Archive for February, 2006

back to the grind

well, would you look at that – where does the time go? My reading week break is over, and I accomplished NONE of the goals I had set out for myself… well, I did do a lot of yoga, and that was a goal, so maybe I accomplished one goal. Mid-week, I decided that I really wasn't feeling very motivated to do work for which the deadline wasn't urgent, so I thought instead I would give myself a break and actually unwind and enjoy the time I had to myself! I went for a massage, went shopping and bought new shoes, got to visit with friends, watched some movies, and slept a lot. I feel refreshed and rejuvenated!Now it's back to the grind, and I did do quite a bit of reading – just not writing – on my break, so I am way ahead of the game. This week I'll be writing a couple of papers for next week, so that I'm glad to be a bit ahead of schedule so I can just settle into writing without much prep work. I also have to decide on some topics for final papers, and that is coming along – I have a couple of ideas that might work well.

Anyway, it's been a nice and much needed vacation!

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On Wednesday, officials voted to put an end to most abortions in South Dakota. It hasn't been passed yet, but if this bill goes through, it could mean the first successful challenge to Roe v. Wade in the USA. The case will go to the Supreme Court, who then has the choice of hearing the case or not. Some say it is unlikely the court will even hear the case, which will mean the bill will be effective only in South Dakota. However, that means women in South Dakota won't be able to ahve access to safe and legal abortions! This is bad news!I just don't understand how women, who are actual human beings and citizens, get less concern than fetuses, who are essentially parasites and cannot survive outside of the woman's body. Fetuses are not citizens – you have to be born to be a citizen! How can it be that women are not as well-protected and respected as "people" who don't officially exist yet?

The state of SD wants to control women's bodies. By controlling a woman's body, you control a woman, for all intents and purposes. Now, only those women who can afford to leave the state will be able to access abortion. Guess what that means? More poor mothers. More welfare. More demand for state-funded daycare. More wards of the state. More children growing up in poverty. More mothers at their wits' end. More legal battles over child support from absent fathers. More men paying child support for children they didn't want or plan for. More children who are unwanted. More children born with medical problems, like fetal alcohol syndrome, low birth weights due to cigarette smoking, crack- and heroin-addicted babies, HIV+, Hep C+, etc. More botched "back-alley" abortions, complications of which are paid by the state Medicaid program. All of this amounts to, over time, increased taxes. It is obvious to anyone who opens their eyes and looks around: poverty breeds poverty. How is this a better scenario than abortion? Is this the kind of control of women's bodies SD is looking for – at the expense of other social programs?

Reproductive freedom is a major issue for women. Yes, there are lots of options available – to those who can afford them – to avoid pregnancy. Yes, there is always abstainence. Yes, there is always adoption. But these things don't always work. Abstainence is a joke in this world – to expect women, teenaged women, grown women, married women, to abstain from sex is ridiculous. It just is. All sorts of different women have abortions. Can we really expect women from all walks of life to avoid sex in order to avoid pregnancy? Completely unrealistic. Birth control options don't always work. Women get pregnant while on birth control all the time. Besides, these options are highly gendered – there is only one option for birth control available to men to protect against pregnancy, and most guys hate using it. Birth control isn't 100% reliable – so even if all precautions are taken, pregnancy can still occur. And birth control isn't cheap – thank god for programs like Planned Parenthood that give out free birth control and condoms. The option of adoption isn't always feasible. It is difficult emotionally for a woman to give away a baby that she carried in her body for 9 months, went through the pain of labour to give birth to, and has held and nurtured. Besides that, adoption doesn't work for women who simply don't wish to go through pregnancy and childbirth. Some women incur health problems while pregnant, and sometimes those health problems aren't cured by childbirth, but stay on as part of the woman's body for the rest of their lives. Yes, the legislation in SD allows for abortion in the case of a threat to the mother's health, and in case of rape. But this is entirely insufficient for a woman who does not wish to be pregnant! Besides, sometimes health complications arise late in the pregnancy, and late-term abortions are not always safe for a woman's long-term health.

So, call abortion a form of birth control if you like. Other forms of birth control don't prevent pregnancy, but rather cause a fertilized egg not to attach to the uterine wall, such as IUDs and the Morning After Pill (which is also widely held to be controversial and pro-life groups try to prevent access to this as well). I don't mind if abortion is used as a form of birth control. It's a pretty expensive way to prevent pregnancy, and it carries a higher degree of health risks for the woman, but if it is the last chance a woman has to avoid pregnancy and parenthood, so be it. Women MUST have the option of abortion, and it MUST be safe and legal. I know that I live in Canada, and what happens in SD doesn't have much bearing on my life here day to day, but when women's rights are threatened, we all need to take a stand. If you need further convincing of the social reasons why abortion must be available, please check out this post I found on Blog for Choice day this year. The author states her case logically and eloquently.

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North Country

I was disappointed that I didn't get a chance to see this movie in the theatre, so I was very happy when it showed up on DVD this week. North Country is about a woman (played by Charlize Theron) who works in an iron mine in northern Minnesota in the late 1980s and, along with all her female coworkers, experiences sexual harrassment by men who are angry that women are working there at all. She takes a stand, and launches the first-ever sexual harrassment class action lawsuit in legal history with her coworkers. The movie was based on a true account. In real life, the lawsuit took 14 years to settle (1984 to 1998), and set a legal precedent that affected every company in the USA, forcing them all to draft sexual harrassment policies to protect female employees.

I liked the movie a lot, it was well-acted by Charlize Theron and Frances McDormand particularly. I also thought it did a good job of showing the problems those women faced. Their male bosses did nothing to stop the behaviour of their male coworkers, and suggested they "take it like a man". It got me thinking about gender equality, and the problems that some people have with understanding that treating men and women equally doesn't necessarily mean treating them the same. For example, one of the complaints the female union rep (McDormand) brought to the union was portable toilets for the women in the pit, because the male crew bosses were not allowing the women to leave to use the bathroom when they needed to and they were getting bladder infections from holding their urine too long. The men didn't require porta-potties, but the women did, and work equality means the company must provide porta-potties for their female employees. (By the way, in the movie, a few of the men tipped over one of the portables while a female employee was inside.)

Having worked in mostly female-only work environments for the past ten years, I haven't experienced sexual harrassment in the workplace. I feel lucky to be protected against it, although my suspicion is that sexual harrassment happens all the time in workplaces, and despite having legal protection in place, many people don't speak up about it for fear of being ostracized by their coworkers for getting someone in trouble or worse. There are lots of ways an employer can get rid of an employee that can hide the real reason they are being let go. All the same, I admire the women portrayed in this movie for standing up and saying No, and fighting for the right of every person to go to work and make a living without the added pressure of sexual harrassment.

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Browsing in my local bookstore today, I came across a book called The Death of Feminism by Phyllis Chesler. Chesler is a feminist of four decades now, and has written extensively on women's rights and issues. This book presents a serious charge against her fellow women, namely, that women have forgotten and abandoned their commitment to equality, women's rights, and freedom. In particular, the context she writes about is women who live in Islamic regimes, and she criticized liberal feminists for not standing up to fight for these women who are silenced by their religion and their government. Now, I haven't read the book, so I can't provide a detailed discussion, but the book's title certainly spoke to me as I considered what I wanted to write about here today. The question immediately presented itself to me: Is feminism really dead?Whenever I tell people that I am a feminist, the reaction is mostly the same. Nobody really wants to hear about it. I have female acquaintences who have said, "Really? You're a feminist? You really believe that women and men should be equal?" (I'm not joking!) One in particular told me that she couldn't identify with feminism because she still wanted a man to come along and take care of her. I couldn't figure out if she just didn't want to have to work, or if she really bought into that 1950s housewife stereotype. Another acquaintence said to me, "I'm not a feminist. Do you think that's bad?" I began to wonder, what is so wrong with being a feminist?

As it turns out, lots of things.

In the 1970s, feminism was overtaken to a large degree by radical lesbians, who promoted lesbianism as a lifestyle by which a woman could avoid men and male domination altogether and still have sex and love. Part of the problem of women's subversion, you see, is that women are complicitly involved in intimate romantic relationships with members of the group that oppresses them. Because of this, women are separated from each other and dependent on men. Lesbianism offers an alternative, and an important one: without the option of lesbianism, women would have no choice but to get into bed (literally and figuratively) with their oppressors. There has to be an option that provides women with a way to live their lives without male dependence and male-female intimacy.

I think this is one of the reasons that "feminist" is a dirty word – women who identify as feminists are seen as rejecting men sexually, and that isn't good for the male ego. Heterosexual women also see this as a problem: when you are attracted to men, you don't want to be seen as inherently rejecting them sexually. Also, lesbian feminists are just seen as being anti-sex, because in our male-dominant world, sex necessarily revolves around penile penetration and the celebration of the phallus. Lesbian sex is not considered "real" sex. for evidence of this, look at how lesbian sex has been captured by the pornography industry and made into "girl-on-girl" sex – sex acts between two GIRLS (not women) for the benefit of the male gaze. This phenomenon has so overtaken society's thoughts on lesbians that young girls are now prentending to be lesbians IN ORDER to attract male attention at bars in this city (probably other cities too, we all know that Halifax is behind the times trend-wise)! My young friends tell me this happens all the time! Lesbian sex has been stolen from lesbians and perverted into something to be used for male pleasure – which is centred around the penis and in particular ejaculation. Lesbians are also often seen as not "real" homosexuals, but rather as women who are either "bitter" (oh how I hate that word) or have had a "bad experience" with men, either emotionally or sexually. Therefore, feminists are associated with lesbians, and lesbians are seen as bitterly rejecting sex with men or else just another titillation for male pleasure.

Feminism is one of the best examples of how grassroots movements can grow and develop into recognizable and legitimate organizations for social change. Unfortunately, when society is forced to change, it means that some groups will have to give up some of the privileges associated with being supported by the status quo. This breeds resentment of an alarming intensity. Look at the backlash against equal opportunity hiring (AKA Affirmative Action). Suddenly, middle-class able-bodied white men weren't considered the best candidates for the job, and instead were passed over to give an opportunity to a black person, a disabled person, a woman, instead. When you're used to getting the best seat in the house, all of a sudden being seated next to the kitchen is a bit of a shock.

All in all, I think that most modern women feel as though feminism was a battle their mothers and grandmothers fought, and that battle has ended because there is legislation in place that supports equality and punishes discrimination. Combine this with the resurgence of "family values" in right-wing politics, and it seems as though feminism was a bad idea altogether – families are torn because children are more delinquent than ever (whether that's true or not is beside the point), and this is blamed on feminism, which insisted that women be permitted to work outside the home for equal pay. Feminists have taken a bad rap. No wonder many women don't want to be called feminists.

But does that mean feminism is dead? I hope not. In my eyes, there's still a lot of work to be done before feminists can rest. Me? I'm proud to call myself a feminist, and put myself in the company of great women who have fought a difficult battle against male supremacy. Long live feminism!

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reading week

today is the first day of February break, also known as Reading Week. This year, I am actually planning to spend my week doing productive school-related things. I have two papers I plan on writing in full, and I also plan to start the research for the rest of my papers for the term. Even if it's just preliminary stuff, I really want to feel organized going into the end of term, and I want to make sure I don't leave anything to the last minute, like I did last term, which I found entirely too stressful. Even though I'm taking 6 classes this term, I feel like my workload is ridiculously light in comparison to last term! I guess it's just the way the classes are structured, but I don't feel a constant sense of imending doom each day, and I am mostly caught up in all my classes in regards to reading, which is kind of a miracle! In any case, I'm pretty much set to begin my research and organize myself.I also plan to practice my new violin each day, as well as my piano. I haven't really played my piano very much in the last couple years, but it's amazing to me how quickly and easily technique and fingering comes back. I have a couple very favourite Debussy pieces that I perfected at the end of my last round of lessons, and my fingers are finding the keys very easily after only a couple of times playing it again. That makes me feel very good and happy, and makes me think I can tackle some more difficult pieces. I ended lessons 5 years ago, and I was at the grade 9 conservatory level. My skill has slipped for sure, but I think if I concentrated, I could get back up there again within a few months. The violin is going really well, I am happy with myself! I am getting the hang of fingering, and I can play Twinkle Twinkle Little Star, This Land is Your Land, All Through the Night, Swing Low Sweet Chariot, The Water is Wide, and the start to Pachelbel's Canon. I'm pretty pleased with the sound I can get most of the time, but it's the bow that is giving me difficulty. It's a lot to concentrate on all at once. That's why I like it, though – it works more parts of my brain I think. I think I can feel it!

I have three more goals for this break. I want to begin my day each day with yoga, because I miss it and it helps me focus for the day and feel good in my body. I also want to make sure to get a cardio and weight training session in at least four times this week, because the malaise has zapped my energy and I gotta get it together again. My second goal is to work on a new writing project I began on the weekend. I don't want to share much about it right now because I'm not sure what it is going to turn out to be, but I think it will be challenging in a few different ways. Last but not least, I began a painting project in the summer that I haven't finished, and I am determined to get that done! Maybe this is too many goals. We'll see how it all comes together!

Happy Reading Week to you all!

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Welcome to my new, weekly-ish feature, Feminism Friday. In my efforts to bring feminism front and centre in my life and my studies, I have read tons of great feminist pieces, seen films and documentaries relating to feminism, and had seemingly endless conversations with friends and family about women's issues. Because women are a heterogeneous group, women's issues are also race issues, religious issues, sexuality issues, economic issues, political issues, ecology issues, and on and on. I am interested in human rights, critical race theory, and anti-oppression theory of all sorts, and so am always keeping my ears and eyes open to these subjects in the news, in literature, in film and television entertainment, etc. The purpose of this feature is to have a place to discuss various subjects relating to women. Somedays, it will be a place for critique, and other days, a place for celebration; mostly, the writings that appear here will be both theoretical and personal explorations of the issues I will present. I have some ideas as to where I would like to go with my studies, and part of that will be research and writing. I welcome ideas and suggestions for topics in this space, as well as comments and critiques of the work and ideas I express here. Feel free to email me directly at the address listed under my profile. A special thanks to all those who support me in my efforts to understand my place in the world and my place in feminism. (I found this image on the web and loved it – I'd love to know who the artist is so I can ask for permission to use the image and give proper credit, so if anyone knows this info, let me know!)


Feminism Friday – "Not a Love Story"
This week, I had the opportunity to watch the documentary "Not a Love Story: A Film About Pronography" (1981). This is a piece about the pornography industry, and its impact on women and society. The filmmaker, Bonnie Sherr Klein, interviewed lots of different people for the film: strippers, live pornography performers, porn film actors, porn models, a female pornography photographer, a pornography magazine publisher, and several feminist writers and activists. The film had a clear feminist slant, and deconstructed all the reasons why pornography is harmful to women, men, children, and society at large. It was well-done, but disturbing.

Because the film was about porn, there was a lot of porn shown in the documentary. The content was graphic, and certainly not for the faint of heart. Much of the pornographic content shown was explicitly violent to women, showing women in various forms of bondage and discomfort, so much that I can't imagine the women involved having consented to the situations in which they were shown. In the majority of these situations, the women were gagged so they could not scream out in pain. All of the situations shown were ones in which women were not receiving sexual pleasure, and all of the situations shown were ones in which women were in positions of submission. One particularly haunting image for me was a Hustler cover, showing a woman from the waist down, nude and from the side, upside down, high heeled shoes in the air, being fed into a meat grinder. Another was a film of a woman who was naked, bound and gagged, whose pubic hair was being ripped out by a man who then bit her nipples to the point of bleeding. This film was entitled "Beat the Bitch". One of the women involved with the making of the film, after being shown the clip, was asked what she thought of it. She said, "It hurt. It hurt me."

The interviews were very enlightening. One interview, with a former porn actor, was very interesting. He said he left porn because he couldn't stand degrading women anymore. He also said the expectations placed on women and men to perform in the same ways as actors in pornography films were too high. Sherr Klein also interviewed a male porn publisher, who said he believed the rise in violent porn was a direct result of "women's lib", and that he believed pornography to be helpful to women because it provided an outlet to men who were frustrated with their new social positions and did not want to be equal to women. Another interviewee stated that pornography results in stunted intimacy. An interview with a live porn actor found she had been repeatedly sexually abused as a child and felt this was a better way to make a living than prostitution because she was "acting" with her husband on stage for 12 shows a day. She said the men who most seemed to enjoy her show were white men who enjoyed seeing her black husband aggressively having sex with her (she is white), because in their racist and sexist minds, being with a black man is degrading and humiliating for a white woman. Another live porn actor said she hated her work and it made her feel horrible. An interview with a feminist anti-porn activist described the ways in which pornography creeps into everyday relations between the sexes in society, whether in the bedroom, in the workplace, in the street, on the home: men expect women to be a certain way, and feel within their rights to treat women as they see women treated in pornography, whether in ways that are explicitly violent, or "merely" subverting and subordinating.

It took me about 2 days to get over seeing this film. I wasn't affected negatively while I was watching it, but when I went home and thought about it, I became very upset and despondent. I came to the realization that this brand of pornography is hate literature, one of the only forms of hate literature that is readily and heartily accepted by society. At the time the film was shot, porn was a $5 billion dollar industry. That was 25 years ago, before the advent of the internet, and before home videos were so widely accessible and inexpensive. This is not counting the majority of child porn, which is so underground it is difficult to get numbers on it. I was despondent because I had never had to endure hate literature before, and this was hate literature I could relate to: the women in the video looked like me. They were not today's porn stars, bleached and shaved and implanted and glossy. They were ordinary, normal women. I hated that it seemed that men's sexual appetites were so depraved and power-hungry; what happened to intimacy and sharing in a sexual relationship? I hate that women were depicted in ways that made me feel dirty and used. I hate that men exist who want to see violence done to women, and who use sex to do it. I hate that there is nothing I can do to stop it right now. I hate that violent pornography is protected in so many countries by that goddamn freedom of expression bullshit. I hate that it seemed like whatever a man wanted to do or see, a woman was willing to do it for money. I hate that this is the opinion of so many people, who do not take into account the fact that our society is oppressive, and that some women exist under such circumstances of coercion it isn't possible for them to consent in the same way it is posisble for others to consent, that when it comes down to not having a roof over your head or food to eat, and no skills or options, porn may be the only available job. I felt utterly despondent; how are we ever to achieve equality if men feel this way about women, if women are viewed by men as being nothing but objects to do violence to, to get sexual gratification from?

I realize the film is quite old now, and that women's equality has developed since that time. I also realize that the film was selective in the pornography it showed, and that not all porn is about violence toward women, or degrading women in some way. I also realize that the porn industry has tripled at the least since the film was shot, and that the prevalence and pervasiveness of porn in our culture has grown proportionately. Porn used to be something people were quiet and secretive about; now, almost everyone has seen porn of some sort, whether it be a strip club act or an unsolicited email or internet pop-up. Porn is easy to access on the internet – most sites don't even have a disclaimer citing adult content. One of the strangest and most unsettling things about contemporary pornography is the blending of child porn with mainstream porn: the vast majority of women who appear in pornography have little to no pubic hair, and tiny vulvas – all the better to contrast with the size of a man's penis, I suppose. Of interest: a relatively new, but increasingly popular, cosmetic surgery is "labiaplasty", in which "excess" labial skin is removed to make the vulva appear smaller and more "like a flower".

So, ultimately, how do I feel now? I'm glad I saw the film. I'm glad I know the extent to which pornography harms women. I'm glad that I have an understanding of the degree of violence in pornography. I'm glad I have an understanding of what I'm up against in this world, in this society. Knowledge is power, right? I know that each day when I get out of bed, I will face at least one man who views pornography and thinks of women as subordinate in ways small or large. I know the expectation for me to be feminine, to be slim, to be responsive, to be entertaining, to be beautiful, to be engaging, are all in part due to pornography. I know there will be resistence to my ideas about women, men, sex, pornography, society. I know that anti-porn = anti-sex in the eyes of many men. I know I will be accused of being uptight, in need of a good lay, insecure about my body, insecure about my sexuality, insecure about my identity, not feminine enough, dumb, too smart, not sexy, not interested in sex – all because of my viewpoint as a feminist. As long as I know, I will be empowered. I will not be surprised. I will not be silenced, like the women in the film. I will be ready.

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malaise muh-LAYZ; -LEZ, noun:
  1.  A vague feeling of discomfort in the body, as at the onset
  of illness.
  2. A general feeling of depression or unease.

I opened my word-of-the-day email today, and the word was malaise. How appropriate. I felt like shit all day today. Here were my symptoms:

  • threat of vomiting. This hit when I was in the shower this morning getting ready for work.
  • upset stomach. see above.
  • loss of appetite. all I could even dream of digesting today was peppermint tea, chicken noodle soup, V8, and cake.
  • achiness. my neck and shoulders especially, but kind of all over.
  • loss of smile. just didn't feel up to it.
  • the wobblies – shakiness and feeling weak. probably due to loss of appetite.
  • ass-dragging, AKA lack of energy. again, see loss of appetite.
  • stuffy head.
  • swollen glands.
  • foul mood.
  • demotivation.
  • feelings of portent coupled with anxiety. I had a feeling, all day, that something was about to go wrong.
  • a vague sense of being outside myself.
  • hypersensitive senses – smells were intense, it seemed like everyone was yelling at me, lights were too bright.
  • malaise, in both senses of the word. I couldn't stand my own skin today. I wanted to crawl out of it and into a nice warm bath, shed it like a snake. I couldn't stand looking at myself in the mirror long enough to dry my hair and apply my lip gloss.

so those are my symptoms. What sort of weird-o illness have I contracted? well, maybe I'll explain more tomorrow. I'm thinking about a weekly-ish feature for Fridays. we'll see if it comes together. Hopefully if I sleep on it, I'll sleep my way right out of it. I'm going to skip my readings for class and get a good night's sleep with a magic bag and some lavender burning, and hopefully tomorrow I'll be able to get up and get to work on readings for class.

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more movies

I went to see two more Oscar nominated movies this week. Here's my thoughts on those:

Good Night, and Good Luck:
This movie was stunning. It was a concisely presented piece about one TV journalist working for CBS in the 1950s named Edward R Murrow who took on Senator Joe McCarthy, and won. McCarthy was a junior senator from Wisconsin, and the bug in his pants was communism. He ruined the lives of many people because of his commie witch-hunting. Murrow and his production team did a couple of piercing new segments about McCarthy and shone a light on what he was up to, and this began McCarthy's downward spiral (or so it was presented in the movie – I'm no history buff). The movie, if you haven't seen clips or anything, is shot entirely in black and white, and has a fabulous cast who were all at the top of their game – but none outshone the lead actor, David Strathairn. Strathairn is up for an Oscar for this performance, and deservedly so: he was beyond excellent. I saw a clip of one of his scenes compared in a split screen with the original newscast, and they are almost identical. I also think director George Clooney (who co-starred and co-wrote the script) did a great job of getting us inside a newroom. I felt like I was right there. If you can, go see this movie – it's really great, and it stays with you after you leave the theatre.Capote: well, what can I say. This movie was very interesting. Another true story, this tells the tale of Truman Capote, extravagant and eclectic american writer, during the writing of his most celebrated book, In Cold Blood. The book is what he calls a "non-fiction novel", a true telling of a notorious crime committed in small town Kansas in the late 1950s. The novel takes him the better part of 5 years to write, during which he conducts intimate interviews with the murderers, one in particular. It's hard to tell what was going on there – in a way, it seemed that Capote fell in love with Perry Smith, in a way it seemed he seduced him. Capote was rumoured to be a very seductive person, very cunning and manipulative in how he related to people. In the end, Capote finished his book, but never another – the experience of writing In Cold Blood left him spent and alcoholic, facts which the success of his book could not erase. Phillip Seymour Hoffman stars, and as usual, is absolutely brilliant. Hoffman is, I think, the best actor of his generation – right up there with Sean Penn. He is brilliant, and this role is the role of his lifetime. He captures Capote with surprising accuracy – his voice, his mannerisms, his essence. He is a shoe-in for that little golden statue in a couple more weeks. I can't wait to see what he does next. Catherine Keener co-stars as Harper Lee (yep, the same one who wrote one of my favourite all-time books, To Kill a Mockingbird), and she is just great. She really should get more recognition – hopefully this Oscar nomination will do that for her. GO SEE THIS MOVIE! watching Hoffman is reason enough to spend the $10. Also, check out the link, and in particular the pictures of Hoffman as Capote, and the ones of the real Truman Capote. Uncanny.

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In a timely fashion, one of my courses this term focussed for the first section on transsexuals. (I say timely because of the movie Transamerica, in which Felicity Huffman gives a great performance as a transsexual woman.) The text we read was called "Sex Change, Social Change" by Vivane Namaste, and her perspective is contrasting with much of the past literature on transsexuals written by feminists – even transsexual feminists. I'll explain more later.Transsexuals are people who do not identify with the gender role assigned to the biological sex with which they were born, and instead wish to be the other gender and sex. Most transsexuals undergo medical interventions, including hormone therapy and sex reassignment surgery, in order to become the other sex and gender. Transsexuals differ from transgendered people, who are not necessarily unhappy with their physical bodies, but who do not wish to express gender roles as they are assigned to their biological sex. Transgendered people often identify on a continuum of gender, from androgeny to cross-dressing, but do not necessarily undergo full sex reassignment surgical intervention. Note that transsexualism does not necessarily attach to sexuality: some transsexuals undergo sex reassignment and then have relationships that are homosexual (i.e., some men become women and are lesbian). Transsexualism has to do with not feeling at home in one's body and identify with being the other gender.

In feminist literature on transsexualism, transsexuals have been used as an example to show that gender is not a biological construct, but a social one. Because people exist who do not want to inhabit the gender role that has been assigned them because of their bodies at birth, feminists have pointed out that gender is not based on genitalia and is not natural and biological, but that gender is merely a role of a social design and implementation. Most feminists who write on the subject then go on to say gender is bad and should be abolished, and we should move to a more transgendered approach and be exactly how much of male or female or androgynous we want to be. Namaste claims this is a subversion of transsexualism, and that transsexual people are not interested in abolishing gender roles – they simply want to be the OTHER gender, and often in the most traditional way possible (transsexual women want to be WOMEN in the most feminine sense, and vice versa).

I won't go into all the arguments she presents in her book, because I found the book to be challenged in a few areas and I don't feel like explaining all the ins and outs of why I feel the way I do about it. Suffice to say, the book was extremely interesting and very thought-provoking and educational. I don't agree with much of what Namaste has to say theoretically, but she approaches the subject from a very practical viewpoint, and shows how transsexuals have been excluded and marginalized, and the day to day difficulties involved with transsexual life, from health care to prostitution to media representations (which are largely horrible and sensational – think Jerry Springer/Maury Povich) to getting a job or being allowed to volunteer (she gives an in-depth look at a legal human rights case brought against a rape crisis centre in BC because they refused to allow a transsexual woman to become a volunteer) to crime and legal issues (including things like not being permitted to legally change your sex on official records such as a drivers license or birth certificate until after sex reassignment surgery, which presents a problem for such things as having to show ID to pick up a registered mail package) to the problems of life in prison for transsexuals (how to get access to special health care services and where to place people at various points in their process of becoming the other sex – does a man with breasts, no facial hair, no adam's apple and a penis, or a woman with a beard and no breasts but a vagina, get placed get placed in a male or female institution).

It was very eye opening, because when you do identify with your gender that has been assigned on the basis of your sex at birth, you do not think about any of these things. It is never a problem to show picture ID. It is never a problem to belong to a society or space of any sort that is exclusive based on sex. You never have to explain your entire biological history on command, or explain the exact process you underwent to become embodied the way you are, and such ridiculously intimate questions like whether or not you can orgasm and how your mother felt about it all. You never have to explain to an employer that you are not a cross-dresser, but you identify as the opposite gender and are undergoing surgery in a very public process. You don't have to explain yourself to a psychiatrist, who diagnoses you with a mental disorder (Gender Dysphoria) that can only be cured through plastic surgery (figure that out!). You are not called a freak simply for leaving your house, and threatened with violence for dressing in the clothes you want to wear. You don't have to deal with being thrown out of your parents' home at a young age because of your gender identity and having no skills and no prospects and no money for the surgery you need (so many transsexual people at various stages turn to prostitution in order to pay for their lives). All these things are a problem for transsexual people, and this book was such a lesson to me.

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I had to submit a paper to my human rights class this week. The topic was whether or not we should tolerate hate speech. I'm posting the paper here – it's not too long – and I am interested to hear what you guys might think about the topic. A bit of context for any american readers: in Canada, we have legislation under the criminal code prohibiting hate speech against identifiable groups. I wrote in the Canadian context, but I know that the US does not have such laws – in fact, only a handful of countries do: Canada, UK, and Australia (most European countries have laws against the jewish holocaust denial). The paper was restricted to a certain length, so unfortunately I couldn't go into as much detail as I might have liked in outlining arguments and counter-arguments, but I'd love to hear opinions. Several classmates submitted papers supporting freedom of expression, so that contingent was also represented in our discussion. My paper is from a strong social justice position.

Why Hate Speech Should Not Be Tolerated In a Free and Democratic Society

Hate speech is defined as “speech intended to degrade, intimidate, or incite violence or prejudicial action against someone based on his/her race, ethnicity, national origin, religion, sexual orientation, or disability.”[i] There has been much controversy regarding hate speech and laws that prohibit hate speech. This controversy arises first and foremost because of its conflict with the well-guarded right to freedom of expression, which secures each person the right to express ideas and opinions without governmental interference. In this paper, I will advance the view that the “right” to freedom of expression is not final and absolute. I will further argue that expressions of hate cause real harm to groups depicted in such negative ways, and that the rights of marginalized groups not to be spoken about or otherwise depicted in demeaning and derogatory ways outweigh any claim to freedom of expression. Finally, I will argue that marginalized groups are owed societal protection from hate speech.

Identifiable Groups and the Criminal Code of Canada

In the Criminal Code of Canada (CCC), anyone who promotes genocide, incites hatred of an identifiable group in a public place, or promotes hatred is guilty of a criminal offence and will be imprisoned for two to five years.[ii] The CCC states that “In th[ese] section[s], “identifiable group” means any section of the public distinguished by colour, race, religion, ethnic origin or sexual orientation.”[iii] Note that this definition excludes gender, disability, and economic status. Also, identifiable groups are recognized by Section 15 (1) of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms (CCRF): “Every individual is equal before and under the law and has the right to the equal protection and equal benefit of the law without discrimination and, in particular, without discrimination based on race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, sex, age or mental or physical disability.”[iv] (Note that this list excludes economic status and sexual orientation.) It appears from these documents that the Canadian government recognizes that individual identity is based on group membership, and the rights of individuals can be secured through the protection of groups.

Freedom of Expression
Freedom of expression is considered a fundamental political freedom, and is zealously guarded in Western society. Section 2b of the CCRF says that every Canadian has the fundamental right to “freedom of thought, belief, opinion and expression, including freedom of the press and other media of communication.”[v] This clause is meant to protect citizens of Canada from censorship, defined here as the suppressing of opinions expressed through written word, theatrical performance, or artistic media, usually by the government.

There is a real problem in identifying what kind of act speech is. Stanley Fish says: “If [freedom of speech] is to make any sense… speech must be declared not to be a species of action, or to be a special form of action lacking the aspects of action that cause it to be the object of regulation.”[vi] On this view, speech holds no power to harm anyone. This is a very narrow conception both of what can cause harm, and of what constitutes harm. By discounting emotional and psychological pain from the realm of harm, physical pain is constructed as the only legitimate form of harm. This view is not realistic: we all know that it hurts to be the subject of a cruel comment, and verbal abuse is recognized as harm. Speech certainly is an action that can cause harm. Fish agrees: “[S]peech always seems to be crossing the line into action, where it becomes, at least potentially, consequential.”[vii] Therefore, if speech can cause harm, then speech must be considered a type of action requiring regulation.

Speech and Context
No speech act occurs outside of a particular context. Stanley Fish says: “arguments [that support freedom of speech] only get their purchase by first imagining speech as occurring in no context whatsoever, and then stripping particular speech acts of the properties conferred on them by contexts.”[viii] Allow me to break this statement down. Those who defend freedom of expression first assume that speech happens in a vacuum, free from situational context. The idea is that when a person speaks, she speaks her own ideas, and that should not be controlled. She should be free to speak her mind without worrying what others will think about it. This is erroneous on two counts: first, she does not speak from a place that is context-free. Every life has its own context, and every speaker brings that context to her speech. Second, in order for speech to have meaning, someone has to hear it. The person who listens to speech is also affected by the context of his life. The second part of Fish’s statement refers to what happens when speech enters into context. I say a sentence, and because of the context in which I say it, or the context in which someone hears it, meaning attaches to the sentence. Proponents of freedom of expression would try to strip away that meaning. This argument is somewhat confused: it argues that context is unwittingly conferred onto an act of speech, rather than considering that context motivates that act.

Freedom from Harm
Freedom is a delicate balance. A society can only support an individual’s rights so long as that individual does not infringe on the rights of another. In regards to hate speech, it is hard to understand why one person’s (or group’s) right to freedom of expression should trump the right of a group not to have hateful things said about them. Why should the rights of the haters be held above those of the victims of hate speech? Societies that tolerate hate speech institutionalize that form of violence. When an individual is the subject of “hate” speech, he or she has the right to press criminal charges against the speaker(s) on the basis of slander/defamation of character. When a group is the subject of hate speech, it seems defenders of Section 2b of the CCRF would tell members of that group to just get over the slanderous comments, because the speaker(s) right to free expression is paramount.

Stephen L. Newman, arguing for freedom of expression, says that “[h]ate speech, by its very nature, is threatening, and all victims of hate speech have reason to fear the potential for violence that it represents.”[ix] He argues that special consideration for disadvantaged social groups is untenable, and that those who defend legislation prohibiting hate speech “serve only to explain the heightened sensitivity of historically oppressed groups to continuing expressions of prejudice.”[x] I find this statement to be highly contentious and dismissive of the real concerns of marginalized groups. It is true that hate speech can target both disadvantaged and privileged groups in society, and individuals deserve protection from these threats. However, words of hatred spoken against a person who is socially privileged does not serve to support systems of oppression that already exist against them. Socially privileged groups are not in the same socio-political/economic position as disadvantaged groups: the relation of power that constitutes oppression serves to advance socially privileged groups while simultaneously squashing socially disadvantaged groups. Those who are harmed by such oppression deserve protection and support as society works to undo and disentangle the interlocking systems that have created situations in which disadvantaged people are trapped between the proverbial rock and a hard place. Western society has been built on the backs of disadvantaged people, and they are still paying the price today because of pervasive beliefs involved in racism, sexism, heterosexism, etc. Hate speech, when aimed at the socially privileged, is as harmful as a dent in a suit of armour. For a disadvantaged group, it is a kick in the teeth while they’re already down.

Why does a person commit an act of hate speech? The bottom line is, that person has come into contact with information that has led them to believe something negative about a group or groups of people, and for whatever reason, they feel compelled to express that view. The underlying belief is supported by systems of oppression in society that serve to exploit and demoralize particular groups of people, and serve to privilege other groups. Oppression is about relations of power between groups, and hate speech has a twofold intent: to demoralize and degrade a person or people based on their membership in an identifiable social group, and to impart more power and privilege to the speaker and his/her group.

In a perfect world, if a person or group of people wished to express their prejudices regarding another group (or groups) of people to society at large, that expression would not matter. The only harms that would come about from such an expression would be the public humiliation, chastisement, and exclusion of the person or group expressing those views by the rest of society. However, ours is not a perfect world. Ours is a world rife with interlocking systems of oppression that serve to harm groups of people based on criteria such as gender, sexuality, disability status, economic status, race, ethnicity, and religion. These systems of oppression are only fuelled by such expressions of intolerance and non-acceptance characterized by hate speech. Society owes protection to these disadvantaged groups in the form of legislation prohibiting hate speech.


[i] Wikipedia, “Hate Speech”. Accessed February 2, 2006 at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hate_speech>
[ii] Criminal Code of Canada, Sections 318 and 319. Accessed February 3, 2006 at http://laws.justice.gc.ca/en/C-46/165505.html#rid-165543>
[iii] Ibid
[iv] Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, Schedule B, Constitution Act 1982. Section 15(1). Department of Justice web site, accessed February 2, 2006 at http://lois.justice.gc.ca/en/charter/>
[v] Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, Schedule B, Constitution Act 1982. Section 2b. Department of Justice web site, accessed February 2, 2006 at http://lois.justice.gc.ca/en/charter/>
[vi] Fish, Stanley. “There’s No Such Thing As Free Speech and It’s a Good Thing Too”, pp 241 in Political Philosophy: Classic & Contemporary Readings (Pojman, L., ed) © 2002: McGraw-Hill
[vii] Ibid, pp 241
[viii] Ibid, pp 243
[ix] Newman, Stephen L. “What Not to Do About Hate Speech: An Argument Against Censorship”, pp 209 in Canadian Political Philosophy
[x] Ibid, pp 209 (Beiner, R. and Norman, W., ed). © 2001: Oxford University Press
*please note: this paper may not be used in full or in part in any form without the express permission of the author*

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