The Feast of Fools

It’s hard to switch sides, isn’t it? Hard to cross the tracks. And even if you do, does welcome await, or merely sidelong glances and mistrust -or as Macbeth feared, curses not loud but deep, mouth honour, breath which the poor heart would fain deny and dare not…?

It’s a brave person who crosses over –who dares to live the other life. But can one ever feel what one has only watched from afar? Would the experience be real, or only a tawdry simulacrum? A Halloween costume? True, only we know for sure how we perceive something, but we can intuit how someone else might feel –and realize that they might also have a different understanding of what happened. A different reality. So, are we unalterably barred from that room?

I ask this as a man peering over the fence and wondering about what I see. It always seems so… so like my side –so like the cover of the book I’m reading. I suppose that’s where it gets confusing. I know the story is different, and yet I don’t really understand why. But then again, perhaps I’m as naïve a reader as I am a contributor –or is that merely a pretence of innocence? An expected social conceit?

And if I were to attempt a disguise in a situation that even I could see might be demeaning for a woman, would that help me understand? Or would it merely seem weird, and elicit the confused and embarrassed reactions that cross-dressing usually does? Would it take me closer to the lived experience? Or would it be yet another variation of the male Weltanschauung?

An article in the CBC news on sexual discrimination in the workplace made me wonder: http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/ottawa/workplace-sexual-discrimination-men-heels-union-613-1.3483305 ‘The male staff decided to dress up after a CBC Marketplace story  […] on restaurant dress codes and found that many women felt compelled to wear sexy outfits —including high heels, tight skirts and heavy makeup — to keep their jobs.’

I have to say that at first glance, I was reminded of the Medieval Feast of Fools. This, as you may recall, was a festival usually held at the beginning of the new year (especially in France) in which a mock bishop or pope was elected, ecclesiastical ritual was parodied, and low and high officials changed places. And, according to the Encyclopedia Britannica, by the 13th century these feasts had become a burlesque of Christian morality and worship. But nobody was fooled; everybody realized it was just a charade…

In the case of the restaurant, ‘The men lasted only an hour or two in the heels, which ran the gamut from red stilettos to cheap, black, strappy numbers. But aside from the physical pain, they also described feeling vulnerable and uncomfortable as they worked.’ And understandably so –they were pretending to be something they most decidedly were not. Everybody –customers and staff- knew it and no doubt played along. ‘”Guys were making comments, jokingly of course, because that’s what we were going for — to show light to it — but even those jokes that they were making were, after a while, still very uncomfortable to be faced with,”’ said one of the servers.

A few of the customers were women who also worked as servers at other restaurants with similar dress codes where they were told to look like they were going to a party, not coming home from it. One of them, who had recently quit one of those places after being sent home for not wearing enough jewellery on her shift, said: ‘”I came here tonight because I love the idea of reversing sexist dress codes required in some restaurants to male colleagues. Seeing them wearing heels and short skirts is really something. I wanted to come down and be a part of it,” she said.

‘”It reinforces how ridiculous it is. Seeing men walk by in tight miniskirts and heels really just hits it home how crazy it is to ask women to do that.”’

The consensus among the women servers watching was that within limits, dress should be about choice. If they felt comfortable with dressing like what they were seeing, that was fine. But many of them didn’t. The doctrine of contra proferentem might apply, perhaps, but I doubt that many of them would go so far as to hire a lawyer to press their cases.

So, apart from some interesting publicity and a bit of teasing, what did the cross-dressing actually accomplish? For guys, dressing like women and trying to balance on high heels they’d never been acculturated to wear -and never had the opportunity to practice on- can only give them the barest whiff of what many women have to endure on an ongoing basis. They weren’t women that night, just actors rehearsing a drama they would never get to play.

Clearly, what the article was pointing out was the tip of a very large iceberg. Highlighting this form of sexual exploitation was merely a way of hinting at the way women in general are regarded in our society –and maybe not just ours… You can legislate fair hiring practices, but it is far more difficult –impossible, actually- to legislate attitude.

It is true, however, that unless the issue is publicized in a manner that shocks people into seeing it, there is unlikely to be any change. Some are hoping the protest might go national, with similar events taking place in various cities across the country. But I worry that, although the cause is worthwhile, too frequent repetition of the burlesque, is also a way of making it seem just confrontational -turning a good idea into a parody, and losing the point it was originally intended to make.

As long as shareholders and owners of companies see profit in sexualizing young women –and men, for that matter- the battle for change will be an uphill one. We are already seeing a backlash against ‘political correctness’, to the extent that many of the gains made in the past few decades are being sidetracked, or even eroded. I suppose it was inevitable that direct confrontation with the status quo would be resisted as would any threat.

But the solution, it seems to me, lies not in confrontation, but in changing what we accept as normal –as proper. And it is already being done with some success nowadays through both social media and advertising strategies. Just look at the change in attitudes about, say, smoking in restaurants, or driving home after a night at the pub. There are already recent, albeit tentative steps in various TV and internet-streamed programs –sitcoms and the like- to portray women less as sexual objects, and more as equal partners in their dealings with men. Some episodes have even attempted, as did those male servers in that Ottawa restaurant, to depict the humiliation that men would experience were the roles reversed. And people are watching and getting used to the idea because the characters on the screen are making it seem, well, normal. Accepted, not contentious. And certainly not antagonistic.

Nothing happens overnight, of course, and although we are understandably impatient for more progress, change that is too rapid often leads to rebellion -especially if that change is precipitate. Unexpected -or worse, abnormal!

“How poor are they that have not patience!” says Iago in Shakespeare’s Othello. “What wound did ever heal but by degrees?”

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As I Age

As I age, it becomes increasingly clear to me that Life is far more complicated than I could ever have suspected. It is like a stew where I keep finding new ingredients –some to my liking, and some… Well, let’s just characterize them as unexpected -mysterious strangers that surface from time to time, wreak havoc, then disappear again like shadows on a moonless night.

Social movements are often like that –or, rather, social solutions. Society changes over time and it has been the fashion of late, to see this as an evolutionary adaptation to underlying conditions –the slow but steady metamorphosis of caterpillar into butterfly. And yet, sometimes the change is more abrupt -a mutation- and we are forced to deal with the consequences. When things around us change, we attempt to keep up –or at least, like the Red Queen in Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass, find ourselves running faster and faster to stay in the same place.

And one manifestation of this is the need to preserve a thin weft of values as a template during the inchoate and often thread-bare interregnum. I’m thinking, of course, about the age-old philosophical conundrum of whether we should tolerate the intolerant –and if so, then how? And at what price the compromise? One example from many: the need to establish special female-only transportation in the city of Zhengzhou in eastern China to help women feel safe from sexual harassment. To guard them. http://www.bbc.com/news/blogs-news-from-elsewhere-36169029  Of course, the problem is by no means unique to China -other countries have discovered the same need and arrived at similar solutions.

But it seems to me that the issue is far more complex than these solutions might suggest. This gender issue, in some ways is not dissimilar to the racial problems that surfaced so violently in the last century in America. To think that having different buses for people of colour would salve the problem was proven to be naïve, and in itself discriminatory.

It comes down to the difference between toleration and acceptance: putting up with something that might not actually be approved of –enduring it: ‘toleration is directed by an agent toward something perceived as negative. It would be odd to say, for example, that someone has a high tolerance for pleasure’; versus  Acceptance: acknowledging and welcoming something as itself; permission versus approval. A power struggle either deferred, or shared.

To equivocate for a moment, should we tolerate mere tolerance, or accept it…? As an interim solution, of course. In other words, is it better to have the segregated buses for women, say, than groping and intimidation on more inclusive public transit? To say that there should not be sexual harassment is all well and good, but it ignores the present reality –there is, and to ignore it would therefore be akin to tolerating it. So are we  trapped in a never-ending game of chase-your-tail, forever condemned to wander the Mobius strip looking for an exit?

Perhaps it might be helpful to distinguish the component parts of the issue (I have adapted some principles from the peer-reviewed Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy: http://www.iep.utm.edu/tolerati/#SH4a).  It seems to me that there is a difference between the more superficial and emotional response to whatever is being tolerated (Let’s call this the Reactive Stage) –the need to separate the aggrieved from the aggressor, for example- and the Rational Stage: the more dispassionate and reasoned analysis of the problem –if indeed such an analysis is feasible, or could even be rationally justified. In other words, on what grounds does the prejudice in question continue to exist? Is it remediable, or inevitable? Should we be forced to retreat behind our own societal boundaries and accept the relativistic excuses proffered that we simply can’t superimpose our own values on those who are not like us? That we, in fact, do not understand –nor likely ever will, since we are other?

Or, closer to home, can we ever hope to change attitudes such as disrespect and insensitivity to aspects of personal autonomy that have been entrenched –and indeed accepted- for countless unquestioning generations -that, until recently, were not even considered problems requiring solutions?

Well, societies do alter as time and members change; I’m not sure we could characterize the alterations as necessarily evolutionary, or teleologically driven, but certainly the initial reactive and then the more rational stages can often be discerned. The societal attitudes towards Gay rights, for example, have undergone major shifts within the past few years –even the initial toleration, which was rare in past decades, is now remodelling itself as acceptance.

So what -if anything- has Age taught me? What has the passage of years and the successive unfolding of events disclosed? Well, it has become clear that in the long run, our enemies become our friends; that we seek and find compromises satisfactory to each –bargains that in due course cease to be seen as concessions by either party, but rather as amicable balance; that Force only suppresses while it is being applied; and that discussion is inevitable and infinitely preferable to confrontation. We may not be able to evince our much-touted rationality in all things, but we are all eventually susceptible –amenable even- to accommodation.

Omnia vincit amor, I suppose.

 

 

Speak up, eh?

In the often dull Gestalt of Canadian politics, it is sometimes difficult to distinguish background from foreground, but every so often a light goes on and shadows spring to life. Shadows we would fain deny, yet dare not, to paraphrase Macbeth as he waits for battle. It is, perhaps, an apt example given that it is the military that so recently stepped into the media’s blazing sun. Soon to retire as the Chief of the Canadian Defense Staff, General Tom Lawson, in a widely watched television interview, said “Sexual harassment is still an issue in the Canadian Forces because people are “biologically wired in a certain way.”  http://www.cbc.ca/1.3115993 And this set off a national forest fire that has yet to be extinguished.

This is not unexpected in light of a recent report on sexual misconduct in the Canadian Forces issued by former Supreme Court Justice, Marie Deschamps who suggested that sexual misconduct in the Canadian military was ‘endemic’. http://www.cbc.ca/1.3055493

And then, predictably, this was espoused by members of parliament –all, not unreasonably, wanting to reflect the mood of their constituents. http://www.cbc.ca/1.3117281

This is as it should be, of course. Neither sexual harassment nor sexual misconduct are tolerable –especially in a military setting where power inequities are inherent to its structure and therefore largely inescapable. The creation of an ‘independent centre for accountability for sexual assault and harassment outside of the CAF with the responsibility for receiving reports of inappropriate sexual conduct, as well as prevention, coordination and monitoring of training, victim support, monitoring of accountability, and research, and to act as a central authority for the collection of data’ as the third recommendation of the Report suggests, would be an important first step in addressing these inequalities. And for those who are not certain of whether to bring it to the attention of their superiors, another of the recommendations: ‘Allow members to report incidents of sexual harassment and sexual assault to the centre for accountability for sexual assault and harassment, or simply to request support services without the obligation to trigger a formal complaint process’. And if this seems inadequate, or difficult -perhaps because the offender was a superior officer-  another of the Report’s ten recommendations, no doubt for emphasis, also mirrors this: ‘Allow victims of sexual assault to request, with the support of the centre for accountability sexual assault and harassment, transfer of the complaint to civilian authorities; provide information explaining the reasons when transfer is not effected.‘ In other words, the ability to be heard. Noticed. Helped. It would be difficult, indeed, to find fault with any of the recommendations as they seek to change attitudes in what, for millennia, was an all-male club. https://www.documentcloud.org/documents/2070308-era-final-report-april-20-2015-eng.html -or for a more succinct listing of the recommendations: http://www.cbc.ca/news/politics/military-harassment-report-10-recommendations-1.3055935

And General Lawson did later apologize for this ‘awkward characterization’ as he termed it on a subsequent CBC interview: “I apologize for my awkward characterization, in today’s CBC interview, of the issue of sexual misconduct in the Canadian Armed Forces. Sexual misconduct in any form, in any situation is clearly unacceptable,” the statement said. “My reference to biological attraction being a factor in sexual misconduct was by no means intended to excuse anyone from responsibility for their actions.”

His original ‘biologically wired’ comment, in the cool light of retrospect, was bound to attract attention of course –especially given the sexual misconduct report and his position as chief of the defense staff. It was a poorly conceived and not terribly clever analogy -definitely not Pulitzer Prize material… But all the same, I worry about the reaction it engendered -the media seemed to focus only on the ‘biologically wired’ part. Context, it seems to me, was either lost or misconstrued -his message was interpreted as naïve at best, camouflage for inaction at worst. And yet, awkward or not, I would like to think the general was not attempting an excuse, but merely an explanation of something that, were we able to say it without fear of backlash, should be evident to everyone. Like it or not, there are biological differences between the sexes, and the military was perhaps the last remaining refuge for unadulterated testosterone -a place where actions truly spoke louder than words. We see some of those actions now as unacceptable -not only ill-considered, but even criminal. Fair enough; I certainly agree. But I also think it is reasonable that I expect, and am willing to tolerate, different behaviour from a soldier than, say, my doctor. I would not accept ethical or moral perfidy from either, and yet each protects me from different things in different ways -and presumably with different world views. Different sensitivities. Let’s face it, those people who decide on a career in which armed combat is a distinct possibility, are not likely to be averse to confrontational situations. But of course, judgement is required: aggression can be multidimensional. Hydra-headed -and inappropriate. It is, I suppose, why there are chains of command: the need to superimpose order on chaos. Training –or should I say taming– those primal instincts.

Of course it will not happen overnight just because we wish it so; not all of the report’s recommendations have been accepted outright… Yet. Perhaps it was felt that there was a fine line to balance, even now. So the report from Justice Deschamps is a recognition of the current reality –the one that requires a Center for Accountability. But to pretend that there is only one acceptable way to talk about the root cause of the problem -one way to name the Devil- is not helpful. There are many ways to acknowledge a truth. Many paths to the sea… And we are en route -but still walking, not running. Maybe senior officers should all be taught communication skills as well as battle tactics. Readings on rhetoric as well as studies of SunTzu might be useful parts of their preparedness strategies. Shakespeare hints at this in Julius Caesar:

There is a tide in the affairs of men. Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune; Omitted, all the voyage of their life Is bound in shallows and in miseries.

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.”