wholepeace

A Message for Men Who Feel Compelled to Say Something About Sex Abuse

In Politics on December 8, 2017 at 12:11 pm

I will begin this with a personal revelation. This is hard. It should be hard. It requires me to take as honest a look as I can at my own past and my relationships with women. I offer this as neither explanation nor excuse, but only as background.
I grew up in the 50s and came of age in the 60s. I could see, even as a young teenager, that my male friends and acquaintances were treating the girls in their lives abominably. I could see the destructiveness of cultural stereotypes and norms that asserted the superiority and dominance of men over women. I have always thought of myself as a feminist.
I was also a young man who was shy and awkward around women, who was trying to grow up in a culture that sent me a lot of harmful messages about what a man was supposed to be and what I should expect of women. Like most other young men I was stupid about such things. My early experiences with the opposite sex involved awkward and embarrassing attempts at physical intimacy, including some groping and what I’m certain now was at the very least unenthusiastic making out. I felt afraid, unattractive, undesirable, powerless and desperate.
By the time I was in my twenties, I was in a marriage that was already on a self-destructive path. In my thirties I became a college professor, and a leading figure in local theater, and I suddenly discovered that there were women who found me attractive and wanted to have sex with me. I had affairs. All the affairs were consensual and initiated by the women, so I was able to dismiss the element of power. I compartmentalized. I allowed myself to think that the attraction was based on my charm, my intellect, on all sorts of personal qualities other than the fact that I held a position of power and status. I never asked the question of whether any of these women would have found me attractive just for myself if circumstances were different.
Throughout this period of my life I was, again without seeing it, a bully and a tyrant, selfish and insulated in my struggle to become something like the man my culture had put in my head. And all the while, because I supported women’s rights and argued for women’s issues and talked about how badly women were treated, I was convinced that I was a feminist and an ally.
So how can I now claim any credible standing to speak about what women need?
As more and more men in positions of public power and influence are being accused of inappropriate behavior towards women, everyone seems to be talking about the problems associated with powerful men and sex.
Can we back up a moment here and acknowledge that when we are discussing relationships between men and women the phrase “powerful men” is redundant? In America (anywhere, really, but let’s stick with our own culture for the moment) there has always been a power imbalance between men and women; and that imbalance has always been to the advantage and benefit of men. This isn’t simply about outing and punishing public figures in the movie industry, or politics, or the news media. That will quickly get tiresome for some, overwhelming for many, and eventually fade into the fog of the 24/7 news cycle that shapes our current experiences.
If you have grown up in America, you have been daily bombarded with messages about men, women, and power. For men, power has always been attractive and expected. For women, power has always been unnatural and dangerous to the social order.
Men have always been told that power over women is essential to being a real man. If a man can’t demonstrate his power over a woman we have a large lexicon of emasculating and feminizing insults with which to attack him. If a woman demonstrates power over a man, that same lexicon has words that de-humanize and de-feminize her, and make her ugly.
If you are an American male who has reached puberty, you have been raised in a culture which has encouraged and rewarded this kind of power-imbalance behavior. Most have never committed rape or the grosser forms of harassment, but all have taken advantage of the privileges associated with being male in our culture, and hurt women in the process.
If you are an American female of any age, you have experienced an often overt, sometimes subtle, but constant stream of messages about yielding power to men, regardless of the consequent injuries to yourself. You have also been taught that sexual power is the only power you naturally have over men, but that using that power is forbidden. If you have sex with a man, regardless of the circumstances, any negative consequences are your own fault. At the same time, if a man doesn’t want to have sex with you it is also your fault, and you need to do more so that some man will want to have sex with you.
This double bind is why women spend billions of dollars every year to conform to a male-normative ideal of attractiveness, to wear carefully crafted make-up, to dress provocatively, to learn how to be what the masculine culture tells them they should be, often through the voices of other women; only to be told that they have only themselves to blame if a man is unable to control himself around them. If you are a woman in America, it is likely that you continue to follow at least some of the cultural rules that give men power over you.
If you are, like me, a progressive American male; if you consider yourself an ally, an advocate, a feminist; if you have been making or are about to make some statement about those powerful men now being brought to accountability for their actions, I suggest you stay quiet for a moment and check in with yourself about two important considerations.
Before I pay much attention to your declarations or praise you for your positions, I want to hear you explain the following:
In what ways have you, as a product of this culture, as a man who has been given the power and privilege of being male, taken advantage of that power and privilege in your life; and how has that hurt any woman or women?
I’m not asking if you have ever raped someone, or abused a partner, or even if you were once a serial groper. If any of those are true you should probably just deal with them and shut up about other people’s bad behavior. I’m asking when was the last time you laughed at something that contributed in some way to the culture’s misogynistic and demeaning attitudes toward women, like a “dumb blonde” joke. Was there ever a time in your life when you had lots of reasons with which you could defend misogynistic pornography or coercive prostitution that caters to male fantasies about women and sex; such as lofty arguments about how every sexual interaction is an exchange for value of some kind, or how there’s nothing inherently wrong with people choosing to have sex on film for other people to get pleasure from? Have you ever assumed that the fact you had sex with a woman is evidence that she freely consented to that sex, regardless of the circumstances? How carefully and honestly have you looked at your relationships with women – personally, socially, professionally, romantically – and understood the role that cultural norms of maleness and femaleness have played in those relationships?
Why do you feel compelled to make your statement now?
It is, of course almost always a good thing to make a statement in support of an important movement or action. I’m not questioning whether something needs to be said or whether men ought to be saying something. But I think that we need to be clear about our motives. So much of what men have historically said about their support for women, their admiration for them, what’s good for them, and how we want to help them has turned out to be self-serving for men and hurtful for women that I think we at least want to be honest about how we see our purpose in this. There is little reason for women to trust what we say and we need to make an effort to earn that trust. What do you want? If you’re a politician or public figure, for example, are you concerned that your silence implies that you don’t support women in this struggle? What other commitments are you making with this statement to actually work toward change? How does this statement square with other positions you have held in the past and how will it inform your behavior henceforward? If you are not a public figure, but feel the need for a public statement, what role do you see for yourself in the struggle to change the culture and bring women fully into their rightful place as human beings and members of society? Why should your opinion be considered valuable or important?
After you’ve addressed these questions, wait a moment longer. Let women speak. Let them say what they think about your answers, perhaps give them the opportunity to ask for your input or give you permission to speak. Address their concerns, rather than assume you know what they want or need from you. Be careful that you aren’t mansplaining or talking over, or interrupting.
When I was younger I was a feminist because I knew that it was right. Now I’m a feminist because I can begin to see where I was wrong. I’m not a feminist in spite of my past or out of guilt about my past. I’m a feminist because looking at my past has helped me to see that the struggle is not just a women’s struggle, it is also mine. Men cannot fix this for women. We can, however, follow their lead and become part of fixing it for us all.

God with a Lowercase “g”

In A God of Infinite Possibility on October 14, 2017 at 8:18 am

In our grammar and composition classes we are told that “god” is supposed to be written with a capital “g.” When I type on my phone, autocorrect tries to do that for me. If, however, we write “a god” then the lowercase “g” is acceptable.
In English, we capitalize proper names, the major words in titles, the letters in acronyms, and the pronoun “I.” The only one of these that would apply to the word “God” would be the first. It is a proper name.
So, when one is referring to the god named “God” one should definitely capitalize the word; just as one would capitalize the name Allah, or Hera, or Krishna, or Diana, or any of several other names for one god or another. I mostly try to do that.
There are two reasons that I mostly, however, do not capitalize the word “god” when I am writing about matters of belief, particularly my own beliefs, or about religion.
The first is that I am usually not talking about the specific god named God. That is, more specifically, recognized as the name used by the Judeo/Christian religious traditions for the god they worship, the God of Abraham. So, when a Christian or a Jew refers to God, they are using the formal name, and it is, therefore, proper to capitalize it. They also, of course, capitalize every use of a pronoun or any alternative word such as Almighty that refers to this same God. This has less to do with grammar, however, and more to do with the particular rules and customs of their faith.
Second, I’m a Deist. I believe that there is, at the core of everything, god. In my personal creed I state that I believe that “Everything that is, is god.” Since that is a significantly different concept and definition of god than the Judeo/Christian God, and since I don’t consider god to be a being, I don’t capitalize the word. I also avoid pronouns for god as much as possible, since I believe that god transcends gender (and other human-like characteristics). I could use “it,” I suppose, but that sounds awkward in the writing and the speaking.
Of course, an accurate reading of the Bible will reveal that “God” is not actually God’s name. His name, using the masculine pronoun most common in Christianity, is also not Yahweh, or Jehovah. Those last two names (which are actually the same name) come from the story of the burning bush. When Moses encounters the burning bush, he asks the name of the god who is speaking from it. The voice replies, “Yahweh,” which seems to mean, “I am.” Note that it isn’t “I am ‘called,’ or My name is ‘I Am.’” Some Biblical scholars take this to mean that God was deliberately not giving Moses a name. This would be consistent with a general belief at the time that if a god told you its name, it gave you control over it.
The only purpose and consequence of having to capitalize “god” every time we use it is to perpetuate two flawed ideas: first, that we are always talking about god as defined and worshipped by those who follow the God of Abraham; and second that use of the word is always intended as a formal name.
Cultures and cultural norms are established by how we communicate about ourselves and the world around us. They change when people begin to consciously reject the cultural messages and challenge the culturally prescribed norms. And when it comes to culture, even small things matter. The “Christian Right” in this country continues to insist that the United States is a Christian nation. The insistence that every reference to god is a reference to “God” reinforces that inaccurate belief.
When, for instance, we argue that the word “God” in the Pledge of Allegiance, or the phrase “so help me God” in a pubic oath are neutral expressions and not religious, we are reinforcing the idea that “god” and “God” are the same thing. They aren’t. (This leaves aside, for the moment, the obvious point that neither “god” nor “God” is a neutral term for an atheist. Constant use of the term also reinforces the idea that belief in any god at all can be assumed.)
Those who would promote this idea that “God” can be a neutral concept should also, perhaps, consider the consequence of that claim for their God. Overuse of any word or set of words weakens their power. Push God into public life as a neutral term, throw it up everywhere, and it becomes less and less meaningful. You may think that everyone knows what you mean when you use it, but you would be mistaken. Eventually, it becomes background noise, just another word that is part of the common lexicon, with a meaning that seems quaint and anachronistic, but whose purpose is more connotative than denotative. It comes to mean “sincerely,” perhaps, or “good fortune,” or any of a thousand different ways of indicating a kind of general importance. Notice how often people already say “for God’s sake” or “God damn” or “oh my God” without any sense that they are actually talking about God at all.
If you want to preserve the specialness, the particular divinity, you want your God to have, the best thing you could do would be to get it out of the secular realm. Stop insisting that every use of the word needs to be capitalized. Stop telling people that its meaning is neutral. Start insisting that every time someone refers to “God” that they must mean specifically the god you believe in. Copyright the name. Make it your brand. Make people pay a royalty if they wish to use it anywhere except in the context of your churches, your prayers, your sacred texts. Insist that it should only be used in respectful and reverent ways. If someone writes the word “God” in any publication and capitalizes the word they must be ready to certify that it references the God of your faith and no others.
Sometimes I will use the lowercase even when it seems clear that the discussion does, in fact, have something to do with Christian beliefs or dogma. When I do that it may be because I am trying to expand the discussion to include all such beliefs, rather than saying that the issue is only about Christians. It may also signal that I do not agree that the issue accurately depicts what Christian tradition teaches, and I don’t want to dignify these flawed claims by reinforcing the idea that they represent “God.” (I have read the Bible and other Christian texts, and was raised in a Christian church.)
So, if you read something I have written and notice that I have not used the capital “g.” there is no need for you to correct me. You may assume that the usage was deliberate and purposeful.

Uncle War and Sister Peace

In PeaceAble on September 22, 2017 at 7:18 am

Yesterday, September 21, was the International Day of Peace. Did you know that? Did you care? We’ve had one every year since 1981, but I’m not surprised if you missed it.
Why is it that we have such a hard time not just celebrating the ideal of a peaceful world, but even acknowledging it? I think there are two basic reasons.
First, when we talk about Peace we really have no idea what we are collectively talking about. War is clear. There’s an enemy, there are battles, there is clear and sometimes horrifying sacrifice, there is victory or defeat, and we have simple and uncomplicated ways to identify the heroes and villains.
And in this age of seemingly endless War, most often for vague political reasons seeking ill-defined and often highly deceptive goals, we are getting to know War as an old friend, as that troublesome relative who sits at the table and says outrageous things, farts and burps, flails his arms about, spills food and wine on the Persian carpet, and breaks the good china. Nobody really likes him, most hate to see him show up for the holidays, but he’s family so what are you going to do? Besides, we can all wait until he goes home, drunk and swaggering from his excesses, and congratulate ourselves on how well we handled him.
But Peace is the “Lost Child” in this dysfunctional collection of humankind called the family of nations. Peace sits quietly in the corner during all the chaos and says, “don’t worry about me, I’m all right.” We love Peace, but don’t expect much of her, really. Once in a while, a few of us will go over and encourage her.
“You have real potential, Peace; we want you to do well; someday you will spread your white dove wings and fly; and we will all be so proud of you when that happens. What’s that? What did you say in your soft, nonconfrontational voice? You’d like a little actual help from the rest of us? Don’t be silly. Isn’t it enough that we tell you all the time how wonderful you are? Don’t you see that proclaiming how much we love you every Christmas is helping? Now stop whining and come sit with us while we deal with Uncle War and praise your brother’s noble sacrifice of the last pork chop.”
Then War finally goes home and we all go out in the front yard and celebrate with explosions and flags and songs about our bravery and sacrifice. We give each other medals and accolades and mourn the loss of Grandma’s heirloom vase and Brother’s one good shirt.
I have, elsewhere in these essays, described some of what I think Peace would, or in my opinion should, look like. But what answer would you give? If the world were to achieve something called Peace, what would it look like? How would it work? And, importantly, what would it require of you?
The second reason is that we have no working vocabulary for Peace. No way to celebrate the work of Peace. And our collective response to the International Day of Peace is illustrative of that. The day passed and there were no big parades down Main Street, with bands playing “Give Peace a Chance.” There were no elaborate, nationally televised award ceremonies; indeed, no idea to whom we should give awards for Peace. We have no way to collectively understand, never mind celebrate, the sacrifices of the peacemakers among us.
Where are the markers, the obelisks inscribed with names, the statues that celebrate the peacemakers? What are their names? What did they suffer in their quest for a more peaceful world? Where is the memorial for Rachel Corrie? Don’t know who that was? You see the problem, then. What were the names of the students who defied the tanks in Tiananmen Square? When was the last time you flew your flags or had a barbecue or wore a special bracelet in honor of those who rode the buses, those who were attacked with water cannons and dogs and nightsticks, those who were killed and buried in remote fields or lynched from very public trees in the struggle for civil rights? Beyond Martin Luther King or Gandhi, how many names of peacemakers – global, national, or local do you know? Which of the young men and women in your community have served in the Peace Corps?
You see the problem.
We all claim to hate War, but we keep inviting him to dinner, feeding him, encouraging him by our attention and our willingness do what he asks. We feed War’s ego and think ourselves heroes for it.
We all claim to love Peace, but we let her sit alone in the corner and wait her turn to speak, but to please not speak too loudly or too much. Can’t she see that we are exhausted from dealing with Uncle War? Can’t she respect the fact that we can’t deal with her right now because we have to prepare for War’s next visit? What does she want of us? Peace is so selfish.
I suppose we could ask her to help us clean up the mess left by War, but she’d probably just spend the whole time reminding us that we don’t actually have to invite him back, that maybe we could all work together so that we could find the courage to tell him he’s not wanted.
We want to hate War, but we can see very clearly what it is and what we get from it. And we tell ourselves we can give it up anytime we want. No, really, we could. Really. We want to love Peace, but don’t understand her. What does she really have to offer to replace War? What exactly is it that she does, anyway? We know that the greasy, disgusting casserole and the special home-brew that War brings to every gathering are killing us: but we aren’t quite sure we’d like the taste of that healthy dish Peace keeps trying to serve. It looks kind of bland, or perhaps it’s just that it has all those weird, exotic spices and herbs that we are hesitant to try. Maybe getting healthier wouldn’t be as much fun as what we’re doing now.
So that is our dilemma. Or perhaps it is more of a paradox. We certainly don’t want to go so far as to call it a hypocrisy. Do we?

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