Life’s Fitful Fever

I have never been terribly interested in historical statues I must confess. Pigeon- encrusted metal or a moulding stone person staring blankly at nothing and rooted firmly to a static prancing horse, does little to attract the attention of passersby like myself with lives and histories of their own to contemplate. Its attempts to dominate a plaza, or commemorate a public square, still do not often produce sufficient motivation to inspect its fading plaque. Perhaps I am alone in this, but unless intentionally identified, it is merely background. I do not notice it in the Gestalt.

And yet, it would seem that there are those who would have me think otherwise and devote undue attention to its original function. They would have me reconsider its historical significance.

Historical revisionism has never been a strong suit of mine –the present, with all of its problems, occupies most of my time. As an aging white male, I suppose I am history, or at least have lived through some of its more recent manifestations and survived. But of course I am one of the fortunate ones, and have been largely cosseted by my gender, ethnicity, and geography, so I appreciate the need to consider the lives and background of those not so blessed. And, had I been one of them, I’m certain I would also be less accepting of a majoritarian view of historical interpretation. History, after all, is written by the victors, not to mention the oppressors, and it frequently ignores the darker side -or at least reinterprets it to suit the prevailing ethos of the time.

And so the current movement to amend our view of omnia praeterita, is understandable. It’s just that the solution often chosen –pulling down statues, or renaming public edifices- creates adversaries who otherwise wouldn’t exist, and problems that rise like bubbles in a boiling pot. Statues, of course, can be seen as emblems of past injustice, and the contributions they commemorate, either misleading, or frankly misinformed. That none of us –not even the protesters- are blemish-free, is lost in the fervour to acknowledge historical repression or exploitation. I neither can, nor wish to deny any calumny that may be hidden in stone, or trapped in rusting metal, but I do hope that there is a middle ground. A workable compromise.

Despite the rush to take sides, I suspect it would be beneficial for all concerned to step back from the abyss of righteousness and look for solutions that neither polarize, nor punish. The past need not be prologue, but the question of historical truth, and unfair representation, is a vexing issue, and solutions are often fraught. In my search for background, however, I found an interesting and fairly balanced discussion of the problems: There are, perhaps, no definitive prescriptions, but at least it attempts a balanced context. A philosophical analysis, of a sort.

First, there is a succinct formulation of the problem: ‘All around the world, institutions are dealing with a conundrum. What to do about statues or buildings or scholarships or awards, honouring or funded by people we now regard as seriously morally flawed?’

And then there follows a discussion about possible solutions. ‘One approach is to do nothing. The do-nothing advocates say history shouldn’t be rewritten. To do so would be a form of censorship. And, they say, it’s ridiculous to expect every great historical figure to be blemish-free, to have lived a life of unadulterated purity.’ But, as is pointed out, with that approach, ‘Even those held up as saintly figures, such as Mahatma Gandhi or Nelson Mandela, had flaws (Gandhi’s attitude to women is excruciating, seen through 21st Century eyes)… And what message would it send to contemporary philanthropists? Give generously today, and risk having your reputation trashed tomorrow.

‘But this “do-nothing” position seems too extreme. Imagine that Goebbels had endowed scholarships to Oxford, like Rhodes. Would anybody seriously claim the Goebbels Scholarships shouldn’t be renamed (would anybody want to be a Goebbels Scholar?) or that a Goebbels statue shouldn’t be demolished?’

But, of course, the vast majority of people are neither complete monsters nor complete angels. So, ‘What sort of considerations, then, should come into play? One may be whether the views or actions of the figure in question were typical for their time. If so, that could make them less blameworthy. Another is the extent of their misdeeds and how that is evaluated against their achievements. Churchill held opinions that would disbar him from political office today – despicable yes, but surely massively outweighed by the scale of his accomplishments.’

The article, written by David Edmonds of the BBC, then goes on to point something out that I hadn’t thought of before: ‘… there are what philosophers call consequentialist considerations. How does looking at the statue make passers-by feel? This, in turn, will be connected to whether the history still resonates – an ancient statue of some medieval warlord, however bloody and brutal his conquests, probably won’t bother anybody. And, arguably, a statue of Rhodes in Cape Town will arouse more offence than one of the same man in Oxford.’

In fact, ‘Intergenerational justice is a hugely complex topic, not least because over the passage of time it becomes tricky to identify beneficiaries and victims. Daniel Butt [a politics fellow at Balliol College, Oxford] believes that where there is a clear historical continuity with the past, a modern institution has a duty to remedy wrongs, most especially when the impact of these wrongs is still being felt – for example in racial discrimination. He says Oxford’s complicity in colonialism confers upon it obligations ….’ But that complicity needs recognition -it needs to see the light of day.

There are other solutions that try to mitigate any past harms that the statue or name might invoke. One such approach would be for the institute with the offending statue, to offer scholarships, donations, or aid in areas of the world affected by the individual enstatued. Or, perhaps, as has been suggested in the American south, changing the information on the existing plaques to acknowledge the injustices meted out. Make the reader, of whatever persuasion, aware of them.

It seems to me that merely removing statues, or changing a commemorative name, is equivalent to burying the past. Out of sight, out of mind. If there truly has been an injustice, then surely recognizing it, making those hitherto unaware of it confront the issues, is more likely to prevent it from happening again. More likely to be a lesson, a cautionary tale that has to be heard, a violation that has to be seen. As Brutus says in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar: It is the bright day that brings forth the adder and that craves wary walking.


















Different Flavours

There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy –so says Shakespeare’s Hamlet. I suppose as one ages, there is a tendency to become, if not indifferent, then less surprised at the plethora of variations that exist when they are sought, less amazed at the range of combinations just waiting for discovery. Like ice cream, the world does not come in only one flavour.

But perhaps it is not just the array that so bedazzles, but that we could ever have presumed to define what is normal in anything other than in a statistical way. A Bell Curve distribution confronts us wherever we look –reality is a spectrum no less than the rainbows we all profess to admire. So, then, why is it that in some domains we are less than accepting of mixtures, less tolerant of difference? Why is there the overwhelming need to categorize things as either normal or abnormal? Natural, or unnatural? A macrocosm of only us and them?

Is it just the benefit of retrospection that allows me to notice that no one of us is the same? Or a corollary of Age that lets me thank whatever gods may be that it is like that? That not only do we differ in our tastes and thoughts, but that the discrepancies in our appearance, if nothing else, allow us to recognize each other?

At any rate, I have to say that, as a retired gynaecologist, I was pleasantly surprised to rediscover a world I thought I had left behind –intersex. It was an article in the BBC News that caught my attention: In my day, however, we still hewed to the label ‘hermaphrodite’ if both male and female gonads were present, or even more insensitively, to something like ‘disorders of sex development’, with the medical community taking it upon itself to assign and surgically ‘correct’ the anatomical features at variance with some of the more prominent features of the melange. All this often before the person was able to decide whether or not to identify with either or both traditional sexes. I don’t for a moment believe that this was done malevolently, however, and I think we have to be careful not to apply current sensitivities to another era. Historical revisionism is always a temptation…

But the spectrum of variation is so wide in both anatomy and physiology, not to mention time of discovery, that assignation of gendered roles is fraught. For some, the worry has been that of acceptance –acceptance of any divergent anatomy, any dissonance, by society at large, but also acceptance by the individual themselves (even pronouns become problematic –assigned as they usually are by gender).

It is common nowadays (UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights) to use the (hopefully) neutral term of intersex to define people who ‘are born with sex characteristics (including genitals, gonads and chromosome patterns) that do not fit typical binary notions of male or female bodies. Intersex is an umbrella term used to describe a wide range of natural bodily variations. In some cases, intersex traits are visible at birth while in others, they are not apparent until puberty. Some chromosomal intersex variations may not be physically apparent at all.’

Of course attitudes are as disparate as societies themselves. Not all have been as tolerant or accepting of difference as one might hope. The BBC article, for example, describes the attitude in some rural areas in Kenya that a baby born with ambiguous genitalia should be killed. ‘Childbirth is changing in Kenya. Increasingly, mothers are giving birth in hospitals, rather than in the village. But not so long ago the use of traditional birth attendants was the norm, and there was a tacit assumption about how to deal with intersex babies. “They used to kill them,” explains Seline Okiki, chairperson of the Ten Beloved Sisters, a group of traditional birth attendants, also from western Kenya. “If an intersex baby was born, automatically it was seen as a curse and that baby was not allowed to live. It was expected that the traditional birth attendant would kill the child and tell the mother her baby was stillborn.”’ The article goes on to say that ‘In the Luo language, there was even a euphemism for how the baby was killed. Traditional birth attendants would say that they had “broken the sweet potato”. This meant they had used a hard sweet potato to damage the baby’s delicate skull.’

‘Although there are no reliable statistics on how many Kenyans are intersex, doctors believe the rate is the same as in other countries – about 1.7% of the population.’ But the thrust of the article was really to discuss how  Zainab, a midwife in rural western Kenya defied a father’s demand that she kill his newborn baby because it was intersex. She secretly adopted the baby –and indeed, even a second one a couple of years later. ‘In Zainab’s community, and in many others in Kenya, an intersex baby is seen as a bad omen, bringing a curse upon its family and neighbours. By adopting the child, Zainab flouted traditional beliefs and risked being blamed for any misfortune.’ But she represents a slow, but nonetheless steady change in attitudes in rural Kenya.

‘These days, the Ten Beloved Sisters leave delivering babies to hospital midwives. Instead, they support expectant and new mothers and raise awareness about HIV transmission. But in more remote areas, where hospitals are hard to reach, traditional birth attendants still deliver babies the old-fashioned way and the Ten Beloved Sisters believe infanticide still happens.’ But, ‘It is hidden. Not open as it was before’.

I suppose it is progress… No, it is progress –however slow, and frustrating the pace may be, as long as there are people like Zainab there is hope. But it still leaves me shaking my head.

For some reason Robert Frost’s poem, The Road Not Taken, springs to mind, in a paraphrase of its last verse: I shall be telling this with a sigh somewhere ages and ages hence: two roads diverged in a yellow wood and she, she took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference


Happily Ever After?

I suppose we all revisit our childhoods from time to time –those memories have a special hold on us. But they are stories thick with varnish, and when analyzed too closely, soon fall apart in our hands like dreams. And yet, handled gently, stories are what we are –they are our names- and that we awaken the same person from day to day is like reading further in the book.

Maybe that’s why fairy tales can have such a fascination for children –escaping into an imaginative narrative that is as magical and surprising as their own. A time to believe we can become the story –maybe even are the story. For most of us, it was an enchanting time of fairies, and wishes coming true; of escape from tragedy, or finding a special person in the deep, dark forest; of finding happiness in the midst of sorrow.

Well, at least that’s what I thought was happening as I snuggled in the arms of my parents when one of them read to me before I went to sleep each night. But we only know what we are told, I suppose; we only understand the world that is laid out for us. I certainly never suspected an agenda; I never thought to ask if what I heard was only a manifestation of the time of writing. And I certainly neither questioned my mother’s world-view, nor my father’s integrity –I assumed I was being told the truth about the once-upon-a-time days.

And yet, viewing them through a modern lens, I suppose their faults were obvious. Not my parents’ –they, too, were products of their own times. No, I mean the stories that I found so innocent and sweet, had rougher underbellies than I had reason to suspect. In fairness, I think we acclimatize to the things to which we are habitually exposed. Who can smell the garlic on their own breath? And so, the undergarment of sexism in many fairy tales came as a revelation to me.

And I have to say that on first glance, I suspected this was yet another example of historical revisionism –the reinterpretation of the umwelt of another time through the sensitivities and biases of our own. There is some of that, to be sure –we do not easily appreciate the perils and depravities that were rampant in medieval Europe- but even so, we can no longer blindly accredit tales of infanticide or child abuse, nor turn a blind eye to attitudes like misogyny or tropes like the evil inherent in non-conformity that may have been prevalent and believed in that time. And, indeed, it often seems to be women that are treated unfairly in these tales, when appraised by modern eyes.

The danger is that by ignoring the hidden message, we risk normalizing it. Condoning it by not pointing out that we no longer sanction that kind of behaviour.

Of course, it can also go too far -come too close to serving an agenda that seems more retributive and spiteful than merely corrective. Some of the fairy-tales –Cinderella, or even Sleeping Beauty (despite the apparently more malevolent early versions)- have a sweetness and charm that, at least when examined only superficially -as might be the case by a child- spin a message of hope and rescue for even the poorest among us.

But that said, I have to confess that I never really thought about the main character -in most of the ones I remember, at any rate- being almost always a girl. Think of Goldilocks, Little Red Riding Hood, Rapunzel… Even Gretel in the Hansel and Gretel story. And the frequent portrayal of old and eccentric women as witches, or at least as malicious step-mothers. I suppose that Jack in the Beanstalk was a refreshing exception, but nevertheless, point taken.

Perhaps it’s my age, or a comment on my epoch, but have to say that I didn’t realize the extent to which these stories were recognized as violating the currently prevalent societal ethos.

A few years ago I remember seeing Ada, a young twenty-something woman for antenatal care. It was her first pregnancy and she was bursting with dreams and bubbling with questions about problems she hoped to avoid in the pregnancy. But one of the things that made her stand out in my memory was her hair. She had incredibly long shiny black hair that hung down to her waist when she didn’t try to confine it in a messy bun on top of her head. She was extremely proud of it, and told me she rarely had to work at keeping the sheen that was so striking to everybody in the waiting room. She was used to stares, she would tell me with a big smile on her face.

And yet, as the pregnancy progressed, she found that not only was the length starting to annoy her, but she was also beginning to find clumps of it on her brush each morning. I tried to reassure her that, although not the rule by any means, it is not uncommon to lose some hair in the course of a normal pregnancy. This usually corrects itself three or four months after delivery.

“So I’m not gonna go bald, then?” she said with a twinkle in her eye. I shook my head and smiled. “My husband says it’s probably because the long hair weighs so much it’s pulling on the roots and weakening them or something.” Her expression suddenly changed and instead of twinkling, I found her eyes wandering over my face like robins listening for a worm. “He even jokes about me being a black-haired Rapunzel…” A look of concern appeared, and her eyes immediately flew home. “He says maybe I should cut it shorter while I still have some left. ‘Remember the witch’ he says.

“We had a big fight about how unfair that was…” She glanced at me for my reaction, and seeing the puzzled expression I was unable to hide, she shrugged. “The story hides behind the idea that long hair not only allowed her captor, but also her rescuer to reach her in the tower.” Suddenly her look was a glare. “In medieval times, men were the oppressors –they had the towers- so why make some old woman the villain?”

I wanted to say it was just a story, but she beat me to it. “Ted says it’s just a story –a way to allow a prince to rescue her…” Ada turned her eyes into predators and suddenly unleashed them on my face. “I told him it seemed a bit contrived to me. An example of assumed male privilege, and Woman’s desire to be rescued. Of course he was a prince, and of course that’s what she needed…”

I suppose my face said I still didn’t follow her logic, because she immediately softened her expression and touched my arm. “I majored in medieval European literature in university –Ted was messing with the wrong woman…”

She smiled and sighed at her reaction to her husband. “Poor guy. I really gave it to him,” she confessed with a chuckle. Then she twinkled her eyes again. “So, doctor, was Ted right? Should I cut my hair shorter?”

I shrugged to indicate that I wasn’t at all sure. “Are you certain Ted wouldn’t miss it?”

She sighed. “That’s the problem with princes, isn’t it?”