You Don’t Say?

It’s hard to be upset by something you don’t know about. It’s hard to be offended if you don’t know you’ve been insulted. And, if somebody has to point out that you really have, then have you? For insults, snubs, or even rudeness to be effective, they need to be understood as such.

I think that explains some of those comments that seem to slip under the radar -comments that we could term ‘micro aggression’. Things like: “I’d really like to hire a woman for the job, but they take so much time off for family matters.” Or even worse, perhaps: “Women are beautiful, but they’re fragile.” Are they compliments or insults? Of course these examples are also forms of sexism, and nowadays more easily spotted.

Suppose, though, you had the distinct feeling that what was said was something that crossed a boundary, but you don’t know why? You couldn’t quite pin it down? Then, what if I had pointed out to you that they are really forms of something called ‘benevolent sexism’ and asked you for other examples you might have encountered? Would categorizing them help with subsequent recognition? I suspect it would -now that you were aware of a term that describes the action more fully, it becomes more apparent.

This hypocognition is far more common than I might have thought. The concept was nicely summarized in an essay in Aeon by Kaidi Wu, who was a doctoral candidate in Social Psychology at the University of Michigan at the time: https://aeon.co/ideas/hypocognition-is-a-censorship-tool-that-mutes-what-we-can-feel

‘It is a strange feeling, stumbling upon an experience that we wish we had the apt words to describe, a precise language to capture. When we don’t, we are in a state of hypocognition, which means we lack the linguistic or cognitive representation of a concept to describe ideas or interpret experiences.’ So, ‘Lacking the concept of benevolent sexism blinds you to its occurrence. Knowing the concept of benevolent sexism renders visible its manifestation.’

Then, Wu gives a more humorous example of hypocognition: shoeburyness -something that I, at least, had never heard of, and so wasn’t aware whether I had ever experienced it until it was explained: ‘shoeburyness: the vague uncomfortable feeling of sitting on a seat that is still radiating warmth from someone else’s bottom.’ See what I mean? Mind you, I have no idea where the word came from, nor does knowing it cure the sensation of which I was only vaguely aware before. But still…

As Wu explains, ‘As cognitive psychology affirms, having a verbal label – even a nonsensical terminology, an apparent portmanteau – can distil a nebulous phenomenon into an experience that’s more immediate and concrete… In the absence of an expanding lexicon, we default to denotations bounded by the traditional descriptors.’ So, an example she gives is ‘Single parents are routinely asked what it is like to be “both mother and father”’. Embarrassing, perhaps, and yet often the lack of an appropriate understanding is just that: a default assumption.

But what would happen if, instead of attempting to use other words, the awkward subject was ignored altogether? Swept under the carpet? Would that solve anything, or help to promote further understanding of the situation? Would refusing to discuss gender issues really help those who struggle with it? ‘Regulating what is said is more difficult than ensuring nothing is said. The peril of silence is not a suffocation of ideas. It is to engender a state of blithe apathy in which no idea is formed.’

Still, as Wu suggests, ‘the attempt at hypocognising a concept can often propel a more urgent need for its expression. The emergence of a unifying language of #MeToo gives voice to those who were compelled into silence…  Ideas and categories that are yet to be conceptualised leave open aspirational possibilities for future progress.’

Her essay was very compelling, I have to say, and yet I fear I still have a lot to learn.

I had just ensconced myself in my favourite table by the window of a little coffee shop I usually go to for breakfast when I saw Agnes in the line at the counter. She’d been a good friend of my ex-wife Sally, and I hadn’t seen her for several years now. We’d never been particularly close, and strangers since my wife left, so I was surprised when she brought her coffee over to an adjacent table.

“G,” she said, smiling and using my nickname. “I haven’t seen you since…” She hesitated for a moment, obviously wondering if it was polite to mention the divorce.

“Since Sally,” I filled in for her, trying to diffuse the awkwardness.

I could see her face relax, and her smile broadened, transforming her into the person I remembered from the dinner parties of yore. “So, how are you?” she continued, staring rather curiously at the pancakes and sausages on my plate. “Breakfast?” she asked, rather unnecessarily, I thought.

I nodded and had a sip of my coffee, following her example. “I like the selection here,” I answered.

She was quiet for a moment and then glanced at my plate again. “I’m surprised you go out for breakfast, G…”

I chuckled quietly to myself. “I eat out a lot, Agnes,” I said, although I’m not sure why I felt I had to explain my habits.

Her expression turned from curious to what I can only think was concern… Or maybe it was disappointment -she had always been difficult to read. “Sally said you often used to have dinner ready if she told you she was going to get home late.”

I shrugged – a little embarrassed, I suppose. “Well, nothing special, though -nothing like she could do, that’s for sure…”

I could see her eyes narrow almost imperceptibly, and then quickly revert to neutral. “So you don’t cook much anymore?”

I shook my head, and attempted a little self-conscious laugh. “Well, sometimes, I guess, but Sally was so good at it, I haven’t been able to duplicate it…” It was a bit weak, I realized. “She was such a great cook!” I added, almost hearing the exclamation mark. “In comparison, I’m afraid I just play in the minor league.”

But my feeble attempt of humour only caused her to look concerned again, and she, too, began to shake her head -but slowly. Sympathetically. And then she sighed, and fixed me with a curious stare. “Don’t you think that’s a bit of benevolent sexism, G?”

I was surprised at hearing the expression again. “Why do you say that, Agnes?” I asked, genuinely puzzled.

She smiled sweetly, finished off her coffee, and stood up to leave. “Because you’re boasting about her reputation at the expense of your own, G,” she explained and left without the slightest trace of irony. Only a wave and a wink.

Sometimes it’s good to hear another opinion…

Is time really out of joint?

I imagine there comes a time for each of us when we finally realize we are getting old; a time when we feel that we are just catching up on news so aged that we were only children when it first arose. Information so old that I’m not sure what it should be called –opinion perhaps; or, since it is still around and circulating quietly and seemingly  immune to the cobwebs draped across its shoulders, wisdom…? And although some things may really be changing quickly, others are just now soaking through like water in a thick sponge and seem new to me.

I realize that not even young people can stay au courant with everything -the trick, I suppose, is to specialize one’s interests. Mine were never all that well defined, it seems; apart from my particular professional métier, the rest was spread as unevenly as the peanut butter on my morning toast. Retirement merely allowed me to pile more toppings on it, I fear -some of them dated, albeit untarnished by their ages, and, as far as I can tell, unburdened by a best-before stipulation.

Thus did I discover Simone de Beauvoir’s writings as I began redabbling in the existentialist work of Sartre. The two of them were an item, you remember. At any rate, I soon realized I would need some help, so it was with no little relief that I happened upon an edifying essay by Kate Kirkpatrick, a lecturer in religion, philosophy, and culture  at King’s College London among other things. https://aeon.co/essays/simone-de-beauvoirs-authentic-love-is-a-project-of-equals

‘The desires to love and be loved are, on Simone de Beauvoir’s view, part of the structure of human existence. Often, they go awry. But even so, she claimed, authentic love is not only possible but one of the most powerful tools available to individuals who want to be free… In The Second Sex (1949), Beauvoir argued that culture led men and women to have asymmetrical expectations, with the result that ‘love’ frequently felt like a battlefield of conflicting desires or a graveyard for their disappointments… As a young philosophy student in Paris, she had already recognised that some conceptions of ‘love’ legitimated injustice and perpetuated suffering.’

Some of what she observed in those days no longer obtains, of course -Zeitgeist evolves along with societal values- and yet there are still things to be learned from her writings. Pitfalls to avoid in our headlong rush for change.

‘Beauvoir’s ethics were shaped by a tradition according to which whom and what we love plays a pivotal role in whom we become.’ And love, as difficult to define then as now, ‘was abused to legitimate forms of hierarchy that were anathema to love itself.’ As she saw it in her early writings, love had two components: self-interest (narcissism), and devotion – the former plagued by forgetting there are two in love and that love must seek the good of the other, whereas the latter (devotion) can be suffocating -a form of ‘moral suicide’ in its abnegation of self.

‘Ethical love, by contrast, consists in what Beauvoir calls ‘equilibrium’ and ‘reciprocity’. In equilibrium there is self-giving without self-loss: lover and beloved ‘simply walk side by side, mutually helping each other a little’.’ And yet, suppose one of the two does not feel equal -or feel they have not earned or deserved the love of the other? ‘The ‘most fruitful’ type of love, Beauvoir claimed, was ‘not a subordination’, but rather a relationship in which each person supported the other in seeking an independent, individual life.’

Despite my lengthening toll of years, I have to admit that, although her initial observations make sense, I am more intrigued by the direction in which they evolved. Obviously, unlike De Beauvoir, I had not taken as much time or effort to analyze the question of love. Throughout my life, I suspect I have been more a captive than a general.

Later, reflecting on the parable of the Good Samaritan, Beauvoir came to realize that ‘One is not the neighbour of anyone. One makes the other a neighbour by treating him as a neighbour in action.’ Love required action. There was a growing concern about the meaning of life that was rife in France towards the end of WWII that bred the existentialist movement, one of whose champions, was Sartre. Beauvoir (in Pyrrhus and Cinéas) suggested ‘an answer to the problem of how human life could have value, and how ethics could have a foundation, without a God to provide them. Her proposal was that, in the absence of a divine law-giver, our actions should be oriented to the human others because, even without an infinite being, our actions can take on an infinite dimension by being witnessed.’ We need to love and be loved; we need to be affirmed.

But there is a middle road. ‘Devotion can be tyrannical – it claims to want the good of the other but in fact it imposes a value on the other that might not be of his or her choosing. The ‘ethics of self-interest’ [narcissism], by contrast, assumes that only I could meet the other person’s need for justification: it makes the other a satellite, whose value is contingent upon being in my orbit… What is truly needed, on Beauvoir’s view, is that the other be respected as ‘a freedom’: as a person who is perpetually becoming, with projects for her life that must be of her choosing… there must be two freedoms, both of which respect the value of freedom in each other – such that neither of them suffers the mutilation of subordination.’ Reciprocity, in other words.

Much as I continue to have trouble forcing myself to struggle through Tolstoy’s War and Peace, I’m still trying to psyche myself into reading her Second Sex, but like eating, it’s probably wise to stop when you’re full. In a sense, we all have rumens in our brains that allow us to re-chew what we’ve read to make more sense of it -put it in a more contemporary context, perhaps.

I suspect, for example, that most of us are at least more aware of the existence of hierarchical societal roles that still begrudge women their rightful places in the world. Even the ability to see that there are hierarchies is a victory of sorts; it seems almost unbelievable when we remember that at one time men could claim ‘that it was just in their nature to dominate women – and that it was in women’s nature to submit.’ It was culture that was sanctioning this, and just as society has been evolving, so too, however slowly, has the male Weltanschauung.

In Beauvoir’s day, ‘many women were taught that their value was conditional upon being loved by men, girls were encouraged to conceive of themselves ‘as seen through the man’s eyes’, to fulfil men’s fantasies and help them pursue their projects rather than dream dreams or pursue projects of their own… [mistaking] the desire for love for love itself.’

Of course, it’s still deceptively easy for either sex fall into that trap, I fear, And yet, it was people like Beauvoir who helped us to understand that we create our own shadows. I suppose it’s never too late, but I wish I’d studied more about her than Sartre when I was young… although maybe you have to be old to really understand the wisdom, eh?

Is Whispering Nothing?

Sometimes I randomly accede to the frivolous demands of boredom, but more frequently I am goaded, and approach not of my own volition, but like Don Quixote, hoping to right some wrong. At those times I am, I like to think, teleology’s servant. I assume that it is the purposes they end up championing, rather than the initial inciting events that deserve my interest. After all, Curiosity is the lust of the mind, as Thomas Hobbes reminded us.

So, when I happened upon an article questioning whether women were less important than cows in India, I was intrigued: http://www.bbc.com/culture/story/20170630-are-women-less-important-than-cows-in-india I claim no omniscience of societal customs –not even of my own, perhaps- and I have to admit that my background is in Gynaecology, not Anthropology, but nonetheless I couldn’t resist the allure of a sociological pentimento. Is a mask really meant to deceive, or merely illustrate a reality that is otherwise hidden? Unnoticed when undisguised?

‘The striking photos are the brainchild of Sujatro Ghosh, a Delhi-based photographer, who believes that Indian society values the lives of cattle more highly than the lives of women. In order to call attention to endemic misogyny that he feels disfigures cultural life in India (where authorities, Ghosh says, are more likely to punish the mistreatment of a cow than the abuse of a woman or a girl), the photographer invited his female friends to pose for photos wearing a cow mask […].’

The idea of metaphor to illustrate perceived inequity whether social or gendered, is certainly not new of course –not even in art: ‘Ghosh’s photos echo earlier efforts by artists to expose the sexist instincts of cultural institutions. Preferring the visual pun provided by gorilla (as opposed to cow) masks, members of the all-female collective known as the Guerrilla Girls have, for the past three decades, been committed to raising awareness of issues of gender (and racial) bias in the international art world.

‘Relying on street art to communicate their message, the anonymous activists are perhaps best known for a series of arresting posters from the 1980s that have become as recognisable as any works of contemporary art from the period. […] The Guerilla Girls’ provocative poster was rejected by city officials from display on New York transport on the grounds that it was too risqué. The banner satirises French artist Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres’s lounging portrait of a concubine, La Grande Odalisque (1814), slipping an ape mask over her head and turning the image into one that is impossible to ignore.’ In fact, the striking metaphor has not been lost in other venues, either: ‘Placed alongside Ghosh’s viral photos from this week, the Guerrilla Girls’ memorable poster corroborates a recent claim made by another incognito icon, Banksy: “If you want to say something and have people listen, then you have to wear a mask.”’ (Banksy –to quote Wikipedia- is ‘an anonymous England-based graffiti artist as well as a political activist.’ His ‘works of political and social commentary have been featured on streets, walls, and bridges of cities throughout the world.’)

I suppose we are all inclined to read between the lines at times. To wonder why a particular thought needs to be portrayed covertly. There is a thrill in deciphering a metaphor, I think –first of all in knowing that it is indeed a metaphor and not really meant to trick the wary… More to beguile them. But more importantly perhaps, the ability to peek behind the curtain suggests membership in a cadre of like minds. Or at least an awareness that someone else has noticed something that is often masked. Something usually hidden by equivocation or, to use a word I can rarely justify, sesquipedalianism –obfuscation, in slightly less confusing terms.

Sometimes we need to be jolted by the unexpected, the unusual, to even notice something. We are, by and large, creatures of context; it is where we feel most comfortable. Incongruity is unsettling and, as in harmony, we feel a need for a resolution of any dissonance. But whereas in music we can passively await the adjustment, in art there is a need to actively pursue accommodation. To decide what it is that makes us feel uneasy and why. It is a goad that brooks no turning away.

It’s no accident, that art has been with us from the beginning of Time, I suspect. That we have been compelled to draw things on whatever surface was available, speaks to our need interpret whatever we felt was important. Whether it was animals in motion, the beauty of the sky, or the mysteries of pregnancy, a visual representation seemed as necessary and important as the thing itself. And as full of meaning. Who knows what metaphors hide within the Palaeolithic paintings in the caves at Lascaux, or in the Venus of Laussel?

The risk, I suppose, is the temptation to view every creative act as serving a purpose other than the sheer joy of craftsmanship, the ecstasy of virtuosity, the fulfilment of imagination. And yet, to assume the cause might be merely one of portrayal, or even propitiation, is to denigrate the accomplishment, I think. We all see the world through our own eyes, naturally, but it is the ability to share our view and allow it to seep silently into other eyes, that is the gift of art. And if that opens minds –or, perhaps, even alters them- then maybe the circle is complete.

 

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. https://www.bustle.com/articles/149098-5-fairy-tale-tropes-that-perpetuate-sexism

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?”