Monday, 20 October 2014

Aizu (会津) - The Other Fukushima


This is Fukushima.

Yes, that Fukushima (福島). The prefecture in northern Japan brought to such suffering by the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster in March 2011, since when it has joined a very long list in the company of places like Chernobyl, or Hiroshima, or Jonestown, wherein the very mention of the name evokes fear and disquiet. Wherein its entire story, its entire identity, in the eyes of those not in the know, is reduced to one defining calamity.

But let us get some perspective. Fukushima is large and diverse, the third largest prefecture in Japan, and is divided into three regions: to the west, historic and mountainous Aizu; in the centre, the well-connected Nakadōri; and to the east, the coastal Hamadōri. Of these, the nuclear disaster exclusion zone covers a segment of Hamadōri, and the vast majority of the prefecture is still safe to visit.

Aizu (red), Nakadōri (green), and Hamadōri (blue).

I recently had the good fortune of a weekend visit to Aizu (会津), which warrants special discussion in its own right. Historically Aizu was not only a separate domain, but a leading power in its neighbourhood overshadowed only by the rise of nearby Sendai under Date Masamune, who briefly occupied parts of it during his conquests. During the Edo Period (1603-1868), when Japan was unified under the Tokugawa shogunate, the Aizu lords became very close to the Tokugawa family and turned Aizu into one of the shogunate's most dedicated and loyal domains in the country. It was – and is – a proud territory, whose heritage reverberates to this day with echoes of the samurai and bushido warrior spirit.

This close relationship with the shoguns, however, transpired to Aizu's great sadness. Aizu is perhaps best known for its bloody defeat during the 1868-9 Boshin War, during the Meiji Restoration, in which the Tokugawa shogunate was overthrown and the Japanese emperor restored to power. Even after Edo (Tokyo) fell to the imperial forces, whose leaders and members came mostly from the southwestern domains of Chōshū and Satsuma, Aizu continued to fight on the shogunate's behalf at the core of a coalition of northern domains. Long one of the revolutionaries' bitterest enemies due to its extreme loyalty to the Tokugawas, Aizu put up ferocious resistance until it was crushed after a month-long siege of its capital at Aizu-Wakamatsu (会津若松).

Given the southern domains' special hatred for it, Aizu was dealt exceptional brutality during and after this conflict, with many of its people massacred, tortured, imprisoned or sent into exile. Furthermore, in an insult as unpardonable as insults came, the survivors were prohibited from tending to the bodies of their fallen, and these were left to decay in the streets. Aizu' defeat made the northern coalition untenable, and what remained of the Tokugawa loyalists fled Sendai for Hokkaido by sea, pursued by the imperial forces to their final destiny at Hakodate.

Tō no Hetsuri (塔のへつり), in Shimogō, southern Aizu.

I have seen it written that to this day, significant enmity, or even hostility, towards Chōshū and Satsuma remains in the hearts of many people in Aizu, who find it hard to forgive this ruthless treatment. For example, in 2006, this commentator observed the following:

A few weeks ago when I was in the city of Aizu in Fukushima, Japan, there was a panel discussion which included the mayor of Aizu...(involving) a letter from the mayor of the city that would have been the capital of Choshu (presumably Hagi) asking the governor of Aizu whether they could forget the past and just get along. The incidents were over 130 years ago. There was a heated debate that involved a lot of cheering and jeering from the audience, but it was clear that Aizu would not forgive these two clans...The panel pointed out that it was the victim that should reach out for peace, not the aggressors...The conclusion of the panel was that there would be no “forgiveness” but that “dialog” should continue.

Ouch.

The same account goes on to mention that because tending to the bodies of fallen Aizu soldiers had been forbidden, they were never commemorated at the Yasukuni Shrine, as is the custom for Japanese war dead. This supposedly gives many people in Aizu a uniquely negative view of government officials' visits to the controversial shrine; including by the current Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, who in a further twist, happens to come from Yamaguchi Prefecture – that is, Chōshū.

Under the Meiji government, the old system of feudal domains was abolished, and replaced by what would become today's prefectural system. This was the end of Aizu as an independent domain, for it was joined to the rest of what would become Fukushima Prefecture, but to this day it remains highly conscious of its historical clout. It tells its stories and exhibits its identity at every opportunity, retains the name of Aizu in many place names and railway stations, and has built up a very strong tourism sector upon this heritage.

Akabeko, a symbol of the Aizu region.

Alas for unforeseen consequences. When Aizu was incorporated as part of Fukushima, nobody could have predicted that some hundred and forty years later the March 2011 Triple Disaster, in particular the spectre of nuclear radiation, would batter that tourism sector in the stomach for no more reason than this mere association of names. Even though Aizu was not so directly affected by the disaster – indeed, Aizu-Wakamatsu now shelters some thousands of people evacuated from the nuclear exclusion zone – its status beneath the very name of Fukushima has frightened off hundreds of thousands of visitors, both Japanese and foreign, especially because of the lack of rigour and transparency in how radiation safety was assessed and communicated.

Nonetheless, I hope that this article can provide a few insights and images, and help persuade you that a journey to Aizu, Fukushima is not only quite safe but certainly worth your while. Unfortunately my own trip was short; time and resources limited me to a small exploration of its south (Minami-Aizu, 南会津), and I did not get the chance to go to Aizu-Wakamatsu. Nevertheless, I saw splendid things. Click below for the full article.

Monday, 29 September 2014

The 10 Game Challenge

Recently, my honourable friend Kunal Mathur of Quixotic Quagmires issued a challenge to several persons, myself among them, to list the ten books that have most influenced their thinking.

It occurred to me, however, that although I have the highest respect and admiration for good literature, not least as a writer myself, my own path has been shaped to a far profounder degree by video games. I could certainly have listed the books from which I have derived greatest influence, but a list of the most influential video games appeared more fitting to my circumstances. It would also be an opportunity to challenge anti-videogame prejudices, and show that games, as much as books, have the worthiest contributions to make to a person's growth and thought. This article, therefore, is my response.

It took me some time to narrow down the list. I should point out that these are not necessarily my favourite video games, though I consider them all splendid or better. Nor is this list like the other I have compiled here, which gives ten examples of video games' excellence as an art form and potential for socio-political commentary. These, here, are simply the eleven games which I believe have had the greatest influence on my thinking, my values, and the person I have become.

You read that right, by the way. Not ten. Eleven.

The list is as follows:

1) Rallo Gump
2) Loom
3) Star Control 2
4) Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?
5) Command and Conquer series
6) Discworld
7) Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time
8) Pokémon Blue
9) Ultima 7 & 8
10) World of Warcraft
11) Monster Girl Quest

I should also give honourable mention to the following, among others: Super Mario 64 and Super Mario Galaxy; Theme Hospital; the Metroid Prime series; Bioshock; the Legend of Zelda games Majora's Mask and Twilight Princess; the Advance Wars series; Little King's Story; Planescape – Torment; and the two games that most directly oriented my path towards Japan: Mystical Ninja Starring Goemon and Okami.

Click below for the specifics.

Saturday, 20 September 2014

Hills of Kamakura


In the 1180s, a certain Minamoto no Yoritomo (源頼朝) overcame the Taira clan in a national power struggle, and established a bakufu – that is, a military government – in eastern Japan, for the first time eclipsing the power of the emperor in Kyoto. The Kamakura Period, as the ensuing age of military rule became known, was named for Minamoto's chosen stronghold of Kamakura (鎌倉), a few kilometres south of Tokyo, and generated many of the forces that would shape and symbolise Japanese life for centuries to come: the rule of shoguns; the rise of the samurai class and the Japanese feudal system; and the flowering of Japanese Buddhism, among others. After Yoritomo's death the shogunate fell under the dominance of his wife's Hōjō clan, which is perhaps best known for organising Japan's successful resistance to the Mongol invasions of Kublai Khan.

To anyone who has travelled around Tokyo and its environs, Kamakura should be instantly familiar. Effectively the capital of Japan for a century and a half, it is today a beacon of tourism and popular culture and is saturated with hundreds of historic temples and shrines.

Less celebrated however are Kamakura's wooded, rocky hills – perhaps unfairly, as it was these, which surround the town on three sides with the sea on the fourth, that convinced Yoritomo to establish his power base there. Indeed, Kamakura's geography made it a nigh-unassailable stronghold. It was so inaccessible that the only ways in before the rails and roads of today were the “Seven Entrances”, each a narrow pass artificially carved from the rock.


These surroundings make for some superb walking, and the route that follows is a day-long kaleidoscope of nature, culture and history. It sets out from Kamakura Station and links the hiking trails of the eastern, northern and western hills into a single loop, by which you can encircle the town, dropping by a few less prominent pieces of its heritage along the way, before winding down with a stroll along the beach. Even if you have visited Kamakura before, you may have missed the shrines or temples covered here, but they are no less intriguing than its greatest landmarks, and certainly no less historically pivotal.

They include a shrine overflowing with foxes...
...some exceptional examples of traditional Zen garden design...
...and an unassuming spot in the woods, where the Kamakura Shogunate came to a bloody end in 1333.

Kamakura Hills
Length: Long. I do not have an exact measurement but would estimate at least 15km.
Hiking Time: Give yourself at least 7-8 hours to cover both hiking time and the places of interest along the way. Allow more time if you would like to look at these more closely.
Height: The highest point is Ōhirayama at only 159.2m. However there is a fair deal of up and down throughout the walk.
Access: Take the JR Yokosuka Line to Kamakura Station (鎌倉駅).

As these details suggest, this walk is long. Allow yourself a whole day if you are planning to do it in full, and go ready for a good workout. On the other hand, you are never too far from the town. There are shops or vending machines within bearable distance at any point on the route, and the many train stations or bus stops let you curtail it early if need be, or select portions to do at your own discretion.

Wednesday, 10 September 2014

Three Myths in the Struggle Against Gender, Part Three: The Myth of the Others

In the first two articles in this series, we challenged two common assumptions: first, that that gender is natural; and second, that gender has anything to do with tradition or modernity.

If this is your first time here, it may be worth first orienting yourself by having a look at those articles, or the more general discussions about gender, what it means, and why it is a problem. Let us briefly recall, in any case, some of its further problems. They include, but are not limited to:
  • gender inequality;
  • gender conflict;
  • the subjection of women in almost all spheres of public and private life;
  • hegemonic relationship dynamics;
  • hegemonic family structures;
  • hostility to sexual diversity;
  • the mistreatment of people who are not biologically male or female, such as intersex people;
  • the mistreatment of people who do not conform to masculine or feminine gender expectations, the consequences of which include exclusion, alienation, mental health problems and suicide;
  • and the abomination that is rape, among others.

Today we confront a third and final myth. It is the belief that some societies, cultures, religions and/or ethnic groups are better or worse at gender problems than others.

It might inhabit statements like these:

[Religion X] is repressive towards women.

[Culture Y] is a conservative culture, and still does not tolerate homosexuality.” (For why the word still is a problem in itself here, see the second myth.)

Unlike [Country Z], democracy and human rights are in our national DNA.

And inevitably: “Why are you complaining about [Gender Problem N]? Don't you realise that it is better in this country than anywhere else? If you don't like it here then fuck off to [Country Z].

As with the Myth of Modernity, these may sound like entirely fair sentiments in certain places and times. But let us be clear. When we challenge this myth, we are not suggesting that [Religion X] does not currently have serious problems with its subjection of women. We do not mean that [Culture Y] does not have homophobia problems, nor even that [Country Z] is better at [Gender Problem N] than the country of the fellow comparing them. We will not ignore, in this article, the very real and deplorable problems of countries and cultures and faiths all over the world when it comes to gender.

What we are questioning is the idea that any of these are inherently better or worse than any of the others. The key word here is inherently.

That is to say, it is very possible that, say, Japan, currently and arguably, experiences less gender inequality and gender conflict than, for example, India. This however, does not let us say that India is worse at gender problems than Japan. The reason might be that gender inequality and gender conflict exists at all in both countries, meaning both are in an infinitely broken condition. Or we might be ignoring the mass gender atrocities Japan committed a few decades ago during the Pacific War, or the fact that a lot of Japan's current subjection of women is expressed through constraining social norms and expectations, rather than a culture of open violence. Or we might be forgetting, also for example, that Indians have reacted, on the whole, with greater systematic outrage, popular activism and rigorous confrontation of their gender problems than has been the case in Japan. 

The bottom line, nonetheless, is that gender is and has long been an unjustifiable problem in both countries. To suggest one is any better than the other ignores their unique and complex stories; ignores their changes over time; ignores the variations within them; and above all, shoves aside the most important concern, which is that gender problems exist at all in both countries when they straightforwardly should not.

The idea that such comparisons are meaningful, in ignorance of this, on purpose or otherwise, is the Myth of the Others. The myth, that is, that gender might be more a problem with “them”, and less a problem with “us” – or vice versa – when in fact it is a catastrophe for us all.

It does not matter, by the way, who exactly “we” or “they” are. The statement is problematic from any perspective, including yours, wherever you are – that is after all the point. The Myth of the Others might be the belief that either Christians or Muslims have worse gender problems than one another; or Europeans and Africans; or settler and indigenous communities; or -isms and -isms; or the global North and the global South.

All comparisons like this are first, inaccurate; second, divisive; and third, pointless. We are all bad at gender. All societies, all cultures, all nations, all religions have colossal mistakes to face up to. Indeed, we have not grasped the problem of gender until we recognise it to be precisely of such dreadful magnitude as makes these comparisons meaningless.

In other words, we are all struggling to climb the same cliff out of the same gendered hell. And it is high time we worked together to get us all out of there, rather than pulling out our iPhones mid-climb and trying to take pictures at angles that make it look like we have climbed higher than everybody else.

So instead, I would like to suggest the case is the following.
  • No societies, cultures, religions or ethnic groups are inherently gendered.
  • None, however, are immune to gender and its problems.
  • When gender exists in a society, culture, religion or ethnic group, it is not part of that group but a problem with that group.
  • And in the final analysis, gender is a universal problem facing all humankind regardless of nation, culture, religion or any other line of division.

Let us look now at some of the forms the myth takes. It may appear an us vs. them myth, but look again: it cuts both ways.



The Blobs Return
A few days ago, I was reading a news article on sexual violence in video games, and lamenting, as one must, that such a magnificent and promising art medium has become one of the most bile-infested bastions of gendered nastiness in the world today, particularly in Europe and the United States. (That in itself, by the way, is a subject for another time: video game design suffocates beneath the ooze of gendered tropes, while misogyny of the most reprehensible order gushes from the orifices of so many player communities. In particular, there are those among the latter who shriek abuse, death threats and rape threats, at any person – particularly any woman – who dares to draw attention to the problem.)

The reason I mention this here is that on that occasion, I resisted my better judgement and scrolled down to the Comments section, which, as anyone well-travelled on the internet will tell you, has an effect akin to accidentally dropping your sanity into the latrine and only realising it just after you've pressed the flush and stand watching helpless as it vanishes to oblivion. And sure enough, one comment immediately lived up to this custom. It was somebody claiming, vehemently and with customary disdain for grammar, that genderedness in video games had no importance because 'actual' rape – presumably 100% unrelated to the wider culture of gender violence, of which games are a part – was happening in 'places like Africa'.

Yes, you read that right. 'Places like Africa'.

Now we could just about construe that as accurate, if we define 'places like' to mean 'places with human beings'. In that case 'places like Africa' would equally include Europe, Asia, the Americas and Australasia, all of which suffer horrifically under the rape pandemic. But somehow I don't think the commentator meant it that way.

I recalled, at this point, a different article that has stuck in my memory for several years. The author and context escape me, but I remember it was castigating feminists in Europe and the US for their criticism of the subjection of women there, when according to the author, these countries were the best in the world at equality, tolerance and women's rights. The feminists, he asserted, should therefore stop attacking their own 'democratic' and 'developed' countries, and focus instead on the relative barbarisms of the Middle East, Asia and – though he perhaps did not use the exact phrase – 'places like those'.

Here we see the Myth of the Others in its most crude and honest form. It states: “we are a good blob; they are a bad blob”. But we may note that its target is rarely the Others themselves. More often, it is You. When You attempt to make the case that Our group is not simply a “good blob” but something more complex than that, the “bad blobs” of the Others are deposited upon your arguments as a caricatured point of comparison, to either dissuade you from your case, or to shame you for making it in the first place when others are, by this image, so obviously worse. In other words, this Myth is a political tool: a box of blobs we unleash to bounce attention away from our own societies' gendered problems, and to smother critiques of them.

In other words, it is the moral equivalent of the argument that “(our) Dictator Jia killed only 9 million people, while (their) Dictator Yi killed 10 million, so take it easy on Dictator Jia”. And the parameters of comparison are about the same with gender, when we recall from the previous article that:

Humanity drowns in a sea of overlapping gendered pandemics – domestic violence, emotional abuse, sexual slavery, sexual apartheid, female infanticide, “honour” killings, “morality” police, gender-related mental health problems and suicides, bride kidnappings, human trafficking, genital mutilation, unequal laws and wages and sizes of meals and recognition of evidence in court, hegemonic and arbitrary body image standards, failed relationships, child custody battles, and cultural media saturated to bursting with the same gendered tropes, ugly stereotypes and male-female relationship dynamics repeated over and over again.

...and when we recall, moreover, that most of these not only exist but rampage across even the most so-called “liberal”, “democratic” and “developed” societies in the world. Indeed, the level at which gender is a problem transcends such notions. “Democracy”, “development” and related chimeras have no relevance to gender except in so far that because of gender, they do not exist.

It gets worse though. They, the Others themselves, or rather those responsible for Their gendered problems, know exactly how to take advantage of the Myth of the Others to cover for their misdeeds.



The Relativist's Defence
During the rise of the universal human rights regime in the late twentieth century, a certain line of argument gained popularity. Its most organised manifestation was the “Asian Values” platform erected by characters like Lee Kuan Yew in Singapore and Mahathir Mohamad in Malaysia. They stood upon this platform, and declared that societies have their own cultures and identities that do not necessarily reflect “Western” values like human rights. In the Asian Values case, for example, Asians, as a matter of culture, supposedly preferred authoritarian governance, obedience to authority, and collective harmony rather than individual freedom. It is thus in societies' best interests, the argument goes, that they be permitted to organise themselves according to their own cultural values, rather than be bullied or pressured by those colonial Westerners into changing to become like them.

This so-called cultural relativism is now mostly discredited. There is nothing wrong, of course, with the idea of cultural self-determination. But “Asian values” is hollow when we consider that “Asia” is not a monolithic unit – not a blob – but in fact some four billion people spread across 44 million of the most diverse square kilometres in the world, making the idea of any homogeneous “Asian-ness” a nothing. We may also note that plenty of these four billion Asians categorically oppose authoritarianism and repression – perhaps you know some of them – and that such critics as Anwar Ibrahim, Chee Soon Juan, Lee Teng-hui and Amartya Sen have as much claim to represent Asians as the likes of Mahathir or the other Lee in Singapore. As indeed, we must sadly admit, do Mahinda Rajapaksa or Osama Bin Laden. You might say there are actually four billion sets of Asian Values, not one.

Nonetheless, the same species of cultural relativism has lashed out across much of the world with a popular appeal far surpassing its substantive integrity. It has been wheeled out to excuse the imprisonment of dissidents here, to cover for crimes against humanity there, often in the guise of anti-colonial or anti-capitalist struggle or the defence of national sovereignty. Its credence has naturally suffered blows – the advocates for “Asian values” themselves, for example, were made miserable when the prosperity they claimed would result from that path spectacularly disintegrated in the 1997 East Asian financial crisis.

However, one of its fronts has yet to collapse. It is, of course, gender.

Cultural relativism on gender is a curious mirror image of the Myth of the Others. Those who exercise it accept the gender problems in their societies, but deny they are problems. Instead, they take pride in these problems and even consider them marks of national or cultural superiority over others. These roles and rules for men and women are our religious values, we say. There have been no homosexuals here for thousands of years, we say. The immaculate language of morality, purity, tradition and self-determination is unfurled to shroud gendered cruelties in a mantle of solemn and severe respectability. And then comes the killer blow: the Others. They are out to get us, we claim. They seek to pollute our values, corrode our culture, compromise our innocence, and make us as selfish and sinful and materialistic as they. If you don't believe it, just look at them!

Yet this is no more than another exercise in blobs. From the gender relativist's perspective, the world is divided into two portions: We and They. We are reduced to a good blob: homogeneous, pure, with a single, undiluted culture and heritage unchanged since the dawn of the universe, the archetype of moral life. They are reduced to a bad blob: cultureless, dissolute, a shambling mass of greed and perdition that devours all it touches and has shed all capacity to know right and wrong. The latter, these relativists advance, must not be allowed to touch the former. We must protect our societies - our children! - from Their contamination.

We talk here not merely of Wahhabi clerics or Putin or the Indian BJP, however, but of a more pervasive smog that has poisoned the entire global gender discourse. Ultimately it does away with all real meaning between Us and Them, uniting the two in complicity and reducing this relativist non-argument to plain disingenuousness. Cases in point are Western companies like McDonaldses and Starbucks who segregate men and women in their Saudi restaurants, covering for themselves by claiming sensitivity to others' cultures, whereas it is actually because feeding off those markets matters more to them than human rights. Consider also politicians who wheel out the relativist's defence to fend off difficult questions about the countries they want to sell weapons to.

In other instances it is more insidious. For example, take the myth of the “conservative country”. I would swear I have heard this label applied to every country in the world at least once by now by the mainstream British media, most frequently the BBC, when considering gendered repression, sexual violence, or hostility to sexual minorities in countries they cannot be bothered to properly research. In fact there are no “conservative countries”. Countries are diverse, as discussed under the Myth of Modernity, and any honourable conservative must surely feel mortified when that term “conservative” – which after all refers to a legitimate segment of any society's political mosaic – gets applied like this to gendered abhorrences with no place in the universe, and whose existence represents the mosaic's tiles being blasted off and the earth beneath them scorched.

There is a troubling puzzle here. How have proud concepts like morality and tradition come to be associated with gender inequality, gendered conflict, the subjection of women, hegemonic family and relationship systems, and uncompromising hatred of sexual diversity? How can anyone even consider, let alone believe, that these things have anything to do with morality in the face of the lacerating pain they visit upon the souls and carcasses of people they love?

Politics can only go some way to explain this. Absolutely, elites from Henry VIII to Goodluck Jonathan have an established history of inciting populist hatred against conjured bogeymen to win public support, or more particularly to distract people from their own incompetence or corruption. Our societies' long failures to develop a sober, informed conversation about sexuality and gender make these fertile ground for such illusions. But their effectiveness in too many places and times suggests that many people genuinely believe that a more coercive, repressive gendered society is a good thing – or at least, that it is worth it for the sake of (again, the illusion of) moral and cultural integrity. No scheming politician, no matter how clever, could orchestrate madness like that.

Perhaps the power of these broken narratives can only be understood against the wider horror of recent human history. The shadows of colonialism and slavery fell upon the world's civilisations and diced them to ribbons, producing traumas, conflicts, and existential confusion that plague them to this day; and it is within those shattered mindsets that people have been immediately confronted with the terror of culture-eroding, value-destroying market fundamentalist globalisation. Perhaps it is no wonder we are insane.

And so we get the madness that is “[insert gender atrocity here] is our culture, so do not criticise us.” Warped as We who make that claim are, we do not understand the logical poverty, and soul-destroying cruelty, of that statement. Correspondingly, against a They who are increasingly aware of their own cultural brokenness, who grapple with the shame of their colonial and neo-colonial misdeeds, that is a devastating statement. It carries a corollary of “you know you are in no position to do so”: not morally, because you have no high horse to ride on; not physically, because you no longer rule the world.

So in the end, They too give in to this mirror of the Myth of the Others. How many people do you know who, on hearing your criticisms of gendered crimes elsewhere, respond with the infuriating relativist's defence of “but that is their culture”?



Racism by any other name...
To be clear then, the Myth of the Others narrative has two basic problems.

The first is reductionism. All societies, cultures and religions, whether ours or theirs, are extremely diverse and exhibit enormous variety in their values and beliefs, often in contestation with one another. The comparisons and caricatures of the Myth of the Others ignore this variety, and would have us believe that societies, cultures and religions are blobs in which everyone – or everyone judged to matter – believes the same things and behaves in the same ways.

Its second problem is essentialism. Societies, cultures and religions, whether ours or theirs, are on journeys. They have always been changing, evolving and revolving in countless directions through history. Nations awash in war rape, witch-burnings, and the most hideously coercive gendered roles, as was once the very image of Europe, have transformed into places which abhor capital punishment in all circumstances, and where concerted efforts against sexual violence exist at most levels of society. Nations once famous for striving for equality between men and women, like Turkey or Afghanistan, have lost focus, or altogether crashed into the abyssal depths of gendered carnage. However, the myth ignores these changes and would have us consider that its caricatures of societies reflect them at an essential level. That is to say, it suggests that those societies have always been that way, and always will be – freedom as part of who we are, repression as part of who they are.

In short, the Myth of the Others ignores two of the most fundamental facts about all cultures: that they are diverse, and that they change. The equation is simple: reductionism plus essentialism equals blob.

So let's cut those blobs up once and for all, shall we? Remember: we must cut both ways.

In one direction, we have the societies that consider themselves in a better position – mostly Western European societies and their offshoots like the US. There the Myth of the Others compartmentalises the problems of gender into distant and frightening otherlands of savagery. Foreign countries, cultures and belief systems are reduced to monochrome blobs of barbarism, ignoring that they are always complex, always diverse, and contain a great deal of people struggling against the mistakes and failures of their own fellows. By the same token, people of these would-be better societies are invited to ignore that the problems of gender still afflict their societies to a magnitude utterly beyond pardon, and more dangerously yet, led to forget that their own histories are saturated, over centuries and perhaps millennia until extremely recent decades, with gendered atrocities as grotesque as anything carried out by the likes of ISIL or the militias of eastern Congo today. Do we say, then, that these atrocities are British traditions, or Canadian culture, or Australian values? No, and quite rightly not. But neither should we dare believe there is anything inherent in these cultures, values or belief systems that would stop them happening again in those places in future.

In the other direction, we have those so visited by the odious habit of appealing to cultural relativism to justify their gender crimes. Like the aforementioned societies, gendered horrors have often infested their cultures, their traditions, or their values too. But that does not mean they define, say, African cultures, Indian traditions or Muslim values at an essential level. On the contrary, these are each as diverse as galaxies, have undergone massive changes over the centuries, and will continue to do so; indeed the most ironic change of all has been the absorption of gendered norms, values, and laws – especially those hostile to sexual diversity – from the very colonising countries they claim these beliefs are resisting. Neither do these feeble excuses for morality reflect these cultures even in the present, for there are huge numbers of people in every culture, every nation and every religion who have devoted their lives to overthrowing gendered repression, who believe their respective groups have it in them to do so much better, and who make the toughest of sacrifices for the struggle to make it so.

As such, if the Myth of the Others seems more convoluted and complex than either of the previous two myths, there is good reason. This myth stands squarely upon the junction of two colossal fault systems. The first, as we have explored in these articles, is that of gender, which has divided and pitted us against one another in all the most unconscionable of ways. The second, which here we meet, is another great and terrible divider, which has been no less senseless, no less pitiless and no less corrupting to the journey of the human race for a similar length of time. It is, of course, racism.

This is why we must reject the Myth of the Others, by falling back upon our common humanity: the knowledge, accessible to us all, that all of us share over 99% of the same genome and all of us hurt when we bleed. Gender has divided us more than enough as it is. The last thing we need, in the struggle against it, is to be further divided by the stuff that gave us colonialism, slavery, two world wars, countless genocides and ethnic cleansings, and the ongoing alienation between the North and the South – or indeed, that most racially reducing and essentialising notion of “developed” versus “developing” countries.

Let no-one ever hear you defend gender and its problems by calling them a result of someone's culture, or tradition, or religion, or ethnic or national identity. It is no different from suggesting that getting incinerated by a nuclear bomb was a cultural practice of Hiroshima, or telling a person with malaria that the Plasmodium parasite is part of his or her body. As a means of attack, it is self-injurious: it will generate shudders and awkward silence, and rightly so. As a means of defence, it is at best intellectually lazy, and at worst a most unfathomable evil.

Gender's tentacles have different widths, lengths and colours in different lands, but it has legitimate claim to none of them. Gender is not African, Asian, American, European, or indigenous; not the product of any ethnicity or territory. Gender is not Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, or Confucian; it does not belong in any religion or spiritual system. In any place, any system, in which gender exists – and right now that includes most of them – it is not of them, but a problem with them, and a problem they will surmount.

Gender has no nationality, no ethnicity, no culture and no religion. It makes barbarians of us all.

Thus concludes this series on Three Myths in the Struggle Against Gender. As thanks for reading, here is something nice, transcending time, space, and gender itself.

Friday, 29 August 2014

Three Myths in the Struggle Against Gender, Part Two: The Myth of Modernity

The first article in this series challenged the myth that gender is natural. Today we confront a second myth.

But first, let us first remind ourselves of the general forms the problem of gender takes. Some of these are as follows:
  • gender inequality;
  • gender conflict;
  • the subjection of women in almost all spheres of public and private life;
  • hegemonic relationship dynamics;
  • hegemonic family structures;
  • hostility to sexual diversity;
  • the mistreatment of people who are not biologically male or female, such as intersex people;
  • the mistreatment of people who do not conform to masculine or feminine gender expectations, the consequences of which include exclusion, alienation, mental health problems and suicide;
  • and the abomination that is rape, among others.

The myth we will look at today is this: that the problems of gender are traditional – and that as societies progress to become more enlightened and modern, they overcome these problems.

But before we begin, here is a cute bear for no particular reason.


Now then. As with “nature”, there are loaded concepts involved here. Terms like “traditional”, “progress” and “modern” are stacked to the sky with baggage to declare. But at their most literal, they together imply something very simple – indeed, that is their problem. They imply a straight line. A straight and singular path of development, on which human societies advance through time, and on which the further they travel, the smarter, wiser, fairer, and just generally better they become.

At first glance that may sound accurate enough. We are, perhaps, better off considering ourselves “elderly” in our 80s, and not in our 20s as a few thousand years ago. A lot of us have access to things like advanced medicines, traffic lights, washing machines, solar panels and video games now, making our lives safer, easier and more enjoyable than the lives of our ancestors who did not. There are a few irritations unique to our time as well – say, the escalating ecological disintegration of our planet, and the triumph of a greedy, materialistic, exploitative and violent market fundamentalism – but if we ignore minor things like that, the general impression that as the centuries have elapsed, the experience of human life has, on the whole, improved.

And so the narrative goes for gender. A society where there is less rape is more modern than one where there is more rape. A society where men and women both have opportunities to participate in political life is more advanced than one whose national cabinet is a masculinised lair of misogyny. A society which grants equal legal recognition to diverse forms of the family is more progressive than traditional societies where you get arrested for living with someone of the other sex without being married, or beaten up by religious police for holding hands. Where is the problem?

Well, consider statements like these.

“Those people still treat women like chattel.”

Why is this medieval law still in place in the twenty-first century?”

That country is stuck in a time warp.”

I have emphasised the temporal references in these statements. As examples they are abstract, but still typical of what you find in serious news, commentary, or roundtable discussions on the gender problems at issue. I have heard this sort of language even from the most intelligent and courageous of people, whose credentials and ethical integrity in the struggle against gender are beyond reproach.

But something about that phrasing still makes me feel ill.


History is Not a Blob
The immediate problem is this. If we recall, that gender and its problems have no convincing basis in nature; that they are at once so harmful to human individuals and societies, yet at once so prevalent; that things like rape, the subjection of women, and the persecution of sexual diversity can only be properly called abominations; then we must conclude that they are as abominable at any time in the past as they are now.

That is to say, a place does not still treat women like chattel; if it ever did it was already in violation of the universe. A law that forbids cross-dressing or cohabitation without marriage, or punishes rape victims, is not medieval, nor does existing in the twenty-first century make it worse than in any other, because it is already infinitely offensive to life regardless of when it exists or existed, and it always has been, and it always will be. A country which mutilates children's genitals, or where political and military life is either the preserve of men or imposed through conscription, is not stuck in a time warp so much as stuck outside of time. We are talking about things that should never have been able to exist.

Do not worry, however, if you were not convinced by the “gender is not natural” conjecture and cannot relate to this. There are more than enough empirical reasons alone to suspect this purported relationship between gender and time.

The basic problem is that as the “gender is natural” myth is based on bad science, this “gender is traditional” mirage takes shape from a lousy approach to history. At its core, it is selective reductionism. That is, it grossly simplifies, and thus misrepresents, both the past and the present – and in so doing reduces the vast and colourful heritage of humankind on Earth to a singular, writhing, amorphous, stern and remorselessly violent blob of authoritarian patriarchy.

Lousy history. The first thing you should notice when you look at the past is that it is in fact huge. The second thing should be that we know so little about most of it – both because of the limits of our records, especially for societies which did not write or whose artefacts were made of perishable materials, and because we are such masters of confirmation bias (i.e. seeing what we want to see) and of doctoring our pictures of the past to suit our values, interests and arrogances in the present. But even from what remains, we can observe that, although yes, almost every society has a sorry history of gendered repressions and atrocities, these were very far from uniform. Examine the history of any society and it will be seen that there are times when they were better on gender, and times when they were worse; and that these fluctuations were driven not by the turning of the clock, but by the bitterest of confrontations of changing interests, changing values, and struggling currents of kindness and cruelty.

To forget this complexity is not only sloppy but dangerous. If instead we feed the reductionist (and often essentialist) blob of gendered horror, it then explodes back on the history and splatters all over our collective consciousness. Its embodied assumptions and prejudices seep through the gaps in our knowledge, saturating them with the illusion that the past was just generally, with only half-mythic exceptions, a time when gender inequality, conflict, and regulated conformity to rigid social roles were ordinary. We re-interpret, reject, ignore or simply forget any records even potentially contradicting that. And in doing so, we poison the study of history, spiking it with the gendered contaminants of life today just as the nationalists spin their past atrocities into glorious acts of heroism, and the religious fundamentalists portray their own faiths as intrinsically peaceful and others' as incorrigibly bloody.

And now the converse: the selective reduction of the present. While the “gender is traditional” narrative portrays tradition as a singular gendered amoeba, it portrays the present in contrast as a radiant, coruscating triumph of education, technology, and liberal values. These, the narrative goes, have equipped us to smash the shackles of gender subjection like never before, breaking free of tradition's restrictive, rapacious morass, and raising our arms to embrace a sunlit present which, as far as gender is concerned, is freer, safer and more tolerant than any time in our history.

The actual present is as follows. Rape, and rape culture, infest almost every society in the world, while politicians, moral authorities, the police, the courts, and social services in even the richest and most liberal countries remain comprehensively inept at stopping it or participate to sustain it. Men still dominate the political, military, academic and sporting landscapes of virtually all countries – on the one hand, particularly in the military, they may be forced by law to become killing machines and die for miserable causes because they happen to be men, while women find their paths to these fields obstructed, inundated with ridicule, or straightforwardly blocked. Homosexuality is punished by law in almost half the world, is discriminated against in virtually all of it, and in a dozen countries faces the death penalty. Children are still segregated by sex in many schools, and treated differently in all aspects of life on the basis of whether they are boys or girls. So rarely can men and women, girls and boys, interact with each other free from the influence of visible or invisible rules around how they are supposed to relate, or what they should or should not express to each other. Humanity drowns in a sea of overlapping gendered pandemics – domestic violence, emotional abuse, sexual slavery, sexual apartheid, female infanticide, “honour” killings, “morality” police, gender-related mental health problems and suicides, bride kidnappings, human trafficking, genital mutilation, unequal laws and wages and sizes of meals and recognition of evidence in court, hegemonic and arbitrary body image standards, failed relationships, child custody battles, and cultural media saturated to bursting with the same gendered tropes, ugly stereotypes and male-female relationship dynamics repeated over and over again.

But what is the present's most extraordinary characteristic of all? It is that these impossibilities, this caterwauling rampage of a thousand abominations, is allowed to fade into the background noise of social and political life: to the ticker-tape headlines, the corners of the inner pages of newspapers, and the protests of people whom the mainstream tells to just calm down, and asks: can't you see that we are a modern society now, where men and women are more equal than ever before? Would you prefer to live back in [arbitrary period], when [stereotyped culture] used to punish people like you with [horrible atrocity]? Can't you stop making a big deal about nothing? When are you going to just, you know, calm down?

An Earth with nothing on it might be an improvement over that. Yet that is what we call democracy, enlightenment, modernity, and liberal bloody values.

Let's look up some actual history. Are men, women, and diverse individuals and families closer to equality under Putin's Russia than they were under the less maniacal phases of the USSR, or even the Tsarist period? What if we apply that question specifically to, say, Chechnya? Go and look up what Ramzan Kadyrov has done to it as far as gendered repression is concerned, in the present, and try imagining what could make a society more gender-heinous without it driving you to a nervous breakdown. Do homosexuals and others with non-heteronormative sexual identities or orientations live in safer, more inclusive conditions in Uganda, Nigeria, Belize or Malaysia today, or did they in the centuries before British imperialism injected their societies with fear of sexuality and of the sexually different? What of all the other lands transformed and civilisationally butchered by European colonialism, such as in Francophone North Africa, Southeast Asia, the Caribbean or the Pacific Islands? Were the women of Afghanistan freer under the Taliban in 2000, or the monarchy in the 1920s? What about gendered repression in that artificial construct called Iraq, say in areas currently controlled by ISIS, compared with under the Abbasids or the Ottomans? And what of the rigorous traditions of women in combat, such as in the Kingdom of Dahomey, or the Kurdish Peshmerga, or the ancient Amazons – how do these compare with the masculinisation of armed power in most nations today?

None of this is to suggest that even the superior examples in all these comparisons had a gender record better than downright deplorable. What it makes quite clear, however, is that societies do not necessarily get better at gender over time and can just as easily, rapidly, and unexpectedly get much, much worse. And they can do so, moreover, while wearing all the trappings of modernisation.

It also enables us to look at the aforementioned gender deplorableness through the ages in a more suitable light. Too often, we accept them as simply how we were: those timeless cultural images seared into our minds, of dominant men and submissive women; of women as spoils of war; of witch-hunts; or those pseudo-scientific dogmas which once portrayed women as lacking in mental faculties, taken for granted as though authoritative fact, and used to justify denying them property, the vote, or participation in political, social or economic life. We must recognise that these were not so much reality, as broken reality. Not intrinsic to us, but chosen. We must look upon this past with faces lined not with stone, but torrential tears of shame, and hold our ancestors responsible for what we can only recognise as disgraces, disgraces of incomprehensible magnitude, and disgraces as elementally odious for being carried out then as they would be if they happened right now.

One final, crucial oversight of the “gender is traditional” myth is that it ignores the diversity within all societies. In any society, in all times and places since gender appeared amidst us, there would have been those suspicious of it, and critical of it, just as there are now – and just as there remain in every society today individuals as bloodthirstily sexist or heteronormative as at any time before. For conversely, even in the most tolerant and gender-equitable eras, there seem always to have been the haters, the zealots, the control-freaks attempting to reawaken the abomination of gender from its dreadful slumber; and too often they have succeeded – perhaps, as is usual, with the sponsorship of self-regarding political or business interests. But even when the abomination's whispers clouded the minds of masses into hysteria, to set loose the most utterly appalling gendered atrocities – from Nanjing to the former Yugoslavia, from Dhaka to the eastern Congo – there were always the dissidents, the activists, those who hurtled through the shadows or stood tall in defiance to save as many people as they could, who said no to corrupt authority, who told the majority it was wrong; those who put their lives, or far more, on the line to roar the gendered horror back to the pit. And when societies recovered to relative sanity – when the demons of gender receded – it was the courage and sacrifice of people like those, not some purported long-term trajectory of progress, to which those societies owed their gratitude.

It is always important to understand things in the context of the moral conditions in which they took place. But we must remember that those conditions are not literally of the times at all, but rather of the people in them, and the conscious choices they made. And no matter how the clock of the universe reads at any given moment, it is reasonable to expect that any sane person in that moment can understand that there are some things no guise of morality can ever fit. So it has always been, and always will be, for the inequalities, conflicts, subjection and sheer pain of the things that issue forth from the maws of gender.


Modernity as Arrogance
There is one final problem with the gender-and-progress narrative, and that is the much bigger beast on whose hide it is but one of a thousand scales. We might call it a problem not so much of history as of meta-history – that is, of how we conceive of history, of our journey, itself.

A story is not a straight line from A to B. Rather it is an unfolding webs of tangents, shocks and surprises that twist in complex directions we cannot always understand, because the frames of orientation themselves change too. Otherwise it would not be a story – there would be no journey, nothing to tell. And our story is one of the most complex of all.

There are two models of the human journey which have both been disastrous. One, especially favoured by people pessimistic about human nature, considers it cyclical. We go round and round in circles; nations and revolutions rise and fall; we soar to the skies upon our hopes and dreams, then plummet into the spiked pits of reality; over and over again in a spiral of miserable futility. It is a model made of cynicism, which tells us to swallow our despair and accept the injustices of the present, for any attempts to correct them inevitably land us with worse.

Frankly, if that is our lot then we may as well all drop dead. However, our concern today is with the opposite model: that which presents our journey as a sequence, a progression from primitive to modern, whether in knowledge, or technology, or prosperity, or moral values.

This, though on its face optimistic, underpins one of the most upsetting disappointments of our time: that thing we have called development. The history-is-a-sequence model is not solely to blame for its blunders – we also have to consider the paradigm's hijacking by market-fundamentalist economists, and the legacies of the colonial division of the world between North and South, among other things. But at the core of development, at least for most of its reign as a keystone concept in international politics, is precisely this narrative that societies can be measured against a linear yardstick – calibrated, of course, to the journeys of the societies that designed it – and according to this, be called “more developed” or “less developed”, or worse still, “developed” or “developing”, as though all societies walk on one trail through time and can be compared by their relative positions upon it.

This too is ahistorical, ignoring the effects of histories – often colonial histories – and the diversity both within and between societies. But as anyone who has had their present or future decimated by IMF shock therapy or structural adjustment programmes will tell you, its implications are hardly limited to how we look at the past. Never mind either that, as we have considered, a society in which gender problems exist may have moved backward from its starting point.

Those societies which measure themselves the highest on this scale like to refer to themselves as modern. Therein lies the heart of this myth. For modernity, very simply, means the present, as compared favourably to the past. It is no more than to attach the most gratifying of value judgements to our image of ourselves here and now, relative to the past; and in the process, to turn our backs on the entire catalogue of hideous present inadequacies we have herein discussed.

In literal terms, modernity is a nothing. Anyone can think themselves modern, in any time period, and think so with equal validity – that is, none at all. Even were we to attain a wonderful state of love and magic with lots of happiness and peace and fuzzy animals, there would always be room to improve. The very concept of modernity is nothing but the hubris of the present, spun to sound respectable. That is just what we need in a present like this, is it not?

And that is why I call the gender myth in question the Myth of Modernity. Because the idea at its root is that there is such a thing as modernity at all: a landscape of glorious furnaces of progress, which, as we draw closer to it, radiates liberating heat that blasts off our gendered baggage. The myth is that this modernity exists. It does not. And so long as we believe that it does, we will always believe, by definition, that modernity is us; and so will we puff out our chests at our ancestors, while persisting nightmares, including those of gender, leech through the human soil and pollute the prospects of the future.

Those ancestors probably thought themselves modern too. If the dead can see, they are surely humbled by hindsight. If the dead can speak, they surely warn us not to repeat their hubris – if only we, the living, will listen.


Traveller, there is no path, the path is made by walking
So if history is neither a blob nor a line, what does that mean for us, and our struggle against gender?

Two beacons, glowing in the mists of time. A beacon of hope, and a beacon of warning.

The beacon of hope blinks through gaps in the terrible history of humanity's gender repressions, gender conflicts and gender atrocities. It signals to us: yes, you have been terrible – but not always terrible, not uniformly terrible, and not terrible in the ways the essentialists would have you believe. There were times when you were better. You can research the history, discover these times, and learn from them. You may not know gender's causes, but you can dig up plenty of its drivers, especially in its intersections with forces you can so easily prevent if only you properly valued their costs: thuggish nationalisms, moral panics, mass hysterias, bad spirituality, economic abuse. Your science and technology may not make you superior to your ancestors, but they do provide all the equipment you need to disperse the illusion that gender has any inherent connection to 'tradition'.

But heed the beacon of warning. It signals to us: destroy your complacency. Abandon the myth of continuous linear progress, for it is a lie. There is no invisible railway of time on which you can simply ride to victory against the terrors of gender. Your struggle will not win itself; the outcome is not written in the stars. Instead, take responsibility. The awareness, the criticism, the better examples and choices you must make – these require a courage for which no fate can substitute.

If nothing else, think again if you have thus far made statements about gender with those unwitting references to time: when you suggest its barbarities are unacceptable for still being present (rather than being present at all), or reflect a medieval society (rather than a failed or broken society). Little words like those may seem trivial, but it is on these very trivialities that the gender abomination gorges itself until its tentacles are so fat they fill up our entire social backdrop, and thus settle in our minds as normal. Gender belongs neither in the past, nor in the present: it comes to them, from outside of time.

And ultimately, gender inequality, gender conflict, gendered discrimination and horrors like rape cannot be “progressed out of” by modernisation, any more than a ghoul can modernise out of undeath or urine can modernise into water. Gender's existence is a brokenness that transcends time; no sooner is it written in the pages of our story than its eldritch ink rots the whole book to muck, no matter what chapter we are in at that moment. It is thus not enough, for us who fight it, to concede it the past as a price for the future; because then we give it a place in our story, when we must give it no place at all. It does not belong, whenever and wherever.

Hopefully the whenever now invites closer scrutiny. As for the wherever, we shall explore that with the third myth: the Myth of the Others.