MEN ARE FROM MARS, WOMEN ARE FROM EARTH: UNDERSTANDING THE ‘CATCALL’ VIDEO CONTROVERSY.

When I first saw the Hollaback “catcall” video, showing the harassment experienced by Shoshana Roberts as she walked through New York City for 10 hours, I was disturbed.

I wasn’t disturbed by the unwanted, incessant and often aggressive intrusions into her day, like I should have been, however.   No.   My knee-jerk reaction was to be offended for myself.

It’s not that I had ever engaged in “cat-calling” or forced myself aggressively into a woman’s personal space after being told to leave. I had, however, at various points in my life, engaged in some of the behaviour I was now being told constitutes harassment.

I had, in my younger days, plucked up what I thought was the courage to walk up to a stranger and “compliment” her in hopes that an opportunity would arise for me to ask for her telephone number and “take things further”. I thought, at the time, that I was the one who was vulnerable. I was the one opening myself up to rejection, after all.

“How can anyone suggest that introducing yourself to a woman on the street and paying her a compliment is even in the same ballpark as sexual harassment”, I thought to myself. “I’m all for feminism but this is just taking it too far.”

But that’s the thing about knee-jerk reactions. They’re rarely a response to what is actually being said and almost always an emotional reaction to seeing your comfortable self-image crumble before your eyes. None of us can fully escape our social conditioning and in that video, I saw a complete rejection of the juvenile identity I had been holding onto in the hopes of stemming the inevitable tide of self-pity that accompanies growing older.

So my shattered ego and I decided to reflect on the untimely death of my most cherished delusion. I read the responses of women to the video. I listened to their stories. I found myself piecing together unacknowledged female narratives and trying to understand the lived-experience of a woman living in a still-too-patriarchal society

It’s unlikely that any of the men in the video will ever pay the slightest attention to studies like the one published by the United Nations General Assembly reporting that 22% of high school students and 32% of college students in the U.S. claimed to have been victims of dating violence and an astounding 83% of girls attending public schools in grades 8 to 11 have experienced some form of sexual harassment.

Far from being an inherently American problem, a research report published by Professor Donna Chung and the White Ribbon Campaign reported that, since the age of fifteen, 40% of Australian women reported at least one incident of physical or sexual violence, 33% experienced inappropriate comments about their body or sex life, 25% experienced unwanted sexual touching and 19% had been subjected to stalking. Another survey, conducted by the Australian Human Rights Commission, reported that 25% of women aged 15 years and older have experienced sexual harassment in the workplace in the five years previous.

As most of us receive this information with a shake of the head, express the required level of disgust and get on with our days, women are paying much closer attention.

Women are noticing the fact that our culture’s sporting heroes are subjected to the mildest sanctions for committing horrific acts of violence against women. In the U.S., when it was found that American Football coaches were encouraging violence against opponents, the sport’s governing body immediately issued an indefinite ban against those involved. When, however, it was discovered that a star player had assaulted his girlfriend, knocking her unconscious, the immediate response of that same governing body was to ban the player for two games. Again, this is not just an American problem. Similarly shocking acts of domestic violence committed by Australian footballers have warranted bans amounting to a mere two-thirds of a season. It’s unlikely that these facts are informing the narratives of the men in the video.

And before we absolve ourselves from any responsibility for the degenerate moral values of these psychotic thugs, take some time to consider the utter banality with which sexism and misogyny are accepted and normalised in our society; a banality that makes the denigration and objectification of women a frighteningly rational attitude to possess.

The success of last year’s biggest selling song, after all, was predicated on three fully clothed, middle-aged men dancing around a group of almost-naked twenty-something women and spouting phrases like:

you know you want it”

“you the hottest bitch in this place

I’ll give you something big enough to tear your ass in two.”

Ours, it seems, is a culture in which a popular rapper who brags about “buffaloing hoes” and releases a single concerned entirely with sexualising female buttocks, can show up weeks later at the side of Elmo on Sesame Street to teach pre-schoolers the meaning of the word “astounded“.

Stop, drop and pop it

And after you pop it, please put it in my pocket

Look here, I need a sponsor, we can turn the city out

You remind me of my drop top, titties out

(Thank you Sesame Street for unintentionally providing the perfect illustration).

Again, in case you want to place the blame squarely on those “uncultured” Americans, the co-rapper who on the same track, offers such lyrical gems as:

I like bad bitches in the club that control it; and

Don’t interrupt me when I’m talking to the booty

is the same rapper that “mentors” young and aspiring singers, toward industry success, on one of Australia’s most popular prime-time television shows.

Women are fully conscious of the fact that ours is a world in which a woman expressing concern at the difficulty faced when accessing birth control is called a “slut” and a “prostitute” by one of America’s most popular radio personalities. The same individual, a mere two years later, was named “author of the year” by the Children’s Book Council.

It’s not just overpaid and under-talented entertainers who engage in this type of recreational misogyny. Our country’s own illustrious leader is a veritable suppository [sic] of douchebag wisdom:

a womans virginity the greatest gift she could give her husband,

this idea that sex is kind of a woman’s right to absolutely withhold, just as the idea that sex is a man’s right to demand I think theyboth need to be moderated“.

[abortion is an] objectively grave matter [that] has been reduced to a question of the mothers convenience.”

Ours is a leader who strategically places himself under signs calling his country’s first female Prime Minister another male politician’s “bitch” and reduces the merits of his own party’s female candidates to their “sex appeal.

Even more concerning is the fact that he can do and say all of these things prior to being overwhelmingly elected to lead the country.

And while many commentators describe incidents such as these as ‘amusing faux-pas’ or ‘a bit of harmless fun’, most women know better. They are noticing these trends and using them to inform the reality with which they must contend and it’s a reality distinctly different from that which exists in every wannabe Prince Charming’s self-absorbed mind.

Far more potently than exposing the harassment that a woman is forced to endure for simply walking down the street, the plethora of trivialising and condescending responses to the video reveals how easy it is to dismiss as irrelevant an experience that doesn’t accord with one’s own.

Men take for granted the fact that we rarely have our personal safety in the forefront of our minds, that our choice of clothing rarely impacts upon the dignity we are afforded and that we are not judged almost exclusively on our ability to satisfy a particular patriarchal aesthetic.

Our apathy is working wonders to vindicate the anxieties and confirm the disturbing reality of the female experience.

A reality in which, again and again, entertainers who apply condescending and derogatory labels to women are applauded and awarded; invited into our homes by doting talk show hosts complete with screaming audiences and without a single challenge to their destructive artistry.

A reality in which our sons, at younger and younger ages, are encouraged to value sexual promiscuity as a badge of honour and find peer approval predominantly through their sexual domination of women.

How any woman is expected to ignore the casualness with which her oppression is being perpetuated and refrain from incorporating it into her world-view, is beyond me.

If men can take something constructive away from the controversy surrounding the “catcall” video, it’s this: stop taking personal umbrage at the rebukes of a woman who refuses to subject herself to uninvited attention. Your emotional energy is better spent trying to understand the lived-experience of a woman living in a society which continues to celebrate women as objects of adornment or, at worst, passive objects of men’s violent sexual desires.

If this is a bridge too far for most, then perhaps simply shutting up and listening to what women are saying will have to suffice: despite whatever noble intentions you believe your uninvited advances are designed to convey, they make women feel unsafe and uncomfortable and they want you to stop.

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SAM HARRIS’S “MODERATE DILEMMA”.

Earlier this month, Hollywood heavyweight Ben Affleck appeared as a panelist on Real Time with Bill Maher and engaged in a heated debate with the so-called “New Atheist” Sam Harris on the topic of Islam. Affleck lost his cool and accused both Maher and Harris of Islamophobia, racism and “grossness”. Footage of the spat went viral and anyone wading through the ad-hominem and unrestrained emotion, attempting to piece together the few bits of rational argument that could be salvaged from the spectacle, found themselves no closer to understanding Harris’s point of view.

For what its worth, I do not believe Harris to be an ‘Islamophobe’, a ‘bigot’ or a ‘racist. A careful reading of Harris’s work shows him to be clearly speaking to Islamic text (the Q’uran and Sunnah) and drawing from it an ontologically knowable “essence” of Islam, as it were, that accords with far too much of Islamist rhetoric and behaviour.

Harris rightly calls for self-reflexive dialogue with the Islamic world. He seems, however, to want to restrict this debate to the parameters of an Essentialist and Rationalist mindset. Any debate between two positions that claim to have knowledge of the ontological essence of Islam is doomed to stagnancy. Harris articulates his position lucidly and rationally and more than adequately defends his understanding of Islam within this limited sphere of discourse because, frankly, he is at a distinct advantage- faith is, at its core, an irrational concept and the plain reading of much of Islamic text rationally supports his thesis. In the superficial realm of television debate- one that can’t delve to question Islamic essentialism- the philosophical nature of his conclusion is lost in the spectacle and leaves him open to misunderstanding. This may be to some extent a nature of the beast Harris chooses to employ in conveying his message but rather than engage with the philosophical objections to his conclusions in any serious way, Harris continues to use language that confuses his thesis and renders it liable to reasonable accusations of inconsistency.

Harris’s Essentialism is apparent in much of his commentary: Islamic moderates, in Harris’s view “are lying about the Q’uran”, “adopt an unprincipled use of reason”, “hold intellectually bankrupt views” and “don’t take their faith seriously. Islamic fundamentalists, on the other hand, practice the “actual doctrines” of Islam and “manifest precisely the vision of life that the Q’uran prescribes to all Muslims”. “The transformation of Islam into a benign religion”, states Harris “requires a miracle of re-interpretation.”

Harris thus maintains a clear notion of Islam’s singularity- and for him it’s distinctly evil. Anyone who identifies as a Muslim and chooses not to see this, in Harris’s view, is not only wrong, but intellectually dishonest and delusional.

If, in ordinary parlance, “Muslim” is defined as an adherent of “Islam” and if Islam comprises the singularity that Harris identifies, those who self- identify as Muslims but do not subscribe to Harris’s vision of Islam, inevitably become “not-Muslim Muslims”. Of course, this does not accord with their narrative and they inevitably reject it. Harris must then turn his focus on the legitimacy of his philosophical conclusions to prove them wrong or simply agree to disagree and end the discussion.

This is not what Harris does, however. His commentary also contains statements such as “Muslims must be obliged to do the work of reinterpretation” and “moderate Muslims must be given the tools to win the war of ideas with their co-religionists.” In other places, and in contrast to his otherwise unequivocal condemnation of the “actual” Islam, he claims that Islamic fundamentalism provides a plausible [as opposed to the only possible] interpretation of Islam.

The trouble with this language is that it belies a concession that perhaps Harris does not wish to make: that it is possible for Islam to be or to become an Islam that that is not as Harris is describing at its core. Once this concession is made, an ontological dilemma presents itself for Harris: what he argues that Islam is, is precisely what Islam is not to many Muslims. What he argues Islam should become, is precisely what Islam is to many Muslims.

Harris thus creates a linguistic paradox from which he cannot or will not extricate himself; one that “not-Muslim Muslims” cannot help but be troubled by.

A clearer example of his dilemma is found in his statement that:

Moderates rely on modern-secular values…as a basis for reinterpreting and ignoring the most despicable parts of their Holy Books”.

If moderates are, in fact, ignoring parts of their holy book, then by their very own standards they fall within the category of “not-Muslim”. If, however, they are reinterpreting their holy books, then this affords them the privilege of maintaining a position within an Islamic narrative. Harris seems to abide it both ways.

When confronted with the notion that Islam is a far more unstable entity than he will concede, Harris prevaricates by producing poll results and statistics, arguing that there are far too many people who identify as Muslims and who hold violent and extreme views- views that find validation in a plain reading of Islamic doctrine. He contrasts this with the vast majority of Christians and Jews who are “not guided by scripture” (or who reinterpret their scripture to suit otherwise determined values). Whilst this is undeniable it is, with respect, a problem separate and distinct from the possibility of Islamic pluralism.

By choosing neither to engage nor to be unequivocal, Harris imprisons himself, somewhat, in the confidence of his own claims, forcing him into a semantic juggling act and leaving his views vulnerable to criticisms of inconsistency and uncertainty.

If Harris does not allow for the existence of multiple Islams, then opposition to his position becomes a matter of ontological difference and he must resist the challenges of opposing non-essentialist positions- positions that deny the existence of an Islamic “essence” and the singularity of meaning in Islamic text. If Harris does accept the possibility of Islamic pluralism, then his hesitation to engage becomes even more problematic.

In fairness to Harris, this is not an easy or insignificant step to take. Convincing “not-Muslim Muslims” of his thesis would require a thorough and careful de-legitimisation of a vast legacy of anti-essentialist Islamic scholarship as well as the powerful work of many postmodern theologians and commentators.

As an admirer of Harris, however, and also as someone who believes postmodern thought may hold the key to the necessary bridging of the cultural divide, I would like to see Harris enter the realm of non-essentialist, non-rationalist discourse.

Harris’s analysis, as rational as it may be, does not, in and of itself, reflect the spectrum of what Islam is “in-the-world”. In its abstraction of doctrine from the phenomenological and lived experience of most Muslims, Harris’ Islamic ideal is not reflective of the plurality of Islamic praxis. It fails to recognise the vast number who self-identify as Muslim but who struggle with their faith and their understanding of their religious “duties”; it disregards the reality of those with little familiarity with the Quran and the Sunnah and nevertheless proudly proclaim themselves Muslim. It ignores those whose religious views are shaped by and un-annexable from their cultural and social conditioning and political realities.

More importantly, it is not reflective of the personal and individualist character that contemporary religion adopts. The “essence” of religious adherence, despite “official” doctrines or edicts to the contrary, has become (some would argue always was) that of choice.

By creating a paradigm in which the fundamentalist, the moderate, the mystic, the non-practicing, the pragmatic, the doubtful (and every other possible identity that exists within that we choose to label “Islam”) are forced into a monolithic whole of falsified certainty, Harris dooms to failure his noble goal of solving the problem of Islamic Fundamentalism. The entire spectrum of attitude, belief, uncertainty and struggle is reduced to a single word, a single idea that is capable of a single, rational and objective analysis.

The inevitable result of this kind of reductionism is to deny human beings the ability to engage in the most fundamental existential practice, that of identity construction- the creation of one’s own narrative and the identification of one’s place within it. To violate this right is to engage in an orthodoxy that enables rather than confronts oppression and removes an essential element of human well-being. Attempts to place limits on the available narratives are problematic at best and paradoxical at worst.

Epistemological challenges can also be be heard from poststructuralist thinkers raising fundamental questions about the nature of communication and the determinacy of meaning. Arguments that interpretation is essentially an exercise in oscillation between undecidable meanings and shaped largely by external forces and the dynamics of power are especially potent when discussing texts written some 1400 years ago in a social reality utterly distant from ours in time, culture and language.

This is not merely a theoretical abstraction. Much of the Sufi tradition is predicated upon the instability of meaning in Islamic text. Sufis insist upon an ontology of “creative imagination” and the notion that “God intends all possible meanings.” Revelling in the indeterminacy of meaning, Sufis draw upon esoteric meanings that contradict common sense and yet profoundly shape their worldly behaviour. Would it suffice for Harris if the entire Muslim world were to turn to Sufism, within a framework of Liberal values, for their religious inspiration or is the mere possibility of literal interpretation a deal-breaker?

Of course, as soon as Harris finds his ears (or his email) defiled by the phrase “there is nothing outside of the text” he is likely to appeal to his self-evident philosophical values and accuse those who do not share them of intellectually dishonesty, to be refused entry into all discussion. And who really possesses the truly unnatural patience required to debate ontology or epistemology with a Sufi or a Deconstructionist? Fine. We can then turn our attention, no doubt with Harris’ blessing, to those rare occasions when Essentialism and Rationalism deigned to engage postmodern thought in any meaningful dialogue.

But what then of the more pragmatic concerns borne of postmodern thought more generally:  the notion that Democracy, rather than a combination of particular characteristics, able to be transferred inter-culturally and at will, is a “general attitude of self-criticism” and that this is what should be fostered in the non-Western world?

And what of the notion that the “ever reducing otherness” or alterity of Islamic fundamentalism, evident in the incredibly disturbing phenomenon of “hipster jihadism” requires us to take a far more nuanced approach than that of framing discussion in terms of irreducible pairs?

What is Harris’s response to the charge that it is, in fact, secularisation that has been co-opted and corrupted by Eurocentric atheists and that this “cultural war” is not a product of the refusal to separate religion and politics but of their framing as opposing forces?

Does Harris dispute, even if purely as a matter of pragmatism, that the most effective means of defeating Islamic fundamentalism is by promoting a form of secularisation in the Muslim world that takes root and flourishes within that world, just as Western secularisation was a phenomenon that developed within a framework of Christianity? Harris, to some extent, accepts the notion that spirituality and secularisation can co-exist but flatly rejects the possibility of this secularity being framed by prevailing monotheisms.

Hermeneutic elasticity is a common and perceivable phenomenon in all text-based theism. This may well be a convenient illusion, reflective of the struggle to preserve one’s faith for what one perceives to be one’s own well-being or “salvation” and to adapt that faith to independently developed values, in order to maintain a semblance of rationality in an ever evolving and civilised society. Understanding and accepting this phenomenon, however, and appropriating it it to humanity’s advantage requires more than the exegetical application of the Internet meme: “I do not think it means what you think it means”.

Given the fundamentally irrational leap of faith required to become a member of any organised religion, the argument that rationality is not the correct standard to apply when deducing and evaluating the tenets and beliefs of that very irrationality, is compelling. How someone arrives at an understanding of their faith that accords with my values and freedoms- whether it is through cherry-picking of scripture or “reinterpretation” is of little intellectual interest or consequence to me, as an atheist. For those who identify as Muslim, however, it is the very glue that binds them to their personal narrative. Is it not, again in terms of pure pragmatism, far more sensible to develop and promote these more moderate Islamic narratives, even if they are accidental constructs, rather than insisting upon the impossible dream of complete identity abandonment?

That we must engage in a dialogue with moderate Islam in which Muslims enter into critical reflection of both themselves and their faith is surely evident. Equally evident, however, is that the means by which that invitation is extended falls somewhere along a determinable spectrum of productivity. It is by engaging in non-essentialist, postmodern dialogue, one that seeks to preserve rather than destroy identity, with an acceptance that we may never find an abstract “truth” to hang our hat on, that we stand the best chance of overcoming the ever more frightening reality of Islamic fundamentalism.

And perhaps we arrive at the crux of Harris’s “moderate dilemma”. Any attempt to solve the insidious problem that Harris rightly identifies desperately needs the wholehearted commitment of as many “not-Muslim Muslims” as he can assemble and yet the certainty of his philosophical convictions cannot but completely alienate them.

 

 

 

CONDEMNING THE RADICALS AND APPEASING THE CONSCIENCE: 3 FIGURES AHEAD OF THEIR TIME.

He was a product of his time“, we often hear in an attempt to salvage a reputation tarnished by the passage of time and the shifting of moral norms. With uncharacteristic generosity we sympathise with and seek to understand the historical context framing conduct that makes us uncomfortable: the lengths to which our predecessors went in their rejection of others’ humanity or to escape their authentic selves; the outdated and offensive beliefs of our parents and grandparents, and perhaps most painfully, the distasteful words and actions peppered within the celebrated biographies and oeuvres of our icons.

And so we continue push the boulder of our nostalgic perfectionism upon the mountain of history’s imperfection.

Were that this was the extent of our apologetics, however.   All too often we condemn the radicals; those who resisted the virtue of expedience and their social conditioning to exhibit an activism equally finite, yet more forceful than that of their more palatable contemporaries. We remember them as troublemakers and impeders of progress; we dismiss their vast contributions to the moral development that our generation has been gifted, preferring our rose-coloured heroes who “got stuff done” through careful pragmatism, moderation or moral dissimulation. By privileging “results” over “principles” and condemning the vehement unorthopraxy of history’s black sheep, we paradoxically reject the standards we apply to our ideal selves. In successfully rationalising the limitations of our idols, we can forgive the uncertainty of our own moral fidelity and maintain a semblance of consistency in our unrelenting hero-worship.

So here’s to the stubborn radicals, with equal flaws and motives perhaps cloudy, yet prepared to go that extra step or two in remaining loyal to their innermost beliefs and values. Here’s to learning something from their example; if nothing else, the extent to which our deepest convictions are able to withstand the pressures of our social environment but also the futility of idolisation and the upper limits of the pragmatism that even the most adamant of beliefs fails to eclipse.

 

Jeremy Bentham

Jeremy Bentham (1748- 1832), the prodigious English philosopher and social activist, is universally acknowledged as a towering figuring in political science and jurisprudence and one of the founding fathers of the highly influential school of Utilitarianism.

His forthright commitment to moral consequentialism led him to outspoken critiques of patriarchal oppression and an unparalleled urgency in establishing equal rights for women. Describing as “imbecility” the practice of relegating women based on perceptions of inferiority, Bentham “argued for an almost total emancipation-for a political freedom that would allow women to vote and to participate as equals in the legislative and executive branches of government.”  He advocated “a personal freedom that would allow women to obtain a divorce and demanded some adjustment of the double standard in sexual matters”.

Such conviction, notable even in today’s political climate, displays a singular courage in seeking to subvert the prevailing power structures of his time.

“[I]f anyone doubts Bentham’s services [to the cause of women’s equality]”, wrote Sir Leslie Stephen, “I will only suggest to him to compare Bentham with any of his British contemporaries, and to ask where he can find anything at all comparable to his attempt to bring light and order into a chaotic infusion of compromise and prejudice.”

Bentham’s moral foresight, seemingly boundless, found further expression in Offences Against One’s Self, a powerful critique of the legal and moral condemnations of homosexuality prevalent in his day.

Scarcely concealing his distaste for homosexuality, a distaste apologists may better interpret as dissimulation borne of anxiety, Bentham nonetheless meticulously dismantles both contemporary and historical arguments advocating for the continued criminalisation of homosexuality, including the well-heeled and familiar assertions that it opposes nature, causes moral decay and is the catalyst for the very extinction of humanity.

“I have been tormenting myself for years to find if possible a sufficient ground for treating them with the severity with which they are treated at this time of day by all European nations: but upon the principle utility I can find none.” he concludes unequivocally.

Alas, devoting time, ink and significant intellect was as far as Bentham’s trepidation would permit him to advocate for gay rights. In confirmation of the truism that even the greatest of moral “heroes” suffers the Achilles’ heel of self-preservation, the essay would remain unpublished in his lifetime.

Regardless, wrote Louis Crompton:

“That Bentham should write hundreds of pages on a topic English authorities regularly dismissed in a paragraph or a page was a remarkable act of defiance, even though the pages were never published.

Bentham sheepishly begs forgiveness for his frailty of conviction in personal notes accompanying the essay:

“I am ashamed to own that I have often hesitated whether for the sake of the interests of humanity I should expose my personal interest so much to hazard as it must be exposed to by the free discussion of a subject of this nature…At any rate when I am dead mankind will be the better for it.

Indeed it is.

 

Thaddeus Stevens

The abolition of slavery, to many the culmination of a life-long struggle, was merely a first-step for Thaddeus Stevens, Radical Republican from Pennsylvania and member of the US House of Representatives during the 1860s. Known for his razor wit and craggy disposition, he was a constant thorn in the side of President Abraham Lincoln and a fierce critic of Lincoln’s half-heartedness and feet-dragging. Stevens, in the midst of a bloody civil war, publicly demanded the confiscation of the South’s richest plantations in order to distribute forty acres of land to each adult male former slave- a laughable proposition at the time.

Celebrated by the 2012 film Lincoln, if only for his momentary capitulation for the sake of “progress”, he is better remembered for his unequivocal demand for racial equality and justice, reflected most clearly in the epitaph he composed for the site of his burial:

 

“I repose in this quiet and secluded spot,

Not from any natural preference for solitude
But, finding other Cemeteries limited as to Race
by Charter Rules,
I have chosen this that I might illustrate

in my death
The Principles which I advocated

through a long life:
EQUALITY OF MAN BEFORE HIS CREATOR.

 

 

Robert Menli Lyon

Robert Menli Lyon, born in 1789, was a Western Australian settler and outspoken critic of colonial policy toward indigenous Australians. Though ultimately a defender of colonialism as well as missionary paternalism, Lyon was perhaps the earliest known white proponent of reconciliation and reparations for indigenous Australians.

In an eloquent and heartfelt appeal to “to the right Honourable the Secretary of State for the Colonies”, made in 1839, Lyon seeks reparations “to ameliorate the condition of those who had been plundered of their patrimonial inheritanceadding that such a policy “would have …prevented …those scenes of murder which, continuing for years, have left an indelible stain on the annals of the early history of the colony.

In so pleading, Lyon describes colonial policy as being “marked by deceit and rapine, which, generating a deep sense of injury and a bitter desire of revenge, require an armed force to secure the ill-gotten wealth, and effect either the conquest or extermination of a people driven to madness by wrong and oppression.

He charges the colonial powers with having “commit[ed] an act of duplicity so infamous, that it is difficult to find in language a term sufficiently appropriate to its designation. ”

In seeking to understand, if not condone, the violence committed against settlers, he wrote:

When the original owners of the soil, famishing with hunger and driven to desperation by the loss of the fish and the game on which they subsisted, chance in their wanderings to come upon a shepherd with a flock of sheep, being the stronger party, they kill him and help themselves to a little meat to satisfy the cravings of hunger. They are then, when apprehended, shot, or tried by a jury of their enemies and hanged—for what? for following the example we have set them, and acting on the principle that might is right.”

In an eerily ominous passage, and one that ought bring blushes to the faces of many contemporary statesmen, Lyon wrote:

“They who prefer the shedding of blood to a trifling expenditure in money, will ultimately find an ocean of the one and a mountain of the other insufficient to extricate them from the difficulties and troubles ever attendant on such a line of conduct. “

How brave a condemnation by a man whose humanity ventured far beyond the confines of his social conditioning and how relevantly his appeal could be made to the purveyors of the contemporary colonialism that stains our place in the annals of history.

THE FUTILITY OF MODERN SNOBBERY: ON FIGHTING YOUR INNER DOUCHEBAG.

Snobbery, an attitude once reserved for the English nobility, has well and truly become a common theme of our modern, faux-meritocratic society; a melting pot of individuals desperately insecure in our sense of self-worth, “insisting too loudly on a scale of values.”

We all find ourselves, to a greater or lesser extent, engaging in this egalitarian adaptation of snobbery. It’s attractiveness lies precisely in its imprimatur to blindly mimic the aristocratic delusion of finding a “gold tap” with which to prove our worth. We’ve all scoffed at a friend who excitedly tells us about the latest band he’s listening to or rolled our eyes when we’ve caught our partner gleefully watching their favourite reality TV show. There is an inner dickhead in all of us that can’t bear to see someone enjoying something we’ve arbitrarily determined is beneath human dignity.

We’ve also found ourselves, when our inner cynic isn’t paying attention, enjoying a show we’ve always mocked or bopping our heads to a song we’ve told anyone who would listen is the sole catalyst for the idiotisation of humanity. When caught red-handed we’ve tried to rationalise our moment of weakness by saying things like “I was being ironic,” “I knew you were watching“, or “it was my automatic nervous system responding instinctively to rhythm.”

It’s not like I really enjoyed it“, we tell ourselves and any witnesses to our fall from grace.

There is a profound inconsistency at the heart of this newly-discovered snobbery; recall the acquaintance who constantly and annoyingly frowns upon our taste in music, all the while bragging that she read the entire Fifty Shades collection in less than a week and has a strong opinion about who should play Christian in the film adaptation.

This selectiveness is understandable. Attempting to shield ourselves from the entire spectrum of snobbish criticism is immensely time and energy consuming and, if we feel the need to pander to fashion or food snobbery, ends up being an all too expensive pursuit. Those who do lay claim to some form of aesthetic absolutism are sure to find, if they haven’t already, that they’ve successfully brainwashed themselves into being incapable of any enjoyment whatsoever.

Why do we do it to ourselves? This pseudo-nobility is an unfortunate and thoroughly modern by-product of the merger of meritocratic delusion and self-schema creation: that stubborn psychological practice we’ve all been forced into ever since our ancestors ruined the species by discovering self-consciousness and Descartes gifted it with intellectual credence.

The truth is we’ve all created a self-image that we want to project to the world, any deviation from which reduces us in perceived status or “coolness”. We jump eagerly at the chance to reduce someone else’s standing in order to give ourselves the illusion of superiority. False detachment and pretension have well and truly taken on the status of virtue in this social experiment we call “living”, turning us into public relations consultants to our sense of self, carefully and meticulously constructing an identity we so desperately market to the world, often at the expense of our authentic self-hood. We’ve been doing it for so long, most of us would struggle to remember who it is we actually are.

(To those beginning to formulate a philosophical rebuttal to this analysis with any mention of Mill’s notion of “higher pleasure” or the Kantian notion of the “sublime”, I’ve got news for you: neither Mill nor Kant was referring to the latest pretentious indie-electronic-folk-fusion band that you read about in Pitchfork. You’ve just found a clever way of making peace with your inner douchebag.)

So take my advice. The next time you catch yourself singing along to the latest Justin Bieber offering, pause, take a breath and own it. Even if only in that fleeting moment of weakness, when your personal PR machine took a backseat to your subconscious self, you were a Belieber. Live with it.

GAZA: A BATTLEGROUND OF FUNDAMENTALISMS

Liberal progressives have a powerful presence on social media, working tirelessly to bring attention to the injustices facing humanity across the globe; from unhinged corporate greed to marriage inequality to the all too numerous violations of the human rights of civilians committed around the world, not the least by countries that refer to themselves as Islamic. As Operation Protective Edge continues its destruction of Gaza and the killing of civilians, including horrific numbers of children, something happens to many of these progressive voices: they begin to shy away or temper their criticism in ways that they would not in the championing of other causes. It is hard to seek justice for a suffering people when they have been dehumanised as completely as the Palestinian people have. The dominant narrative that places the Palestinians as a whole, including civilians and children almost exclusively as violent, hateful, anti-Semitic extremists who will stop at nothing to destroy Israel and murder innocent Jews is pervasive. Many supporters of the Netanyahu administration portray this conflict as nothing less than a fight for the very existence of Western civilisation against the depravity of Islam. Given the obscenity prevalent in much of extremist Islamist rhetoric, the media’s irresponsible coverage of exclusively this form of Islam and the utter inability of much of the Western world to view Islam as anything other than a monolith of hate, this narrative has proven to be quite persuasive. If one steps behind this narrative, however, and seeks to look objectively at the historical record, one cannot simply stop at a condemnation of Hamas and Islamic extremism. One cannot help but also question the motives of the current Likud coalition government and the Israeli administrations before it. The story of the establishment of the state of Israel is readily available and little of it is censored. It highlights the sorry plight of the Palestinian people; around 700,00 inhabitants forced to leave their homes and the placing of the population in a cruel and inhuman occupation that stands to this day. Written in the days before sound-bites and so-called “political correctness,” the historical record accurately reflects the true intentions of the right-wing, extremist religious Israeli governments in committing this injustice and we continue to see it reflected in the actions and practices of the current administration and its most vocal supporters. This history, when read in conjunction with the record of formal peace negotiations, reveals the oft-touted portrayal of Israel as an innocent seeker of peace, defending itself from genocidal maniacs, as a dishonest one. There is no question that Hamas, in its implementation of the cause of Palestinian resistance, can be rightly considered a terrorist organisation. Unfortunately for the people of Gaza, they did themselves no favours in the eyes of the Western world by electing Hamas as their governing body. There is no great mystery as to why this happened. Hamas was the group that vehemently and most strongly advocated for Palestinian rights; rights that have hitherto been denied and rights that many of us take for granted. With little regard to the innocent sufferers of this injustice, however, and despite whatever righteousness the cause of the Palestinians has, Hamas resorts to inflammatory, anti-Semitic rhetoric and violent terrorist acts. Their stubborn refusal to amend their charter to remove the references to the “obliteration of Israel”, is heinous and the justification given by Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal that it is a “piece of history and no longer relevant” rings completely hollow. Is it ever justified to aim rockets at civilian populations even in the context of a justified resistance? Of course not. This hatred and violence provides some legitimacy to the fears of the Israeli public and the Jewish people who have suffered as much as any people have suffered. These fears are honestly held, albeit cynically manipulated by the extreme religious right in the Israeli government, as right-wing governments are known to do. Rather than ending the discussion, however, this should prompt us to look to the future. What more can be done to ensure that the undeniable suffering of the Palestinian people ends and that the Israeli population can live free of fear? Plenty enough for those of us for whom some hope remains. Israeli administrations have consistently made the demand that the Palestinian Authority dismantle all terrorist groups operating in the occupied territories. This is without a doubt a reasonable and legitimate demand. The Palestinian Authority has consistently agreed to commit to ending violence and terror in the occupied territories and maintains that commitment. The Israeli demand however goes further than requiring a genuine commitment. Israeli administrations have made it a prerequisite of negotiation that this goal be fully realised. It is beyond trite that this is a complex task that will require time as well as substantial international assistance and commitment, not the least from Saudi Arabia, a fundamentalist Islamic state, long-term regional ally of the US and a significant funder of terror in the region. Demanding that the Palestinian Authority singlehandedly eradicate all terrorist groups, a task largely beyond its control, before even hearing or acknowledging the legitimate grievances of the Palestinian people betrays disingenuousness in the Israeli government’s commitment to peaceful resolution and in fact makes the aim of destroying the insidious Islamist terror groups in the region an almost impossible task. The recent rift between the Saudis and the Muslim Brotherhood is a positive development but equally Israel must be called upon to display a genuine willingness to address Palestinian grievances. Even with this precondition fully realised, however, the commitment by Israeli administrations to recognise Palestinian grievances has historically been piecemeal and substantially diluted, as is evidenced by then Likud leader Ariel Sharon’s response to the Bush Administration’s 2003 roadmap to peace. Sharon made clear that even when this goal of full eradication of terror from the occupied territories has been realised, Israel would still only accept a watered-down semblance of Palestinian statehood and is not even prepared to discuss the issue of current settlements (See Appendix). Unfortunately, Hamas will not simply disappear. This is obvious to all concerned. On 2 June 2014, faced with a refusal by the Israeli administration to negotiate with Hamas, Hamas and Fatah agreed to the formation of a unity government to negotiate peace with Israel, a government comprised of technocrats and led by Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas, with Hamas’ role restricted purely to domestic policy. The Obama administration stated that it plans to work with and fund the new unity government. Netanyahu swiftly condemned the coalition and suspended peace negotiations with Fatah, stating: “That’s the oldest trick in the book. It’s called the front office- back office gambit in which shady or-ganisations put forward smooth talking frontmen- the men in suits. We will not sit and negotiate with a Palestinian government that is backed by Hamas in which Hamas has effective share of power.” All the while, the kind of extremist hatred Netanyahu rightly denounces, is readily apparent in members of his own parliament. Even if, however, it were accepted that Hamas is the de facto leader of the unity government, contrary to the claims of Abbas, and that this is all just a clever ruse, is it not worth at least attempting a negotiation? If it turns out that this was indeed an elaborate hoax and the unity government does not live up to any negotiated agreement, will this not become immediately apparent and assist in recognition of the legitimacy of the Israeli cause? Will such an outcome not do more to turn the opinions of those with no skin in the game toward sympathy with the Israeli position? If the US government can negotiate with the Taliban, a far more extreme and violent terrorist group that directs much of its violence towards the very people it claims to be representing, what is preventing Israel from taking a seat at the negotiating table? Israel is protecting its citizens effectively in the midst of what it claims to be an all-out war with Hamas. In what possible way could an attempt at negotiation be worse for the Israeli population than the current situation? If Israel were honestly committed to peace rather than pursuit of a right-wing extremist religious agenda, the answer would be a “no brainer”. The position of Israeli administrations on two key elements of peace negotiations; mutual recognition of statehood and the issue of settlement activity reflects the fact that their commitment to a negotiated peace is not as genuine as it may appear to willing consumers of the dominant narrative. Mutual recognition of statehood. Since at least 1993, the Palestinians have been prepared as part of negotiations to recognise Israeli statehood. The current unity government maintains that position. Faced with this consistent willingness, in 2009 the Netanyahu administration repeated the demand of adding a further pre-condition to statehood; that the Palestinians not only recognise Israeli statehood, but also recognise Israel as specifically a Jewish state. No state has ever been required to officially recognise another state as a religious one despite the practice of many countries to refer to themselves as such. This was neither term of the Oslo Accords, lauded as one of few successes in the peace process, nor a condition of any prior negotiated peace with Israel’s neighbours. This condition, in fact, flies squarely in the face of the doctrine of separation of church and state, a concept well known to underpin the current ideal of our Western democracy and which proponents of secularism rightly promote. Alternatively, if by “Jewish” state Netanyahu means a recognition of Israel as a state for people of exclusively Jewish ethnicity, then the implication is much the worse. The Palestinian people consider such a recognition to be a denial of their history and narrative; a slap to the face of their suffering. Notably, the Palestinians have not demanded, as a precondition to peace, that Israel recognise their statehood with additional adjectives such as “Muslim” or “Dispossessed”. Would any Israeli government, even the most dovish, accept a demand that it recognise Palestine as a “Dispossessed State”? This question proves completely irrelevant when it is borne in mind that Israeli administrations have never formally accepted Palestinian statehood in any meaningful sense. The demand for the Palestinian government to recognise this amended version of statehood, regardless of any perceived existential or religious legitimacy, is an unnecessary impediment to a negotiated peace. Hamas, it must be noted, maintains its position of refusing recognition of Israel. It has also, however, consistently offered a long-term truce with an Israel limited to pre-1967 borders and has stated that, upon the ending of the occupation, the recognition of Israeli statehood will be a matter for the Palestinian people. Additionally, its 2006 election platform makes no reference to the obliteration of Israel. Combined with the fact that Hamas plays no part in the negotiation of peace by the unity government, the stubborn refusal of Hamas is rendered irrelevant. A look on the other side of the negotiating table sees the leader of the extreme right-wing nationalist Jewish Home party, a part of the Likud-led coalition government likewise expressing publicly his party’s refusal to recognise a Palestinian state.  On each side of the negotiating table, a partner of the coalition government publicly refuses to accept the statehood of the other. The recognition by Israeli governments of Palestinian statehood, however, has been, at best, so conditional, watered-down and unworkable as to render them virtually a refusal of statehood and a continuation of the occupation in an altered form (see Appendix). Settlements and settlement expansion The settlements refer to Jewish-only civilian communities built by Israel on the occupied territories. The sorry history of settlement activity is readily available and need not be revisited here, suffice it to say that the international community has repeatedly condemned settlement activity, the legal community has overwhelmingly determined the settlements to be illegal and many consider them in violation of Palestinian human rights and an impediment to peace. As is well known, the International Court of Justice declared settlements to be illegal in an advisory opinion given in 2004. In 2005 the Israeli government, to its credit, evacuated and dismantled all settlements in Gaza as part of a unilateral disengagement plan. Settlement expansion continues in the West Bank, however, and the number of settlers is reported by the Israeli Interior Ministry to be in excess of 300,000. The issue of continued settlement construction is notably absent from the peace agenda of the Netanyahu administration and indeed all previous Israeli governments. The closest thing to resembling formal acknowledgment by Israel that the issue of settlements must be part of the peace process was the effective deferment of the issue to “final status negotiations” under the Oslo Accords. Any attempt to pass United Nations resolutions condemning settlement activity (or, indeed, supporting Palestinian statehood) has been promptly vetoed by the United States, Israel’s so called “partner in peace.” Putting aside the reasonable requirement that the Israeli government commit to ending the occupation, ending the blockade on Gaza or even withdrawing from all current settlements, Israeli governments have never formally agreed even to stop expanding the settlements. Ever. In the words of Israeli journalist Gideon Levy: “[If] you want the most ultimate proof for [the proposition that Israel has never exhibited a genuine readiness to end the occupation], it’s the settlements. Nobody is saying we’ll continue to build settlements if he has an intention to return those lands. But Israel never stopped building settlements. And as Israel never stopped building settlements, Israel said to the Palestinians and to the world, “I have no intention to give up this piece of land.” No honest and disinterested observer can fail to see the religious extremism underlying the Israeli position and that any narrative that places the Israeli government as innocent victims attempting to negotiate peace in good faith is simply false. Likud’s Party Platform Likud’s 1999 Party Platform is unequivocal in outlining its aims. On the issue of Palestinian statehood it states: “The Government of Israel flatly rejects the establishment of a Palestinian Arab state west of the Jordan river. The Palestinians can run their lives freely in the framework of self-rule, but not as an independent and sovereign state. Thus, for example, in matters of foreign affairs, security, immigration and ecology, their activity shall be limited in accordance with imperatives of Israel’s existence, security and national needs.” On the issue of settlements: “The Jewish communities in Judea, Samaria and Gaza are the realization of Zionist values. Settlement of the land is a clear expression of the unassailable right of the Jewish people to the Land of Israel and constitutes an important asset in the defense of the vital interests of the State of Israel. The Likud will continue to strengthen and develop these communities and will prevent their up-rooting.” For the sake of ordinary Palestinians, futilely attempting to live normal lives under impossible conditions, the religious extremism of both sides needs to be both recognised and challenged. What of us, the seekers of a just peace? It is true, and it must be said, that there remains a troubling tendency in many supporters of the Palestinian people to harm their otherwise justified cause by conflating criticism of extremist Zionism with criticism of Judaism. It is important to ensure that voices of support remain respectful of the Jewish people and focused squarely on the issues at hand. Sharing images of right wing extremists, applauding the killing of innocent Palestinian civilians and generalising these reactions as the reaction of the Jewish people holus-bolus is as unhelpful and misleading as the portrayal of Muslim extremists, celebrating the horror of 911, as the general reaction of all Muslims. Flags of Israel provocatively substituting the Star of David for a swastika are not only extremely offensive and hurtful but completely counterproductive. Further, and quite apart from contemptible ant-Semitic extremists who pollute the debate with their vitriol, the propensity of the right-wing propaganda machine to constantly tar all criticism of Israel’s occupation policy with the brush of anti-Semitism means that it has never been more important to ensure words and actions properly reflect the cause of freedom and human rights. There is simply no room in any justified defence of the Palestinian cause for even the appearance of anti-Semitism. Period. Further, a significant paradigm shift is required in the way information is processed when it comes to the Middle East. The perception of Middle-Easterners, especially Muslims but more generally, as a tolerated “other” is almost ingrained, causing the motives of otherwise compelling arguments and voices to be unnecessarily questioned. The time has come to resist the temptation to hear each other though the obfuscating filter of tribalism and the prejudice it begs of us. The time has also come for debate to rise above the infantile Manichaeism that seeks to hijack all discussion and reduce it to a simplistic and jointly exclusive dichotomy: either Israel is good and Hamas is evil or Hamas is good and Israel is evil; if you criticise the Israeli occupation and settlements then you support Hamas but if you sympathise with the Israeli people then you support the occupation and the killing of civilians. An understanding of the sort that peace demands requires far more complexity and maturity of thought. Finally, and for the sake of the suffering, it is desperately important to resist the temptation toward apathy and self imposed censorship. Those who pray for peace in the region might be better served setting aside their prayers temporarily to avail themselves of the vast amounts of unbiased information readily available; information that leads one to the realisation that the only lasting solution to this conflict is to require both Hamas and the Israeli administration to set aside their extremist religious agendas and make a substantive commitment to negotiated peace. It is, without a hint of hyperbole, a matter of life and death.   Appendix – the “roadmap to peace” proposed by the administration of George W. Bush That right wing extremism drives Israeli policy is quintessentially reflected in the Sharon led Likud government’s response to a 2002 initiative of then US President George W. Bush, known as the “roadmap for peace” aimed at ending the conflict and outlining various commitments to which the parties were to agree as a precursor to further negotiation. A draft of the roadmap was released in late 2002. In December of 2002, then Israeli Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon responded by stating that Israel will allow, in theory, the establishment of a provisional Palestinian state limited to 42% of the West Bank and 70% of Gaza, meaning that the remaining settlements are to become officially a part of Israel and that the borders of any Palestinian state are to be temporary. He further stated that the Palestinian state must be completely demilitarised, not be permitted an army and that Israel is to control its borders and airspace. Sharon made exception for a police force with light weapons. Additionally the Palestinian Authority’s foreign policy was to be open to Israeli veto. He tempered this stance by saying that “a final deal would allow Palestinians to move freely in the new state without submitting to Israeli checkpoints and that “he would not rule out shutting Jewish settlements in the occupied territories as part of a final agreement” without any further elaboration. Sharon also rejected outright a right of return for Palestinians who fled or were driven out in 1948, describing Palestinian refugees as “a danger” to Israel’s existence because of their numbers. The Bush Administration released a further draft of the roadmap, dated April 2003. It included the following requirements. It required that the Palestinian leadership: • substantially reform their internal institutions in preparation for statehood, including an appointment of a new cabinet and the establishment of a Prime Minister and free, open and fair elections and that they continue to meet required objectives as determined to the satisfaction of the United Nations, the United States, the European Union and Russia (the Quartet); • issues unequivocal statements reiterating Israel’s right to exist in peace and security and calling for an immediate end to the armed Intifada and all acts of violence against Israelis anywhere and that all Palestinian institutions end incitement against Israel; • conclude, with the Israelis, a new security agreement to, amongst other things, put an end to violence, terrorism, and incitement. The roadmap required that Israel: • facilitates travel of Palestinian officials without restriction and provides election assistance, facilitates registration of voters, movement of candidates and voting officials to the Palestinian Authority; • implement the recommendations of the UN’s Bertini report to improve humanitarian conditions in the occupied territories, including lifting curfews and easing movement between Palestinian areas; • ends action undermining trust, including attacks in civilian areas, and confiscation/demolition of Palestinian homes/property, deportations, as a punitive measure or to facilitate Israeli construction; • dismantles settlement outposts erected since establishment of the present Israeli government and in contravention of current Israeli government guidelines and to freeze all settlement activity, including natural growth of settlements, consistent with the Mitchell report; • moving forward, withdraw Israeli Defence Forces progressively from areas occupied since September 28, 2000, to be completed prior to the holding of Palestinian elections and with Palestinian security forces redeployed to those areas; • reopen the East Jerusalem Chamber of Commerce and other closed Palestinian economic institutions in East Jerusalem. A second phase, which was to commence when, based upon the judgment of the Quartet the above commitments have been met, proposed that: • pre-Intifada Arab links to Israel be restored; • there be a revival of “multilateral talks” relating to regional water, environmental, economic development, refugee and arms control issues; • there be a continued implementation of security cooperation including complete collection of illegal weapons and disarming of militant groups; • there be Israeli-Palestinian negotiations aimed at creation of a Palestinian state with provisional borders and, with the implementation of prior agreements, to enhance maximum territorial contiguity; • there be further action by Israel on settlements simultaneous with establishment of a Palestinian state with provisional borders. A third phase, to be commenced, when in the judgment of Quartet all parties have met their obligations in previous phases, outlined further implementation of the matters outlined in the previous phases. Additionally, Arab states were required to normalise relations with Israel and security for all the states of the region, consistent with Beirut Arab Summit initiative and move decisively to cut off public and private funding of extremist groups and channel financial support for Palestinians through the Palestinian Ministry of Finance. All of this was to be monitored through a mechanism established by the Quartet. The Palestinian Authority, over the objections of Hamas, agreed to this plan and, in a first step, Arafat appointed Mahmoud Abbas as the first Palestinian Prime Minister. The Sharon administration, however, did not agree to the plan. More formally, on 25 May 2003, Sharon’s Cabinet, voted 12-7, with 4 abstentions, to approve the roadmap with 14 reservations, which substantially altered the roadmap. The reservations including the following notable demands: • that there be no reference in the roadmap to Israel ceasing violence and incitement against the Palestinians; • that the Palestinians formally accept Israel as a Jewish state and waive of any right of return for Palestinian refugees to Israel; • that the Palestinian Authority dismantle all existing security organisations and implement security reforms during the course of which new organisations will be formed and act to combat terror, violence and incitement with a complete dismantling of all terrorist groups. When, and only when, this has been fully implemented, a second phase will be initiated in which Sharon’s demands included: • the removal of Arafat as the leader of the PA with Israel and Palestine jointly coordinating elections; • the character of any provisional Palestinian state be restricted to provisional borders and certain aspects of sovereignty (my italics); • that any provisional Palestinian state be allowed no military force, but only police and internal security forces of limited scope and armaments, and be without the authority to undertake defense alliances or military cooperation; • that any provisional Palestinian state be required to submit to Israeli control over the entry and exit of all persons and cargo, as well as of its air space and electromagnetic spectrum; • there include no discussion of issues pertaining to the current settlements in the West Bank and Gaza, any discussion of settlement activity be limited to the issue of settlement freezes and illegal outposts; • that the process be monitored by the United States only and not the Quartet. This was as far as the Sharon government was willing to go towards negotiating peace and recognising Palestinian grievances and statehood. On any reasonable reading of these conditions, no one can conclude that this constituted a serious commitment by the Sharon administration to Palestinian statehood, withdrawal from settlements and a negotiation of lasting peace. That this watered-down version of the roadmap bearing almost no resemblance to that prepared by the Bush Administration received 7 votes against with 4 abstentions in Sharon’s cabinet speaks volumes of the influence of extreme right wing religious elements on Israeli policy and agendas.

THE ISLA VISTA KILLINGS AND THE LEGITIMACY OF MULTIPLE TRUTHS

“What we commonly mean by “understand” coincides with “simplify”: without a profound simplification the world around us would be an infinite, undefined tangle that would defy our ability to orient ourselves and decide upon our actions. In short, we are compelled to reduce the knowable to a schema: with this purpose in view we have built for ourselves admirable tools in the course of evolution, tools which are the specific property of the human species – language and conceptual thought.”

These words, from Primo Levi’s The Drowned and the Saved, written as an aide to understanding the horror of the Holocaust, proved once again profound in the aftermath of the murders in Isla Vista, California where Elliot Rodger, a 22 year old man, after stabbing to death three people in his apartment went on a shooting spree, killing three more people and injuring thirteen. Prior to the murders Rodger had posted a video on youtube and written a manuscript explaining his motivations.

Striving to make sense of the tragedy, the knee jerk reaction of many commentators, as it so often is, was to place the people and events involved into simplistic categories of binary opposition: sane/insane, good/evil, avoidable/unavoidable. In competing for the right to provide a single definitive answer and dismissing any truth that failed to correspond with their own narrative, the soothing balm of their certainty proved, yet again, a snake oil of causal reductionism.

The initial story was that of a mentally disturbed individual who went on an unforeseeable rampage.   Very quickly a movement emerged in response, placing the blame squarely at the feet of a misogynist culture, suggesting that blaming mental illness ignores the real problem and perpetuates the banality of misogyny. This explanation was in turn dismissed as an exploitative pursuit of an ideological agenda. Meanwhile “gun control” found itself in the novel position of third place in the competition of causes. Words were exchanged in the blogosphere and on social media and nobody seemed to understand anybody else’s point but their own.

That misogyny played a part in these murders can hardly be disputed. Eliott Rodger’s so called “manifesto” is brimming with a violent hatred of women. The significance of this fact, however, to a woman living in a culture where misogyny is rife (and indeed encouraged), is something I will never fully appreciate.

I, like most men, take for granted rarely having my personal safety in the forefront of my mind: not needing to check the back seat of my car before getting into it at night or having to weigh up the risks of catching the late train home. I will never know what it’s like to have my choice of clothing dramatically impact upon the dignity I am afforded or to be judged almost exclusively on my ability to satisfy a particular patriarchal aesthetic. To dismiss as irrelevant that which I cannot myself experience, however, would be a mistake.

As a father raising a young daughter, I am anxious. I recognise that our society celebrates misogyny openly and with little remorse or even acknowledgment that we are doing so. I can see that our sons, at younger and younger ages, value sexual promiscuity as a badge of honour and, in seeking to emulate those that treat women primarily as sexual objects, find peer approval predominantly through their sexual domination of women. I can see that again and again entertainers who apply condescending and derogatory imagery and labels to women are applauded and awarded, invited into our homes without a single challenge to their destructive artistry.

By adopting a willingness to listen, I can empathise with a lived experience that is not my own. Equally, however, this cannot represent the one truth at the expense of all others.

What of the truth of Eliott Rodger’s parents and the ever increasing number of parents yearning to understand their children’s psychological disfunction? Can we not learn from their stories? Can we not empathise with their heartbreaking attempts to fulfil the promises of happiness and safety once made to their lost children, finding little support from institutions content with band-aid solutions, mired in apathy and hollow rhetoric?

As a sufferer of chronic depression myself, I empathise with those parents for whom this tragedy reflects the failure of a system that promised answers and indeed their own perceived failures as parents. Statements suggesting that the incorporation of mental illness into the causal narrative of Isla Vista is a cop-out must, to them, seem a rejection of their entire self-hood.

And what of the reality of those who spend every spare moment imploring politicians and anyone else who will listen to do something about the ease with which weapons, designed only to kill, can be acquired, so that the senseless violence that took away their loved ones and changed their lives irrevocably won’t be visited upon anyone else?

And those who in reading Eliott Rodger’s manifesto could not help but notice the familiar psychological responses and self-loathing so common in victims of prolonged and institutional racism; what of their truth?

Whether and what role was played by each of these factors in this tragedy will never be accurately measured for display in a neat pie chart for all to see. Consistent with Primo Levi’s dilemma, the social, environmental and psychological factors that created Elliot Rodger: the murderer, are far too many and varied to enable incorporation into a single schema, definitive for any one experience of the human condition. If we are to have any hope of understanding the world around us, we have no alternative but to listen carefully to each other’s stories.

In her book, The Alchemy of Race and Rights, Professor Patricia Williams vividly makes this point with the following anecdote:

“One summer when I was about six, my family drove to Maine. The highway was very straight and hot and shimmered darkly in the sun. My sister and I sat in the back seat of the Studebaker and argued about what color the road was. I said black. My sister said purple. After I had harangued her into admitting that it was indeed black, my father gently pointed out that my sister still saw it as purple. I was unimpressed with the relevance of that at the time; but with the passage of years, and much more observation, I have come to see endless highways as slightly more purple than black. My sister and I will probably argue about the hue of life’s roads forever. But the lesson I learned from listening to her wild perceptions is that it really is possible to see things–even the most concrete things–simultaneously yet differently; and that seeing simultaneously yet differently is more easily done by two people than one, but that one person can get the hang of it with lots of time and effort.”

To dismiss another’s perception because it doesn’t accord with our lived experience, whilst indulging our extreme aversion to uncertainty, is the greatest inhibitor to understanding the mystery of our existence. If we are indeed psychologically compelled to explain events through the blueprint of our own lives, would it not behoove us to allow all personal narratives to be properly heard and to learn from the insights of multiple truths? The search for answers is the quintessence of the human experience and, as far as that’s concerned, we’re all in this together.

THE “RE-BIRTHER” OF HILLARY CLINTON

You may have noticed, in the last year or so, a series of articles and sound bites peppered in the mainstream media questioning the sexual preference of Hillary Clinton. Last September saw the publication of a “tell-all” interview with Bill Clinton’s “former mistress” Gennifer Flowers in Britain’s Daily Mail. This may appear, at first glance, to be another piece of trashy gossip not to be taken seriously; look closely, however, and you might just have a sense of deja vu. Left with the bitter aftertaste of homophobic misogyny, a strange cocktail seemingly reserved for powerful women, the underlying message is loud and clear “Hillary is not what an American President should be”.

Even the casual observer will notice the eerie similarity to the underlying message in response to President Obama’s campaign for Presidency. Just as there was a concerted effort to reduce his attractiveness for those who amongst their reasons for voting included the chance to be a part of history, so begins the effort to minimise Clinton’s attractiveness to those who would, should the opportunity arise, vote in order to see the first female President. Therein lies the purpose behind the various stories which portrayed Obama as, at different times, a Muslim, a black militant or foreign-born and therein lies the purpose of this narrative.

Whilst there is no suggestion that official fingerprints are to be found on this narrative, it is trite that one does not have to have asked for something in order to be grateful for it. Nor does one have to agree with a proposition in order to supply it with oxygen. Indeed, any discussion of the story, unfortunately including this one, is performing satisfactorily the job required by the instigators.

The Obama “birther” narrative may also have started as a sensational throwaway story, perhaps with the hope of planting seeds of doubt into the minds of the more intolerant of the American voting populace.   It is, however, a fact known to Clinton’s supporters and detractors alike, that lunacy is fertile soil for such seeds. And lunatics generally don’t know they’re lunatics. As for the rest of us, hear the story enough times and it’s bound to have made some impression.

Of course all official responses, should the narrative gain traction, will be to denounce it. One may see, in rare glimpses of political integrity, the response that should Clinton in fact be a lesbian or bi-sexual, it matters not in the slightest, although this response is not likely to be heard from anyone with even a modicum of political ambition. The likely response from detractors will be the standard and cowardly sidestep of: “the American people have right to the truth,” that bastion of moral certainty, a concept elusive enough to resist criticism, leaving the less palatable accusations wafting in the air, unspoken; a skill mastered by politicians and pundits in equal measure.

Any response by the Clinton camp is likely to offend at least some. It requires some delicacy to deny that one is homosexual without also relaying the message that homosexuality is unacceptable.   The necessity of denial is inevitably a judgment about the substance of the accusation. On the other hand silence may be seen as an “admission of guilt” and result in the loss of otherwise willing, albeit bigoted votes. There is nothing unethical about receiving a bigot’s vote if you haven’t pandered to the bigotry in obtaining it, right? Therein lies the dilemma. President Obama had a similar dilemma when stories began to appear suggesting that he was a “secret Muslim”. (So did Jerry and George in “The Outing” episode of Seinfeld. Adding “not that there’s anything wrong with that” is unlikely to unoffend the offended.)

Bottom line: just as the cynical appeals to underlying American xenophobia found a place within the ugly undercurrent of Obama’s campaign; expect similarly cynical appeals to underlying homophobia and misogyny to play a part in Clinton’s, should she decide to throw her hat in the ring.

Of course, such narratives don’t always gain traction. (Remember Larry Sinclair? No? Exactly)

On the chance that this one does, awareness is half the battle won.