Archive for the 'culture' Category

Such stuff as dreams are made on

cc Nick Webb via Flickr

Be not afeard; the isle is full of noises,
Sounds and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not.
Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments
Will hum about mine ears, and sometime voices
That, if I then had waked after long sleep,
Will make me sleep again: and then, in dreaming,
The clouds methought would open and show riches
Ready to drop upon me that, when I waked,
I cried to dream again.

– Caliban, The Tempest

Like most people in the UK, I stayed up Friday night to watch the Olympic opening ceremony. And as bizarre as I found the sheep and the texting and the frenetic pace, not to mention the 90% asinine BBC commentary, there was that swell that comes from a focused crowd of thousands; the drumming, dancing, music, singing – felt tangible, and felt shared. And it was a relief to feel that, however manipulative.

To feel connected by awe and admiration, to feel that in that brief moment, whether true or not, that there was a sudden absence of fear and aggression, that every person in that crowd, and huge swathes of people watching elsewhere, had this one moment of united benevolent thought.
I don’t know that I’ll feel anything like that again – how often does anything hold the complete attention of a sizeable chunk of the planet? And how often is that thing actually and actively positive? How often is it awe? Or surprised amusement?

It is both thrilling and isolating to live in a big city – there is so much happening, such great diversity, and yet because of the density there is also a deliberate blindness towards other people, it would be too much to really see and hear everyone. It would feel dangerous. People are scary.

So to have a moment when everyone around you ceases to be a potential threat, and is instead sharing something akin to delight – it is precious, and almost unbelievable: that we could all simultaneously set aside irony and cynicism and our other assorted defences, without even noticing that we were. It is in many ways the intention, if not always the successful practice, of events like the Olympics – forgetting the competitiveness; we are there to come together – all of us – and play.

Be not afeared.

Goodbye Christopher Hitchens

image by ensceptico (flickr)

There are a lot of people who have written, blogged, and tweeted about their response to Christopher Hitchens – his life, his writing, his politics, his death – and all of them succumb to the inevitable: they talk about themselves. This, more than anything, shows the true scope of Hitchens’ influence – as a public intellectual he affected so many people simply by turning his implacable and formidable mind to so many subjects, changing the conversation.

Whether you agreed with him or not, it mattered what he said and thought because he made a point of having intensely well-informed and thoroughly considered opinions, and he had the intellectual cojones to challenge not just generally accepted views, but also his own judgments and opinions, subjecting himself to the same scrutiny he applied elsewhere.

Hitchens insisted on bringing every conversation to his level, and this, ultimately, is why we need public intellectuals. We need people who care, passionately, about everything that makes up our public life, who aren’t apathetic or overwhelmed by the seeming impossibility of positive change, who insist that things be assessed, judged, and most importantly, demand change according to that analysis.

Hitchens didn’t just back up his moral and ethical judgments; he believed incontrovertibly that things could and should change in the face of those judgments.

For me (like I said, everyone inevitably talks about themselves), Hitchens made me think, made everyone think, with greater attention, and with greater scope, and that is the greatest compliment I can give. I hope we can keep the public debate up to his exacting standards.

If not, there’s always his youtube channel.

Goodbye, Hitch. And, really, thanks.

Boys Just Learn Faster?

After Hapkido class the other evening, I light-heartedly moaned to one of my senior-belted co-students about how there were some students in our class who had started after me who will, at the next belt test, overtake me.

I have no illusions about my own competence, and would not expect to ‘double test’ as the other students are, and my intention was really to mock my own plodding pace. Her response, however, surprised me.

She said that there are some things that ‘boys just learn faster’.

It had never occurred to me to pin my lack of progress, or the successes of the other students, on biology. I assumed that they simply came to class more or were more coordinated than I. Her comment, however, suggested that in her years in the school, she’d seen a lot of male students progress faster than the women.

Being in general the sort of person who revs up the social analysis anytime someone says something that smacks of gender determinism, I got to wondering – what could explain this, either socially or biologically?

The prevalence of women at various belt levels throughout the school, and the fact that our Saboumnim is a woman, (and the existence of accomplished professional female martial artists) quickly rubbishes the idea that men are somehow simply better at martial arts, but is it possible that in general men learn them faster?

In Hapkido at least, progress doesn’t have much to do with outright power, where men have the obvious edge of a bit more muscle mass and speed.

Hapkido is essentially learning choreographed movements (along with a philosophical side which I’ll leave for the moment).

From my limited experience in class, what you need to do well, at least in the early stages, is coordination, balance, a decent memory, focus, and a willingness to both toss people around and be tossed around.

None of these are obviously gendered traits.

I can’t speak for other women in my school, but the last of those is what I have the greatest difficulty with – although it improves with every class, I still get really rattled when people do some of the techniques on me at speed.

Despite expecting it, I still feel that in practice my opponents should be taking care not to do me harm, and pain and/or discomfort, however brief, and however instructional (or accidental), shakes my focus and makes me feel distressed. I am equally reluctant to throw myself into the techniques because I might cause pain to someone else.

It may be that for men (and I am speaking generally, obviously this is not true for all), being raised in a society where it is considered appropriate and character building for males to beat the crap out of each other throughout childhood and adolescence could preclude the mental block that I, at least, appear to have.

Years of both experience and social sanction have led them to be very comfortable both with fighting in a kind of friendly way, and with being a little beat up from time to time.

Inversely, there was never playful fist fighting between me and my female friends, and once adolescence set it, physical fights with boys, however ‘playful’ were a bit scary. Rather than getting a subconscious level of comfort with socially appropriate fisticuffs, I experience physical violence as something that girls did not do, and also as something malicious and dangerous; any physical pain deliberately caused by another person is seen as a threat. In the few self defense classes I have taken since the age of 13, the focus on ‘what to do if your rapist does this’ did nothing to mitigate that perception.

You can see how this could cause an issue in a martial arts class. My conscious mind can get behind the practice, but subconsciously, anyone who happens to be flinging me to the ground or bending my joints in the wrong direction is being mean and threatening, and it’s really difficult to fight the internal voice that’s screaming ‘get the hell out of here’.

So men, then, may have the advantage of a missing mental block, benefiting from experience that tells them men fight each other sometimes, which is ok, and fun, and it’s not anything to be scared of, whereas women are taught that fighting is mean and scary and violence is not the way etc.

There is another possible source of the male success, and it, too, is more mental than physical.

Saboumnim recently discussed in class this study, where sports performance was enhanced by the (erroneous) belief that the equipment used belonged to a professional. What this means is that one can be better if one can visualize oneself as somehow connected to someone talented in the task at hand.

Now quick, name 3 women martial artists. (Without Google).

Film and television are full of representations of male figures adept at various martial arts (like Bruce Lee) or just general butt-kicking (like Jason Bourne). As much as I enjoy martial arts films, the last time I came out of a cinema ki-yap-ing and generally playing at karate was after 3 ninjas.

After about 13, a girl absorbs that only boys get to be ninjas.

Is it possible that the men in my school also have the advantage of years of imagining themselves to be Jackie Chan, or Chuck Norris, or Jet Li?

I tend to seek out films with ladies kicking butt (Angelina Jolie as Lara Croft, Jessica Alba in Dark Angel, Michelle Yeoh in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon), but it’s not quite the same thing, is it? There’s a difference between being a martial artist and playing one on TV (in a sexy leather ensemble, no less).

There is by extension a possible effect on instructors; being within to the same social context as the students may result in a tendency to expect more of male students, and therefore push them further, faster. I don’t think this is the case in my class specifically, I certainly feel pushed plenty hard enough as it is, and I believe my instructor to be quite conscientious in this regard.

However I can see how in the same way that a dearth of female CEOs leads some people to think that women can’t be CEOs, a gender disparity at high belt levels could lead some to expect a difference in performance and act accordingly.

Any sport or physical discipline is largely mental, and it seems more than plausible that men might process faster and more confidently in Hapkido, and other martial arts, because they are surrounded by messages throughout their life that encourage them to think of themselves as fighters, and women may struggle more, as they fight against an experience of being female that excludes both the inclination and ability to fight.

Oh Male Privilege. You’re everywhere.

More seriously, and usefully, perhaps having made these observations, I can more consciously work around all of this social programming and start imagining myself as the heir to Bruce Lee?

Or like these ladies:

The Teenage Wasteland

“It’s not my community, so why should I live by their rules?”

This pithy comment (or something very like it) was made on an episode of World’s Strictest Parents last night. The speaker, one of the two usual characters for the show, was an intelligent teen with a penchant for gothic style and an argumentative relationship with his mum (putatively remedied by the time with the titular strict parents from foreign parts).

His comment, in conjunction with a recent documentary aired on BBC4 The Great Estate: The Rise and Fall of the Council House, struck me as particularly enlightening in respect of the recent riots in London.

In the documentary (which I worked on and which I recently saw a re-airing of), one of the conclusions presenter Michael Collins draws regarding the state of government housing is that the housing devolved from family communities in which generations of the same family were given preference of residence to encourage a sense of belonging and community, to under-budget, short-term, needs based housing deliberately preventing a sense of long term investment in the community.

The simple teen anti-establishment trope stated above is writ large in the ‘anti-social behaviour’ seen in the riots, where large groups of un- or under-employed teens suddenly decided to act out, like a character on WSP, to prove that they didn’t need to follow ‘their’ rules.

That’s essentially the meaning of ‘anti-social behaviour’, isn’t it? Someone, or some group, decides (in this case clearly on a whim), that they aren’t part of this ‘society’ and therefore have no reason to uphold its basic tenets.

Image: George Rex

So how do you explain to kids that stealing, setting buses and buildings on fire, and running over passers by, are the wrong thing to do, and that they are members of a community with an obligation to it, like everyone around them?

I don’t think we can send them all to an Orthodox Jewish community in Tel Aviv. Though to be frank, that might be cheaper and more effective that sending them all to jail.

There’s been mention of making these kids perform some kind of reparative labour in the neighbourhoods where they caused so much damage – maybe a kibbutz would do the trick?

Do you hit like a girl?

Those who know me well – or rather, those who have heard me speak, ever – know that few things aggravate me more than gender-based truisms. ‘Girls are just more sensitive’, ‘boys just naturally love guns’, ‘women are just more talkative’. All of these are nonsense.

These statements, which I find so annoying, can either reflect what is considered to be a behavioral or physical truth: how people act, and how their bodies manifest. There are three problems with this kind of thinking. The first is the assumption that observed differences are genetic – due to biological sex (biological determinism), the second, that something generally true to the population on average universally applies to individuals (stereotype), and the third, that if one difference is scientifically verifiable then difference in all associated abilities or tendencies must also be true (halo effect/reverse halo effect).

In the first instance, many people assume anecdotal experience provides sufficient information for them to make assumptions about the general population. Being the parents/aunt/uncle/cousin/babysittter of a boy child and a girl child does not make you a geneticist, nor give you a representative sample. The appeal of biological determinism is that it makes things (like institutional sexism) simple. Girls just *want* to be nurses/mommies. Boys are just *made* for the cut-throat world of high-finance/hockey.

If things like difference in income or representation in government can be assumed to be a direct result of innate differences in talent and character, then there isn’t anything to be fixed. It’s just natural that women make less money and do more housework and stay at home to make babies and pies. It has nothing to do with the fact that there are social patterns that reinforce certain behaviours and punish others, nothing to do with pre-existing power structures where sexist people are in positions of power where they have the ability and inclination to empower other people who think and act like them. This holds true for racism, by the way. How many people just ‘believed’ that people of colour were ‘made’ for physical labour? How many people still do?

For things that appear to be simple physical distinctions it’s harder to notice how sexist thoughts and beliefs can be reinforced, as they masquerade as scientific truth. XX and XY chromosomes do impart physical differences, including hormonal ones. However, what often happens is that a simple physical reality, e.g. ‘adult women’s hormones fluctuate on a roughly 28 day cycle’ can be used to justify sexist beliefs which are unrelated to the physical truth through anything other than common association and connotation, e.g. ‘for 3-7 days out of the month, women are irrational/angry/hungry for chocolate’. Science is misused to reinforce a pre-existing idea about supposed behavioural distinctions between men and women.

One of the most commonly accepted facts of sex-based physical difference is that men are stronger than women. And it is true in that, on average, the distribution of muscle and fat on men makes them more powerful, pound for pound, than women. This does not mean, however, that all men are stronger than all women, or that strength goes beyond ability to lift heavy things. Recently an acquaintance made reference to the fact that men were stronger than women, and concluded that therefore he could easily knock me unconscious. Note that he immediately made the leap from physical strength to a physical contest.

I think people of any gender will agree that few things are more of an invitation to brawl than an accusation of physical weakness.

I did not, on this occasion, punch my collocutor in the face.

I did stress that in general, it was pretty difficult to knock someone out, and that, if he would but take a look around the room, he would see at least 10-15 men that I could in all likelihood easily defeat in combat by virtue of being about 20lbs heavier than they (any sex-based advantage of theirs being outweighed by the difference in size and the fact that I exercise and eat regular meals).

It is also worth pointing out that knowing how to fight confers a significant advantage above and beyond physical strength; while a 220lb male beefcake could probably bench more weight, a 150lb female with a 4th degree black belt could still, most probably, kick beefcake’s ass. Being stronger is not the same as being better in a fight; however, because there is a strong connotation between physical strength and prowess, the scientific ‘truth’ of average advantage in one is conferred to the other.

Most people don’t think they are sexist (or racist, or other kinds of bigot), but many don’t notice the ways in which their assumptions about difference justify inequality, writ large or in their smaller, everyday interactions. Any generalizations you subscribe to affect how you interact with the subjects of these assumptions as individuals.

If you think of women as physically weaker, this affects how you treat all women, in the same way that subscribing to the belief that women get irrationally angry on a regular basis means that when you encounter an angry woman, part of your thought process in response may include wondering ‘should the source of this woman’s anger be dismissed out of hand because this woman is over-reacting due to her uterus’.

Just like knowing someone’s race doesn’t give you a short cut to knowing what they like or what their strengths and weaknesses are, knowing someone’s sex is equally useless in allowing you to come to any conclusions about them. These generalizations are unhelpful stereotypes, and perpetuate social inequality by declaring it genetically inevitable.

Bad Metaphors

People like to say dramatic things for effect; I don’t suppose anyone thinks too deeply about what they’re saying in any given conversation, and metaphor is largely how we describe and communicate experience. However. When something that would be even a stretched analogy is implied, or outright stated, to be essentially the same thing, it can get offensive.

Like slavery.

No, white, able-bodied, cisgendered, employed, first-world, male – participating in capitalism is NOT THE SAME AS SLAVERY and yes, I meant it when I said you were an asshole for saying it was. Yes, there are people today who are currently enslaved, no, they are not slaves to ‘the man’ or ‘the system’, they are enslaved to other (reprehensible) people. They have no autonomy. Their bodies are used by the (disgusting) person who thinks they can own another person for financial gain. Not to mention the systemic enslavement of Africans in the US from the 1600s to late 1800s.

To say that your having a job in a capitalist society is actually the same as slavery except, you know, with your mind rather that your body is vomit-inducingly inaccurate.

Having children (which, incidentally, you don’t) doesn’t mean you are obligated to work, and even if it did, to compare your ‘obligation’ to set up IT systems is not the same as an enslaved person’s ‘obligation’ to be raped, or to be beaten, or to work at a grueling physical task for no money and little food for hours on end, for days, months, years on end. An enslaved person does not have five weeks of paid vacation per year, or weekends, or a house in the suburbs.

Yes, capitalism can be oppressive. You might be employed by a jerk. You might be ineligible for government support that would allow you to support yourself and any children to a particular standard, and unable to work a job that pays enough to do the same. You might hate your job.

This is not the same as having no choice.

I repeat. This is NOT the same as having NO CHOICE.

Here: a blueprint for an autonomous, off-the-grid commune. Go live off the grid. No one will stop you. Which is the material point. Capitalism will not hunt you down and thrash you within an inch of your life for choosing to do something else.

Incidentally, this also holds true for the grotesque misusage of the term ‘rape’.

No, having to pay tax is not the same as being ‘raped’ by the government. Paying a lot for your new jeans is not at all like rape. Someone viciously mocking you, also totally not like rape. Strip mining vast swathes of the planet is a bit more like rape than those examples, in that the planet cannot give consent, but then, it is a rock with ecosystems on it, and we don’t normally consider rocks as having thoughts or feelings or consciousness which might require consent before doing stuff, so, therefore, still not really like rape at all.

So knock it off.

Anger Fatigue

I don’t post very often these days. This is because I am tired of ranting. It seems like every day there are five or six things to be absolutely enraged over, and it’s exhausting. It’s like I’m getting a repetitive strain injury from overexerting my fury.

The repetition is what makes it so unbearable – the same bloody misogyny and bigotry over and over again. It’s like they never get my letters.

Take the news today (from Google).

1. George Osborne (the money guy in the UK government) ‘hails positive figures despite sluggish growth’

Do you know why? Because he wants to revoke the 50% tax on the super rich, and needs some sort of justification for giving the wealthy more money while his government rips away social support from the neediest members of society. Because, you know, those impoverished senior citizens and people whose disabilities make them unable to work need to stop being such drains on the taxpayer. And if the rich have more money to spend then the economy will recover faster.

This is what is called ‘bullshit’. The economy continues to suffer because banks aren’t lending to small businesses to allow them to grow, individuals are suffering because their jobs are either non-existent or not safe and the cost of living is going up whereas wages are stuck in the 1970s. The problem is that political power has become something that is won through money, so rather than enact legislation designed to bring the greatest good to the greatest number, legislation is designed to protect the people who give the politicians money so they can keep winning elections. This isn’t to say that all politicians are money-grubbing parasites, only that the way in which the system is run encourages supporting the wealthy rather than the masses. Which, suffice to say, blows.

2. Norway Minister Praise Police Response to Gunman. My first thought when I heard about the horrific bomb and shooting in Norway was ‘what? Norway?’ Because this sort of thing isn’t supposed to happen in hip and groovy countries like Norway. Which just goes to show how easy it is to forget that psychopaths can exist anywhere, it’s just harder for them to get weaponry in some places.

The point of this story is that a delusional, violent person went on a rampage and systematically killed innocent people. The tendency in the news is to make it political, because these murderers or, (if they are of the suicidal type of killer) the groups that sponsor them, always claim some sort of cause that they are fighting for. As if most people go around backing up their political views with the blood of various passersby. No. Wrong. There are plenty of people who hold extreme views with which I doubtless vehemently disagree, but who don’t act like killing people is the natural extension of this opinion. A small percentage of the human race are murderers. The rest of us aren’t, and it’s an insult to every non-murderous human being to treat these shitstains like they’ve ever considered a way of expressing their supposed political opinion in a way that doesn’t involve bloodshed.

Even good news, like New York legalizing gay marriage, is dampened by the fact that some douchebags are bringing lawsuits against the right already.

Add that to irritations like the sexist milk commercials about PMS (which is, you know, a man’s problem, because ladeez be craaaazy amirite guys?) and the douchey douche commercials, which have managed to add racism to the whole ‘vaginas are great because men like them!’ sexist message, on top of the asinine suggestion that people with vaginas need deodorant for their vulvas, and I’m starting to wonder if I’m missing something here. How can advertising like that still even work? Does anyone think ‘man, I’m thirsty for a beverage that I can give my woman to make her stop being irrational?’ or ‘gosh, what’s the best way to groom my vuvlo-vaginal area so that I can maintain the vagina’s status as some sort of free-standing holy grail rather than a functioning part of my anatomy?’

Also, I feel I should note that this blog’s spellcheck doesn’t like ‘vagina’ or ‘vulva’ to be plural. Because there can be only one?

It’s hard to keep believing that people are basically decent when everything around me suggest that people are either classist entitled pricks, racist sociopaths, sexually repressed homophobes, or misogynistic chimps.