Ensuring women’s presence in history, culture and life is recognised and acknowledged is not just a matter of being ‘politically correct’. To ignore or make invisible the contribution of 50% of the population by always using the ‘he’ pronoun (where there is no gender specified) is incredibly subjective, inaccurate and unfair and yet academics and translators have been doing if for centuries. Not so objective or rigorous as they might like to think. As an aspiring translator and student of Buddhist philosophical texts it has been an eye-opener to see how often a gender-neutral category has been translated with the male singular pronoun. It was particularly frustrating recently to attend a teaching where the male teacher referred to Buddhist practitioners and students continually with male pronouns and that the text he used did the same.
In fact, languages in which nouns are given male or female status are linked to gender inequality, according to a new study that compares languages and equality across the globe. And languages with no gender at all — where even “he” and “she” are represented by the same word — are associated with the most gender inequality, possibly because people automatically categorize gender-neutral references as male.
However, as David Marsh points out there is no need in English to make all gender-neutral references male because we can always use the word ‘they’ :
Most sexist and racist language arises from the presumption that everyone is male and white. If you can just remember that this is not, in fact, the case, it’s easy to avoid. Anyone can do it – if they try.
To be utterly alone in a place where you have no family, friends, loved ones, where most people speak an alien language is a humbling, disorientating, painful and isolating experience.
Bukowski wrote that ‘Isolation is the gift’, and it is a ‘gift’, a painfully necessary ‘gift’, which few people in life ever get to truly experience. One which allows one to see the ego, its needs, boredom, self-absorption in full glare. Its need for company, for distraction, for love; how much we are attached to and depend on others. The only other experiences I have had that come as close are heartbreak, grief and having a child for the first time. When such experiences arise we want to run away from them, hide, distract ourselves with comforting, familiar faces, food, self-gratifying pleasures all the while ignoring the ‘gift’ of seeing oneself clearly in all its fearful, fragile, child-like dependence.
We have to learn to find peace and contentment in boredom, isolation, loneliness, grief and dissatisfaction. Generally, people are encouraged to deny, hide or avert such emotions though. We live in what I call a cult of ‘happiness’ culture at the moment – mainly fed by greed and consumerism. This creates even more feelings of dislocation and isolation. A genuine sense of peace, contentment and meaning, is not the same as feeling ‘happy’.
Yet again, the smug and dullard Politically Correct Brigade have succeeded in silencing another satirical artist, this time a New York Times editorial cartoon about the Indian Mars mission. When the hysterical, reactionary voices started braying in unison that it was ‘racist’, instead of the editors showing courage and integrity and supporting their original decision to publish, they backtracked and issued this feeble apology.
A large number of readers have complained about a recent editorial cartoon in The International New York Times, about India’s foray into space exploration. The intent of the cartoonist, Heng Kim Song, was to highlight how space exploration is no longer the exclusive domain of rich, Western countries. Mr. Heng, who is based in Singapore, uses images and text – often in a provocative way – to make observations about international affairs. We apologize to readers who were offended by the choice of images in this cartoon. Mr. Heng was in no way trying to impugn India, its government or its citizens. We appreciate that readers have shared their feedback, which we welcome. — Andrew Rosenthal, Editorial Page Editor
It reminded me of another recent story from the UK, when a mural painted by the famous artist Banksy, was hastily removed by a local council in England due to it being potentially ‘racist’. Stupidly and arrogantly missing the point that it was an intelligent satire on racism and racists.
When I first saw the New York Times cartoon, I saw comi-tragic truth. Having spent the last seven years or so studying and living in India, abjectly poor, illiterate people with cows or donkeys is a common everyday sight everywhere you go. Perhaps not so much in the middle-class, AC enclaves of Bangalore or New Delhi but still not that far away from them either.
I remember recently at one prestigious designer shopping mall in Delhi seeing wealthy Indians being chauffeur driven into the mall in AC luxury, apparently oblivious or ignorant of the huge rubbish dump directly opposite on which stray dogs, children and adults scavenged the rubbish for a pittance.
In India, one gets used to a life of pot-holed, dirt roads, of a lack of adequate rubbish collection or sanitation, of intermittent electricity, of child beggars and stray, mangy dogs, of long, uncomfortable overnight bus journeys, of railways that have not been invested in, of everyday corruption and incompetence by officials, of a lack of a properly functioning police force, of massive gender inequality, caste discrimination, illiteracy and poverty.
So, sorry no, I do not see anything ‘racist’ in the New York Times cartoon. To have a space programme that costs billions of dollars when people are struggling to make ends meet is bad enough, even in rich, developed countries. But to have one in India is just a horrible, horrible joke and the smug, wealthy Indians that made such a decision deserve to be lampooned for it. The cartoon is not satirising ‘backwards India’ at all, it is poking fun at those who ignore the reality of millions of Indian’s lives to fulfil their sick fantasy world of neo-liberal, capitalist, media manufactured modernity and progress. We have far more to fear about those who destroyed Banksy’s mural and demanded an apology from the NYT, than about either of these artworks. We are adults not children, thank you.
Author’s Update (13/01/15): In the wake of the Islamist murders in reaction to the French satirical magazine, Charlie Hebdo, this post seems even more timely and relevant. Many people have written about why Charlie Hebdo is not racist in reaction to the apologists for murder. As one writer said:
That’s what’s tricky about two-layer satire like Charlie Hebdo’s: the joke only works if you see both layers, which often requires conversant knowledge of French politics or culture. If you don’t see that layer, then the covers can seem to say something very different and very racist.
I prefer to quote two French writers on this, first:
It might feel insulting, but unless you are fascinated with french culture, have especially studied it or lived some time in France, you don’t know us. You don’t know our history, our politics, even our geography. That’s fine, I myself have a pretty sketchy knowledge of all these stuffs for many countries in the world.
Not knowing is fine. Spreading false informations, or giving your opinion about things you don’t know, is not.
Dear Muslim world: I am one of your estranged sons, who views you from without and from afar – from France, where so many of your children live today. I look at you with the harsh eyes of a philosopher, nourished from infancy on tasawwuf (Sufism) and Western thought. I therefore look at you from my position of barzakh, from an isthmus between the two seas of the East and the West. “And what do I see? What do I see better than others, precisely because I see you from afar, from a distance? I see you in a state of misery and suffering that saddens me to no end, but which makes my philosopher’s judgment even harsher, because I see you in the process of birthing a monster that presumes to call itself the Islamic State, and which some prefer to call by a demon’s name – Da’esh. But worst of all is that I see that you are losing yourself and your dignity, and wasting your time, in your refusal to recognize that this monster is born of you: of your irresoluteness, your contradictions, your being torn between past and present, and your perpetual inability to find your place in human civilization.
Basically, if you can’t get the joke, don’t blame the joker for your lack of irony, humour and knowledge.
One of the biggest tragedies in life is a man who thinks and speaks as if he is liberal, progressive and respectful of women and yet, when you analyse his behaviour and views, is actually regressive, sexist and illiberal. Men who organise or support female beauty contests are a classic example of this phenomenon.
Miss Himalaya 2014 is back again in the Tibetan community in exile in Dharamsala, India. I have written before (re–published by the Tibetan Women’s Association in Dolma magazine) how such contests are regressive, sexist and not representative of genuine freedom for women or men. There is nothing more to say other than that. #misshimalayaissexistandregressive