ON THE MISREPRESENTATION OF XENOPHOBIA

This blog post first appeared on the Catalyst website on the 21st of August 2013

The concept of ‘race’ has long been problematic. While the catastrophic racial superiority politics of the early-to-mid 20th century largely contributed to the term’s fall from favour, rapid developments in genetic research have also made it largely scientifically unviable. It is now generally understood that meaningful biological differences between human populations are limited to superficialities such as build and appearance; likewise, it is widely accepted that differences in behaviour across ethnicities are the result of socialisation. As this is so, what use could we have for ‘race’ as anything other than an archaism; a relic of a less sophisticated scientific milieu?

Despite the fraught status of the term, its most prominent derivative – ‘racism’ – remains in common usage. Whether it be applied to issues involving religious minorities, asylum seekers or Indigenous welfare, such language pervades a great many areas of public debate, serving as both an accusation and an assertion of a social problem. Racism, progressive activists argue, continues to be a significant cause of violence, discrimination and inequality; a harmful phenomenon that ought to be eradicated. This, however, creates a conundrum: if race is an outdated concept, what is racism? While it may be plausible that unfounded belief in racial difference persists, are such views really so common? And if not, why continue to use such terminology at all?

The Oxford Dictionary’s definition of racism is reasonably clear: it is either a) “the belief that all members of each race possess characteristics, abilities, or qualities specific to that race, especially so as to distinguish it as inferior or superior to another race or races”, or b) “prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against someone of a different race based on the belief that one’s own race is superior”. I think that, if pressed, most people would offer a similar explanation; I also think that it’s fair to say that such sentiments are rather uncommon in Western liberal democracies such as Australia. They exist on the fringes, in white supremacist groups and to some extent in nationalist movements, groups that in our cultural context are so marginal as to be practically irrelevant.

That is not to say that the prejudices anti-racism campaigners fight against do not exist – far from it. Although some suppress it better than others, prejudice is an entirely natural human state. It is within our evolutionary coding to be drawn to people who look like us, sound like us and behave like us; likewise, we are programmed to distrust those we perceive to be different. Although such fears can be – and often are – exploited, this is not generally a learned state; indeed, it is through education, experience and intellectual/emotional maturity that we are capable of looking past trivial differences.

It would be a mistake to see these preconceptions as mere ‘racism’. Even in our most superficial prejudices – the kinds that tend to lurk in our subconscious – appearance only constitutes a part of the whole. Consider, for instance, the way our perceptions of a person can depend on language; the way accent or less proficient language skills can reduce communication avenues, or even subconsciously cause us to view a person as less intelligent or worthy of empathy. That, I’d wager, is a pervasive form of bigotry (albeit one that has little to do with ‘race’).

Some prejudices, however, are not entirely irrational. Xenophobia (that is, the fear of people we perceive as ‘foreign’) is a by-product of our natural desire for social cohesion. Those who practise different customs can be seen, reasonably or otherwise, as a challenge to the status quo, something that may subconsciously be interpreted as a threat to one’s own safety. Not only is this anxiety at least somewhat understandable, it is also profoundly destructive: indeed, it is this reflex that causes the vast bulk of that which is usually described as ‘racism’, whether it be the brief success of the One Nation movement, social panic about refugees or post-September 11 Islamophobia. It is also present in slightly more benign (but still highly problematic) ‘othering’ phenomena such as stereotyping and exotification.

Recognising that xenophobia is a universal phenomenon should not reduce our ability to combat it. If we were to understand that a major motivating factor in, say, fear of Muslim immigration is the desire to preserve cultural purity, we could frame the argument in that manner. Rather than demonise the proponents as ‘racists’, we could make an effective case against; spending more time explaining that, for instance, migrant ethnocultural minority groups tend to be shaped by the dominant culture far more than they shape it. If, on the other hand, some form of cultural change is desirable, we could make that case too.

There are, of course, limits to the effectiveness of rational debate in the face of ignorance, but we win few converts through the current approach. Rather than fostering an open exchange in which such views can be critiqued and reasoned against, ‘racism’ rhetoric entrenches them. That dynamic may be enough to hold prejudice at arm’s length so long as our country remains prosperous and economically stable; in a future climate of social unrest, however, it could have devastating consequences.

I have often thought that in order to successfully fight against an idea, one needs to understand it. By misrepresenting xenophobia and its proponents, by insisting upon treating them as caricatures, we risk losing that battle. We can ill afford to.

CRIES AND WHISPERS: A REVIEW OF MIFF 2013

This piece was published in Lot’s Wife on the 26th of August 2013.

When I came home from the last screening of the film festival, my bedroom was a wreck. MIFF programs lay scattered about in an unseemly manner—some tattered and adorned with hand-drawn circles and crosses, others still untouched and neatly folded.

Every year is the same for me now. For two and a half weeks over July and August, I mingle with the hordes of people queuing up outside the Forum, spilling out onto Russell St from the laneways adjacent to Greater Union and having a look at how the other half live at Melbourne Central Hoyts. For cinephiles like me, the question isn’t why we choose to sacrifice work hours and social life or spend food money on film tickets—such a process is a given—it is merely to what extent it can be done. The program, the queues, the occasionally crash-prone iPhone app: these are simply part of the yearly ritual.

Perhaps, though, I’m getting a little jaded with age—25 in a few weeks, mein Gott!—for, this year, there were only a couple of films that I loved without qualification: the American comedy-drama Frances Haand French sexually-explicit thriller Stranger by the Lake. The latter of these was an excellent study in restraint and repetition: day after day at a gay cruising beach marked by swimming, sunbathing, chatting and fucking; a murder mystery creeping in ever so slyly. Frances Ha, on the other hand, sacrificed orderliness for (monochrome) energy, with the episodic narrative shifting through scenes, subplots and locations rapidly. That was the film that I had been most looking forward to at the festival, and it proved worthy; director Noah Baumbach and writer/star Greta Gerwig both doing the best work they’d ever committed to celluloid (or, I dunno, digital).

Those were the standouts, but far from the only films that stayed with me. Viola was a sweet, relatively short Argentinian feature about acting and daydreams; It Felt like Love captured the pain and confusion of adolescence in a surprisingly nuanced manner; and Computer Chess was a nostalgic, somewhat tongue-in-cheek look at AI and computer programming.

The Act of Killing told the story of the mass killings of communists and ethnic Chinese by the Indonesian military regime in 1965. A brilliantly-conceived documentary, it offered the killers—now treated as national heroes—the opportunity to re-enact their actions on camera. Through these perverse, at times comical psychodramas, a genuine feeling of horror began to seep through.

Towards the end of the film, I looked over at the woman sitting next to me, noticing traces of tears on her cheek. We all cry at the cinema now and then, but this seemed different—somehow lacking in the cathartic quality that process usually entails. These were the tears of Emmanuelle Riva contemplating the destruction of a city in Hiroshima Mon Amour; of someone who had just grasped something about the human capacity for committing atrocities without experiencing it in person. In Indonesia, in the mid-‘60s, family members lay face-down and sobbed into the dirt as their children, lovers and parents were taken away and murdered. It was as if we caught a brief glimpse of that; a barely-reflected image. I left the cinema feeling subdued, troubled. Slowly, as the day went on, the feeling began to dissipate. “Like you, I have struggled with all my might not to forget,” Riva’s character tells her Japanese lover. “Like you, I forgot.”

No matter how harrowing, any fictional narrative after that was always going to be bearable in comparison. So it was with Claire Denis’s Bastards, a gritty revenge thriller of sorts dealing with issues of rape and financial dependency. Not everybody loved the film—it was booed at Cannes, apparently—but I found it surprisingly gentle, treating its sordid subject matter with a kind of detached sadness.

I was a little less impressed by Michel Gondry’s Mood Indigo. There’s no doubt that the director of The Science of Sleep and various Björk clips has a great eye for absurdist imagery, but the tragic-romantic story felt a little trite. Were we really supposed to care for these two-dimensional characters, or were we just supposed to sit back and enjoy the crazy visuals? If the latter, then I suppose the film counts as a success, but I felt like I needed more.

Take incestuous love story The Unspeakable Act, for instance: it’s hard to think of a more plainly-shot film—even in the context of the lo-fi American ‘mumblecore’ genre, it looked cheap—but the unconventional narrative and interesting characterisations made it work. What good is a multi-million dollar budget if you can’t have a few good deadpan scenes in a psychoanalyst’s office? I’m not, of course, saying that filmmakers shouldn’t be ambitious—cinema without 2001: A Space Odyssey or Mulholland Drive doesn’t bear thinking about—just that it’s so crucial that the central artistic idea be prioritised above all else. Anything else and you invariably wind up with film as window dressing (like, say, Shane Carruth’s Upstream Colour—but I digress).

That’s the reason, I think, that the Melbourne International Film Festival is so important. In a world in which so much is driven by capital, the idea of film as art is as unviable as it’s ever been; a kind of amusing bit of idealism that the major studios have long since abandoned. For a little over a fortnight, the Melbourne International Film Festival allows us to hang on to that; to enjoy works of cinema that push the boundaries of the art form, challenge our presumptions and say something meaningful about human life, rather than the sort of instantly-forgotten visual elevator music that dominates the multiplexes. Long may its programs clutter my living space.

ON THE REMOVAL OF BODY HAIR

This blog post first appeared on the Catalyst website on the 14th of August 2013

“As far as I’m concerned, the only hair that belongs on a woman is on her head.” – Amanda Platell, The Daily Mail

In centuries to come, modern Western society’s predilection for hair removal may seem a little perplexing. After all, it is not a trend that has arisen out of either necessity or religious dogma; nor can it be dismissed as something as harmless as fashion. Instead, it will stand as testament to the insidious power of advertising; to the grey area between individual liberty and social coercion; to the market’s colonisation of the body.

Visible body hair, of course, is a part of the natural condition of adult Homo sapiens. Although it tends to grow much more sparsely on females than males, almost all post-pubescent women are biologically predisposed to have hair on their legs, under their arms and around their vulva. Similarly, it is also perfectly normal for finer hair to be present on a woman’s face, back and forearms. This being so, why has female body hair become so reviled?

It was not always so. Up until about a century ago, female shaving was the exception rather than the norm in English-speaking countries. As far as we can tell, female leg hair and underarm hair were considered quite compatible with sexual attractiveness. The shift, as Kirsten Hansen details in her fascinating thesis ‘Hair or Bare? The History of American Women and Hair Removal, 1914-1934’, closely followed the development of women’s magazines as vessels for advertising.

If the phenomenon of advertising can be reduced to a single axiom, it is this: convince the consumer that they are in need of something. The logical corollary is that a successful advertisement must lead the reader to believe that their current state is somehow insufficient; inadequate. That may seem relatively innocuous when applied to an iPhone or a hamburger, but it takes on rather more sinister overtones when applied to bodily space – there, it becomes an aggressive assault on an individual’s self-perception; an exercise in exploitation of weakness.

This is hardly exaggeration. One need only glance at a typical advertisement of this sort from the first half of the 20th century to see how blatant such material was. Women – already socially allotted the role of being sexually attractive first and foremost – were informed that nearly every aspect of their bodies was something to be potentially ashamed of and something that could be duly remedied (for a price). This had always been the case, of course, for external appearances – hence corsets and makeup – but body hair was something rather more taboo. Hansen describes the process almost as a series of military coups: first came hair on the arms and face; then underarms; then legs; until finally, the rather more recent preoccupation, pubic hair. Once one ‘campaign’ had reached a point of critical mass, it moved on to the next level.

It would be simplistic, of course, to attribute this process solely to the power of advertising, but it certainly seems to have played a significant role. What these advertisements did was claim that the relatively unusual phenomenon of hair removal was not only normal, but expected; a necessary act in order to preserve sexual attractiveness. The irony is that, even in the context of the heavily patriarchal society of the time, this was not a state (then) demanded by men – indeed, there’s plenty of reason to think that the bemusement expressed by one of Henry Miller’s characters at the sight of a shaven vulva in Tropic of Cancer (1933) was far from an uncommon reaction (it is probably not too unreasonable to suggest the mainstream pornography industry of the 1980s as the point at which young male attitudes toward pubic hair took a sharp turn). Rather, this process was generated by the simple desire of manufacturers to sell things.

I can’t help but wonder if the success of that movement might be partially attributed to the wider silence enforced by the topic’s taboo status. Because the human body (and particularly female body) was considered an unacceptable topic of conversation, there would have been little rebuttal to the claims proposed in the women’s magazines. What public figure, after all, would champion underarm hair in the 1920s? Even in the more open modern era, these conversations are had predominantly in the pages of the very magazines that exist in order to sell ‘beauty’ products. Cosmopolitan and Cleo, needless to say, have a commercial agenda, not a philanthropic one.

Although I have framed this mostly as a feminist issue, it would be a mistake to see it solely through the prism of gender. While advertising will use any avenue of discrimination society allows it, oppression of women is not the end goal. We see that in the modern campaign against male body hair – one that, we are told, is proving quite successful. Where there is vulnerability, it seems, there is exploitation.

We should not accept this process so passively. While I would like to see a much greater emphasis placed on critical media studies in the education system one day, those of us who are not disgusted by the natural adult human state should be making our voices heard a little more clearly right now. So long as these topics remain a little taboo, a little not-for-polite-conversation, the silence will be filled by those who wish to promote shame and self-hatred in the service of commercial gain.

GADFLY: AN INTRODUCTION

Beginning August 2013, I started writing a weekly blog for the Catalyst website. All posts can be found here. This first entry acts as a manifesto of sorts.

“We’re for the compulsory serving of asparagus at breakfast, free corsets for the under-fives, and the abolition of slavery.”
“Many moderate people would support your stance on asparagus, but what about this extremist nonsense about abolishing slavery?”
“Oh, we just threw that one in as a joke. See you next year!” – Blackadder

There are certain arguments that, for whatever reason, are infrequently heard nowadays. Some of these are so because modern science has disproved them: it is rare today, for instance, to hear somebody assert that the Sun orbits the Earth. Other beliefs, such as the inferiority of certain races, have proven to be not only unscientific but capable of causing serious harm. Even the most open-minded among us would likely agree that we save a great deal of unnecessary time and effort by dismissing such viewpoints out of hand.

Some discourses, however, receive limited scrutiny for different reasons. It is not that they contradict basic understandings of physics, chemistry or neuroscience; neither do they contain significant logical errors that undermine their credibility. The reason for their lack of representation is simply that they challenge some aspect of the cultural status quo – i.e. not just the way things are, but what lies within the generally accepted boundaries of how things could be – and are, therefore, suppressed. To some extent or other, they become taboo.

Historically, making such arguments in public entailed censorship, imprisonment or death. Although we now live in a society in which political expression is ostensibly unfettered, that repression continues in subtler forms: fear of social ostracism; loss of employment prospects; the timidity of sponsorship-dependent publishers.

The most powerful silencing factor, however, comes from within. We are predisposed to seek out the things that make us comfortable, whether it be the music we listen to, the people we associate ourselves with or the political campaigns we sign up to. We pursue those things that validate our existing biases. As products of our cultural upbringings, those inclinations will necessarily tend towards acceptance of the status quo (and thus, of course, suspicion of dissent).

In many ways, this is an entirely natural human trait; indeed, without the existence of socially enforced behavioural norms, it’s quite possible society wouldn’t be able to function. The drawback, however, is that this tendency can lead to intellectual stagnation. By only seeking confirmation of our own views, we stifle our ability to be reached by rational argumentation. When one looks at that within the context of society as a whole, it is easy to see why political progress – the process by which a society ostensibly becomes a better place for its inhabitants – can be so tortuous.

In response to this phenomenon, Socrates used the gadfly – literally, a variety of stinging insect – as a metaphor for one who needles the establishment. Societies, he stated, needed gadflies in order to disrupt complacency, conservatism and mindless conformity. Through little annoyances and provocations, intellects would stay sharpened and be less likely to act as barriers to social change. That is every bit as true in modern-day Australia as it was in 400 BC Athens.

The purpose of this blog, therefore, is to present a series of arguments that will challenge commonly held positions on various social issues. Some will be more controversial than others, but I respect your ability as rational adults to consider these contentions thoughtfully and critically (and, if you feel like it, to respond accordingly). In return, I hope that you will find my posts compelling, thought-provoking and, most of all, discomforting. After all, what is a gadfly without its sting?