Goswami and sound system vs Swamy: Human and non-human as a rhetorical team

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A friend posted a video on Facebook the other day, and it caught my attention because this friend really dislikes the particular show that the clip is from – and with good reason. The Newshour Debate is a loaded shouting match masquerading as a television debate, and has even drawn attention from the John Oliver show, where it was likened (by an Indian commentator, it must be noted – see 6:30-6:49) to American right-wing news channel Fox News’ debates, where the argument is decided ahead of time, and guests are shouted over by hosts if their opinions do not align with those of the channel. I confess that I derive a weird sort of dark pleasure from watching the show every now and then – perhaps the same sort of pleasure that leads people to watch WWE wrestling matches. So I do have some familiarity with the show, and an interest in Indian politics at some level. I also have an interest in how technology plays a role in our social and political life.

This is why I actually watched the video that my friend posted (warning: if you suffer from noise-induced migraine you might want to give this one a miss):

I watched the whole video and what struck me as interesting (from a communications and technology perspective) was the significant role played by the lag between host Arnab Goswami’s (hereafter referred to in this post as AG) and main guest/antagonist Subramanian Swamy’s (hereafter referred to in this post as SS) respective sound sub-systems. So AG would say something deliberately provocative, and then pause for effect before moving on with his next sentence. SS would hear it only a few seconds later, and start responding to it just as the dramatic pause ended. The impression thus created was that SS was being combative and aggressive (I mean beyond the already-present antagonisms) by speaking over AG, when actually from SS’s perspective, he was speaking only during AG’s dramatic pause.

This happened the other way round as well, with SS saying something, and AG hearing it only a couple of seconds later, then responding when SS was already moving onto the next point, thereby creating the impression (beyond his normal penchant for using repetition as a power device on his show) that he was not interested in anything apart from the sound of his own voice (which to some extent is true, but is not, objectively, the entire point of his show. At the very least he requires his participants to play their roles in toting the argument he has already decided upon, which is why he sets the debate up with those particular participants in the first place).

What made it even MORE fascinating was that AG allowed this ostensibly technical problem to continue (and I say this because he is a television professional, and it is thus unlikely that he was unaware of the lag. I’ve seen him draw attention to the lag before on his show – it tends to happen with participants speaking from outside the studio). But going beyond that, I’d suggest that he actively used it as a ‘partner’ in his rhetorical strategy to undermine SS’s position, and the theme of the debate (somewhat perplexing to a relative outsider like myself) does, I think, lend some support to my suggestion – there was a strong motivation to present SS as politically negligent, morally reprehensible, and rhetorically unsound. That SS may actually be all these things to some extent is beyond the scope of my ‘analysis’. My main point of interest is the role of the sound system as a participant in the debate – it got more of a chance to play an active part in the debate than any of the human participants!*

(*This idea of non-human “actants” co-existing with human ones in a network is of course the core construct of actor-network theory. There’s a neat little introduction here.)

The world needs more of you

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“Don’t worry about your body.

It isn’t as small as it once was.

But honestly, the world needs more of you.”

That’s why I am very drawn towards this ‘Health at every size‘ movement. It seems to me to be intensely political – a necessary and compelling response to the violence that is inflicted on our minds and our bodies via media messages, public health campaigns, the food industries, and the whole armies of individuals who take it upon themselves to judge anyone who does not conform to societal norms.

Don’t regret not being smaller. There is no need to feel ashamed. Fill the room. CLAIM your space.

 

 

Political penguins, public resources and choosing a side

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nlbGenerally I tend to stay on the sidelines and watch as events unfold. It’s often hard to know which side to take when there is both too little information and too much information available. What I mean by that is that we have very little access to the sorts of details that would enable us to take a critical and rational view of most policies. It took Roy Ngerng’s blog posts and the citizens’ outcry over the Prime Minister’s response to him to get the government to explain to us just what the CPF issue is all about. At the same time, thanks to the Internet, we have sometimes too forceful a flow of opinions and facts – like quenching your thirst at a fire hydrant. This is not in itself a problem. Part of the value of media literacy is the ability to make sense of this voluminous mass of information, and once you read enough and think enough and discuss enough, you start to develop a sense of what your position is and how you want to proceed. My point is that these manufactured gaps and inevitable uncertainties make it difficult sometimes to immediately decide which side you want to stand on when a line is drawn in the sand.

But this isn’t one of those times. I am really horrified at what the NLB has done. Many people have rushed in and written lovely pieces that echo my sentiments. Carol Soon at the Institute of Policy Studies asserts that libraries should promote learning, not police values. Lim Lee Ching, Editor of the Singapore Review of Books, is justifiably ominous when she warns: “The reality is, this is no longer merely about book banning; it has crossed the threshold to take on the spectacle of a pyre…from which no hope may rise.” Howard Lee in The Online Citizen deconstructs the NLB’s actions and the support they got from the Minister for Communication and Information, concluding quite accurately that “We saw no due process in evaluating the books. We saw that NLB would rather destroy books than allow others to benefit from them. We also saw how NLB is more than a mere reflection of what society finds acceptable, but an active player in defining “community norms”, by excluding certain views from public debate.”

I was very heartened to read that writers like Ovidia Yu have taken a stand against the NLB’s actions by refusing to work with them on their literary events. It seems to have come down to this: that the time has come to take a stand. And not just on books, but on LGBT rights as well. I watch with amused disdain as so-called conservatives in America take ridiculously regressive positions on education, women’s health, gay rights, and other issues. I will not stand by idly and watch as those regressive positions enter the democratic space of my country via religious groups whose agendas are dangerous and whose followers wield pitchforks against books. You mess with good people who have done less harm to the world than many who follow your religion – you mess with me. You exclude them from public spaces by agitating against their right to congregate – you mess with me. You manipulate public resources so that they feel shame and are rendered invisible – you mess with me. And by all that is just and right in this world, you mess with books and libraries and I will GIVE you something to pray about.

But in between that regressive fundamentalist position and the liberal response that I identify with are many who are sincerely trying to make sense of the situation. I think these people honestly have no idea how they woke up one morning and found themselves on the wrong side of history. So while there are some who have no trouble joining odiously discriminatory Facebook groups and trolling online debates, there are many more who are struggling to find a way to not be the bad guys even as they stay true to their faith. I get that. But I think the struggle does not need to be so hard. Here, all jumbled up together, are my responses to the typical points* that get raised in debates (forgive me, dear reader, for making you infer the points from my responses):

The books identified for withdrawal and destruction are not primarily about homosexuality (no sexual acts are depicted or referred to), although they do make oblique reference to diversity in family structures, along with many other unrelated points. I think it’s important to take a step back and ask who is afraid, why they are afraid, and whether they actually have any cause for fear. The children may pick up the books? My question then would be – so what? So many people say “I am not a homophobe, but…” and then go on to talk about homosexuality as an ideology that is insidiously spread among the unsuspecting. That DOES point to a homophobic position. Children don’t magically become mature. The people howling for book burning are all adults – no visible maturity there. The development of maturity comes through contact with knowledge via various mediators (technologies like books and computers, but also agents like parents and teachers), and it starts pretty early. The NLB definitely has its reasons. It is precisely those reasons that make the act of destruction even more ominous. I would not call their view of child development merely conservative, if this view leads to the belief that books should be destroyed on the basis of complaints from those who have no idea how to keep religion out of public spaces. I would call that view medieval. What actually does conservative mean? In nature and culture, Singapore is a diverse place. One of the good things about a democracy is that it has space for everyone. We always have to guard against allowing one group to close off that space to another.

I think that it is counterproductive to stretch the imagined consequences of recognising LGBT rights to the extreme of enabling socially destructive anarchy. One thing has nothing to do with the other. It might just as well be argued that if we allow religious groups to influence government policy we will end up with a fascist state! There was a time when people thought that allowing women to vote would lead to anarchy. And totalitarian states where no-one can do as s/he wishes have proven to be very destructive. Maintaining a democracy is a delicate balancing act, but one which rests on certain basic principles of equality, justice and secularism.

Is it okay for a child to grow up without either parent? Firstly, it depends on what you mean by okay, and secondly, plenty of children DO for various reasons. That is why we need a public space where diversity is the norm, and not a source of shame. If the family is a happy, loving one, I cannot see how it matters who it contains. Public resources cannot be manipulated by interest groups to exclude people from democratic spaces before the question of rights and resources has been thoroughly and rigorously debated.

The concept of freedom is a very complex one, and it operates at different levels. It is always a valid word, and it always carries with it the implication of ‘unfreedom’ as well. Just as a very simple example, religious freedom in Singapore comes with the ‘unfreedom’ to mix religion with politics. The freedom to attend an event like Pink Dot in Singapore comes with the ‘unfreedom’ to read certain books in your national library that are relevant to you, to marry the person you really love, and to bring up children in a loving and stable environment that some people don’t approve of. People do keep trying to redefine their freedoms and ‘unfreedoms’, but those negotiations are precisely what keep a democracy alive, as long as information is allowed to circulate freely.

I just needed to get this off my chest. I don’t know how activists sustain their energy for so long. I am already dispirited after reading a few comments by the illiterati. But now is not the time to lose heart.

Niemoller quote

 

* I am grateful to a young Facebook friend who articulated some of these points on my timeline in a balanced and reasonable way, thus allowing me the opportunity to address them in a more detailed and pointed manner than I might otherwise have been able to. 

In defense of women-only spaces

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I am going to admit from the outset that I haven’t figured out quite how to articulate this yet. It’s an emerging idea. I make no claims that it is completely new in the world of feminist thought, but it is new for me. As I deepen my reading and come across works which are relevant, I will provide the details in this post. If you read this post and something comes to mind, I’d be glad to hear it. 

I write as a woman born into a Hindu family in Singapore in 1970. My parents came from Andhra Pradesh in India in 1960 and settled here in Singapore. I’ve written a few posts that deal with my struggle to understand the paradoxical and contradictory nature of the various aspects of my identity. No statement is the final one, as my struggle is still very much work in progress. This little introduction is necessary for any reader who does not know me, because without it, my attempted defense of women-only spaces will make little sense. Here are two prior posts that mark moments of reflection along my journey:

1. Feminine empowerment coded in ritual: August 22nd 2010

2. I am the invisible goddess: June 13th 2012

I have no strong objection to rituals in general, nor do i embrace them on principle. However rituals which celebrate the embodied feminine seem to resonate more strongly with me than those that worship the divine feminine (even though the former are no less implicated in patriarchal structures). 

Recently I attended one such ceremony which, loosely translated, is a baby shower, except that that term doesn’t fully capture the amount of attention devoted to the mother-to-be by her mother, grandmother, sisters, aunts and other female relatives and friends. They put flowers in her hair and bangles on her wrists, while surrounding her with love and music and good wishes. I remember my “Seemantham” 18 years ago as one of the happiest events of my life. I felt so loved by the women who came to bless me and my unborn child. This photo of my mother kissing me makes me smile even now.

seemantham

18 years later, I was on the giving end of the love and attention as a young mother-to-be anticipated the birth of her child.

Such spaces for women to celebrate one another in a culture which is so openly misogynistic are valuable spaces. There are problems of course with glorifying these events as great sources of feminist wisdom. Women who choose not to have children, women who cannot have children, women who are unmarried – anyone who does not comply with the rules – are rendered unworthy of this show of affection, and therefore effectively invisible. But it occurs to me that it may be possible to try to sift out the valuable element of female solidarity from the murky mess of patriarchal rituals. While in theory the ceremony is defined in terms of patriarchy, in its actual enactment there are practices that may be seen as resistance. Or at least, the possibility exists to claim that space for resistance. I’d love to do an ethnography of women-only spaces in ritual cultures at some point in the future.

“What we need is not to break the tie, but to make it healthy – to wrest it from its patriarchal context, to allow for its full impact on us, strengthening the line of women” (Arcana 1985, pg. 149-150, quoted in Koppelman 1993 [1].)

Koppelman’s argument was about detaching real feminine ties from the psychoanalytic tool of patriarchy – where psychoanalysis was applied to separate daughters from their mothers in order to strengthen the patriarchal machinery. But we could use the same argument about wresting the tie from religion. Not just mothers and daughters but all feminine solidarity. Koppelman suggests detaching through narratives about mothers and daughters. I’m suggesting detaching through celebrations of femininity.

All religions assume a theory of toxic femininity – that femininity is somehow dangerous for men. This leads to the emergence of a masculinity that is in practice toxic for women – at best it infantilises them, and at worst it abuses them. bell hooks [2] wrote beautifully about the need for men to be free of patriarchy as well in her book “The will to change: Men, masculinity and love”. Her theory is that men and women need to work together to dismantle patriarchy. There are as many women as men who are complicit in perpetuating the oppressive structures, and there are as many men as women who suffer from the oppression. In the context of Hinduism, Sharmila Rege [3] has written about how Brahmin women comply with patriarchal structures in order to maintain their supremacy over women of lower castes. All this is by way of saying that there can be no gender-based classification into villains and victims categories. The patriarchy is too complex for that. The ideal anti-patriarchal future is one in which masculinity is not toxic, and women therefore do not need exclusive spaces.

However my sense is that both need to happen at the same time. Where the theory that femininity is toxic is so deeply embedded in daily practice and spiritual pursuits, masculinity in its most toxic forms is a real presence in women’s lives and may necessitate a retreat into women-only spaces. Do these spaces need to remain women-only forever? Perhaps not. Perhaps men who are able to detoxify their masculinity may enter with no adverse effect on women. Is being a women sufficient for membership in this space? Perhaps not, given the patriarchal bargains so many women make. But awareness and consciousness-raising seems to be an important part of reclaiming women-only spaces for detoxification. On their own, these spaces may do nothing more than reinforce theories of toxic femininity and practices of toxic masculinity.

UPDATE ON 25th SEPTEMBER 2014

I’ve been giving this issue some more thought, and some recent experiences and conversations have led me to look at the notion of women-only spaces from the perspective of women’s friendships. They are, after all, spaces carved out of patriarchal settings and in some ways may be seen as resistant to the imposition of silence about various forms of emotional strain that male-oriented family, work, and interpersonal structures place on women. Of course they could for that very same reason be seen as helping to reinforce these structures. For example, by providing a pressure valve they also may prevent women from feeling the compulsion to take transformative action. They could also reinforce class/caste distinctions by their tendency to form within rather than across these boundaries. Additionally, by comfortably occupying the space marked as “intimate” they may be seen as resisting developing into movements of collective solidarity.

Having said all this though, women’s friendships cannot be so easily written off as inconsequential or ineffectual. They are far too complex for that. As I have discovered, there is a lot of feminist work in this area, and I’d like to look more deeply into it when I have time. Women confide so much in each other, with the full confidence that their secrets will be  taken to the grave. In large part, this does happen. The “mean girls” sort of relationship dynamics is a source of amusement/horror precisely because it is not the everyday experience of women who build up deep and lasting friendships.

So women’s friendships are women-only spaces that have existed for a long time, but arguably have changed in significant ways in modern times. In the footnotes I have included a list of readings that I want to get to when I have more time, and if anyone has anything else to suggest, I’d be grateful you could plop the citations in the comments.

Footnotes

[1] Koppelman, S. (1993, February). Between mothers and daughters: Stories across a generation: The personal is political in life and in literature. In Women’s Studies International Forum (Vol. 16, No. 1, pp. 47-56). Pergamon.

[2] Hooks, B. (2004). The will to change: Men, masculinity, and love. Washington Square Pr.

[3] Rege, S. (1995). Feminist pedagogy and sociology for emancipation in India.Sociological bulletin44(2), 223-239.

Readings on women’s friendships

[4] Kennedy, R., 1986. Women ’s friendships on Crete: A psychological perspective. In: J. Dubisch, ed., Gender and power in rural Greece. Princeton: Princeton University Press, pp.121-138.

[5] Johnson, F. L., & Aries, E. J. (1983, December). The talk of women friends. InWomen’s Studies International Forum (Vol. 6, No. 4, pp. 353-361). Pergamon.

[6] O’Connor, P. (1998). Women’s friendships in a post-modern world. Placing friendship in context, 117-135.

[7] Rose, S. and Roades, L. (1987), FEMINISM AND WOMEN’S FRIENDSHIPS. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 11: 243–254.

[8] Roberto, K. A. (1997). Qualities of older women’s friendships: Stable or volatile?. The International Journal of Aging and Human Development, 44(1), 1-14.

[9] Aukett, R., Ritchie, J., & Mill, K. (1988). Gender differences in friendship patterns. Sex Roles, 19(1-2), 57-66.

[10] Aleman, A. M. M. (1997). Understanding and investigating female friendship’s educative value. Journal of Higher Education, 119-159.

[11] O’connor, P. (1992). Friendships between women: A critical review. Guilford Press.

Dancing backwards

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ginger rogers fred astaireThere’s a quote by Bob Thaves in response to praise for Fred Astaire, in which he says “Sure he was great, but don’t forget that Ginger Rogers did everything he did, backwards…and in high heels.” This is a small e.g., but a good one, that illustrates how the social construction of the world locates the default in one group of people, forcing others to accommodate themselves to that. As a result, what is easier for one group makes them look better, more talented, more dedicated, more powerful etc. When in actual fact the effort the other groups have to put in to overcome the bias against them means they may only rarely be able to match up. So because in the culture where that form of dance originated men are usually taller, and some attempt at height symmetry is desired, women compensate by wearing heels (rather than say, men compensating by dancing with bent knees). The dancers have to face each other, and men have the default privilege to move forward, so women have to compensate by moving backwards. These compensations make dancing well that much more difficult. And there is no inherent reason why the world cannot be reconstructed such that the default is a shared one, except that losing their privilege makes people in power howl in protest.
The Ginger Rogers quote is often used to celebrate how awesome she was. She was definitely awesome. But celebrating her compensation hides the reason she had to compensate in the first place. Attention should turn to dismantling defaults, not celebrating accommodation.

That Lazy Feeling

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lady washing dishesI feel too lazy to do the dishes

Could you do them just this once?
I do all the macho stuff
all the manly stuff
I do so much
no one does as much as I do
but could you do the dishes
just this once
because I feel lazy

You know I support you
you know I call myself a feminist
because women are people too
you can’t say I am a chauvinist
because i am not the kind who
beats women up
or believes they should stay at home

Just this once
do the laundry
cook the dinner
wash the dishes
I’ll do the manly stuff

I’m just feeling lazy today.

Or if you find it so hard to do it
I’ll get you a maid
There.
What a good feminist I am.

An inspiration by any other name? Musings on the Menstrual Man

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arunachalamI came across this article today, about Arunachalam Muruganantham, the ‘Menstrual Man’ of Amit Virmani’s documentary film. In the article, Vibeke Venema of the BBC World Service describes Muruganantham as ‘The Indian Sanitary Pad Revolutionary’. I’ve been watching friends share the article, as well as videos of Muruganantham’s talks. In fact I shared some myself when I first started noticing this man’s work some time ago. But it has slowly dawned upon me that there is more to this narrative of the triumph of innovation and enterprise over ignorance and superstition than meets the eye. It all comes back to the word ‘revolutionary’. What does that mean? What does being a revolutionary entail? What are the implications of being a revolutionary?

This article I found interesting because it not only highlighted Muruganantham’s work, but his personal sacrifice and philosophy as well. His wife and mother are back with him now, but for a while there was every possibility that he would be alone for life. Such single-minded dedication is rare, especially in the face of so much opposition. It’s one thing to develop your idea with all sorts of support and social sanction. But it’s another thing entirely to have to work against every single norm you’ve been raised with and every single individual you love in order to realise your goal.

I find it problematic that people appropriate his experience to add to their management slogans: ‘pursue your passion’, ‘live your dream’, ‘fight against all odds’ etc. The reason they can do this is that the odds he fought against are not ones that they personally hold as important. So to them, what he did seems like this big success story, one that they feel they could support right from the start. After all, he was fighting ignorance. What’s not to like? But it becomes a very different story when the ‘odds’ being fought against are ones that you personally value. What is the line between a terrorist and a hero?

From the perspective of his family and village, he was overturning norms built over generations. It isn’t just in villages that menstruating women are segregated. I personally know women who won’t enter their prayer rooms at home when they are menstruating. Just because this man figured out how to fit his solution to menstrual mismanagement into a business model, suddenly he is a hero for the world. But at the root of the venture for him – at least at the start – was to demystify menstruation and thereby allow women to fully function in society, rather than hiding their rags, falling prey to infection, and being seen as too dirty to mingle with others. If women are disallowed entry to temples because they are dirty when menstruating, making them menstruate cleanly would take away the material basis for the symbolic marginalisation. I am not saying that this was his prime motive. I am saying that it was all part of the same principle. He couldn’t bear for his new bride to live a part of her life separate from his. This in itself overturned a lot of customs and beliefs. Menstrual secrecy is part of the formalisation of gender zones in some societies.

Just to be clear, my point is not that what he did was wrong. In fact it was simply wonderful. What I want to do is try to articulate how hypocritical it is to applaud his radical idea while we still point fingers at anyone who tries to overturn norms that we subscribe to. It is only by othering his family and village members that we can see him as a hero right from the start, see his sacrifices as noble. From their point of view, he was a heretic, tearing apart the fabric of their society. That he did what he did is certainly laudable, but let us be honest with ourselves about the exact way in which we frame him as inspirational for us. Would we do what he did – in the context of our OWN society? Overturning our OWN norms? Would we even have the capacity to be critical about them?