Monthly Archives: October 2014

Monica Lewinski: now, there’s a name I haven’t heard in a long time

Yes, that Monica Lewinski.

I was twenty-ish in 1995/96 and was just beginning my adventure with the big wooly tangle of wires that is called the Internet.  I never read about Ms Lewinski or her fling with Mr Clinton online, but it seems that that is exactly where it started.

The story is a very clear illustration of a power imbalance at play.  Mr Clinton cheated on his wife, who was the sole innocent party in the affair.  Ms Lewinski didn’t cheat on anybody.  I’m not going to condone having an affair with a married man, but am going to suggest that fault lies more with him.

Take a look at the power balance here.  She was twenty-two at the time, in about the most junior job it is possible to get in any given industry.  She was a self-confessed romantic and, clearly, a bit naïve.  He, on the other hand, was the self-confessed leader of the free world and, arguably, the most powerful man on the planet at the time.  She had an intern’s salary, he had a nation’s security forces on the end of the phone.

When the affair was exposed, it made the news all around the world.  Clinton was impeached and generally dragged across the coals.  His reputation?  Well, he managed to keep the power, the popularity and the salary even after all that.

Ms Lewinski, on the other hand, was destroyed.  Her reputation, even now, is tainted.

Bill Clinton?  Former US president.

Monica Lewinski?  Got Bill Clinton impeached because of a sordid affair.

It has to be her fault, right?  I mean, she is a woman, and we all know that men are utterly powerless in the face of these dangerous, wanton seductresses.  It is never the man who is responsible for his own actions, of course.  Particularly a man with all the power in the world.  Nope, he’s still “former president” and she is still the femme fatale who got him into trouble.

She says it herself much more eloquently than I ever could in her first public speech, here.

Let us all bear in mind that, even when we’re communicating on the Internet, that there is a person behind the words on our screens, and it would be good to treat them as such.

Sexism infographic and male privilege

Someone showed this to me, a couple of weeks ago, and I share with you today.  It’s from Japanese tumblr account Rasenth.

It’s a brief synopsis of the artist’s take on the effects of sexism, and the fact that it isn’t simply “a women’s issue,” and that sexism harms all of us.  The antidote is, of course, feminism.  Feminism is a movement that suggests that women and men are equal in value and dignity, and that women and men should have access to the same opportunities in life.

There’s a whole debate about what fair and equal mean and the fact that equal isn’t always fair.  I printed out a lovely picture, last week, showing the difference quite well, but I’ve lost the reference.  in short, there were three children of different heights, each standing on a single box behind a load of grown-ups on seats, trying to see the action on the sports field below.  The tallest child, standing on her box, could easily see the action; the middle child could also see the action; the shortest child could only see the seat-backs.  The caption beneath that picture said “This is equal”.  In the second panel, the tallest child had given her box to the smallest child.  Standing on two boxes, he could see the action quite clearly; the tallest child, not needing any boxes at all, could also see the action.  The caption there was “This is fair.”

So, the Feminism debate needs to recognise the inherent bias within society and realise that it’s more than just levelling the playing field, and men need to have the grace to recognise all of the problems that exist and to accept that simple equality isn’t the same as fairness.

Back to the tumblr…  I find it quite revealing that the words used to attack boys and men are aimed at belittling their manhood, and accusing them of being like girls.  The obvious implication is that girls are inferior and that a man displaying characteristics that are associated with women is demeaning himself by throwing away his elevated status.  The converse is also interesting.  Very few insults thrown at a woman are related to her maleness.  The only one I can think of (it’s 7am, give me some slack) is butch.  A butch woman is too manly to be a proper woman.  More-or-less everything else is criticising her for making herself undesirable to men…  Come to think of it, butch is doing the same thing.  A woman is criticised for actions that others (women and men) see as making her less available to men.  Women need to be attractive to men, need to be available to men, need to be willing to talk to any man who decides he wants her attention.  Somewhere between a slut and a prude.  Nowhere are women allowed to express themselves in the way they want to and be allowed to live peaceful lives doing so.

We’ll get there.  Truly, we will.

A final thought before I make myself breakfast: I find myself wondering about the thrust of the comic under discussion.  I am a little uneasy about the fact that the artist spends a lot of time showing that sexism hurts men in addition to its obvious hurting of women.  Whilst it is undoubtedly true that it does, focussing on harm-to-men displays an inherent male-privilege.  If the only way to get anyone to care about feminism is to show that its lack is harmful to guys, we’re already missing the point.  Or is it that we’re making the point all over again.  The message that feminism promotes fairness isn’t good enough on its own.  Privileged male people don’t see that as a thing worth working towards (they’ve never seen your problems in their own life, so your problems aren’t real).  The way to get them off their sorry arses and around the table is to show that sexism harms guys.  Once guys know that they are being harmed by this, they’ll come to the party and start working towards feminist goals.

Emma Watson said much the same at the UN.  Her speech was powerful and well-reasoned, yet again appealed to men to get on board because sexism harms men.  I suppose that the ends might justify the means in this case, but it’s probably worth keeping in mind the fact that, in a perfect world, men would join the cause simply because sexism harms people.

A quiver full of problems

I’d never encountered the phrase “quiver full” before last week, which surprised me, as I frequently move in Christian circles. Apparently, it refers to having a “quiver full of arrows”, which is a euphemism for having a boatload of children to be used as weapons for converting the families around yours to your way of belief. The implication here is that the children will be married off and infiltrate the heathens, thereby ensuring the spread of the Faith.

The basis of this mindset seems to be the rather literal interpretation of certain passages of scripture, starting with Ephesians 5:22-30, and working backwards from there. It doesn’t take much imagination to see that this could easily be interpreted in such a way as to preserve the traditional subjugation of women by men, to take away their agency and to wear them out physically and emotionally through frequent pregnancy.

The full horror endured by one particular wife/mother/peon is documented here, and made for sombre reading. In short, treating your wife and your children like slaves does not make for a particularly happy family.

Fr Neil, our priest when we lived in Glasgow, outlined the characteristics of sin:

  • It isolates and separates
  • It leads to death
  • It starts small and grows with time unless actively stopped
  • It propagates from one generation to the next

This Quiver Full story has all of these. Starting with isolation and separation. Other families are seen as insufficiently pious, so we separate ourselves from these and form a ghetto. In time, the other members of the ghetto are insufficiently pious, so we close in on ourselves yet further. And so it continues. The generational aspect is particularly obvious in this case. I am glad that the children have a survivors of homeschooling community to call upon to help them to get over the trauma they experienced in their household. (Incidentally, it is the lack of independent oversight that makes me worry about homeschooling, no matter how wonderful the home-school environment is or how wonderful any given family is at schooling their children.)

It breaks my heart whenever I see a story of people for whom Christianity has been used as a weapon to dehumanise them. When I look at the life of Jesus, I see a man who came to us to set us free from all the crap that we have created to make ourselves feel superior. To me, he was the ultimate You-Are-A-Person person. Everyone he met, everyone he touched was special to him. He played no favourites: he ate with rich and poor alike, he touched the untouchables and discoursed with scholars. Even when someone got the better of him, he praised their faith.

When Christianity (or any religion for that matter) is used as a tool to further oppression, we do not see this generosity in action, we do not see a willingness to step into the other person’s shoes in an attempt to understand where they are, what they need and how we might help. No, we see an opportunity for personal gain seemingly backed up by the irrefutable Word of God.

When people are on the sharp end of treatment like this (Quiver Full, the sex-abuse scandal, the list is endless), they end up blaming Christianity in general or Jesus in particular for the pain, for the oppression, for the snuffing out of hope. The woman in the article cited above squarely blames Jesus for the suffering she experienced, and is never likely to be reconciled with him. On the other hand, Jesus himself has harsh words for those who come between people and his love for them:

If anyone causes one of these little ones – those who believe in me – to stumble, it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung round their neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea.

What happens in Rome stays in Rome

Or not.

As I write this, 190 bishops and cardinals are stirring in their comfortable beds at the Casa Santa Marta in the Vatican.  They will spend the day in St Peter’s Basilica discussing at great length something they know almost nothing about, behind closed doors, with no reporters.

Yes, folks, the Extraordinary Synod on the Family, and it started yesterday.

I have strongly mixed feelings about this.  On the one hand, Pope Francis seems to be a genuinely caring man, who can see that the Church’s often hard-nosed adherence to the strict letter of canon law causes great harm in the world, and wishes for that to change.  On the other hand are gathered a great many men who have spent decades telling people not only when to jump, but how high, using which leg to push off and what shoes to be wearing at the time.  People, like Cardinal Francis George, quoted below from Catholic New World, the newspaper for his archdiocese of Chicago:

Theoretically, it is argued that there are Catholic voices that disagree with the teaching of the church and therefore with the bishops. There have always been those whose personal faith is not adequate to the faith of the church. Perhaps this is the time for everyone to re-read the Acts of the Apostles. Bishops are the successors of the apostles; they collectively receive the authority to teach and govern that Christ bestowed upon the apostles. Bishops don’t claim to speak for every baptized Catholic. Bishops speak, rather, for the Catholic and apostolic faith. Those who hold that faith gather with them; others go their own way. They are and should be free to do so, but they deceive themselves and others in calling their organizations Catholic.

Here, he is griping that the US’s Affordable Healthcare Act will mean that many people living in the world’s richest nation, but who were previously unable to procure access to modern healthcare (I will not dignify the US’s approach to health provision with the word “system”), will now be able to see a doctor and receive some treatment.  Instead of welcoming this change as a huge stride towards caring for the widow and orphan, towards caring for the sick and visiting the lonely (you know, those things that Jesus told us to do), he’s focussing on a part of the legislation that he doesn’t like very much, throwing his toys out of the pram and stamping his feet because he would have worded the law differently, and excluded certain things that he doesn’t agree with, and anyway, he’s been appointed by God to boss people about, so shut up and do what I say.

In contrast, Pope Francis himself is on the record saying that  “it is not necessary to talk about these issues [abortion, contraception, same-sex marriage] all the time”.

I note with interest that the archdiocese of Chicago is being handed over to Archbishop Blase Cupich in a move that almost certainly signals the pope’s pastoral ambitions for a more inclusive church, a church that meets people where they are, with pastors who smell like the sheep; a church that isn’t content to sit on its mighty seats and shout down to people to tell them that they’re doing it wrong.

Back to Rome, now, though.  Yesterday’s first session was televised, and included a bit from the pope telling the assembled bishops that they should speak freely, without regard to what they think he would like to hear (past synods have, allegedly, been little more than opportunities for bishops to tell the pope how much they think like him, and how great he is, now could I have a promotion please).  Grabbing this exhortation by the throat, Cardinal Péter Erdő of Hungary spoke at length on the widespread hope amongst grassroots Catholics that this synod will produce some flexibility in the way the church approaches people whose marriages have failed.

Showing great pastoral sensitivity, he said “Many people today have difficulty in thinking in a logical manner and reading lengthy documents”.  Nice one, Cardinal. I say, “Many cardinals today have difficulty in seeing their people as people, whose lives are very different from yours and will, therefore, reach different conclusions given the same input data”.  To deride everyone who disagrees with him as “illogical” is both arrogant and naïve.  He went on, stressing the depth of his disconnect from real people, “Many look upon their lives not as a life-long endeavour but a series of moments in which great value is placed on feeling good and enjoying good health.  From this vantage point, any firm commitment seems insurmountable and the future appears threatening.”  I am saddened by an educated man displaying such stereotyping, and I wonder if he can see the irony that his embrace of stereotype simply underlines the stereotype of the ivory-tower bishop blithely issuing diktats then wondering why nobody is listening.

To me, this synod is a pivotal moment for the church.  It has the potential to position the church as a tremendous force for good in people’s lives, to prove to us all that it is willing to listen to the lived reality that is family life within the world, in the 21st century.  The bishops could prove to us that they are interested in listening to us and showing us the respect that we are due as intelligent adults, as inquisitive children, as equals before God.

The great danger is that the bishops’ credibility hangs in the balance, and I really do not think that they realise this.  They could open wide the doors to the church and welcome everybody into God’s loving embrace.  On the other hand, they could prove, once and for all, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that they have absolutely no idea what it is like to live in a real marriage, with a real human spouse, with real human children, and yet speak authoritatively on that very subject.  If they get this wrong (and there is a very real danger that they will), they will end up hammering the final nail in their own coffin: nobody will ever listen to them again, on any subject.

I really hope they get it right.