Archive for May, 2009

Slacker Feminists?

After reading this article by Clive James on the BBC (a transcription of a radio piece, I believe), I wondered if, as he posits, there was indeed a disinclination among Western feminists to acknowledge the average difference in physical strength between men and women. His article speaks of the new female elected MPs in Kuwait, Aung San Suu Kyi, and Ayaan Hirsi Ali, and criticizes the absence of support for these women from feminist pundits in the news, which he supposes to be the result of this disinclination.

While I dislike considering the physical advantage that, on average, men possess, since there is still something within our culture that makes domestic violence and rape feasible and thinkable where it should be the rare act of a sociopath, I don’t think any feminist is naïve enough to state that the biological difference in muscle mass has anything to do with social conditioning.

When he claims that “Women, on the whole, would naturally like to do something else, whereas an army, for too many men, is a home away from home, and often their only home.” That seems to fall prey to the idea that feminism does critique, being that men are somehow inherently more violent, whereas if there is a preference it is more likely to be the result of a culture that emphasizes the value of power in men, and submission to a strict hierarchy, rather than some innate enjoyment of killing people in large numbers, and that women are naturally squeamish about violence, which is perhaps the idea he means to critique.


And since many western feminists are still convinced that the social stereotyping of the West is the product of fundamental flaws within liberal democracy itself, they have a tendency to believe that undemocratic societies are somehow valuable in the opposition they offer to the free countries which the feminists are so keen to characterise as not free enough.

is surprising – I know of no feminist who suggests that oppressive regimes in various countries around the world are somehow superior to the Western democracies simply because their culture is misogynistic in a different way. In the US, and I’m sure in the UK, activist women were alerting Congress to the oppression of women under the Taliban in Afghanistan for years before 9/11.

Without knowing to whom, exactly, James is speaking, (beyond a mention of ‘pundits’) and having never seen evidence of such casual dismissal of the accomplishments of women fighting for safety, let alone equal rights, in countries where stoning or beating or murder is common punishment for anything that, in Women’s Studies 101 terms, challenges the patriarchy, I conclude that he has created a straw woman of sorts – is there a feminist pundit who, in criticizing the remaining levels of misogyny or patriarchal structures within a Western liberal democracy, suggests that some exotic regime based on a yet-more hierarchical and patriarchal model might be a superior form?

Perhaps someone made a comment about Communism.

One hopes that James knows that feminism is, at the heart, about equal rights and equal treatment. Any physical difference (including strength) between the sexes does not reflect inherent tendencies towards or away from violence or anything else, and should not, therefore, determine the career or lifestyle of any individual, and society should be such that systematic violence towards women is non-existent, and any that does occur be met with swift justice, not silenced by a cultural shame or fear.

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Get Pregnant, Ladies!

Carol Sarler wrote this bizarre piece in the Daily Mail yesterday.

The gist of the article is that all capable, appropriately aged women should make babies, because it a) completes them and b) makes them better employees, and if they don’t they are a) weird and b) selfish.

“Much as I like to trumpet the importance of a woman’s right to choose all things at all times, there’s one choice I simply cannot understand: the choice of an otherwise sane and healthy woman not to have children.”

Wow, thanks for the support. Sarler ‘understands’ all the freak show women (like lesbians and those over 35) who want to make with the babies, but those with operational wombs who opt out are apparently incomprehensible.

Sarler writes on the subject now because ‘research’ (the source remains undocumented in the article) has shown that bosses/execs (male?) prefer to hire/work with women who are mothers rather than not. Because, see, the single ladies “lack humanity”. Whether single men or fathers also lack humanity is not mentioned. Perhaps it isn’t relevant for male employees – it’s just the women the bosses have to worry about being inhumane.

The article is full of similar offensive remarks and rather bizarre generalizations – “They’re [mothers are] not there to compete for the attentions of the male executives; they’re there to get out of the house; they’re there because they genuinely enjoy some adult company; and they’re there because they have mouths to feed other than their own and shoes to buy for someone else’s feet.”

Yes, as we all know mothers don’t have jobs because they are satisfied by work, it’s because they are tired of speaking in baby-talk and need the funds to purchase more Lego. And those single women in the office, drawing the attention of the male execs – wait, why are the execs male? Is this point moot when there is a female boss? Are the non-mothers trying to find attention for their work, or is Sarler implying that single women work so they have a selection of wealthy guys in offices to seduce? And, of course, non-mothers don’t also genuinely enjoy adult company.

“You cannot be a mother without knowing something about selflessness, compassion, generosity, commitment, fierce loyalty and plain hard work. You cannot – surely – be a boss and not value assets such as those in your staff.”

You cannot, surely, assume that these traits are exclusive to mothers. Nor can you assume that all mothers have these traits – not every mother is a ‘good’ mother. To think about it for a moment is to realize how illogical that statement is.

And perhaps the most offensive phrase: “we actually need our children; they complete us as women” – Bull. Shit.

Those women who are barren are incomplete? Single women are incomplete? How about high schoolers or university students? Is that senior thesis just filler until the true meaning of life is revealed in the eyes of your child?

Sarler’s illogical and frankly misogynistic article baffles. It is an attack on working women – the mothers don’t come across much better than the inhumane non-mothers, as it seems that what their job is doesn’t matter as long as they can talk to some grown-ups and get home in time to make dinner.

I have to wonder in cases like these if writers seriously believe what they put forward or are engaging in a little ‘Modest Proposal’-like mockery, looking at the underlying logic and implications of studies that even bother to ask ‘bosses’ whether they prefer hiring women with or without children; if you think about it, the study itself was designed either to say ‘all women should make babies’ or ‘you can’t have children and a successful career’.

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Medications for the Healthy

Is medically unnecessary neural enhancement (via medication) justifiable?

In an article about multi-tasking and distraction (as related to blackberries, twittering, facebook, google, etc), Sam Anderson comments on the loss of productivity and notes that:

“A quintessentially Western solution to the attention problem—one that neatly circumvents the issue of willpower—is to simply dope our brains into focus. We’ve done so, over the centuries, with substances ranging from tea to tobacco to NoDoz to Benzedrine, and these days the tradition seems to be approaching some kind of zenith with the rise of neuroenhancers: drugs designed to treat ADHD (Ritalin, Adderall), Alzheimer’s (Aricept), and narcolepsy (Provigil) that can produce, in healthy people, superhuman states of attention. (…)”

The idea that perhaps it wouldn’t be such a big deal if people started taking such drugs to boost their concentration is problematic. Those who are prescribed the medication (those under discussion in the article are for people with ADHD, Alzheimers, and narcolepsy) are treating an under (or over) performance in one area of their brain which prevents them from attaining normal cognitive function; if everyone started enhancing perfectly normal attention patterns, the norm would change.

Even the term ‘neuroenhancer’, which, by the way, I cannot find in online medical dictionaries, is a little misleading, as its components imply that the drugs enhance brain function, when, naturally, they enhance bits of brain function – possibly (probably) at the expense of other bits.

Drugs like Adderall are described as psychostimulants, like caffeine and cocaine. Ritalin is essentially speed.

Beyond the alteration of how one defines ‘normal function’, there are, of course, the side effects. Adderall can, among other things, cause headaches, nausea, and vomiting, and acts as an appetite suppressant (much like caffeine only for a much longer time). Drugs for Alzheimers can do much the same thing, along with causing (!) confusion, vomiting, and hives. And the narcolepsy stuff is much the same again, with a potential for addiction and, unsurprisingly, may also cause insomnia, which might be great for finishing that grad paper, but might also suck for your mood and long-term health.

Add to all that the idea that, perhaps, ADHD is over-diagnosed and the ‘hyperactive’ behavior is a function of children being trapped indoors or playing a load of video games or generally responding to a more ‘stimulating’ world, and the treatment of it may simply be a way of changing the child to fit the education system rather than the other way around, and the problem, to me, seems to be the attitude towards a broadly defined idea of work, requiring a systematic overhaul, rather than turbo charging the brain as one might a car’s engine.

Popping a pill is not the same as getting regular exercise (increasing blood flow and oxygen to the brain thereby improving function overall) or changing your diet, as an overall lifestyle change will affect the body as a system rather than chemically altering one particular part.

Those who decide to take pills to compensate for a lack of planning (why did you leave that paper to the last minute?) or to make it a little bit easier to focus at work with all those Twitters happening, shift the responsibility, and possibly endanger their health in the process. Sure, this is their problem, but if one looks at, say, corporate culture, or the structure of schooling, aren’t these demanding a level of focus or performance that can’t generally be achieved without some assistance? Shouldn’t our work environments reflect a balance of human ability?

It is difficult to say outright that people shouldn’t take drugs to enhance focus – are we going to ban caffeine? Red bull? If a surgeon is more adept on speed, should we begrudge the patients that superior performance?

But then again, surely we can agree that there is a spectrum of ‘enhancement’, that coffee is a mild stimulant, that the surgeon should be able to do his job without a boost. To justify and accept casual and regular usage of psychostimulants and the like would be to allow that the increasing demands of work and life are worth it. That the pace of life should be faster, and that to take a little something to keep up is a small price to pay for progress. Real progress would be organizing work around our whole life, not allowing the marketplace to dictate what portion of life the individual gets to retain, or how fast their brain needs to work.

To advance technologically should not involve disrespecting our own limitations.

International No Diet Day

Today is International No Diet Day.
This, as wikipedia so kindly informs me, was invented by Mary Evans Young in 1992, to fight the diet industry and draw attention to eating disorders.

It’s difficult to tease out what is at the core of the social and cultural attitudes that support the diet industry, in spite of scientific evidence that all diets are only effective in the short term.

We have somehow developed the idea that to be fat is also to be generally possessed of a cloud of negative character traits: lazy, irresponsible, unhealthy, stupid, etc. It has become acceptable to look down on people, including oneself, who don’t meet particular physiological criteria.

Studies have already shown that, while being fat is correlated with various health concerns, it depends on the kind of fat and how generally healthy one is. However unbelievable it may seem, one can be considered technically obese and still be fit and properly healthy. One is far more likely to suffer various, permanently damaging, ailments if one is too skinny.

Also, given the long-term uselessness of diets (yes, even when you stick with them), any serious mind must begin to assume that body shape and size is only moderately related to consumption. Even the earliest studies of caloric intake showed that if one has more calories one day, metabolism goes up, and fewer calories the next, it goes down. Our bodies adapt to the conditions we find ourselves in.

So, why do we have such a poor opinion of fat people? Why is fat pejorative? Why does every issue of every women’s magazine (and not a few men’s magazines) include information on reducing calories and losing five pounds by Friday when it’s really not that critical for health?

Why is fat supposed to be ugly?

Historically, fat was fabulous because it implied wealth – a larger person had sufficient nutritious food for growth and didn’t have to work the fields.

Now? Calorie dense, nutrient poor foods are the cheapest, and a lot of low-paying jobs don’t require much physical labour. It’s the wealthy who can take the time and money to eat nutritious food and go to the gym. Obviously not all larger people are poor, but assuming that there is a roughly equal distribution of body shapes and sizes across class, but only the upper classes have the wherewithal to temporarily disguise whatever shape is natural, if one is visibly fat, one is more likely to be of a lower class.

Anthropologists will tell you that beauty is about looking fertile and disease free. Psychologists will add that attraction is also about association – maybe a person looks like their father or share their eye colour. It is not much of a leap to assume that part of attraction, in the psychological or anthropological sense, might include class as a positive or negative association and survival trait.

And then, of course, we are inundated with marketing that tells us thin is beautiful, and that we should be spending time and money to become so. If marketers of Slimfast can convince us ‘an extra ten pounds’ is a problem, then they can sell us the solution. And then sell us more when it returns three months or years later.

In the news, from time to time, there will be articles about how the fatties are bad for the environment or should pay extra for plane seats – (often well responded to, and refuted here) which are essentially the self-congratulatory musings of the less big. Who, I have no doubt, worry about their waistline or saddlebags as much as anyone.

Today, at least, seriously think about the validity of the fat bias, and whether life is long enough to spend time and money doing something that isn’t actually good for you, and if the people who you might silently mock really deserve your disparagement.

Eat well, enjoy your food, and move your body. It is enough.

Kate Harding is interviewed at Salon on the subject of diet myths and fat prejudice:

“The problem is, there simply is no long-term cure for obesity — even weight loss surgery isn’t a permanent fix for everyone (not to mention it can have hideous side effects), and I suspect that as we see more long-term studies, we’ll learn that the regain rate is higher than anyone expected. So as long as obesity remains, in the public imagination, a dragon that must be slayed, all they can do is keep telling people to eat less and exercise more — because that produces short-term results that look good enough in short-term studies.”

Iran Executes Woman

Delara Darabi

Delara Darabi

jezebel reports today that a 23-year-old Iranian woman was executed by the government (without announcement or notification, presumably to avoid the onslaught of international pressure and letter writing that would delay or complicate the action) on charges of murder, something to which she confessed then later retracted.

She confessed to the crime allegedly to protect her boyfriend (who is serving a ten year sentence), as she was a minor at the time and theoretically would not be executed, as it is against international and federal laws.

Further evidence of the shocking lack of due process can be found at Human Rights Watch.

“The execution was carried out at Rasht Central Prison despite a two-month stay of execution in the case issued on April 19, 2009, by the head of the Judiciary.”

Iran is quite fond of capital punishment, and rather cruel and unusual means of delivering the sentence, including stoning and hanging. lists extensively the record of what most would consider human rights abuses, lack of due process, and discrimination.

As the US is currently trying to amend its relationship with Iran, despite things like Iranian President Ahmadi-Nejad’s anti-semitic UN speech, one would think that the country would be trying to shake off a bit of their violent, often religiously ‘justified’, actions and act a bit more like a modern, informed, humanitarian entity.

Depressing as it is, Iran is a powerful country that has no motivation to change. The West is not as powerful as it was, and never had much influence to begin with. Until the extremist religious government is replaced with a genuinely democratic one, which would also have to reflect a population who, on a cultural level, have become entirely disenchanted with religious conservatism, fear of “the West”, and misogyny.

I can only hope that horrible news like this brings Iran closer to a tipping point where the population can stand no more and insist on creating a just system that protects, rather than frightens and smites, its people.

To quote Ahmadi-Nejad: “As the eminent daughter of the Prophet of Islam has said, “justice brings tranquility and harmony to our hearts.””

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