Monthly Archives: April 2015

What we need to do to fix the world

Good evening. On Ethel the Frog, tonight, we look at violence…

although today, I’m not talking about British gangland, sarcasm or Spiny Norman.

A billion or more people live on $1.25 per day. This is the definition of extreme poverty. Sounds tough. If you widen the definition to $2 per day, you include another billion people.

We have made great strides towards raising people out of this poverty (the Girl Effect is very powerful indeed here), we will never finish the job until we change our tactics. You see, it’s relatively easy to give a poor person money, or teach them about agriculture or give them micro-loans to start a business, or to give them skills that are useful to their community and a means by which they can earn their own living. Easy. The problem with that approach is that it assumes that the person you are helping lives in a safe place.

It does nobody any good whatsoever to give a person money and training if the next thing that happens is that person’s neighbour shoves her out of her home and off her land by force, taking what was hers for his own and forcing her to watch her own child die from starvation because the neighbour left her with absolutely nothing.

It does nobody any good whatsoever to provide education to a community, to take advantage of the girl effect, if the very girls you are trying to reach are too scared to leave their home because they had been snatched as they walked along and raped. In broad daylight. It was, simply, too dangerous to go out.

This is what happened to Venus and to Griselda. Gary Haugen’s excellent TED talk has changed the way I look at global suffering.

It doesn’t matter how much money you pour into any society, you will not lift that society out of poverty at all unless you also make sure that the vulnerable are protected. Adding money, in many cases, will make matters even worse, because the rich and the powerful have the means to take, by force, whatever money you inject into the society. It doesn’t matter how much money I give to Venus, if it is stolen from her the moment I give it to her, I’m causing more harm than good. The powerful in her society will become more powerful and she will still be starving.

The Mediterranean migration that is currently causing so many deaths has the same cause. It doesn’t matter how many boats that the EU destroys. It doesn’t matter how many boats sink all by themselves. The deaths will continue because the boats are filled with people fleeing violence. I made a tweet, last week, that said

‘s family are in the cellar with an axe murderer. Will pulling up the ladder reduce their desire for escape?

Looking at the tragedy in the Med as an immigration issue, or as a problem with the people in Libya who are willing to take large sums of money in order to shove as many people as possible into a boat as will fit is entirely backwards. The people with the boats don’t care a jot what happens to the people in it. They’ve already been paid. In fact, the more people they cram onto a boat, the more money they get, and the more likely it is to sink. Dead people don’t complain, so they’re onto a double winner. No. If the EU wants to stem the flow across the Med, they need to look a little more closely at what is driving these people into the sea.

Maybe it’s because politicians are not rational people, but they do seem to lose sight of the fact that people rarely do things for no reason. Venus’ neighbour shoved her off her land because he wanted to enrich himself and nobody was going to prevent him from doing it. The men in Griselda’s village wanted to play and nobody was going to stop them. The people getting onto a boat that will sink (and is obvious it will sink) long before it makes it to Italy do so because getting onto the boat makes more sense than staying on land. Behind them is violence; behind them are men (it’s usually men) with guns who will take what they want with impunity; behind them is a completely ineffective system of public order; behind them is a life made unlivable by the actions of others. In front of them is the chance, the faintest hope, that something might be better. Some people make it to Europe and those who do are not raped, murdered, beaten and robbed.

With certain death behind you, even a 27-in-800 chance of survival are odds you are willing to take.

Much of the world is ruled by violence, largely because we are a competitive species and there have always been those who have no problems taking what isn’t theirs just because they can. As Gary Haugen says, putting a comprehensive system of publically-funded justice into a society is difficult, not least because of the blatant corruption that is well-established in many countries. You can’t just put police on the ground, you need straight police officers (I mean not-corrupt, not anything about whom they love), then you need straight prosecutors who build a competent case against offenders, then you need a straight judge in a straight court who can see that justice is done and that the guilty are put away and the wrongly-accused are not, and after that, you need a straight prison service to keep violent people off the streets and, (unrealistically, I know) to rehabilitate them such that they know another way to live by the time they are released.

A pipe-dream, I know, but Gary Haugen’s talk makes it sound within our reach. Maybe the next time someone is asking us for a donation to their charity, we should ask them what they are doing in their target community to support the rule of law, to ensure that all people are treated as people, and that all people are allowed to live in peace with one another.

It is only then that two billion people can hope for a better future.

Feminism? Why me?

Feminism is a recurring topic for me. This is largely because I am a firm subscriber to the joint theories that the empowerment of women is the single most powerful thing that can be done to lift the world out of poverty and also that lifting women up to equality with men will, in no way, diminish men.

I feel embarrassed for having to include the second of my points, there, and I think that I should be. The one thing that causes men to keep women down is the fear that men (generalising across the entire gender) will lose out and become lesser beings, less manly.

The entire concept of manliness is ridiculous, particularly as portrayed in the media and fed to us, in Western cultures, as basic staple of our cultural diet. We are supposed to be John Wayne, rugged and ruthless; we are supposed to be George Clooney, sculpted and gorgeous; we are supposed to collect women as trophies, be emotionally distant and see winning the daily bread as our only responsibility (and a responsibility solely ours).

All of the above are tired old arguments, of course, which have been expressed widely across media both social and antisocial for decades.

But there’s more. I chose this topic today because I ran into this TEDx talk on Upworthy. I’ve seen it before, but its message deserves to be repeated and repeated until men begin to listen.

He talks about language. When we say “gender”, men assume we’re talking about women. When we talk about race, we assume we’re talking about people of colour. When we talk about sexual orientation, we assume we’re talking about gay people. This is quite ridiculous, but is is a powerful indication of how Western societies (I’m sure it true of other societies too, but I have very little experience of them) view themselves. It says that the default person we talk about is a straight, white man. It is only when the conversation is covering something other than the default that we need to even use the terms gender, race and sexual orientation. The amount of power that straight white men need to have in order for this to be the default is staggering, but that is what we can see.

When we speak of gender, there is a whole range of gender beyond women that is under discussion, and men need to listen and join the conversation – not least because the conversation is about them too.

When we speak of race, there is a whole range of race beyond black (“African American” for my US-ian friends), and white people need to listen and join the discussion too.  Again, not least because the conversation is about them.

When we speak of sexuality/sexual orientation, straight people need to join the conversation.

And when I say “join the conversation,” I do not mean what usually happens, ie. turn the conversation over to “me, me, me, me… and, did I mention? Me.  And me.  Me me me. Me.” with a side-order of storming off in a huff when other voices get floor-time. “I have a gender too, this needs to be about ME! And if it’s not about me, I’m not listening.”

Sorry, straight, white man, but this isn’t actually about you or any individual. This is about all of us and it’s time you shut up and listened for a bit before you share you opinion. Sure, you have valuable things to say, but so do all these other people. Giving them the space to speak does not take away your value, it simply recognises theirs.

In talking about language, Jackson Katz also talks about how the language we use can disempower the already vulnerable and allow the violent to escape justice. In his example, he starts with

John battered Mary

From this sentence, it is quite clear what John is doing, and that what he is doing is wrong. He is doing violence to Mary. The way we describe Mary can be telling, however. In a few short steps, we get to

Mary is a battered woman

which takes John completely off the scene. He can get on with his life, while all the attention is on Mary and how she passively allowed an unnamed other to do violence to her. Katz argues that, if we change the language we use to keep John in the sentence, we are much more able to see the relationship at play and the abuse that John is inflicting on Mary. We are more likely to see that it is John who is in the wrong here: it is John’s behaviour that we should be addressing.

And we address it through leadership. Historically, it is men who have held the stage, it is men whose voices have been heard, it is men who set the agenda. Women have been doing most of the hard work to achieve equality for all people regardless of gender. Us men need to acknowledge this, but we need to do more. There are some in society who simply do not listen to the voices of anyone who is not a man, and it is not possible for women to reach these ears. It is the responsibility of men to raise our voices and to say the same things that women feminists have been saying for years such that everyone may hear the message.

It is the responsibility of men in leadership positions to show those who look up to them how it is done. If a football coach hears one of his team use racist, homophobic, sexist (and so on) language in the locker room, it is his job to address it, and not to let it go with a “boys will be boys.” In the boardroom, if a board member uses similar language, it is up to the chairman to let that person know that such language is not OK. If a man is intimidating someone on public transport, it is up to the other men to let him know that it is not OK to do that. If a soldier is bragging about what he’s going to do to the local girls when he and his mates go off base for a night off, it is up to his fellows and his senior officer to let him know, in no uncertain terms, that women are people and are to be respected.

It is only when men begin to tread in the path of the many great women who have blazed the trail before us, that society will truly shift. It is only when equality and respect are seen as manly that everyone will be a person. And it’s only when we let people into spaces traditionally dominated by others that true magic happens.

Now with wings

The news, here, is full of politicians telling us lies, spreading hatred and declining the offer of a swords-at-dawn ‘conversation’. It’s election season, and they’re all at it, telling us how awful it would be under the other guys and promising us the world. Talking and talking and talking but never actually listening. I was bored of it all two years ago, and I’m bored of it now. I will vote, but only so that I can say that I did. I have said it before but it does seem to be universally true (in places where you get a vote, at least): it truly doesn’t matter whom you vote for, you always end up with a politician.

So, while the politicians carry on behaving like politicians (truly, I’ve seen more civilised behaviour around the sand pit in a nursery), I will look elsewhere.

To start with, I mark the passing of Taylor Alesana, bullied to death in California last week. The fatal blow was struck by her own hand, so the people who drove her to it will walk away scot free, of course. There are always some people who see someone else’s suicide as funny or as a victory or as something other than the life-shattering tragedy that it is. For her friends and family, I say a prayer; for her tormentors, I say another; for myself, I say there, but for the grace of God, go I. For the California Department of Education Office of Equal Opportunity, I say shame on you. Shame on you for being nothing more than a sign on an office door. Shame on you for not actually caring about the children you are legally required to care about. Oooh, it makes me mad.

On a more positive note, though, I turn to Ghana. It is not easy for a woman to break into a traditionally male-dominated field anywhere in the world and even less so in Africa where cultural roots run deep. Not to be limited by things outside herself, however, Patricia Mawuli knocked on the door of Kpong Airfield, the busiest General Aviation airfield in West Africa and asked for a job. It’s a pretty good place to work: in addition to learning how to fly an aeroplane, the site has a well-equipped maintenance facility where a determined apprentice can learn to maintain and fix the planes and the engines. I can well understand the allure.

They said no, of course. Women don’t do that kind of thing. Undeterred, she said ‘fine, then I will work here for free.’ And work she did. Freed of the macho desire to prove herself by feats of brute-force-and-ignorance, she applied her brain to the task of wielding a machete and clearing the trees from the airfield, so she was better at it than the men were.

She didn’t just cut down trees, but she became the first woman private pilot in Ghana and the first woman in the whole of West Africa to be qualified to build and maintain Rotax engines.

In turn, she is now a flight instructor, and is teaching the women of Ghana (and further afield) how to fly.

This is a real life example of the principle that the most powerful force for economic improvement of entire communities is the empowerment of women and girls.

Because women, like everyone else, are people, and holding them back holds everyone back.

Michael Phelps doesn’t like Erasure

Back in November, The Guardian reported reports that moderately-successful Olympic athlete, Michael Phelps, was seeing someone. I know. A scandal in and of itself.

The love lives of the stars are, frankly, of no interest to me and, as such, I had never heard the name Taylor Lianne Chandler before I read the article, and I have no idea whether or not they are still an item. Sorry, you’ll have to get your vapid gossip elsewhere.

The fact that Mr Phelps is seeing someone isn’t news, and was not the reason that he was in the news. The “scandal” was that his partner was intersex (actually, the Washington Post article suggests that nobody had even asked Mr Phelps if he and Ms Chandler actually were in a relationship: for the sake of this post, I’m going to take her at her word). And it’s a scandal because intersex people are erased by the very same structures that I was talking about a couple of weeks ago. In fact, intersex people are even erased (most of the time) by the acronyms that are used to describe sexual minorities. LGB – lesbian, gay and bisexual –talks exclusively about people’s sexual orientation (whom they fall in love with); LGBT – lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender – adds transgender people to the list (with its own problems, because being transgender doesn’t tell anyone whether you are L, G or B or even asexual); genderqueer people should be acknowledged too to give LGBTQ; add intersex people to the list to get LGBTQI; and we shouldn’t forget the asexual people I mentioned earlier, to get LGBTQIA.

Then you overload the acronym slightly, to expand Q to include questioning and A to include allies, and we are starting to scratch the surface of the complexities and subtleties of human biology and behaviour that is one of the reasons why I named this blog after people and declined to categorise anyone in the tagline.

Anyway, back to the subject.

Intersex people don’t appear on the statistics because it is not a legal option open to most people in most countries. You must be registered as male or female in order to be registered at all, and being registered is compulsory in most countries. As I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, transgender people who transition from one sex to another are mostly OK, because they move from one registration to another. Intersex people, and transgender people who move from one registration to somewhere in the middle end up in limbo. They have no category and yet must pick one. Tough times indeed.

As the Guardian article suggests, intersex people are a real challenge to our assumptions about humanity. Gay people, we can dismiss because sexual orientation happens in the brain, and we don’t know much about brains. Transgender people, we can dismiss for the same reason. Intersex people, however, are a clear and unambiguous challenge to our naïve assumptions about the way God made the universe (cf Genesis 1:27). When faced with an intersex person, we simply cannot persist in our uninformed belief that the gender binary is a valid model of the world.

When faced with intersex people, we are forced to admit that categorising people as either men or women is too narrow.

When faced with intersex people, we are forced to admit that there must be more to sexuality than falling in love with a member of the opposite sex, for there is no opposite when you’re standing in the middle.

When faced with intersex people, our claims that one sex is better than the other must fail, because that is based on the false assumption that there are two sexes.

When faced with intersex people, our belief that sex and gender are the same thing fails because many intersex people identify with the gender binary regardless of what their genitals look like.

When faced with intersex people, we are forced to re-evaluate our attitude to transgender people: if we can admit that a person’s body might look different to what we expect from their pronouns, we must include everybody whose body looks different from what we expect from their pronouns.

I’ll make a quick mention of Alex as Well as a pretty decent story featuring an intersex person. Maybe it would be better for me to recommend a book where the sex of the protagonist is an aside, but it helps us to understand the kind of difficulties faced by intersex people because they are intersex.

But, when all’s said and done, it’s none of our damn business. What a person’s private parts look like is private. That’s why they’re called privates. Marlo Mack says it better than I ever will.

We are all people. Our sex (and all those other characteristics) is secondary.