In the first two articles in this series, we challenged two common assumptions: first, that that gender is natural; and second, that gender has anything to do with tradition or modernity.
If this is your first time here, it may be worth first orienting yourself by having a look at those articles, or the more general discussions about gender, what it means, and why it is a problem. Let us briefly recall, in any case, some of its further problems. They include, but are not limited to:
- gender inequality;
- gender conflict;
- the subjection of women in almost all spheres of public and private life;
- hegemonic relationship dynamics;
- hegemonic family structures;
- hostility to sexual diversity;
- the mistreatment of people who are not biologically male or female, such as intersex people;
- the mistreatment of people who do not conform to masculine or feminine gender expectations, the consequences of which include exclusion, alienation, mental health problems and suicide;
- and the abomination that is rape, among others.
Today we confront a third and final myth. It is the belief that some societies, cultures, religions and/or ethnic groups are better or worse at gender problems than others.
It might inhabit statements like these:
“[Religion X] is repressive towards women.”
“[Culture Y] is a conservative culture, and still does not tolerate homosexuality.” (For why the word still is a problem in itself here, see the second myth.)
“Unlike [Country Z], democracy and human rights are in our national DNA.”
And inevitably: “Why are you complaining about [Gender Problem N]? Don't you realise that it is better in this country than anywhere else? If you don't like it here then fuck off to [Country Z].”
As with the Myth of Modernity, these may sound like entirely fair sentiments in certain places and times. But let us be clear. When we challenge this myth, we are not suggesting that [Religion X] does not currently have serious problems with its subjection of women. We do not mean that [Culture Y] does not have homophobia problems, nor even that [Country Z] is better at [Gender Problem N] than the country of the fellow comparing them. We will not ignore, in this article, the very real and deplorable problems of countries and cultures and faiths all over the world when it comes to gender.
What we are questioning is the idea that any of these are inherently better or worse than any of the others. The key word here is inherently.
That is to say, it is very possible that, say, Japan, currently and arguably, experiences less gender inequality and gender conflict than, for example, India. This however, does not let us say that India is worse at gender problems than Japan. The reason might be that gender inequality and gender conflict exists at all in both countries, meaning both are in an infinitely broken condition. Or we might be ignoring the mass gender atrocities Japan committed a few decades ago during the Pacific War, or the fact that a lot of Japan's current subjection of women is expressed through constraining social norms and expectations, rather than a culture of open violence. Or we might be forgetting, also for example, that Indians have reacted, on the whole, with greater systematic outrage, popular activism and rigorous confrontation of their gender problems than has been the case in Japan.
The bottom line, nonetheless, is that gender is and has long been an unjustifiable problem in both countries. To suggest one is any better than the other ignores their unique and complex stories; ignores their changes over time; ignores the variations within them; and above all, shoves aside the most important concern, which is that gender problems exist at all in both countries when they straightforwardly should not.
The idea that such comparisons are meaningful, in ignorance of this, on purpose or otherwise, is the Myth of the Others. The myth, that is, that gender might be more a problem with “them”, and less a problem with “us” – or vice versa – when in fact it is a catastrophe for us all.
It does not matter, by the way, who exactly “we” or “they” are. The statement is problematic from any perspective, including yours, wherever you are – that is after all the point. The Myth of the Others might be the belief that either Christians or Muslims have worse gender problems than one another; or Europeans and Africans; or settler and indigenous communities; or -isms and -isms; or the global North and the global South.
All comparisons like this are first, inaccurate; second, divisive; and third, pointless. We are all bad at gender. All societies, all cultures, all nations, all religions have colossal mistakes to face up to. Indeed, we have not grasped the problem of gender until we recognise it to be precisely of such dreadful magnitude as makes these comparisons meaningless.
In other words, we are all struggling to climb the same cliff out of the same gendered hell. And it is high time we worked together to get us all out of there, rather than pulling out our iPhones mid-climb and trying to take pictures at angles that make it look like we have climbed higher than everybody else.
So instead, I would like to suggest the case is the following.
- No societies, cultures, religions or ethnic groups are inherently gendered.
- None, however, are immune to gender and its problems.
- When gender exists in a society, culture, religion or ethnic group, it is not part of that group but a problem with that group.
- And in the final analysis, gender is a universal problem facing all humankind regardless of nation, culture, religion or any other line of division.
Let us look now at some of the forms the myth takes. It may appear an us vs. them myth, but look again: it cuts both ways.
The Blobs Return
A few days ago, I was reading a news article on sexual violence in video games, and lamenting, as one must, that such a magnificent and promising art medium has become one of the most bile-infested bastions of gendered nastiness in the world today, particularly in Europe and the United States. (That in itself, by the way, is a subject for another time: video game design suffocates beneath the ooze of gendered tropes, while misogyny of the most reprehensible order gushes from the orifices of so many player communities. In particular, there are those among the latter who shriek abuse, death threats and rape threats, at any person – particularly any woman – who dares to draw attention to the problem.)
The reason I mention this here is that on that occasion, I resisted my better judgement and scrolled down to the Comments section, which, as anyone well-travelled on the internet will tell you, has an effect akin to accidentally dropping your sanity into the latrine and only realising it just after you've pressed the flush and stand watching helpless as it vanishes to oblivion. And sure enough, one comment immediately lived up to this custom. It was somebody claiming, vehemently and with customary disdain for grammar, that genderedness in video games had no importance because 'actual' rape – presumably 100% unrelated to the wider culture of gender violence, of which games are a part – was happening in 'places like Africa'.
Yes, you read that right. 'Places like Africa'.
Now we could just about construe that as accurate, if we define 'places like' to mean 'places with human beings'. In that case 'places like Africa' would equally include Europe, Asia, the Americas and Australasia, all of which suffer horrifically under the rape pandemic. But somehow I don't think the commentator meant it that way.
I recalled, at this point, a different article that has stuck in my memory for several years. The author and context escape me, but I remember it was castigating feminists in Europe and the US for their criticism of the subjection of women there, when according to the author, these countries were the best in the world at equality, tolerance and women's rights. The feminists, he asserted, should therefore stop attacking their own 'democratic' and 'developed' countries, and focus instead on the relative barbarisms of the Middle East, Asia and – though he perhaps did not use the exact phrase – 'places like those'.
Here we see the Myth of the Others in its most crude and honest form. It states: “we are a good blob; they are a bad blob”. But we may note that its target is rarely the Others themselves. More often, it is You. When You attempt to make the case that Our group is not simply a “good blob” but something more complex than that, the “bad blobs” of the Others are deposited upon your arguments as a caricatured point of comparison, to either dissuade you from your case, or to shame you for making it in the first place when others are, by this image, so obviously worse. In other words, this Myth is a political tool: a box of blobs we unleash to bounce attention away from our own societies' gendered problems, and to smother critiques of them.
In other words, it is the moral equivalent of the argument that “(our) Dictator Jia killed only 9 million people, while (their) Dictator Yi killed 10 million, so take it easy on Dictator Jia”. And the parameters of comparison are about the same with gender, when we recall from the previous article that:
Humanity drowns in a sea of overlapping gendered pandemics – domestic violence, emotional abuse, sexual slavery, sexual apartheid, female infanticide, “honour” killings, “morality” police, gender-related mental health problems and suicides, bride kidnappings, human trafficking, genital mutilation, unequal laws and wages and sizes of meals and recognition of evidence in court, hegemonic and arbitrary body image standards, failed relationships, child custody battles, and cultural media saturated to bursting with the same gendered tropes, ugly stereotypes and male-female relationship dynamics repeated over and over again.
...and when we recall, moreover, that most of these not only exist but rampage across even the most so-called “liberal”, “democratic” and “developed” societies in the world. Indeed, the level at which gender is a problem transcends such notions. “Democracy”, “development” and related chimeras have no relevance to gender except in so far that because of gender, they do not exist.
It gets worse though. They, the Others themselves, or rather those responsible for Their gendered problems, know exactly how to take advantage of the Myth of the Others to cover for their misdeeds.
The Relativist's Defence
During the rise of the universal human rights regime in the late twentieth century, a certain line of argument gained popularity. Its most organised manifestation was the “Asian Values” platform erected by characters like Lee Kuan Yew in Singapore and Mahathir Mohamad in Malaysia. They stood upon this platform, and declared that societies have their own cultures and identities that do not necessarily reflect “Western” values like human rights. In the Asian Values case, for example, Asians, as a matter of culture, supposedly preferred authoritarian governance, obedience to authority, and collective harmony rather than individual freedom. It is thus in societies' best interests, the argument goes, that they be permitted to organise themselves according to their own cultural values, rather than be bullied or pressured by those colonial Westerners into changing to become like them.
This so-called cultural relativism is now mostly discredited. There is nothing wrong, of course, with the idea of cultural self-determination. But “Asian values” is hollow when we consider that “Asia” is not a monolithic unit – not a blob – but in fact some four billion people spread across 44 million of the most diverse square kilometres in the world, making the idea of any homogeneous “Asian-ness” a nothing. We may also note that plenty of these four billion Asians categorically oppose authoritarianism and repression – perhaps you know some of them – and that such critics as Anwar Ibrahim, Chee Soon Juan, Lee Teng-hui and Amartya Sen have as much claim to represent Asians as the likes of Mahathir or the other Lee in Singapore. As indeed, we must sadly admit, do Mahinda Rajapaksa or Osama Bin Laden. You might say there are actually four billion sets of Asian Values, not one.
Nonetheless, the same species of cultural relativism has lashed out across much of the world with a popular appeal far surpassing its substantive integrity. It has been wheeled out to excuse the imprisonment of dissidents here, to cover for crimes against humanity there, often in the guise of anti-colonial or anti-capitalist struggle or the defence of national sovereignty. Its credence has naturally suffered blows – the advocates for “Asian values” themselves, for example, were made miserable when the prosperity they claimed would result from that path spectacularly disintegrated in the 1997 East Asian financial crisis.
However, one of its fronts has yet to collapse. It is, of course, gender.
Cultural relativism on gender is a curious mirror image of the Myth of the Others. Those who exercise it accept the gender problems in their societies, but deny they are problems. Instead, they take pride in these problems and even consider them marks of national or cultural superiority over others. These roles and rules for men and women are our religious values, we say. There have been no homosexuals here for thousands of years, we say. The immaculate language of morality, purity, tradition and self-determination is unfurled to shroud gendered cruelties in a mantle of solemn and severe respectability. And then comes the killer blow: the Others. They are out to get us, we claim. They seek to pollute our values, corrode our culture, compromise our innocence, and make us as selfish and sinful and materialistic as they. If you don't believe it, just look at them!
Yet this is no more than another exercise in blobs. From the gender relativist's perspective, the world is divided into two portions: We and They. We are reduced to a good blob: homogeneous, pure, with a single, undiluted culture and heritage unchanged since the dawn of the universe, the archetype of moral life. They are reduced to a bad blob: cultureless, dissolute, a shambling mass of greed and perdition that devours all it touches and has shed all capacity to know right and wrong. The latter, these relativists advance, must not be allowed to touch the former. We must protect our societies - our children! - from Their contamination.
We talk here not merely of Wahhabi clerics or Putin or the Indian BJP, however, but of a more pervasive smog that has poisoned the entire global gender discourse. Ultimately it does away with all real meaning between Us and Them, uniting the two in complicity and reducing this relativist non-argument to plain disingenuousness. Cases in point are Western companies like McDonaldses and Starbucks who segregate men and women in their Saudi restaurants, covering for themselves by claiming sensitivity to others' cultures, whereas it is actually because feeding off those markets matters more to them than human rights. Consider also politicians who wheel out the relativist's defence to fend off difficult questions about the countries they want to sell weapons to.
In other instances it is more insidious. For example, take the myth of the “conservative country”. I would swear I have heard this label applied to every country in the world at least once by now by the mainstream British media, most frequently the BBC, when considering gendered repression, sexual violence, or hostility to sexual minorities in countries they cannot be bothered to properly research. In fact there are no “conservative countries”. Countries are diverse, as discussed under the Myth of Modernity, and any honourable conservative must surely feel mortified when that term “conservative” – which after all refers to a legitimate segment of any society's political mosaic – gets applied like this to gendered abhorrences with no place in the universe, and whose existence represents the mosaic's tiles being blasted off and the earth beneath them scorched.
There is a troubling puzzle here. How have proud concepts like morality and tradition come to be associated with gender inequality, gendered conflict, the subjection of women, hegemonic family and relationship systems, and uncompromising hatred of sexual diversity? How can anyone even consider, let alone believe, that these things have anything to do with morality in the face of the lacerating pain they visit upon the souls and carcasses of people they love?
Politics can only go some way to explain this. Absolutely, elites from Henry VIII to Goodluck Jonathan have an established history of inciting populist hatred against conjured bogeymen to win public support, or more particularly to distract people from their own incompetence or corruption. Our societies' long failures to develop a sober, informed conversation about sexuality and gender make these fertile ground for such illusions. But their effectiveness in too many places and times suggests that many people genuinely believe that a more coercive, repressive gendered society is a good thing – or at least, that it is worth it for the sake of (again, the illusion of) moral and cultural integrity. No scheming politician, no matter how clever, could orchestrate madness like that.
Perhaps the power of these broken narratives can only be understood against the wider horror of recent human history. The shadows of colonialism and slavery fell upon the world's civilisations and diced them to ribbons, producing traumas, conflicts, and existential confusion that plague them to this day; and it is within those shattered mindsets that people have been immediately confronted with the terror of culture-eroding, value-destroying market fundamentalist globalisation. Perhaps it is no wonder we are insane.
And so we get the madness that is “[insert gender atrocity here] is our culture, so do not criticise us.” Warped as We who make that claim are, we do not understand the logical poverty, and soul-destroying cruelty, of that statement. Correspondingly, against a They who are increasingly aware of their own cultural brokenness, who grapple with the shame of their colonial and neo-colonial misdeeds, that is a devastating statement. It carries a corollary of “you know you are in no position to do so”: not morally, because you have no high horse to ride on; not physically, because you no longer rule the world.
So in the end, They too give in to this mirror of the Myth of the Others. How many people do you know who, on hearing your criticisms of gendered crimes elsewhere, respond with the infuriating relativist's defence of “but that is their culture”?
Racism by any other name...
To be clear then, the Myth of the Others narrative has two basic problems.
The first is reductionism. All societies, cultures and religions, whether ours or theirs, are extremely diverse and exhibit enormous variety in their values and beliefs, often in contestation with one another. The comparisons and caricatures of the Myth of the Others ignore this variety, and would have us believe that societies, cultures and religions are blobs in which everyone – or everyone judged to matter – believes the same things and behaves in the same ways.
Its second problem is essentialism. Societies, cultures and religions, whether ours or theirs, are on journeys. They have always been changing, evolving and revolving in countless directions through history. Nations awash in war rape, witch-burnings, and the most hideously coercive gendered roles, as was once the very image of Europe, have transformed into places which abhor capital punishment in all circumstances, and where concerted efforts against sexual violence exist at most levels of society. Nations once famous for striving for equality between men and women, like Turkey or Afghanistan, have lost focus, or altogether crashed into the abyssal depths of gendered carnage. However, the myth ignores these changes and would have us consider that its caricatures of societies reflect them at an essential level. That is to say, it suggests that those societies have always been that way, and always will be – freedom as part of who we are, repression as part of who they are.
In short, the Myth of the Others ignores two of the most fundamental facts about all cultures: that they are diverse, and that they change. The equation is simple: reductionism plus essentialism equals blob.
So let's cut those blobs up once and for all, shall we? Remember: we must cut both ways.
In one direction, we have the societies that consider themselves in a better position – mostly Western European societies and their offshoots like the US. There the Myth of the Others compartmentalises the problems of gender into distant and frightening otherlands of savagery. Foreign countries, cultures and belief systems are reduced to monochrome blobs of barbarism, ignoring that they are always complex, always diverse, and contain a great deal of people struggling against the mistakes and failures of their own fellows. By the same token, people of these would-be better societies are invited to ignore that the problems of gender still afflict their societies to a magnitude utterly beyond pardon, and more dangerously yet, led to forget that their own histories are saturated, over centuries and perhaps millennia until extremely recent decades, with gendered atrocities as grotesque as anything carried out by the likes of ISIL or the militias of eastern Congo today. Do we say, then, that these atrocities are British traditions, or Canadian culture, or Australian values? No, and quite rightly not. But neither should we dare believe there is anything inherent in these cultures, values or belief systems that would stop them happening again in those places in future.
In the other direction, we have those so visited by the odious habit of appealing to cultural relativism to justify their gender crimes. Like the aforementioned societies, gendered horrors have often infested their cultures, their traditions, or their values too. But that does not mean they define, say, African cultures, Indian traditions or Muslim values at an essential level. On the contrary, these are each as diverse as galaxies, have undergone massive changes over the centuries, and will continue to do so; indeed the most ironic change of all has been the absorption of gendered norms, values, and laws – especially those hostile to sexual diversity – from the very colonising countries they claim these beliefs are resisting. Neither do these feeble excuses for morality reflect these cultures even in the present, for there are huge numbers of people in every culture, every nation and every religion who have devoted their lives to overthrowing gendered repression, who believe their respective groups have it in them to do so much better, and who make the toughest of sacrifices for the struggle to make it so.
As such, if the Myth of the Others seems more convoluted and complex than either of the previous two myths, there is good reason. This myth stands squarely upon the junction of two colossal fault systems. The first, as we have explored in these articles, is that of gender, which has divided and pitted us against one another in all the most unconscionable of ways. The second, which here we meet, is another great and terrible divider, which has been no less senseless, no less pitiless and no less corrupting to the journey of the human race for a similar length of time. It is, of course, racism.
This is why we must reject the Myth of the Others, by falling back upon our common humanity: the knowledge, accessible to us all, that all of us share over 99% of the same genome and all of us hurt when we bleed. Gender has divided us more than enough as it is. The last thing we need, in the struggle against it, is to be further divided by the stuff that gave us colonialism, slavery, two world wars, countless genocides and ethnic cleansings, and the ongoing alienation between the North and the South – or indeed, that most racially reducing and essentialising notion of “developed” versus “developing” countries.
Let no-one ever hear you defend gender and its problems by calling them a result of someone's culture, or tradition, or religion, or ethnic or national identity. It is no different from suggesting that getting incinerated by a nuclear bomb was a cultural practice of Hiroshima, or telling a person with malaria that the Plasmodium parasite is part of his or her body. As a means of attack, it is self-injurious: it will generate shudders and awkward silence, and rightly so. As a means of defence, it is at best intellectually lazy, and at worst a most unfathomable evil.
Gender's tentacles have different widths, lengths and colours in different lands, but it has legitimate claim to none of them. Gender is not African, Asian, American, European, or indigenous; not the product of any ethnicity or territory. Gender is not Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, or Confucian; it does not belong in any religion or spiritual system. In any place, any system, in which gender exists – and right now that includes most of them – it is not of them, but a problem with them, and a problem they will surmount.
Gender has no nationality, no ethnicity, no culture and no religion. It makes barbarians of us all.