Check your advocacy

feminismikollaasi“Words are pale shadows of forgotten names.
As names have power, words have power. Words can light fires in the minds of men.
Words can wring tears from the hardest hearts.”

– Patrick Rothfuss

As passionate as I am about some of my own views I think it is also important to think about advocacy in general. Regardless of the cause, communication is key in making a difference. It is impossible to have a conversation with someone who merely fires off tag lines like a pinball machine while dodging difficult questions. What I mean by this is as soon as I hear things like “check your privilege” or “meat is murder” I automatically switch off. It’s not that I even disagree with either of these particular statements; I just don’t think that they are appropriate for anything else than for banners for a protest. The problem with catchy one-liners is that they are so easy to throw around that they quickly turn into static noise without substance. Once at a meeting with a visual merchandiser we talked about how there was now a bunch of buzz-words that they weren’t allowed to use in marketing anymore because the consumer market had started to resent them. Similar inflation can happen in any topic of public discussion where specific words or phrases are excessively used across media outlets. This is especially true to Twitter and clickbait headlines where a very compact expression needs to pack a punch and catch people’s attention. Replacing independent thinking, rationality and well-constructed arguments with 120-character statements just kills the conversation for me. There is no shortage of social justice memes to choose from – and all of them send me spiralling down into desperation with equal intensity, but let’s tackle a recent favourite, “white feminism”.

The phrase “white feminism” is generally used to represent one’s distaste of feminist speech that focuses on white women and ignores racial issues thus excluding women of colour. Technically anyone can be a “white feminist” regardless of their own skin colour or gender if the feminism that they promote is racially biased or exclusive. Fundamentally, the critique brought forward by this phrase is valid, but compressing the message into an easily misunderstood, and possibly provoking term seems counterproductive. I would predict that most people who hear “white feminism” assume that it describes all white women, implying that the fact of their skin tone automatically makes them racist. Because this is exactly what my first impression was. Needless to say that such a rhetoric doesn’t exactly encourage people to take into heart the very real issues related to ethnicity in the context of women’s rights. It is not surprising that upon being or feeling accused of something before having so much as a chance to voice their opinion, people tend to shut down or lash out, and not listen any further.

That said, I do think that there are times when when using more aggressive and inflammatory language is appropriate. Debates, speeches and protests can get very heated and emotional, and in instances where provoking reactions in your audience is precisely the goal, then it can be effective to boost up your message with evocative vocabulary. However, more often than not this kind of language only appeals to those who are already on your side, and you end up preaching to the choir. If that is what you want, then by all means. To be honest though, I still can’t see how using the term “white feminism” would be beneficial to the feminist movement. And I shall explain why.

There is a time and a place for big words when we are trying to emphasise the difference between our stance and that of our opponent’s. We want to draw a clear line between us and them and build up group mentality. That’s all fine even though personally I tend to frown upon the practice of blatantly demonising the other – unless they are a glaring bigot in which case they tend to do the job perfectly well by themselves.
I find that the problem with “white feminism” is that it drives a wedge within the feminist movement. And I think that this problem is both in the practice of ignoring racial issues, which is what this term is supposed to convey, and in using said term to discuss this issue. Obviously, women of colour tend to be at a bigger socio-economic disadvantage than white women. Many of these women live in third world countries or war zones of course, and my knowledge of the history and politics involved is nowhere near a level where I would feel comfortable discussing that particular struggle. There are many factors regulating the quality of life in conflicted and unstable areas. At any given time culture, tradition and religion are some of those things, and we can all disagree on how big of a part they play in the mistreatment of women. In my books, that part is significant.
It is all too easy to let oneself fall into the apologist void of “it’s part of their culture, and we must respect it” in the fear of being labelled a racist or islamophobic or whatever is the next trendy accusation. I couldn’t care less from which angle you look at it – the tradition of female genital mutilation is torture, not culture. This atrocity is only the tip of the iceberg, and there are numerous more covert ways in which girls and women face discrimination in the name of tradition.

Debating  the significance of scarves and veils that cover more or less of a woman’s head has been all the rage for a while now. Are they signs of oppression? Are they empowering? Is it totally “white” and ignorant to even consider that they might be problematic?
I suppose they can be either one like just about anything else. I wouldn’t even bother weighing in on this if I could be sure that the decision of what to wear was always the woman’s, and only hers. But alas, I can’t. The problem really isn’t the veil itself but whether its use is part of misogynous tradition. There are those who think that we shouldn’t criticise any culture of anything because it is their culture. What such people are really saying is that those who have had the misfortune of being born into a culture where casual violence against women is condoned, are inherently different from those who were born into as peaceful a society as can be found on Earth today. To say that white people shouldn’t interfere because they don’t understand the culture, and women of colour don’t need to be saved anyway, is equal to knowing that your neighbour beats up their partner and not taking any action to help. Just because the victim of violence hasn’t come to you for help doesn’t mean that they want to be beaten.

Just to clarify, I am not saying that white women need to save coloured women. I am not saying that the burqa is oppressive and the mini skirt empowering. And of course, Islam, which I keep referring to, is not a race. And of course, race itself is an arbitrary concept however culturally relevant. I may have strayed away from the topic of feminist advocacy into straight up advocating feminism, but hopefully I have made at least half a point. Perhaps what feminism in Western countries currently suffers from is detachment from severe oppression. Are we, the fortunate ones, so used to freedom of expression, economic independence, contraceptives and certain amount of social security that we have forgotten what life as a woman used to be like? The notion that women of colour don’t need to be saved by white women is correct in that we shouldn’t victimise and infantilise those who live in adverse conditions. But as there is a power imbalance like there is one between the sexes, shouldn’t we try to do something about it by sharing resources when we can.

Finally, I think that there are more and less important feminist agendas that have to be dealt with. Those accused of “white feminism” are in that moment focusing on a less pressing issue that mainly concerns more privileged women who are mostly white. Is this outright wrong? Is it unethical to try to improve your own situation if someone else has it worse? As far as I understand, this seems to be at the core of the judgement of “white feminism”. That because in general white women are better off than women of colour, they should pay less attention to issues directly and exclusively related to themselves. This is certainly true when it comes to overall representation and visibility of racial issues in feminism. There is diversity lacking in the public discourse for sure. But I also think that if we want to make genuine progress in women’s rights across the globe people can’t be chastised for sometimes thinking about themselves and their own situation. We can all agree that being whistled at when crossing the road is nothing compared to being forced to marry a man four times your age when you are still a child. These issues can and must be worked on in many levels simultaneously. Feminism is after all about equality, and anyone who departs from that is not a feminist regardless of what they claim.

The point about advocacy – and this applies to any cause – that I wanted to make is that the choice of words really matters. I matters whether you want to bring more people to your cause or not. By using popular internet memes instead of your own words can easily alienate the very audience your message ought to reach.

Advertisements

An unlikely pair

unlikely pair
I happened to exchange emails with a dear friend of mine about our shared struggles in life a few days ago, and then found out through this poignant Guardian article that it is currently Depression Awareness Week. In the spirit of spreading awareness I thought I’d share my thoughts on two books that have given me surprising comfort in tough times. By the way I really do read authors that are not Patrick Rothfuss or Richard Dawkins. And one day I shall prove this – just not today.

I’m not into the self-help and spiritual literary genres at all. The brief encounters I’ve had with these kinds of books have always left a sickly taste of phoney sweetness and disingenuity in my mouth. In addition, being bombarded with popular self-help jargons like “you can be whatever you want”, “you can’t live a positive life with a negative mind” and “just be your authentic self” only enforces the deep shame of having a mental illness and not being able to cure oneself of it. Undoubtedly there are those who do find the delirious hype of self-help and New-Age literature motivating and eye-opening but for a sceptic, which I definitely class myself as, it rings hopelessly hollow.

Richard Dawkins: The Magic of Reality, 2011
This is a very different book compared to its most well-known predecessors, The Selfish Gene and The God Delusion, both of which are enveloped in their fair share of controversy. With The Magic of Reality Dawkins set out to write for younger readers, combining his exceptional skills in storytelling and engaging science communication. In spite of its target audience this is a book for anyone to enjoy. The language is by no means over-simplified or condescending, and you can always skim over the paragraphs that focus on explaining some really basic scientific concepts that you might already be familiar with. It’s a light read, and a very delightful one because Dawkins brilliantly succeeds in conveying his childlike admiration of the natural world in a way that stirs the same curiousness in the attentive reader.

Patrick Rothfuss: The Slow Regard of Silent Things, 2014
I have expressed my adoration of Patrick Rothfuss’ work in a previous post where I discussed the feminist themes in his to-be-trilogy, Kingkiller Chronicles. The Slow Regard of Silent Things is sort of a spin-off  as it focuses on one of the secondary characters in the main series. It stands on its own though: the references to the trilogy don’t disrupt the flow even if you don’t catch them, mainly because the protagonist, Auri makes references to a lot of things that remain elusive to the reader anyway. It’s actually quite difficult to pin down this book. The best way that I can think to describe it is a literary portrait – through sharing Auri’s daily routines, thoughts and emotions Rothfuss paints a picture of a sensitive, deeply affected and troubled girl who has escaped daylight to the shadow world underground and become something other to a regular world dweller.

At a first glance there doesn’t seem to be much that a science book for youngsters and a dreamlike novel could have in common but rest assured, for me it’s all in the details.
In The Slow Regard… we come to notice that Auri’s life is dictated by a set of rules and rituals, completely unintuitive to the reader. She seems to be functioning under a constant of anxiety that flares up and escalates into a rush of panic as soon as something disturbs her safety-net of routines. Any mishap or disappointment will drive her into a deep depression. Mental illness isn’t pretty, and being able to write a piece about it that is both beautiful and heart-wrenchingly relatable makes Patrick Rothfuss practically a genius in my eyes; romanticising this topic is such a tired and disrespectful trope.
Auri finds joy and purpose in the smallest of things – collecting objects that don’t hold any value to anyone but her, and embracing such mundane experiences as brushing her hair. She is mesmerised by sights, sounds and smells, and being hidden away from the busy and loud world above the ground she spends her time noticing a lot more than any of us in our daily lives.

The Magic of Reality is compiled of a series of chapters each tackling a natural phenomenon through myths and stories, leading up to the scientific account. What are rainbows and earthquakes, and who was the first human are some of the questions that Dawkins takes on and explains. One might expect the mythologies related to each problem to be most entertaining part of this book, triumphing over the dry logic of science; but on the contrary. Scientists who have the rare gift of communication are so incredibly inspirational and compelling when explaining the mysteries of nature that they easily make fairy stories sound unimaginative, and Richard Dawkins is no exception. I always loved biology in school because I was blessed with multiple amazing teachers, but I have never been as impressed by evolution as I am when I witness Dawkins addressing it. He is so invested in science and reason without any hidden agenda that it’s hard not to absorb some of the excitation. The Magic of Reality is all about stopping to study things that we take for granted and finding out how they actually come about. It simultaneously encourages the reader to be an independent and critical thinker while also appreciating the small, seemingly inconsequential things.

The unlikely pairing of these two books is a perfect remainder for a conflicted mind to look for moments of peace and wonder in the details of life. Small revelations of everyday don’t have to be tied to some New-Age guru’s 30-day soul healing detox programme but are best experienced with a clear and rationally tuned mind. Negative thoughts and emotions are not poison, nor can we have any control over their emergence. What we can control are the things that we choose to linger on – and should those things be tangible and firmly rooted in reality, all the better I say. “You can’t think your way out of a thinking problem”, is one of the best lessons that I have learned, which is why I try to embrace as many things that exist outside of my thoughts, as I can. The fact that we see stars in our night sky, and that the very existence of those stars is what allows us to exists too, is one of those things.

Myths about atheism

5film3As an atheist and a follower of public discussions of religion one runs into strange misconceptions and myths about atheism and atheists. In my personal life I have only heard a couple of these but because I am interested in debates and that kind of stuff I’ve been exposed to a lot more prejudice indirectly. Also, as Scandinavian living in England following this discourse which is mostly happening across the pond in the States I will say that between Finland, UK and US there seems to be an increase in negativity towards atheism the further westwards you go.

1. Atheists hate God and worship Satan

The term ‘atheism’ is built up from three parts where theos is Greek for any god, -ism indicates a system of principles and practices, and a- expresses not or without. Atheism at its core, stripped out of all additional meanings simply stands for an unbelief in any god. It’s not defiance of a god, nor a pretence – it is simply a lack of belief. Satan is just as fictional to atheists as is God, and so it is safe to say that atheists don’t tend to practice devil worship either.
When it comes to feelings towards the concept of the Abrahamic god in particular there are undoubtedly many who would say that they despise him. Christopher Hitchens called himself an anti-theist to emphasise his disgust toward Yahweh and the kind of dictatorial theocracy that the Abrahamic religions promote. Richard Dawkins has endured his fair share of religious outrage for the following passage in The God Delusion:

“The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.”

At the most, some atheists hate the fictional character, God and his influence over non-fictional beings.

2. Atheists worship Richard Dawkins

At least Professor Dawkins is real, but no, he is definitely not the High Priest of Atheism. This myth encompasses a set of misjudgements about atheism. Being the opposite of theism – or religion, atheism is often seen as a unified movement comparable to any other political or religious ideology. Public advocates of atheism are easily taken as spokesmen and representatives for all atheists, and as a consequence an illusion of a likeminded group of people with common agenda, beliefs and values arises.
In reality the only thing that all atheists have in common is the unbelief in god or gods. Our morals and values do not come from a set ideology but are as varied as our favourite colours and foods. Atheists don’t have an agenda. Some of us might but again, simply not having a religious faith does not lead to any particular direction. In fact, another thing that atheists do share is perhaps a strong aversion to dogma and authoritarianism. The Atheist Agenda is kind of like The Gay Agenda – we just want to live our lives without being subject to organised religion and being attacked for our non-belief.
When it comes to Dawkins, there are many atheists who adore him and there are many who don’t. The only consensus is that atheists are not an organised movement with a single figurehead whose views we all subscribe to. There are numerous public atheist whom I look up to but I don’t need Richard Dawkins or anyone else to speak for me. That I can do for myself.

3. Hitler and Stalin were atheists therefore atheism is evil

First of all, we don’t actually know for sure about the religious convictions of either one.
Secondly, even if they were non-believers neither one proclaimed that it was their atheism that inspired them and justified what they were doing. A crime committed by a religious person is not always motivated by their religion, nor is a crime committed by an atheist necessarily motivated by their lack thereof.
Most importantly, there just is no way that this argument holds water even if we granted that both Hitler and Stalin were atheists, and that their evil came from atheism. In the grand scheme of things the centuries of religious wars, violence and persecution would still massively outweigh atheism in the overall amount of suffering inflicted upon humanity. From this line of thinking it would automatically follow that religion is even more evil than atheism.

4. You can’t disprove God therefore atheists are wrong

You can’t prove God therefore theists are wrong?
There is a sliver of truth in this claim and a more accurate denomination for most atheists is probably agnostic. However, agnosticism is such an elusive concept that it doesn’t really serve a purpose in describing one’s views. A theist is likely to interpret an agnostic’s stance on the existence of God as 50/50 – that there is an equal probability either way. Perhaps this seems trivial but there really is a huge difference in being 90% convinced of the non-existence of God compared to that halfway position that agnostics are easily prescribed.
It is important to remember that we are agnostic about many things. The most famous example of this is the cosmic teapot analogy coined by Bertrand Russell. It is simply to say that we cannot prove that there isn’t a teapot orbiting the Sun somewhere between Earth and Mars, which obviously doesn’t automatically mean that there has to be a one. This illustrates the logical fallacy inherent in the claim that because something is scientifically unfalsifiable it must be true.

5. Science is the religion of atheists

One sometimes encounters the claim that knowledge based on science requires faith in the methods of science and is therefore just as believable as religion. The distrust in science today probably stems from the tsunami of pseudo-science spawned by the shady corners of Internet. Not everything that claims to be science is in fact science, and this creates confusion. One study trying to prove anything is never enough to be a basis of reliable information.
Scientific truths are different from dogmatic truths in that they are fair game for review and critique. Scientific theories face rigorous scrutiny and multiple attempts to disprove them. This ensures that the knowledge that earns the gold star of being true has passed through such a volume of close examination and nit-picking that it’s nearly bulletproof. But only nearly, because even after being accepted it can still be tested and disproved.
Moreover, trust in the scientific method is founded on the fact that good theories make accurate predictions regardless of who is conducting the experiment. Science observes and seeks to explain how stuff works and when it succeeds things like eyeglasses, computers and skyscrapers get developed.
Science doesn’t require blind faith, it doesn’t have an inbuilt agenda and it doesn’t tell us what to do and how to live our lives.

6. “You just haven’t endured hardship. When you do, you will find God.”

Not only is this dismissive and presumptuous, but it also reveals how limited and childish religion can render its follower. I have nothing against those who feel better at the thought of an omnipotent, celestial being watching over them, but to insinuate that faith in supernatural is the only way to overcome obstacles and be fulfilled is stupidly unimaginative.
Personally I have found much more comfort in looking up to the early morning sky and spotting Jupiter; in learning that all elements that make up my body were forged within dying stars; and simply knowing that whatever happens there are real flesh-and-blood people in my life who will stand by me and physically hold my hand if I need it.
Surrendering to a metaphysical force is a gateway to ignoring responsibility and agency in one’s own life. That said, I’m not drawing a direct line from religious faith to infantilism. It’s a path that can be taken but certainly not by everyone.

7. Atheists are arrogant and look down on believers

This would be just as valid if it was reversed. Neither claim is based on evidence but on prejudice. Some people are arrogant, some people are funny, some people like cats. Atheism in an of itself doesn’t lead to arrogance – it is simply a way of abbreviating the statement: “I don’t believe in god”. Trying to force atheism to mean something other than it does will always reach a dead-end. I’m repeating myself but atheism is not a belief system like Christianity or Hinduism are. There are no atheistic traditions or core ideas because it is not a religion.
When you learn that someone is a Hindu you can immediately make some assumptions about them based on your general knowledge of Hinduism. These assumptions may or may not be accurate in the case of every single individual but they are reasonable because they originate from a set of known beliefs and values, which said individual has just identified with.
Learning that someone is an atheist merely informs you of something that this person does not believe in. The rest is up to you to find out.

Imagine being bald and never even growing any hair, and then a group of people insist on braiding and combing and curling your hair. You’re trying to draw their attention to the fact that you don’t actually have any hair nor are you going to. Your grandma is like “don’t be ridiculous, everyone has hair”. Someone gets offended and starts yelling at you “so you hate everyone who has hair!”. No guys, it’s fine, you have hair and I don’t. It’s not a big deal. Just don’t shove it down my throat. Literally. Pls.

Victim of words?

blackholes copy“What is freedom of expression? Without the freedom to offend, it ceases to exist.”
– Salman Rushdie

I talked about being offended by words and ideas in a previous post, and although I will now continue along the same topic I hope to avoid being too repetitive. A few weeks ago I came across a lengthy Facebook status by Sebastian Tynkkynen, a Finnish far-right politician, indeed the president of the True Finns youth party, which I mentioned in my recent discussion on gender. The story is in Finnish so I will briefly paraphrase what’s going on.

Following the Brussels terrorist attacks The Finnish Resistance Movement (part of an overarching Nordic National Socialist movement) organised a small-scale rally in central Helsinki to promote their anti-immigration views. Mr Tynkkynen was invited to the event as a speaker, and as he got up on the stage a bystander started yelling “Tynkkynen is racist, Tynkkynen is racist”.

“Public discussion has become taxing and those with critical views on immigration are being silenced by equating them with an ideology represented by the nazis who practised racial segregation: racism.“

Giving this premise Tynkkynen is now raising charges against his defier for slander, thereby trying to bring justice to the many immigration critics who are constantly being accused of racism. He is seeking to make his case a precedent in the public discussion of immigration; to eliminate “the racist card” because “the game has become too cruel”. Tynkkynen goes on to elaborating his reasoning for taking this to court. According to him a culture that allows indefinite slander of a person “if one knows how to do it right” – whatever that means – is growing stronger in Finland.

“It generates endless bullying and contempt which effect both mentally, socially and on one’s employability. I often get these messages from citizens and I now want to intervene. I’m not aware of a case where defamation of a citizen by the racist card has lead to a conviction – -“

“If this goes through, the ruling will have wider implications on the societal conversation at large. It follows that a citizen charging their adversary with racism would in practice automatically be convicted.”

Needless to say that I think this is ridiculous and bordering on offending free speech.
I agree with Sebastian on one point, and that is that the haphazard use of the word ‘racist’ in public discourse is 99% of the time unhelpful. The term has become so overused that it has lost its meaning, and nowadays those holding racist views tend to hide behind some version of ‘immigration criticism’. But even when calling someone a racist might be an accurate denomination based on their opinions it just doesn’t bring anything of value to the conversation. It’s a shortcut used in the place of actual fact-based arguments, and does not serve defenders of human rights one bit.

Defamation

Racist

Is it slander to call someone, who has publicly leant their voice for a known far-right group with glaringly bigoted views, a racist? Is it a false accusation to make the connection between his views and those of the openly racist organisation that he has for the moment sided with? Moreover, is pointing out this apparent connection harmful for the accused racist’s reputation?

Like I said, I don’t think it’s helpful or necessary to yell insults on either side but I also don’t think that being called out on prejudiced views, or affiliations with advocates of prejudiced views is particularly harmful to one’s good reputation. Perhaps Sebastian, and others in similar positions, don’t realise that by agreeing to dignify these kinds of groups with their presence as a public figure, one is making a statement. And should they indeed be so worried about being labelled a racist then perhaps they should reconsider what kind of events they want to appear at in the first place. If Mr Tynkkynen was being honest, we would admit that even his own party’s stance on immigration is somewhat radical and in itself grants him a role – whether wanted or not, in the debate of what is and isn’t racist. When one decides to be in the public eye one must grow a thicker skin and be prepared to defend oneself in the crossfire of comments and offences.

I’m not interested in personally attacking Sebastian Tynkkynen. In truth, I know hardly anything about him. This case merely beautifully illustrates the self-victimisation phenomenon in social media. I see it as yet another way of misunderstanding the essence of freedom of speech, and misusing the concept of it as a justification for holding intolerant views. I have said it before and I will say it again: yes, you are absolutely allowed to have your opinions and express them. But when you face resistance it does not mean that your freedom of expression has been infringed upon. Being offended does not automatically mean that you are right. This is something that many Finnish immigration critics, especially members and supporters of the True Finns party do not seem to grasp. The same can be said about the opponents of the equal marriage law who pretend that allowing same sex couples the same judicial standing as heterosexual couples somehow offends or limits their freedom to practice religion. I have no idea how this could be true unless it forced gay marriage on everyone – which it doesn’t by the way.

And let’s not forget that these champions of freedom of expression have come up with their own slander term for those who call them racist: “suvakki” or better yet, “suvakkihuora”. The first one is derived from the word “suvaitsevainen” meaning “tolerant” and in the second one the lovely word “huora”, “whore” has been added to the mix. Should all immigration liberals now start taking people to court for calling them tolerant whores? What a time to be alive.

But on a more serious note, the thought of a word being practically criminalised is rather chilling. There are obviously more eloquent ways of criticising people’s views than yelling “RACIST” but as Tynkkynen himself points out, the author of this insult was calmed down by a couple of police officers who were present at the event. No damage was done, no one’s freedom of expression was denied, no one was physically or mentally traumatised.

Understandably it is annoying and frustrating when our comments are dismissed as racist or otherwise irrelevant but instead of immediately seeking to deny the use of certain words wouldn’t it be more effective to take the time to explain why our opinions are actually relevant, to defend ourselves with intelligence rather than seeking to make resisting us a criminal offence. Criminalising certain kind of societal critique is a feature of totalitarianism which we should always fight against, in every way possible. That is, if we really want to preserve free society and liberal values, and that precious freedom of speech.
The use of force, physical or otherwise instead of intelligence only confirms the narrative of a bigoted caveman afraid of the unknown, which the word ‘racist’ is used to bring attention to. When the insult seems to do real harm to our career or image then it should be treated as a false accusation and proved wrong. When it is a random person at an outdoor event after a recent terrorist attack, who is in the end only manifesting his own shortage of temper and lack of elegant articulation, it ought to be ignored -in my humble opinion at least. By treating this incident as a valid commentary on one’s character you are only presenting yourself as a victim, lethally wounded by a word. You are saying that this slur has caused so much damage to your person that it is only right that the offender should be punished in the court of law, and that also everyone else who holds this view of you and your opinions should not have the right to call you out. How exactly does this advance our public discourse on the real issues of the immigration crisis in Europe? News flash: it doesn’t. I am no expert in this particular topic but I claim to know something about effective advocacy and communication.

Finishing with “I left with my dark-skinned friend” is also not the most convincing argument and doesn’t negate the connotations of being affiliated with a group notorious for using violence to propagate its antisemitic, anti-gay and racist agenda. If in your heart of hearts you know that you are not a racist then why would you publicly seem to support a group of known racists? More importantly, why would you care if a random bystander calls you a racist? Is it perhaps because they hit a nerve? I don’t know.
What I do know is that there are many and more people whom I disagree with on different topics but whom I still respect because of their ability and will to articulate well and think critically. Anyone who is not willing to have a proper conversation but instead just dismiss me as a feminazi or a privileged white girl or whatever else, I’m not going to bother with – let alone sue them. But maybe that’s just me.

Hail, Caesar! and shades of satire

250f05c0-9b94-0133-6b31-0ec5ba6aa2f5

I wrote another longwinded commentary on the rampant online culture of self-victimisation and being offended, but instead of posting that today, I decided to talk about something possibly more fun. I’m certain that the other topic will still be relevant next week – sadly.

Disclaimer: I’m going to chat about a film that makes fun of religion (among other things). I you don’t like that kind of thing maybe go read something else. I’m an atheist, a critic of religion and a supporter of secularism. As a result I always find it marvellously entertaining when someone pokes fun at religion in any capacity – especially in the form of cinema. Life of Brian, anyone?

Hail, Caesar! is a film about films, about the enigma of the moviemaking business in the 1950’s where a Hollywood fixer Eddie Mannix has his hands full trying to keep his cavalcade of starlets in line and away from the scandal-hungry press. I love a good satire and even if your knowledge of show business myths and clichés is even less substantial than mine: mainly based on Audrey Hepburn films and Marc Maron’s podcast, you will get the the gist of this film. I spent about 90% of the time in fits of laughter and the rest catching my breath. There’s the young and handsome film star who doesn’t really know how to act apart from doing cool tricks while riding a horse in Westerns; the innocent looking blonde bombshell who is actually a chain smoker and disgracefully pregnant to one of the guys that she’s been going out with; and one of my personal favourites – the secret society of stereotypically Jewish looking communist screenwriters.

The central storyline revolves around the production of the film Hail, Caesar! which tells the story of Jesus from the point of view of a Roman military commander. Of course the studio doesn’t want to ruffle any school of believers with an offensive portrayal of their messiah so they gather together a group of clerics from the Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Protestant and Jewish traditions to consult with. My favourite scene: a hilarious and poignant exchange regarding the essence of Christ, ensues. The way Eddie phrases the issue to his interlocutors is along the lines of whether they think that anything in the script of Hail, Caesar! would strike as offensive to a “reasonable American regardless of faith or creed”. Reason and faith inhabit the opposite ends of a spectrum, which obviously leads to a totally nonsensical argument between the four religious leaders about theological disagreements between each of their respective sects. The Patriarch is merely bothered about the “fakeyness” of an unrelated scene, the Catholic Priest is really, very intense, the Protestant Minister nonspecific and the rabbi clearly sees himself as superior since Judaism obviously departs from the rest of Christianity by insisting that Jesus was just a mortal man.

Here’s a transcript of part of the debate for your entertainment. If you’re bored, try to identify who’s who, and go see the film. It’s extremely funny.

“Young man, you don’t follow for a very simple reason: these men are screwballs. God has children? What, and a dog? A collie maybe? God does not have children. He’s a bachelor. And very angry.”

“He used to be angry!”

What, he got over it?”

“You worship the God of another age!”

“Who has no love!”

“Not true! He likes Jews.”

“God loves everyone!”

“God is love.”

“God is who is.”

Clearly the film is here ridiculing the internal discord of Christianity, and the overall elusiveness of the basis of religious faith. For many, religion answers the big questions of why there is something rather than nothing and what is the purpose of our lives, but from a secular point of view this system is frankly, a big old mess. When there are several different religions in the world divided into several different sects and traditions whose spokesmen all seem to have different interpretations and ideas of what the essence of their god is, not to mention the billions of people who undoubtedly also harbour their own personal interpretations and ideas of these things, any truth claims made on such a premise – or lack thereof really, completely evaporate in the non-believers eyes.

In addition to teasing the concept of organised religion and its feeble and fabricated relevance to truth, the character of Eddie Mannix represents a more personal relationship to religiosity. In the opening scene Eddie is shown at a confessional, which he frequents daily, seeking divine forgiveness for his failure to stop smoking and lying to his wife about it. This sin seems rather benign in comparison with the threats, lies and other questionable methods Eddie has to employ in his job in order to cover up all the trouble that his starlets are constantly running into.
This cognitive dissonance of identifying as a devout Catholic whilst simultaneously making unethical decisions is an integral part of being any sort of a believer today without causing massive havoc. Or how else would a Young Earth Creationist (someone who believes that the Earth is 5000 years old and that Darwinian evolution is nonsense) be a doctor for example? Clearly, in order to pass medical school you must have studied a bunch of science totally inconsistent with your scripture. And this also holds true to any theist who accepts that the Earth is actually 4,5 billion years old and that evolution is a fact. Human mind is so flexible and immense in its capacity that a person can hold contradictory beliefs and be totally fine with it, but I think we have to notice that this is not a logical way of processing information. It isn’t markedly wrong or bad – just illogical. And I’m not condemning or sneering at anyone of any faith as long as they don’t harm others in its name. (Look at me getting all defensive. This blog has approximately four and a half regular readers but I’m still terrified of religious fanatics. There’s one living next door, and half of the city’s Orthodox Jew population just round the corner.)
Moreover, I read the cycle of immorality, shame, confession and retribution that dictates Eddie’s life as a critique of the notion that without religious disposition one cannot be moral. Clearly, practising religion is not the answer to the evils of the world either. Quite the contrary, as it seems that for Eddie, going through the motions required by his faith, justifies committing the same sins again and again. And why would he change his ways if the heavenly Father is going to forgive him all the same?

But honestly, it is entirely possible to watch this movie without getting all worked up about the hypocrisy of organised religion. Don’t be discouraged by my seriousness and pessimism!

“All religion, my friend, is simply evolved out of fraud, fear, greed, imagination and poetry.”
– Edgar Allan Poe