Sunday, 21 October 2012

Inigo Montoya Teaching Moment #4 - Sexism vs. Misogyny

Last week I wrote a post on the Amanda Todd suicide, in which I expressed the opinion that the media ought to be focusing more on the issue of misogyny than that of bullying and the role of social media. 'Misogyny', it turns out, has been a newsworthy word as of late, and as such I think it's worth digging deep into the word itself in the latest of the 'Inigo Montoya Teaching Moment' series of posts on misused - or allegedly misused - words and expressions.

Misogyny and discrimination against women in both the developed and developing world has been in the news a lot in recent weeks. When not making news in Metro Vancouver in the aftermath of the Amanda Todd tragedy it was doing so in Pakistan's beautiful but chronically unstable Swat region, where a 15 girl by the name of Malālah Yūsafzay became an international heroine thanks to a passion for education, a Taliban thug willing to kill in the name of preventing girls from being educated, and by valiant intervention by surgeons in Peshawar, Rawalpindi and Birmingham.

Meanwhile in Australia, the word itself became the centre of a media frenzy following a tirade by Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard against opposition leader Tony Abbott. Gillard's rant, which quickly went viral over YouTube, was delivered in the Australian parliament two weeks ago following demands from the opposition leader for the firing of House Speaker Peter Slipper, accused of making derogatory comments about women in a series of text messages. The prime minister, while stopping short of defending her colleague's actions, took the opportunity to expose her the famously macho and socially conservative opposition leader's hypocrisy in this 15-minute verbal smackdown. If you haven't seen it yet, it's well worth watching.

Gillard's rant - noteworthy even within Australia's famously bellicose political culture - quickly became international news, winning her praise in many corners both in Australia and overseas for her unapologetic stance against entrenched sexism and - a word she invokes frequently in her rant - misogyny. It also resulted in changed the PM could hardly have expected. Within a week of her 'misogyny' tirade, The Macquarie Dictionary, which bills itself as Australia’s National Online Dictionary, announced that it was changing its definition of misogyny from "a pathological hatred of women” to “entrenched prejudice against women."

This linguistic shuffle prompted a degree of backlash, particularly from Australia's opposition Liberal Party. "Ms. Gillard called Mr. Abbott a misogynist. Mr. Abbott clearly does not hate women," asserted Senator Fiona Nash in the Sydney Morning Herald. "It would seem more logical for the Prime Minister to refine her vocabulary than for the Macquarie Dictionary to keep changing its definitions every time a politician mangles the English language."

Political pleading notwithstanding, the incident begs the question of what precisely misogyny is, and how does it differ (if at all) from garden-variety sexism. In the aftermath of the Gillard attack, The Guardian asked six leading feminists to define the term. In the end, all of the them more or less agreed that 'misogyny' was simply a darker, more malicious form of sexism. British feminist author Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett characterized the difference between the two being akin to the difference between Benny Hill and Rush Limbaugh, noting that "While sexism demonstrates a disregard and disrespect for women, I always have associated misogyny with something darker, angrier, and more cynical."

When a man claims that women are naturally maternal, or are by default, bad drivers, he is a sexist. If he was to add that women are only good for a fuck and should be confined to servicing men and their children, it is misogyny.
- Julie Bindel

American author and renowned Third Waver Naomi Wolf digs deeper, contending that while 'sexism' is the product of unthinking prejudice, 'misogyny' is the product of a deeper, more emotionally charged contempt for women. "A public figure who tolerates the systemic under-prosecuting of rape is guilty of serious and unforgivable sexism," she explains. "Making rape jokes or explaining away the damage of rape in public [see Missouri Congressman Todd Akin] or legislating, as over a dozen US states are now doing, transvaginal probes that are medically unnecessary, simply to sexually punish women for choosing abortion – well, that is misogyny."

abbott new
Note to Tony Abbott: appostrophes are your friend, even if women aren't!
This then begs the question as to whether or not the 'misogynist' tag truly apply to the man at the centre of the controversy, the man who the Australian Prime Minister attacked saying "If [Mr. Abbott] wants to know what misogyny looks like in modern Australia he doesn't need a motion in the house of Representatives; he needs a mirror." What exactly is Tony Abbott's track record for misogyny? Wolf argues that Gillard used the term accurately in her characterization of Abbott's view of abortion as "the easy way out" and his anti-Gillard placard campaign in which he urged Australian voters to "ditch the witch, wherein she was also described as '[Senator] Bob Brown's Bitch'."

Other Abbott classics might be more aptly described as sexist, such as his famously thoughtless on-air remark in 2010 when he referred to "What the housewives of Australia need to understand as they do the ironing," or when he notoriously quipped that mandatory paid maternity leave would happen "over this government’s dead body." Such declarations clearly reveal the opposition leader's adherence to an antediluvian view of the proper place of women in society - unquestionably sexist but not quite misogynistic. The 'Ditch the Witch' campaign and his acerbic and patently untrue dismissal of women seeking safe and legal abortions, on the other hand, betray an active mean spiritedness that can only be described as misogynistic.

Perhaps the most apt characterization of the difference between these two states of mind comes from Julie Bindel, British feminist author, LGBT advocate and co-founder of the group Justice For Women. "When a man claims that women are naturally maternal, or are by default, bad drivers, he is a sexist. If he was to add that women are only good for a fuck and should be confined to servicing men and their children, it is misogyny. Misogynists are always sexist, but sexists are not always misogynists."

Was Australia's leading dictionary right in revising its definition of 'misogyny' from 'a pathological hatred of women' to 'entrenched prejudice against women'? In my opinion, probably not. Moreover, I believe Julia Gillard was bang on in her characterization of her rivals views as being both sexist and misogynist, and that no such dictionary revision was needed in the aftermath of her now legendary knockout round.

Monday, 15 October 2012

On Bullying and Misogyny (In Memory of Amanda Todd)

The suicide of bullied Metro Vancouver teen Amanda Todd has generated yet another media frenzy over the epidemic of cyberbullying. In the case of Amanda, the 15-year-old from Port Coquitlam left behind a chilling YouTube PSA in which she recounts how her tormentors forced her to switch schools on multiple occasions (which did nothing to remedy the situation) and ultimately drove her to drugs, alcohol, seclusion and self-harming before ending it all. For those of you who haven't seen the video, you owe it to yourselves to see it.

The media's reaction to Amanda Todd's death has been depressingly predictable: outrage of the "How could this possibly happen?" followed by the predictable cacophony of proposed solutions to the epidemic of cyberbullying. As always, some called for increased policing of the web, others for greater bullying awareness campaigns in the school system. Some blamed parents and teachers for not doing more to stop it. Others callously opined that bullying is simply part of the natural order of things and that she got what she deserved. And as always, much of the focus remained on the need for teens to be careful while online lest they make themselves vulnerable to online tormentors.

The really depressing part, of course, is that Amanda Todd will soon be largely forgotten - apart of course from her grieving family and friends, who will never forget. And the frenzy of cyberbullying will quickly subside...until the next Amanda Todd pulls the plug on his or her life and the process begins again. And then of course there are the victims whose names and faces never make the pages of the National Post. Canada's youth suicide rate remains troublingly high. And while the rate is still higher for boys than for girls, the suicide rate for girls has jumped over the past few decades, while the rate for boys has decreased. There are thousands of Amandas out there. And far too many will leave this world unknown, with no YouTube account of their torment.

There can be no denying that the Internet, and social media in particular, has made the problem of adolescent bullying more insidious and difficult to combat. Not only does it allow perpetrators to remain anonymous, it also provides them with a far wider dominion over their victims. When I was a junior high schooler in the early 1990s, a change of school was generally a surefire tactic for curtailing bullying; while one still had to content with being friendless at a new school, at the very least it meant an escape from the devils of the old school. For modern-day teens like Amanda, changing schools offers no such escape. The web has even allowed her tormentors to target the girl's online memorials. Some sort of 21st century equivalent to the Greek Defixiones might be in order.

But while the 'cyber' element has made the problem of bullying scarier and more complicated, the root of the problem remains the same. Bullying is - and always has been - a societal means for maintaining a hierarchical status quo by punishing those who dare to overstep their bounds. It's also a means for placating the 'masses' with the occasional human sacrifice, playing into the dark side to our human nature. (Think Apocalypto in the schoolyard.) It's the 'mild' first-world tip of a very large and sinister iceberg that in other parts of the world manifests itself in the public lynching of gays and the spraying of schoolgirls with battery acid for having the audacity to seek out an education. And as always, those who fall outside of the default group (women, members of cultural, racial or sexual minorities, social misfits etc.) who bear the brunt of it.
"She flashed, felt repercussions, her own fault."
- Anonymous online commenter

The bullying of young girls like Amanda Todd is especially troubling inasmuch as it highlights the yawning gap between our society's post-feminist discourse and notions of equality and the harsh underbelly of misogyny that continues to contaminate our social relations. Granted, the Amanda Todds of the western world are no longer liable to be burned at the stake (as they might have been in Europe 500 years ago) or stoned to death (as she might well have been in modern-day Afghanistan or Somalia), but the horrible bullying to which she was subjected bears the same malevolent misogynist streak that motivated - and continues to motivate - such atrocities. The Amanda Todd story exemplifies the degree to which a great many men (and sadly many women) still view women within the passive virgin-whore dichotomy and consider those who lose their footing on that tightrope to be deserving of cruel censure.

So what are we to do about it? Sadly, there are no obvious cures. My own proposed radical solution for gender equality is not one that I'm expecting anybody to embrace anytime soon, namely a 50-year moratorium on male voting. Under such an edict, men would still be eligible to run for office but would have to be answerable to a female-only electorate (in a similar fashion to how chiefs and warlords within the Iroquois Confederacy were answerable to a council of women). A 50-year period would be long enough to produce profound change but short enough to remain within people's historical memory, a time period similar in length to the beginning and end of the Cold War, the rise of the Asian Tigers and the unfolding of the New Europe. And suffice it to say, 50 years of female rule would pale in comparison to 4,000 nearly uninterrupted years of patriarchy, but then again the goal is equality, not supremacy.

Getting back to the problem of cyberbullying, it bothers me that the onus is always placed on the victims to protect themselves against abusers while the abusers, and the complicit onlookers, invariably escape unpunished. While it is of course important for children and adolescents to be taught how to protect themselves online, it's about time more altruistic IT-savvy people stepped up to the plate and confronted this online terrorists head on. I was recently inspired by a story in the Guardian by Irish journalist Leo Traynor, in which he recounted his own tale of online abuse and how he enlisted a hacker colleague of his to track down his abuser - who turned out to be the son of a colleague with a head full of bad wiring. We need a Hackers Without Borders-type organization, a crack squad of angry nerds (who you would think would be natural allies in in this cause) to scare the crap out of would-be online tormentors.

At the same time, we need a 'coming out' campaign for former bullies seeking to make amends. In the aftermath of Amanda Todd's suicide, many commentors have come forward with their own stories of bullying and harrassment. For any sort of restorative justice to occur, those who are saddled with the burden of having been bullies or passive bystanders need to make themselves known, ask for forgiveness and then take part in combatting the problem. Just as the onus of gender equality cannot exclusively be placed on the backs of women, I don't see how anti-bullying campaign are to make any headway without the involvement of former perpetrators. At least one bully did just this in the aftermath of Amanda Todd's suicide. A good start, but far more of this is needed.

We should all be mad as hell about this - and about our society's ongoing contempt for women and girls who fail to meet mainstream culture's unspoken but understood expectations to be sexy-but-not-sexual, compliant to patriarchal strictures and vigilant in defence of their own purity. And for the sake of online freedom (and not ruining it for everybody else), we need to get tough on cyberbullies. Censoring the Internet will not curb bullying anymore than veiling and secluding women reducing instances of sexual assault, as conservatives in the Islamic world are fond of arguing. As a society we are capable of being better than this, but we won't get there without taking a long, hard look at the poisonous attitudes that persist within our supposedly progressive culture.

And for the love of god, please stop blaming social media for this! Yes, SM is a double-edged sword that makes the issue of bullying more complex, but it's not the crux of the problem. And besides, were it not for social media, none of us would be talking about Amanda Todd right now, as her excruciatingly eloquent YouTube statement could never have been made and disseminated around the world in the first place. Social media is not to blame for this. Misogyny and its never ending capacity to inflict unnecessary human misery is to blame.

In the meantime, my heart goes out to the girls family and friends, for what it's worth. Needless to say no words could ever even begin to take away the hurt.

Friday, 12 October 2012

Shit History Undergrads Say - Woodrow Wilson's 'Fourteen Pants'

Anybody who has ever worked as a teacher knows how mind numbing the marking process can be. Just about every teacher has his or her own strategies for plowing through a mountain of exam papers or essays without completely losing their mind. As a former TA in 20th Century World History at the University of British Columbia, I've had to endure many an evening slogging my way through booklet after booklet of verbose regurgitations of in-class notes on Vimy Ridge and the sinking of the Lusitania or, even worse, intensely morbid essays on war atrocities that relished in every gory detail like a Saw movie.

What was my coping strategy? Generally a combination of beer and derision, specifically combing through exam papers and essays for the egregious and comical abuses of the English language. We've all been guilty of this, of course. We've all been in the position where we're frantically scribbling away in an exam booklet in the hope of half-blindly stumbling on enough correct points to get a decent mark. The result is generally a cornuccopia of wounded sentences, awkward constructions, breathtaking run-on-sentences (runs-on-sentence?), tautological assertions, and just flat out bizarre factual statements.

Here are some particularly good ones that I've been hanging onto some over the years for my own amusement. This is what you get when you're grasping at straws or trying to fill an exam booklet as quickly as possible.

Syntaxed To Death

Diplomacy, apparently
Hitler achieved economic, military and physical growth.

Mao was married at the age of 14 but his wife died three years later. Then Mao had countless relationships with many children.

The Soviet Union used diplomacy to invade Poland.

Suspekt Speling

The Colombian Navel fleet was busy stropping American ships.

Wilson is most famous for his “fourteen pants” which outlined the steps he felt needed to be taken.

Pubic opinion on the subject has varied over the course of history.

Mathematical Genius

Mao Zedong and Adolf Hitler were considered one of the few greatest leaders that transformed their own countries in the early 20th Century.

In this way, both of them were one of the strongest countries in the Second World War.

Geography Fail

Japan resumed its expansionist policies, especially in the Middle East.

Going for Broke (a.k.a. Trying To Fill An Entire Exam Booklet)
More different than similar

Mao Zedong and Okonkwo [the main protagonist in Chinua Achebe's novel Things Fall Apart] were more different than similar in many aspects. Being from different cultures, this is to be expected. They share some similarities, but it is evident that these two leaders did things and thought things differently from each other.

Throughout history, there have been many great people, and many more unknown people. There have been many who have done wonderful things, and many who have done nothing at all. And every person has different attitudes towards everything around him or her, and it is these attitudes that shape actions.

You Don't Say!

Perception is crucial in understanding history.

Educated guessing is a large component of media writing as the future is still open to any number of possibilities.

Throughout history, many events have occurred which have greatly impacted the world. Such events are also bound to keep happening.

Hyperbolic Overdrive

In Japan’s case, the “two-two-six” rebellion is one such crisis that led to Japan’s involvement in WWII, and the subsequent history of the world.

Say That Again??

These comparisons of documents and accounts provide a number of questions about the reliability and reasoning behind such discrepancies in the comparisons, establishing an understanding of the lengths the Great Leader would go in order to attain freedom for his people.

The means Hitler and Mao used to achieve leadership roles were similar and different in different ways. Hitler used threat, secret police and democracy.

Similar....yet different

When juxtaposed on a comparative perspective, the methods Hitler and Stalin, of Germany and the Soviet Union respectively, implemented on their rise and solidification in power are very similar.

These two situations are similar in that they are opposite.

Stalin didn’t want to get his country involved with silly things such as world conquest.

As we live, we make history. The present is the history of the future, and the past is the future of our contemporary time.

Meanwhile, the Russia country was governed by the communist party under the Stalin Regime.

His views, albeit firmly believed, are often objective in regards to the external concerns, and only become prejudiced when the conflict strikes and internal locus.

When Nwoye [the protagonist's son in Things Fall Apart] becomes a Christian, he and his father fall apart.

This forced a period of hardship on the people triggering the despair of poverty, the anguish of war and the tragedies of death.

Just as in human nature, agreements on major events in history are fraught with inconsistencies, untruths and confusion.

[The soldiers in WWI] didn’t need or want absolutely anything else other than some food, rest, shelter, and most importantly, of course, not to end up dead.


The author writes his memoirs of his visits to the Front because the worm (or curiosity) of context got into his ahistorical apple.

Saturday, 6 October 2012

Music Review - A History of Now (Asian Dub Foundation)

I don't generally do music reviews on this blog. It's not its raison d'être and there are far better blogs out there for audiophiles than this one. But I couldn't resist doing this one. Not only was Asian Dub Foundation's latest album my audio highlight for 2011 but it was also an album which, for whatever reason, fell completely through the critical cracks. Virtually nobody reviewed it. Here's my review, for what it's worth.

I first fell in love with Asian Dub Foundation in the late-1990s following the release of their critical breakthrough album Rafi's Revenge. At that time of their emergence, the Indo-British collective occupied completely unprecedented musical territory with their idiosyncratic blend of punk, rapcore, dub reggae, drum 'n' bass and Indian raggas and their angry-yet-nuanced lyrics that touched on everything from anti-Asian racism in the modern-day UK to Britain's colonial heritage in India and the social problems that continue to plague the Subcontinent today. Many pegged the band for eventual stardom along the lines of the Beastie Boys and Rage Against The Machine.
From left: Martin Savale, Aktarv8r, Cyber, Chandrasonic, Al Rumjen, Sun-J
Somehow this never quite happened. After two critically acclaimed albums, ADF's iconic teenaged frontman, the elfin Bengali rapper Deeder Saidullah Zaman, left the band, leaving a hole that ADF has continually struggled to fill. The first post-Deeder album Enemy of the Enemy (the band's big anti-Bush statement in 2003) took the approach of a 'collective', featuring various people in the MC role. The disappointing 2005 album Tank introduced MC Spex into the leading role - an arrangement that didn't last long - while uneven but occasionally brilliant 2008 album Punkara introduced a twin MC format featuring rapper Aktar 'Aktarv8r' Ahmed and the punk-oriented vocals of former King Prawn frontman Al Rumjen, as well as memorable cameos by punk legends Iggy Pop and Eugene Hütz.

With all the personnel changes that the group has undergone in its 15-plus years of existence, Asian Dub Foundation has come to resemble a prog rock group along the lines of King Crimson or Genesis. Of the original six members, only three remain: guitarist Steve Chandra 'Chandrasonic' Savale and DJs Sanjay Gulabbhai 'Sun-J' Tailor and John 'Pandit G' Pandit. Enemy of the Enemy saw the introduction of percussionist Prithpal 'Cyber' Rajput whose dhol and tabla mastery gave the band far greater rhythmic depth, while Chandrasonic's brother Martin Savale eventually replaced Dr. Das on bass. As always, the new album features a lineup of guest artists, which this time around include female vocalists Shahla Kartouti and Kerieva, hip hop-influenced flutist Nathan 'Flutebox' Lee, string duo Chi-2 and a group of Cyber's own percussion students under the banner 'Ministry of Dhol'.

One reason why A History of Now received very little press was that the album was not paired with a tour - at least not in the western world. However, the new album was marked by a significant event in the band's history, namely its first ever tour of the band's motherland, a four-leg tour that began with an appearance at the Bacardi NH7 Weekender music festival in Pune in December 2010, will follow-up performances in Mumbai, Chennai and Delhi. ADF's first ever India may have set the tone for the new album, which provides some of the freshest, most energetic and most focused music we've heard from them in a decade.

The album's epic opener 'A New London Eye' establishes a fierce intensity that refuses to let up until the album's gentle eighth track 'Power of 10'. 'Urgency Frequency' is classic drum 'n' bass-heavy ADF that hearkens back to Rafi's Revenge, while 'London to Shanghai' is a charming 21st century travelogue underpinned by sampled Bollywood orchestra and Cyber's peppery tabla. The album's title track (a smart little song about digital media overload) features Aktarv8r at his verbal finest, while the subsequent 'Spirit in the Machine' (possibly the best track on the album) is a thundering instrumental jam featuring Cyber's Ministry of Dhol drummers and some steroid-fuelled riffs by Chandrasonic.
Cyber, Sun-J and Chandrasonic at the Hard Rock Cafe in Mumbai
Other highlights on the album include the haunting, funereal 'In Another Life' (a number that evokes nighttime riverside funeral pyres in Varanasi) as well as the furious nu-metal-esque 'Futureproof', in which the band sounds like an Indian version of Pitchshifter. As is now ADF tradition, the album steers off for a track into decidedly un-Indian musical territory, this time into Tierra Latinoamericana with the Indigenous Resistance-themed 'This Land Is Not For Sale', featuring angry Spanish-language vocals from British-Roma vocalist Kerieva. And the album finishes with a decidedly un-ADF sounding piece of shoegazer dreampop reminiscent of Galaxie 500 or Cocteau Twins ('Hey Lalita'), possibly the closest this band has ever come to a bona fide love song.

It's not a perfect album. 'Where's All The Money Gone?' (Track 6) is probably the weakest number on the album, a retreat to the sort of tired leftist 'Occupy' platitudes that made Tank a less compelling album. 'Temple Siren' is a sludgy, slightly irritating statement on organized religion (or something like that) that doesn't quite hit the mark. But other than this, there is very little to fault the band on here. Among the few who have reviewed the album, some derided it for lacking the sort of undistilled anger that characterized their earlier albums. While this is unquestionably true, it's equally true that this is an older, more self-reflective band than the rage-fuelled sextet of Rafi's Revenge and Community Music. The big themes are still there but the lyrics are more philosophical and measured. And I'm inclined to think that they don't owe us anger all the time.

Even at their youngest and most petulant, Asian Dub Foundation always did an admirable job being even-handed in their political criticism. When criticized in some quarters for what was seen as focusing on anti-Asian racism and western imperialism while neglecting social problems within their own community, the band responded with '1000 Mirrors' on Enemy of the Enemy (memorably featuring Sinéad O'Connor as guest vocalist), a scathing indictment of misogyny and domestic violence in the Indo-Pak community. A History of Now carries on this tradition with 'In Another Life', an obvious commentary on poverty and caste in India. At the same time, their tireless solidarity with oppressed peoples around the world continues on with 'This Land Is Not For Sale', a track that will surely score them a continued following in Latin America.

There's more I'd like to see ADF do. While the band has notably stayed away from the Israel-Palestine conflict (and refreshingly refrained from any discernible Israel-bashing), it would be nice to hear ADF take a stance against Islamist extremists in the wake of cartoon and video controversies and continued religious violence in the Middle East. Coming from a band with a strong following on the ideological left and at least a couple of members of Muslim background, such a statement would pack quite a punch. I would also love to see these boys confront the enduring homophobia and LGBT discrimination within South Asia and the diaspora, particularly given recent moves by LGBT groups in India to push back the tide of homophobia. Guys, if you're reading this, those are my thoughts.

Requests aside, A History of Now is Asian Dub Foundation's strongest album in a very long time, both musically and lyrically. It's certainly their best material since Community Music - and certainly a more evenly excellent album than Enemy of the Enemy or Punkara. It's an album that points to a very bright future for these now-firmly middle aged Desi electro-Bhangra-punkers as they bang and riff their way into what looks to be a tumultuous decade both at home and around the world. This band's rediscovery of its old moxie is not a moment too soon. A revitalized Asian Dub Foundation might be exactly what this angry and confused world needs right now. ADF Zindabad!