Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Mainstream Misogyny is a Death Sentence : What cultural anxiety and Alek Minassian have in common

A few days ago the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences published a national study on  the 2016 presidential election. In it, the authors sought to understand the reasons behind the decisions of a prominent group of mostly white Christian male voters that had voted Democratic in 2012, but then switched to Republican in 2016. The mainstream media narrative has largely been that this group was motivated by economic anxiety, anger at the past, and felt that Hillary Clinton did not address their economic woes and needs. The study debunks that narrative. Using several national survey data sets, the authors showed the following:

"[The study found that] losing a job or income between 2012 and 2016 did not make a person any more likely to support Mr. Trump... neither did the mere perception that one's financial situation had worsened. A person's opinion on how trade affected personal finances had little bearing on political preferences. Neither did unemployment or the density of manufacturing jobs in one's area.... [further data study] showed that anxieties about retirement, education and medical bills also had little impact on whether a person supported Mr. Trump."

"White, Christian and male voters, the study suggests, turned to Mr. Trump because they felt their status was at risk. It's not a threat to their own economic well-being; it's a threat to their group's dominance in our country over all." This is the second national study of its kind, the first found the top reasons for support for Mr. Trump were adherence to the Republican party, fear of cultural displacement and supporting deportation of immigrants living in the country illegally. 


And a few days later, Alek Minassian drove a van onto a sidewalk in Toronto, killing 10 people and injuring around 14 more - the Toronto Police has confirmed that those killed and injured were predominantly women. Minutes before the deadly attack, Mr. Minassian posted on Facebook about his hatred of women and praised Elliot Rodger, who, in 2014, declared he wanted to 'punish women for rejecting him' and did so by going on a murderous rampage, killing 3 women and 3 men and wounding 13 more. Mr. Minassian seemingly identifies as an involuntary celibate, or 'incel' - groups of young men who rail against feminism and promote hate towards women (especially the ones who refuse them sexually) and see themselves as victims of a society moving toward equality. Since the attack in Toronto, online communities of young men have praised Mr. Minassian, calling him a hero, a saint, and celebrated with beers every woman he murdered. 

If only women had paid him attention, dated him, had sex with him, given him what he was owed, none of this might have happened. 

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Representation Matters - And there's Data to Prove it.

It must have been groundbreaking when little girls in Saudi Arabia saw themselves represented for the first time in the realm of international sports competition at the 2016 Olympic Games. Imagine seeing someone that looks just like you at the highest echelon of sport, with crowds cheering for you, and your lookalike is smiling wildly, bearing all your country's colours. Imagine all that excitement in the growing mind and heart of an 11-year old Saudi girl, watching this unfold for the very first time.

A few years later, this happened. 

2018
For a long time, representation was a squishy notion, lauded by social-justice advocates and decried by economists in favour of 'hard data'. Scores of new studies are demonstrating its importance and how effective a tool it can be in combatting sexism and racism and empowering young people to push past traditional and stereotypical boxes and into new roles. Although representation is slowly getting the recognition it deserves, it remains only barely included in broad social policy outside of gender quotas on boards or within political representation and in some areas of the military, depending on the country. 

Representation is the simple idea that when little boys and girls see themselves at different levels of society, in different roles and with different skillsets, it raises their awareness that they too can become President, a scientist, a lawyer, a software developer. This is especially true of youth, women and people from minority groups, who have historically been disadvantaged and blocked from entering into more prestigious fields.

The idea that we are influenced by what we see, even at a superfluous level, is no longer a mystery: we see around 4 000 ads per day, and these distort how we think of ourselves, affect our beauty standards, our sexual preferences, and shape our views on race, ethnicity and sex. Socially, we remain deeply influenced by signs and symbols, where our flags, national anthems, style of dress, our cars, our addresses and our credit cards are symbols of class and denote and promote adherence to different social groups with changing levels of power and prestige. Facebook and Instagram are perfecting the algorithms that have us acting against our best interests, all because of what we see and how this activates the varying impulses in our brains - something the sugar industry has been doing for decades.

That representation matters and can motivate behaviour, therefore, should not be a shock. A recent 2018 groundbreaking study by researchers at Stanford, Harvard and the US Census Bureau on class, race and mobility in the United States has shown that despite the finding that "black boys raised in America, even in the wealthiest families and living in some of the most well-to-do neighbourhoods, still earn less in adulthood than white boys with similar backgrounds," the few neighbourhoods (tragically, only about 1%) where lower-income black boys did do well, also held a high presence of black fathers in the community. This buoys parts of a 2015 study from Harvard that found that the 1990's Clinton initiative "Moving to Opportunity for Fair Housing", which gave low-income families living in public housing vouchers to move to middle-income neighborhoods, resulted in children from those families growing up to earn higher incomes and attend college at higher rates than their peers in public housing. Twenty years later, it mattered that low-income children were given the opportunity to see that life could be better, their aims could be higher - and the younger these children were moved, the higher they achieved. 

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Little Girls Don't Stay Little Forever: The Complicity of USA Gymnastics and Michigan State University in the Sexual Abuse of More Than 160 Girls


Over 150 women gymnasts and athletes say that Larry Nassar sexually assaulted them over a 20 year period. That is to say, they are women now. The sexual assaults took place when these women were girls, some as young as 6. The staggering scale of the sexual abuse in both numbers and time  should nauseate you. The sentencing hearing of Nassar is currently ongoing, one where young women have come forward to speak their truths, their experiences, and show their determination in the face of a system that collectively sought to disempower and silence them. They have found an advocate in Judge Aquilina who has opened the court to all the young women, should they so choose.  Olympic medalists Simone Biles, Aly Raisman, Jordyn Wieber and Gabby Douglas are among those who have accused Nassar of sexual abuse. 

"It's your turn to listen to me," said Aly Raisman,"I am here to face you, Larry, so you can see I've regained my strength, that I am no longer a victim, I am a survivor. I am no longer that little girl you met in Australia where you first began grooming and manipulating."

It is through their testimony that we are uncovering the complex web of complicity in which medals, sponsorships dollars and name recognition hold higher value than the young girls who collect them. It is becoming brutally clear that there has been an array of actors, from universities to coaches, training camps to Olympic associations who chose the bottom dollar and the preservation of a system inherently abusive and exploitative of female bodies and labour, and that this is the truly shocking, yet undeniably normalized, truth of our time. 

It is not simply USA Gymnastics or Michigan State University that are grossly negligent and complicit players, but all systems of power that seek to protect themselves while ignoring the lowest common denominator, often women, and often the most vulnerable among them: the young, the disabled, minorities, the poor. 

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

How to Deal with Aziz Ansari and all His Friends

This is not really about Aziz Ansari - its about him and all his friends, even the nice ones. You can read the original account here. Then, lets talk about a few key questions that arise out of that account of a date night and:

1. Why many men (and some women) think this is a normal date;
2. Why 'no means no' is of no help in these situations (and by extension, why we seem to disregard non-verbal cues when it comes to sex, but we see and notice and give them importance in every other part of our lives);
3. What can we do better so that these accounts are fewer and fewer. 


Aziz Ansari didn't rape anyone. But this one statement misses the bigger picture. We are a generation of women who no longer want to be faced with this  kind of situation. And we want men never to want that kind of sex. The kind of sex that is taken by a man. The kind of sex that allows for Ms. Deneuve's 'persistent bothering.' The kind of sex that women don't want, but after enough unrelenting and coercive behaviour, we 'consent' to, just to get it all done and over with. Maybe that's not rape, but is that the goal of sex? Is that the environment we want to say is acceptable for ourselves and our future generations?

1. Imagine a world where sex is not something women hold and men take. That's the world I try to live in, but do you? Do any women? A world where sex is a not violent pursuit with notches on a belt to be had, sex to be 'given up', and men to be taking it where they can get it. And yet, here we are. What men find normal about the Ansari situation is that men are taught to pursue sex unrelentingly, persuaded that women should be reluctant, or at least not overly willing to engage in sexual activity, and that its going to take some time, effort and insistence to get her into bed. Given this 'understanding', men play the role of the taker, the aggressor, the closer. Women play the role of the gatekeeper, with innumerable analogies to closed/open legs as measures of her willingness. We see this played out for us all across the media spectrum: from romantic movies to thrillers, porn (oh, and especially porn) to daily show banter. When Donald Trump says you can grab women by the pussy, he's simply making it known that this is what men do: men grab women whether they like it or not. 

Friday, January 12, 2018

A Takedown of Catherine Deneuve's Assault on #MeToo in Four Parts

It's not every day that I feel moved to respond to the last cries of a dying generation of women who belong ardently to first and second waves of feminism, but then Catherine Deneuve had to go and raise a cry from the dead, so here we are. 


The backlash against the global #MeToo movement was imminent. Every single woman who participated, recognized it, understood it, or know even the tiniest thing about feminism knew it was coming. Every single time there has been a movement for a cultural shift toward equality, the backlash can be written into the footnotes. That this backlash is spearheaded in part by women is testament to the ferocity and treacherous nature of the patriarchy, and of some women as its blind defenders.

Catherine Deneuve and her friends say a whole slew of ridiculous statements in their open letter, including that women who speak out against sexual harassment, abuse, assault and rape in the work place are puritanical and that we shouldn't admonish men for a few stolen glances, stolen kisses and persistent touching/flirtation/etc. Once I managed to un-roll my eyes and swallow the disgust, this is what I thought.

1. Ms. Deneuve and her fellow french women are part of an elite group of mainly white, upper class women who have a vested interest in preserving the status quo. They benefit tremendously from embodying the trope of a sexually free woman who holds and wields power in the work place while simultaneously being the sexual object of the men she works with (that is an actual quote, if you can believe it). This is how Ms. Deneuve and her friends may have acceded to their powerful positions, and this is the 'normal behaviour' of the powerful men with whom they interact. In their view, the #MeToo women should just accept this 'fraternization' as the normalized consequence of being a woman. Men will be men, after all, and any disruption of this state, or pushback against this behaviour will jeopardize their positions, the circles and benefits Ms. Deneuve and her friends have accessed. Ms. Deneuve has no wish for equality for all women, just the women who can play the game of patriarchy properly. What Ms. Deneuve fails to understand is that there is a new generation of women who no longer want any of this crap, and who do not want to go through it in order to access power, or access resources, or to simply do their jobs. And these women will never tell other women to suffer in silence, will never accuse women who speak up of being 'perpetual victims' (again, repurposing feminist terminology for upholding the status quo is such a brilliant move if it weren't so transparent), and will recognize the strength it takes to speak truth to power when the repercussions are so dire. 

Friday, April 7, 2017

Trump Signs, Women Die, and Nations Struggles. How the Mexico City Protocol Perpetrates Global Class Warfare

In spite of 3.2 million protestors (1% of the total US population) taking to the streets on January 21st in support of women's rights, and on the 44th anniversary of the US Supreme Court ruling on abortion in Roe v Wade, President Trump reinstated a particularly restrictive version of the Mexico City Protocol. Otherwise known as the global gag rule, the Regan-era policy ends funding toward organizations in developing nations offering abortion counselling or advocating for abortion rights within the country.

International condemnation that followed noted that restricting funding for family planning that counsels on abortion does nothing to eradicate abortion. Instead, it has the opposite effect: it ensures women will access unsafe abortion and, as is often the case with these types of policies, the entirety of family planning services will be affected. Importantly, The Helms Amendment already prevents American taxpayer dollars from funding abortion procedures outright. The Mexican City Protocol compounds this by additionally preventing family planning services from using their own money to advocate, counsel or speak about abortion. If American dollars were funding any other family-planning health services in that organization, those funds immediately dry up.


Mr. Trump has gone beyond this. He has increased the amount and types of funding that would be cut. No longer will this gag rule only apply to family-planning funding, but also to funding on HIV/AIDs testing and treatment, maternal health care, the prevention of malaria, zika, and more. In total, the Trump-expanded gag rule will affect $9.5 billion dollars in global health funding, compared to $575 million dollars in family planning funding under past Republican Presidents. The gag order will not only affect giant international women's health services such as Marie Stopes* and International Planned Parenthood*, but also UN agencies such as the UNFPA* which saw its global funding terminated on April 4th. *clicking the links will lead you to their donation page. 

The less women are able to access family planning services, the more unintended pregnancies will occur, and more women will choose unsafe abortions. Every time the global gag rule is enacted, more women in developing nations die or become disabled from unsafe abortions. It's not just abortions: women in developing nations have many more pregnancies over the course of their lives and each one increases their risk of disability or death as a result of complications from birth. On a global scale, the Mexico City Protocol and the Helms Amendment condemn the poorest nations to cycles of poverty, cutting funds from family planning delivered by NGOs or aid agencies, who are often the only providers of reproductive planning services, especially for the most disenfranchised in rural areas. It takes away contraception and abortion from those who need it the most, in countries that are facing the multiplying effects of overpopulation: no jobs, weak public services, no housing, water and food shortages, lack of education, violence, refugee crisis, severe effects of climate change... putting mile high obstacles to viable futures.

As one doctor puts it: "Abortion is a class battle." But when it affects women on and nations worldwide, it becomes global class warfare.

Friday, March 24, 2017

Women, Water and Pakistan: A Climate Change

After a short while in Pakistan, a few things are clear: in bustling Lahore, don't look out the front window and trust your driver, Islamabad is beautiful, calm and a delight, save for the traffic (again), and the brinksmanship between India and Pakistan is alive and well, although nowhere near the horrors of a few years ago. 

Those shows of force and the talks that ensue are increasingly about a resource that has both inundated and ignored Pakistan since before its inception. Indeed, water has either decimated lands and cities or fuelled their existence, dating back nearly 4000 years. The 2010 floods, the result of heavy monsoon rains, killed over 2000 people and affected the lives of 20 million more through their chaos and destruction. The combined waters from the rains and the Indus basin covered more than one fifth of Pakistan's total land, and it was estimated that the economic cost of the destruction was around US $43 billion. Unfortunately, little has been done since to shore up the collection of water through dams, or the reinforcement of a fragile water delivery system.


If the 2010 (and smaller 2011) floods are an indicator for times to come, Pakistan is undoubtedly a country suffering the most severe effects of climate change.  It depends almost entirely on the Indus river for water - a river seeing its source dry up from the rapidly melting Tibetan glaciers - and so the country has both a water shortage problem and a barely existing infrastructure to contain or exploit the power of severe floods. Earthquakes also form part of daily life: Pakistan sits over both the Indian and Eurasion tectonic plates, and as such lives with a regular stream of tremors (the country has had 10 earthquakes in the past 30 days). Certain ones, however, cause already stressed infrastructure to collapse entirely, as in 2005 where 80 000 people died and over a million lost their homes after a magnitude 7.6 hit the northern region of Kashmir. 

And so it is: with a population nearing a staggering two hundred million (the current census, last taken in 1998, will surely add to this estimate), only 39% arable land, much of it overused and damaged, and with a heavy reliance on the Indus river for irrigation and a diminishing water supply, Pakistan is taxed by the effects of climate change and hampered by a stagnant political state that has so far failed to fix its systems of harnessing, processing and delivering water.

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Trump's Muslim Ban: What is the Global Refugee Crisis?

Amidst the chaos surrounding the recent executive order on a 90-day ban on refugees from seven Muslim-majority countries and an indefinite ban on those fleeing the Syrian conflict, a factual understanding of the global refugee crisis has been lost. Courts have begun placing stays on the ban, including a nation-wide temporary restraining order that has had the justice department scrambling for alternatives. Nevertheless, while many media stories have reported on the unjustified choice of countries, on the disorganized implementation process, on the tens of thousands of visa-holders affected, and on the unconstitutionality of the proposed ban, somewhere the stark face of a crisis affecting most of the world has been forgotten.

Let the controversy not overshadow this simple fact: the world is facing a refugee crisis unparalleled since the end of World War II. More than 65 million refugees (or 1 in every 113 people) are displaced around the world. While the trend has been growing since the Cold War, it has accelerated sharply in the past two decades, as new internal conflicts explode and past ones, such as the war in Somalia and Afghanistan, enter into third and fourth decades. Alongside Syria (in its sixth year of conflict), these countries produce the largest number of refugees fleeing persecution, the brutality of war or decimated cities with little to no remaining infrastructure, where tribal warfare and insecurity reign unbridled.

Refugees, defined as those who flee their homes because of persecution, war or violence, constitute about 21 million of the 65.3 million people displaced. The 40 million remaining are internally displaced persons, or IDPs, persons who remain in their country but have fled their homes for another location due to violence or persecution. Importantly, migrants are a completely different group, leaving for reasons such as financial hardship, and are mostly considered as 'able' to return - and therefore not as vulnerable. Because peace building efforts and conflict resolution processes have either stalled or failed increasingly since the Cold War, refugees have little to no chance of ever returning to their homes.

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Donald Trump: Isolationism and the Long View

The current President of the United States may differ from his predecessor in many ways, but the most significant, and perhaps the one with the most repercussions, is the short-sighted nature of his decision-making. While President Obama was known and sometimes admonished for embracing Nobel Prize winner psychologist Daniel Kahneman's 'slow thinking' approach, the current President is reactive and impulsive, quick to throw punches with little regard for lasting consequences. While this has existed throughout Mr. Trump's electoral campaign, it is the groundwork he has begun to lay with not yet a fifth day in office. Strongly criticizing President Obama for having signed executive orders during his time in the Oval Office, Mr. Trump has begun his own term doing much the same and at a near hyperbolic rate.

An executive order to advance the Keystone and Dakota pipelines promises a quick fix for more American jobs, but these jobs are short-term, finished in the two to three years it will take to build the pipelines, with little to no personnel needed for oversight. Instead there emerge grave and lasting repercussions to the environment and to tribal lands, according to the US Army Corps of Engineers, the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and Greenpeace, among others. As of yet, no federal agency has conducted an environmental impact assessment of the entire pipeline, and with Mr. Trump declaring that "environmentalism is out of control," expecting an impartial and comprehensive review seems a stretch.

On the anniversary of the landmark abortion ruling Roe v Wade, Mr. Trump re-instated the Mexico City protocol: a global gag rule on abortion, preventing any organization worldwide receiving American funds to perform or mention abortion as a family planning method for women. While every Republican president since 1984 has enforced this protocol and every Democratic president has had it reinstated, we now live in an era where America stands alone in the developed Western world in restricting funding for abortion and repealing women's reproductive rights. A quick pleaser to the Republican right, preventing abortion has the opposite effect than intended: it ensures women will continue to access unsafe abortions, currently at 21.6 million globally per year. Women who do not have the means for more children will be further impoverished and unable to access their economic rights. Women will be prevented from choosing how to live their lives, empower their livelihoods and will be at the mercy of their partners, especially in countries where women also have little to no access to birth control or sexual health education. Women will die because of this rule. In an era where women's rights have been directly linked to economic and social development, where women's reproductive rights are understood as fundamental human rights by the UN, both short and longterm effects are abysmal.

In his inauguration speech, Mr. Trump articulated the fraught statement that now will be an era of "America first, America first." Such an isolationist view began in the 1940's, when groups of traditionalist Americans engaged in language and activity to dissuade the United States from entering the Second World War. The statements were heavily anti-semitic, and it is with some shock that Mr. Trump continues to use the same language today (although it may be that he has neither the knowledge or concern for this history). International co-operation has been fuelled by the end of the Second World War, when America assumed the role of international peacekeeper. Although Mr. Trump has chosen to portray the current state of his country in dark and pessimistic terms, the years since 1949 can widely be seen as an era of great American growth. An 'America first' trade plan ignores America's own history, when closed borders in the early 1900's caused an American 'glut', as mass production in farming and industry led to an overflow of goods that Americans could not consume. While there is much to be said, possibly in a future piece, about keeping enough jobs in-country to put a society to work (especially given Mr. Trump's incessant attacks on China), international trade also breeds co-operation and trust, hallmarks of a peaceful global arena. Isolationism, although attractively packaged with patriotic slogans, leads to fear and uncertainty in an international arena that is increasingly struggling with the negative effects of globalization and capitalism. Historically, the more fear and uncertainty, the more conflict.

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Women as Liars: Perpetuating the Myth of Female Deception

As Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton recently wrapped up another 11 hours at the House Select Committee for Benghazi, it has become difficult not to be skeptical of the underlying motives of Senate Republicans in their quest for what they have openly been calling their gotcha moment. After three years of unremitting questioning, what message are they really putting forth?

That message, developed since the 2012 attack in Libya, seems to be that former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is lying, and inevitably the truth will out. Given enough time and enough harassment, another woman will be shown to be the untrustworthy liar that she is. Untrustworthy in her rank as one of the most powerful political figures in the world, untrustworthy in her ability to oversee difficult situations, untrustworthy in her ability to speak the truth to the American people, and untrustworthy in her ability to govern, given her candidacy in the upcoming election. The message, although cloaked in political subterfuge, is one that is all too familiar to women: women are liars that cannot be trusted.

While not all are subject to the same magnifying lens as Mrs. Clinton, we are aware of some pervasive beliefs about women as liars. Most prominently, perhaps, is the rape myth: that a large portion of women lie about sexual violence committed against them.