Of school shootings, misogyny and the dream of gender equality

The lovely Commencement at my institution this weekend was shadowed, for me at least, by the latest school shooting—the psychotic Californian kid who blew away six other kids in a highly premeditated murderous vendetta against young women who, he claimed, refused to cooperate with his sexual fantasies.

The shootings have prompted millions of social media postings and propelled the issue of misogyny on to the front page of The New York Times and many other staid bastions of male-dominated media, which only pay attention to the most sensationalized of crimes against women.

The latest high-profile cases of campus sexual assault have provoked outrage from women and the men who respect them. Young women are refusing to be muzzled by their colleges, filing lawsuits recently bolstered by the Federal government, which has ordered colleges and universities to get their act together and stop the sexual harassment and assault of women by men—or face Federal Title IX lawsuits.

Yes, imagine that—singling out women for assault on a college campus is actually a Federal crime. That this should come as a surprise is a measure of how very normalized the sexual targeting and bullying of women has become.

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Lately I have been thinking a lot about how much one’s physical body matters. In an ideal world, it should not matter what kind of genitalia or hormonal make-up you’re born with. Men and women may be differently abled, but we are certainly equal in our potential for positive contributions to our society and planet.

However, we do not live in an ideal world. We live in a highly cultured world where, unfortunately, the dominant messages young people receive about what it means to be masculine and feminine are highly differentiated.

We all know the stereotypes. Manly men are strong, dominant, powerful—leaders, speakers, do-ers in the public sphere of business, government, finance, medicine, media. Womanly men are compliant, nurturing, sweet—homemakers, caregivers, do-ers in the private realm of the home and family.

Kids absorb these messages like sponges, often uncritically, especially when these are the norms they see around them in the real-life environments of their families and schools.

To live the stereotype of the manly man, a man has to distinguish himself from being a “sissy,” “pussy,” or “girl” by putting females in their place. Woman are there to serve, whether it’s mom getting dinner and doing the laundry, or a hook-up partner giving a blow job. Women wear those skimpy clothes because they “want some,” and they like men who are aggressive in “getting some.” They like the attention of catcalls and fondles. After all, the girlie-men are nerds and they never get the pretty girls.

UnknownWelcome to the imaginal landscape of the stereotypical teenage boy, reinforced by thousands of video game sessions played, movies and TV episodes watched, comedy routines and talk radio listened to.  Even in the cartoon world of super-heroes, female heroes have to wear swimsuits and show a lot of skin.

Girls inhabit a parallel universe for the most part, a soft, rosy pink-imbued landscape where romance still takes the form of a gentle, courtly but powerful knight on a white charger who will make everything all right.

Is it any wonder that when these two universes collide on college campuses, mighty rumbles and explosions result?

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So to those delightful, earnest young men who keep telling me that gender is just a social construction, that discrimination against women is historical, in the past, and that today women don’t need any special attention or bolstering—I have to shake my head sadly and say simply, “I wish that were the case.”

The casual disrespect of and disregard for women runs deep and wide in our culture. For young women, it often wears the venomous face of sexual assault. For women of child-bearing age, it’s about being culturally encouraged to stay home with the kids in a career environment that is entirely un-family-friendly, resulting in effective career sabotage of women on a society-wide scale. For older women it’s about ageism in a youth-obsessed society, where it’s assumed that if you haven’t “made it” by the time you’re 40, it’s because you’re mediocre and don’t have what it takes.

Women of all ages suffer from the arrogance of the male-dominated cultural oligarchy (otherwise known by that loaded term, “the patriarchy”) that assumes that women are under-represented in Western intellectual history because they never did anything important enough (and weren’t intelligent enough to do anything important enough) to merit representation.

We got a recent example of this unthinking cultural misogyny in the two most recent New York Times columns by David Brooks, entitled “Great Books I & II,” where in all of written history the only female author who made it on to his great books list was the one who forced herself to write under a male pseudonym in order to be taken seriously: George Eliot.

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There has never yet been a mass shooting by a woman. Women are far more likely to be self-destructive, turning the razors against their own arms and legs, or starving themselves as anorexics. It’s the boys who turn their rage outward, bringing down innocent people before they turn the gun to their own disturbed heads.

The truth is that both boys and girls in our culture need a lot more support than most of them get. We need to start combating the ugliness of gender stereotyping early, long before the girls start trying to conform to unrealistic body image expectations, and boys start thinking of purchasing the all-too-easy-to-obtain shotguns and pistols.

Because we live in a patriarchy, girls and women still do need extra support and encouragement to raise their voices against discrimination and cultural sabotage, to insist on equal treatment and respect in every social sphere.

We are an imitative species—we learn by observation. Every adult should be conscious of the need to set a good example for the young people in our lives, and that includes the adults—mostly men at the moment—who control that incredibly powerful educational system, the media.

Boys and girls need to see men and women relating to each other in responsible, respectful ways, in the media and in the flesh. If we could accomplish this, then maybe we could cry victory and declare unnecessary the need for Title IX and affirmative action protection of women, as well as the kinds of work I do in support of women and girls through my teaching, writing and activism.

I hope that day does come soon…it’s clearly not here yet.

Taking the risk to feel the pain of the world, and the love that can change it

Sometimes I wish I just taught math or physics—something dry and formulaic that would not require wading publicly into the messy, unclear, painful areas of life and interpersonal relations. My current mantra is “the personal is planetary.” If this is so, what does it mean for the planet that such a high percentage of my students over the years have revealed such terrible pain and suffering in the classroom over and over again?

Lately I’ve been reading Bill Plotkin’s magisterial work Nature and the Human Soul, in which he argues that human civilization has been stuck for too long (since Gilgamesh, I’d say) in an adolescent stage of development, where young men are encouraged in their shallow enjoyment of violence, sex and glory, and young women are encouraged to be pretty, compliant and deferent to authority.

The students at my institution are generally trying very hard to resist this overwhelming cultural message.  They try to think outside the box.  They have an earnest desire to be politically correct and intellectually sophisticated. It’s all very well on the purely academic front.  But what happens when the cracks in that academic façade appear and reveal deep emotions—anger, grief, fear, desire—that go way beyond the bounds of the merely academic?

Sometimes these emotions can be so frightening that the only sane response seems to be to numb out on drugs (licit & illicit) or get distracted by media entertainment & competition & the race to keep one’s economic head above water. Somehow in my classes these tumultuous, unruly emotions often come leaping into the foreground.  I allow and sometimes even encourage our class discussions to “go there,” to go into that dangerous gray zone between the purely intellectual/theoretical and the deeply personal lived experience. I believe that this is the zone where the most productive new thinking happens, the kind that can shift paradigms and change worlds.  So I’m willing to risk the discomfort of venturing outside our collective comfort zones, in the hopes that a spark set off in one of our class discussions or activities will ignite a fiery passion that goes well beyond the narrow confines of this class, this semester, or any one student’s career.

But in the aftermath, as I think back on the tears shed, the furrowed brows of the listeners, the potential for aftershocks to occur outside the relatively safe space of the classroom, I can’t rest easy.  I feel deeply, myself, the responsibility of leadership, even in the relatively small scale of the classroom.  The ripples of our conversations on any given day may spread out for many years, affecting those of us who listened and bore witness to his pain in ways we cannot yet imagine.

Some believe that we human beings are the consciousness of the planet. If the personal is planetary and vice versa, then it could be that these young people are in some sense channeling the pain of our planet itself. We owe it to our youth, to ourselves, and to the great planet we call home, to—at minimum—listen with respect, try to understand, and consider how our choices and actions can contribute to or lessen the pain.

It’s risky to do this active listening and thinking aloud, in the moment, rather than waiting until we are sure we “have it right,” “understand it all,” or “know what to do.”  But we don’t have the luxury of time now to get it all perfect.  The best we can do is continually check in with our own emotions, and try to be sure that whatever we say or do is rooted in compassion, concern and a sincere desire to make things better.

“In a voiced community we all flourish,” says Terry Tempest Williams.  Blowing with love on the shaky fires of these suffering voices, bringing them into a nourishing, respectful community, will help ease not only human suffering, but also, potentially, as the ripples spread out, the suffering of so many living beings on the planet.

LOVE—the one emotion that trumps all others, on both the personal and the planetary scale.  The one emotion we can never have too much of, and the one out of which new potentialities continually spring. 6a00d83451c79e69e2015432a3f0e2970c-253x300May the tears we shed as we think about the pain of the world water the dry, numbed-out hearts of those who profess not to care about the links between the health of humans and of the natural world.

May we take the pain born of love, and channel it into personal and planetary healing.  May we be wise enough to see the connections between our actions and their ripple effects in human society and the planet writ large. May we learn to feel all the love we’re capable of as humans and to act out of that deep wellspring of emotion. Let it be so.  Let’s make it so.

Generations to Come: Mother’s Day Reflections on the Future

1013976.largeMy son and his girlfriend say they’re going to have a pig instead of a child.  They mean that literally—they’ve fallen in love with the idea of small pet pigs—and they’ve thought long and hard about the issue of whether or not to bring a child into this world.  Both confess to strong maternal/paternal inclinations, and there’s no doubt in my mind that they would make wonderful parents.

But unlike most people, they are hyper-aware of the troubled times humanity is moving into, as we sail along on our spaceship Earth.

“There’s no future for a child today,” my son says with resignation, and goes back to talking about the virtues of pet pigs, leaving me to sadly ponder the prospect of a piglet for a granddaughter.

When I was their age, in my early twenties, I reached for motherhood as a flower reaches toward the sun.  It was only a question of finding the right partner to make a baby with, and I put quite a bit of energy and focus into that search.  I married at 26 and had my first child at 30, the second at 36.  My role as a mother has determined my life choices ever since.

If I had been thinking as rationally as my son and his girlfriend, well, he might never have been born.  By 1992, his birth year, things were already looking grim, though we were all much less aware of the dark trends at work because the feel-good American media filtered out so much.

Now, social media does an incredible job of keeping us constantly informed about everything that’s going on in our world.

A granddaughter is born and Facebook lights up with pictures and congratulations.  Canada starts its seal hunt, and photos of bloody baby seals flood the web, with boos and hisses and calls for change.

When schoolgirls are abducted in Nigeria, or a boatload of teenagers drown in a sinking ferry, or thousands of people die in a landslide, we hear about it instantly, and as instinctively empathetic humans, we sense another portion of our emotional landscape darkening with grief.

It’s true that there is a lot of sadness, fear, pain and darkness in our world today.  It’s true that the future of human civilization as we know it is highly uncertain.  It’s true that we live in transition times.

But as I look around me on this sunny Mother’s Day morning and hear the birds singing and working busily on their nests in the trees around my house, I know it is far too soon to give up on our future.

Every living being in the ecological web of this planet reaches instinctively for the sun and dedicates itself to providing the ground for the next generation to stand on.

I understand that my son is acting out of an altruistic heroism when he thinks about renouncing fatherhood.  He has always wanted to be a father, and known he’d be a good one: he has been a wonderful older brother, and as a teenager quickly became a beloved camp counselor and mentor to younger kids.  He has an easy, charismatic way with children, and as a father he’d raise just the kind of bright, secure, grounded children that will be needed to lead humanity through the transitions ahead.

OK, so in part I just would much rather have a baby than a piglet for a grandchild.  But I also believe that we must resist the tendency to get so caught up in all the negative news that we forget to simply look around and remember that the sun is still shining, the leaves are unfurling, the birds are singing and a new day is here, full of untapped potential.

Maybe the question we need to be asking ourselves is not only “what will we do with our own precious lives,” but “what will we do for the lives of those precious children—of all species—to come?”  How can we spend our days wisely working to help our ever-loving Mother Earth continue providing the nurturing support she has always offered freely to all of her children?

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The Radioactive Imprudence of The New York Times Editorial Board

Why am I surprised each time The New York Times editorial board comes out with an opinion that demonstrates yet again how deeply indoctrinated the whole gang of them are into the logic of our industrial growth, more-energy-at-any-cost society?

I grew up reading The Times daily, poring over the Sunday edition, and believing its worldview to be objective, level-headed and virtually infallible. I believed that The Times was a watchdog over government that looked out for the good of ordinary people, the ones like me without any public power. I believed that when The Times issued an opinion, it was always going to be well-considered and trustworthy.

It’s only in the last few years that a veil has fallen from my eyes to reveal the extent to which The Times is simply a creature of the reckless, short-sighted, greedy elites that it serves. I grew up among those elites. But now, like many others, I have come to understand that the model of American society that I grew up with is not only unjust, it’s also deadly dangerous. Will The New York Times be playing its tune resolutely on deck as the whole global civilization built on extraction, exploitation and bottom-line myopia crashes, burns and sinks?

These reflections are prompted by a recent lead editorial, signed “The Editorial Board,” urging American policymakers to expand the use of nuclear power. The Board lauds the construction of a huge, and hugely expensive concrete shield over the leaking radioactive core of the Chernobyl power plant. The shield, The Times says blandly, will be good for 100 years.

No where does the editorial mention that radioactive waste associated with nuclear power plants can take tens of thousands of years to decay. The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, surely no tree-hugger, puts it this way in its public fact sheet:

images“The splitting of relatively heavy uranium atoms during reactor operation creates radioactive isotopes of several lighter elements, such as cesium-137 and strontium-90, called “fission products,” that account for most of the heat and penetrating radiation in high-level waste. Some uranium atoms also capture neutrons from fissioning uranium atoms nearby to form heavier elements like plutonium. These heavier-than-uranium, or “transuranic,” elements do not produce nearly the amount of heat or penetrating radiation that fission products do, but they take much longer to decay. Transuranic wastes, also called “TRU,” therefore account for most of the radioactive hazard remaining in high-level waste after a thousand years.

“Radioactive isotopes will eventually decay, or disintegrate, to harmless materials. However, while they are decaying, they emit radiation. Some isotopes decay in hours or even minutes, but others decay very slowly. Strontium-90 and cesium-137 have half-lives of about 30 years (that means that half the radioactivity of a given quantity of strontium-90, for example, will decay in 30 years). Plutonium-239 has a half-life of 24,000 years.

“High-level wastes are hazardous to humans and other life forms because of their high radiation levels that are capable of producing fatal doses during short periods of direct exposure. For example, ten years after removal from a reactor, the surface dose rate for a typical spent fuel assembly exceeds 10,000 rem/hour, whereas a fatal whole-body dose for humans is about 500 rem (if received all at one time). Furthermore, if constituents of these high-level wastes were to get into ground water or rivers, they could enter into food chains. Although the dose produced through this indirect exposure is much smaller than a direct exposure dose, there is a greater potential for a larger population to be exposed.”

Nevertheless, The Times Editorial Board chides Germany for “succumbing to panic” in aggressively phasing out its nuclear reactors after the Fukushima disaster “in favor of huge investments in renewable sources like wind and sun.”

The editorial concedes that “the world must do what it can to increase energy efficiency and harness sun, wind, ocean currents and other renewable sources to meet our ever-expanding needs for energy. But the time when these can replace all fossil and nuclear fuels is still far off, and in the meantime nuclear energy remains an important means of generating electricity without adding to the steadily increasing concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.”

Therefore, the Editorial Board concludes, America should “pay attention to the withering away of America’s fleet of 100 nuclear reactors,” and keep that nuclear energy burning brightly, exercising “Prudence in the design, maintenance and operation of all nuclear facilities. Prudence also in the sense that policy makers not be spooked into shutting down a vital source of clean energy in a warming world. The great shield over Chernobyl should also entomb unfounded fears of using nuclear power in the future.”

Given the incredibly unstable sociopolitical situation in the Ukraine, the “great shield” stands a good chance of never being completed. And even if it were to be finished, what is 100 years in the timeline of radiation, or of our planet?  Can we really consider nuclear energy to be “clean energy” given its deadly potential?

holding-the-sun_shutterstock_674327681-225x300This editorial should be rewritten to make Germany’s remarkable achievement in shifting quickly to renewables the central point, a rallying cry for other nations to swiftly follow suit.

Nuclear energy is part of our dark 20th century past. It has no more of a place in our future than its evil twin, nuclear bombs. Human beings have shown that we are still far too immature and imprudent to play with this kind of fire.

We need to let the sun take care of the fusion, and simply bask, like the other living beings with whom we share the planet, in the vast quantities of solar energy that bathe our planet every day.

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