About Society

Racism is a Matter of Whiteness

In recent years, I’ve thought about race and racial discrimination in our world. I’ve written about racism in the American criminal justice system and how it continues the legacy of slavery; how movies vilify characters of color; the indifference towards refugees of color and growing Islamophobia within Europe and the United States; and hostility of white society towards racial justices movements like the Black Panthers and Black Lives Matter. By reflecting on the consequences of racism, I have been able to turn the corner racism and see how my white identity is central to the problem and solution.

White people need to realize that racism is a White issue. We–white European people–live in a world of racial ignorance. I lived in a world of racial ignorance growing up.

As the political theorist, Barnor Hesse, explains, the idea of race is fundamentally about the creation of a division between Europeans and non-Europeans, both internally, beginning with the Spanish expulsion or forced conversion of Jews and Muslims, and externally within systems of colonial rule, and of course in the transatlantic slave trade across the Americas.

Take the example of the StoryCorps film Traffic Stop. In this short film, Patsy, a white mother, tells Alex, her black adopted son–who is two years younger than me–that “skin color really didn’t matter.” Like Patsy, my family, which lived in a small, almost exclusively white Canadian town, “never talked about race.” The naïvety of white people about race and racism isn’t unusual. It’s built into our society.

White people never see racism. We never feel it. This is one of the many privileges of being white. This is whiteness and it’s a problem.

The differentiation of results seen in Traffic Stop is but one example of how people of color are treated differently in society. It speaks to how schools and workplaces treat people of color differently. How they are talked (down) to, how they are shown (and not shown) in TV and magazines and how they are told to see themselves. All of these daily instances add up to a societal structure of racism that people of color are not allowed to leave and are told to be thankful for.

So, what would happen if this world was reversed? What would happen if white people were forced, even if is was for a few hours, to experience a society that treated them differently because of how they looked? Would you be happy to receive the same treatment as a person of color in society?

This is exactly what educator Jane Elliot has done with her Blue Eyes/Brown Eyes exercise, which substitutes eye color–a non-controversial part of the human body–for skin colour. Skin and eye color are both dictated by melanin, our biological pigment determined at birth. We don’t have any control over either, yet we continue to use one as a means of discrimination.

This ingenious exercise was first implemented inside Jane’s all-white classroom, after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. Although it’s impossible to experience the effect of racism (particularly white supremacy) as a white person in a room full of white people, Jane was able to have her all-white students experience either superiority or inferiority based solely on which eye color group they were placed in.

The cruelty of the “superior” group and the under-performance of the “inferior” group were felt nearly instantaneous. Although the “superior” and “inferior” groups were chosen randomly and shouldn’t change academic results, the internalization of each group led to real-world results. This exercise proved that racism is a learned behavior based on arbitrary characteristics. It also means that it can be unlearned.

Although I never participated in a Blue Eyes/Brown Eyes exercise, watching videos of Jane facilitating these workshops has had a lasting effect on me and changed my perception of society.

I can now admit that I’m a racist. Not a racist by choice, but a racist made by society.

Like her students, I was raised in a country–Canada–that puts white people in positions of power; just look at all those faces of Prime Ministers that are the same as mine. I was raised in a country, whose land was colonized by Europeans from its aboriginal inhabitants. I was told about the seemingly infinite accomplishments of white European and settler societies, while never hearing about the accomplishments of minorities. This racial ignorance about the lives (and worth) of people of color continue today, all around the world.

It exists for white university students; some of whom may feel attacked if labeled a racist and have the freedom to walk out:

It exists in Britain, the home of white Empire:

Whiteness and racial ignorance exists everywhere that white people are made and told that they are superior than other people of color. We–white people–need to first accept the racism that has been ingrained in us and then second work to change the systems around us.

Classrooms need to change so that kids stop seeing

We–white people–need to start in childhood education to overcome the stigma that white as good and black/brown as bad. We need to see the injustice in our criminal justice and immigration systems. We need to see how media perpetuates white supremacy and negative portrayals of people of color. We need to question why businesses and universities cater largely to white people. We need to find the truth in our history and seek reconciliation with those who have been harmed. We–white people–need to do a lot more.

This forces one to ask: Should you feel guilty about being white?

No. As Jane Elliot says, “I didn’t choose it. I can’t lose it.”

I was born white. I didn’t choose it. I can’t change that fact. But I can change how I act.

So: Should you do something about racism and whiteness?

Yes, I think every white person should.

Once you admit to yourself that society is based on a foundation of white supremacy, you need to recognize which group your actions benefit.

On one extreme of whiteness, there is a small group of white people fighting for racial injustice, spreading messages of hate. This include neo-Nazis, the alt-Right, Ku Klux Klan members, people who support travel bans on a certain color of people, and anyone else who vocally identifies as a white supremacist. These are the active, proud racists who are fighting to keep whiteness alive.

Now, if travel to the other end, you have another small group of white people. This group, however, fights for racial justice and against white supremacy. They were white people in the civil rights era, who took the Freedom Ride and protested segregated lunch counters. They are people who stand with BLM and kick the door open to discuss modern racism. These are anti-racists.

Who’s left?

Like a magnet, whiteness has two active parts, described above, and a larger neutral part, where all the other white people sit. These are teachers, doctors, politicians, artists, plumbers and business owners who neither join hate groups nor join racial justice protests. These are the people who say things like “I don’t see race” or think they aren’t racist because they “have a black friend.” (Both of which are deeply racist.) What average white people need to recognize (and I hope Jane Elliott’s work points out) is that we–white people–are all racist. You don’t need to feel bad about your white identity, but you also can’t be neutral about your place in society. As Howard Zinn said, “You can’t be neutral on a moving train.”

That moving train is our racist society. We are conditioned from birth, through our actions and behaviors, to be racist and we benefit from it everyday. It’s time you recognize your privilege and work to better this world. If you do nothing, you are unfortunately playing into the hand of the vocal, proud racists who would like to see you move silently through life and not stand in solidarity with people of color.

If you start to admit that racism is a problem, then you can move into other spheres of identity, biology and power. Seeing how how society turns us into racists allow one to recognize other forms of discrimination you may hold, including:

  • Sexism.
  • Homophobia.
  • Ableism.
  • Xenophobia.

These are just some of the ways that identity and biology are used by people in power, who often are straight white able-bodied men. Ignorance of how discrimination originated and why is lingers is the greatest tool they have to divide and rule. Politicians, media personality, business leaders, and others then use fear as a tool to support their stature and harm to minority groups.

When ignorance combines with fear, the result is hate. An example of this took place last year, when Sikh politician Jagmeet Singh was confronted by a white woman who feared that he was going to implement Sharia law, a Muslim tradition that isn’t part of his faith. Her ignorance of Jagmeet’s beliefs and her fear of Muslims lead to hate speech towards him and other people of color. This incident isn’t unique even if it was broadcasted widely in the news. People across Canada, the United States, Australia, Europe and other white communities hold racist beliefs either consciously or unconsciously. They sometimes express their ignorance about the lives of people or their hatred for the other. It is up to all white people to speak up against racism and to act to stop it.

As a straight white, able-bodied man, I can admit that I was completely ignorant about most inequality that exists in the world. The single greatest cause was a lack of exposure. I grew up in a patriarchy community (small rural town) without discussion of inequality of injustice. I didn’t have conversations with people of color. We didn’t talk about differences.

So, when I later discovered books on the subject, I felt awakened. Knowledge is the cure to ignorance and something all privileged people should excitedly rush towards. White people should learn about race. We should explore differences in sexuality and genders. Europeans should learn about cultures from around the world. We should learn about all religions and believes in the world. We shouldn’t be afraid of what we find or learn.

Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race by Reni Eddo-Lodge

A recent book I found quite helpful in explain these topics is Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race by Reni Eddo-Lodge. This books documents, in great details, the history and current manifestation of racism in white societies, like the United States and United Kingdom. Reni discuss her childhood story and the unique challenges of being a young girl of color in societies ruled by white men and women. Her own childhood showed her that:

“White children are taught not to ‘see’ race, whereas children of colour are taught–often with no explanation–that we must work twice as hard as our white counterparts if we wish to succeed.”

When we understand the unique intersections of identity, we can also look at the unique challenges some men face. As Reni notes:

“Men inhabit different spaces. Some face racism. Some face homophobia.”

But maybe, the most important thing we can learn is the role of white people and the need for us to no longer be neutral. As Reni summarizes, it’s time for white people to examine whiteness and their contributions to a racist society. It’s time to stop telling people of color to solve this problem and begin listening to them so that we may be part of the solution:

“The perverse thing about our current racial structure is that it has always fallen on the shoulders of those at the bottom to change it. Yet racism is a white problem. It reveals the anxieties, hypocrisies and double standards of whiteness. It is a problem in the psyche of whiteness that white people must take responsibility to solve. You can only do so much from the outside.”

What I hope changes is that the majority of white people come to terms with whiteness and the racism they grew up in and perpetuate everyday. I hope white people will become less reactionary when told about racism or labeled racist for their words and actions.

The fight for racial justice has been long and hard-fought. It’s time that white people take a side: either with those who spout hate, or those who express love.

In June 1963, Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote his famous Letter from Birmingham Jail. In it, he defends the strategy of nonviolent resistance but also criticizes white moderates and all their “goodwill”:

First, I must confess that over the last few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Council-er or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can’t agree with your methods of direct action;” who paternalistically feels he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by the myth of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait until a “more convenient season.”

Shallow understanding from people of goodwill is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.


If you’ve made it this far, I applaud you for your open mind. If you want to hear more about whiteness, I highly suggest listening to this episode of ABC’s The Minefield:

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How Much Is Your Coastline Worth?

I recently saw this demonstration of how mangroves protect shorelines from erosion.

It’s incredible how Mother Nature has developed simple tools to support biodiversity, even against the powerful forces of ocean waves. Unfortunately, we haven’t been the best stewards of these natural gifts.

WWF reports that more than 35% of the world’s mangroves are already gone. The figure is as high as 50% in countries such as India, the Philippines, and Vietnam, while in the Americas they are being cleared at a rate faster than tropical rainforests.

I am reminded of the case of Louisiana’s coastal ecosystem, presented in the Al-Jazeera investigation The Disappearing Delta. Louisiana’s bayou, dubbed one of the fastest-disappearing land masses on the planet, has experienced nearly 2,000 square miles of land erased from the state’s map in the last century. Mike Tidwell summarizes the destruction:

“An area of land the size of Manhattan is subtracted from south Louisiana every 10 months – it turns to water. A football field every 30 minutes. An area the size of Delaware since the 1930’s. It’s just astonishing how much land has disappeared.”

This destruction is caused by the fossil fuel industry and their continuous exploration for more product. The clearing of vegetation along coastal habitats leads to rapid erosion, scarring the landscape forever.

Ninety-nine percent of the Isle de Jean Charles, an island once 11 miles long and five miles wide, is now underwater. “[Jean Charles was] destroyed purely by oil and natural gas,” local resident Preston Mayeaux says. “The big deep canals brought in the saltwater intrusion, then they abandoned the canals. And when they abandoned the canals system… the saltwater goes in and out in and out, killing everything, all the vegetation.”

Beyond the environmental destruction, the government now has to pay the price of awarding this precious land to oil and gas exploration. The state’s Coastal Protection and Restoration Agency (CPRA) is now trying to rebuild land with sediment from the Mississippi River in a $50 billion plan to restore the coast. The only problem? Louisiana doesn’t have that kind of money. “We can’t protect everyone from everything, and there’s an inherent vulnerability living with the coast,” says Jerome Zeringue, head of the CPRA. “Louisiana is doing what it can to participate and protect this valuable resource, but it’s a national issue and a national concern. And we need national interests to support us as well.”

But who’s responsible for the damage? The investigation goes to the disappearing wetlands at Venice gas fields, where Chevron and other major firms have operated for decades. “The oil companies should be involved in [restoration efforts]. They benefited from Louisiana, and the people of Louisiana benefited from the oil companies,” said coastal restoration expert Ryan Lambert. “It’s all a circle. You can’t just blame the oil companies. They need to come to the table and help.”

Baton Rouge attorney Don Carmouche is pursuing a several lawsuits against oil, gas and pipeline companies in two Louisiana parishes. In Plaquemines Parish, an area heavily reliant on the industry for jobs, Councilman Byron Marinovich supported the legal challenge as a way to fund sorely needed restoration efforts. “What we need to do is start building these coasts back so we don’t have these super hurricanes coming through here like Katrina,” he says. In December 2014, he lost his re-election bid to an industry-supported candidate. Not surprisingly, the elections race in Plaquemines Parish was influenced by an organization known as LOGA, or Louisiana Oil and Gas Association.

Meanwhile, as Louisiana’s oil industry battles lawsuits onshore, the industry is shifting focus to offshore deep water drilling. Reporters went to the Gulf of Mexico to explore a new frontier for exploration, known as offshore fracking. “The industry has kept pretty silent about the amount of fracking that’s going on, and the federal agencies charged with issuing permits and enforcing environment laws have not revealed very much information,” says  Jonathan Henderson of the Gulf Restoration Network.

“We’re talking about fracking that is basically along the entire Louisiana coast,” said Miyoko Sakashita of the Center for Biological Diversity. “It’s in shallow water, near communities…Some of the fracking was actually permitted in the Mississippi Canyon, where the Deepwater Horizon accident was.”

It’s a real shame that the American authorities did not learn from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, which released 4.9 million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico as a result of the gross negligence and reckless conduct of British Petroleum. Instead, the US government continues to give leases to a fossil fuel industry making record profiles while performing extremely risky drilling and exploration. Risky for the coastal environment and everyone who depends on it.

In addition to the vulnerabilities that climate change brings to coastal communities around the world, the destruction of mangrove forests and other coastal habitats by industry, especially fossil fuel companies, leaves people at extreme risk. The costs are far too high. As seen in Louisiana, companies will destroy habitat and then leave the cleanup to the rest of us, while they’ve made incredible profits. People employed by these companies will be left jobless once they leave. Governments will cut social services to pay for the cleanup of corporate greed. We all lose.

The Fight to Control Women

“Recent years have seen a panic over “online red-light districts,” which supposedly seduce vulnerable young women into a life of degradation, and New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof’s live tweeting of a Cambodian brothel raid. But rarely do these fearful, salacious dispatches come from sex workers themselves, and rarely do they deviate from the position that sex workers must be rescued from their condition, and the industry simply abolished — a position common among feminists and conservatives alike.

“In Playing the Whore, journalist Melissa Gira Grant turns these pieties on their head, arguing for an overhaul in the way we think about sex work. Based on ten years of writing and reporting on the sex trade, and grounded in her experience as an organizer, advocate, and former sex worker, Playing the Whore dismantles pervasive myths about sex work, criticizes both conditions within the sex industry and its criminalization, and argues that separating sex work from the ‘legitimate’ economy only harms those who perform sexual labor. In Playing the Whore, sex workers’ demands, too long relegated to the margins, take center stage: sex work is work, and sex workers’ rights are human rights.”

– Summary of Playing the Whore from goodreads.com

Debates about prostitution tend to cover many topics, ranging from informal economics to public health, but ultimately comes down to one central element: control. Control of women. Control over women.

Playing the Whore: The Work of Sex Work by Melissa Gira Grant Jacobin/Verso, 136 pp.

Playing the Whore: The Work of Sex Work
by Melissa Gira Grant
Jacobin/Verso, 136 pp.

Those involved in sex work, whether they use the label of prostitute, sex worker or something else, belong to a part of society largely overlooked by society. Like the homeless or the unemployed, society, generally, looks down upon them while rarely offering respect for their human dignity or considering their current state as a temporary one. Leaders in both public and private sectors rarely given them a chance for inclusion into the rest of society.

Grant’s Playing the Whore is a simple yet exhaustive study of all the areas which affect sex workers, including the police, the media and the groups who see themselves as the ‘savior’. Largely excluded from the discussion on criminality, depiction or alternatives are sex workers themselves.

Just as women of colour and lesbians of generations past had to face off against straight white feminists of movements past, sex workers who seek autonomy and respect have to face off against anti-prostitution feminists today who offer neither. Grant documents how feminists in the anti-prostitution movement organize events and talks about sex work while, without seeing the problem, never including sex workers.

Female sex workers, like the many others who preceded them in the women’s liberation movement, continue to counter the conservative values, often shaped by Christian morality, that come to control their daily life. Although those people who buy sex sometimes face arrest, the burden falls predominantly on the woman. Sex workers face widespread violence and harassment by police officers. Sadly, the rest of society does not value sex workers much better.

In the same way that substance abuse is now seen as a health concern and something that shouldn’t be treated with criminalization and imprisonment, prostitution should be seen as an issue of employment needs. Unfortunately, politicians, supposed “advocates” and others refuse to see their place as seeking harm reduction, as is being done for addicts. Similarly, the role for police in both instances is to protect citizens – all citizens – especially those most vulnerable to receiving harm.

The central element of the book, which is signaled by its subtitle, “The Work of Sex Work”, is that of employment. Bringing her own stories as well as other sex workers, Grant describes the informal nature of today’s sex work. The women’s liberation movement has long been about women’s economic liberation. From unpaid care work to the gender pay gap, women have long suffered from an economy tailored not to them but towards men. Sex work is no different. Grant connects the work of sex work to other forms of self-employment within the informal sector, such as hair stylists, and service industries, like retail. Until all women are given the economic opportunities to live a dignified and comfortable life, these forms of informal or part-time employment will have to be used.

The debate on economics applies to countries around the world. As Grant points out, the movement to “rescue” sex workers in Asia and elsewhere does not address the economic, political and social disadvantages sex workers face inside and outside the profession. Even if victimized women are rescued, they receive little more than job training to low-paid labour. A sign in a Cambodia textile shop employing former sex workers point to this realization. It reads:

DON’T TALK TO ME ABOUT SEWING MACHINES. TALK TO ME ABOUT WORKERS’ RIGHTS.

Until we begin to see women – all women – as equal members of society, short-term fixes will not have the power to liberate sex workers when they continue to live in poverty. For those women who are left without alternative employment, decriminalization and support should be a first priority, not fear of the police and exclusion from ‘mainstream’ workers.

The debate between a woman’s right to self-determination and conservative traditional values in society is linked to another contentious issue: abortion.

The first feminist wave gave women the right to vote. The second wave gave women the Pill, and control of their reproductive rights.

In the United States, like most countries around the world, abortion was important for family planning but seen as a criminal action. This period, half a century ago, was also marked by near total male representation in politics. In 1973, the US Supreme Court determined that abortion was a constitutionally protected act with Roe v. Wade. Since then, conservative groups have fought to make abortion illegal or impossible to get.

cartoonThe documentary TRAPPED showcases doctors who perform abortions in some states in the United States who have fought against so-called TRAP (Targeted Regulation of Abortion Providers) laws. Since 2011, states in the South and Midwest have passed more than 300 abortion restrictions — TRAP laws, admitting privilege requirements, rules for how medication abortions may be performed, bans on abortion after 20 weeks (and sometimes earlier), longer waiting periods, and greater impediments to teenagers seeking abortions without parental approval.

Earlier this year, in the case of Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt, the US Supreme Court found that TRAP laws in Texas placed an “undue burden” on women seeking abortion and thus violate the Constitution. This is a major victory for women’s rights and may signal the beginning of TRAP laws being overruled across the nation.

TRAPPED follows in the footsteps of other documentary films shining a light on the battle over a woman’s right to choose. Six years ago, 12th & Delaware revealed the fight on the titular street corner in Fort Pierce, Florida, between a for-profit abortion clinic and a Roman Catholic Church-supported pregnancy clinic whose mission is to prevent women from obtaining abortions. While the abortion clinic takes precautions against threats of violence and fends off protesters, the pregnancy clinic actively spreads misinformation to women about the dangers of abortion.

A decade ago, Lake of Fire depicted the heated abortion debate that was already waging for decades in America. Leaving no stone unturned, it featured graphic footage of actual medical procedures and presented people on both pro-choice and pro-life sides of the issue.

These films add to the lengthy abortion debate in the United States and reveal the tactics of those groups opposed to a women’s right to choose how her pregnancy is managed. Ultra-conservative and Christian groups lie to pregnant women, spreading misinformation and fear. They set up anti-abortion pregnancy centres, which act as red herrings to women who are seeking abortions, while never disclosing their real ideology. These tactics show no respect towards pregnant women who, for whatever reason, have decided that a medically-assisted abortion is the right decision. Instead, they fool pregnant women, delaying their decision beyond what the law allows and, in effect, force vulnerable to follow through with their pregnancy against their will. A shameful game of politics over people.

The abortion debate in the United States has not been peaceful either. Groups like Operation Rescue and others promote violence to achieve their ends. It’s not just psychological violence. Although conservative and Christian groups regularly protest outside clinics and yell at women who enter, they also conduct terrorism. Male opponents to abortion (it’s almost always men who become violent) have repeatedly assassinated doctors and fire-bombed clinics, spreading fear and pressuring providers to close their doors. The entire anti-abortion movement ultimately furthers these horrendous acts of violence through their misinformation and shaming protests. Sadly, this violence in the name of opposing reproductive rights is not limited to only the US.

screen-shot-2014-05-04-at-1-59-26-pmThe concept of rescue is found in the ideologies of both anti-prostitution and anti-abortion. Rescue from what? Rescuing women from themselves, it seems. From decisions about their health, their well-being, their finances, and their work. The debate doesn’t typically expand past what to do once women are “rescued”. They are thrown back into society to fend for themselves without the political, economic or social support they may have wanted in the first place.

It’s difficult to ignore the irony at the center of debates on women’s rights: the loudest voices aren’t women. Men make up the majority of anti-abortion advocates. One of the biggest anti-abortion voices is the Catholic Church, which is built around female subservience to male clergy. Male legislatures pass laws without talking to female voters.

Although women are often found protesting prostitution and abortion, the organisations they represent are, more often than not, led by men. Men who will never be pregnant. Men who have more employment opportunities than women and who can purchase sex from prostitutes without fear of much prosecution or persecution.

Men need to stand aside and listen, rather than stand at the front and dominate the discussion. We need to stop making decisions about those we know little about.

Ultimately, the fight is not over whose morals should dominate because this is not a debate over ideas; it’s a debate over people. People who have the right to determine their own lives. All human beings deserve dignity.

All struggles are connected since, as the organisation Black Women for Wages for Housework said, “When prostitutes win, all women win.” Hookers and housewives unite!

Portraits of a Changing America

Last month, I watched a number of new documentaries. Three of these stood out thanks to their connective stories.

Three stories that each follow an American protagonist.

Three legal battles over ideology, whether good or bad.

Three very different areas of society that link past challenges to future opportunities, through present discussions.

 

Past: Welcome to Leith

White supremacist Craig Cobb tries to take over a small town in North Dakota. As his behavior becomes more threatening, residents wrestle with democratic principles as they try to get rid of their unwanted neighbor.

welcome_to_leith_xlgWelcome to Leith looks at the two unfortunate realities in the United States that intersect in a small town in North Dakota: the economic decline of rural America and the long history of white nationalist hatred. Leith is a town of about 30 people, where the mayor also drives the school bus. With many people leaving for the opportunities, land and houses are for sale for extremely low prices.

The United States has a long history of white supremacy, going back to the end of the Civil War and the creation of the Ku Klux Klan (KKK). It’s not surprising that hate groups formed, since the country was founded on the economic model of enslaving humans of a darker complexion. These early hate groups used terrorism against groups they hated (African Americans) as well as groups that challenged them (white Americans). It hasn’t ended either. Many hate groups now use Nazi propaganda and imagery to continue to promote white supremacy.

With its small population and isolated geography, one white supremacist moved into town and tried to turn Leith into a fascist paradise. Craig Cobb and his associated started by flying Nazi flags and interrupting town meetings but soon moved to patrolling the community with guns. This was too much for the town and inevitably lead to Cobb’s arrest.

This confrontation between a small town and a group with small-minded ideas should not be seen in isolation. Hate groups have a long history within the United States and need to be taken on by everyone, especially white Americans who have sat by while these groups spread hate and commit white terrorism inside the country.

 

Present: Unlocking the Cage

Lawyer Steven Wise and the Nonhuman Rights Project file lawsuits to give animals such as chimpanzees, whales, dolphins and elephants limited personhood rights.

unlocking-the-cageSteven Wise is President of the Nonhuman Rights Project (NhRP). Thee NhRP fights for the rights of highly intelligent nonhumans who have long been seen as things and not beings. Unlocking the Cage follows their recent battles to have chimpanzees freed from their cages using the legal writ of habeas corpus (freedom from unlawful detention), which has never been applied to nonhuman animals before.

Across the world, several groups of people are fighting for their rights – right to be recognized as fully human. In the United States, it wasn’t too long ago that African Americans were deemed to be worth three-fifths of a white American. It took time but this injustice was eventually overcome through changes in the law and fights in the courts. Steven Wise wants to give the same rights to the most intelligent of nonhuman creatures, those who can speak and think like a human child can.

Biological, psychological and other scientific research in recent years has shown that the animals that the NhRP fights for – chimpanzees, whales, dolphins and elephants – have the ability to use language, to use tools, to pass learning down through generations, to develop communities, to understand complex thoughts. These discoveries are broadening the understanding of what our world truly offers. We, as human beings, must work towards ending the pain and violence directed towards highly sentient creatures, understanding that they are not just things.

Unlocking the Cage continues the path of humanity towards a more just world where all beings, whether human or not, are deserving of respect and a peaceful existence. Here’s hoping that the NhRP will continue their legal fights and begin to challenge society’s consciousness for the better.

 

Future: Deep Web

A feature documentary that explores the rise of a new Internet; decentralized, encrypted, dangerous and beyond the law.

deep_web_xlgDeep Web chronicles the rise of the black market website Silk Road, were users could purchase illegal drugs anonymously, and Bitcoin, a digital currency that is all but untraceable to authorities. Beyond the hidden nature of these tools, the film explores the politics that led to their creation and use.

The film covers the trial of Ross Ulbricht, known under the pseudonym Dread Pirate Roberts, who was convicted of creating and running the Silk Road until his 2013 arrest. On its surface it is difficult to know whether Ulbricht is responsible for all of the crimes alleged since the DPR account was used by multiple persons.

Deeper down, the understand the saga of the Silk Road and Ross Ulbricht is to examine the United States’ “War or Drugs” and the response of libertarian free-market solutions crafted by Ulbricht and many others. Ulbricht wished to “use economic theory as a means to abolish the use of coercion and aggression amongst mankind” and claimed that he was “creating an economic simulation to give people a first-hand experience of what it would be like to live in a world without the systemic use of force.”

Like the mythical Hydra, the Silk Road has now sprouted dozens of offshoots with the same purpose. Bitcoin is becoming a household name and being used for purchasing more products digitally each day. Ultimately, politics and economics will become more intertwined with the Internet and digital technology in the future. Whether society is ready to deal with that fact is to be seen.

Masculinity Unmasked

Masculinity is defined as the possession of the qualities traditionally associated with men. But, what type of men?

In the documentary The Mask You Live In, director Jennifer Siebel Newsom explores the masculine qualities found in the United States today, asking the viewer to question the harm they are causing to boys. (The film is available online; click here to watch.)  This is Newsom’s second film as part of The Representation Project, following the documentary Miss Representation, looking at depictions of women in the media. Although the discussion and research for The Mask You Live In is focused on the U.S., the film’s message is important to millions of boys and men around the world.

mask_poster_wlaurel-021915_500x745Newsom’s inspiration for making the film came from falling pregnant with her son. In an interview she said,

“It was really important to me that I could nurture a son who could be true to his authentic self, who wouldn’t always feel like he had to prove his masculinity. There’s so much loneliness, pain, and suffering when one is pretending to be someone that they’re not.”

The Mask You Live In resonated with me and my childhood. Each area discussed – sport, relationships, work, etc. – provides opportunities for growth…but also provides opportunities for perpetuating harm. The harm in question is that of patriarchy.

There are three lies about masculinity that every boy learns in America:

  1. We associate masculinity with athletic ability
  2. We associate masculinity with economic success
  3. We associate sexual conquest with masculinity

These three lies pave the foundation for a life of men feeling inadequate.Boys who don’t achieve a fictional level of manliness and are unsupported in alternative achievements live without the self-esteem needed to be happy. As one interviewee notes, “Comparison is the thief of all happiness.” As the film shows, boys and ultimately men struggle to stay true to themselves while negotiating America’s narrow definition of masculinity.

This all starts at a very young age, when boys enter school.

  • 1 in 4 boys report being bullied at school
  • Only 30% of those who are bullied notify adults

(All stats come from the film.)

One of the main reasons for bullying is societies binary view of gender: Men are masculine; Women are feminine. This outdated view of a person’s range of self-identification is framed around femininity being about emotion, relationships, and empathy. Men and masculinity are everything that isn’t these attributes, and any boy who exerts emotion or empathy will be bullied for not adhering to it.

The conservative view of masculinity – one that doesn’t leave room for emotion and relationships between boys – also breeds homophobia. Boys learn very early that if they do anything remotely seen as feminine or loving towards fellow boys that they will be labeled a “sissy” or other sexist language than harms all genders. Society has taught boys that girls are the only one who are free to care about boys.

This inevitably leads to loneliness among boys and men. One way to combat these feelings is to self-medicate, which young men do by taking drugs and alcohol.

  • By age 12, 34% of boys have started drinking
  • The average boy tries drugs at age 13
  • 1 in 4 boys binge drink (consume 5 or more drinks in a row)

These social problems are made worse by society’s inability to let boys talk about their feelings, whether good or bad. In the film, a male teach gets a group of young male students to do an exercise. Each takes a mask. On the front they write what image of masculinity they present to society. On the back they write what they are hiding. This simple exercise gets to the root of so many problems, yet is still difficult to build into a reformed education system.

Until everyone understands the root problems of masculinity, boys and men will continue to experience inadequacy, loneliness and the mental health problems these feelings produce. Ultimately, many will turn to suicide if these problems go untreated.

  • Every day 3 or more boys commit suicide
  • For boys, suicide is the third leading cause of death
  • Fewer than 50% of boys and men with mental health challenges seek help

Even in the small village I grew up, we had a fellow student commit suicide. Many students and adults could not understand why it happened. It’s a shame that the teachers and staff in that school were not better trained to understand the root problems discussed in The Mask I Live In. It may have prevented this needless death and other, unseen pain.

suicide-rates

Rates of suicide in the United States, The Mask You Live In

In the last century, thanks to the fight of the women’s rights movement, girls and women now have greater equality in attaining educational success. Unfortunately, during that same period of time, men in power did little to change the way boys learn. Schools were punishing boys through humiliation, such as by making them write on the board. Rarely did they ask why is this kid acting out. This has meant that boys are under-performing in school, as compared to their female counterparts.

  • Compared to girls, boys are more likely to flunk or drop out of school
  • Compared to girls, boys are: 2 times more likely to be in special education, 3 times more likely to be diagnosed with ADHD, 2 times more likely to be suspended, and 4 times more likely to be expelled

In a world that limits boys’ ability to talk about themselves, most turn inwards and spend their time in solitary activities – many of which spur harmful notions of masculinity.

  • In a week, the average boy spends: 40 hours watching TV, sports, movies; 15 hours playing video games; 2 hours watching porn
  • 31% of males feel addicted to video games
  • 99% of boys play video games
  • 90% of games rated appropriate for children over 10 contain violence
  • 50% of parents don’t monitor ratings
  • The average 18 year old has seen 200,000 acts of violence on screen including 40,000 murders

Even when boys are outside, playing sports and interacting with other boys, they can be prone to the same negative examples of masculinity. Sports encourage play that is violent and competitive. Coaches often act as father figures, which can do an awful lot of good and an awful lot of bad. A coach can instill the same type of homophobic, anti-girl language that recycles through generations of unchanged language.

In the film, when asked “how would you feel if your coach called you a ‘sissy’?” a boy responded that it would “devastate” him. What does this mean for how we teach boys about being a girl.

Sports has the wrong mix of power, dominance, control, moral clarity. A ‘Win at all cost’ culture in sports means winning at the expense of character development. The myth that sports builds character can only become true if coaches teach and model it.

The Mask You Live In documents four male archetypes in media:

  1. Strong silent guy, who is always in control
  2. Superhero character engaging in violence to maintain that control or in order to achieve whatever goal is in front of him
  3. Thug, man of colour, who are pigeon holed into violent roles
  4. Man-child, who is in perpetual adolescence, whose body doesn’t have lots of muscle. He purports masculinity in another way – through degradation of women, engaging in high-risk activities

Media has a definite effect on people’s behavior. If it didn’t, advertising would collapse.

Violence on TV, movies and video games adds to the culture of boys being made to think that ‘real’ men must fight to be respected. There’s a reason the US army trains people using video games. It’s because it gets them used to some of the experiences.

A report on youth violence by the US Surgeon General found that violence in media has the following three effects:

  1. Children may become less sensitive to pain and suffering of others.
  2. Children may be more fearful of the world around them.
  3. Children may be more likely to behave in aggressive or harmful ways toward others.

These same forms of entertainment, combined with pornography, push an agenda of dominate men and submissive women – a fundamental lie of masculinity.

  • 34% of youth online receive unwanted pornographic exposure
  • 93% of boys are exposed to internet porn
  • 68% young men use pornography weekly and 21% of young men use pornography daily
social-isolation

Image from The Mask You Live In

These harmful portrayals of both men and women can be overcome through reasoned sex education. Unfortunately, many parent in the United States are opposed to this, due largely to conservative views about talking openly about one’s sexuality and alternatives of sexual identity.

  • Only 22 states require public schools teach sex education

Because of shame around sexuality, porn is sex education for most people. Without sex education in the school and with silent parents at home, many boys turn to their computers for guidance, with terrible consequences. The internet provides “excess in social isolation”.

  • 83% of boys have seen group sex online
  • 39% of boys have seen bondage online
  • 18% of boys have seen rape online
  • Exposure to pornography increases sexual aggression by 22% and increases the acceptance of rape myths (that women desire sexual violence) by 31%

Boys are being conditioned towards violence.

By the time boys reach puberty, society has implanted the worst forms of masculinity, through school systems that allow bullying and punish expression; through media and sports that promote violence. Porn then teaches boys “what women want and how men are supposed to perform”. Both of those are wrong. It’s difficult to think, but “rapists are being produced by our culture”.

Researcher in the film call this the Great Set-Up: “We raise boys to become men whose very identity is based on rejecting the feminine and then we are surprised when they don’t see women as being fully human”. So we set boys up to grow into men who disrespect women at a fundamental level and then we wonder why we have the culture that we have.

Boys enter their teenage years being told that “A man is always supposed to be on the prowl” or “I’d like to hit that” or “I’d like a piece of that” or “I’d like to tear that shit up”. In all of these cases the woman (or sometimes man) is an object, an “it” or “that”. And violence – “hit”, “tear” – is the means to the sexual end. This teaches boys not to see the humanity in girls and leads to a culture of sexual violence against women. Young men are then sent to universities with toxic ideas of sex and sexual expression.

  • Every 9 seconds a woman is beaten or assaulted
  • 35% of male college students indicated some likelihood of raping if they knew they could get away with it
  • 1 in 5 female college students is the victim of an attempted or completed sexual assault

Young men on university campuses represent a recipe for failure: 18 year-olds desperate to prove their masculinity to 19 year-olds. Campus environments provide two things for young men: horizontal solidarity by bonding with your ‘bros’ (hooking up, initiations, hazing); and the feeling that girls can’t do these things (hierarchy – men are superior to women).

The Mask You Live In notes a unique ‘code of silence’ found in American society. This is the conflict between the heart that wants to the right things, and the head that has been conditioned to do the opposite. This is the fear that many men have that prevent them from acting ethically and continues the ‘male peer culture’.

“Choice is rooted in our privilege.”

Not only is sexual violence perpetuated by men, mostly, it attacks both women and men, girls and boys. The culture of silence that our society has instilled into boys prevents them from seeking the medical and mental health services to overcome these violent crimes.

  • Over half of all boys are physically abused
  • 1 in 6 boys is sexually abused
  • Abused and neglected children are 9 times more likely to be involved in crime

America is unique for its culture of guns. These guns are the weapons of choice for many boys and men who seek suicide as an end to their pain – an end with immediate resolve. The films summarizes this as: “Whether its homicidal violence or suicidal violence, people resort to such desperate behavior only when feeling overwhelmed by shame and humiliation.”

“While we as good men don’t perpetrate the violence, we are part of the collective socialization.” Men and the culture that works against progress are the fertile ground that’s required for the violence to exist.

  • Every hour more than 3 people are killed by a gun. That’s over 30,000 lives annually
  • 90% of homicide perpetrators are male. Almost 50% are under 25

The male role belief system is a recipe for violence: Men are defined as superior, women are defined as inferior. And to be a real man, you also dominate other men. Respect is linked to violence. These notions and all that was explored above collectively explain the level of violence that remains in society, as well as the phenomenon of ‘mass killings’ in America.

  • Mass homicides (where 4 or more people are killed) occur on average every 2 weeks
  • 94% of mass homicides are committed by males
  • The youngest mass shooter was 11
  • The rate of mass shooting has tripled since 2011
  • And there has been almost 1 school shooting per week since Sandy Hook
mass-killings-in-the-us

Mass killings across the United States, The Mask You Live In

 

At its core, The Mask You Live In creates a dialogue between healthy and unhealthy ways to define manhood. These dialogues have for far too long been absent from education institutions and the wider society but are slowly being openly discussed. Debates among men are addressing many long-standing problems, such as ‘aggrieved entitlement,’ where men in positions of power feeling entitled to power and that they’re not getting that power anymore.

The Men’s Rights Movements sees the end result of patriarchy – suicide violence, depression, rape against men – and feels that its the result of women’s liberation without understanding where the struggle really lies. Until men understand that the system that produces inequality between genders (as well as racism, homophobia and other discrimination) is harmful to others as much as it is to themselves, men will never be free.

The liberation of men and boys is inextricably linked to the fight by women and girls against patriarchy. The language and actions of men towards boys must start with peace and respect. Violence can not be condoned in any form; language that assists violence must be countered in every instance. Homophobia must be challenges alongside recognition that all males have the right to be feminine, irrespective of their sexual orientation.

The coming revolution in mental health will help boys open up and discuss their needs with other boys, who were also sitting silent with the same concerns. Parents should take the opportunity to encourage their children to challenge the harmful masculine and feminine stereotypes in society through their words and actions. Individual action is not enough; a new society needs to be created.

Everyone deserves to feel whole. Starting the process of talking about these issues, as early as possible, for both boys and girls, is essential for future improvements to solving society’s problems. Talking across gender line is needed at all ages.

Each of us can do our part in expanding what it means to be a man for ourselves and the boys in our lives.

Watching The Mask You Live In is a good place to start and should be required viewing in all classrooms.