All That Glitters

“My uncle wants to come,” Jasmin announced as she sat in the hard wooden chair by my desk, looking worried. She was almost due, and as her obstetrician, I was seeing her for what she hoped might be her final prenatal visit. She wanted to know how many people could be present in the delivery room at the hospital for the birth.

I nodded encouragingly -so far, only her husband and mother were expected to be present.

“Uncle Jonathan used to be one of my favourites when I was younger.” She smiled at the memory. “He was so smart!” She sighed and looked down at her lap. “He was –is,” she corrected herself, “a professor of Philosophy at the university.” She stared at something behind me for a moment. “I was so impressed that he had even published a book… I remember trying to read it,” she added, rolling her eyes for effect, “but it was too abstruse for me in those days.”

I smiled at the idea of anything being too difficult for her -she was a PhD candidate herself, although not in Philosophy like her uncle. “You seem a bit concerned that he wants to be present for the birth, Jasmin.”

She shrugged and glanced nervously at her lap again. “I haven’t seen him for a while,” she admitted. “We… we kind of fell out a few years ago.”

I sat quietly and waited to see if she wanted to explain.

“He… I mean, I don’t like the way he treats his wife –treated…” she qualified her tenses again. Then she sent her eyes over to explore my face to see if she should explain further. “Even Mom was upset with her brother…”

I tried to keep my expression neutral, but I suppose she could see my curiosity.

“He expected her to have a meal ready for him when he came home…” Her eyes never left my face, but had perched on my cheeks as if they were resting. Waiting. “She had to do all the work around the house, you know. He always said he was exhausted from lecturing and writing at work.”

I nodded again, but she could sense I was trying not to judge.

“Mom said it was abusive…” she said in answer to my unasked question. “I… I refused to believe her at first. I always knew he was arrogant, but if anybody deserved to be arrogant, it was him. He was such a brilliant thinker… is, I mean…”

Jasmin seemed genuinely conflicted. I could see it was difficult for her to accept what she saw as imperfections in a childhood hero.

And yet, any hero-worshipping can be fraught, can’t it? I discussed some of the ramifications of this in a previous essay entitled Life’s Fitful Fever https://musingsonwomenshealth.com/?p=10396 , but I continue to be intrigued by the subject…

We all have subsurface faults that could weaken our glossy reputations if exposed. After all, each of us is a book of stories, only some of which we prefer to read -even those exemplary figures we choose to pedestalize.

None of this is a surprise, of course, but it is sometimes important that it be reconsidered in times like this when we are busy tearing down statues of people whose past is not as monolithic as we once assumed -or, at least, not as we wanted to remember it. An essay by the British philosopher Julian Baggini in Aeon provided an interesting counterbalance to our resurgent iconoclasm: https://aeon.co/ideas/why-sexist-and-racist-philosophers-might-still-be-admirable

‘Praise Immanuel Kant, and you might be reminded that he believed that ‘Humanity is at its greatest perfection in the race of the whites,’ and ‘the yellow Indians do have a meagre talent’. Laud Aristotle, and you’ll have to explain how a genuine sage could have thought that ‘the male is by nature superior and the female inferior, the male ruler and the female subject’.

‘We seem to be caught in a dilemma. We can’t just dismiss the unacceptable prejudices of the past as unimportant. But if we think that holding morally objectionable views disqualifies anyone from being considered a great thinker or a political leader, then there’s hardly anyone from history left… However, the idea that racist, sexist or otherwise bigoted views automatically disqualify a historical figure from admiration is misguided. Anyone who cannot bring themselves to admire such a historical figure betrays a profound lack of understanding about just how socially conditioned all our minds are.’

Historical revisionism is an interesting phenomenon: the belief -no, the assumption– that our present day ethos is, by default, the gold standard against which to compare all other eras, and all other societies. But, ‘why do so many find it impossible to believe that any so-called genius could fail to see that their prejudices were irrational and immoral? One reason is that our culture has its own deep-seated and mistaken assumption: that the individual is an autonomous human intellect independent from the social environment… The enlightenment ideal that we can and should all think for ourselves should not be confused with the hyper-enlightenment fantasy that we can think all by ourselves. Our thinking is shaped by our environment in profound ways that we often aren’t even aware of.’

‘Accepting this does not mean glossing over the prejudices of the past. Becoming aware that even the likes of Kant and Hume were products of their times is a humbling reminder that the greatest minds can still be blind to mistakes and evils, if they are widespread enough. It should also prompt us to question whether the prejudices that rudely erupt to the surface in their most infamous remarks might also be lurking in the background elsewhere in their thinking.’ And yet, ‘Many blindspots are remarkably local, leaving the general field of vision perfectly clear. The classicist Edith Hall’s defence of Aristotle’s misogyny is a paradigm of how to save a philosopher from his worst self. Rather than judge him by today’s standards, she argues that a better test is to ask whether the fundamentals of his way of thinking would lead him to be prejudiced today… But there is a very important difference between the living and the dead. The living can come to see how their actions were wrong, acknowledge that, and show remorse. When their acts were crimes, they can also face justice.’

But, as Baggini summarizes in his essay, ‘The dead do not have such an opportunity, and so to waste anger chastising them is pointless. We are right to lament the iniquities of the past, but to blame individuals for things they did in less enlightened times using the standards of today is too harsh.’

Memories of that visit with Jasmin re-surfaced after I read the article.

“Is Jonathan’s wife going to come to the birth as well?” I remember asking.

She stared at her lap briefly. “No, unfortunately she passed away last year.”

I could see it really bothered her, but I sat in silence for a moment. “Were you two… close?”

She nodded and then sighed as she looked at me again. “I just don’t understand, though,” she suddenly blurted out. “The two of them seemed happy, you know… Happy. Content with each other…” She took a deep breath as she tried to expunge the thought. “I suppose he was just a man of his time –is, I mean: his attitude is fairly typical of that era, I think…” Then, after she considered it briefly, she added “But I don’t know how she could stand it: being a slave in the house, I mean.”

She kept scanning my face to see if I agreed -after all, I was probably the same age as Jonathan. Subject to the same biases, the same unrealistic expectations of a wife.

It was my turn to sigh. “You said the two of them seemed happy…”

She nodded. “They loved each other.”

I smiled. “Then perhaps she, too, was a woman of her time, Jasmin.”

She thought about that for a while and then her whole demeanour changed. “I… I hadn’t thought of it that way.” She smiled and sent her eyes to my face to thank me. “I’ll introduce you two in the delivery room. I think you’ll like him,” she said and winked at me as she stood to leave.

 

 

 

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Trust in the Tameness of a Wolf?

Okay, enough is enough! All these years I have been an advocate of cultural relativism. Ethical parity when societal mores and folkways are accounted for. I still am a staunch defender of freedom of belief and societally derived variations from what might be seen as a Western norm, but there are times when I must step back and shake my head. Some things beggar all tenets of humane behaviour. Beggar belief, for that matter… Beggar all conceptions of canon, doctrine, creed… They are ethically and philosophical bereft!

The example -the proximate cause of  this jeremiad- is one that was reported in a BBC News article entitled The WhatsApp Suicide: http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-37735370 ‘A 40-year-old woman from northern India killed herself in January after a video of her being raped was circulated on WhatsApp.’ And, as if this madness itself weren’t sufficient to turn the country inside out, the article goes on to say ‘At village level, many are more bothered about women using mobile phones at all than they are about men using them to intimidate rape victims or to share videos of sexual assaults. A number of local councils in Uttar Pradesh, concerned with what they see as technology’s corrupting effect on traditional moral values, have prohibited girls from owning mobile phones.’ This follows from what seems to exist in some villages -at least in the region of northern India: ‘[…]in the patriarchal and honour-bound culture of the village, she could be blamed for “inviting” the sexual advances of a man – even if those advances were unwelcome, intimidating, or violent.’

It’s a two-edged sword, really, isn’t it? The women are able to use the phone and its network both for business and, presumably, to call for help, but the same phone can be used to shame and intimidate her. Blackmail her.

‘In August 2016, the Times of India found that hundreds – perhaps thousands – of video clips of sexual assault were being sold in shops across Uttar Pradesh every day. One shopkeeper in Agra told the newspaper, “Porn is passé. These real life crimes are the rage.” Another, according to the same report, was overheard telling customers that they might even know the girl in the “latest, hottest” video.’

But lest we delude ourselves into thinking that India is somehow unique in this regard, consider the case of a young woman in Egypt named Ghadeer: http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-37735368 She shared the enthusiasm of youth throughout the world –they are, after all, young and although as privy to the social constraints as their elders, not necessarily as wedded to them. She was 18 and videoed herself dancing –fully clothed, mind you, but too clearly enjoying the freedom. It ended up being shared on YouTube by a former boyfriend in an attempt to shame her in ‘a society in which women were required to cover their bodies and behave with modesty.’ But, unlike many, Ghadeer decided to fight back.

‘[…] in the years since she had sent the video, Ghadeer had also taken part in the Egyptian revolution, taken off her hijab, and started to speak out about the rights of women. Outraged that a man had attempted to publicly shame her, she took legal action. Although she succeeded in having him convicted for defamation, the video remained on YouTube – and Ghadeer found herself attacked on social media by men who sought to discredit her by posting links to it. In 2014, sick of the abuse and tired of worrying about who might see the film, Ghadeer made a brave decision: she posted the video on her own Facebook page. In an accompanying comment, she argued that it was time to stop using women’s bodies to shame and silence them. Watch the video, she said. I’m a good dancer. I have no reason to feel ashamed.’

But as the article goes on to note, ‘Most cases of this form of abuse go unreported because the same forces that make women vulnerable also ensure they remain silent.’ Just being photographed in defiance of the prevailing dress code –a hijab, for example- could be used by the unscrupulous for blackmail or intimidation.

Or another example –one of too many, unfortunately: ‘the 16-year-old victim of a gang rape in Morocco, set herself on fire in July this year, after her rapists threatened to share images of the attack online. The eight accused were trying to intimidate the girl’s family into dropping the charges against them but instead drove her to suicide, as she suffered third-degree burns and died in hospital.’

Enough examples! That anyone would disparage the ebullience of youth is in itself despicable, but to turn that same scorn on the most vulnerable of that demographic –the culturally disadvantaged status of females in many countries- smacks of almost terminal insecurity on the part of the (largely male) perpetrators. It’s still unclear to me what it is that renders them so fearful. Surely our very identity as males derives from our difference from –not inferiority to- females.  Much as ‘up’ is only so, in relation to ‘down’, there is an ‘inside’ only if an ‘outside’ exists. These are not value-laden; not better or worse –they merely mark a difference. We are mutually needful of the contrast.

And yet, the two have come to be pitted in an almost eternal battle within both myth and reality alike -the Givers of Life against the beneficiaries… As if Oedipus had turned on his mother or sided with the Sphinx rather than killing his father -all equally pointless. Meaningless.

In a way, I’m reminded of the Fool in Shakespeare’s King Lear: ‘He’s mad that trusts in the tameness of a wolf…’ –or the excuses so readily proffered by those who, in any sane world, should have none.

A question might well be asked about the state of our domestication.