Philosophy, and things that are not philosophy. That probably covers it.

Month: March, 2013

View from a Red Planet (by an Enemy of Promise)

‘Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.’ – W.B. Yeats

Gove’s pseudo-Burkean barrage in Saturday’s Daily Mail blamed a cavalcade of communist conspirators for what he perceives as the ignorance of state school children. Gove has painted himself as part of a holy alliance formed to exorcise the spectre of communism which is haunting our schools.  The Marxist ideology of teachers is, we are told, inculcated by a sinister Politburo comprised of the heads of University Education departments, who are ‘more interested in valuing Marxism, revering jargon and fighting excellence’ than they are in ‘fighting ignorance’ (had I been marking Gove’s piece, I would have picked him up on the unimaginatively repetitious use of the word ‘fighting’ at this juncture, which is sadly out of keeping with his claim in the following paragraph that people should be educated to employ a wider vocabulary, but let’s not be too picky).  As a result, state educated children leave school so inarticulate that they are incapable of modern citizenship.

‘How can it erode educational standards to ask that, in their 11 years in school, children be given the opportunity to use the English language in all its range and beauty to communicate their thoughts and feelings with grace and precision?’

Indeed. It is a lamentable tragedy that those of us who were educated in British secondary schools are incapable of stringing a coherent sentence together.  Permanganate prose is the preserve of private pedagogy.

It appears that Gove’s words are full of sound and fury, signifying nothing, but perhaps it is best to weigh the enemy more mighty than he seems.  So what provoked this anachronistically McCarthyist reaction? What made the Education Secretary see red was a letter in The Independent newspaper from a hundred academics, criticising his plans for the National Curriculum.  Their concern was that Gove’s proposals are obsessive about memorisation and recall, with little concern for critical understanding or autonomous enquiry.  Gove’s proposals leave little room for teachers to respond to the interests and capacities of their pupils, or for them to link abstract learning to concrete experience.

Many of these criticisms build on the thoughts of that fearsome advocate of the communist terror John Locke.  Locke felt that education should aim at developing independent minds which are well practiced in the proper application of their rational faculties.

Reason is required for good self-government because insofar as it is free from partiality, intolerance and passion, it leads to fair judgment and action. This is, in a sense, an education for liberty – an education which will lead people to become engaged and thoughtful citizens.

Gove should take note of this.  Although his approach to education suggests the opposite, he maintains that he has a non-interventionist attitude concerning the relationship between the state and the people.  In his evidence before the Leveson Inquiry, he said that he was “unashamedly on the side of those who say that we should think very carefully before legislation and regulation because the cry ‘Something must be done’ often leads to people doing something which isn’t always wise.”  If we are to have a population that is able to challenge unnecessary regulation and intervention, as Locke thought that we should, a list of memorised facts is not going to be enough to help us.  This leads me to suspect that Gove’s purported anti-authoritarian stance is deeply disingenuous, and that in fact he wishes to raise an unquestioning generation who can be subjected to all kinds of unnecessary authority.

Of course, like most people, I believe in certain basic educational standards, and I believe this because I am a creature of the left, not in spite of it.  It is vital that people are proficient in written, oral and other forms of communication – these are the means through which political change is achieved.  I also think that we have to have an understanding of mathematics – without it we would be easily blinded by spurious statistics.  We also, as Gove says, need ‘a knowledge of these islands and their history’.  It is through learning about the history of our country – the Chartists, the suffrage movement and the Diggers, for example – that we learn how things that are now regarded as basic entitlements and freedoms had to be hard won, and how calls for radical reform are written through our history and culture.

Nonetheless, these lessons are not learned through absorbing a ‘stock of knowledge’, as Gove maintains, as though children are nothing but vessels to be filled with context-free (and hence meaningless) information.  In any subject, basic methods, rules and principles have to be learned, but these should always immediately be employed in (depending on the subject) application, discussion, narrative, creativity and debate that is responsive to the needs and interests of the children in question.  Attention to a deeper understanding of the contexts and purposes of the disciplines taught quickly leads us to the view that a ‘stock of knowledge’ is not the way to go.  Wordsworth did not write Tintern Abbey so that children could grow to resent it by having to learn it word for word – his poetry was supposed to help us to cultivate the connections between our thoughts and feelings, and develop a better understanding of our relationship to nature. No mathematician ever developed a theorem because it would be fun to subject thirteen year olds to memorising equations with no conception of their meaning or purpose.  To educate in a way that supposes otherwise seems to me the very definition of ‘dumbing down’.  It is quite instructive that Gove, who has already demonstrated little familiarity with Marxism, ridicules educationalists for their research interests on the basis that they mention the name ‘Marx’, a word that is clearly on his list of ‘bad things’, without actually responding to what they are really concerned with.

It is also quite telling that he uses his piece as an opportunity to slam the unions, labelling their members of being ‘ultra-militants’.  If children are to grow up to be educated, politically engaged citizens, it is best that they are taught by people who are politically engaged themselves, and who have working conditions which will allow them to teach their classes effectively and with enthusiasm.  Again, contrary to Gove’s supposed libertarian views, there appears to be a rather nasty strain of authoritarianism here.

Apparently the educators of Britain’s children are ‘a set of politically motivated individuals who have been actively trying to prevent millions of our poorest children getting the education they need.’  In response to this, I will quote from my own ‘stock of knowledge’, in this case Mr Gove’s beloved King James Bible: 

 ‘And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?’


Body Positivity, Street Harassment, and the Erotic

Below is a talk I delivered for an International Women’s Day event organised by the University of East Anglia’s Feminist Society

What I am going to do today is not so much a detailed philosophical enquiry (I only have 20 minutes) but instead I want to talk seriously about street harassment, and suggest a few ways that philosophy might help us to think about it. Cat-calling, wolf-whistling, groping and other forms of harassment that occur in public spaces are alarmingly widespread, and are generally not taken all that seriously.  We are encouraged to simply ignore it, to ‘take it as a compliment’, or even worse, we are blamed for where we choose to walk or what we choose to wear, as though we have brought it upon ourselves.  At best, we are told to treat street harassment as a minor and inevitable irritation, and at worst, to view it as an expression of a natural human sexuality which we encourage through behaving or dressing in a provocative manner.  The victim of street harassment who complains is simultaneously a slut and a prude.

So first of all, I want to try to express at least one of the reasons why this is not a trivial irritation, but something far more fundamental, and secondly I want to explain why I think that tackling street harassment is not opposed to sexuality or the erotic, but instead that dealing with this problem is something that goes hand-in-hand with a positive attitude to sex and eroticism.

I’m going to begin with a quote from the philosopher Sandra Lee Bartky, describing a fairly typical case of street harassment.  This was written more than twenty years ago, but I suspect the description will sound very familiar:

It is a fine spring day, and with an utter lack of self-consciousness, I am bouncing down the street. Suddenly I hear men’s voices. Catcalls and whistles fill the air. These noises are clearly sexual in intent and they are meant for me; they come from across the street. I freeze. As Sartre would say, I have been petrified by the gaze of the Other. My face flushes and my motions become stiff and self-conscious. The body which only a moment before I had inhabited with such ease now floods my consciousness. I have been made into an object. While it is true that for these men I am nothing but, let us say. a “nice piece of ass,” there is more involved in this encounter than their mere fragmented perception of me. They could, after all, have enjoyed me in silence. Blissfully unaware, breasts bouncing, eyes on the birds in the trees, I could have passed by without having been turned to stone. But I must be made to know that I am a “nice piece of ass”: I must be made to see myself as they see me. There is an element of compulsion in this encounter, in this being-made-to-be-aware of one’s own flesh; like being made to apologize, it is humiliating. It is unclear what role is played by sexual arousal or even sexual connoisseurship in encounters like these. What I describe seems less the spontaneous expression of a healthy eroticism than a ritual of subjugation.

 ‘On Psychological Oppression’, in Femininity and Domination: Studies in the Phenomenology of Oppression

While street harassment is not traumatic on the level of rape or physical assault, it is a great deal more than a mere irritation.  We often talk about objectification as what is wrong here, but very often we don’t think so much about what it means.  Here it is very clear.  The victim is transformed into an object, both by being viewed as nothing more than an object in the eyes of the other, but also in being made to feel that she is an object.  We can think of an object in contrast to a subject. A subject is one who sees things and acts upon the world, while an object is something that is seen and has things done to it.  An object is something that can be stripped down into its component parts – breasts, thighs, arse, vagina – with no essential loss.  Each of these is an object no less than the object that they compose.  A subject, stripped down in this way, is no longer a subject.  This is because what we view as important about the subject is what is sometimes described as her ‘inner life’, her thoughts, beliefs, desires and intentions.  With the object, all that we regard is the physical material, which can be taken apart with impunity with nothing significant being lost in the process.

So when we are whistled or shouted at in the street, whether this is in a supposedly complimentary way, or whether the cat-call is an insulting one, we become profoundly aware of this physicality and fragmentation. While before we could easily and transparently interact with the world around us, listening to the birdsong in the trees or enjoying a private daydream, the objectifying act means that we are frozen, we can no longer have a free and easy interaction with our environment, because our physicality gets in the way. We have to manoeuvre this awkward collection of physical parts which stand between us and a world that was previously so accessible, more aware that we are seen than aware of what we can see. And this sudden self-perception is forced upon us, and sprung on us without warning: a loss of personal autonomy and a reduction to flesh that is coerced and unexpected.

This is one instance of a broader culture that frequently forces women into an uncomfortable awareness of themselves as objects. We are told that we occupy too much space, that our breasts are too small, our bums are too big, that unless we buy a particular brand of cereal we will never have that all-important ‘swimsuit body’.  This is not just something imposed by men, women are encouraged to gaze at magazines which point out the cellulite on a celebrity body or speculate about whether someone has had a facelift.  We objectify people, and reflect this back upon ourselves as objects, our worth determined by whether we are larger or smaller objects, older or younger looking objects, than they are.  The cat-call or wolf-whistle is a sharp reminder, in case we are starting to enjoy the world around us or get lost in our own thoughts, that we are nothing more than lumps of flesh.

But might this not lead us to support the voices that tell us we should not be dressing that way if we don’t want to attract unwanted attention?  Some would say that it is the sexualisation of society that leads to the street harassment, and it also leads to the provocative clothing that is seen to provoke it.  Perhaps we need to regard ourselves as less as objects, as well as complaining about others seeing us as such, and that the way that we present ourselves physically is part of this, along with our own attitude to flirtation and sex.  But this seems pretty problematic.  First of all, it veers heavily in the direction of victim-blaming.  Secondly, it seems just as controlling of women – we don’t want a situation where women are caught in an impossible situation where their freedom is restricted from all different directions in a range of contradictory ways.  Thirdly, it doesn’t seem much fun – most of us like to feel sexually attractive, at least some of the time.  Rejecting this plays into the hands of those who wish to silence the opponents of street harassment by accusing us of being prudish or opposed to sex.

Here we need to make a separation between what is objectifying on one hand, and what is sexual – and in particular what is sexy or erotic – on the other. Through doing this, we need to think of sexuality less in terms of the insular ‘inner-lives’ of the sexual individuals in contrast with the flimsy outer husks of the bodies that they are directed towards.  The problem is not so much that we live in a highly sexualised culture – although we undoubtedly do – but that we live in one that is sexualised in a particular way.

Think about one of those really spine-tingling erotic encounters – it could be in the bedroom, but it could equally be something like meeting someone’s glance in mutual attraction, or a first moment of physical contact.  In such scenarios one is immediately made aware of oneself as flesh.  There is a sudden and overwhelming awareness of one’s physicality.  So far, it might be difficult to distinguish this from the instance of street harassment.  But in this awareness, one also becomes aware of the other person registering that you are aware.  At the same time, they become profoundly aware of their own physicality, which one also registers in one’s own physical response. One’s physicality, and one’s awareness of the other’s physicality are reflected back through the other like the infinite reflections we might see when looking at a pair of facing mirrors.  Sartre described this as ‘double reciprocal incarnation’:

I make myself flesh in order to impel the Other to realize for herself and for me her own flesh. My caress causes my flesh to be born for me insofar as it is for the Other flesh causing her to be born as flesh.’ Being and Nothingness

The problem for Sartre is that it is impossible truly to apprehend the other person as being at once an object and a subject.  Either I regard him as an object, or by regarding him as a subject I apprehend myself as an object for him, and I am thus incapable of being at the same time a subject.  During sex, Sartre suggests that there is a struggle experienced between subjectivity and self-objectification, a sort of competition to attempt to objectify the other.  The whole activity is ultimately futile.  But in a way it is courageously futile, an attempt to reconcile the view of ourselves as bodies with our view of ourselves as conscious beings.  For Sartre, this duality haunts human life, but the two aspects can never truly be brought together.

Notice that we arrive at this through thinking of the body as a passive object and the self as an active subject.  If we do this, one can only be one or the other at any time.  But why suppose that this is the case? Any time we touch something, we are also being touched.  Any case of acting upon something is also a case of being acted upon.  The fingertips that caress another’s body are sensitive and responsive to the body that they touch, making an erotic encounter like a dance – an active mutual responsiveness.  There is a heightened awareness of the body, but not the body as a mere object that is acted upon and which can be decomposed or fragmented into its parts – the sexual body is at the same time, and just as much, an active, lived, subjective body.  This allows mutuality, in a sexual flirtation, as well as in sex (or at least in a good sex).

Street harassment not only fails to acknowledge such mutuality, but actively aims to cut off the possibility of it occurring.  The harasser will usually speed off in his car or blank the victim. It is not a bungled attempt at a genuinely erotic encounter, but actually closer to the converse of the erotic.  People often say that harassment of this kind is not about sex at all, but only about power.  This highlights an important aspect of it, and is a pretty good campaign slogan, but I’m not sure that it is quite true.  It is about sex, or sexuality at least, but it is about a kind of sexuality that is deeply unerotic.  Similar things might be said about the more general mode of sexualisation of our culture. The problem is not that we are subject to someone’s gaze, and that we ought to cover ourselves up and avoid sexual attention.  The problem is that our particular sexualised culture is built on a model of sexuality where one can only be presented at one time as either a subject or an object, where in reality it is starkly obvious that we are inescapably both – after all, the cat-calling would have no effect (and presumably no appeal for the perpetrators) if we really were mere objects.  You don’t usually see people hollering at lamp-posts. It is a practice built on treating people as something that they are not.

There is nothing wrong with wishing to be physically attractive to others: there can be a pleasure in it which, provided it doesn’t escalate into narcissism or anxiety, is a perfectly healthy one.  But the sexual body is active as well as passive, the lived body of a subject as well as an object.  Street harassment operates as though it is not.  For this reason, opposing street harassment is not prudish or opposed to sexuality: quite the opposite.  A realistic view of ourselves as sexual beings who seek positive erotic encounters leads to the conclusion that objectification of this kind must be resisted.