Notes and Comment Blog

Eh? What and human rights?

Jan 24th, 2008 12:23 pm | By

I see on Tina Beattie’s page at Roehampton that one of her teaching interests is Religion and Human Rights. That’s a strange pairing, I thought – even stranger than those pairings of ‘Religion and Ethics’ that we see everywhere (such as at the BBC). Why religion and human rights? It is so often bishops or priests or mullahs who oppose human rights rather than supporting them – it seems odd to link them. The pairing of religion and ethics gives religion the credit for ideas and views that are often entirely secular; pairing religion with human rights would seem to do the same thing.

Human Rights Watch is aware of the tension.

Is there a schism between the human rights movement and religious communities? Essential disagreements appear increasingly to pit secular human rights activists against individuals and groups acting from religious motives. The list of contentious issues is growing: on issues such as reproductive rights, gay marriage, the fight against HIV/AIDS, and blasphemy laws, human rights activists and religious groups often find themselves on opposing sides.

Yes we do, and on the human rights side we find ourselves dealing with bad or no arguments from the religious groups. ‘We want to block these suggested rights, and we don’t have a real reason, we just know that God wants us to, so we’re more devout than you are, so we have the moral high ground, so you should give in to us.’

The controversy that hit the EU in October 2004 around…conservative Catholic Rocco Buttiglione illustrates some of the issues at stake. Unperturbed by the furor he was arousing, the candidate for Commissioner on Justice, Freedom, and Security—who in that function would have been in charge of fighting discrimination—affirmed in front of bewildered members of the European Parliament that “homosexuality is a sin” and that “the family exists to allow women to have children and be protected by their husbands.”

Well…maybe what we mean is ‘Liberal Religion and Human Rights.’ But that’s not what it says – and the sad fact is that most religion isn’t liberal. It’s a comfortable illusion of the safe middle-class in the safe developed countries that most religion is liberal and getting more so all the time – hence perhaps the bewilderment of the members of the European Parliament – but it is indeed an illusion. One of the perks of religion is being able to be dogmatically and arbitrarily opposed to lots of things you don’t happen to like, and most believers have no interest at all in giving up that perk. If it’s human rights you’re after, religion is generally the wrong place to look. (Yes there are exceptions; yes MLK was religious.)

Demonic epistemology

Jan 23rd, 2008 6:14 pm | By

About this exorcist guy…You know how the pope likes to put up this front of being rational and scholarly and reasonable? Well…the church he’s at the top of has exorcists. The Chief Exorcist of Rome is very emphatic on the point that Satan is for real and that anyone who says otherwise is engaged in ‘true heresy.’ Satan is not a metaphor, or an abstraction, Satan is a fella. Father Gabriele Amorth wants everyone to make no mistake about that.

Those modern theologians who identify Satan with the abstract idea of evil are completely mistaken. Theirs is true heresy; that is, it is openly in contrast with the Bible, the Fathers, and the Magisterium of the Church.

So much for all those people who keep trying to say that the ‘New Atheists’ go after crude targets that no one actually believes in. I think the Catholic church and its hierarchy count as someone? Someone with a fair amount of influence?

The other interesting point here is the question of how the exorcist knows what he is so confident that he knows. Apparently because of the Bible, the Fathers, and the Magisterium of the Church – but why does he think those are reliable sources of knowledge? Because he thinks God wrote or ‘revealed’ the Bible, presumably – but the question is why. Frankly I never really understand that – why grown-up people believe that with, apparently, no qualms. I don’t understand it because what would a Bible that wasn’t written or revealed by God look like? It would look the same. There is nothing about the Bible that makes it unmistakable that it’s a book by God rather than by humans. What is it that makes the exorcist and his friends so sure that it was? How do they know what they know? They don’t, of course, but why do they think they know?

And another thing. Why do we hear so much indignant complaining about ‘the New Atheists’ and so little about the Old Theists? Why do so many putative intellectuals treat unapologetic atheism as some kind of outrage and blithely ignore the combination of nonsense and mental torture that believers in Satan sprinkle around the landscape? Why does not Tina Beattie criticize the exorcist instead of talking stark nonsense about atheism?

The demonisation of religion that is perpetuated by a certain, very dull kind of anglo-american atheist materialism, allows us to escape our own responsibility for a burgeoning global climate of violence and confrontation.

Why does Tina Beattie say that kind of thing (and a lot more of it) instead of rebuking Father Gabriele Amorth? I’m genuinely curious. Why do people like Tina Beattie get outraged by explicit atheists and not by explicit demonologists and exorcists? Why does she think (apparently) that the former do more harm than the latter?

An atmosphere of fear and intimidation

Jan 23rd, 2008 11:26 am | By

Shukria Barakzai seemed (cautiously) optimistic in 2005.

2002 was a splendid year for Afghan women, a year begun with the formation of the interim administration…As the country becomes more pacified, we receive more and more requests for Women’s Mirror throughout Afghanistan. Three years later, our goals, commitments, and principles remain largely the same: the development of Afghan women.

The BBC talked to her last June.

For the past three months, Afghan female MP Shukria Barakzai has been receiving a letter saying she may be targeted by a suicide bomber in the next six months. The cryptic government letter contains an intelligence warning that Ms Barakzai’s life is under threat and she should be careful. She is one of six MPs getting such a letter these days. “That is all that the government does – send a letter by mail once every month saying my life is under threat. There isn’t talk of even providing security.”…Barakzai says she is being targeted by “various elements” because of her speeches against the country’s warlords, her support for women’s rights and for her criticisms of Pakistan. “I am going crazy. My friends are telling me to leave the country.”…When you consider that two women journalists have been killed recently in and around Kabul, you realise that even women of influence and power in Afghanistan live and work in fear under threats from warlords, the Taleban and other insurgent groups. Six years after the departure of the repressive Taleban this is the paradox of women in Afghanistan. They now have a say and a position under the country’s constitution. But they have to work in an atmosphere of fear and intimidation.

With journalists getting the death penalty merely for downloading material about the role of women in Islamic societies – yes, I would call that an atmosphere of fear and intimidation.

Defining blasphemy

Jan 23rd, 2008 10:51 am | By

No blasphemy allowed. Blasphemers must be killed. What’s blasphemy? ‘Downloading material from the internet relating to the role of women in Islamic societies.’ That’s just one example of course – there are others. In fact, if truth be told, it would be simpler and quicker to say what is not blasphemy than it would be to give a complete account of what is. What’s not blasphemy? Ummmmmm…well to be honest that’s such a short list that there doesn’t seem to be anything on it. Let me put it this way – blasphemy is anything some pious group of thugs says it is at any particular moment when they want to shut people up by having them killed. It’s basically just any old thing; see? It’s whatever They say or do that We don’t like – that’s all.

So how that plays out is that in Afghanistan it’s a capital crime to download material relating to the role of women in Islamic societies. Why? Because if God had meant women to be treated like human beings then he would have told the Prophet (pbuh) that, and God must not have told the Prophet (pbuh) that, because if God had the Prophet (pbuh) that, we would treat women like human beings, and we don’t, so he didn’t. You see? Unbreakable chain of reasoning. Therefore it’s blasphemy to read anything that might possibly in a strong light suggest anything else, and since it is blasphemy, the blasphemer has to be killed, because we’re pissed off. See? Good.

The Horror of Rome

Jan 22nd, 2008 11:13 am | By

It’s exciting to learn that there is such a thing as the Chief Exorcist of Rome and that he has such stimulating beliefs.

Those modern theologians who identify Satan with the abstract idea of evil are completely mistaken. Theirs is true heresy; that is, it is openly in contrast with the Bible, the Fathers, and the Magisterium of the Church…How can those who deny the existence and the many activities of Satan understand the achievements of Christ? How can they understand the value of the redemptive death of Christ?

Oh right, the Magisterium – that’s that non-overlapping one that Steve Gould told us about. Science has its, and religion has its, and in the latter, Satan is a real fella. Because it’s a separate Magisterium, science and related ways of thinking don’t get to say ‘Gee, what a lot of bullshit.’ No, the Catholic Church gets to terrify as many unhappy people as believe that bullshit – yet the rest of us are supposed to be respectfully quiet because religion is so consoling. Satan is consoling? Ask someone who agrees with Father Gabriele Amorth how consoling Satan is.

[T]here is no doubt that Satan’s power is felt more keenly in periods of history when the sinfulness of the community is more evident. For example, when I view the decadence of the Roman Empire, I can see the moral disintegration of that period in history. Now we are at the same level of decadence, partly as a result of the misuse of the mass media (which are not evil in themselves) and partly because of Western consumerism and materialism, which have poisoned our society.

Cool, the Exorcist and Madeleine Bunting join hands. Consumerism, materialism, decadence, Satan’s power is felt more keenly. Interesting that the Exorcist thinks consumerism and materialism are the most noteworthy examples of moral disintegration in the world today – but then the Catholic Church never has given much of a shit about cruelty. Too busy inflicting it, most of the time.

I will mention one more item on this subject. Just as it would be wrong to deny the existence of Satan, it is also wrong to accept the prevalent opinion that there are spiritual beings that are not mentioned in the Bible. These are the invention of spiritists, of followers of the occult, of those who espouse reincarnation, or of those who believe in “wandering souls”. There are no good spirits other than angels; there are no evil spirits other than demons.

Ah. And you know this how? Two Councils of the Church done said so. Okay…

Some people marvel at the ability of demons to tempt man and even to own the body (but they can never take the soul unless man freely gives it to them) through possession and oppression. We should remember what is written in Revelation –

We should remember what is written in the phone book. But never mind my little jokes – this is not just bullshit, it’s foul, cruel, mind-torturing bullshit. It frightens people and it makes them think they are evil. As Johann said, this isn’t love. This is nasty, bad, harmful stuff, and the Vatican should be ashamed of itself. It never is, but it should be.

Little mundane personal private harmless sharia

Jan 20th, 2008 12:12 pm | By

How’s that again?

Amnah is going through a divorce and is baffled at being told that she must wait for three months to remarry, considering that she hasn’t seen her estranged husband for two years. Dr Hasan with an intense look…[Dr Hasan] meets this with a simple reply: “These rulings are all in the Koran. The rulings are made for all.” Amnah has little choice but to comply: Dr Hasan is a judge, and this is a sharia court – in east London.

She has little choice but to comply? Why? If it’s a sharia court in east London, then she does have other choices, doesn’t she?

It is one of dozens of sharia courts – also known as councils – that have been set up in mosques, Islamic centres and even schools across Britain. The number of British Muslims using the courts is increasing. To many in the West, talk of sharia law conjures up images of the floggings, stonings, amputations and beheadings…However, the form practised in Britain is more mundane, focusing mainly on marriage, divorce and financial disputes.

Oh, just marriage and divorce – no big deal then. No impact on people’s lives. Not about floggings and beheadings, therefore mundane and ho-hum.

The judgments of the courts have no basis in British law, and are therefore technically illegitimate – they are binding only in that those involved agree to comply.

Well then it’s not true that Amnah has little choice but to comply. She may have decided to bind herself to obey a sharia court, but she still does have a choice (unless someone is coercing her, which is not mentioned).

So let’s learn more about this Dr Hasan fella. He sounds interesting.

“Whenever people associate the word ‘sharia’ with Muslims, they think it is flogging and stoning to death and cutting off the hand,” he says with a smile.

Ah yes! Such an amusing subject – I can see why he would smile!

Dr Hasan is open in supporting the severe punishments meted out in countries where sharia law governs the country. “Even though cutting off the hands and feet, or flogging the drunkard and fornicator, seem to be very abhorrent, once they are implemented, they become a deterrent for the whole society…If sharia law is implemented, then you can turn this country into a haven of peace because once a thief’s hand is cut off nobody is going to steal. Once, just only once, if an adulterer is stoned nobody is going to commit this crime at all. We want to offer it to the British society. If they accept it, it is for their good and if they don’t accept it they’ll need more and more prisons.”

I wouldn’t accept it if I were you. My advice would be to say no thanks.

Ibrahim Mogra, chairman of the Muslim Council of Britain’s inter-faith committee, admits that to non-Muslims some laws may seem harsh on women. Those who are married to a man with a number of wives can be treated badly, for instance. But he insists that sharia is an equitable system. “It may mean that a woman married under Islamic law has no legal rights, but the husband is required to pay for everything in marriage and in the case of a divorce all the woman’s belongings are hers to keep.”

Oh I see – that does sound equitable! The woman has no legal rights, but – um – well, she has no legal rights. What could be more equitable? I’m like totally reassured.

Dr Muhammad Abdul Bari, the secretary general of the Muslim Council of Britain, points out that during British rule in India, Muslim personal law was allowed to operate and sees no reason why it wouldn’t work now. “Sharia encompasses all aspects of Muslim life including personal law,” he says. “In tolerant, inclusive societies all faith groups enjoy some acceptance of their religious rules in matters of their personal life.”

You mean the men in the ‘faith groups’ enjoy that. The women don’t enjoy it quite so much.

Moving the markers

Jan 19th, 2008 6:18 pm | By

From Catharine MacKinnon’s ‘Turning Rape into Pornography: Postmodern Genocide,’ which is about videotaped rapes as propaganda in Croatia and Bosnia. From Are Women Human? pp 162-3:

Some of the rapes that are made into pornography are clearly intended for mass consumption as war propaganda. One elderly Croation woman who was filmed being raped was also tortured by electric shocks and gang-raped in the Bucje concentration camp by Serbian men dressed in generic camouflage uniforms. She was forced to “confess” on film that Croatians raped her. This disinformation – switching the ethnic labels – is especially easy when there are no racial markers for ethnic distinctions. It is a standard Serbian technique…Serbian propaganda moves cultural markers with postmodern alacrity, making ethnicity unreal and all too real at the same time.

That seemed to me to link up rather nicely with a recent post of Nigel Warburton’s on Slavoj Žižek – who is from Slovenia.

Zizek like many postmodernists, poses as one who knows, who can see through ideology and diagnose the short-sightedness of those in the grip of naive enlightenment ideas or systemic violence that is more or less invisible to most of us. We dim-sighted ones naively rail against what he calls subjective violence (or what we traditionally call ‘violence’), apparently blind to systemic and symbolic violence. Unfortunately when he comes to discussing ‘historian’ David Irving he seems to commit symbolic violence himself…On p.92 of Violence, in the context of a discussion of the Danish cartoons of Muhammad, Zizek suggests that the freedom of the press in the West is not as extensive as we like to believe because we can’t tolerate questioning of the Holocaust.

Nigel points out that Žižek describes Irving as ‘expressing his doubts about the Holocaust’ – but Irving did a lot more than that: he not only denied the evidence, he also extensively falsified it in at least one of his books, as Richard Evans discovered for the defense at the trial in which Deborah Lipstadt defended herself against Irving’s libel suit. Falsifying evidence is not mere ‘questioning,’ and calling it that is just another kind of falsification. Another example of moving markers with postmodern alacrity.

Promises that should not be made

Jan 17th, 2008 11:30 am | By

Which includes the well-intentioned version offered by Bergen Community College.

In the full knowledge of the commitment that I am freely willing to undertake as a student, I promise to respect each and every member of the college community without regard to race, creed, political ideology, lifestyle orientation, gender, or social status sparing no effort to preserve the dignity of those I will come in contact with as a member of the college community…I will embrace and celebrate differing perspectives intellectually.

No; sorry; no can do. I can’t possibly promise to respect each and every member of the college community a priori in that way. Civility is one thing, and respect is another. BCC is within its rights to demand civility, but it is outside its rights to demand respect. And as for sparing no effort – what are the students of BCC, I beg your pardon the members of the college community supposed to do, throw robes of state over every person they come in contact with? How does one even go about sparing no effort to preserve the dignity of those one comes in contact with as a member of the college community? One imagines a crowd of frantic Paramus students crashing into each other in their haste and zeal to preserve each other’s dignity in some nebulous but athletic way.

And then of course there’s the educationally and academically and epistemically absurd promise to embrace and celebrate differing perspectives intellectually. They might as well swear an oath to embrace and celebrate mistakes and falsifications and forgeries! The poor bastards are presumably at Bergen Community College in order to learn something, and learning something is among other things a process of elimination. It’s not a process of embracing and celebrating. For that you need to go to Healing Touch Academy or Cuddly Woolly Institute, but not to a real school.

We’re not talking about some pavement artist

Jan 17th, 2008 10:59 am | By

Salman Rushdie isn’t having it.

“I don’t make my decisions based on 25 goondas at the gate,” says Salman Rushdie tartly…Whether it’s India or England or America, he says, “we cannot allow religious hooligans to place limiting points on thought”. This, he says, is as true about the American religious right as it is about the Sikh mobs in Birmingham that prevented the production of a play. “It’s not specific to any religion or any place,” he adds. “Original thought, original artistic expression is by its very nature questioning, irreverent, iconoclastic…it’s really a decision about what kind of culture we want to be in.”

Quite. And that kind is the kind that allows a wide range of thought, as opposed to the kind that squashes the allowable range of thought into a narrow airless little channel. It’s the choice between breadth on the one hand and choking confinement on the other.

He recounts his meeting with India’s most famous contemporary exile, the artist M F Husain, who he recently met in New York. “This is the grand old master of contemporary Indian painting,” Rushdie declares, his well modulated voice rising with outrage. “We’re not talking about some pavement artist. The idea that this man in his nineties should be forced into exile by his own country is a national disgrace. This is somebody who should be given the highest state honours instead of being treated like a pariah.” If India wishes to seem like a cultured country by the rest of the world, he says emphatically, it cannot treat its artists thus—”this has to stop”. So, too, in the case of Bangladeshi writer Taslima Nasreen…”I think we are in a dangerous position now in India where we accept censorship by very small numbers of violent people. Two things form the bedrock of any open society – freedom of expression and rule of law. If you don’t have those things, you don’t have a free country.”

Censorship by very small numbers of violent (or sometimes merely noisy) people – that’s what more and more of the world looks like these days, and what a horrible appearance it is. Let’s not have it.

The pope stays home

Jan 16th, 2008 11:48 am | By

Well good. Excellent. It’s about time. Some teachers and students at a university have pointed out that Papal epistemology does not belong at a university. That Papal ways of knowing are not academic ways of knowing; that, in short, there is indeed a tension between reason and ‘faith.’ Well done.

Pope Benedict XVI last night called off a visit to Rome’s main university in the face of hostility from some of its academics and students, who accused him of despising science and defending the Inquisition’s condemnation of Galileo…[A] letter [was] signed by more than 60 of La Sapienza’s teachers, asking that the invitation to the Pope be rescinded. The signatories of the letter said Benedict’s presence would be “incongruous”. They cited a speech he made at La Sapienza in 1990, while he was still a cardinal, in which he quoted the judgment of an Austrian philosopher of science* who wrote that the church’s trial of Galileo was “reasonable and fair”…La Stampa reported that a number of foreign scientists had since added their names to the initiative.

That’s it! Get in there and mix it up. The pope is always telling everyone what’s what; good for the foreign scientists telling him back.

Rightwing opposition MPs were outraged. One suggested La Sapienza, which means “wisdom” or “learning” ought now to be renamed La Ignoranza.

Right. The pope stands for wisdom and learning and a secular university stands for ignorance. And up is down and wet is dry and now is then.

*Paul Feyerabend, it was.

Relax and enjoy it

Jan 15th, 2008 7:23 pm | By

The bishop of Oxford is ‘personally very happy for the mosque to call the faithful to prayer in East Oxford’. I don’t suppose he lives there, does he? Or does he.

“Faith is a very important factor in the lives of 80 per cent of the world’s population and a public expression of that faith is both natural and reasonable…It is good that we should be reminded of the faithfulness of many members of the community.”

Is it? Why? And even if it is, we get reminded quite a bit already, don’t we?

“It is natural that Muslim communities will gather in a particular area and what matters is that we demonstrate the kind of respect that is the basis of any civilised society.”

Okay. The next time I see Muslim communities gathering in a particular area, in their natural way (like wildebeest gathering at a water hole is it?), I’ll make a point of demonstrating the kind of respect that is the basis of any civilised society. I’m not sure what that is, but I’ll make a point of demonstrating it anyway. Perhaps I just go up to the gathering communities and tell them, in so many words and accompanied by poignant and demonstrative gestures, that I respect this gathering in a particular area ceremony? Would that be it?

“I would say to anyone who has concerns about the call to prayer to relax and enjoy our community diversity and be as respectful to others as you would hope they would be respectful to you.”

Relax and enjoy it. So if one of my neighbours takes to broadcasting a speech by Huey Long through a loudspeaker from a tower for two minutes three times a day every day, I should relax and enjoy it? I should relax and enjoy any old broadcast repeated noise? Or just the kind that reminds me of the faithfulness of many members of the community? Well whichever it is, I’ll find it difficult. The bishop may be a good multitasker but I’ve never been very good at filtering out intrusive noise. I try not to make a lot of racket myself, and I don’t enjoy it when other people do – so the relaxation bit will probably be difficult, and the enjoyment even more so.

“I sympathise with those who find any kind of expression of public faith intrusive, but I think part of being part of a tolerant society is saying, ‘I don’t agree with this but I accept it as part of my responsibility as being part of a diverse community’.”

Why? Why is it part of being a tolerant society along with part of my responsibility as being part of a diverse community? Why is it my responsibility to not mind amplified intrusive noise? Why isn’t it the responsibility of other people to not make amplified intrusive noise? The bishop forgot to explain that part.

Fauziya Kassindja ran away

Jan 13th, 2008 3:50 pm | By

Kpalime, Togo, 1997: Hajia Zuwera Kassindja apologized to her late husband’s cousin, the patriarch of his family, for having helped her daughter Fauziya run away to America to escape having her genitals cut off. She had given her daughter nearly all of her money to run away.

”What the mother did pains me a lot,” the patriarch, Mouhamadou Kassindja, said in a scolding tone…”She is my brother’s wife. It is for me to take care of my brother’s child since he is no longer alive. She acted as though the child were hers. She and the child made the laws. That is why the child did not want to follow the customs.”

She acted as though the child were hers – fancy that. I suppose that might have had something to do with having given birth to her, and raised her for sixteen years?

Though it was common among the Muslims of Tchamba to take as many as four wives, Mr. Kassindja wanted only Hajia. He also shielded his daughters from genital cutting. He could recall the screams of his sister during the rite and her suffering afterward, when she developed a tetanus infection. And his wife often spoke of the death of her older sister from a genital wound. The tragedy had led Hajia’s parents to spare her from the practice. Though the Kassindjas could not read or write, they wanted all their children, including their daughters, to be educated.

This pissed off the relatives.

They accused him of trying to act like a white man. His girls would never be considered full Tchamba women until their genitals had been cut, the elders said, and he was wasting money by sending them to high school.

Never mind; once he died, they got their chance to straighten things out.

Four months and 10 days after her husband’s death, as patriarchal, Muslim-influenced Tchamba tradition dictates, his family required Mrs. Kassindja to leave the home where she had raised her seven children. Her husband’s only sibling, a widowed sister, Hadja Mamoude, moved in and took responsibility for Fauziya. In 1994, two years before Fauziya was to graduate, the aunt, who is herself illiterate, ended Fauziya’s education. ”We don’t want girls to go to school too much,” said the aunt…”We don’t think girls should be too civilized.”

In pursuit of this kindly thought, they arranged for her to marry a man who already had three wives – all of whom had had their genitals cut off, and the blushing groom stipulated that Fauziya must arrive minus genitals too or he wouldn’t be having her. No problem, the family said.

Mrs. Mamoude, herself the second of three wives, broke the news to Fauziya. The aunt’s eyes still get a hard look and her hands slash the air angrily at the memory of her niece’s obstinacy. ”It was for me to decide what was best for her,” she said.

Which, of course, was being taken out of school, scraped clean between the legs, and married to a man with three wives. Much the best thing.

The husband’s relatives had (as is customary) taken most of his money for themselves, but they let Fauziya’s mother have $3,500 of it; she gave $3000 to Fauziya, who escaped on her wedding day, while the women who were to hold her down and cut her genitals off were already in the house. She went to Ghana in a taxi, then to Germany, then to the US, where the INS kept her for a year – but in the end, thanks to a lawyer and a campaign, she won the right to stay.

Many other girls don’t have the luck.

Sighting hate

Jan 13th, 2008 11:40 am | By

Syed Soharwardy tells us why last year.

Syed B. Soharwardy today filed two formal complaints with the Alberta Human Rights and Citizenship Commission against the publishers of Jewish Free Press and the Western Standards for sighting hate against Muslims. After filing the complaints, he spoke with the media and said that this is a first step towards putting an end towards the hateful and non-Canadian attitude.

Yeah good idea – put an end to the hateful attitude, and do it by force; that’s always a good plan. I don’t like hateful attitudes myself, so I’m glad they’re all going to be put an end to.

Syed Soharwardy thanked the mainstream Canadian Media for protecting the freedom of the press with responsibility and accountability. Syed Soharwardy thanked the various companies for deciding not to sell or purchase the hatemongering issue of the Western Standards.

Yes indeed, self-censorship is so much less trouble than the other kind.

Mohanty, Nussbaum, MacKinnon

Jan 12th, 2008 12:21 pm | By

Here’s a sampling of the wonderful and famous “Under Western Eyes: Feminist Scholarship and Colonial Discourses” for your delectation. I have to tell you – it’s kack. Read that and then read a page of Martha Nussbaum – for instance her essay ‘Judging Other Cultures: the Case of Female Genital Mutilation’ which I just read this morning; or read a page of Susan Moller Okin or Catharine MacKinnon or Katha Pollitt – and you will see a difference. Mohanty is all pretension and extended jargon-mongering; the others are clear (without necessarily being easy, much less dumbed down) and precise and specific. Mohanty is not really trying to argue a case (if she were, she would do it in a different way); she is doing something more like trying to score points in a very particular kind of game. (And clearly she has succeeded fairly well, since she gets people in a particular discipline to refer to her as famous a lot.) Nussbaum and the others I mentioned are indeed trying to make an argument: they don’t waste time on verbal pirouetting, on showing off their High Theoretical vocabulary, they’re too busy doing other things. Other and better things.

The relationship between Woman – a cultural and ideological composite Other constructed through diverse representational discourse (scientific, literary, juridical, linguistic, cinematic, etc.) – and women – real, material subjects of their collective histories – is one of the central questions the practice of feminist scholarship seeks to address…I would like to suggest that the feminist writing I analyse here discursively colonize the material and historical heterogeneities of the lives of women in the third world, thereby producing/representing a composite, singular ‘third-world woman’ – an image which appears arbitrarily constructed but nevertheless carries with it the authorizing signature of western humanistic discourse.

That’s Mohanty. Now for a bit of Nussbaum. (‘Judging Other Culture’ Sex and Social Justice page 122):

It is wrong to insist on cleaning up one’s own house before responding to urgent calls from outside. Should we have said ‘Hands Off Apartheid,’ on the grounds that racism persists in the United States?…It is and should be difficult to decide how to allocate one’s moral effort between local and distant abuses. To work against both is urgently important, and individuals will legitimately make different decisions about their priorities. But the fact that a needy human being happens to live in Togo rather than Idaho does not make her any less my fellow, less deserving of my moral commitment. And to fail to recognize the plight of a fellow human being because we are busy moving our own culture to greater moral heights seems the very height of moral obtuseness and parochialism.

And some Catharine MacKinnon, from her essay ‘Postmodernism and Human Rights’ in Are Women Human?:

Abuse has become ‘agency’ – or rather challenges to sexual abuse have been replaced by invocations of ‘agency,’ women’s violation become the sneering wound of a ‘victim’ pinned in arch quotation marks. (p. 55)

Postmodernism has decided that because truth died with God, there are no social facts. The fact that reality is a social construction does not mean that it is not there; it means that it is there, in society, where we live. (p. 56)

Women often serve power and do have power over children, but postmodernists have to portray women actually having power that men largely have in order to confuse people about power. (That they want to avoid being called sexist in the process, we have accomplished.) (pp. 59-60)

I know which I prefer.

How to be famous

Jan 12th, 2008 11:45 am | By

You’ll remember (won’t you?) that my favorite commenter on the FGM question told us that all this had been thoroughly sorted out by the great and famous Chandra Mohanty. I was moved to find out more.

Chandra Talpade Mohanty (born 1955) is a prominent postcolonial and transnational feminist theorist. She became well-known after the publication of her influential essay, “Under Western Eyes: Feminist Scholarship and Colonial Discourses” in 1986. In this essay, Mohanty articulates a critique of the political project of Western feminism in its discursive construction of the category of the “Third World woman” as a hegemonic entity.

Ah, good. I’m relieved to know that she took care of that. It’s always irked me, the political project of Western feminism in its discursive construction of the category of the “Third World woman”. You know? The way Western feminists talk about ‘the Third World woman’ all the time and what they’re going to do to her and what an exciting project it is.

Okay I’m lying. I’ve never in my life heard a feminist talk about ‘the Third World woman.’ It’s a stupid category that is way too big and undifferentiated to use for the ‘discursive construction’ of anything. That’s not necessarily Mohanty’s fault, it could be just the fault of whatever acolyte wrote the Wikipedia entry – but whoever wrote that silly sentence, it’s a classic of strawman nonsense. It’s also a good example of doing the very thing one is aiming to ‘critique’ – it treats ‘Western feminism’ as a ‘hegemonic entity’ by discursively constructing it as such. In other words it generalizes wildly about ‘Western feminism’ in the course of charging (by implication at least) ‘Western feminism’ with generalizing wildly. In short, it’s stupid and complacent. And typical. ‘Theory’ punches itself in the eye again.

Slightly long-winded

Jan 11th, 2008 8:11 pm | By

Sorry, that last one is awfully long. But hey, my N&C impulse has been thwarted by necessary detention in jury room and courtroom, and then I’m morbidly interested in perversities of this kind – in ‘feminists’ lecturing other feminists on why they should not talk quite so loudly or harshly about the carving up of girls’ genitalia. So I gave you some detail – it’s there if you want it, if you share my morbid interest, but don’t worry if it bores you. This one won’t count toward your grade.

It didn’t stop there

Jan 11th, 2008 7:57 pm | By

Chapter 2 of the ‘I’m more postcolonialist than you’ follies.

Another respondent:

Why do feminists still have to analyze everything using the concept of ‘oppression?’ Why are -you- using the term as though everything feminist has to be talked about in terms of oppression. There are times when that’s okay, but there are other times when it is not…When feminists label some kinds of behaviour problematic, by naming them oppressive, for instance, they may be putting other women into situations which could be dangerous for them, or which could at least change the course of their lives, and not always favourably, if they decided to act on this new way of perceiving it. What should be respected is the fact that not all women will be able to make positive change in their lives…For starters, referring to female genital cutting as mutilation is a value judgement. Call it FGE. If the genitals are severely mutilated, thats another thing.

When feminists label some kinds of behaviour problematic, they’re doing various things to other women. Uh…yes. And? That is, obviously, always the case with any kind of suggestion or campaign or movement for social change. Abolitionists may have been putting slaves into situations, union organizers may have been putting workers into situations, anti-apartheid campaigners may have been putting South African blacks into situations. That’s always true, and it is as well to be careful. The protests in Kenya over an allegedly stolen election have gone in a very bad direction and I would not at the moment jet off to Kenya to fire people up for more protests. But is it therefore a general principle that no harmful practice should be called a harmful practice because it’s always safer just to let things be? Well, not for the young girls who get their genitals sliced off it’s not!

‘Referring to female genital cutting as mutilation is a value judgement.’ Yes indeed it is, and that is exactly why I and others do it. We’re making a value judgement: chopping off female genitalia is mutilation, it’s bad, it should stop. No I damn well won’t call it FGE: ‘excision’ is the right word to use for a tumor, not for a normal set of genitals. As I rather heatedly said on the list, calling FGM ‘excision’ is like calling footbinding orthopedic surgery. And I’m not going to call it FGE if it’s just a little bit of mutilation – I’m not going to save ‘FGM’ for severe mutilation. I don’t think mild genital mutilation is okay or that it deserves a pass or a dang euphemism.

And more from the first respondent, the one from ‘Ethnocentric feminism’:

I will note that I was careful to add two citations to my response, the James and Robertson volume, as well as Mohanty’s famous essay (and now body of work) on the problematic application of Western feminist concepts, frameworks, and analyses to non-Western locations…Both of these sources and collection of authors are very careful to make nuanced, complicated claims about both Western feminism and female genital surgeries, rather than the broad-brush condemnations of the latter or caricatures of their critique of Western feminism that have dominated the discussion on this list thus far.

You see, Mohanty’s essay is famous (and now it’s a body of work), therefore it’s important. This is the classic argument from celebrity that is all too familiar to those of us who follow the antics of the trendy. They love to tell us how famous their heroes are – the famous Judith Butler tells us how famous Derrida is, and acolytes everywhere tell us how famous Judith Butler is. Then when they’ve finished doing that they tell us how nuanced and sophisticated the famous work of all these famous people is. They never manage to reproduce or imitate any of the nuance or sophistication, they just keep endlessly waving at it. Very careful, very nuanced, very unlike ‘the broad-brush condemnations’ of – of what? Of female genital surgeries? Surgeries? Excision wasn’t euphemistic enough, now we’re talking about surgeries? When the vast majority of them are nothing of the kind, when the vast majority of them are performed with a pair of scissors and no anaesthetic? Surgeries?

It’s scary, isn’t it?

Indeed, critique of problematic moves in Western feminism should be allowable without it being equated with total dismissal of Western feminism, just as the critique of female genital surgeries should be allowable in a register other than self-righteous moralizing condemnation that seeks to rank the relative measure of women’s oppression in the world, “modern industrialized countries” always (unsurprisingly) coming out on top in this type of analysis…

Good point, excellent point, except for one tiny thing: nobody was seeking ‘to rank the relative measure of women’s oppression in the world’; yet again, that’s just self-righteous bullshit. This particular writer (she wrote all the nonsense in ‘Ethnocentric feminism’ too, as I mentioned) specializes in silly hyperbolic inaccurate depictions of claims that never were. Another tiny detail is that no one said anything about ‘modern industrialized countries’ coming out on top, either.

As many within the literature on transnational feminisms have also shown, the contest to prove some cultures or places or religious communities as “more” oppressive toward women than others is one of many longstanding ways of measuring savagery and barbarism more generally, and was a common strategy used to justify colonialism (e.g., “just look at how they treat their women!”).

Yes…we know imperialists often condemned practices that involved women (like sati for instance, and they were right, even if not all of their reasons were), that is not a newsflash, but so what? Does it follow that contemporary feminists are being imperialist in calling FGM FGM rather than ‘excision’ or (pardon me while I swear) ‘surgery’? No it does not. The ‘feminists’ who call FGM ‘surgery’ are being soft-headed at best and conceitedly self-serving at worst.

Speaking personally, I thought I was quite careful to make specific and nuanced claims which, in this previous email at least (see below), were chopped up (another kind of “cutting”?) to suit the poster’s polemical purposes of caricaturing me as advocating for a nihilistic world wherein nothing – not even hierarchy and women’s oppression – means anything anymore.

That was me – I chopped up the ‘nuanced claims’ – that is to say, I excerpted them, with ellipses to show where the cuts were, in the usual way when one quotes someone else. Yet our commenter is so vain and so self-obsessed and so self-important that she apparently thinks it’s droll to pretend that my excerpting something she wrote is the same kind of thing as an adult gouging out a child’s clitoris and cutting off her labia. She wants me and others to talk of female genital surgeries, as she does, instead of female genital mutilations, yet she’s not embarrassed to compare excerpting from something she wrote (while the original remains in the archive and everyone’s Inbox as opposed to being thrown in the garbage like the child’s bleeding pieces of flesh) with the carving up of a child’s crotch. That’s what I call a healthy sense of priorities!

I am surprised by the responses to my original post, which I thought was a fairly mundane (and even rather dated) argument in the feminist literature; moreover, I am stunned at the level of anger and defensiveness on this issue. If such critiques are still this threatening to the USAmerican feminist establishment, there is much to be worried about. It seems to me a more appropriate response to positions about which we feel strongly, but which have nevertheless been demonstrated by a substantial body of non-Western feminists and feminists of color to be problematically racist or colonialist, is (at a minimum) interest, curiosity, openness, (self-)reflection, and thoughtfulness.

Hmmmmmmmmyeah, except maybe when it’s been presented in such a preeningly self-satisfied yet energetically prosecutorial way, we don’t actually feel all that interested and thoughtful, we feel more like repelled and incredulous and deeply alarmed that this buffoon actually teaches.

Ethnocentric feminism

Jan 11th, 2008 11:38 am | By

I had a hard time tearing myself away from the computer Wednesday and Thursday mornings to catch the bus downtown to the courthouse, because there was a lively (not to say acrimonious) discussion on a Women’s Studies list I subscribe to, about Female Genital Mutilation. I may have done something myself to contribute to the acrimony. Okay I did. I got annoyed. Repeatedly. (But one is limited to two messages a day, so there was a limit to the damage I could do.)

It started with the (astonishing, I thought) fact that the practice was called ‘circumcision’ – which staggered me because I thought it was apologists for the practice who called it that and that opponents all called it Female Genital Mutilation (which is what it is) as a matter of principle. What could feminists be doing euphemizing the horrible practice? I wondered and wondered, then someone rather gently asked the same question, so I decided to provide backup. (I haven’t been posting to the list much, if at all [I can’t remember if I’ve posted before], because I’m not a women’s studies teacher, so I figured I would just read and be silent; but that’s over.) Backup is useful on that list, I think, because there is a strong current of orthodoxy and orthodoxy-enforcement there, and it looks to me as if more people speak up when other people are speaking up. Certainly that’s how it fell out with this discussion. So I expressed my astonishment in stronger and somewhat ruder terms – and there were other comments – and before long out came the classic retort.

This collection of essays problematizes the “M” for mutilation (which I thought was a critique by now well-entrenched in Women’s Studies) as much as an “E” for excision, given regional differences in the types of procedures performed, and “circumcision” is rejected for the very reasons already named – this is not exactly what occurs (one of the editors suggests “S” for sugeries; another option is “C” for cutting). The book does a very nice job of pointing out that while no one is turning cartwheels about female genital surgeries, and that African women themselves have taken steps to end such practices, this is a far cry from the explicitly colonialist and ethnocentric outrage voiced by Western feminists about practices in “other” countries, as performed precisely on cue on this listserv, according to a script that seems not to have changed in 20 years.

You probably won’t be surprised when I tell you that there was no ‘explicitly colonialist and ethnocentric outrage’ in any of the messages. None of the messages started out by saying ‘Here is my colonialist and ethnocentric outrage’ – or ‘Here is my outrage as a colonialist ethnocentric Western feminist’ – or ‘My colonialist ethnocentric sense of superiority is outraged at the practices in “other” countries.’ No; no one said anything like that; so what was the accusation doing there? The usual. The usual boring, hackneyed, thought-free, self-flattering attempt at intimidation via orthodoxy-deployment and guilt-mongering.

[D]iscussion of female genital surgeries and potential analogues or comparisons with male circumcision should be possible without the accompanying ethnocentric outpouring of feminist outrage. The notion that female genital surgeries are uniquely violating, singularly oppressive to women, primarily about the control of women’s sexuality, a sign of women’s unique powerlessness and violation in Muslim cultures, or the most pressing problem facing the women who undergo it has been *exhaustively documented* as reflective of Western feminist priorities, a fundamentally imperialist feminist analysis that operates on the basis of Western feminist conceptions of gender, sexual hierarchy, and the oppression of women…The result is the characterization of non-Western women as uniquely victimized, exploited, and damaged by “their” men or their barbaric “culture”…

No it isn’t. It isn’t because the ‘outpouring’ (such as it was) wasn’t ‘ethnocentric’; because not all ‘non-Western women’ are subject to FGM, in fact the vast majority of them are not; because the discussion wasn’t about ‘non-Western women’ in general; because the discussion wasn’t about ‘West good non-West bad huh huh huh’ or any other such brainless grunting; because the discussion wasn’t about trying to ‘characterize’ all non-Western women (which would be a bizarre project) but about calling the practice of cutting off and sewing up women’s genitalia a harmful practice. That’s all it was about – yet it was called ethnocentric, colonialist, fundamentally imperialist, and (horror of horrors) twenty years out of date.

So, not for the first time, I learned that it is simply not possible to satirize this kind of thing adequately, because it’s always more fatuous and delusional and above all self-flattering than one can imagine in advance.


Jan 10th, 2008 7:54 am | By

Just in case you’re wondering if I’ve run off to Las Vegas or something, I can explain. Posting is light at the moment because I have jury duty. I’ll catch up at the weekend, if not sooner.

Indirect effects

Jan 7th, 2008 11:43 am | By

The Vatican is planning a party. Sounds like fun.

The Vatican has called on Catholics to atone for the sex abuse scandals that have engulfed their church in recent years by taking part in what may be the largest global prayer initiative ever seen…[E]very diocese in the world should name a priest to work full-time on the arrangements for the “perpetual adoration” of the eucharist. This would involve parishioners taking turns to keep a round-the-clock vigil in front of a consecrated host representing the body of Jesus…The aim was “to make amends before God for the evil that has been done and hail once more the dignity of the victims”, who had suffered from the “moral and sexual conduct of a very small part of the clergy”. He did not indicate how long he saw the adoration continuing.

Or, apparently, how the whole thing would work. How would parishioners taking turns standing around in front of a bit of bread ‘make amends’ (before God or before anyone else) for sexual abuse of children by priests? It’s not exactly entirely altogether perfectly clear – but hey, these people know what they’re doing, they’re experts in the field, if they say standing around in front of pieces of bread I mean perpetual adoration of the eucharist will make amends, then –

I gotta go.