The War on Women and the Non-Binary

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The 2017 adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s 1985 dystopian novel ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ has resonated widely and had a significant cultural impact, with the iconic red-cloaks and white, face-obscuring bonnets appearing in a range of protests around the world. The novel and this latest adaptation portray a patriarchal society in which women’s roles are reduced to those of submissive wife, exchangeable baby maker, or receptacle for male sexual desire. Meanwhile, female desire, control and independence are punishable by torture and death. That a tale written over thirty years ago, and set in a world that mirrors a puritanical society harking back centuries, should strike such an emotional chord today, says a lot about the state of current attitudes and legislation surrounding gender and sexuality, women’s rights and reproductive choices. Many of the gains made for women and the LGBTQI community in the past 50 years are now being chipped away, corroded or simply swept aside.

The 18th Century Age of Enlightenment saw the birth of ‘science’ as we know it today, and central to that was the attempt to explain, and contain, the complexity and diversity of the natural world through a system of classification into different species and suborders. Today we continue to categorise the world around us in order to understand and control it. We use the biological distinction between male and female sexes based on genitalia, reproductive organs, chromosomes and hormones. However, research has also been carried out into the balance of influences on human development, between biological (nature) and learned behaviour from societal messages and pressure (nurture). This has given us the concept of ‘gender’ as a social construct of what is considered masculine and feminine, challenging the belief that ‘maleness’ and ‘femininity’ are ‘natural’ biological propensities. But even this is an oversimplification and there is in fact a diverse spectrum of biological and behavioural differences when it comes to assigned biological sex, psychological experience, sexual identity and sexual attraction, which do not fit into basic binary models. Central to many of the current regressive changes in legislation and attitudes is the desire to uphold a simpler binary notion, which sees women with a primary role as child bearer and keeper of home while men protect and go out and ‘do’. In this model, sexual intercourse is viewed as a means to procreate and so homosexuality is also demonised, and anything other than the binary concept of gender and sex is utterly rejected. Those who are made uncomfortable or feel threatened by those not conforming to these ‘traditional’ roles, are currently working to influence discussion and legislation around abortion, women’s rights and LGBTQI rights in order to suppress what they see as aberrant behaviour and to maintain control over other bodies and reproduction.

Examples abound, including changes in US policy under the current administration to reduce funding for women’s health initiatives and sex education, with budgets being cut from health clinics making referrals for abortions. Funds have also been diverted from education on pregnancy prevention through contraception towards programmes that emphasise abstinence. Legislation that has recently been passed includes religious freedom rules, allowing employers with moral objections to opt out of contraception coverage under the Affordable Care Act and doctors to deny treatment to women who have had abortions or to LGBTQI patients. Meanwhile, states such as Georgia have passed ‘heartbeat bills’, criminalising abortion after 6 weeks, with no exceptions for rape or incest. Much of this is in line with the wishes of Christian evangelicals, whose endorsement helped the current president into office. At the highest levels of Trump’s administration, figures such as Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo are known for their fundamentalist Christian beliefs, a lack of concern for LGBTQI rights and a desire to see the end of abortion access. Meanwhile, both of Trump’s supreme court nominees, Brett Kavanaugh and Neil Gorsich, caused concern at their confirmation hearings by either equivocating or refusing to discuss whether they believe Roe v Wade (legal access to abortions) and Obergefell v Hodges (marriage equality) are settled law. A recent 5-4 decision by the court enabled the Trump administration to continue pursuing their attempts to overturn an Obama-era law and to prohibit transgender people from serving in the military.

The US’ dangerous and regressive stance has far-reaching international consequences. One of the Trump administration’s first moves was to enforce the Global Gag Rule, which has resulted in a denial of funds to NGOs giving advice on abortion services, damaging health provisions in developing countries and reducing the ability to treat other issues including TB and HIV. Then, last month at the United Nations, the US threatened to veto the latest update of the Women, Peace and Security resolution, which protects civilians from sexual and gender-based violence in conflict. Their objection surrounded the language in the resolution, which was added in 2013, guaranteeing access to reproductive and sexual health services for victims of rape, and to the inclusion of the word “gender”. Their objection to that single word covers all UN documents, and is an attempt to undermine the rights of transgender people. The resolution in question only passed after the requested changes were made and the US voted in favour, while Russia and China abstained.

Restrictions on the rights of women and LGBTQI are a global problem with countless examples around the world, many in nations with strong, autocratic, male leaders. In spite of the claims that Prince Mohammad Bin Salman is having a liberalising influence in Saudi Arabia, numerous women’s rights activists are currently imprisoned, and have allegedly been tortured. The kingdom continues to resist any loosening of the guardianship laws, which prevent women from studying, working or travelling without male consent. Meanwhile legal abortions remain out of reach in many countries, domestic violence laws were recently weakened in Russia, and in Brazil’s October 2018 election, the country voted in a man who stated, “Yes, I’m homophobic – and very proud of it.”  Homosexuality remains illegal in over 70 countries, and international condemnation was muted at best amidst recent crackdowns on gay rights in Tanzania, Russia and Chechnya. However, Brunei has backtracked a little on their recently announced plan to punish gay sex with stoning to death. A moratorium was called after high-profile figures called for a boycott of the luxury hotels owned by the kingdom, showing the importance of publicity and influential allies in this issue.

There are, however, also powerful influencers working on the side of those who cling to fundamentalist readings of religious scriptures in order to restrict rights and choices. Pope Benedict recently resurfaced, 6 years after abdicating from the Holy See, in order to blame sexual abuse within the Catholic church on the sexual revolution. He explained in a letter that clerical abuses were due to the “all-out sexual freedom” of the 1960s, which led to a “dissolution” of morality in Catholicism, homosexuality and paedophilia. In the background of Benedict’s reappearance is Steve Bannon, the former Trump advisor whose current mission is to unite nativist, far-right, populist movements in Europe. Part of Bannon’s effort has involved advising Italian interior minister Mario Salvini that Pope Francis is too liberal and an enemy who should be attacked, telling him, “[populism is] catching fire and the Pope is just dead wrong”. After meeting Bannon, Salvini wore a t-shirt that declared, “Benedict is my Pope”.

It is not only cisgender men who are driving the restrictions being placed on women and LGBTQI, but also some women acting as policy advocates, attacking other women and defending the actions of men who would erode the rights of those less privileged. One such example is US lobbyist Janet Porter, whose organisation Faith2Action supports gay conversion therapy. Such programmes, now banned in many states, attempt to pressure people to repress their true identities and have resulted in serious mental health issues and led to suicides. Porter, assisting GOP legislators, has also been instrumental in pushing for the ‘heartbeat bill’ (based on the false idea that a human heart is fully formed and beating by 6 weeks after conception) but wants to go further, advocating for a total ban on abortion and a legal definition of life as beginning from conception. This all in spite of the evidence that shows abortion bans place women’s lives at risk due to unregulated illegal procedures. Women are also complicit in much of the vitriol currently being directed against transgender people, with some feminists arguing against the inclusion of trans women in female spaces. Many refuse to see trans women as women and are resorting to some of the arguments that were used in the past against homosexuals, painting them as predators and paedophiles who are not to be trusted in bathrooms and changing rooms. However, there is no evidence of women or children being placed at risk by having trans women in female spaces, and while these trans-exclusionary feminists may believe they are supporting women’s rights, their stance is actually bolstering the essentialist binary agenda and aiding discriminatory messages and policy.

‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ may be dystopian fiction but there is a reason it doesn’t feel far-fetched right now. Worldwide, there are concerted, often co-ordinated, efforts to deny women and LGBTQI of their rights. It’s not just about misogynist, homophobic and transphobic trolling on social media. It’s not just about wolf whistles, name calling and discriminatory behaviour. This is a determined effort by those in power to reverse progress, through policies and legislation that disadvantage women and those who do not sit comfortably in a narrow, outdated definition of gender and sex. Many currently in positions of power scoff at ‘identity politics’ but their own policies often specifically target LGBTQI, women and minorities. This is a war on women and the non-binary. And what is required in response is an army. The reason the original LGB initials have grown over the years has been a recognition of all gender and sexual diversities, and of the need to work together as allies. We need cis men and women, trans men and women, lesbian, bi, gay, queer and intersex all to advocate for recognition of a full spectrum of identities with equal rights and full autonomy and agency over their bodies. We need to fight for the right to choose when and whether to have children, and to support parents in finding the balance between work and childcare that suits them. We need to be allies to women and LGBTQI of colour and low socioeconomic status, who are disproportionately affected by restrictions on sexual health services. We need to challenge the binary modal whenever we are faced with it and to celebrate diversity. We need to demand that all people be safe to be themselves and live openly with whomever they choose, without fear of censure, discrimination or violence. We need to stand up for all people to have access to the career paths they choose and the healthcare outcomes they need. We need to be allies to women and LGBTQI striving to reach positions of power in business, the media and politics, and to help them change attitudes and influence policy. Together we are powerful, we are a supermajority, and this is a war we need to win.

Jacqueline MacDonald

9th May 2019

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Politics and Protest: Voices of Youth

Youthful enthusiasm and optimistic visions of how to create a better world are not new in society and politics. There are countless examples throughout modern history of students and young activists around the world taking to the streets to demand change:

  • in the US Civil Rights movement, the Greensboro lunch counter sit-in was carried out by four young men aged 17-19 and led to the creation of the SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee), while the nine students in Little Rock Arkansas, standing up against their state’s refusal to integrate their schools in 1957, were aged between 15 and 17
  • in 1968, student protests rocked cities around the world, covering a range of issues including civil rights, gender equality, environmental protection, antiwar, anti-colonialism and struggles against repressive governments
  • in South Africa in 1976, protests against the compulsory use of Afrikaans in schools originated with school children in Soweto, Johannesburg
  • in China, the iconic image of the protestor facing down a tank in Tiananmen Square, Beijing, was part of a student-led hunger strike and pro-democracy movement in 1989, calling for freedom of the press and freedom of speech
  • starting in 2010, social media helped drive anti-government demonstrations from Tunisia across Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Syria and the rest of the Middle East, in what became known as the Arab Spring

Youth people engaged in non-violent protest and civil disobedience have undoubtedly changed aspects of society but have also been met with repression, imprisonment, police brutality and military force, sometimes deadly. Government crackdowns on protesters are estimated to be responsible for 600 deaths in the Soweto protests, over 800 in Egypt’s anti-government demonstrations and 10,000 during the Tiananmen Square movement, while many others have been imprisoned in countries around the world for raising their voices. Even when governments do not use physical force, those in power who are wary of protests often attempt to suppress dissent and to demean the young who rise up, belittling their struggle for change.

Young activists today are leading the way in the efforts for climate change action. Youth-led movements such as Zero Hour and School Strike for Climate Action are using protests, school walkouts and legal action against governments to pressure politicians into taking more concrete measures to protect the future of the planet. The school strikes, which have now taken place in over 200 countries, originated with Greta Thunberg (16), who began with a weekly Friday protest outside the Swedish parliament until the government live up to its Paris Climate Agreement commitments. Her passionate, no-holds-barred speeches at Davos and the United Nations went viral and have given her a global platform. While the worldwide school strikes she inspired this March were met with support from the UN and many other world leaders, they also faced criticism, including from UK Prime Minister Theresa May and Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison. In an angry parliamentary session Morrison asserted, “we do not support our schools being turned into parliaments. What we want is more learning in schools and less activism in schools” . However, in the face of such criticism, Thunberg and thousands of school students have continued to argue that the strikes are imperative in raising awareness of the need for legislators to take decisive action now to protect the planet. For her efforts, Thunberg has been nominated by Norwegian lawmakers for the Nobel prize. To date, the youngest recipient of the Nobel Prize for Peace is Malala Yousafzai, who was 17 when she was awarded it in 2014. Malala was already renowned for her advocacy for girls’ education in the Swat Valley in Pakistan when she was shot and critically injured. The Taliban, who had banned girls from school, targeted Malala specifically to intimidate her and other girls who attempted to gain an education. However, she has used her international profile since the attempt on her life to continue to fight for equal rights for young women worldwide, and has refused to be intimidated or silenced by the violence wrought against her.

Around the world, youth movements are undeterred by criticism and threats, and are continuing to speak out for change. In the US, in light of the country’s record of violent crime, the quest for reform of the gun laws is being led by the survivors of shootings. March for Our Lives, which saw over 1.2 million people gather in Washington DC and around the US in March 2018, was organised by students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, in Parkland Florida, a little more than a month after their school had suffered a mass shooting. High profile figures from the group, including Emma Gonzalez and David Hogg, who Greta Thunberg has credited as the inspiration for her own activism, have worked together with other advocates for gun safety, co-ordinating and promoting the cause on social media. For standing up to the powerful gun manufacturers’ lobbyists in the NRA, they have been targeted by right wing media and commentators, whose tactics include photo-shopped images and the propagation of conspiracy theories that the teens are ‘crisis actors’ or left wing puppets. Similarly, in the fight for environmental protections and indigenous land rights, much of the battle against the Dakota Access Pipeline at Standing Rock was organised by young activists. The International Indigenous Youth Council and Rezpect Our Water were integral to the pushback against the oil firms and criticism of the government for granting rights to commercial interests on native lands. 12-year-old Tokata Iron Eyes and 13-year-old Anna Lee Rain Yellowhammer co-ordinated actions such as a 160,000-signature petition and a 2000-mile march on Washington DC. In response, security services set dogs on the pipeline protesters, soldiers and armed police were sent in to dismantle their camp, protesters and journalists were arrested and strip-searched, and water cannons and tear gas were fired upon them. Similar tactics have been used against the civil rights movement Black Lives Matter, whose protests have been met with riot police, and participants have been labeled ‘terrorists’ and ‘unpatriotic’. When the NFL’s Colin Kaepernick (29) protested against police brutality and discrimination by taking a knee during the national anthem, the attempts to demean and silence him and paint him as the villain reached the highest level of the nation. President Trump blasted the protest and angrily called for the NFL to take punitive action. “Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, ‘Get that son of a bitch off the field right now. Out! He’s fired. He’s fired!’”

As well as protest movements, the younger generations also have an important voice within the political process. In the UK’s 2016 Brexit referendum, only 29% of 18-24 year olds voted to leave the European Union compared with 64% of those aged over 65. Some countries, including Austria and Argentina, have a legal voting age of 16, while in Scotland, it was lowered from 18 to 16 for the independence referendum in 2014. Other countries, including Australia and the UK, have also broached the idea of giving full voting rights to 16 and 17 year olds. As there is still a tendency by many voters to cling to the image of the ‘elderly statesman’ as the ‘natural leader’, youth and diversity are vital in political representation, as well as in media and the arts, in order to reflect the full spectrum of society and provide role models for future leaders. The voices of all ages, abilities, races, religions, genders and sexual identities need to be heard, and there are signs that voters are beginning to place faith is younger, more diverse candidates. New Zealand has a 38-year old female Prime Minister and an opposition leader who is a 42-year-old Maori man. In Ireland, the Taoiseach Leo Varadkar is a 40-year-old gay man. When Justin Trudeau became Canada’s 2nd youngest ever Prime Minister, aged 43, he chose a cabinet divided 50/50 male/female, with most aged under 50, and including members who were Sikh, indigenous, refugees and with disabilities. Trudeau explained, “It’s important to be here before you today to present to Canada a cabinet that looks like Canada,… Because it’s 2015″.  The US also seems to be becoming more receptive to younger, diverse lawmakers, with current high-profile political figures including Alexandria Acasio-Cortez (29, Latina), Cory Booker (49 African-American), Stacey Abrams (45 African-American), Kyrsten Sinema (42, LGBTQ), Ilhan Omar (37, Muslim), Sharice Davids (38 LGBTQ Native American) and Pete Buttigieg (37, LGBTQ). It remains to be seen how those running in the 2020 presidential election, where voters tend to have a conservative view of what a president should be, will fare against Trump (72), Joe Biden (76) and Bernie Saunders (77). However, their success in local and congressional elections to date signals a desire from many for a variety of younger voices in government.

Of course, younger doesn’t always necessarily mean better. Experience and historical knowledge are still vital in politics and diplomacy. A 38-year-old real estate developer with no experience in public office or international relations should not be given unfettered influence at the highest level of government and be placed in charge of negotiating peace in the Middle East, finding a solution to a national opioid epidemic and developing trade relationships with Mexico and China. (However, the same could be said of a 72-year-old real estate developer with the same deficit in government experience or public service). Similarly in business, innovation, ambition and entrepreneurship must come with a share of responsibility and consideration of real-life repercussions. The lauded young tech titans like Mark Zuckerberg and Elon Musk are now discovering this, as their careless disregard for the consequences of their decisions and actions mire their companies in controversy and investigations, and endanger ordinary people. And there are also some young people who feel threatened by the changes occurring in society, who are raising their voices against diversity and inclusion. They can be heard on social media, in anti-EU sentiments in the UK, amongst Trump supporters and high-level advisers, and in acts of violent extremism and terror. At its worst, their perceived loss of status drives a hatred of, and willingness to bar or destroy, the ‘other’. Their desire is to hold onto the power, privilege and influence they feel they deserve by excluding others, or to return to some promised but imagined halcyon age, where they have been told things would have been better for them.

Thankfully, today’s youthful voices calling for a cleaner, more equitable, more compassionate, kinder society show no signs of being silenced by the trolls, commentators and politicians who fear the change they desire. Rather than belittling, demeaning, suppressing or silencing demands, the older power brokers need to listen to the voices of all sectors of society, representing a full range of experiences of the world around us. Today’s issues will have an impact on the young long after the elderly leaders of today are gone, and so it is only fair that they have a place at the table, as an integral part of the decision making process, shaping policy and planning a better future for everyone.

 

April 17th 2019

Jacqueline MacDonald

Temper Tantrums: Don’t Appease the Angry White Men

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We all recognise it. The red-faced fury, curled lip and stomped foot of the toddler tantrum. Their whole being overtaken by an unfathomable fury they can’t control, sometimes even causing them to lash out at those around them. The removal of a toy or refusal of a treat enough to reduce them to a mass of unbridled destructive emotions. Thankfully, as time passes, with guidance, the little ones learn how to express themselves rationally, how to control the negatives feelings rather than being controlled by them, and how to share the things they have with others rather than losing their minds. They become fully-functioning members of their communities and society.

It is becoming increasingly apparent however, that some little boys (and yes, I do mean boys) do not fully develop beyond the tantrum stage, and as adults that is proving to have truly horrifying consequences. And to make matters worse, there are others who suggest we pander to the angry demands of those who feel slighted rather than accepting none of their nonsense and stating firmly that they need to grow up and learn how to share.

One obvious example of a public display of privileged victimhood and resulting tantrum is Brett Kavanaugh. At a hearing in which he was supposed to exude the cool, level-headedness and rational thinking of a judge worthy of the US’s highest court, he instead became indignant that he was a victim of ‘a circus’ and ‘a calculated and orchestrated political hit’. This defensive anger and self-pity came in the face of credible and powerful accusations that he had committed sexual assault. His outrage was matched by other men on the confirmation committee, such as Senators Lindsay Graham and John Cornyn, appalled that a man of Kavanaugh’s elevated position should be asked to address such accusations at all, calling it ‘a national disgrace’ and ‘hell’.(All the Angry Men of the Kavanaugh Hearings). Kavanaugh and his supporters argued that his reputation was endangered by a woman accusing him of sexual assault, that he was the real victim in the situation and therefore justified in his ire, merely lashing out in self-defence. Kavanaugh claimed that, ‘my family and my name have been totally and permanently destroyed’ and Cornyn reassured the judge that his tantrum was justified, telling him, ‘You’re right to be angry’. Of course, there are countless examples of men facing down accusations of sexual assault by claiming victimhood, equating damage to reputation with the mental and physical trauma suffered by sexual assault survivors. Whether it’s Weinstein, Ailes, Clinton or Trump, such men will do whatever it takes to protect the position in society they see as rightfully theirs; countering women who bravely come forward to recount the most painful experience of their lives with anger, verbal attacks, belittlement or the use of their power to silence them.

The theme of men protecting what they see as rightfully theirs is all-pervasive. Even on International Women’s Day, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison could not entertain the idea of men relinquishing any power to aid women in their battle for equal rights and recognition. He made it clear in his, tone deaf at best, assertion that any societal progress made by women should in no way damage men’s status or position of privilege. “We want to see women rise. But we don’t want to see women rise only on the basis of others doing worse. We want everybody to do better, and we want to see the rise of women in this country be accelerated.”

This sense of male entitlement reaches a horrendous extreme in the cases of the killers self-identifying themselves as ‘incels’ (involuntary celibates). In the dankest corners of the internet, the incels spew hatred towards women and the men that women choose to have sex with, in fact railing against anyone who prevents the incels from getting the sexual attention they feel they deserve. This has had deadly consequences, with six fatalities in an incel-perpetrated killing in 2014 in Isla Vista, California, which then in turn inspired the murder of ten people in Toronto Canada in 2018 by another man who saw himself as a footsoldier in the war against women who denied him what he wanted. Canadian psychology professor, YouTube philosopher and doyen of men’s rights activists, Jordan Peterson, explained that such violence was inevitable because, “the masculine spirit is under assault”. Peterson, who in most circumstances rejects any redistribution interventions as Marxist, seems to agree with the incels that enforced monogamy is required to ensure men’s success, stabilise society and prevent male violence. Speaking specifically about the murderer in Toronto, he explained; “He was angry at God because women were rejecting him. The cure for that is enforced monogamy. That’s actually why monogamy emerges.”

And it’s not just women that these dangerous men-children see as threats to their status. The President of the United States is indignant that the co-equal branches of government are able to conduct investigations into his election campaign, his potential profiteering from the highest office in the land, and potentially illegal activity by his business, his foundation and himself. Feeling cornered, he has been lashing out angrily at anyone he sees as a critic or a threat in a true adult tantrum. From petted-lip complaints about being picked on by comedians, to attacks on Congress, the media and the judiciary for investigating him, to veiled threats of political violence against opponents, the President seems to be having regular roll-around-on-the-floor moments of self-absorption. He has taken to justifying his behaviour in office and protecting his presidency by claiming that his removal would cause civil unrest;
“I can tell you I have the support of the police, the support of the military, the support of the Bikers for Trump – I have the tough people, but they don’t play it tough — until they go to a certain point, and then it would be very bad, very bad”
and on being asked about his potential impeachment during an interview in the Oval Office, he said, “I think that the people would revolt if that happened.”

This type of rhetoric, attempting to justify bad behaviour when people do not get their way, is dangerous. It has also been present in the UK, where Brexit negotiations have seriously faltered and a smooth exit from the EU is highly unlikely. As some call for politicians to realise the folly of the venture and return the final decision on a deal back to the people in a second referendum, those pushing for Brexit under any circumstances have argued that any other outcome will result in far-right violence and therefore Brexit-at-any-cost is required to appease them. Pro-Brexit politician Chris Grayling caused controversy when he warned, “There’s already a nastiness and unpleasantness in our politics, more people with extreme views, more people willing to behave in an uncivilised way,” and cited the English Civil War. Blaming those who don’t give violent people what they demand rather than blaming the perpetrators of violence is a dangerous political road to take.

We cannot succumb to this kind of appeasement and justification of violence. An appalling example followed the terrorist attack in Christchurch, which specifically targeted Muslims during worship and was perpetrated by an Australian-born white man with connections to white supremacy groups. In Australia, Senator Fraser Anning, known for his inflammatory opinions on immigration, including a maiden speech calling for a “final solution” to Muslim immigration, sent tweets and released an official statement condemning the violence but blaming it on immigration rather than white nationalism: “The real cause of bloodshed on New Zealand streets today is the immigration program which allowed Muslim fanatics to migrate to New Zealand in the first place”. While Anning is one of the more extreme examples, politicians and media in Australia, New Zealand, the UK and the US have all stoked a fear of immigration and of Islam for political gain, ideas then reinforced in social media echo chambers. Anti-immigration messages have been used to drive support for Brexit, Trump and his border wall, and Australia’s off-shore detention centres, where asylum seekers, including children, are being held for years without hope. Politicians and powerful media figures have created, and capitalised on, concerns that any help and opportunities given to people trying to escape the world’s worst war zones, will result in a loss of opportunity and privilege for others. And this ‘othering’ of asylum seekers is also applied to all people of colour, including the indigenous peoples of those nations. The discrimination and attacks against them by white people are driven by an unjustified fear that advancement for the marginalised will somehow cause the white population to lose out, and perhaps, as the Christchurch terrorist believed, even be replaced. Rather than condemning these racist ideas, people like Anning resort instead to victim blaming in an attempt to justify white men’s uncontrollable anger when they feel they are being robbed of what is ‘rightfully theirs’, and of being ‘replaced’. And Christchurch is just the latest example of how deadly this appeasement of white supremacism can be.

For children younger than four, tantrums are common and a natural way to deal with the frustrations of being unable to communicate what they need. “However, if children have learned that tantrums are an effective way to get what they want or avoid what they do not want, tantrums may remain a significant problem for parents and teachers.” (National Association of School Psychologists). Pandering to an older child’s tantrums only leads to further selfish behaviour and a false sense of entitlement. “Giving the child what he or she wants will likely end the tantrum (much to the relief of parents and teachers) but will also teach the child that having a tantrum is an effective means of getting his or her way.” Similarly, we cannot appease the angry men, who perceive themselves as victims, trying to protect their position of privilege by denying opportunities to others. They cannot be allowed to justify their mistreatment, attacks on and murder of anyone they perceive to be a threat; be it women or other gender identities, people of colour and indigenous communities, or adherents to religions other than their own. We must ensure that such behaviour is never normalised, justified or accepted as a reasonable way for angry, violent white men to demand they be given everything they want.

22nd March 2019

Jacqueline MacDonald

 

 

 

Women’s Rugby: Levelling the Playing Field

The lightning pace, the strength and stamina of the athletes, the skills involved in handling and kicking an inherently unruly and unpredictable ball, the short game time and swift turnaround allowing for multiple teams to compete in a single competition, and the creative costumes and carnival atmosphere in the stands, all make rugby sevens a highly entertaining sport.

The seven-player game dates back to the 1880s in Melrose, Scotland but it took until 1973 for the first officially sanctioned international sevens competition to be held, at Murrayfield in Edinburgh. Shortly after, in 1976, the Hong Kong tournament was initiated, then the Rugby World Cup Sevens was first contested in 1993 and the annual Rugby Sevens World Series in 1999. The women’s sevens game also slowly gained popularity and recognition through the years, being included at the Hong Kong tournament from 1997. The inaugural Women’s Rugby World Cup Sevens was held in 2009, and in 2012 they joined the Sevens World Series. Both men and women competed when sevens was introduced to the Olympics in Rio in 2016, and the women joined the men for the first time at the Commonwealth Games this month on the Gold Coast, Australia.

While women’s presence at these competitions is excellent progress, they are still often seen as the second string to the men’s matches, as dictated by the usual format of the tournament. In the case of the Sevens World Series, the women’s teams do not compete in all the locations where the men’s contests are held. When the women do share a venue with the men, they are generally scheduled to play all their games on the first two days of the event, with the men’s matches played afterwards, being seen as the prestigious headliner matches. A similar format was used at the 2016 Rio Olympics. However, there are signs that this could be changing and Australia are leading the way. At the Sevens World Series event in Sydney this January, the men’s and women’s games were interspersed throughout the weekend, at each stage of the competition, with the women’s and men’s finals being played consecutively on the final evening. This format was replicated last weekend during the Commonwealth Games on the Gold Coast. This makes a lot of sense practically in terms of giving players longer rests between matches, but also is a great boost in exposure for the women’s games, allowing a larger audience to appreciate that the level of skill with which the women play the game, and the excitement and entertainment value, is equal to that of the men’s game. It can only be hoped that the other series venues see the value of this format and follow suit. Unfortunately, this year the New Zealand Rugby Union, who prides itself as the spiritual home of all things rugby, neglected to even hold a women’s sevens competition at the Hamilton Sevens World Series event, citing funding limitations. This was a very disappointing decision and one which NZ rugby superstar and try scoring genius Portia Woodman was quick to condemn. 

The Australian Rugby Union are also currently leading the way in support for the women’s XVs game. While other unions, including England, are moving their funding away from the longer game and into sevens, Australia are looking to increase the exposure of women’s XVs. As well as voicing its interest in hosting the 2021 Women’s World Cup, they have established a new domestic competition, the Super W. This coming weekend sees the final of the inaugural Super W, in which five teams representing five states have played in this round robin tournament which has been broadcast by Fox Sport. While there are still ongoing issues surrounding players’ pay for this competition, the ARU, under its new CEO Raelene Castle, is determined that players should all be supported, with access to elite level training and sports science. Meanwhile, other developments are being made in terms of player salaries, with a collective bargaining agreement being reached with the ARU guaranteeing pay parity for sevens players and payment for the women’s national XV squad for the first time. A deal has also been struck in New Zealand for the national squad, the Black Ferns, with 30 women players being offered a base salary and contracts including a maternity policy. Black Fern Kendra Cocksedge, who also performs a development role for Canterbury Rugby, highlighted the importance of the deal in encouraging girls to take up the game and see a viable future in sports.

Interest in women’s rugby is increasing and will continue to do so with further exposure to wider audiences around the world. There has been an increase of 150% since 2013 in the number of girls and women playing the game and globally 25% of all players are now women. Meanwhile, those already playing at the highest level are beginning to receive recognition for their skills and hard work. The Black Ferns, winners of the Women’s World Cup for the 5th time last year, were awarded the 2017 rugby team of the year award, the first women’s team ever to receive the title. While the playing field may not yet be totally level, things are certainly moving in the right direction for women’s rugby and it has an exciting future ahead.

17th April 2018

Science and the Sellers of Snake Oil

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The painted cart rolls into town, pulled by a couple of weary horses. Men in brightly-coloured clothing emerge and the curious townsfolk gather around them. There is music and magic, juggling, flame throwing, a ventriloquist. And there is a storyteller, drawing in the listeners with his frightening tales of deadly plagues. But fear not, he also brings tidings of wondrous protections and miraculous cures. Someone amongst the crowd testifies that, yes indeed he returned from the very doors of death due to this man’s marvellous medicine. The crowd clamours for this extraordinary elixir. Those not yet convinced are pointed out; “Won’t you be the foolish one when everyone is protected bar you?” They too succumb and part with their hard-earned coins. And as quickly and suddenly as the travelling show arrived, it is gone.

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Such travelling medicine shows date back as far as the Dark Ages in Europe, back to an era when other forms of entertainment such as circuses and theatres were banned. In some areas these hawkers of miracle cures were called mountebanks, in France they were known as charlatans. The tradition was transported to the colonies, including the US where it continued on through the 19th century. These sellers of ‘snake oil’ would roll into town, provide entertainment to rural communities where there was little else available, tell tales that instilled a sense of fear or need into their rapt audience before making grandiose claims about the curative properties of their product. These potions generally had no medicinal attributes whatsoever but often contained stimulants such as alcohol, opium or cocaine, which at least made the purchasers happy with their transaction in the short term. By the time buyers’ remorse had set in, the show had already left town. It was a classic ‘bait and switch’.

What finally brought these schemes to an end in the US in the early 20th century were the advent of other entertainment forms, most notably the cinema, and the government regulation of medicine through departments including the FDA and AMA. What may also have contributed was the population’s increasing awareness of the use of ‘pseudoscience’ as a marketing technique. Pre-Enlightenment populations could be forgiven for falling for the salesman’s spiel, not having our luxury of access to scientifically proven data. However, we are all still familiar with the marketing techniques employed by the travelling medicine shows, broadcast 24 hours a day on our shopping channels and with figures like Dr Oz given a platform by the likes of Oprah Winfrey. Why, in spite of the progress made in science and the scientific consensus that now exists in so many aspects of our lives, are we still susceptible to pseudoscience and quackery?

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In spite of the many advances of science which have improved our everyday lives, many people still remain sceptical. Undoubtedly scientific developments have not always had positive outcomes (the nuclear bomb and other weapons of mass destruction would be one obvious example) but scientific evidence can also present a challenge to people’s strongly-held beliefs and ideologies. To those for whom free-market ideals are essential, science can pose a threat as it can lead to regulation. Libertarians may resist scientific evidence which supports the imposition of mandatory behaviour (such as vaccinating children). Science can be seen as a challenge to religious doctrine, as in the case of evolution and creationism. People with a distrust of big industries, such as ‘Big Pharma’, may challenge the science along with the business ethics of such corporations. Added to these ideological barriers, there is also the fact that scientific findings can often be very counterintuitive. We tend to find randomness very difficult to process and this can lead us to seeing causation where it doesn’t exist. We are more easily influenced by personal anecdotes than statistics and the results of years of peer-reviewed research. On top of these factors, there is also the issue of industries and companies funding scientific research for those willing to cast doubt on any scientific consensus seen as detrimental to that industry. Many of the same scientists who were bankrolled by tobacco firms to cast doubt on the links between smoking and cancer are now being funded by fossil fuel giants to lead the cry in climate change denial. These ‘findings’ are then grasped upon by the media and disseminated on the internet, which results in the magnifying of their significance and validity (For more on this topic, Merchants of Doubt by Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway is essential reading). Even when such ‘bad’ science is debunked, it is very difficult to make people change their minds.

Whatever a person’s reason for doubting science, it is important to remember that science denial can be deadly. Even now, 18 years after the report linking the measles vaccination to autism was debunked and retracted, there is still a vocal and powerful anti-vac movement. Vaccination rates in the US are the lowest they’ve been since they first became available. Who will take responsibility when an outbreak of measles occurs and claims children’s lives? How many smoking-related deaths were there before the tobacco industry admitted that they knew about the health dangers? What will the global consequences be of delayed action to combat climate change?

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The way to overcome the misinterpretations, misunderstandings and mistrust of science is through education. The teaching of scientific thought and processes, not just science itself, is essential. People need to understand the scientific method and consensus gained through peer reviewing and result reproduction, to know how to recognise and debunk pseudoscience, how to separate statistical evidence from anecdotal. People need to be taught how to identify the truth amidst the lies and misinformation. Otherwise, we are all vulnerable to a colourful, flamboyant, entertaining man who comes to town spreading tales of threats and dangers; a charlatan who bombastically claims that only he has the cure.

22nd November 2016
Dead Media Archive Traveling Medicine Show
http://cultureandcommunication.org/deadmedia/index.php/Traveling_Medicine_Show

National Geographic Why Do Many Reasonable People Doubt Science?
http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2015/03/science-doubters/achenbach-text

Celebrity Survivor: Trump Edition

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Donald J. Trump will be the 45th President of the USA. While many people struggle to get their heads around the reality of this, the postmortem of the election campaign season is well underway, and there are many possible explanations for Trump’s victory:

  • a genuine feeling amongst many of the population that the political system, and those with power within in it, have left them behind economically and are not heeding their concerns. Trump’s ‘Make America Great Again’ campaign harnessed a desire for the ‘good ol’ days’, offered a non-politician to ‘sweep clean’ Washington and pitted ‘urban elites’ against an ‘underclass’ abandoned by globalisation whilst promising renewed prosperity;
  • a breakdown in left-wing politics which have become more centrist, leaving many to feel abandoned and unrepresented by the political process and the dominance of the two main parties;
  • a failure within the mainstream media to counter lies and unacceptable behaviour from the very beginning of the campaign, creating a false equivalency between the two candidates, while social media circulated fake news to a huge number of people unchallenged;
  • the eleventh-hour intervention by James Comey which only helped bolster the perception of Hilllary Clinton as “crooked”;
  • the general backlash that almost always occurs following a two-term presidency, with people seeing wholesale change as the solution to dissatisfaction;
  • the additional aspect of a ‘whitelash’ in response to eight years of the first African-American president;
  • a last-gasp attempt to retain control by white members of the population who feel threatened by immigration and the global, multi-cultural nature of the world today, with the growing voices of ethnic minorities;
  • a deep-seated rejection of a female president by a society conditioned to believe that women are not suited to positions of power;
  • a resistance to ‘identity politics’ and a fear that any gains made in society by women, people of colour, non-Christians, indigenous peoples and members of the LGBTQ community result in an equivalent loss of influence to those who see themselves as the core of America’s ‘European” (WASPish) culture.

Trump’s success is probably due to a heady cocktail of all of these influences, with individual’s choices to vote, and who to vote for, driven by a combination of factors within their own lives. But perhaps there is another component which should be added to the list: Trump’s election could be seen as an oblivious conclusion for the nation which leads all others in its elevation of celebrity to the highest possible level of ambition and achievement.

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Recognition is essential in gaining the votes of the population and optics are vital in presidential campaigns, with the televised debates dating back to 1960. There is no shortage of examples of successful political candidates with whom the voting public were already familiar before they ventured into public office, including Clint Eastwood, Arnold Schwarzenegger and of course President Ronald Reagan. Trump and Clinton were possibly two of the most recognisable candidates ever to run for the presidency, but while Clinton’s life had been in the stuffy world of policy and public service, best known to many for her husband’s libido, Trump was a ‘real’ celebrity with 14 seasons of a reality television show behind him. The requirements of public office were once intelligence, hard work and experience, in the form of years of public service. However, celebrity often seems to be valued above all other qualities in the US today, with people regularly achieving a degree of fame and riches for no other discernible achievement or talent than appearing on television. Trump is media savvy and, with his background in reality tv, understood the system, fully aware that his outrageous rhetoric and behaviour would be grasped upon by the media, garnering him hours of free attention. For Trump, all publicity is good publicity.

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Meanwhile, Michelle Obama gave what were undoubtedly the best speeches of the election season but her description of Hillary Clinton perhaps betrayed a failure to understand what the qualities are that many in the population really value today:

The fact is that Hillary embodies so many of the values that we try so hard to teach our young people. We tell our young people “Work hard in school, get a good education.” We encourage them to use that education to help others — which is exactly what Hillary did with her college and law degrees, advocating for kids with disabilities, fighting for children’s health care as First Lady, affordable child care in the Senate.”
Michelle Obama cites the value of education while much of the Trump campaign involved sneering at ‘elites’, a term used disparagingly as a poorly-cloaked attack on ‘experts’ and those from the ‘liberal’ colleges. Post-truth politics as it has been called doesn’t care about facts and critical thinking, and indeed prefers that people employ neither. Just like reality television, the preference is for highly-fabricated and orchestrated interactions masquerading as truth.

We teach our kids the value of being a team player, which is what Hillary exemplified when she lost the 2008 election and actually agreed to work for her opponent as our Secretary of State — earning sky-high approval ratings serving her country once again.”
Next, Hillary is lauded as a team player but the whole basis of much of reality television is that of a fight for individual survival, with The Apprentice being a perfect example with its dog-eat-dog, backstabbing nature. The show, in emulating Trump’s approach to business, tells us there can be only one winner and any means needed to take down your rivals are acceptable.

We also teach our kids that you don’t take shortcuts in life, and you strive for meaningful success in whatever job you do. Well, Hillary has been a lawyer, a law professor, First Lady of Arkansas, First Lady of the United States, a U.S. senator, Secretary of State. And she has been successful in every role, gaining more experience and exposure to the presidency than any candidate in our lifetime — more than Barack, more than Bill. And, yes, she happens to be a woman.”
Finally, the First Lady praises the rejection of short cuts in attaining success while the media and entertainment today teach us that education, training and the thousands of hours of practice required to hone a skill or talent can be bypassed if you are willing to behave outrageously on television or the Internet. In spite of Trump’s total political inexperience and highly questionable knowledge of how government and the international community operate, he has skipped the whole process of learning by gaining attention and support through bad behaviour, soundbites and rhetoric capitalising on fear.

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When twelve women came forward with allegations of sexual assault against Trump following his open admission that he uses his position of power to press unwanted advances upon women, his campaign dismissed them all as liars. When pushed in interviews to explain why the women might lie about such traumatic ordeals, Trump’s surrogate Katrina Pierson suggested it could be for their 15 minutes of fame. Trump himself gave the same reasoning at one of his rallies.  For many this is a horrifying explanation, being inconceivable that someone would voluntarily subject themselves to the scrutiny, scepticism and vilification that people face when they go public with allegations of abuse and rape. But to Trump and many others, to whom fame, regardless of the route taken to it, is the pinnacle of success, it may seem a logical conclusion to make.

Trump capitalised on his fame, raising it to such a level that his serious shortcomings and offences (failed businesses, tax avoidance, fraud cases, sexual assault, racist policies, misogyny, unsteady temperament, lack of experience, absence of knowledge) were either ignored or deemed irrelevant by many. Meanwhile, any one of Trump’s failings would have been disqualifying for a ‘regular’ political candidate. However, Trump’s obvious narcissism is a positive quality in the world of celebrity and he succeeded in turning the election campaign, from the primaries on through the presidential competition, into the ultimate reality television show. One by one he eliminated his GOP rivals, employing name calling and insults in his bullying strongman act. In his final showdown with Clinton he continued his use of intimidation and smear tactics to gain the upper hand. At the debates, while Clinton presented policies and was knowledgable and prepared, Trump genuinely believed he had won with his yelling, name calling, stalking and by threatening his opponent. These are all elements that are instantly recognisable to today’s television audiences as the qualities required by an ultimate ‘survivor’.  It now appears that from the very beginning the Immunity Idol had been Trump’s and ultimately he has defeated all opposition and been voted victor.

16th November 2016

Man in a Suit: The Hypocrisy of Clothing Bans

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No woman in a burqa (or a hijab or a burkini) has ever done me any harm. But I was sacked (without explanation) by a man in a suit. Men in suits missold me pensions and endowments, costing me thousands of pounds. A man in a suit led us on a disastrous and illegal war. Men in suits led the banks and crashed the world economy. Other men in suits then increased the misery to millions through austerity. If we are to start telling people what to wear, maybe we should ban suits (Reader’s letter to Guardian UK)

This London-based reader’s letter to The Guardian newspaper last week about France’s recent burkini ban attracted quite a bit of attention and was widely shared on social media. Perhaps the reason it resonated with so many people is that it succinctly highlighted the main issues surrounding the controversial ban.

Firstly, it drew attention to the fact that, not only historically but still today, there is an acceptance of telling a woman what to wear that suddenly seems ridiculous when you suggest it be applied to male clothing. A law introduced in 2004 in secular France calls for the banning of religious symbols in schools but it has been almost solely applied to the hijab, and a 2011 law against face coverings is seen to be mainly targeting the burqa in wider society where it is claimed to be a threat to security. It has not been widely suggested that men in public should be prohibited from having beards or wearing a keffiyeh, turban or yarmulke. In fact France recently assured a concerned India that there would be no ban of men wearing turbans in public. It is women who are being scapegoated to mitigate the actions of men. Just as in some countries Islamic fundamentalists dictate the dress of women in order to temper the desires of men and their ‘uncontrollable urges’, so too France are punishing women in order to maintain “social order” (ie preventing xenophobic fights and arguments). Not only are the secular laws being applied most strictly to women, but specifically to Muslim women, with many people pointing out the hypocrisy that it would be unthinkable to confront a Christian nun on a beach and demand she remove her habit.

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And this leads to the second aspect of the letter; the ridiculous suspicion and demonisation of all members of a group numbering well over a billion people. The obviously facetious suggestion that suits be banned because of the dire consequences of the actions of some in the professional and political world highlights the ridiculousness of associating clothing with damaging behaviour. It’s worrying that we need to be reminded that the actions perpetrated by one person wearing an item of clothing cannot be applied to all. The letter also highlights the distinction made between the perception of damage caused by Islamic ideology versus the harm caused by the actions of those in the banking and economic sectors. Undoubtedly more people in the US and Europe have been directly impacted by the 2008 Global Financial Crisis and austerity than by acts perpetrated by fundamentalists in the name of Islam. And yet there it is a climate of fear around Muslims that has been nurtured by politicians and the media, while those responsible for the economic meltdown have widely gone unpunished.

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Finally, the example of the suit reminds us that we are all under societal pressures to present ourselves in a certain way for particular purposes. It is from an early age, with school uniforms, that ideas of uniformity are instilled within us. Many of us work in environments that require formal wear and there are cultural expectations surrounding our attire when we attend a wedding or a funeral. Most of us adhere to these social ‘dress codes’ so as to avoid offending people or causing friction with family and friends. Many voice the battle against the burqa as a crusade for the rights of women, forced to cover themselves up, but we should remember, we are not so liberal ourselves. We claim we have the choice but there are many examples in schools, such as the case this week at Hartsdown Academy in the UK, and in the workplace where not abiding by the dress code has consequences surrounding success and opportunity. Many women experience the discomfort of high heels, not to mention the physical consequences of wearing them, but there are still cases of their wear being enforced, such as the case earlier this year of the PWC office temp sent home for wearing flats and the Cannes Film Festival red carpet incident of the barring of guests not wearing heels.

Many people say they are happy to put on a suit every day, feeling comfortable with the image of respectability and efficiency it generally projects. Many women choose to wear high heeled shoes, making them feel elegant and sexy. And that is fine, but the key point in all of this is the element of choice. We are all subject to societal pressures around what we wear but we can choose to conform or not. In France, most women who wear a burqa, hijab or burkini do it because they choose to, with as much agency as any of us do while aware of social expectation and propriety. We can criticise cultures which enforce dress codes but should remember that we too are under societal pressure. The problem comes when this pressure and expectation is written into law and enforced by police and all elements of choice are removed. It should be obvious that a police officer telling a women to remove a full-body swimsuit is no better than a morality police member telling a woman to cover her head, and that is why France’s latest actions are so hypocritical and have caused so much justified outrage.

 

9th September 2016