Saturday, 28 October 2017

Women's voices, Harvey Weinstein and sexual assualt

I've been reading the New Yorker, and Annabella Sciorra's story of shame and upset at what Harvey Weinstein had allegedly done to her.  What stood out for me was the shame that she felt, and her horrible reluctance to tell her story because others would 'know' what she had experienced.

It brought back the terrible memory of sitting in a lecture, and having a professor explain to us that when women are sexually assaulted, their strongest emotion is not fear or rage, but shame.  Shame wasn't the only emotion Annabella Sciorra expressed.  She shared her fear as well.  And hers was a fear so strong that she was unable to tell her story.  Initially, she denied being Weinstein's 'type'.

For me, it is these two factors - the fear of speaking out about rape or sexual assault due to shame, and the fear of speaking out because of, well because of sheer terror, that are at the heart of this story.  The terror of feeling physically vulnerable and unsafe is a cruel dynamic that puts a woman at the mercy of a predator.  The shame she experiences is an equally social dynamic.

In a fit of helpless frustration, I saw a woman speak out earlier this week about 'Hollywood', as though the women who were being assaulted had this happen purely because they were in a strange place, an out of this world place, where fantasy is made, and all women are sexy or glamorous.  This made it seem as though sexual assault only happens to women who make a living dressing their best, putting on make up and styling themselves to look their best (and possibly their sexiest).

This, I think, is one of the reasons women might feel ashamed about rape or sexual assault.  It is those social myths which point out that a woman has been sexually assaulted because she is somehow extra - ordinary.  She was a Hollywood type, for example, and perhaps her clothes were too sexy, or her hair too glamorous.  Perhaps she was dancing, or drinking, her skirt was too short, or she was so desperate for a job that she ended up in an uncomfortable situation.  In other words, perhaps if this woman did something 'wrong', and she is to blame for what has happened to her, normal women, everyday women, will be safe.

Putting the blame on a woman for sexual assault, whether the focus is on her clothing, her occupation, her hairstyle or her posture, blames a woman for her assault.  Likewise, if we see a woman as guilty because 'she shouldn't have been out at night', or 'she should have watched her drink', we place the blame on a woman for her assault.

Rape or sexual assault is dehumanizing, and it robs a woman of her voice, her physical boundaries and her feeling of safety.  After suffering such a terrible crime, a woman would feel ashamed, and she would feel ashamed because her humanity was robbed from her.  She becomes afraid to speak about because to share this feeling of degradation means going back into this terrible space.  Sexual assault is a violation.  A woman would not want to share it because sharing means having to recall it.

But what if a woman knew that no matter how hard it would be to share, her story would be treated with empathy or compassion?  What if her story was accepted and treated with empathy, and she knew that nobody would ask her about the length of her skirt or the height of her heels.  Where she was, how many drinks she'd had, or the career she'd chosen to do, wouldn't come into the picture.  Instead, she would share knowing that her voice would make her powerful.  What then?

It's a hard question to answer, because women do not generally share stories of sexual assault under these circumstances.  They do not assume that the automatic response would be empathy.  Brene Brown shares that empathy helps when it comes to shame, because it provides us with an antidote.  We don't have to share an exact situation or circumstance.  We don't only have to relate because we have shared  this experience too.  We relate because we are human.  And when we do, we take away some of the stigma or shame.  We do this to give a woman her humanity back.

When it comes to men, unpacking the social myths we tell about rape is important.  We can no longer just quietly mutter that 'boys will be boys' and leave it at that.  There is a need to give the majority of men their humanity back too.  Depicting men as base creatures who simply cannot help themselves if put in the same room as a 'Hollywood' type is unfair.  It lowers the standards, and says that men should be forgiven for being wild beings who are quite simply out of control.  It silences the voices of feminist men, men who would work towards changing gender related norms or beliefs, and men who would remove themselves from an uncomfortable situation. We need to see men who rape as predators so that we can see it for what it really and truly is - a despicable act carried out by a man who abuses his power.

If Annabella Sciorra believed that there was a system which would protect her, and a culture which would empathize deeply with her experience, would she have felt as scared to come forward?  Where are the gaps which prevent women from speaking?  And why do we find fault with women who do speak out?


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Monday, 17 April 2017

Light in the Dark...and Lines in the Sand



This past week, I've been looking at Gloria Anzaldua's book Light in the Dark which explores the role of imagination and empathy in creating social transformation. She focuses on that part of us which exists between worlds, between the world of dominant culture and our own imaginations, and between the world of the ordinary and the spiritual.

This book speaks of the chaos which sometimes shakes up our worldview when we start to look at the world from a holistic perspective. And she explores the struggles and confusions this brings to our lives.  As we search continually for the parts missing in dominant perspectives of the world, this sometimes means that our worldview constantly changes and evolves.  Exploring new knowledge or alternate perspectives can place us on a continuum between hope and despair.  But Gloria Anzaldua speaks of the traditional healer or shaman, who knew that in order to offer healing to his/her community, s/he needed to go through a process of being dismembered or torn apart.  When s/he is able to pull the pieces together again to create a new reality, s/he has something to offer.

This book also focuses a great deal on empathy, and the ability to see the perspectives of 'the other' in order to work towards change.  How interesting that my second book this week gave a lived example of how to this.

Lines in the Sand is by A.A. Gill, who writes with a great deal of sensitivity about the experiences of refugees, explaining that although he has tried not to be the good samaritan, once you stop and see the human face of 'the refugee', then it is impossible to ever turn away.  The book is a collection of articles which explore what it means to be displaced with such kindness and compassion that I found it hard to stop reading.

One of the articles which resonated most deeply though was the experience of going out to eat in a shelter for people who have no homes.  A.A. Gill speaks of the different cities we inhabit, depending on the lives we are able to live, and the opportunities open to us.  He introduced us to his own life, and the lives of those who have lost homes, families or opportunities, and the struggles many members of his (and any) city have from day to day.  There is the woman from West Africa who is in London without family or people.  She lost her job and her home.  Tears trickle down her face as she eats.

There is the Baptist Minister who no longer has a congregation.  He thanks God for chicken and rice.  Gill says:

"Now I don't know a damn about the mysterious ways of God, but I suppose it's no coincidence that at the heart of all religion there is food.  The sharing of food.  The act of feeding someone is the most basic transubstantiation.  To make them whole, and well, to feed their future, and the hope for the better tomorrow... "

He ends his article by explaining that we don't actually exist in different cities, that we still eat alongside people who are homeless, who are cleaners, who are abused, trafficked or kicked out.  We just choose to dis-remember.  He shares that 'others', including the volunteers who try to make a difference need our help.  Not a lot.  Just a little.  We all have something to offer.

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Monday, 9 January 2017

This Changes Everything



I read This Changes Everything by Naomi Klein in 2014, and it was one of the first times I was able to make the connection between climate change, 'development' and marginalised groups of people.  I began to learn more about how the exploitation of earth was linked to the exploitation of 'other' people, the desecration of cultural belief systems, and future life.

Naomi Klein has always been able to connect the patterns behind our surface beliefs or values, and link them to a deeper social and environmental reality.  From a discussion on scientific solutions to climate change, to creating consciousness around the lingering impacts of colonialism and industry, she is able to take climate change out of abstract numbers or external fears, and bring it into an awareness of our everyday lives.  She also exposes the myth behind big business efforts to work towards a more sustainable future.

One of the most troubling aspects of the book linked to the losses we don't notice.  Although This Changes Everything focuses on oil spills, and the loss of life not yet born, I've since become aware of those ways we're unaware of the plants, animals or life which is unknown to us, but which is dying out.  The loss of life which happens everyday sometimes goes unnoticed.

My focus was originally critical social theory, and so my concern was often that environmental concerns ignored the voices of poor or marginalised people, who face struggles.  Until I read Ecofeminism, which focuses on those ways we put life on a hierarchy, and that the hierarchies themselves create a society where racism, speciesism, sexism or other forms of marginalisation can occur.  Ecofeminism asks us to question those philosophies which make up our everyday thinking, and all that is considered normal, so that we can search for different options.

Exploitation of earth has often been linked to hierarchal living.  In some communities, some animals are given more rights than marginalised people, and this is why focus on sustainability can become, in itself, a conversation of dominance.  It's why it is important to include the voices of all beings, so that we can work towards a different future.  But I'm starting to believe that we can only do this if we are able to feel a deeper sense of connectedness to the world around us.




Over time, I've learned that consumerism isn't an abstract concept.  It's about creating a sense of restlessness or dissatisfaction within some, to the detriment of others.  In some ways, it is also about putting those who can afford to buy or dispose of 'goods' regularly into the centre, so that poverty or harm to the environment or other beings becomes forgotten.  

Spending time in a world where there is a focus on life, relationship, connection and a deep awareness of place would increase our awareness of other ways of being.  It might also bring us to a space of healing - for both ourselves and those beings who exist alongside us.

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Tuesday, 27 December 2016

Born to Run - Bruce Springsteen


This Christmas, I got Born to Run by Bruce Springsteen as a present.  I'm never sure what came first, the chicken or the egg, writers and poets or my own interest in identity?  But Bruce Springsteen was one of those people who got me thinking as a teenager.  His Born in the USA album was something I had pretty much on repeat during my first year in high school.  The album wasn't new, but the thoughts; about war and Vietnam,  racial conflict, unemployment, what it means to live in place, and identities we are born into - were new to me.

Born to Run does focus on identity - or rather, it looks at what motivated the original thoughts, and the process of working on the various recordings.  It also focuses a great deal on relationships, what it means to be a person in a social, political, work related or family context, and the troubles we sometimes have along the way.  Bruce Springsteen has always written about relationships, but Born to Run emerged out of a long process of therapy and self-exploration.  The result is a coherent story about where he came from, the journey travelled, and those he met on the road.

We are introduced to the complex, drunk, neglectful and sometimes terrifying father, his very capable mother with her Italian work ethic, sister Virginia, who married young, and whose early life inspired song The River, baby sister, Pam, and all those friends he met along the way.  Bruce Springsteen also introduces us to his many different identities.  We get to know the sensitive child, the determined teenager, the traveller, the reflexive and politically aware young adult, the lost wanderer who searches for home, and the family man.

There's the story of broken down cars, lost dogs, and a whole lot of hitchhiking.  In some ways, the book reminded me of On the Road and I imagine Bruce Springsteen intended this, comparing himself to Sal Paradise by drawing up images of Dean Moriarty on his first trip west.   Sal's wanderings came between marriages, and he searched for the ghosts of lost fathers.  Bruce Springsteen's journey included marriage, and involved an exploration of fatherhood, Catholicism and even the great navy blue sky, seen from a stadium floor before playing to a once only imagined audience.

But Bruce Springsteen, while having the energy Sal only writes about, focuses more on his internal life.  He shares his depression, his anxiety, his search for meaning, his determination and his desire to make a difference.  Music is a passion, and he brings the adrenalised experience of playing to an audience to life, sharing the highs, the fears and the doubts of standing on a stage in front of crowds of people.  He shares the importance of getting the girls to dance, or having that one person in the audience who sings along, so that the fluid motion which occurs between a performer and his audience starts to build.  Bruce Springsteen isn't a passive observer of everyday life.  He constantly engages with the world around him.  And he wants to make a difference.

Throughout the misunderstandings his work produces, his determination to carry on, and the plotting of a path into the future, Born to Run shares what it means to have a passion, to be vulnerable (or not) and to battle your own demons in a divided world.  He doesn't romanticise everyday life in the way Sal Paradise does.  Instead, he reflects.  And as a teenager, he encouraged me to do the same.

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Friday, 23 December 2016

Beauty in storytelling




I've spent the last week reading Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer.  I've actually had a pretty wonderful year when it comes to reading, and over the year I've read and re-read many different writers, but Braiding Sweetgrass left me mesmerised.  With a beautiful sense of poetry, the writer shows us the impacts of history, the wonders of the ecology, and the value of community and what it means to look out for each other.  She does this while sharing her own life story as an ecologist.  And at the same time, she challenges the dominance of western science, allowing the insights of indigenous beliefs to come to the foreground.

Bron Taylor (In The Dark Green Religion) quoted the Columbian ecologist, Ximena Arango's belief that "oppressive behaviours do not follow an understanding that everyone is part of the earth."  Robin Wall Kimmerer uses lived experiences, including clearing out a pond, or the picking of wild strawberries, to share the value of be - ing, and what it means to live in a more-than-human world.  There's the imagery of pecan trees, all producing nuts at the same time, the maple syrup moon, and the gift of strawberry shortcake, a present from both earth and children.

Certain writers create a yearning in me to write as well as they can.  Usually those writers are able to both tell a story and make me think.  I spend months longing to be able to get it right myself, and a thousand frustrated pages trying to make it happen.  All I do is baffle myself.  I'm getting to realise that I'm better at connecting the dots and sharing the story than I am at bringing that story alive.  All I can do, the majority of the time, is share my appreciation of the work I get to explore.  And express my gratitude that I get to do what I love.

After almost a year of exploring decolonised reading though, I was really sad at one of the comments made by a teenager focusing on a future university career.   The teen wondered whether decolonised education would mean lowering standards?  Western scientists wonder where (and how on earth?) some indigenous people have acquired such sophisticated knowledge.  They are told, much to their frustration and bafflement that "The plants taught us." We've only got a vague inkling of what it means to be a person in this world.

We live with a wisdom so much greater than our own, in a universe which breathes alongside us.  And this was what I loved so much about Braiding Sweetgrass. As a scientist herself, Robin Wall Kimmerer showed us how western science doesn't have the only answers.  And what it means to embrace alternate ways of knowing, so that our own beliefs can be expanded.  She does it through story telling, by embracing wonder, and by marvelling at the beauty which exists all around us.  I can't think of a more inspiring way to learn.


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