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“Why I Left the KKK”: One Man’s Revelation

In The Republic, Socrates asked whether we should be good and just, and why.

A listener suggested that if we are trusted we’ll do better in our business and personal relationships.

But what if no one knows you are a good person?

“The gods will know, and reward us,” observed another.

But what if the gods don’t know that you’re good? Socrates pressed.

Later, I read Emerson on the same topic. His Minister had lectured that while the wicked are often successful, and while the righteous can be miserable, at least compensation would be made in the next life.

Emerson felt that the fallacy lay in conceding that the base estimate of the market constitutes success, and assuming that justice is not done now.

What really makes us happy? Doing ill to others? Stepping on others so we can get ahead?

What Emerson and Socrates were getting at was made more real to me when I heard a man talk about why he had left the KKK.

He and his wife had become so filled with hatred in that organization that misery had overtaken their lives. They left because acting hatefully, hurting others, had ended up mostly hurting themselves.

As it turns out, when we work to harm others we harm ourselves.

Ways of Seeing: Ravaged or Ravishing?

By Robert Rees

We are bombarded with thousands if not tens of thousands of images every day. Occasionally, two images come into such sharp contrast that they can’t be ignored. Such was the case when I opened the New York Times on Sunday, May 2. On page ten of that issue is a color photo of a 23 year old Congolese woman. The caption says her lips and right ear have been cut off by rebels of the Lord’s Resistance Army. Her shorn head, the blackness of her face, the swollen pink oval around her mouth where her lips had once been (like the exaggerated lips of “Sambo” or minstrel characters once popular in American culture), and the sideway glance of her eyes as someone (perhaps her mother) touches her remaining ear with what seems tenderness. It is an image so heartbreaking as to make one weep.

In Ways of Seeing John Berger says, “The meaning of an image is changed according to what one sees immediately beside it or what comes immediately after it. Such authority as it retains is distributed over the whole context in which it appears.” Thus . . .

Immediately across the page from this photo is a full page Lord & Taylor ad of a beautiful white woman with long flowing dark hair, green eyes, perfect lips and two ears from which dangle long bejeweled earrings. She is arrayed in such opulence—necklace, pendant, bracelets, a giant opaline or turquoise ring, that the contrast with the Congolese woman is shocking. The juxtaposition of the two images is heightened by the fact that the Congolese woman wears a simple hand-crafted red and black blouse whereas the model wears what looks like an expensive hand-knitted ivory-colored chemise over a pink lace skirt. She holds in each hand a knitted handbag (“only $89”), each covered with roses and each holding a small dog, so laden that she seems barely able to hold them up. This cornucopia of luxury, this picture of desire would never be found in the Congo, Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. The ad’s caption—“We all have our creature comforts. . . Some of us more than others”—is so ironic as to be almost beyond irony. The motto compounds the irony: “Shop more. Guilt less.”

Again, John Berger, “A woman’s presence expresses her own attitude to herself, and defines what can and cannot be done to her. Her presence is manifest in her gestures, voice, opinions, clothes, chosen surroundings, taste—indeed there is nothing she can do which does not contribute to her presence. . . . To be born a woman has been to be born, within an allotted and confined space, into the keeping of men.”

The Congolese woman, like the Greek Princess Philomela whose husband Terus cut out her tongue so she could not reveal that he had raped her, has likewise likely been raped and brutally silenced. The severing of her left ear compounds the violation. She will be so disfigured that probably no man will ever touch her again and no compassionate god will turn her into a nightingale.

The woman in the Lord and Taylor ad will be ravaged by the eyes of a million men who will yet never touch her skin except in their imaginations. And yet in her wildest imagination this white goddess could never see herself in the place of the black tongueless Congolese woman, nor the Congolese woman ever imagine herself in such a space as the woman in the ad inhabits.

Both of these images are part of the world we live in, although we tend to keep them in separate compartments of our consciousness. The one is horribly real, the other an unreal arrangement by Madison Avenue designers. On another day when they are not juxtaposed, we might consider each separately, but when they are thrust before us in such stark relief, we can turn from neither–only ponder what they tell us about how some of us have more creature comforts than others and how we can remain “guilt less”—and that we are somehow complicit in both.

Robert A. Rees teaches at Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley.

This piece was first posted Sept. 17, 2010

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Black Isn’t Beautiful Claims Evolutionary Psychologist

 Somalian-born supermodel, Iman

Evolutionary psychologist, Satoshi Kanazawa, claims Black women are less attractive than others. It’s apparently such good science that Psychology Today posted his piece on their website. Maybe not. They quickly took it down and recently apologized.

 Hmmmm. Thinking about Black women, there’s
Somalian-born supermodel, Iman or Sudan-born supermodel, Alek Wek. And then
there’s Halle Berry, Naomi Campbell, Tyra Banks, Thandie Newton, Beyonce, Janet
Jackson, Lisa Bonet, Jada Pinket Smith… Beautiful Melia Obama fits right in
with these folks.

lupita

Lupita Nyong’o

A few years back FX had a reality show called  “Black. White.” in which a White family’s coloring and features were  changed to Black, while a Black family’s coloring and features were changed to  White. I thought the White girl looked great Black.

Black. White.

Really, we need to take evolutionary psychology with a grain of salt. Some research from this field may have some basis. But much carries cultural bias. Indeed, as Tami Winfrey Harris over  at Ms. points out, others have demonstrated Kanazawa’s bad methodology and his taste for fashioning racism, sexism and conservatism as science. As much of evolutionary psychology is prone to do, I might add.

 Supermodel, Alek Wek

That said, as Harris eloquently observers:

All women bear the burden of the European beauty standard and the fact that, as women, our value as human beings is too often defined by how closely we fit the
standard—how close we are to being white, blond, blue-eyed, thin, with long, straight hair, and a keen nose and lips. Narrow standards of beauty are oppressive to all but a few, but it is Black women as a whole who are held up as the opposite of the ideal
.

  Ethiopian woman

On Harris’ point, people do tend to prefer the features and fashions of powerful groups, but the bias is about power, not innate beauty. Just a couple examples:

When prosperous and influential Chinese families bound the feet of their daughters to signal wealth (what woman could work with bound, dysfunctional feet?) small feet came to be seen as beautiful. Unfortunately, poor Chinese soon imitated the fashion in pursuit of this excruciating “beauty.”

Or, when tanned skin indicated outdoor, poorly-paid, physical labor, Americans avoided the sun. But when Coco Chanel came back deeply tanned after vacationing in St. Tropez, her sun-kissed skin – now linked to wealth and privilege – appeared beautiful.

 Sudanese woman

Blacks do have less power than other ethnic groups due to intense prejudice which was created to support their enslavement and the discrimination that followed. (It’s easier to feel okay about enslaving someone if they’re not quite seen as people.) Due to a history of educational and occupational discrimination, it has been more difficult for the Black community to gain and pass on wealth.

And yet, looking at all the women on this page all I can say is black is truly beautiful.

Lupita Nyong’o on Black as Beautiful here.

 

More beautiful black women here:

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Why Do The “Isms” That Affect Men Seem More Important?

“You’re never going to have this revolution happen unless there’s also a sexual revolution.”

That’s Bill Maher’s verdict on the push for Democracy in Egypt as he discussed the matter on his show, Real Time with Bill Maher.

Pro-feminist, Tavis Smiley, agreed that women need to be treated better. Yet he inserted a different spin: “When we have these conversations about how they treat women, as if we treat women better in our country, it demonizes Muslim men.”

The most well-meaning among us, men like Smiley, work hard to respect other cultures. Yet sometimes we need to discern whether powerful elements of a society are harming less powerful targets. And really, is pointing out a need for improvement “demonization”?

Mr. Smiley is a-okay in my book, and I appreciate his aim here. Yet there is plenty of room for change in cultures that (depending upon the country or province) stone women for being victims of rape, beat women for leaving home without a male relative, keep girls out of school, forbid women from driving, make divorce difficult for women but easy for men, remove battered women from shelters, and cut women’s genitals – leaving them in pain, crippled, or dead.

It’s a sad turn of events when early Islam did so much to improve women’s rights in the world. The Koran gave women the right to work, inherit and own property. Female infanticide and slavery were abolished. Women were given the right to consent to marry. Protections against abuse became instituted.

Today Islamic scholars like Dr. Jamal Badawi work to support women’s rights. Meanwhile, large majorities favor legal, political and professional freedoms for women in North Africa and many countries in the Middle East and the broader Muslim world, according to a 2007 Gallup poll. In fact, the Islamic culture of West Sumatra, Indonesia is one of the most peace-loving, egalitarian places on the planet.

Islam isn’t the problem. Neither are Muslim men.

Still, problems abound. Yet Smiley seems more concerned with ethnocentrism than sexism, given his desire to cut off conversation. Why do the “isms” that affect men seem more important? And did women have equal power to create the cultures that oppress them?

When ethnocentrism and sexism are at odds, which worries should prevail? Cultural relativism – don’t judge one culture from the perspective of another – is a good guide most of the time. But what if someone is being harmed? When people are killed for reasons other than self-defense, when they are crippled physically, emotionally, intellectually or spiritually, those circumstances must trump all others.

Must we worry more about offending those who create cultures that harm women than freeing women who are harmed by them?

Meanwhile, Islamic feminists complain that Western women can be too fearful of offending ethnic sensitivities to back their feminist sisters.

Now, is lecture the best way to handle this? Dialogue is better. Other cultures have perspectives that can benefit us, too. Perhaps we can learn from each other.

Love Tavis. But he insists we cannot criticize until we perfect ourselves. We’ll never be perfect. Still, we must fight oppression wherever it is found, here and there, to whatever degree we find it. Tolerating intolerance is not progressive.

Georgia Platts

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DO Women Like Sex Less Than Men?

Responses to my post asking why women like sex less than men included:

  • Says who?
  • I think it’s the opposite – I think women like it more
  • I don’t think anyone can know who likes sex better

Or as one man put it, “The overwhelming majority of men and women get their attitudes and desires for sex primarily through the natural, healthy desire to have sex… Women are equal to men and thus capable of every form of behavior that men engage in.”

To which I respond: no and yes.

Women are certainly capable of enjoying sex immensely. As much as men. Given their ability for multiple orgasm, possibly more. In some societies women are highly orgasmic and inclined to engage in sex with great frequency, as with Tahitians and American Indians before contact with Europeans.

But highly orgasmic women in America? Not so much – at least not by comparison. 30-40% suffer sexual dysfunction. That is very different from sex-positive cultures.

Of course women are capable of having great sex. But the extent to which they actually do depends on factors other than just what nature brings them. Repression plays a role, and so do sexual objectification and male dominance (all will be explored later).

Do women like sex less? Consider this research on sexuality in America:

On the orgasm front three-quarters of men say they “always” have an orgasm, but just 30% of women do. One quarter of women don’t usually have orgasms. In the casual sex of hook-ups the rate is lower, especially for women. Sociologist Michael Kimmel (Guyland) surveyed college students on their most recent hookup. Only 44% of the men reported having an orgasm, and only 19% of the women did.

The more orgasmic a person is, the more they report enjoying sex. Not surprisingly, women report liking sex less than men do. A Chicago University study found that men have more interest in sex at all ages. And an ABC News Primetime Live survey found that 83% of men “enjoy sex a great deal,” while only 59% of women do. That same study found that while 70% of men think about sex every day, only 34% of women do (and they do so less often during the day).  

Women also experience weaker sexual drive, compared with men, with more than one quarter of young women feeling weak desire according to the Archives of Internal Medicine. Research at the University of Chicago found that 32% of women (but only 15 -17% of men) have low libidos. Added to difficulties with orgasm, women experience more sexual dysfunction than men. 

Not surprisingly, 40% of men say they would like to have more sex than they do now, but only 28% of women feel the same way.

For more evidence of gender difference in sexual interest that arises in broad patterns of social behavior, see my post: Sex Research: It Doesn’t Fit Me, It Must Be Wrong

I wonder if men ever sit around confiding to friends that sex ain’t all it’s cracked up to be. I’ve listened to these kinds of conversations with many groups of women, yet it’s hard to imagine men doing the same thing.

The difference in the male and female experience is due mostly to cultural forces. The difference in the female experience between modern Americans and ancient Tahitians is entirely due to culture.

Yet many people think our society has no negative effects on women’s sexuality.

Maybe that’s why we don’t do anything to create change.

Georgia Platts

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The Burqa and Individual Rights: It’s Complicated

“Burqa bans” are arising throughout Europe, with France voting their approval this past Tuesday. But many are concerned that the prohibitions limit the individual rights of Muslims.

It’s complicated.

First, the garment itself limits individual rights – women’s. Second, to what extent is the burqa wearer exercising actual choice? Finally, is a ban the best way to go?

Let’s start with the question of women’s choice.

When a society’s way of seeing becomes our own – even when it harms us – the belief is “internalized.” My interest in this phenomenon was sparked by my upbringing. In the early years of the feminist movement women from my church were bused to various conventions to vote down things like equal pay for equal work. I spent afternoons listening to women in my church talk about keeping battered women’s shelters from opening. They were against women receiving priesthood authority, and they were for male leadership in the home.

I didn’t understand why they worked so hard to disempower themselves, their daughters, and other women. But people don’t tend to question the taken-for-granted notions of their culture. It’s simply what you do.  So choice disappears.

The same phenomenon arises in other settings. Saudi women say they don’t want to vote or drive. Many 19th Century American women didn’t want the vote, either. In North Africa women defend the genital mutilations that kill and cripple them.

Burqas limit women’s autonomy and power. Yet some women voluntarily don them, keeping with their culture.

Burqas – or niqabs (face coverings) – prevent wearers from gaining driver’s licenses when they are strictly worn, since identity can’t be confirmed via picture ID. When a city or village lacks public transportation it is hard to get around without a car. That makes it tough to get a job.

Even with transportation it’s not easy finding work in a facemask. The mask seems dehumanizing and eerie, as does the subjugation it represents.

But ethnocentrism is thought weightier than sexism. “Isms” that affect men seem more important than those that affect women – even when women are harmed, as when a female German judge denied a Muslim woman’s appeal for divorce, claiming that being beaten was part of her culture. 

Did women have equal power to create the cultures that harm them?

Some women do resist, but feel pressured, as one of my Muslim students told me when we discussed the matter of covering.

But bans may not be the best way to deal with burqas or niqabs. Bans can backfire since people cling more tightly to their groups when they feel persecuted. As restrictions go into effect more women might actually embrace the burqas that limit them.

A better way may lie in creating conversation so that different cultures can consider a variety of perspectives. I am sure that Westerners and Muslims can learn from each other and our different ways of seeing.

Georgia Platts

Also see: Early Islam’s Feminist Air    Did Women Create Burqa Culture?   Cultural Relativism: Must We Be Nazis to Criticize Them?     Why Are We More Offended By Racism Than Sexism?

Ways of Seeing: Ravaged or Ravishing?

By Robert Rees

We are bombarded with thousands if not tens of thousands of images every day. Occasionally, two images come into such sharp contrast that they can’t be ignored. Such was the case when I opened the New York Times on Sunday, May 2. On page ten  of that issue is a color photo of a 23 year old Congolese woman. The caption says her lips and right ear have been cut off by rebels of the Lord’s Resistance Army. Her shorn head, the blackness of her face, the swollen pink oval around her mouth where her lips had once been (like the exaggerated lips of “Sambo” or minstrel characters once popular in American culture), and the sideway glance of her eyes as someone (perhaps her mother) touches her remaining ear with what seems tenderness. It is an image so heartbreaking as to make one weep.

                                                                             

In Ways of Seeing John Berger says, “The meaning of an image is changed according to what one sees immediately beside it or what comes immediately after it. Such authority as it retains is distributed over the whole context in which it appears.” Thus . . .

Immediately across the page from this photo is a full page Lord & Taylor ad of a beautiful white woman with long flowing dark hair, green eyes, perfect lips and two ears from which dangle long bejeweled earrings. She is arrayed in such opulence—necklace, pendant, bracelets, a giant opaline or turquoise ring, that the contrast with the Congolese woman is shocking. The juxtaposition of the two images is heightened by the fact that the Congolese woman wears a simple hand-crafted red and black blouse whereas the model wears what looks like an expensive hand-knitted ivory-colored chemise over a pink lace skirt. She holds in each hand a knitted handbag (“only $89”), each covered with roses and each holding a small dog, so laden that she seems barely able to hold them up. This cornucopia of luxury, this picture of desire would never be found in the Congo, Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. The ad’s caption—“We all have our creature comforts. . . Some of us more than others”—is so ironic as to be almost beyond irony. The motto compounds the irony: “Shop more. Guilt less.” 

Again, John Berger, “A woman’s presence expresses her own attitude to herself, and defines what can and cannot be done to her. Her presence is manifest in her gestures, voice, opinions, clothes, chosen surroundings, taste—indeed there is nothing she can do which does not contribute to her presence. . . . To be born a woman has been to be born, within an allotted and confined space, into the keeping of men.” 

The Congolese woman, like the Greek Princess Philomela whose husband Terus cut out her tongue so she could not reveal that he had raped her, has likewise likely been raped and brutally silenced. The severing of her left ear compounds the violation. She will be so disfigured that probably no man will ever touch her again and no compassionate god will turn her into a nightingale. 

The woman in the Lord and Taylor ad will be ravaged by the eyes of a million men who will yet never touch her skin except in their imaginations. And yet in her wildest imagination this white goddess could never see herself in the place of the black tongueless Congolese woman, nor the Congolese woman ever imagine herself in such a space as the woman in the ad inhabits. 

Both of these images are part of the world we live in, although we tend to keep them in separate compartments of our consciousness. The one is horribly real, the other an unreal arrangement by Madison Avenue designers. On another day when they are not juxtaposed, we might consider each separately, but when they are thrust before us in such stark relief, we can turn from neither–only ponder what they tell us about how some of us have more creature comforts than others and how we can remain “guilt less”—and that we are somehow complicit in both.

 Robert A. Rees teaches at Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley.

Early Islam’s Feminist Air

The founders of three great religions, Buddha, Jesus, and Mohammed (in order of appearance) were remarkably feminist in their leanings. In the month of Ramadan I would like to explore the feminist air of early Islam.

For centuries Muslim women enjoyed greater rights than most women in the world. The Koran gives women the right to work and to own property. Mohammed abolished female infanticide, slavery, and a widow’s obligation to marry her husband’s brother. Indeed, women were given the right to give their consent to marry.

Some things that look sexist today were a great step forward at the time. Women could become heir to one third of what a male inherited. (Since men’s role was to support women they were given extra help.) Muslim women were able to inherit much sooner than their Western sisters.

Islamic men are also allowed to marry up to four wives, and each wife must be treated equally. Doesn’t sound too heavenly to our ears, but this was progress from a time when men could marry as many women as they wanted.

Even the most problematic scripture in the Koran was an improvement. Chapter 4 verse 34 reads, “As for those women whose rebellion you justly fear, admonish them first; then leave their beds; then beat them.” This scripture actually gave women some protection against abuse in that men were cautioned against battering as the first response.

Some Islamic feminists note that there are other definitions for the word “daraba,” than “to beat,” one of which is “to go away.” Something to think about.

With early feminist beginnings it is not surprising that one of the largest, most egalitarian and peaceful societies is West Sumatra, Indonesia.

Yet over time the religion has become increasingly patriarchal in most corners of the world.

In what is claimed “countering Westernization,” Islamic states have kept busy restricting women’s rights, sometimes going against the Koran, as when the Taliban took away women’s right to work, or when the right to consent to marriage is ignored.

As one Islamic feminist put it, “Islam needs to go back to its progressive 7th century roots if it is to move forward into the 21st century.”

Georgia Platts

Sources:

Asra Q. Nomani. “A Gender Jihad for Islam’s Future.” The Washington Post. November 6, 2005

Neil MacFarquhar. “Translation of Koran Verse Spurs Debate.” San Jose Mercury News. March 25, 2007. (Originally published in the New York Times.)

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