtue of the circumstances of their birth, their social status or the wealth they possess.

The medieval era is hundreds of years behind us, but have we evolved? Canada is a constitutional monarchy. We require royal assent to sign certain laws into being. This role is more than merely symbolic, but to be fair, this makes the Queen a ceremonial head of state rather than an autocrat. While Prime Minister Stephen Harper claims that Canada has “no history of colonialism”, however, we nevertheless remain a colony by virtue of this continued relationship. Most Canadians don’t seem to mind. Whether we’re relatively satisfied with the way things are or we’re apathetic, though, it’s interesting that if you express disgust at the royal spectacle, even here in Canada, you’re likely to be branded as negative and bitter.

That people are making such a big deal out of the fact that Kate Middleton is walking around in public with a (gasp!) post-baby belly is absolutely ridiculous. Why on earth should she pretend that she’s any different from any other woman? Good on her for keeping it real knowing how much she’ll be ruthlessly scrutinized – it wouldn’t be the first time.

What troubles me most is that there is no better case to be made for the idea of an elite upper crust ruling the masses than when the masses act like they can’t even govern their own intellects. All it takes is the ubiquity and greed of the infotainment machine and a fickle, excitable throng, and voila – we’re all made to look like a bunch of brainless plebs. This show isn’t over, and someday Chris Crocker is going to lose his shit in a “LEAVE KATE ALONE!” video. You heard it here first. But really, people… be happy for them, but get over it, and for Christ’s sake, leave them alone. They’re just human beings.

There has to come a time when our actions support our highest morals, even when that means not going along with the crowd. Otherwise, what kind of example are we setting for our young people?

Can we finally be honest about the fact that the existence of a monarchy (whatever form it takes) is fundamentally incompatible with democracy and social justice? And that hatred and jealousy are also incompatible with these ideals? Let’s wish the royal family all the happiness in the world – but not because of who they are, and in a fair, reasonable way that acknowledges that they are no better or worse than the rest of us.

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How much is your life worth?

Is it based on how much you smile, how cute you are, how much people like you or your age? Most people would avoid answering this question with a clear “Yes”. After all, that would seem a little fickle, and logically ridiculous at the very least. But most people do implicitly believe this.

I witnessed a good demonstration of this in online comments on the Toronto Star’s story about how a Japanese exchange student, who was learning English in Canada, climbed over a barrier at Niagara Falls and slipped over the edge, never to be seen again. The photo accompanying the story shows a young, cute-as-a-button, smiling Ayano Tokumasu. While I agree with some that a 20 year-old should have known better than to do something so dangerous to pose for a photo, I also agree that it’s a tragedy. Of course it is! But the question is: What, precisely, makes it a tragedy? There’s an undertone to the grief and sympathy expressed in the comments that I’ve noticed elsewhere – something that always makes me feel uneasy and exposes something of a shallowness in our society when it comes to valuing life. As I read how several commentors lament the loss of this “pretty/beautiful young woman”, I cringe. What does her appearance or sex have to do with it? I similarly boiled inside when I read, “Japanese are the nicest people you will ever meet”. Among several things I find idiotic about this statement, I guess that means that if she had been, say, British, German or Sudanese he wouldn’t feel quite as bad?

This is not to undermine the fact that a person sadly lost their life before having the chance to live it fully, or to suggest that Ayano shouldn’t be mourned or wasn’t every bit as lovely and therefore worthy of being missed as the article suggests. My point, however, is that the fact that she seemed to have had a bubbly, happy personality is entirely irrelevant, and that a larger discussion is worth having.

The power of imagery deserves some mention here. We see one picture of a person and read a few quotes from peers and instantly we feel we know this person. Out pour the condolences and emotional hyperbole. But a person can be any range of things and embody a variety of characteristics. I know a few people who smile quite a lot but who are simultaneously living stressful lives, are being abused or abusing others, totally oblivious to anything beyond their bubble, hypocrites, etc. – I’m sure you do too. A person may seem happy, but we don’t know what’s going on behind the scenes. We can’t look at one picture and value someone’s life based on the character that that image suggests, or a story we’ve created in our minds around it.

And if a person who is care-free, happy, friendly and kind passes away, obviously people will miss them. But their life isn’t worth more than that of a person who is awkward, sad, depressed, angry or rude. When a young person dies, we feel they were cheated of a full life. It’s a noble sentiment. But if a person who’s 90 years old dies, why is that any less sad? Maybe they had a wonderful life, maybe they survived a lifetime of pain and despair. Maybe they died without dignity. We have an interesting relationship with death. From our human-centric perspective, death is good when it frees someone from suffering or removes a threat – but it’s bad when it means a person we value is no longer alive. Death doesn’t care. When it’s your time, however far along you are or whether it’s your fault or not, the only way out is through, as Jim Morrison so aptly put it.

Let’s chew on this for a minute: What if the subject of this story was an awkward, geeky or creepy 50-something male? Or a juvenile delinquent? If you play with the variables, you could imagine varying responses and emotional reactions. What does this say about us on an individual and collective level?

If we lived in a universe that was subject to some kind of Law that makes people unequal, some being so bad we deem them worthy of death, then they would never have been born in the first place. So… something to think about the next time we encounter a story about someone who’s passed away: Who were they? What did they accomplish? Were they a good person? A bad person? Does any of that matter? Is your life worth more than anyone else’s? Is mine? I don’t care if you’re on death row, a politician, a hero or a saint. My answer will always be, emphatically, no.

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Fueling division

I came across a celebrity-studded video by the NRDC Action Fund that advocates for a clean energy bill. The organization’s mission is to “achieve the passage of legislation that jump-starts the clean energy economy, reduces pollution, and sustains vibrant communities for all Americans”. Seems like they’re doing good work, right? Well, I’m wondering if anyone else picked up on some troubling language:

Here’s the phrase that raised my eyebrows:

“Oil we buy from countries that don’t share our values and kill our soldiers.”

Interesting. You’d think that all of the protests in the Middle East would make it clear that the will of the people in that region is characterized by a democratic fervor. Yet this video parrots the propagandistic narrative about relative cultural values. Would this have anything to do with mainstream America’s obsession with associating Muslims to terrorism while turning a blind eye to the terror its own country propagates? If we are to assume that all Iraqis and Afghanis are represented by Al-Qaeda and the Taliban, then how do we think the rest of the world should view American citizens? Making such statements perpetuates the concept of the ‘Other’ – more of this Us versus Them bullshit. Labeling nations that challenge imperialists who steal their natural resources and slaughter their people as inherently morally flawed is a deep expression of racism which only moves us further away from peace.

Now, even if the video refers to foreign leaders who don’t share American ‘values’, this betrays the fact that the U.S. administration has systematically colluded with dictators to establish free trade, which generates unthinkable corporate wealth and requires unabated, unconscious consumption. The fact that the NRDC Action Fund (and the celebrities we mindlessly idolize) are pressuring their own government on clean energy exposes their lack of faith that their own leaders reflect their values. So what are American values anyway and how do they differ from those of citizens anywhere else in the world? Do we not all share the goals of having viable livelihoods, a healthy environment, a just society and world peace? Also troubling is the fact that the video places paramount importance on American lives. They’re worried about American jobs and soldiers – but no mention goes to the horrific carnage and destruction perpetrated internationally in our names, and for our comfort. Yet another question: precisely what prosperity is there to defend? With 44 million Americans ‘living’ below the poverty line, high unemployment rates and a country sick enough to generate record profits for the health insurance and pharmaceutical corporations, the American Dream is proving not only to be an ever elusive illusion but also one predicated on inequality and instability.

I’m all for clean[er] energy. But there’s something very strange here. If developing markets for clean energy would fuel economic growth, why aren’t corporations seizing the opportunity? And why do groups even have to lobby the government to enact what appears to be win/win legislation for all stakeholders? Very strange indeed. And even if we do develop viable energy alternatives, it won’t address other issues such as access to clean water, waste management, the procurement of resources (e.g. minerals mined in politically unstable countries) or reliance on imported food staples. While a sustainable energy policy is crucial, the ‘This is Our Moment’ campaign, in addition to employing racist rhetoric, completely fails to address the fact that our ‘civilization’ is fundamentally wasteful and unjust. The assumption is that we don’t need a paradigm shift; we just need to get our energy from a better source. There’s nothing wrong with our governments, corporations, or the economic system they work so hard to protect – in fact, it’s precisely a market incentive that will save us. The reality is that the source of all of these problems is a mindset characterized by the following fallacies:

  1. Our belief that human beings (a single species on this planet) are somehow above and separate from nature and therefore have the right and ability to control it;
  2. Our belief that all resources (living and non-living) exist for our exploitation in order to support an economic system which assumes infinite growth and is based on a false sense of value (i.e. one which externalizes environmental and social costs);
  3. Our belief in the concept of a ‘nation’. Nationalism perpetuates division and isolation, effectively creating a citizenry that has no empathy for a perceived ‘Other’, when in fact all peoples have the same needs and rights.

It’s perfectly natural for interest groups to focus on specific causes with a particular geography in mind. I wouldn’t suggest that only international organizations are legitimate or respect the rights of all peoples. But the NRDC Action Fund is a good example of an organization whose work can do significant harm in perpetuating ignorance as it advocates for a good cause (even if for the wrong reasons). To mobilize for real change, grassroots movements need to re-imagine the place of our species within this world. And we can’t fix our relationship to the Earth without first honouring our intrinsic connection to each other. There’s no room for bigotry in this movement.

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