Tag Archives: privilege

Why men should stop calling themselves feminists

When Emma Watson posted a tribute to the late Alan Rickman by highlighting one of his quotes about feminism, she faced a swift backlash for what some people idiots claimed was a gratuitous promotion of feminism (because promoting feminism is a bad thing and famous people are never quoted in memoriam?).

It’s always good overall, I think, when men can say the word feminism without looking like they’ve just smelled something funky. Although it’s helpful that not all men (or women) think it’s a dirty word, not speaking derisively about the movement for women’s liberation is a basic minimum of decency. If the bar has been set so low that men are lavished with praise for verbally recognizing that women are human beings, this is a solid argument for sustaining the topic in public discourse, to be sure.

The question is: who should shape and own that discourse? Lately there have been numerous instances in which men – especially white men of means – take up the mantle of feminist and instruct other men to do the same. While some women don’t have a problem with this I think it’s worth exploring why some women do because talking about feminism, whether it’s being done by women or men, is not a gender-neutral practice.

The words, ideas, and actions of men carry more weight in society. Females and males aren’t just individuals but also members of social classes which are defined by specific criteria: who they’re perceived to be, how they’re expected to behave, and how they relate to each other. Men hold certain things in common, with some variation thrown in the mix such as nationality, ethnicity, economic class, and sexual orientation. The same goes for women. The result is a complex web of social groups, some of which are organized according to hierarchies i.e. structures of power. The internal commonalities that differentiate males and females from each other are one such example. Of all the topics imaginable, sexism is the subject for which sex-based inequality matters the most. When men and women talk about feminism they’re doing so from privileged and underprivileged positions respectively.

As well-meaning as all of this is, it presents some significant problems. When Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says that men need to be a big part of the conversation, I cringe. Men should critique the system of gender (masculinity and femininity) and talk about what they can do to dismantle it. Most importantly, they should elevate the voices of women, especially marginalized women such as women of colour, indigenous women, immigrant women, poor and working class women, lesbians, disabled women, etc. – bearing in mind that many women belong to more than one of these groups. Organizations like A Call To Men UK do a great job of advocating for the well-being of women and the reason for this is that they take responsibility and they listen to us. Men acting as the face and voice of feminism and taking up space in the movement is actually the last thing that feminism needs. There are loads of intelligent, charismatic women who can (and do) discuss feminism more articulately, more accurately, and with more credibility than men ever can. Why should they have a platform to speak our truths?

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I believe that men should never identify as feminists – and certainly not any time they feel like it as Trudeau suggests. A man, especially one who enjoys multiple levels of privilege, dictating who can or should adopt this title and when smacks of hubris and paternalism. The benefactors of an oppressive system have no business setting the language and parameters of the activism that seeks to destroy that system. The conflict of interest here is obvious to anyone willing to see it.

I recently had a conversation with a friend of a friend who, as soon as he found out I’m a feminist, was eager to tell me that he’s a feminist too. I thought, ‘Oh no. Here we go again’. I took a deep breath and told him that a lot of women aren’t comfortable with men adopting the label of feminist. Without a moment’s hesitation, he dismissed me. “That’s not my problem,” he said.

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It’s always deeply disappointing when men who assume the good guy status ultimately prove themselves to be classic mansplainers. It’s become such a cliché.

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Ilana and Abbi in Broad City

Isn’t it convenient that there are two tranches of feminism that men can pick and choose from as though they’re deciding which ice cream tastes better and the one that’s most desirable to them happens to be the one that least challenges their privilege? This serves the purpose of creating a subclass of feminists who are deemed deserving of abuse and allows men to avoid questioning themselves while appearing virtuous. They can rest easy because they’ve been accepted by the good feminists. The real feminists.

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There’s something mildly relieving about the few times guys manage to say something about sexism or feminism that isn’t misguided, stupid, or arrogant. (Don’t worry, I’ll spare you the Ryan Gosling memes because you’ve probably seen a lifetime’s worth and then some.)

It’s not wrong for public figures to say that it’s important to demand a shift in attitudes as Trudeau has said, but I have a feeling he means something different when he says this than when I do. I know I’m not alone in feeling that we’re far from done and radical change can’t come soon enough. We’re expected to be satisfied with minor advancements and I’m sorry (not sorry) but women have only ever made progress when we’ve fought for it. It doesn’t make sense to low-ball in what is essentially treated as a negotiation of human rights.

It’s not as though women have been sitting around at Stitch ‘n Bitch waiting for politicians to give them the green light. Women have been practicing feminism since well before male sympathizers were born. Women are the ones with the most at stake and we also happen to be the experts. So shouldn’t the experts be educating the public on how to move forward? If gender parity really is a priority in his administration, the best way for Trudeau to demonstrate that is to step aside and let women speak, and not just about feminism but every other issue too because we are people, after all, and we have a lot of smart things to say about every topic under the sun. The only way for us to change the fact that men’s words carry more weight is to take some of it and place it on the other side of the scale.

The truth is, very few men know what they’re talking about. Time and time again we see men insisting that they’re feminists and that they know what feminism is and how we should go about it, only to end up stepping in it. Then they track that garbage all over the place without even realizing it. When do we say, enough?

We can pluck examples from a wide variety of men with the same predictable outcome. The most ridiculous case that comes to mind is when porn actor and serial abuser James Deen was lauded as a feminist and “feminist” publications had to backtrack when his misogyny became too embarassingly obvious to rationalize.

A lot of people laughed when Pope Francis said, “forgive me if I’m a bit feminist” and then went on to say, in the way that condescending men are wont to, that women are just so fantastic because they do the care work while men do all the talking. But are other spiritual leaders much different? For instance, what about the Dalai Lama, who proudly wears the feminist label?

It didn’t take long for him to screw up. Just one year later self-identified Buddhist feminists went into damage control after the leader made an unequivocally sexist comment. Oops! When asked whether he supported the idea that the next Lama could be a woman, he enthusiastically said yes (watch at 4:52) but he followed this up with two assertions. The first was that women are biologically wired to be more affectionate and compassionate than men – that familiar stereotype that’s been used for centuries to force support roles on women and deny them other forms of employment. The second was that this woman would have to be very attractive or else she wouldn’t be of much use. Visibly shocked by this, the interviewer asked him if he was joking and he confirmed that he wasn’t. He clearly wasn’t. But even if he had been joking, which many Buddhists insisted was the case regardless of appearances, sexist jokes aren’t funny (how many times do we have to say this??) and they definitely aren’t feminist.

The term ‘male feminist’ exists because females are the default feminists. We’re the default feminists because feminism is a political movement that organizes for the liberation of females from male domination. If I’m being brutally honest? Very few men are interested in destroying this system and those who say they are almost always get in the way. The biggest hindrance to progress is the fact that any given man is far more likely to perpetuate sexism than to challenge it. Women participate in this system as well as a result of our own social conditioning, but with one key difference: relatively speaking, men have power and women do not. The potential for men to divide, derail, and sabotage feminism through their mere presence is enormous.

From this angle, members of the oppressor class referring to themselves as the liberators of the people they oppress is itself an act of domination, whether intentional or not. It’s not for men to decide what or who is feminist. It’s disrespectful to feminists who work hard, take risks and make sacrifices. They shouldn’t have to share the well-earned badge of feminist with people who not only hold power over them but will never understand what it means to be a woman in a culture that hates females. If a man insists on calling himself a feminist despite all of this, he is anything but; that it’s a matter of respecting women’s boundaries should be enough for him to back off. Feminism belongs to women, as do the words we use to signal our support for the struggle.

There are a lot of things men can do to help women, some more effective than others. As Helen Lewis explains, whereas men often want to be part of the feminist conversation – as many believe is their right – the most valuable contribution men can make to feminism is to take on the burdens that have for so long been the responsibility of women. It’s not glamorous or fun but that’s not the point anyway.

Apparently this needs to be said: men are not entitled to feminist spaces, nor do feminists have any obligation to listen to what men have to say about the women’s liberation movement. It’s great when they reject masculinity but if they’re just performing a different stereotype, or they think their gender divergence means they’re not really men, then gender roles are left intact. When it comes to men and gender, true nonconformity means abandoning one’s allegiance to masculinity along with any notion that one’s sex is correlated with one’s personality.

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Being an ally to social causes shouldn’t be about personal identity and it shouldn’t matter whether you’ve taken on a particular status because having a shiny happy image doesn’t help anyone but you.

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Filed under Canada, 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

Sex, power, and the myth about consent

Yesterday, it was reported in the news that Jian Ghomeshi, a well-known Canadian broadcaster and radio host, is no longer employed by the CBC. The CBC has vaguely stated that the reason centres around information they received about Ghomeshi. Ghomeshi claims that he was fired because his employer was afraid that the details of his sexual life might become public and create unwanted controversy. Ghomeshi is now suing his former employer for about $50 million and wasted no time in posting his side of the story on his Facebook page, claiming that he’s a victim. Some people question why he would spill the beans on his BDSM lifestyle, but I think it makes sense if it’s all going to come out eventually anyway. Juicy details will inevitably emerge as a result of the suit, so maybe he figured he’d just get in front of it. It’s certainly one way of demonstrating that he thinks he has nothing to hide and has done nothing wrong.

Some time ago, I read an article by a woman about a bad date she allegedly had with Ghomeshi, whom she characterized as a womanizing, sexually aggressive creep. At this point, what we know is that a number of women allege that Ghomeshi physically attacked them.

One of the things people are arguing about is the issue of consent; it doesn’t matter so much whether Ghomeshi enjoys having kinky sex as the fact that these women are saying that he acted violently toward them, and not in a way that they had discussed or consented to. In other words, the allegation is that he didn’t just have a raunchy, rough tumble in the hay with them – he outright assaulted them. And you can’t consent to assault.

So why are we talking about consent? As a feminist issue it’s getting lots of attention. But becoming more sexually liberal as a society, so in addition to talking about consent in the context of rape, we’re also becoming more knowledgeable about alternative or fringe sexual lifestyles. Books, movies, other sources of information and forms of entertainment have added to the discourse and practices such as polyamory are getting more mainstream attention. It is possible for adults to engage in genres of consensual sex that most people don’t find arousing or pleasant. Leaving aside what “most people” actually means – because we don’t really know what people do behind closed doors – what I’d like to argue here is that consent isn’t a magical ingredient that makes everything okay all the time. While unequivocal consent is critical, it doesn’t automatically cleanse any given situation of ethical questions. This is where I think discussions about BDSM can get messy, so naturally it’s at this juncture that I think we have the most to gain in terms of how we approach the topics of sex, power, and gender.

I don’t practice a BDSM lifestyle. Never have, never will. I only know people who do. I think there’s a level of comprehension about what it is and how it works that a person on the outside can’t fully grasp. It can take on an endless number of variations and involves complicated protocols. Practitioners say it’s not a license for random debauchery; it’s a structured way of satisfying one’s urges that’s based on trust and communication. And what many people take to be kinky (e.g. hair pulling, handcuffs, spanking, etc.) doesn’t really qualify as kinky in the BDSM world. Buying a racy toy at a sex shop is a far cry from joining a leather family.

Now, I’m the sort of feminist who believes that patriarchy still governs our daily lives on multiple levels and that consent does not erase this reality. I believe that like any form of oppression, sexism can be internalized and reproduced even by victims, in different ways and for different reasons. So the contention that no exploitation can possibly exist where a woman provides her consent just doesn’t fly with me.

In a recent Twitter spat, someone told me flat out: you either accept all forms of sexuality or you don’t. This was their response to my opinion that in a patriarchal society, a man who craves the sexual domination of women is a misogynist. My opponent’s argument was that this was like stating that homosexuality is wrong because it’s underpinned by the same moralistic attitude. The thing is, the only reason anyone would be critical of homosexuality would be as a result of religious or cultural conditioning. There’s absolutely nothing inherently wrong about the idea of people of the same sex acting on their attraction for one another. I agree that ignorance still factors into social norms regarding sexuality. We’re raised to think in predetermined ways about what’s acceptable and what’s not, so anything that falls outside of “respectable” or “vanilla” sexual encounters is frowned upon without much examination. But those norms are in large part constructed to control women. And equating criticism of one person acting violently toward another to criticizing homosexuals who have consensual sex is terrible logic that not only uses homosexuals as pawns but also ignores some important considerations.

No, we don’t have to accept that all forms of sexuality are okay. Just because something turns someone on, they shouldn’t necessarily be able to pursue it with abandon by virtue of that fact. There are people who are sexually aroused by morbidity, including things that very few people would consider acceptable. Even in cases where consent exists (I’m thinking of men who agree to allow other men to cannibalize their sexual organs), whatever the reason or cause for that type of fixation, it’s not healthy. Not everything that manifests as an emotion or a preference is alright. That’s an empty existential argument. It’s irresponsible to pretend that consent neutralizes the ethical questions that might surround a given sex act.

Sure, one could describe an outsider determining when exploitation exists as being paternalistic. But women who are abused and prostituted often don’t recognize that they’re involved in an abusive situation because they’ve been rendered dependent on someone who is manipulating and controlling them. Stockholm Syndrome is a thing, and a community that glorifies torture, sadism and masochism attracts people who wish to prey on others as well as people who’ve already been groomed into submission. One might argue that BDSM itself, when done properly, doesn’t involve coercion or deception. But the culture out of which the practice arose is patriarchal. How has this practiced managed to avoid internalizing any of that? And how does a person who’s devoted to equality and justice justify the eroticization of domination?

How is it ever okay for a person – male or female – to be gagged, made to vomit, choked or punched? Why would anyone get turned on by having those things done to them or by doing it to someone else? Analyzing what it means to want to be humiliated or to want to humiliate someone else isn’t a matter of imposing normalcy on people with freaky habits. It’s not healthy. There’s a difference between raw, even rough passionate sex, and domination. We don’t always understand our impulses. We might want to be ravished – but that’s nothing close to, say, being tied up and having sensitive areas of the body zapped with electrical currents. Or walking on all fours with a dog collar around your neck.

Some people feel that there’s a physical connection between pain and pleasure because they can push us beyond our boundaries both physically and emotionally. They can be transcendent. I think that in some cases, this is all a person might crave, and someone they trust helps them to fulfill that desire. For them, gender, income, etc. don’t matter – they’re just two human beings sharing a private experience of their choosing. Why should that be our business? Because we live in a world that’s ordered and structured by social inequality. How many aggressors hide behind the sexual freedom defense because they know that the sphere of sexual behaviour has been staked out as strictly individualized territory and is thus supposedly impervious to criticism?

Governments shouldn’t be in the business of moralizing, but protecting is a different story. It’s simply not true that everything that happens between consenting adults is between them and them only. Consider the case of a battered wife. She doesn’t consent to the battery, but if she stays in the relationship and refuses to call the police, the abuser has license to continue. Should we do nothing?

There’s a reason for the distinction between civil and criminal law. In common law, a tort is a private wrong, whereas a crime can involve something the assailant does to just one other person – and even behind closed doors, on their own property – but they can be charged with a crime by the government on behalf of society. When a harmful act is serious enough, our legal institutions say it involves all of us. That’s an important tenet. The concepts of consent and privacy in sex and relationships have legitimate bases and should be respected, but they shouldn’t be exploited by extrapolating those concepts to every private situation imaginable in order to shield individuals from accountability. You can’t draw an imaginary boundary around your bedroom and pretend that anything goes.

Furthermore, when a person who holds a position of privilege acts in a violent way toward someone who lacks that privilege, don’t we understand that as an act committed against that entire group of oppressed people? When a person hurls a slur at one individual, is there only one victim? The same logic applies to men who commit violent acts against women. It’s not a one-on-one situation. And why should it make any difference whether the act was of a sexual nature, or whether she begged for it?

Even if a woman is intelligent, emotionally stable with no history of abuse and fully understands the implications of a dominant sexual relationship (which I recognize is true of many women who participate in BDSM), the man isn’t home free as far as I’m concerned. What are we to make of men, all of whom possess male privilege whether they’re raging sexists or not, who argue that they’re not doing anything wrong as long as a woman consents to sexual aggression, torture, submission, discomfort, control, or violence? The key question is this: Why, in a patriarchal society, would a man crave the domination of women, sexual or otherwise? He already has plenty of power and privilege over women. Why the thirst for even more control?  What is it about that exactly that excites him, and why? The only way this makes sense from a pathological standpoint is if a man harbours feelings of powerlessness, a fear of rejection, loss, or uncertainty. That’s parasitic. And oppressive. It’s not any woman’s responsibility to be a punching bag for someone else’s benefit. Those things should be worked out between the person who has those urges and a trained therapist whose labour is compensated. When a person with privilege tells themselves they’re powerless and refuses to take responsibility for solving that problem, that’s dysfunctional. And potentially dangerous.

When I ask myself whether I would lose respect for a man if he was okay with indulging in rape fantasies, even if it was my idea, the answer without any doubt is yes. It’s my firm belief that a decent man would be alarmed by such a request and understand that it’s not the request or the consent that determine its ethics; it’s the question of whether it plays into the patriarchy that’s still a reality today. Any ethical person who possesses privilege should recoil from an opportunity to further entrench that privilege even if it’s sanctioned, and even if it piques their sexual interest (and arguably, especially when it piques their interest).

In the course of my discussions about the subject of BDSM and sexism, some people have asked me: What about women who want to dominate men? When we consider that women live in a world dominated by men, it’s understandable that a woman might feel empowered or aroused by the opportunity to dominate a man who agrees to submit to her. As long as male privilege is a reality, we can never substitute a man for a woman and pretend that the situation is comparable. Personally, I don’t find the idea of dominating anyone appealing. Such a compulsion may signal an underlying issue that won’t go away with temporary relief from some emotional discomfort.

It’s important to note that although there are men who fetishize femininity and submission, this doesn’t represent an equalization or neutral endeavour. Men who engage in these practices usually use misogynistic language, calling themselves (or asking to be called) “bitch”, “slut”, “sissy”, etc. These terms debase women, not men.

Ultimately, no matter who you are, the idea of dominating another human being in whatever way is rooted in ego and the fetishism of power. If we have urges involving aggression or violence either in or out of the bedroom, I think we need to examine this because even if some people believe it’s natural for them, that doesn’t make it natural or acceptable in general, and it matters most of all because this has the potential to cause harm. That’s not simply a private concern. It’s a social issue.

Although we all live in a highly subjective reality, we have to be willing to acknowledge that some things just are wrong. Defining that is a messy business that will continue to evolve, but it’s precisely because it’s a controversial subject that we should seize the opportunity to establish why weird isn’t wrong, unusual isn’t wrong, and we should always be open to talking about what “wrong” actually means. The idea of wrong already rules our lives in legal and social terms, so why not bring it out into the open so we can figure out what it means for us today, rather than blindly condemning or condoning an entire subset of practices that might be quite different, one from another? We like to pretend that morality is relevant only when it concerns issues such as poverty and greed but irrelevant where it might infringe on individual and especially perceived sexual rights.

I’m all for sexual expression, but not where we use the principles of individuality and personal freedom as tools to take advantage of the willingness of others to be vessels for violence. Exploitation with consent is still exploitation. If you can’t explain why your actions are ethical other than to say, “It’s none of your business” or “They wanted me to do it”, that’s not good enough. We have to do better than that.

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When conscious consumerism is bullshit

Blake Lively is pulling a Gwyneth Paltrow. I’m not talking about the so-called conscious uncoupling (although let’s hope that if Blake and Ryan do break up, they’ll call it what it is and spare us all the unbearable pretension). No, I’m talking about a “lifestyle” website newly launched by Lively; one she no doubt hopes will do better than the slumping goop.

Preserve is the newest digital playground designed for those who can afford to ooh and aah over things that are vintage, gourmet, rustic, artisan, repurposed, handcrafted (because ‘handmade’ isn’t authentic enough anymore), or whatever other adjective presumably justifies an exorbitant price tag. The geniuses of Portlandia do a fantastic job of parodying modern fads. Their Put a Bird on It skit reminds me of how it’s not uncommon for people to exploit trends in order to charge more for something than it’s worth.

 

 

Preserve is basically a mercantile Pinterest for affluent hipsters. Now, materialism is nothing new. We live in a capitalist system, after all. Marketing and advertizing are everywhere. They’ve colonized our culture and our minds. They follow us around in our daily lives, beaming their subliminal messages from every surface and medium possible; in captchas, on sewers, on people’s foreheads. We can’t even urinate in peace. And that snappy Michael Kors bag perched conspicuously on the lap of the woman opposite you on the subway – how many women do you figure have yearned for the privilege of being a real life mannequin so they too can feel important?

Instead of acknowledging how invasive and insidious all of this is, people frequently applaud its ingenuity. Forget about what we might be able to accomplish if such resourcefulness and creativity weren’t squandered by private interests. Money and cleverness win over ethics, hands down. The cult of consumerism brands those of us who refuse to kneel in the temple of materialism as heretics. No, this is nothing new.

What enrages me more than anything else, though, is the use of philanthropy to justify greed, which Preserve embarrassingly tries to pussyfoot around:

“Doing good” is often looked at with a cynical eye. For good reason. Much of it is a selfish act— it feels good, it sounds good, it can be quite self-congratulatory. While it is personally rewarding, there is an impact to be made when we can step back and acknowledge the truths in the motivation— not only the selfish ones, but the ones bred of a genuine desire to be there for others, others who don’t regularly have the fortunate opportunities that we do each day.

Let us be clear. We are a for-profit business.

We celebrate and indulge in the treasures both high and low that we feature on Preserve. We are aware that a lot of what we are selling is outlandish in a world where people are starving and have nowhere to sleep. This is a real problem. One that even on our high horse we can’t ignore. This is our community. Each of ours.

We have set our first goal of giving 5,000 children a meal, 2,000 children a blanket, and 2,700 children a warm hoodie, all within the U.S.

We’re a small, but growing company. Our giving reflects our age. As we mature so will our contribution both fiscally and physically.

We acknowledge that we are human and are flawed. But please accept, our intention is to do something pure. So we ask you, let this be a conversation. Help us grow. Help us give. Please critique us, teach us and be patient with us in the process, as ultimately we are all in this, this spinning sphere, together.

How douchey and patronizing is this?

Many of us are onto the ways in which businesses exploit our desire to purchase good quality, socially and environmentally sound products, only to justify doing so because they’re not 100% greedy. I’d say I’m reasonably suspicious that they’re tricking us into spending more money while they reap a fatter profit margin. Because really, how much of our money is going toward overhead, especially when it comes to web-based businesses, many of which are featured on Preserve? Consider the $70 High Tide Classic Bow Tie. Or for $132, perhaps you prefer a “hand painted” t-shirt that has been “distressed” and “destroyed” so you can walk around looking like you just fixed your Harley Davidson – without having to smell like it.

Twombly Crew

This accoutrement is the brainchild of The Squad, who design clothing that’s “comfortable for one’s own wandering” and “colored by hues from their travels and washed specifically for comfort and ease; it’s essential knitwear built for the long road ahead.” Is this what people are doing with their English degrees?

In the event that you’re into Native appropriation, they also offer a holey t-shirt with a dreamcatcher on it for $80. Is the cotton even organic? Seriously, in a recession, who has the money for this shit?

Corporations like Starbucks really love to pat themselves on the back. Take the Ethos Water Fund, for example:

So far more than $7.38 million has been granted to help support water, sanitation and hygiene education programs in water-stressed countries.

I have a better idea. How about they pay their fair share of taxes? And how about instead of charging us $2 for water, from which a measly 10¢ is devoted to these unfortunate people, they give a little more and charge us a little less for something we can get out of a tap? If these campaigns are truly a form of social responsibility in action, I’d like to see them do these good deeds without attaching their logo to them. Otherwise, the line that separates philanthropy from self-promotion becomes awfully blurry.

I do what I can. I’m the sort of shopper who keeps health food stores in business; I don’t even use normal toilet bowl cleaner, for Christ’s sake. But I saw a jar of what I’m sure are delicious pickles at my local butcher the other day that cost a cool $14.99. If anyone has any doubt that Toronto’s Roncesvalles Village has been gentrified, wonder no more. That’s the official stamp right there (yup, Portlandia did a parody of the pickling fad too!). My family had a huge garden when I was growing up and we canned pretty much everything that can be canned. Beets, mushrooms, pickles, borscht, tomatoes, sauerkraut – you name it. I can tell you it’s not that expensive to do. Look, I’ll gladly pay more for locally, naturally raised meat any day. I’ve even cut my meat consumption so I can afford it. I get why it costs so much more than the standard grocery store fare. But fucking pickles?

It’s getting hard to find businesses that don’t take advantage of their throwback appeal and ethical bent to squeeze more money out of customers. Why should I have to declare war on myself for wanting to swing by that shop that introduced me to terrine because I feel like I’ve been seduced by Satan himself? I hate who I’ve become!

So I ask you: where do we draw the line? It seems that the cheapest and most authentic way to do things ethically and naturally is to do it your damn self.

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Whose economy? How privilege shapes economic discourse

A man who might become Canada’s next Prime Minister was mocked last week for his reaction when confronted with the claim that the middle class is doing quite well, contrary to his assertions.

There’s no point in arguing about whether Justin Trudeau is competent when all he could squeeze out of his brain was a regurgitation of campaign talking points: “We’re talking about people here in a way that is giving them the capacity to be part of strong and vibrant communities.”

What does that even mean?

The New York Times report in question has limited value where this issue is concerned because its findings are relative, not absolute. It doesn’t actually establish that the Canadian middle class is doing well; it just says that for the first time ever, our middle class is doing better than that of our American counterparts. Which isn’t terribly exciting considering how much of a beating they’ve taken.

There are a lot of factors to take into account when judging how well a certain income group – or any group – is doing. Are they making progressively more money to compensate for inflation? Are they getting more for the taxes they pay? Are they in a better position to secure adequate housing? Are they able to save more money, or are they taking on more debt? Has the group shrunk or expanded? Do they have equitable and sufficient access to quality healthcare, or education? Are they struggling to pay utilities? Can they afford to eat healthy food? What about exposure to toxins and pollution? Crime and incarceration rates?

Most importantly, when we talk about class it’s not a simple question of economic difference; we’re talking about human beings and all the social, cultural, and political realities they face. Class isn’t just about how much money you make. In many cases, class is the colour of your skin or the neighbourhood you live in.

What we really need to consider is whether we can base our understanding of the state of our economy on the state of the middle class. Defining the middle class is no easy task to begin with (MSN Money suggests these 9 ways to tell if you’re middle class). According to the results of this Gallup poll, it appears that Americans are most likely to self-identify as middle class (Republicans even more so), although the Pew Research Center has reported that this number has dropped sharply in recent years. Meanwhile, rich people don’t even think they’re rich.

There it is again.

Middle class, middle class, MIDDLE CLASS!

It’s true that middle class incomes have stagnated. Even Statistics Canada has confirmed it. But it’s not an accident that the experiences and interests of the middle class dominate our political and economic discourse. If we ever needed proof that Canada is a stratified society shaped by the privileged, it’s made abundantly clear by the frequent mention of the middle class, especially in the run-up to elections. And Trudeau really wants us to know that he cares about the middle class:

“Liberals in Quebec and across the country are focused on jobs, the economy, and growing the middle class.”

One question keeps popping into my mind: What’s wrong with talking about, say, the working class? What’s wrong with being working class? Believe it or not, there was a time when being a member of the proletariat was a source of pride and dignity, and still is to many Canadians – only you wouldn’t guess it by listening to the talking heads.

If we really want to know how “the economy” is doing, we have to talk about how everyone is doing. Mainstream discourse would have us believe that the middle class is the ultimate barometer of economic prosperity and stability; as long as the middle class is doing okay, apparently we have nothing to worry about.

But who’s we? And whose economy are we talking about? There can be no doubt that Canada’s income gap has been growing at an alarming rate. Wealth inequality is a serious problem here as in other so-called developed nations. It does affect the middle class, but it affects the poor and working class even more. Yet somehow, we’re not allowed to talk about this. We’re not given the license to focus our attention on the people who need it most.

There are several factors involved in this process, including disillusionment and apathy, which result in lower voter turnout and less worker organizing (is it any surprise that the Harper government targeted the perceived threat of a more motivated electorate through the Fair Elections Act?). The privileged classes, in no small part due to their control of the corporate media, have effectively brainwashed Canadians as a whole to demonize the very groups that have fought for the rights of not only working people but all Canadians. Namely, workers’ collectives, cooperatives and unions – you know, those pesky good-for-nothings who brought us better wages, higher labour standards, universal healthcare, and basically everything else that government and the private sector would never voluntarily let us have. But when it comes to the working class, the poor, and people of colour voting against their own self-interest, Ford Nation is the perfect example: this “man of the people” consistently votes against initiatives that seek to alleviate hardship experienced by children, low income earners, the homeless, the LGBT community, women, immigrants, etc.

Then of course, there’s the privileged themselves – people of means who are economically insulated from these concerns. Some seek to keep more for themselves, either consciously or subconsciously. But more than that, the simple fact is that the privileged can afford to live in blissful ignorance (or willful ignorance, depending on how you see it). That’s what it means to be privileged. Those who have the least to worry about, who shoulder the least amount of risk and impact, are narrowing the discussion so that we don’t even have to consider that perhaps we should do something about the disproportionate burden we place on the working poor, including that of taxation. We should be additionally worried that Thomas Mulcair, the leader of the only left-ish political party with opposition potential, thinks that the idea of taxing people fairly (i.e. raising tax rates on even some income brackets) is out of the question. Canada’s historically labour-aligned party, afraid to talk about progressive taxation? That’s scary.

I’m not Barack Obama’s biggest fan, but this is the kind of discourse we desperately need to encourage:

Until it becomes painfully clear that too many people are rich while too many are poor for no good reason (which I think is already the case, but obviously not enough people are willing to admit it yet), it looks like we’ll be stuck with politicians who want to keep us hooked on amorphous concepts like the economy, prosperity, and growth. Trudeau, for one, has made it clear that what he’s really worried about is the possibility that “the middle class will stop supporting a growth agenda”.  Now why, one wonders, would they do that? Maybe because they’re slowly questioning neoliberal and conservative rhetoric and opening their minds to new ideas – ideas that are transparent and meaningful?

“The few own the many because they possess the means of livelihood of all… The country is governed for the richest, for the corporations, the bankers, the land speculators, and for the exploiters of labor. The majority of mankind are working people. So long as their fair demands – the ownership and control of their livelihoods – are set at naught, we can have neither men’s rights nor women’s rights. The majority of mankind is ground down by industrial oppression in order that the small remnant may live in ease.”
― Helen Keller in Rebel Lives: Helen Keller

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Filed under Canada, Health & Environment, Politics & Society