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a bonobo world 29: the 30% rule and Myanmar

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Myanmar students finding inspiration in The Hunger Games in their fight against the coup

 

I mentioned the 30% rule in a previous essay – an idea that’s been bruited about, suggesting that it takes 30% female infiltration to change the culture of an organisation. This is obviously a rule of thumb, but it’s worth applying to those organisations that have power in the land, whatever land that might be.

Such organisations, institutions or sectors include government, law, business, military, health, science, education and welfare. Without doing any research, I would guess that, of those eight sectors, four – law, health, education and welfare – might have significant female infiltration, the other four not so much. Though I might be wrong about science, and of course all these sectors are much more open to women when we take the long view, of centuries. Social evolution is relatively quick, but not always relative to our short, impatient lives. 

Since I first learned of this rule of thumb in an essay about Myanmar’s military, I’ll first look at Myanmar society, currently still in upheaval due to the Min Aung Hlaing coup and its aftermath. Considering that Aung San Suu Kyi recently won a landslide election and is very popular, especially among the Buddhist majority, it might seem surprising to those of us in settled democracies that a military coup could be staged there with such apparent ease, but of course the military – entirely male until recently, and still entirely male in its hierarchy – has been massively interfering in this fledgling democracy from the start. We in Australia have only to think of our nearest neighbour, Indonesia, to be aware of how dangerous a politicised and corrupt military can be. 

There’s much international reporting about how disappointing Aung San Suu Kyi, the recipient of the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize for her championing of democracy, has apparently turned out to be. She’s been criticised for cosying up to the military and doing little to stop the Rohingya massacres, but seriously, to expect one woman to transform her fragmented (with at least 14 major ethnic groups), impoverished society into a go-ahead democratic concern is a bit like expecting one or two forceful, charismatic proto-bonobos to transform their world from a hunt-em-down, beat-em-up chimp arena into a paradise of tree-hugging, child-friendly libertine vegos. You don’t need a few, you need a barmy army with sex appeal to spare. Above all, the over-arching power of the military needs to be addressed. 

I’m being a bit unjust to chimps here, and I’m sure the Myanmar military aren’t all bad, especially now that women are joining the (lowest) ranks, but my point is that the country needs more female monks (they can only be thilashin in Myanmar, a lower order than the male bhikkhu), intellectuals and political leaders.

In 2016 the Asian Development Bank (ADB) released a paper, Gender equality and women’s rights in Myanmar: a situation analysis. In light of recent events, this positive and hopeful document, dealing with (admittedly limited) advances made and to be made in the future, makes for difficult reading. 

Not that pre-coup Myanmar was anything to be proud of, woman-wise. For example, the nation’s 2008 Constitution, while prohibiting gender discrimination in the appointment to government posts, states that ‘nothing in this section shall prevent appointment of men to positions that are naturally suitable to men only’. It may well be this clause in the Constitution that prevented Aung San Suu Kyi from becoming the nation’s President.

What would Simone de Beauvoir say? (My next bumper sticker or customised t-shirt). According to the ADB paper:

Global and regional indices and national data reflect continuing gender inequalities in Myanmar. The 2013 Gender Inequality Index ranked Myanmar 83rd of 187 countries, while the 2012 Social Institutions and Gender Index placed the country at 44th of 86 countries and 8th of nine countries in East Asia and the Pacific.

The nation’s labour force participation rate for males is almost double that for women – though you can bet that, as always, women are doing the majority of at-home work and ‘informal job sector’ work, with the usual inadequate and unreliable remuneration from their male bosses. Government ministries experienced female staff levels of just over 50% in the 2000s, though this fell away for mid-management staff and higher, and gender wage gaps are greater than in developed countries. 

Literacy rates nationwide are slightly lower for females than males, but this masks major disparities between urban and rural areas and between subcultures. Outside the major urban areas the disparity between male and female literacy is greater. 

Violence against women, human trafficking, and ‘rape in conflict’ were described as under-reported problems in a 2008 report by the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW). The report singled out Rakhine province (later the scene of genocidal violence against its Muslim Rohingya population), stating that, ‘in addition to being subject to multiple forms of discrimination by the authorities, [women and girls] were also subject to conservative traditions and a restrictive interpretation of religious norms, which contribute to the suppression of their rights’.

In reading this ADB document, I’ve learned that the 30% rule (actually a target) came from the Beijing Platform for Action of 1995, though I don’t like to credit Beijing, or China, for anything much to do with the advancement of women (I’ll look at the situation in China in an upcoming post). The Beijing Platform for Action emerged from the Fourth World Conference on Women, which happened to be held in that city. 

The ADB report points out that female representation in parliament in Myanmar, though increasing, lags behind neighbours Cambodia and Laos (both of which are profoundly corrupt non-democracies). Remember we’re talking 2016 here. Thein Sein, the moderate President of Myanmar from 2011 to 2016, increased female representation in government towards the end of his period in office. I doubt if Min Aung Hlaing will be considering female representation a major focus as he fights, and doubtless butchers, to maintain power.

So, sadly, few points for bonobohood in Myanmar at present. It’s perhaps ironic, and in a strange way inspiring, that a lot of young women in the country are joining militias to fight for more recognition for their minority cultures. It could well be that the transformation that occurred to create bonobo society involved a bit of group female biffo too. After all, making love not war is something worth fighting for. 

References

https://www.adb.org/documents/gender-equality-and-womens-rights-myanmar-situation-analysis

https://finance.yahoo.com/news/first-thailand-now-myanmar-asia-163833714.html?guccounter=1&guce_referrer=aHR0cHM6Ly93d3cuZ29vZ2xlLmNvbS8&guce_referrer_sig=AQAAAHvx0y6PoiU83ZZP-ypfUZv8YQDEt3uSXjtYBQT-xhVASJ3WZmlDIwj9J5ulBBN5rRyRZ63YLmmhYsMg-oQ3fu6fxXQFCYloMimnQ3AFChDpBxbrYabr_9gTnMKuUtZtBo4nhQG0zVvKRsndL-etL-9XdTbYe4VC8-UAdA5MvjiT

https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2021/02/myanmar-military-coup-joe-biden/617997/

Written by stewart henderson

February 26, 2021 at 12:00 pm

a bonobo world etc 27: male violence and the Myanmar coup

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Myanmar protests, from the safety of Thailand

So the military has staged another coup in Myanmar. Bearing in mind the overwhelming maleness of most militaries, let’s take a closer look. 

A very interesting article was published in the US Army journal Military Review in late 2019 about women in the Myanmar armed forces, which also gave an overview of the role of women in the society as a whole. The article emphasises women’s positive role in trying to establish peace in the country, and at the same time describes in mixed terms the role of women in the military (they make up about 0.2% of the armed forces). Not surprisingly, they want to see more women joining the military, while praising recent increases. Which raises, of course, the idea of a military as a force for peace. Here’s an interesting example of the article’s thinking:

The speed and spread of Myanmar’s peace, prosperity, and progress depends on the elimination of violent conflicts in its border areas. However, bringing peace to these regions has been extremely slow (almost to a stalemate with some of the ethnic armed groups). As the peace process creeps forward at a snail’s pace, the increased participation of Myanmar women should be seriously considered to quicken the stride. According to data from the Center for Foreign Relations, women and civil-society’s participation in the peace negotiations increases the chance of success by 36 percent, and obtained peace is more enduring. In order for Myanmar women to participate effectively in the peace process, they must be given opportunities to upgrade their capability and capacity. Opportunity to serve in the armed forces is one of the ways to elevate their capability, capacity, and experience to participate in the security sector.

This I think speaks to a modern rethinking of the military as essentially a peace-keeping force, which is essentially a good thing, though in the very next sentence the author writes that the purpose of the military is ‘to win the nation’s wars and to prevail against enemies’. Note the lack of any ethical content in the remark. The reason that I would never for a moment consider joining any military is because I’m profoundly anti-authoritarian. I can’t bear to be told by someone else how to stack boxes, let alone who to kill and maim for the apparent benefit of my country. Australia has been involved in two wars since I’ve lived here, in Vietnam and Iraq. Neither of them had anything to do with ‘keeping Australia (or any of its allies) safe’. They had more to do with advantaging the invading countries at the expense of the invaded. Warfare is getting rarer, and more technological, which I suppose means that brute force, and physical strength, is less important, but to me the best effect women would have is in negotiations and mediation to prevent wars, and of course they’re already doing a great job of that worldwide.

Myanmar’s overwhelmingly Buddhist society is very male-dominated – I don’t know if that’s due to Buddhist precepts or because the Buddhism is interpreted through a traditionally patriarchal society – and this will impede any possible transformation of its military. The article has another comment, which can surely be generalised beyond the military:

Research has shown that a critical mass of 30 percent is needed in order to see the full benefits of female integration and gender perspective within the organization and at leadership levels. However, the drop-offs and second-generation bias can impede the attainment of 30 percent.

Yes, aiming for 30% female control of the military, political systems, the business sector, and all wealth and power, just for starters – and by 2050, since the international community loves to set targets – would be a most worthy thing. But watch out for the backlash. 

But returning to Myanmar today, and the coup. But first, I recommend an excellent background piece on the problems in faction-ridden Myanmar, and the role of women in fighting for minority recognition, written last November for The New Humanitarian. The author wasn’t able to put their name to the piece due to security concerns. The piece was written immediately after Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) scored a landslide victory in a national election, winning over 80% of the vote and increasing its 2015 majority. But, in a familiar refrain, the military-based opposition party, the USDP, claimed fraud and vote-rigging, claims that are apparently as baseless as those of the Trumpets. The apparent villain in all this is military chief Min Aung Hlaing, a corrupt thug who was sanctioned by the US and the UK for his role in the 2017 Rohingya massacres. He is claiming justification due to the ‘failure to act on widespread election corruption’ (I can’t help reflecting that Trump’s clear contempt for the military and everyone involved in it is a clear factor in his never getting to be the dictator he wants to be). However, the massive failure of the USDP in the recent elections may make it difficult for the coup’s long-term success this time around – but the immediate concern now is about violence, suffering and death in an impoverished, heavily factionalised nation. 

The international community will need to play a role in universally condemning the coup – though the Chinese government, well-known for its macho thuggery, is already soft-pedalling its response. China is Myanmar’s principal economic partner.

And I strongly suspect that, with Min Aung Hlaing in charge, that 30% critical mass of female participation in any field of economic, political or military activity will be the last thing his ‘government’ will be thinking about.    

References

https://www.armyupress.army.mil/Journals/Military-Review/English-Edition-Archives/November-December-2019/Byrd-Myanmar-Gender-Armed-Forces/

https://www.thenewhumanitarian.org/news-feature/2020/11/18/myanmar-women-army-arakan-rakhine-female-soldiers-peace

https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2021/2/1/who-is-min-aung-hlain

Written by stewart henderson

February 3, 2021 at 5:02 pm

A bonobo world and other impossibilities 24: women and warfare (1)

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The following is re-posted and was first written on this blog in December 2018, but I’m doing this under a new title (with some changes) because it clearly belongs in this series.

female ring-tailed lemur – strong and sexy

I recently listened to a bit of historian Margaret McMillan, along with some military reps, on the radio talking about warfare past and future. It was recorded during a public talk on the topic. I’ve got her book, The Uses and Abuses of History, which I’ve not yet read, but I was struck by her pessimistic attitude. Of course she’s right to say that warfare isn’t about to disappear, and dog knows we have a proliferation of macho thugs on the global scene at present, but her somewhat dismissive description of Pinker’s thesis, that the world is getting less violent, rather irked me. She described the thesis as ‘persuasive but too positive’ or some such term (which struck me as odd if not disingenuous – obviously she wasn’t persuaded). To me, considering that, almost to the end of the nineteenth century, warfare was a way of life for many a European male, and that the so-called Great War showed so many people how disastrous zero-sum game nationalism and one-eyed patriotism can be, and how far we have come, generally, from seeing other cultures as ‘savage’ or backward, and especially how far we’ve progressed in multiculturalism over the past century or so, I can’t accept that we haven’t made great strides in reducing warfare among civilised nations in the 20th century and beyond. Not, of course, without great cost, in the early half of that century especially. Our knowledge of our own destructive capabilities has acted as something of a brake.

But it was a response during question time that has prompted me to write. MacMillan was asked whether things would be better if, say, the US President was a woman, or some such thing. Anyway the gist of the question was whether warfare would be reduced if women were in charge. Macmillan was again sceptical/pessimistic, citing Indira Ghandi’s record as India’s PM. Of course she could’ve cited others, like Margaret Thatcher, or even Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel Peace prizewinner who’s been so much under fire for Burma’s treatment of its Rohingya population. But I found this response to be shallow and fatuous. The case of Aung San Suu Kyi is most telling – she’s largely a captive of the all-male military, all Buddhists like the all-male monks who’ve been most active in the Rohingya persecutions. But it’s the same for all female heads of state. Their cabinets and their political advisers are overwhelmingly male, they have to deal with a military sector which is entirely male, and a business sector which is much the same. All the power in all the lands you care to mention is massively male. Massively. In order to seriously answer the question ‘What if women were in charge?’ you have to imagine a ‘world turned upside down’. Anything less, as I say, would be a fatuous and shallow response. You would have to imagine a world with a more or less all-female political-military-business sector. And if you think that’s crazy, why don’t you think the current more or less all-male power situation is crazy?

The fact is that statistically, women are less aggressive than men. We can go into all sorts of genetic, hormonal, cultural and environmental reasons for this – and it’s important to explore all of that – but the fact itself is undeniable. It also appears that women are more collaborative – more able to work especially with other women. Of course women can be aggressive and highly competitive – I love women’s sports, but I notice that in women’s soccer and basketball I’ve never once seen the kind of all-in biffo that quite regularly spoils the men’s version of these sports. This is no accident (and nor is it necessarily a permanent feature – societies evolve, for better or worse).

Wars in the past have always been associated with manliness – not just physical warfare, but the kind of business and political warfare that Trump – the archetypal wannabe macho ‘winner’ – engages in. And in an increasingly interconnected and inter-reliant global scenario, this kind of warfare is proving more and more counter-productive.

I believe that one day – though hardly in the near future – we will socially evolve, out of sheer necessity, into civilisations in which women hold the balance of power. It won’t simply be a ‘world turned upside down’ but more like a move from chimp-like society to bonobo-like society. I’ve held this view for a long time but I’ve hardly dared express it. Luckily, so few people read my writing that I’m unlikely to experience much blowback, but in any case many would argue that it’s illegitimate to compare humans with other species. Not just because of the essentially religious idea of ‘human specialness’, but because ‘civilisation’ or ‘culture’ has so altered the human psyche that it’s essentially useless to compare us with species that either don’t have culture or have it in only the most rudimentary form.

I doubt if Darwin would agree, as much of his work focussed on the extraordinary complexity of non-human species, and the ‘instinctiveness’ of humans. In any case I’ll focus now on other primates, all of whom are socially organised in one way or another.

The lemurs of Madagascar are prosimians, species of primates that are considered less ‘evolved’ than simians. Outside of their current island home, lemurs were out-competed by the more adapted species they gave rise to. Fascinatingly, all lemur species are female-dominant, though not always through sexual dimorphism. Lemurs live in small groups, with a generally even male-female ratio. A key feature of lemur social life is the creation of coalitions, especially as regards sexual behaviour, and sexual behaviour, obviously, is key to any species’ survival and development. The lemurs are something of a mystery in regard to their female-dominant traits, which has even given rise to a slightly pejorative title for the mystery – the lemur syndrome. In any case, understanding their group dynamics, involving coalitions, competition and sex, inter alia, and linking this behaviour to genes, gene expression and neurological findings – which are being increasingly honed and targeted – is essential to solving the mystery.

The same goes, of course, for all prosimian and simian species. The vast majority of them are male-dominant, often, but not always reflected in a greater or lesser degree of sexual dimorphism. Size isn’t everything in species with complex and sometimes gender-based group dynamics. And so I come to that old favourite topic, chimps and bonobos, our equal-closest living relatives.

Chimps can be violent towards each other, often to a sickening degree – almost as sickening as humans – but, as with humans, this violence is clearly not ultimately self-destructive. For example, when a gang of chimps come across a stray member of a neighbouring group, it’s not uncommon for them to bite, kick and stomp the unfortunate to death. There have even been occasions when one group has slaughtered another wholesale, though one or two might survive by flight – and again, human comparisons spring to mind.

Chimps live in fission-fusion social groups, meaning that they form small, relatively unstable groups within a larger association which may amount to hundreds. Within these groups, large or small, there is a male linear dominance hierarchy, in which the group has one alpha male, who dominates all the others, followed by a beta male, who dominates everyone but the alpha, and so on down the line. Males remain in their birth communities, but females emigrate more or less at adolescence. This means that the young females entering a new group are of lower status and are viewed with suspicion (think of refugees at the US southern border). It also means that the females break kinship ties more than the males. Males also bond through co-operative hunting and boundary patrolling, and in attacking other groups. Again, think of human tribal behaviour. In some chimp communities kinship has been observed to be more important than other coalitions, in others not, but in either case male bonding adds to dominance over females. Co-operative hunting, it should be added, is having serious effects on the hunted, which is usually the red colobus monkey, which is in serious decline in multiple sites where chimps are thriving.

There is always one power that females have in these societies, the power to produce offspring – to maintain the species. Estrus in chimps is marked by visible swelling of the anogenital region, though the first of these swellings occurs before the young female is fertile, and may be a way of attracting males in her new community. Females are able to give birth (parturition) at 13-14 years, but if they aren’t accepted in the community, there’s a danger of infanticide by males, especially as females often use promiscuity to establish themselves. Infanticide tends to reduce the female’s interbirth interval, and favours the genetic line of the male doing the killing (one wonders if they have a way of ‘knowing’ that the murdered child isn’t theirs). Chimp sexual activity is generally promiscuous, though it most often occurs during estrus (maximal tumescence). The female, of course, has to strategise to find the best opportunity for producing healthy and communally favoured offspring – not an easy task, as it leads to secretiveness, suspicion, jealousy and so forth.

Of course, I’m writing this to draw comparisons between chimp societies and early human societies, out of which our modern civilisations developed. Human societies are more complex, naturally, reflecting individual, neurological complexity, and greater, more diverse cultural complexity, but the basis of our patriarchy can certainly be traced in our chimp relatives. Bonobos, however, are quite different, and remarkably so considering their relatively recent divergence from their chimp cousins. Humans have one great advantage over chimps and bonobos, I think. We can consciously teach ourselves to change, to be better adapted to a biosphere we have increasingly recognised is interdependent and precious in its astonishing diversity. And we can learn a lot about this from bonobos.

References

Margaret MacMillan, The uses and abuses of history, 2010.

Charles Darwin, On the origin of species by means of natural selection, 1859

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lemur

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chimpanzee

 

Written by stewart henderson

January 25, 2021 at 8:50 pm

A bonobo world, etc, 18: gender and aggression in life and sport

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bonobos play-fighting

 

human apes play-fighting?

If anyone, like me, says or thinks that they’d like to be a bonobo, it’s to be presumed they don’t mean they’d like to live in trees, be covered in hair, have a shortened life-span, a brain reduced to a third of its current size, and to never concern themselves with why the sky is blue, how the Earth spins, and whether the universe is finite or infinite. What we’re really interested in is how they deal with particular matters that have bedevilled human societies in their infinite variety – namely sex, violence, effective community and the role of women, vis-a-vis these matters.

While making a broad generalisation about human society, in all its billions, might leave me open to ridicule, we seem to have followed the chimpanzee and gorilla path of male domination, infighting as regards pecking order, and group v group aggression, rising to warfare and nuclear carnage as human apes became more populous and technologically sophisticated. One interesting question is this: had we followed the bonobo path of female group bonding and controlling the larger males by means of those bonds, and of group raising of children causing reduced jealousies and infanticides, would we have reached the heights of civilisation, if that’s the word, and world domination that we have reached today?

I realise this is an impossible question to answer, and yet… Human apes, especially in post-religious societies, are recognising the power and abilities of their women more and more. Social evolution has speeded up this process, bringing about changes in single lifetimes. In 1793 Olympe de Gouges, playwright, abolitionist, political activist and author of the Declaration of the Rights of Woman and the Female Citizen, was guillotined by Robespierre’s disastrous Montagnard faction, as much for being a moderate as for being a woman. Clearly a progressivist, de Gouges opposed the execution of Louis XVI, and capital punishment generally, and favoured a constitutional monarchy, a system which still operates more or less effectively in a number of European nations (it seems better than the US system, though I’m no monarchist). Today, capital punishment generally thrives only in the most brutally governed nations, such as China, Iran and Saudi Arabia, though there are unfortunate outliers such as Japan, Singapore and arguably the USA (none of those last three countries have ever had female leaders – just saying). One hundred years after de Gouges died for promoting female equality and moderation, women were still being denied a university education in every country in the world. However in the last hundred years, and especially in the last fifty, we’ve seen dramatic changes, both in the educational and scientific fields, and in political leadership. The labours of to the Harvard computers, Williamina Fleming, Annie Jump Cannon, Antonia Maury and many others, working for a fraction of male pay, opened up the field of photometric astronomy and proved beyond doubt that women were a valuable and largely untapped intellectual resource. Marie Curie became the most famous female scientist of her day, and inspired women around the world to enter the scientific fray. Today, women such as Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier, of CRISPR-Cas9 fame, and Michelle Simmons, Australia’s quantum computing wizard, are becoming more and more commonplace in their uncommon intellect and skills. And in the political arena, we’ve had female leaders in Australia, New Zealand, the UK, Germany, Norway, Finland, Iceland, Denmark, Belgium, France, Portugal, Austria, Slovakia, Bulgaria, Romania, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Serbia, Croatia, Russia (okay, in the eighteenth century), China (nineteenth century), South Korea, Myanmar, Pakistan, India, Indonesia, the Phillippines, Sri Lanka (the world’s first female PM), Israel, Ethiopia and Liberia, and I may have missed some. This may seem an incredible transformation, but many of these women were brief or stop-gap leaders, and were all massively outnumbered by their male counterparts and generally had to deal with male advisers and business and military heavyweights. 

So it’s a matter of rapid change but never rapid enough for our abysmally short life spans. But then, taking a leaf from the bonobo tree, we should look at the power of female co-operation, not just individual achievement. Think of the suffragist movement of the early 1900s (the term suffragette was coined by a Daily Mail male to belittle the movement’s filletes), which, like the Coalition of Women for Peace (in Israel/Palestine) a century later, was a grassroots movement. They couldn’t be otherwise, as women were then, and to a large extent still are, shut out of the political process. They’re forced into other channels to effect change, which helps explain why approximately 70% of NGO positions are held by women, though the top positions are still dominated by men. 

When I think of teams, and women, and success, two more or less completely unrelated fields come to mind – science and sport. In both fields cooperation and collaboration are essential to success, and more or less friendly competition against others in the field is essential to improve quality. Womens’ team sport is as competitive as that of men but without quite the same bullish, or chimp, aggressiveness, it seems to me, and the research backs this up. Sport, clearly, is a constructed form of play, in which the stakes are sometimes very high in terms of trophies, reputations and bragging rights, but in which the aggression is generally brought to an end by the final whistle. However, those high stakes sometimes result in foul play and overly aggressive attempts to win at all costs – and the same thing can happen in science. Sporting aggression, though, is easier to assess because it’s more physical, and more publicly displayed (and more likely to be caught on camera). To take my favourite sport, soccer, the whole object for each team is to fight to get and maintain possession of the ball for the purpose of scoring goals. This battle mostly involves finesse and teamwork, but when the ball is in open play it often involves a lot of positional jostling and other forms of physicality. Personally, I’ve witnessed many an altercation in the male game, when one player gets pissed off with another’s shirt-tugging and bumping, and confronts him chest-to-chest, nature documentary-style. The female players, when faced with this and other foul play, invariably turn to the referee with a word or a gesture. Why might this be? 

In 1914, the American psychologist E L Thorndike wrote:

The most striking differences in instinctive equipment consists in the strength of the fighting instinct in the male and of the nursing instinct in the female…. The out-and-out physical fighting for the sake of combat is pre-eminently a male instinct, and the resentment at mastery, the zeal to surpass, and the general joy at activity in mental as well as physical matters seem to be closely correlated with it.
Of course, much has changed since those observations. Women in OECD countries aren’t quite so into nursing, with birth rates plummeting and female work-place participation rising, but boys still like to tote guns by and large, and girls still like to dress as fairies and play with dolls. The difference is largely in degree. But my observations of soccer matches tell me that women are far less inclined to fight their own battles regardless of the rules than men, and have an ‘instinctive’ (but it’s all cultural) sense of referring to the referee, the parental figure, when aggression is wrongly applied. The thought comes to mind of a girl running to mum or dad when nasty big brother is tormenting her. It’s the reasonable thing to do. Boys, though, are still half-expected to fight their own battles.
 
References
 
https://pages.uoregon.edu/dluebke/301ModernEurope/GougesRightsofWomen.pdf
 
 
https://www.researchgate.net/publication/229698542_Aggression_Gender_and_Sport_Reflections_on_Sport_as_a_Means_of_Moral_Education
 
 

Written by stewart henderson

December 31, 2020 at 4:37 pm

a bonobo world and other impossibilities 15

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returning to the ‘farm’ in 1919 – 10 million dead, 21 million more mutilated

stuff on aggression and warfare

Warfare has long been a feature of human culture; impossible to say how far back it goes. Of course war requires some unspecified minimum number of participants, otherwise it’s just a fight, and one thing we can be certain of is that there were wars worthy of the name before the first, disputed, war we know of, when the pharoah Menes conquered northern Egypt from the south over 5000 years ago. The city of Jericho, which lays claim to being the oldest, was surrounded by defensive walls some three metres thick, dating back more than 9000 years, and evidence of weapons of war, and of skeletal remains showing clear signs of violent death by such weapons, dates back to 12000 years ago. None of this should surprise us, but our knowledge of early Homo sapiens is minuscule. The earliest skeletal data so far found takes us back nearly 200,000 years to the region now covered by Ethiopia in east Africa. We know next to nothing of the lifestyle and culture of these early humans. There’s plenty of dispute and uncertainty about the evolution of language, for example, which is surely essential to the planning of organised warfare. The most accepted estimates lie in a range from 160,000 to 80,000 years ago, but if it can ever be proven that our cousins the Neanderthals had language, this could take its origins back another hundred thousand years or more. Neanderthals share with us the FOXP2 gene, which plays a role in control of facial muscles which we use in speech, but this gene is regulated differently in humans.

In any case, warfare requires not only language and planning but sufficient numbers to carry out the plan. So just how many humans were roving about the African continent some 100,000 years ago?

The evidence suggests that the numbers were gradually rising, such that the first migrations out of Africa took place around this time, as our ancestors sought out fresh resources and more benign environments. They could also be escaping human enemies, or seeking out undisputed territory. 

Of course there may have been as much collaboration as competition. We just don’t know. What I’m trying to get at is, were we always heading in the chimp direction of male dominance and aggression, or were there some bonobo traits that tempered this aggression? Of course, I’m not talking about influence – we haven’t been influenced, in our development, by these cousins of ours in any way. We only came to recognise them as cousins very recently. And with this recognition, it might be worth learning more from family.  

Human warfare has largely been about the expansion or defense of territory, and it was a constant in Europe from the days of the Roman Empire until well into the nineteenth century. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, armaments became far more deadly, and the 1914-18 war changed, hopefully for good, our attitude to this activity, which had previously been seen as a lifetime career and a proof of manliness. This was the first war captured by photography and newsreels, and covered to a substantial degree by journalism. If the Thirty Years’ War had been covered by photojournalists and national newspapers it’s unlikely the 1914-18 disaster would have occurred, but the past is another country. Territory has become more fixed, and warfare more costly in recent times. Global trade has become fashionable, and international, transnational and intergovernmental organisations are monitoring climate change, human rights, health threats and global economic development. Violent crime has been greatly reduced in wealthy countries, and is noticeably much greater in the poorer sectors of those countries. Government definitely pays a role in providing a safety net for the disadvantaged, and in encouraging a sense of possibility through education and effective healthcare. It’s noteworthy that the least crime-ridden countries, such as Iceland, New Zealand, Portugal and Denmark, have relatively small populations, rate highly in terms of health, work-life balance and education, and have experienced long periods of stable government. 

Of course the worry about the future of warfare is its impersonality. This has already begun of course, and the horrific double-whammy of Horishima-Nagasaki was one of the first past steps towards  that future. Japan’s military and ruling class had been on a fantastical master-race slaughter spree for some five decades before the bombs were dropped, but even so the stories of suffering and dying schoolchildren and other innocents in the aftermath of that attack make us all feel ashamed. And then what about Dresden? And Auschwitz? And Nanjing? And it continues, and is most egregious when one party, the perpetrator, has far more power than the other, the victim. Operation Menu, a massive carpet bombing campaign of eastern Cambodia conducted by the US Strategic Air Command in 1969 and 1970, was an escalation of activities first begun during the Johnson administration in 1965, in the hope of winning or at least gaining ground in the Vietnam war. There were all sorts of strategic reasons given for this strategy, of course, but little consideration was given to the villagers and farmers and their families, who just happened to be in the way. Much more recently the Obama administration developed a ‘kill list’, under the name Disposition Matrix, which has since been described as ‘potentially indefinite’ in terms of its ongoing targets. This involved the use of drone strikes, effectively eliminating the possibility of US casualties. Unsurprisingly, details of these strikes have been hard to uncover, but Wikipedia, as always, helps us get to the truth:

… Ben Emmerson, special investigator for the United Nations Human Rights Council, stated that U.S. drone strikes may have violated international humanitarian law. The Intercept reported, “Between January 2012 and February 2013, U.S. special operations airstrikes [in northeastern Afghanistan] killed more than 200 people. Of those, only 35 were the intended targets. During one five-month period of the operation, according to the documents, nearly 90 percent of the people killed in airstrikes were not the intended targets.” 

Cambodians, Afghans, distant peoples, not like us. And of course it’s important to keep America safe. And the world too. That’s why the USA must never become a party to the International Criminal Court. The country is always prepared to justify its violent actions, to itself. And it’s a nation that knows a thing or two about violence. According to the Institute for Economics and Peace (IEP), the USA is ranked 121st among the most peaceful countries in the world. 

References

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Drone_strike#United_States_drone_strikes

https://www.gfmag.com/global-data/non-economic-data/most-peaceful-countries

Written by stewart henderson

December 3, 2020 at 12:18 am

Posted in Japan, USA, Vietnam, violence, war

Tagged with , ,

the male violence thing: why deny it?

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I’ve written a few pieces on women, power and such things, from a position of frustration that there haven’t been enough women in power, and that women, and men, have suffered too much from male abuses of power – and that of course includes violence. At the beginning of last year I attended a vigil of sorts on the steps of our state parliament, which involved a solemn roll call of all the women who died violently in Australia (not including those who died in vehicle accidents, of which more later), and the sad circumstances of their passing. I noted that not all the women were victims of male violence – only 90-95% from memory – but clearly male violence was the principal problem. I was also aware, from research, that most victims of male violence are other males.

Around 95% of all victims of violence, whether women or men, experience that violence from a male perpetrator.

White Ribbon Australia, citing the Australian Bureau of Statistics

So I was a bit disconcerted when, some time ago, I brought up the obvious issue of male violence, in the context of sport (as opposed to the relative lack of violence, on and off the field, or court etc, in female sports) and I received pushback, as the Yanks say, from someone who more less completely denied that there was any imbalance. In fact he appeared to argue that women were just as violent as men, in every way.

So, to be clear, this is a question of fact, not of opinion, and in order to be factual we need to define violence precisely. I’m defining it as an act which results in death or physical injury, to the self and/or others. This isn’t to deny that psychological or emotional violence exists, of course it does, but it’s virtually impossible to measure. Any conversation between two people could be seen as profoundly coercive by one, totally benign by the other, or anything between these extremes by observers. It’s very subjective. Nor am I denying that psychological violence can be totally life-destroying. It just isn’t measurable in any clear way, unlike physical violence. And it was physical violence that our conversation was about.

Reliable statistical data on this topic is available everywhere on the internet. It tells us a sad, but fairly obvious truth. Men are more violent than women in every country and in every culture on the planet, without exception. And men have been more violent than women in every age of which we have record, since the appearance of Homo sapiens some 300,000 years ago.

Looking at the matter historically, there’s a certain amount of controversy, due to the patchy evidence as to whether hunter-gatherers were more ‘prone to violence’ than humans in a more ‘civilised’ state. Certainly it’s true that after the establishment of expansionist states, war was more often than not a central component of politics, and war was carried out by men, generally young men from their late teens into their late twenties. This state of affairs was the norm for centuries, and one could reasonably argue that warfare as policy was only abandoned when weaponry became so devastating that it was too costly for each state to engage in it, though I think Enlightenment values, a more scientific understanding of universal human nature and the subsequent development of trans-national treaties and organisations have all played a role.

But even in hunter-gathering societies the pattern of male violence was set. The hunters were of course more or less exclusively male, and, with rewards going to the best hunters, fierce competition was bound to arise within hunter-gathering tribes. It’s quite likely that the most successful competitors would have high status, even chieftain status, within the group. And with the division into groups, or tribes, with their more or less self-appointed hunting territories, rivalry and competition between groups would have arisen, the precursors of later, more destructive forms of aggression. We see exactly this pattern, of course, in our closest living relatives, chimps – battles between males of different groups over territory and resources, and battles between males within groups over hierarchy and access to females.

It might be argued that the modern world is quite different. But there’s a pattern in modern society that needs to be accounted for, though it’s not exactly a modern pattern, even if it’s given a modern spin. Men – and boys -tend to join gangs. Of course, not all young men do this, but a substantial proportion do. Women tend not to do so, or not nearly to the same extent. I’m talking about street gangs, crime gangs, ethnic gangs, ‘football hooligan’ gangs, bikie gangs, neo-nazi gangs, white supremacist gangs etc. I even joined one myself as a teenager, and we roamed the streets looking for trouble but rarely managing to find it.

not my gang

What drives this behaviour amongst this section of the male population (from the mid-teens to the mid-twenties, roughly speaking)? Hormones appear to play a primary role, and it’s no coincidence that exactly the same aggressive, show-offy group behaviour is to be found in the young males of other complex, highly social mammals, including chimps, dolphins and elephants. I have mixed feelings for those who scoff at all comparisons between homo sapiens and other mammals, because of course science has taught us about our profoundly mammalian nature, while our development of scientific explanations and understandings is precisely what marks us off from other mammals, and provides us with the potential to transcend our mammalian nature. Biology doesn’t have to be destiny.

The preponderance of male violence in our society is a problem for which we need to find solutions. But first we need to admit that there’s a problem. Let me give one compelling statistic as proof. The major cause of violent death and injury in peaceful countries – those not engaged in internal or external warfare – are males between the ages of approximately 17 and 25 behind the wheel of a motor vehicle. On a per capita basis, males cause 1.5 to 2 times more vehicle accidents than females, regardless of country, and it’s entirely that 17-25 age group that causes the disparity. It’s of course no coincidence that this is the same age that young males join gangs or the military. It’s the hormonal age.

In presenting this brief account of male risk-taking, aggression and violence, I’m not pretending that females are passive victims of all this. Of course the picture is enormously complex (in humans and in other mammals). In the cyber-age, female teenage bullying has become a serious problem – and of course it was a problem in the schoolyard before that. People in general can be brutal and malicious to their neighbours in times of stress, but we’ve emerged from, or are trying to emerge from, a highly patriarchal culture in which being a physically tough male is still a source of respect – in my own schoolyard, everyone knew who the toughest kid was, the ‘best fighter’, not the ‘brainiest’.

So, to return to my conversation, which was about sport and violence, and the claim that men are no more violent on and around sporting arenas than women. It amazes me that, given all the evidence about male violence, someone would think that sporting arenas would be an exception to the well-attested facts about male violence, in comparison to that of women. The sport I follow most by far is soccer, and I’ve particularly enjoyed the rise in women’s soccer in the last few years. It’s of course fiercely competitive, full of rough and tumble, with plenty of pushing and shoving at corners and free kicks, but having watched a lot of female matches over the years, I’ve rarely seen an example of the face-to-face, ‘I’m tougher than you’ behaviour shown at the top of this post, which is very common in the male game. The image prompts more or less amusing comparisons with wildlife programs, with rival males competing to be the pack leader. Men are too often like that, but of course not all men, and with the broad societal changes that have occurred in recent decades and centuries, there’s no need for men to think and act like this today – though the profound inequality that persists still sanctions and rewards this behaviour in poorly resourced, embattled parts of the world.

Where I see most progress and feel most hopeful is, again, the enterprise of science. In reading, for example, Venki Ramakrishnan’s book The gene machine and Meredith Wadman’s The vaccine race, I find the mix of competition and collaboration in fields of research to be favourable to both genders (or should I say all genders these days), and its success will hopefully flow on to politics, sports and other aspects of life.

Written by stewart henderson

June 12, 2020 at 2:03 pm

the boy in the white palace 5: empêchement? sûrement pas, and farewell

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Canto: As we ghouls await the kind of ritual massacre in the USA we’ve been primed for by watching Korean historical dramas, we of course recognise that the current laughing-stock status of that once-proud nation – admitted by a number of American analysts – is really serious stuff. However…

Jacinta: Indeed there are many howevers…

Canto: You do it it yourselves, you do, and that’s what really hurts. Take impeachment – a funny word, actually adapted from the French by the English. An empêchement, from the verb empêcher, to prevent, has in modern French a very everyday meaning, i.e. something that stops you from doing something, but it was first used by the English as a (somewhat ill-defined) politico-legal process way back in the 14th century. It remains just as ill-defined to this day, inhabiting a distinctly grey area between politics and the law. 

Jacinta: In those countries that have had the misfortune to adopt this horribly tainted and, IMHO, worthless procedure, it’s inevitably bound up with that nation’s Constitution – and considering that most national constitutions are creaky with age, impeachment suffers from the same creakiness. 

Canto: A kind of highly formalised shemozzle. It’s wholly obsolete in the UK, being surplus to requirements, and has never been a thing in Australia. For crimes, of course, we have this thing called law, and if a Prime Minister goes rogue, without quite doing anything he can be arrested for, she gets dropped as the team’s captain, and, depending on how rogue she goes, is either consigned to another place in the team or is dropped from the team altogether. Then the team selects another PM. And it’s not a particularly traumatic event, because the PM isn’t a quasi-king with his own white palace and swathe of courtiers and princeling-in-waiting. 

Jacinta: I don’t know whether there’s any point trying to convince Americans of the rottenness of GASP – the Great American System of the Presidency. I suspect they’re rather brainwashed about the beauty and perfection of it all. Rarely do I hear any American ‘expert’ speak critically about GASP, in spite of their intelligence in other areas. It’s a frog-in-the-heating-pan sort of thing.

Canto: Yes, to do away with impeachment means to do away with the super-powers of the Leader, which have actually, I think, led to the boy-king’s cult following. Do away with the superpowers, distribute the powers, thus diluted into ordinary human powers, throughout the principal players of the team, and sharpen up the laws on emoluments, campaign finances and influence peddling, and you might just start getting back to something like a real democracy.

Jacinta: This boy-king is, very obviously to all outside observers, a crime machine. The financial morass of his self-interest takes us to Russia, Turkey, Kazakhstan, Saudi Arabia, Azerbaijan, Israel, China, Indonesia and twenty-odd other countries large and small, and common garden corruption is to be found in all these dealings, because that’s all he understands, insofar as he understands anything. The cult following of his ‘base’ is all the more tragic when it’s clear that he despises them all and loves them only as dupes. He would immediately have anyone resembling these workers thrown out of his mar-a-lago shangri-la because he’s only ever comfortable with crooked rich people. But his success is, of course, the USA’s failure, and that is a vast thing. I don’t want to see the USA fail, but I would only want it to succeed from this point through a massive, soul-searching transformation. Not only of its presidential system – and I’m not sure if that system deserves to survive at all – but of its economic system and its criminal justice system. Currently, the USA is a global disgrace and deserves to be. And it will get worse – which will perhaps be a blessing in disguise. It may have to get worse for the transformation to be as fulsome as it needs to be. That, I think, is why we’re watching with such gruesome attentiveness. But I’m not confident that too many lessons will have been learned when we examine political America in five years’ time. The country won’t ‘come together’. It won’t start to rank higher on the Better Life Index. The third world poverty, disadvantage and despair in vast regions of the country won’t be alleviated, and it will continue to call itself the greatest nation on Earth, the leader of the free world, home of the brave and other nationalistic twaddle. And it will continue to be at war with itself while it bullies other nations, as powerful nations inevitably do.

Canto: Yes, we’re getting tired of watching, and maybe we should turn to other things, more positive stuff like science and solutions, heros and sheros, nice, positive go-getters who strive to make the world better and shame us, in the best possible way, with their energetic example. Adios little boy-king, may you finally get what you deserve, and may a chastened nation get out from under…

Written by stewart henderson

November 11, 2019 at 12:20 pm

the boy in the white palace 3: the GASP v the Westminster system

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I don’t care if they respect me, so long as they fear me.

Caligula

Canto: Here’s a thing, I recently heard a politico-legal pundit – I think it was Chuck Rosenberg, but I may be wrong, I’m trying to track it down – say on MSNBC, a favourite site of mine these days, that ‘we’ (i.e. the American people) ‘don’t get rid of our Leader lightly, unlike the UK, who can dispose of theirs by a simple vote of no-confidence by the Leader’s party’. That was the gist of what he said – it’s a summary, not a direct transcript – and it made me fall off my chair laughing and crying. It was very clear to me that the notion that you shouldn’t be able to dump the boy-king easily was an advantage of the Great American System of the Presidency (GASP), was Total Effing Bullshit (TFB). It took me quite some to get over this piece of tomfoolery.

Jacinta: Ah yes, well that requires a bit of explanation and comparison of the two systems. It’s amusing that the Westminster system of government, derived of course from the UK but utilised with variants in Australia, New Zealand and Canada, and with even more variants in other major nations such as India, Japan, Israel and Malaysia, was actually the basis of the GASP. But in some ways that 18th century Westminster system has since moved way ahead of the GASP, in that the parliament has become far more powerful, and the constitutional monarchy, upon which the constitutional presidency was based, has withered away to playing a purely ceremonial role. To me that’s good, as maintaining a monarchy has preserved a lot of history – good and bad – and it’s generally good for tourism, as long as they behave themselves.

Canto: Yes the royal we’s are probably generating more income for the country than what it costs to keep them, as long as they don’t multiply and extend the family too much. 

Jacinta: This is the thing – the difference between the two systems is vast. The Americans talk about Coequal Branches of Government (CBG) as the basis of GASP, whereas under Westminster, it’s all one – the Parliament. And the Prime Minister’s role and general position is nothing like that of the President/King. The key is in the title, prime, or first, minister. Primum inter pares, first among equals, the captain of the team. If the USA adopted a similar system they’d be far better off – their current PM would be Nancy Pelosi, their previous one, Paul Ryan, and there would be no President, unless they wanted a ceremonial one. There’d be half the number of elections, or even less depending on which Westminster system they adopted (the UK holds national elections every five years, the USA every two, at great expense and to the detriment of long-term planning and development). The Senate could act as a brake upon the House, though sometimes one party would hold power in both chambers, for good or ill. The PM would of necessity be a team player – imagine if she said to a journalist ‘don’t talk about them – I’m the team’. Her party would drop her like a hot spud. 

Canto: Yes, the reason dumping the President/King would be so traumatic, not to say bothersome, is that he has so much effing power. Power to shut down the government, power to pardon miscreants, special executive powers, veto powers, power to fill dozens of administrative posts with his cronies…

Jacinta: Or to leave them vacant, apparently. And power to select his running mate, who will automatically take over if he gets thrown under a bus or drowns in his own bile – again a vastly inferior situation to that under Westminster, where the ousted PM has no say whatever in deciding her own successor. The team’s the thing, the team the team, whereas with the GASP, it’s the superhero individual, the Great Leader, the Portentous POTUS, the Commander-in-Chief and other vainglorious assininities. It’s so typically macho, and American. 

Canto: And while we’re pouring on the scorn, It’s in all their worst movies – Bruce Willis or Sylvester Stallone defying the odds, fighting corruption, saving the state, getting the gal, etc. In fact, this was the essential campaign message of their swamp-draining princeling, which gained him the Kingdom, with much help from the Russian cyber-army. 

Jacinta: And the funny/sad thing is that even the mainstream media – and the experts they bring in, the lifetime lawyers, the intelligence folk, the career civil servants, the historians and on – are so jingoistic, so unself-critical about the GASP, that they blame everything on the boy-king himself – who’s just a boy after all – and have nothing constructive to say about the horrendous GASP. 

Canto: Yes it’s funny, in a grotesque way, to hear many of them say ‘this isn’t a dictatorship’ and ‘he’s not a king’, which nobody ever has to say under the Westminster system…

Jacinta: Under which it would be impossible for this boy-king to rise to absolute power, because their palaces, those of the Westminster nations, are reserved strictly for ceremonial presidents and governors. No power, just lots of fancy architecture and portraiture…

Canto: And lovely gardens.

Jacinta: And garden parties.

Canto: And quaint hats and uniforms. 

Jacinta: And marching bands.

Canto: And many-gun salutes.

Jacinta: And the blowing of purely ceremonial whistles.

Canto: But there are other reasons why this particular princeling, or any other like him, wouldn’t make any headway under Westminster. There are no head-to-head federal elections. Of course, in every particular electorate, there’s usually, but not always, one major candidate of the left pitted against one major candidate of the right, but to get to be Prime Minister, you not only have to win that electorate, you have to win the confidence of the party you’re a member of, by displaying some sort of leadership skills, as well as policy smarts, a certain je ne sais quois charisma, and an ability to unite and inspire a team. And you’ll be expected to sit alongside your team, make speeches in front of your team, while facing the jeers and tough questions of the team sitting directly opposite you, within spitting distance, for every day that parliament sits. No white palace for you, no courtiers, and no immunity. If you go rogue, if you start claiming you’re the team and stuff the rest, you’ll be thrown out the door before you get a chance to open it. 

Jacinta: You might say we can work our political system without a single GASP. 

Canto: Which leaves the question – do you think the American powers-that-be, once they’ve managed to rid themselves of the spoilt boy-king, will ever reform the GASP into a more distributed and effective system?

Jacinta: Very little chance. Will they stop making superhero movies? Very little chance. Will they solve the problem of anti-government fetishism and and fantasies of self-made individualism? Very little chance. Even though the reign of this particular boy-king is likely to end, IMHO, in something memorably horrific – because this boy-king would rather lock himself up in the white palace toilet than go quietly, don’t expect the Americans to come up with a better GASP. They just don’t have it in them, I’m sad to say.

Canto: Well, I want to be more optimistic, but we shall see. We remain watchful ghouls for the foreseeable.

the white palace – watch this space

Written by stewart henderson

November 6, 2019 at 1:29 pm

women and warfare, part 2: humans, bonobos, coalitions and care

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bonobos, or how to be good (without gods)

Shortly before I started writing the first part of this article, I read a sad and disturbing piece in a recent New Scientist, about an Iron Age citadel in modern Iran, called Hasanlu. Its tragic fate reminded me of the smaller scale tragedies that Goodall and others recount in chimpanzee societies, in which one group can systematically slaughter another.

Hasanlu was brutally attacked and destroyed at the end of the ninth century BCE, and amazingly, the massacred people at the site remained untouched until uncovered by archeologists only a few decades ago. One archeologist, Mary Voigt, who worked the site in 1970, has described her reaction:

I come from a long line line of undertakers. Dead people are not scary to me. But when I dug that site I had screaming nightmares.

Voigt’s first discovery was of a small child ‘just lying on the pavement’, with a spear point and an empty quiver lying nearby. In her words:

The unusual thing about the site is all this action is going on and you can read it directly: somebody runs across the courtyard, kills the little kid, dumps their quiver because it’s out of ammunition. If you keep going, there are arrow points embedded in the wall.

Voigt soon found more bodies, all women, on the collapsed roof of a stable:

They were in an elite part of the city yet none of them had any jewellery. Maybe they had been stripped or maybe they were servants. Who knows? But they were certainly herded back there and systematically killed. Its very vivid. Too vivid.

Subsequent studies found that they died from cranial trauma, their skulls smashed by a blunt instrument. And research found many other atrocities at the site. Headless or handless skeletons, skeletons grasping abdomens or necks, a child’s skull with a blade sticking out of it. All providing proof of a frenzy of violence against the inhabitants. There is still much uncertainty as to the perpetrators, but for our purposes, it’s the old story; one group or clan, perhaps cruelly powerful in the past, being ‘over-killed’, in an attempt at obliteration, by a newly powerful, equally cruel group or clan.

Interestingly, while writing this on January 4 2019, I also read about another massacre, exactly ten years ago, on January 4-5 2009. The densely populated district of Zeitoun in Gaza City was attacked by Israeli forces and 48 people, mostly members of the same family, and mostly women, children and the elderly, were killed, and a number of homes were razed to the ground. This was part of the 2008-9 ‘Gaza War’, known by the Arab population as the Gaza Massacre, and by the Israelis as Operation Cast Lead. The whole conflict resulted in approximately 1200-1400 Palestinian deaths. Thirteen Israelis died, four by friendly fire. And of course I could pick out dozens of other pieces of sickening brutality going on in various benighted parts of the world today.

Attempts by one group of people to obliterate another, whether through careful planning or the frenzy of the moment, have been a part of human history, and they’re ongoing. They are traceable as far back, at least, as the ancestry we share with chimpanzees.

But we’re not chimps, or bonobos. A fascinating documentary about those apes has highlighted many similarities between them and us, some not noted before, but also some essential differences. They can hunt with spears, they can use water as a tool, they can copy humans, and collaborate with them, to solve problems. Yet they’re generally much more impulsive creatures than humans – they easily forget what they’ve learned, and they don’t pass on information or knowledge to each other in any systematic way. Some chimp or bonobo communities learn some tricks while others learn other completely different tricks – and not all members of the community learn them. Humans learn from each other instinctively and largely ‘uncomprehendingly’, as in the learning of language. They just do it, and everyone does it, barring genetic defects or other disabilities.

So it’s possible, just maybe, that we can learn from bonobos, and kick the bad habits we share with chimps, despite the long ancestry of our brutality.

Frans De Waal is probably the most high-profile and respected bonobo researcher. Here’s some of what he has to say:

The species is best characterized as female-centered and egalitarian and as one that substitutes sex for aggression. Whereas in most other species sexual behavior is a fairly distinct category, in the bonobo it is part and parcel of social relations–and not just between males and females. Bonobos engage in sex in virtually every partner combination (although such contact among close family members may be suppressed). And sexual interactions occur more often among bonobos than among other primates. Despite the frequency of sex, the bonobos rate of reproduction in the wild is about the same as that of the chimpanzee. A female gives birth to a single infant at intervals of between five and six years. So bonobos share at least one very important characteristic with our own species, namely, a partial separation between sex and reproduction.

Bonobo sex and society, Scientific American, 2006.

Now, I’m a bit reluctant to emphasise sex too much here (though I’m all for it myself), but there appears to be a direct relationship in bonobo society between sexual behaviour and many positives, including one-on-one bonding, coalitions and care and concern for more or less all members of the group. My reluctance is probably due to the fact that sexual repression is far more common in human societies worldwide than sexual permissiveness, or promiscuity – terms that are generally used pejoratively. And maybe I still have a hankering for a Freudian theory I learned about in my youth – that sexual sublimation is the basis of human creativity. You can’t paint too many masterpieces or come up with too many brilliant scientific theories when you’re constantly bonking or mutually masturbating. Having said that, we’re currently living in societies where the arts and sciences are flourishing like never before, while a large chunk of our internet time (though far from the 70% occasionally claimed) is spent watching porn. Maybe some people can walk, or rather wank, and chew over a few ideas at the same (and for some it amounts to the same thing).

So what I do want to emphasise is ‘female-centredness’ (rather than ‘matriarchy’ which is too narrow a term). I do think that a more female-centred society would be more sensual – women are more touchy-feely. I often see my female students walking arm in arm in their friendship, which rarely happens with the males, no matter their country of origin (I teach international students). Women are highly represented in the caring professions – though the fact that we no longer think of the ‘default’ nurse as female is a positive – and they tend to come together well for the best purposes, as for example the Women Wage Peace movement which brings Israeli and Palestinian women together in a more or less apolitical push to promote greater accord in their brutalised region.

October 2017 – Palestinian and Israeli women march for peace near the Dead Sea, and demand representation is any future talks


Women’s tendency to ‘get along’ and work in teams needs to be harnessed and empowered. There are, of course, obstructionist elements to be overcome – in particular some of the major religions, such as Catholic Christianity, Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism, all of which date back centuries or millennia and tend to congeal or ‘eternalise’ the patriarchal social mores and power structures of those distant times. However, there’s no doubt that Christianity, as the most western religion, is in permanent decline, and other religions will continue to feel the heat of our spectacular scientific developments – including our better understanding of other species and their evolved and unwritten moral codes.

The major religions tend to take male supremacy for granted as the natural order of things, but Melvin Konner, in his book Women after all, has summarised an impressive array of bird and mammal species which turn the tables on our assumptions about male hunters and female nurturers. Jacanas, hyenas, cassowaries, montane voles, El Abra pygmy swordtails (a species of fish) and rats, these are just a few of the creatures that clearly defy patriarchal stereotypes. In many fish and bird species, the females physically outweigh the males, and there’s no sense that, in the overwhelming majority of bird species – whose recently-discovered smarts I’ve written about and will continue to write about – one gender bosses the other.

Turning back to human societies, there are essentially three types of relations for continuing the species – monogamy, polyandry and polygyny. One might think that polyandry – where women can have a harem of males to bed with – would be the optimum arrangement for a female-centred society, but in fact all three arrangements can be turned to (or against) the advantage of females. Unsurprisingly, polygyny (polyandry’s opposite) is more commonly practiced in human society, both historically and at present, but in such societies, women often have a ‘career open to talents’, where they and their offspring may have high status due to their manipulative (in the best sense of the word) smarts. In any case, what I envisage for the future is a fluidity of relations, in which children are cared for by males and females regardless of parentage. This brings me back to bonobos, who develop female coalitions to keep the larger males in line. Males are uncertain of who their offspring is in a polyamorous community, but unlike in a chimp community, they can’t get away with infanticide, because the females are in control in a variety of ways. In fact, evolution has worked its magic in bonobo society in such a way that the males are more concerned to nurture offspring than to attack them. And it’s notable that, in modern human societies, this has also become the trend. The ‘feminine’ side of males is increasingly extolled, and the deference shown to females is increasing, despite the occasional throwback like Trump-Putin. It will take a long time, even in ‘advanced’ western societies, but I think the trend is clear. We will, or should, become more like bonobos, because we need to. We don’t need to use sex necessarily, because we have something that bonobos lack – language. And women are very good at language, at least so has been my experience. Talk is a valuable tool against aggression and dysfunction; think of the talking cure, peace talks, being talked down from somewhere or talked out of something. Talk is often beyond cheap, it can be priceless in its benefits. We need to empower the voices of women more and more.

This not a ‘fatalism lite’ argument; there’s nothing natural or evolutionarily binding about this trend. We have to make it happen. This includes, perhaps first off, fighting against the argument that patriarchy is in some sense a better, or more natural system. That involves examining the evidence. Konner has done a great job of attempting to summarise evidence from human societies around the world and throughout history – in a sense carrying on from Aristotle thousands of years ago when he tried to gather together the constitutions of the Greek city-states, to see which might be most effective, and so to better shape the Athenian constitution. A small-scale, synchronic plan by our standards, but by the standards of the time a breath-taking step forward in the attempt not just to understand his world, but to improve it.

References

Melvin Konner, Women after all, 2015

New Scientist, ‘The horror of Hasanlu’ September 15 2018

Max Blumenthal, Goliath, 2013

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zeitoun_incident

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gaza_War_(2008–09)

Written by stewart henderson

January 11, 2019 at 11:25 am

patriarchy, identity politics and immigration – a few reflections

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Germany. Muslim migrants  being threatening. Note the female presence.

Germany. Muslim migrants being threatening. Note the female presence.

 

A conversation between ‘apocalypse man’ Sam Harris and Gad Saad (evolutionary psychologist and producer of a Youtube channel critiquing inter alia various shibboleths of the left), together with some overheard comments at my workplace, as well as other promptings, has led me to consider writing about some major issues confronting our increasingly secular society and it maintenance…

As everyone  knows, in Australia as in other western countries, the influx of refugees from such countries as Iraq and Afghanistan, relatively small though it has been, has ignited a response of what has been called ‘Islamophobia’ amongst a certain sector of the public. This is of course connected to a more generalised xenophobia and nationalism. My own response to all this has been a fairly unconcerned dismissiveness, though coloured by a definite distaste for such items as the niqab, and such customs as the strict segregation of males and females, which I’ve long been exposed to as a teacher of English to Arabic-speaking families. Insofar as I gave it thought, I tended to believe that the children of these immigrants would become more drawn to western secularism and everything would be more or less hunky dory. But the more I read, listen and observe, the less sanguine I’ve become about all that. We may need to defend secularism more robustly in the future.

I think it’s true, though dangerous, to say that the greatest threat to secularism today is Islam. Previously, I’m not sure that I’ve been able to admit this, even to myself – even though it’s been articulated clearly enough by concerned thinkers I admire, such as Sam Harris and Ayaan Hirsi Ali. So now it’s time to face the issue more resolutely and to think about solutions.

Here’s an example that illustrates the problem. In my workplace as a TESOL educator, dealing with mostly Chinese students, together with a substantial proportion of Vietnamese and Arabic speakers, I have a colleague who is an Israeli-born Muslim. She doesn’t wear any kind of head-dress or make any outward display to show that she believes in Islam, she is very professional and hard-working, and she’s very well-liked by and supportive of  her colleagues. In fact, in the first few months of working there, having heard that she was born in Israel, I assumed naturally enough that she was Jewish. Only later did I learn that her native language was Arabic, and even then I wasn’t sure whether she was a practising Muslim. In fact apostate Muslims are rare, but as a sometime member of atheist and humanist groups I do encounter them, and this has probably skewed my views on the possibility of abandoning Islam for those born into it. In any case, three experiences in recent months have brought home to me the difficulty of dealing with even the most apparently liberal Muslims on issues which, for virtually all secular liberals, are no-brainers. First, during a brief staff-room discussion of the marriage equality plebiscite being mooted here in Australia, she quietly stated that ‘we think homosexuality is wrong’. Second, on a video I watched in which she was assessing a seminar on political violence given by a student, she quietly, and very briefly, stated her doubts about the truth of the holocaust (it’s unlikely that her students had the language skills to comprehend her comment). Third, in another staff room discussion, she stated that ‘we don’t believe in evolution’. So herein lies the problem. It is, and I think plenty of research bears this out, a standard view of even the most liberal Muslims, that homosexuality should not be allowed, that natural selection is false and shouldn’t be taught, and that Jews are liars, or worse, and can’t be trusted.

These views are a part of identity politics, hence the regular use of ‘we’ in their delivery. Intelligent though my colleague is, I’d be willing to bet she wouldn’t be able to explain the mechanism of natural selection from random variation that’s the basis of our understanding of life on earth, nor would she be able to give a detailed explanation of how the holocaust ‘myth’ became widespread, or of why homosexuality is so wrong. My guess is that her very being, as part of a rigid collective consciousness, would be threatened if she disavowed these beliefs, and it’s the collective consciousness of Islam that’s my main concern here. Of course this consciousness isn’t absolute, because if it were there would be no apostates and no possibility of apostasy. However, it’s also very powerful and compelling, because if it wasn’t the opprobrium and the violence meted out to apostates wouldn’t be so extreme. So the situation in the Muslim world bears similarities to that of the Christian world in Europe before sceptical individuals such as Cristovao Ferreira, Jean Meslier and Julien de La Mettrie began to proliferate in the eighteenth century – a situation that prevailed for over a thousand years. However, there are important differences between contemporary Muslim collective consciousness and the Christian variety that’s now fast disappearing in Europe. The most important difference, of course, is that European Christendom wasn’t faced with the external pressure of sophisticated societies on its borders, demanding trade deals and seeking to impose universal, largely secular values more or less in exchange. So today there is very much a clash of cultures, though probably not as described in various books on the subject (none of which I’ve read). It’s quite possible, though by no means certain, that this clash, and the greater fluidity of human movement in the 21st century, will speed up the process of change, of a Muslim enlightenment, in coming decades, but there seems little sign of that at present.

So what with Muslim identity politics and no Muslim enlightenment on the horizon, issues arise with respect to immigration, multiculturalism and the like. And I have to say I’m very much torn on this issue. On the one hand I’m disgusted by our former PM Tony Abbott’s portrayal of Syrian refugees as largely economic migrants who need to be turned back if their lives are not in immediate danger, despite the worse than horrendous conditions they suffer under. On the other hand I recognise the difficulty and the danger of accepting people who have been living on a diet of violence and hatred for decades into a peaceful country. The evidence is clear that though the majority of these refugees want nothing more than to find a peaceful place to restart their lives, there will be a certain percentage that bring their grievances with them, and most disturbingly their long-held grievances against western values.

So this is one of the biggest problems facing western society currently. As I’ve said, I’ve tended to minimise the problem in my own mind up till now. After all, Muslims make up only about 2.5% of the Australian population and haven’t caused too many problems as yet (with apologies to the families of Tory Johnson, Katrina Dawson and Curtis Cheng), and my own experience of Muslim residents and students here, which has been quite considerable of late, has been almost entirely positive. However, events in Europe and the USA in recent years give cause for grave concern, as have statistics relating to the growth of Islam worldwide. While projections about the growth of Islam in the the future are never going to be entirely reliable, being based on a host of assumptions, it’s pretty clear that it’s growing faster than Christianity or any other major religion. This has more to do with fertility rates than any other factor, but the fact that it’s generally dangerous to abandon the Muslim faith doesn’t help much.

At the moment, this is not an Australian problem, even though we have a rise in thuggish xenophobia and anti-Muslim sentiment, but it’s clear that if the Muslim population continues to rise, and screening of extremists isn’t adequate, there will be incidents (to use a euphemism), and reactions to incidents, which will adversely affect our civil society. But of course things have changed already in this ‘distant’ western society. When I was growing up (and at 60 I’m no spring chicken) there were no Muslims whatever in our very Anglo working class community – Italian market gardeners were our version of exoticism. Now, in my workplace, we have to provide ‘multi-faith’ (but actually Muslim) prayer rooms and deal with the guardians of (rare in comparison to male) female Arabic students who refuse to shake hands with our course co-ordinator who happens to be female. This is a far more challenging and personally offensive situation than anything I’ve experienced before, as someone brought up on and profoundly influenced by seventies feminism, and part of the challenge is having to counter absurd arguments by members of what has been termed the ‘regressive left’ who have actually suggested, in discussion with me, that western women are coerced into wearing bikinis and short dresses in much the same way as Muslim women are coerced into burqas and niqabs.

Anyway, now that I’ve ‘come out’ on this major issue, I plan to deal with it further in future posts. I want to look at the European situation as an object lesson for Australia, because what I’ve been learning about it is quite alarming. I’m also keen to connect what I’ve been learning about all this – the Saudi guardianship system and the macho jihadist culture – to patriarchy and its obvious deficits. I still think this is the area in which Islam can be most constructively critiqued, with a view to reform.

Written by stewart henderson

November 13, 2016 at 9:34 pm