The Serpent’s Egg

We all see the world through our own experiences, paint it with our own colours, fly our own flags. They seem real to us –unique and even necessary to our identities. As if it’s enough to be simply what we wear; as if we are only what we’ve been taught to show. But sometimes we need distance to understand that there are other equally compelling ways of defining ourselves. Other less travelled roads.

I say this, of course, as an unwitting member of a large club in which I was enrolled without being required to read the rules. But I guess most of us say that, don’t we? Male privilege –it’s something that’s hard to see if it’s all you’ve known. Easy to deny –and certainly easier to excuse- if you’re the privileged one. Especially if you can’t even understand the claim; to a sock, everything is a foot. It’s why we have them…

I worry that it is a learned attitude, however –like assuming all girls want to play with dolls, and all boys want to play with cars. A self-fulfilling prophecy if it’s taught early enough –valid only because we know it’s how it should be. Harmless, perhaps, if it does not disadvantage either side, but untenable unless dispassionately assessed. Unfortunately, we all tend to bring our own agendas to the analysis. Our own talking-points. Our own pasts…

A state in Australia is making a brave attempt to bring some historical context to the issue, and create some early awareness of the challenges of gender perspective and gender stereotypes: http://www.bbc.com/news/world-australia-37640353 ‘Students will explore issues around social inequality, gender-based violence and male privilege.’ This is not to suggest that Australia is any different in its treatment of women, but it is a welcome departure from many countries that don’t even acknowledge the problem. ‘Primary school students will be exposed to images of both boys and girls doing household chores, playing sport and working as firefighters and receptionists. The material includes statements including “girls can play football, can be doctors and can be strong” and “boys can cry when they are hurt, can be gentle, can be nurses and can mind babies”.’ And it doesn’t stop with primary school education. ‘A guide for the Year 7 and 8 curriculum states: “Being born a male, you have advantages – such as being overly represented in the public sphere – and this will be true whether you personally approve or think you are entitled to this privilege.” It describes privilege as “automatic, unearned benefits bestowed upon dominant groups” based on “gender, sexuality, race or socio-economic class”.’ Good on them!

But I think we have to be careful to walk the middle path. Accusations are seldom neutral; they often engender anger and even retaliation from those accused. So, perhaps predictably, in Australia ‘a report on a 2015 pilot trial accused it of presenting all men as “bad” and all women as “victims”.’ It’s one thing to illuminate the entire stage for a play, but still another to spotlight only one particular area. Decontextualize it…

*

Jeannette seemed like a fairly typical young woman as she sat relaxed in her seat and talking to several other women in the waiting room. Her long auburn hair danced lightly on her shoulders when she laughed, and her eyes sparkled as she leaned over to accept a toy from a little boy who had toddled over to her on a whim. Dressed in a loose grey sweatshirt and faded jeans, she wore a fresh, newly-pregnant smile that every woman in the room could see. And even the older ones followed her with their eyes –memories of bygone years. Her joy, theirs to enjoy -if only vicariously, and for too brief a time.

But her smile faded as soon as she sat across the desk from me in my office. Her eyes were predators shackled for the moment, the cage doors open nonetheless.

“I understand congratulations are in order, Jeanette,” I said, looking at my computer screen, and missing the change in her face. “Your family doctor says this is your first pregnancy…”

“The father doesn’t want me to keep the pregnancy,” she said tersely, her lips thin and tight, and as I looked up, she sent her eyes to savage my smile, and her forehead seemed to pucker as they left.

I had never met Jeannette before, although I had apparently seen her mother as a patient several years ago. That was all the GP said  -maybe it was why he had sent her to me for her pregnancy. I took a deep breath and leaned forward in my chair. These are always difficult conversations. “And how do you feel about that, Jeannette…?”

I could see her face relax a bit, as if my response had caught her by surprise. “I… I don’t think it’s fair!” She searched in her pockets for something, and then grabbed a tissue from my desk and dabbed her cheek. “I mean he’s blaming me for getting pregnant…” She took a deep, stertorous breath and sat back on her chair. “He refused to wear a condom –he said it would show I didn’t trust him…” I could see her squeezing her hands. “I didn’t, actually… I mean we’d never slept together before, but we were good friends… and…” Her eyes had softened with tears so she dropped them onto her lap and grabbed a handful of tissues. “Well, we were both drinking –he kept filling up my wine glass and…”

I remained silent and waited for her to continue.

“And he doesn’t even believe it’s his anyway… I was too easy he said!” Her face hardened again and her eyes dared me to agree. “I got really angry. ‘You were pretty easy, yourself’, I told him. And that’s when he punched me in the stomach and left…”

I have to admit that my mouth fell open. “Did you report him, Jeannette?”

She looked at me with a puzzled expression on her face. “He’d just deny hitting me, doctor!” she said through gritted teeth as if it were obvious. “And he’s already telling my friends it was consensual sex…”

I took a deep breath and tried to keep my expression neutral. “Did you tell your GP all this?”

She shook her head. “He wouldn’t understand. I just said I was pregnant…”

I sat quietly for a moment, wondering how to proceed, when she suddenly smiled warmly at me. “Can I ask you something, doctor?”

I nodded with a smile –sometimes it’s all you can do.

“If I were your daughter, what would you say to me?”

I thought about it for a bit, then looked at her and sighed. “When you do dance, I wish you
a wave o’ th’ sea, that you might ever do nothing but that.”

Her face brightened even more and her eyes sparkled in the sunlight from the window behind me. “That’s from Shakespeare’s ‘Winter’s Tale’ isn’t it?”

I nodded, surprised both that I quoted that line of all things, but also that she knew what I meant.

“Better start filling in that antenatal form on your screen, don’t you think?” she said, barely able to contain her face.

And we both laughed. Sometimes poetry has the privilege, I realized –not gender…

 

 

Are We There Yet?

There are some things you just have to get right -or else. But, or else what..?  Continuing exposure, even to the most egregious injustices risks dulling the senses; eliciting not indignant shouts but shrugs, excuses not action. Accommodation.

There are benefits that accrue to adaptation, of course –if one lives next to a pulp mill, the objectionable odours soon fade into the background; if one lives in a dangerous neighbourhood, one discovers ways of staying out of danger; these are mechanisms for survival. We can grow accustomed to the most outrageous things, we can attempt to normalize the abnormal. And yet…

And yet that which is abnormal to one culture may be the norm in another. But here be dragons –as ancient cartographers used to say about unexplored territories on maps. One has to differentiate between cultural relativism –accepting that there are many ways of being in the world- and injustice or cruelty meted out in the pursuit of a majority-held social belief system. One that has perhaps been practiced by a population for uncounted generations –so long, even, that it is no longer considered aberrant. No longer noticed.

And the territory is heavily mined –to criticize it, or attempt a change, however laudable, can be seen by those affected as ill-informed at best, and intrusive at worst. Let’s face it, for some issues the dissent is over ideology. Political systems. America, for example, has a thing about spreading its own version of participatory democracy and can’t seem to understand the objections to its imposition –by force if necessary. Others, less convinced of the superiority of the American interpretation, resent the interference, attributing other more venal reasons for its meddling. And who is right? It evidently depends on where you live. Truth defines itself.

But some things do seem to transcend culture and are difficult to defend no matter what the historical cultural practices –torture, physical abuse, murder, to name but a few examples. Whether by outside example, domestic protests, or perhaps even token acquiescence to seem compliant, there is some progress in that regard. For example, I was pleased to see that ‘China has drafted its first national law against domestic violence.’ http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/11/26/china-domestic-violence_n_6225876.html The drafted legislation ‘creates a formal definition of domestic violence for the first time and streamlines the process of obtaining restraining orders.’ There are several parts of it that could be improved of course; still, it is a start. A recognition that there was a grievous injury in the body politic. A wound that was long overdue for surgery.

The recognition of defects such as domestic abuse, long tolerated in cultural folkways, is perhaps a natural progression as a society develops. But I worry that the legal protection that is put in place may occasionally overshoot its mark and end up as oppressive as the practice it replaces. It requires thoughtful consideration and sober second thought to prevent unintended injustice. Prejudicial enquiry. Discrimination. As my daughter used to keep asking any time she sat in the car: “Are we there yet, daddy?” “Pretty soon,” was the only answer that seemed to satisfy her -if only briefly. But in this case, soon is not at all satisfying.

In the case of domestic violence –sexual, or otherwise- investigation of the alleged abuse must balance the difficulty of the aggrieved partner in coming forward with the information –the danger to her both physically and emotionally, not to mention the social and legal stigma that might ensue- with the right of the accused to be fairly adjudicated and the evidence impartially considered. I recognize that in this type of situation, it is difficult to progress from a ‘He said, she said’ situation to a balanced appraisal of whatever information is available without seeming to impune the word of either party. And I also understand that, no matter the guilty party, reputations of both, and perhaps even standing and subsequent acceptance in the community, might be at stake. Merely acknowledging the need for a remedy does not necessarily create one.

Sexual harassment falls under a similar rubric, but it is a field even more heavily mined. There seems to be an encouraging awareness of the problem nowadays; women are speaking up about it but often only when it has become intolerable. Indeed even our Canadian parliamentarians are not without blemishes in this regard: http://www.cbc.ca/news/politics/harassment-allegations-against-2-liberal-mps-rest-with-secretive-committee-1.2825385

The issues this type of situation illustrates, are in themselves problematic however: http://www.cbc.ca/news/politics/harassment-on-parliament-hill-6-unanswered-questions-1.2826026 There seems to be no easy solution to the fact that it is important that both sides be heard –not condemned out of hand. Allegations are uncomfortable to submit, and often frought with disciplinary actions should they fall prey to power structures. All too often the victims are too frightened of losing their jobs, or of the publicity and possibility of public ridicule to come forward. Hence the appeal of anonymity, or mechanisms for keeping the accusations one step removed from them. Avoiding potentially damaging confrontations.

But while this offers protection for the victim that is unquestionably desirable if the harassment is to be stamped out, it unfairly (perhaps) predjudices the accused. Unless we accept the concept that a person is guilty until proven innocent, then it is incumbent upon whatever authorities are charged with processing the accusation to adopt an equitable appraisal of all the evidence. Hear both sides.

No matter the society, no matter the longstanding traditions, no matter the crime or the accusations, evidence should trump. It is all too easy to form opinions and act on insufficient information, whatever the ideology involved. It is all too easy to assign blame, especially in the field of personal relations.

But I don’t know… I guess in the end, I’m reminded of Claudio in Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing:

Let every eye negotiate for itself

And trust no agent; for beauty is a witch

Against whose charms faith melteth in blood.”