Women and the death of equality

The most important focus of our times is not the death of monotheisms, the acquisition of utopian states, nor the drive toward wealth. The battle we have on our hands is already coagulated from the vast proportion of those we’ve allowed to die or disappear, from the toils of our past, in the crusade against ourselves. It is the ceaseless oppression of women―that most horrid denigration against one half of our species. (In the space taken to read this paragraph, a women has probably been burnt alive in India, for an inadequate dowry or to make space for a new wife).

The battle could not be more sound: the economist William Easterly has argued that money given to poor countries does little. Tossing greens at a cause will not get it to grow; it is the way it is used and by whom. There has been little correlation between the amount of aid going to the poorer countries and their economic growth-rates. What is needed is the attraction to the right hands and the right causes: those hands and those causes belong to the goals and dreams of the better sex―it rests with women.

A beautiful article, which has become a book, written by Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn (a husband-and-wife two-pronged sword against misogyny), highlights many of these elements. They have coined a phrase, “gendercide”, to begin the creaks and rattles so that our collective gaze shifts. Like some magnificent telescope, we can eventually set our sights on this horrid and bizarrely under-focused problem of our world. Indeed, I would go so far as to say that the future of our collective good, the end product of whether the human species could ever, sub specie aeternitatis, promote more happiness than evil in an indifferent universe, rests with our collective action or in-action toward women. Thus, what is doing more damage might not be the active oppression against women but those many who choose to ignore or remain stagnant about it. It is perhaps one instance in my entire life where I will support either we stand against or for it. I see no middle-ground when it comes to the emancipation of women: we are either freeing them or allowing them to remain prisoners.

“Genderside” is a brilliant and powerful word which Kristof and WuDunn describe as follows: “The global statistics on the abuse of girls are numbing. It appears that more girls and women are now missing from the planet, precisely because they are female, than men were killed on the battlefield in all the wars of the 20th century. The number of victims of this routine “gendercide” far exceeds the number of people who were slaughtered in all the genocides of the 20th century.”

Their focus and sudden alert to this important endeavour could be a metaphor for our own. Why does the massacre in Tiananmen Square, which claimed a staggering 400-800 lives, shake us but the equivalent number of girls (possibly more), every week also in China, lie beyond our concern? Our priorities are skewed. The refocusing must begin soon or we will lose many more women through our ignorance and our sustained incredulity to this pervasive oppression.

The fight for women is the fight for humanity. This needs clarification: by humanity, I mean not only our species (“race” is a dead word) but also our collective concern for ourselves, our freedoms and the promotion of what we consider good. It is the aspect that results in a life well lived or a life betrayed to fallacious reasoning. Like Bertrand Russell, one could hold a disdain for people yet retain a fervent hope for the flourishing and happiness of humanity, the species. To this end, those who are concerned for the good of our species are forced to realise that one of the first steps is the freedom of women.

We have excellent reasons and mountains of evidence to suppose that, when given autonomy and power and money, women end up promoting the happiness of their families. It also results in a slowing down of births, in the needless cycle of vegetative humanity called poverty, where too many children are raised with too few resources. Women take control of their bodies, their minds and their futures when given the opportunity. Not only themselves, but their ability to guide those closest to them comes to fruition. For a beautiful example, read about Saima Muhammad from Pakistan, who saved her family from the needless downward spiral toward poverty by using her business skills. Or, what happens when women and men grow crops and the effects of their profits (to paraphrase, men use it on alcohol and women on their families).

Simone de Beauvoir in a dated but important book dubbed women the “second sex”. Men, throughout our intellectual history (if such a view can even be linked to the intellectual), have dominated the story of humanity. Our words like “man” and “mankind” used to be an argument from the feminists that humanity is by definition patriarchal. Whilst acting on linguistic barriers is wobbly, the necessary viewpoint is somewhat gained. De Beauvoir’s failure is apparent to anyone who reads The Second Sex but her goal was reached. The writings of de Beavouir, Wollstonecraft, Woolf and, most importantly, John Stuart Mill, might seem to many as antiquated thoughts on the “women question”. But their eloquence needs a stab of the contemporary and this can be done by all. Instead of a few writers focused on these issues, we need everyone.

This is also not an apologist’s approach: I do not think women are powerless and need the hands of men to raise them. Rather, it is that men are powerless and need to realise that the plateau of equality needs the better sex. There are no more hills of denigration, where men can apparently see further into the future, beyond the horizon of current possibilities, whereas women can only hear what men shout down from their vantage point. We are on a plateau and we gaze at the future together. Our combined view will bring the future good to the present, it will render the light anew and give a fresh stance to our current goals.

If the world is to have a future, AC Grayling says, “it rests in the hands of women.” No more succinct statement could display the most important focus and fight of our times.

Are Religious Leaders Our Best Moral Guides? – the problem of National Interfaith Leadership Council

Recently, we South Africans have been forced to confront the possibility that we will lose many liberal laws: abortion and gay-marriages have been the two touted as targets. The euphemism opted for, by those who are against such laws, would call them renewed “considerations” but it’s easy to see beneath the terms. The threats come from the usual sources of those with a divine backing for their reasoning; indeed, they are not even premises to begin arguments but final commands from a magical book. And even those who consult the magical book, as the conclusions to their non-existent arguments, differ in their appropriation of finality: does god really mean we should “kill” those who “blasphemeth” his name? Does god really mean we should stone our daughter to death on her wedding night, if she is not a virgin? Backwards and forwards the decision floats like a cloud across this scorched landscape, long abandoned by most modern people. Most act without due consideration to the intricacies and stupidity of Middle-Eastern tribal trivialities: Christians still eat pork, come into contact with menstruating women, have sex before marriage and so on. They find blasphemers all over their air-waves and in their favourite TV-shows. None are jerking to fetch the dusty Bible to prefigure judgement. But that scorched landscape of dead ideas occasionally releases noxious clouds of incoherence and always from the same source: those who are religious leaders, claim to know the mind of god and therefore know what’s better for you and me better than ourselves.

In this case, those with such deep insights are the members of the cumbersomely titled National Interfaith Leadership Council (NILC). This council is led by Ray McCauley, head of the Rhema Church and comprised of an amalgam of Christian, traditional African and Muslim bodies. They entered into the political foray regarding the Judicial Services Commission’s (JSC) decision to drop the charges against Western Cape Judge President John Hlope. As the Mail & Guardian reports: “Nthabiseng Khunou, an ANC MP and member of the NILC secretariat, [said] the council would “play a role” in revisiting legislation legalising abortion and gay marriage.” Note Khunou’s two affiliations: ANC and the NILC.

The ANC is the ruling party, its leader is the country’s leader. McCauley has already been brought under scrutiny when he invited the President of the ANC, Jacob Zuma, during election, to give a sermon at his church. Zuma and McCauley, it seems, are drifting closer together. This has been further confirmed by NILC’s general secretary, John Lamola, who said the council was formed from Zuma’s appeal in November, to a gathering of many religious groups. Zuma’s appeal was for the active participation of religious groups “to achieve social cohesion, moral regeneration and ease poverty”. Thus, the NILC was apparently formed for just such a noble endeavour.

They have, due to traditional considerations of religions, taken it upon themselves to be the espousers of moral wisdom in our society. Fighting against homosexual marriage, abortion, prostitution, pornography is all part of being “active”, as Lamola later put it, within just such a moralising organisation. But morality is not so simple that asking religious leaders to “get it on” will resolve the dilemmas; at times, moral dilemmas need not even be moral dilemmas if people were not hankering to the tribal beliefs of goat-herders in the Middle-East.

The cataclysmic shibboleth is the subsequent reprisal of critical engagement in moral affairs. Appeals to authority, be it the Bible, the Quran or religious leaders, are all too easy a shrugging off of epistemic duty which each person should afford himself. As Peter Singer has highlighted in his Practical Ethics: “Ethics takes a universal point of view. This does not mean that a particular ethical judgement must be universally applicable. Circumstances alter causes … What it does mean is that in making ethical judgements we go beyond our own likes and dislikes. From an ethical point of view, the fact that it is I who benefit from, say, a more equal distribution of income than you who lose by it, is irrelevant. Ethics requires us to go beyond ‘I’ and ‘you’ to the universal law, the universalisable judgement, the standpoint of the impartial spectator or ideal observer, or whatever we choose to call it.”

It is simply for the highlighted reason above that laying ethical decisions at the feet of the dogmatists is to lay reasoned discourse in its tomb. This does not mean that religious people can not engage in ethical dilemmas. Indeed, many religious leaders are qualified from the standpoint of simply being a critical and self-reflective human being, sympathetic and good-natured. So the argument does not repudiate religious leader’s engagements, it simply states that they do not automatically have authority on the basis of religion. They ought to be part of an internecine discussion amongst other reflective and active people.

However, the problem remains that there is a need, as Singer highlights, to go beyond the mere trivialities of our own likes and dislikes. Thus, those who believe that life begins at a certain point because of dogma―in Christianity, this arose from confusions in early microscopes, not even the Bible in itself―can not realign themselves to the “impartial spectator” since their very religion dictates the final say in an ethical dilemma. This makes the situation of placing religious leaders in positions to decide upon moral dilemmas quite problematic: the pathway toward clarifying moral dilemmas is difficult and needs to be sought via reasonable discourse from an impartial standpoint, but religions often have an arbitrary answer and by definition can not be impartial. This leads to various bizarre priorities: for example, abortion doctors being murdered by people who claim to be “saving babies”; homosexual couples being attacked for being homosexual.

This is not a problem for those of us who are not chained to any dogma (and please do not reassert that boring maxim that “not being chained to dogma” is a dogma). This is why it is more important to have non-faith aligned members deciding on moral dilemmas and not immediately cave in to religious authority. Yes they may know their Bible but how does that expand to being impartial, since by definition non-believers like myself do not pay heed to any holy texts? Remember, it must go beyond what we each like or dislike. This can not happen for religious leaders because of their religions. The irony remains that this does not remove them from discussion but it does make many of their arguments hollow. If they simply use their holy book or religion as a justification, it immediately has left the arena of impartiality. We are then in the domain of bowing before a set of answers because one group favours it. This is no longer an ethical or moral dilemma being discussed; it is a command being followed because of a god.

Also it does not mean that those who are, for example, pro-life are wrong or have bad arguments. Rather it means that they can not simply use their Bible or religion as justification. In order to further the argument it must be assigned to the universal aspect, such that we can apply it to even those who are not part of one’s faith.

Another important point to notice is this: how many moral dilemmas need not be moral dilemmas in the first place? Imagine the Bible, as Sam Harris has suggested, explicitly said: “Life begins in the womb at 6 months. Abortion is the woman’s choice and may be performed before this time.” If there were such a passage, would we have the moral dilemmas of life’s conception? It seems unlikely (but I would not hedge my bets on it being completely nullified. Quotes from magic books have a tendency to become muddled and used to reassert one’s arguments regardless of their context). It seems that many moral dilemmas do not need the money, time and energy of gifted thinkers: for example, gay marriage is not a moral dilemma; racism is not a moral dilemma.

Those who propose that these are moral dilemmas have not provided any substantial argument, which is not rooted in dogma and thus repudiating its claim to be an ethical dilemma (remember it must proceed by a degree of impartiality).

So: McCauley and the NILC may of course set out premises for their arguments; they may certainly initiate a renewed debate with abortion and gay-marriage laws. But we must ask why they plan to do it? Is it to benefit the whole of society, or is it rooted in their holy book?

Some might say that Christianity is aimed at a universal ethic: love, redemption, and so on. But this is undermined by the simple fact that many choose not to be Christian or not to have Christian dogma shoved down their throats. So, whilst Christianity might say it is universal, it plainly is not by people’s choice. And in ethics, what remains important is a universal ethic. What can be agreed upon is that one aspect of a universal ethic is people’s personal choice―how far and what that constitutes are further dilemmas, but not many ethicists would argue that no choice is a good idea (perhaps Ẑiẑek). Thus if personal choice is an agreed upon trajectory toward a universal ethic, reached by an impartial consideration, any form of religious zealotry even if its speaks of itself as universal will not work. It must speak beyond religion and that means deal with the issues themselves: how will, for example, banning gay-marriage  benefit us all?

If we gave in to these religious groups’ desires to see such decisions, like abortion and gay-marriage and prostitution, banned, they must tell us how we will all benefit, removing all religious talk whilst doing so.

When the NILC can answer this question, perhaps we can then begin an ethical discussion. But I doubt that they could answer from a purely non-denominational, non-dogmatic, non-religious perspective. They can not because they begin the discussion coached in religious thought, not ethical, and their answers will be religious, not universally moral.

Worst Book Review Ever??

In the latest eSkeptic, I was very excited to see Skeptic handling a book review concerning Bertrand Russell. This is not just any book – its a graphic novel about Russell’s earlier life and his pursuit for logical and axiomatic truths. It charts Russell’s passionate attempt to establish if there was anything that could be indubitably known.

However, I was disappointed (I am being kind using this term) at the book review itself. Considering I have contributed two book reviews to Skeptic magazine, I felt incredibly undermined that such horrid writing was accepted. I encourage readers to view it for themselves: it is perhaps the worst-written article I have read this year (if not the last five). Perhaps I am used to reading well-written articles, even by people (like Terry Eagleton) who I do not agree with. The book-reviewer commits a cardinal sin of using himself to fill space and create imagery; this is not taboo but it is often messy. The book review should aim at highlighting the book, perhaps criticising it (since no book is perfect, one can usually find ways to criticise and, perhaps, suggest where it can be improved).

But really – who cares about where you are flying from? Who cares that some arbitrary person asked you to write a book review? Who cares that its your kid’s first day at school? Get back to the Nobel Prize winning writer and the beauty of that man’s logic (even where it failed, it failed beautifully). This writer, David Cowan, informs us that he is well-qualified to deliver a thorough overview of the book, but instead we are subjected to his inane and terrible writing. In reference to why the writer Christos Papadimitriou matters to him, he says: “My dear friend Vivian Leal of Kepler’s Bookstore asked me to review this book … Coincidentally, I would have never met Vivian had I not befriended her husband Daniel 23 years ago back in CS121 another debt I owe Christos Papadimitriou.”

WHO CARES? Who writes like this and gets published in Skeptic? I am saddened to see such tripe in a magazine I generally love (when I can get hold of it). Perhaps I’m being too harsh, but I would appreciate your thoughts. Really, this is the worst writing I’ve read this year…