Any student of Trinidadian or Aesopian folklore would know of the mythical story of how the agouti lost its tail. The agouti and the dog were close friends until the day all the horned animals went off on a boat to feast among their horned selves. The dog disguised himself as a horned animal, leaving out agouti in the process. Resentful, as the boat was pulling away, the agouti shouted out to the captain of the boat that he had an imposter on board and he needed to examine the horns.
Well, for people living in Caribbean countries, long regarded as the plaything of Europe and the backyard of the United States, that principle of paying closer attention to detail needs to be applied to every single thing that encourages us to act or think in certain ways. Because as one of our elder poets/philosophers, Brother Valentino pointed out to us in song, every brother is not a brother. One would think that that was a given, seeing that time and time and time again information has been imposed on us from all sorts of quarters, purporting to be objective and factual. Time and time and time again they turn out to be extremely biased, one-dimensional studies, news reports and analyses. Yet again and again some people uncritically accept and regurgitate because the source is foreign and/or from some university or an authority figure we’ve been conditioned to accept without question. Recall the reasons given for the invasion of Grenada, the removal of Jean Bertrand Aristide from Haiti and the attempted removal of Chavez in Venezuela, the extradition of locals accused of plotting to blow up Kennedy airport, the invasion of Iraq…..
While these were major world issues, it is no less the case with relatively lesser social issues. Note that I’m not dismissing researched material and credible sources out of hand. In any intellectual debate or discussion it’s expected that if you present an argument, you back it up by citing your courses of information. But then that is the issue here. Lloyd Best used to talk repeatedly about our collective innocence; we too trustingly followed – and often still follow – many leaders and more so, the ideas and values they embodied, thinking that their interests are necessarily our interests.
So it is with some of the positions taken in the debates over rape culture.
Far too often, there is a failure, even a refusal, for various reasons, to acknowledge that a lot of the ways women or even sexual interaction are approached stem from chauvinistic, aggressive ideas and customs that are by no means natural or universal. Neither do many of us connect those issues of rape and sexual violence to a wider body of interconnected issues leading up to a much larger “game.” This “game,” in which the ultimate prize is the control of vital resources and the wealth those resources bring, revolves around normalising masculine violence and notions of leadership. There is an ever-constant imperative to keep women in their “proper” place lest they and their annoying habits of, say, process-oriented – as opposed to goal-oriented – ideas and ways of doing things gain serious traction. To that end violence – of which sexual violence is perhaps the oldest application – was a means by which women (and subjugated men from cultures deemed “effeminate” such as many matricentric cultures in Africa) could be mentally broken. The starting point for that game is with ideas that can be used to either justify and embolden or to pacify, silence and invisibilise.
I’ve already given my opinion that rape culture – the cultural mindset and behaviours that normalise sexual objectification, exploitation and violence – is very much woven into the fabric of this former colony. A basic understanding of the written and oral histories and the sociology would show that quite clearly so it’s astonishing how this is even a topic for debate.
Yet it is.
The reason for that lies partly in the Eurocentric linear direction of progress many of us have bought into – the barbarism of rape and women’s sexual exploitation was worse “back then” and for the most part it’s now in the past; the feminist movement took care of that. However it also stems from some of the very sources used by certain individuals who have been trivialising this issue time and again. This is not to say that many of the liberal and radical arguments are always completely factual and objective. But too often in this debate, the same rigorous examination of dissenting and radical perspectives seems to be relaxed when it comes to the established views. Take for example, Jude Campbell, the host of the afternoon talk show ‘Straight Talk’ on 91.1 FM. A few months ago he had as a guest a young woman who was speaking on the issues of rape and sexual objectification and he was quite dismissive of the notion that there is a rape culture. The principal document he cited to reinforce his point was a paper put out by the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN) of the U.S. In that document, there’s a part that reads:
“In the last few years, there has been an unfortunate trend towards blaming “rape culture” for the extensive problem of sexual violence on campuses. While it is helpful to point out the systemic barriers to addressing the problem, it is important to not lose sight of a simple fact: Rape is caused not by cultural factors but by the conscious decisions, of a small percentage of the community, to commit a violent crime.”
It’s astonishing that the leading organisation in the United States that deals with rape, incest and sexual violence could issue such a statement. Other people thought so too as it evoked a fair amount of harsh criticism. It also runs counter to the information from other institutions like the Boston Area Rape Crisis Center; their blog informs us that: “Reducing or eliminating rape in our culture isn’t an individual task. Asking women to each, individually, fight off or take responsibility for managing the entirety of the male population is both unjust and impossible… Rapists don’t rape because individual survivors aren’t vigilant enough about protecting their valuable bodily autonomy; they rape because we live in a culture that promotes it and they can get away with it.”
Nonetheless, the RAINN document brought out some triumphal crowing from conservative writers like Caroline Kitchens, who wrote an article in Time, and Wendy McElroy whose article was smugly cited by Guardian columnist Kevin Baldeosingh. And why shouldn’t he? After all they are unimpeachable sources, right?
Well the devil is always in the details and like I said before, when living in regions like this one, you need to scrutinise everything since it’s often in those nuances and fine print you often get a truer, clearer picture.
Callie Beusman, in her analysis of this RAINN document Jude was so ready to cite, argued that RAINN was in no way claiming that rape culture was a myth. Rather the main trust of their paper – which, by the way was referring to what exists on university campuses, not the wider society – was to bring about progressive change through legislation, rather than seeking a cultural shift, which is much harder and takes longer. As such, given that the White House is about implementing policy, RAINN saw it fit to push in this direction instead of having the administration address the more difficult issue of changing people’s ideas. Nevertheless, the wording of the RAINN document remains problematic: if rape is not “caused by cultural factors but by the conscious decisions, of a small percentage of the community,” well, where do those conscious decisions come from? What informs the thought processes of rapists?
It goes without saying that I am not the only one asking this kind of question. But of course, carrying things through to their logical conclusion is something only done when it is convenient and so Caroline Kitchens, virtually waving the RAINN document, trumpeted in her article:
“RAINN is especially critical of the idea that we need to focus on teaching men not to rape — the hallmark of rape-culture activism. Since rape exists because our culture condones and normalizes it, activists say, we can end the epidemic of sexual violence only by teaching boys not to rape.
No one would deny that we should teach boys to respect women. But by and large, this is already happening. By the time men reach college, RAINN explains, “most students have been exposed to 18 years of prevention messages, in one form or another.”
But Beusman was very clear that that:
“simply isn’t true: consent education is rarely part of any sex-ed curriculum, and consent awareness campaigns are nowhere near prevalent enough to provide a constant stream of anti-rape messaging for 18 years straight. Rapists don’t just emerge out of the ether, determined to commit sexual assault in spite of the fact they’ve been constantly urged not to. They’re the result of systems that either condone or tacitly approve of the idea that men are entitled to women’s bodies.”
You can be assured that whatever sex education does exist in North America, even less is taught here in Trinidad and Tobago. This is a very serious thing in the context of a society that was shaped by physical and sexual violence. One only has to examine the concept of the Carnival character known as the Baby Doll and the “jilted bride” known as Madame Coocoo to understand this.
But this goes even deeper.
Because I never have the sense to let things go when I should, I decided to look closer at Caroline Kitchens and Wendy McElroy. I find it intriguing that Ms. Kitchens is a research assistant at AEI, the American Enterprise Institute. Founded in 1938, this institution claims to be a non-partisan think-tank dedicated to open debate. However, many of its articles are very much aligned to the neoliberal camp and in fact the organisation is, according to its own mission statement dedicated to: “free enterprise, American strength and global leadership”. For clarification of what that means, one may want to listen to these unsettling lectures by Stephen Kinzer who also wrote a fascinating – and equally disturbing – book about the Dulles brothers, John Foster and Allen who, as Secretary of State and Director of the CIA respectively, were instrumental in creating much of the conflicts that Africa, Iran, Syria, Iraq, Palestine, Indonesia and Central and South America are still dealing with today.
Additionally, AEI is an advocate of small government (in other words, less governmental control) and fewer protections for consumers and the environment. It is also important to note that the billionaire Koch brothers currently co-own it and for the past few weeks has amazingly resurrected the highly controversial Bell Curve. Further, AEI was one of the main think tanks that provided the intellectual support George W Bush needed for his farcical “War on Terror” including his invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan.
Wendy McElroy’s background is no less interesting. Herself having experienced rape and sexual assault, her article came out on the website of an organisation called The Future of Freedom Foundation, another organisation whose purpose is to “advance freedom by providing an uncompromising moral and economic case for individual liberty, free markets, private property, and limited government”. Nowhere in this article that rubbishes what was created “by PC feminists” does she make any mention at all of the culture of female objectification, the ideas of masculine sexual entitlement based on years of conditioning through boys’ adventure books, Western and gangster films, sports or the centrality of the gun/military culture (of which the United States has in abundance).
Further digging revealed that she is also a member of the Mises Institute. This organisation “exists to promote teaching and research in the Austrian school of economics, and individual freedom, honest history, and international peace, in the tradition of Ludwig von Mises”. This is a gentleman, often cited ad nauseum by radio talk show host and intellectual Dr Morgan Job, is credited with some interesting views including the somewhat ethnocentric claim “If history could teach us anything, it would be that private property is inextricably linked with civilisation” which, apart from the narrow Eurocentric definition of civilisation, flippantly ignores the ancient civilisations such as those of the Nile Valley and its predecessors in inner Africa where the notion of private ownership ran counter to the dominant societal principles of communalism and co-operative reciprocity. But then this is also the man who advises us in Liberalism:
“Most of us have no sympathy with the rich idler who spends his life in pleasure without ever doing any work. But even he fulfills a function in the life of the social organism. He sets an example of luxury that awakens in the multitude a consciousness of new needs and gives industry the incentive to fulfill them”
And here he says:
“Inequality of wealth and incomes is an essential feature of the market economy. It is the implement that makes the consumers supreme in giving them the power to force all those engaged in production to comply with their orders. It forces all those engaged in production to the utmost exertion in the service of the consumers. It makes competition work. He who best serves the consumers profits most and accumulates riches.”
McElroy’s opening sentences in her article “Redeeming the Industrial Revolution” tell us that there is an “erroneous notion that the free-market (capitalism) harms the ‘vulnerable’ within society; specifically it is said to harm women and children by cruelly exploiting their labour.” We are told instead that “quite the opposite, laissez-faire capitalism offers the one element the vulnerable need to survive and to advance: choice.” Someone needs to inform those ignorant Congolese rape victims about this. They’re subjected to constant attacks from militias owned by European and US multinational corporations in order to control the mines and labour force extracting the coltan needed for that new smart phone we consumers must have and force the manufacturers to produce. Memos also need to be sent out to those banana farmers in the Cameroon and those farmers in Jamaica, the fishermen who apparently chose piracy over in Somalia and in the Niger Delta and farmers like those in India who have been driven to commit suicide. Inform Thomas Piketty and Joseph Stiglitz too while you’re at it.
Throughout the article, for some strange reason there was no mention of the fact that as “the world surged forward in technology, industry, transportation, trade, and life-changing innovations like cheap cotton clothing” very little mention was made of the sweatshops in England, not to mention the enslavement of millions of Africans, who laboured under slum conditions, low – an often no – pay and lived in cycles of debt bondage producing the cheap cotton clothing and finery for the elites. That the journal The Economist could acknowledge in its book review of the Cambridge History of Capitalism that the Industrial Revolution was paved by the enslavement of Africans and Britain’s exploitation of its own people didn’t seem to figure in McElroy’s narrative.
Even more interesting is her claim – “[t]he most liberating choice individuals can have is the ability to support themselves and not be dependent upon anyone else for the food going into their mouths.” – which totally ignored the fact that even in England, for hundreds of years, there were thousands of farmers who were either self-sustained or/and engaged in co-operative activities with other peasants. The women in those villages, incidentally, did much of the foods produced or processed. We can point easily to similar cases all over Africa before colonial rule. Michael Perelman tells us in The Invention of Capitalism that in England this was systematically broken in a process where classical economists, city officials and other lawmakers developed laws to force peasants to the cities. He tells us that “the dispossession of the majority of small-scale producers and the construction of laissez-faire are closely connected, so much so that Marx, or at least his translators, labeled this expropriation of the masses as ‘‘primitive accumulation.’’’ History certainly repeated itself here in Trinidad when, if one reads the journal of Ms AC Carmichael, by no means a friend of the African labouring classes she knew back in the mid-19th century, and see where she expressed her anger at the scores of Africans who moved off plantations and set up their own self-sufficient farming communities. Her writings and those of David Trotman are just two that show how laws were enacted to force African and Indian labourers onto or close to estates into barrack yard slum communities where sexual exploitation of the women became as commonplace as they were during the enslavement period.
This was to repeat itself over and over down through the ages to our own time; a lot of the advances she claims came about through industrialisation, actually came about through robust, often violent agitation by workers in the streets, often after tragic accidents resulting in the deaths of numerous people. This is what eventually forced the business elites and politicians to implement many of the changes and comforts enjoyed by workers and women today.
However, given that the ultimate aim of the manager is to make and extend profits, there is and may always be a perpetual chipping away of whatever gains made in an attempt to roll back whatever gains were made by progressives. The tumultuous events of the 1960s and 1970s sent deep shockwaves across many in the halls of European/Euro-American power and Westernised institutions in the post-colonial countries. For many of them, those days must not only never return, but also be systematically undone. This is one of the reasons why, for instance, people like the Koch brothers throw billions of dollars behind think tanks that provide “solid” evidence disputing climate change. In the case of rape and rape culture, the statistics may show that the rate of rapes are down as opposed to in decades gone by. But any serious student of history outside of Westernised canons of knowledge knows that if what we are seeing represents a fall – expect another rise. We may be already seeing it as economies contract and more and more men are wrestling with the uncertainty caused by changing job specs and increasing prominence of “women’s work”. We may yet see a resurgence of the “bad old days” as insecure working class men struggle to assert control in the one area supposedly left: sexual dominance.
Changing that idea of sexual entitlement is very difficult (and it’s certainly not helped by religion); it’s scary for many but this goes way beyond women getting a cut-arse or held down in some back street – that is disgusting enough. That fear is playing into the hands of major economic forces that control or even created think tanks like the ones mentioned, to provide the intellectual support needed as politicians roll back abortion laws, contraceptive rights and environmental laws.
Examine the horns. Always examine the horns.