Pink Triangles, Silver Flames, and White Men

“We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition;
And gentlemen in England now-a-bed
Shall think themselves accurs’d they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.”

“Every man ought to be a macho macho man,
To live a life of freedom, machos make a stand,
Have their own life style and ideals,
Possess the strength and confidence, life’s a steal,
You can best believe that he’s a macho man,
He’s a special person in anybody’s land.”

Henry V gave one of the most enduring speeches in all of Shakespeare’s tomes. The Village People were similarly catchy. To this day, manliness is deeply ingrained into western society; a rugged, heroic, stereotype that every boy is inculcated with, virtually from birth. It is interesting therefore, that it has taken so long for men to examine the essentialism of ‘manhood’. As the Village People so humorously explain, it is all an act. To some degree, we all play the part, or assume the role, that seems appropriate based on our experiences in childhood. Indeed, this is precisely the mechanism by which stereotypes are perpetuated. Gone are the days of the extreme ‘knights of the realm’ style medieval chivalry, but the archetypal ‘man’ is alive and well. Personally, I honed my ‘man’ skills watching giants on the big screen, like Clint Eastwood, chewing cigars and shooting Mexicans, or Roger Moore, using his government credentials to excuse day-drinking and sexual harassment in the workplace. And as a child, I thought that’s what I’m supposed to be, I guess…

The concept of manhood (and womanhood for that matter) pervades all aspects of society, and is institutionalized to a large degree. These concepts however, are far from benign. Even those that do not aspire to the prevailing images of what genders should be are complicit in the performance if they fail to openly challenge traditional roles in society’s amateur dramatics. Passivity is tantamount to culpability. Thus, progress will not occur simply from the efforts of disadvantaged groups. All the toil and struggle for equity in society will be for naught, if the dominant culture is not on board. Men are critical to the success of feminism, just as white people are critical to the success of anti-racist ideologies, and heterosexualists to the success of the LGBTQ+ movement.

The question therefore, is not whether dominant groups should help, but how. I do not have enough lines to delve into this topic in any detail, but sufficed to say a good start is for people in positions of privilege to recognize that fact, and attempt to more accurately and comprehensively define their status in society. Once the structure of society (particularly at the top of the ladder) is revealed, only then can we critically evaluate and begin to challenge it.

There is further uncertainty, both in the ‘whether’ and the ‘how’ questions, regarding the interaction of different minority groups. Rallying together appears the only hope for the dominant culture to be effectively challenged. Each group however, has its own history of oppression and list of priorities, many of which cannot be reconciled. A good proportion of society identify with multiple minority groups, and therefore struggle to find true comrades in any. Even if common ground can be found, banding together may run the risk of diluting the overarching message, or silencing the voices of those that find themselves in the minority, in the minority. In Gore Vidal’s famous collection of essays (from which this blog takes part of its name), he summed up this problem, and the false dichotomy of ‘majority’ vs ‘other’, thus:

Jews, blacks, and homosexuals are despised by the Christian. I would suggest that the three despised minorities join forces in order not to be destroyed. This seems an obvious thing to do. Unfortunately, most refuse to see any similarity between their special situations. At one level, they are perfectly correct. A racial or religious or tribal identity is a kind of fact. Although sexual preference is an even more powerful fact, it is not one that creates any particular social or cultural or religious bond between those so-minded. Although Jews would doubtless be Jews if there was no anti-Semitism, same-sexers would think little or nothing at all about their preference if society ignored it. So there is a difference between the two estates. But there is no difference in the degree of hatred felt by the Christian majority for Christ-killers and Sodomites.

No simple solution exists to address these antagonistic forces, but the fact that the majority often treat minorities as a homogenous mass may be an indication that the path to change will (at least initially) come from combating this mindset and drawing lines between disadvantaged groups. Recognizing that some people’s minority status is multiplicative will lead to greater empathy, if not understanding. Secondly, dominant groups, typically white men, need to do a better job of defining the characters they are expected to portray, and then denouncing them. This seems much more agreeable than continuing to extol the virtues of the Chuck Norris mold.

I must confess, I am not a morning person, so were I born in the 13th century, I fear I would’ve been in that pitiful cadre of gentlemen ‘now-a-bed’. Also, I’ve never really been the fighting type, and so even if the battle had been scheduled for the afternoon, I likely would’ve stayed at home. Yet I do not think myself accursed for my absence. On the contrary, I find it rather amusing that the band of brothers could not see the absurdity of their dedication, nor the potentially fatal consequences of their obstinacy.

I do not consider my manhood cheap, I consider it worthless. I have no intention of killing anyone to assuage insecurities regarding my masculinity. War is a mug’s game, and perhaps this is one area where we can tolerate such childish posturing. I for one am happy to let people fight each other in the apparently global quest to determine who is the manliest man, so long as the rest of us can carry on with important things, like enjoying a lie-in. In all other areas, we need to sort this nonsense out.

GMOs? GTFO!

You really think bananas used to just grow naturally in the forest? GTFO!

We’ve been modifying organism’s genes since the agricultural revolution. Somewhat belatedly (12,000 years hence), people are beginning to voice concerns about genetically modified organisms. For those people, I have bad news; genetic modification is practically the definition of domestication. We select crops and livestock for desirable traits, from large udders in dairy cows, to high-yield maize, and seedless fruit*. Although farmers prior to 1866 didn’t know the mechanisms behind what they were doing, they were doing it nonetheless. Without genetically modified organisms, civilization would not exist.

So why the recent bruhaha? My thoughts come straight from the school of my namesake, the incomparable George Orwell. George Orwell was a staunch advocate of language, and provided one of the gloomiest foretelling of what would happen were we to lose it. The ministry’s prime weapon was language, either to incite violence and ill-will, or to placate citizens into a languid stupor.

We live in the information age, where everybody is too busy and overwhelmed with data to evaluate things outside of their field of expertise in any depth. Thus, we all must make snap judgments concerning the world around us. In other words, we must judge books by their covers. This is why language is more important today than it ever has been. If we had infinite time to research topics, or canvas expert opinion, the choice words used in incendiary headlines (or provocative tweets, if you want me to be current) would pale into insignificance. However, if these headlines are the only things that people read, the language means everything.

Politicians know the power of language, and hence they talk about ‘military conflicts’, because war has become rather taboo, and ‘enhanced interrogation’, because as a society we agree torture is wrong. As Orwell puts it:

“Political language is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.”

My favorite** of these political deceptions has to be ‘waterboarding’. Drowning someone to make them confess to any crime you put before them is morally reprehensible, but I might consider going waterboarding myself on the weekend; sounds like fun for all the family! It would be rather amusing if it was not so sinister. When you begin to realize that every word that comes out of a politician’s mouth is carefully calibrated to trick the public into going along with any despicable, harebrained scheme they concoct, it ceases to be just an interesting psychological novelty. Again, Orwell knew the severity of the problem:

“if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.”

Just as the right words can convince the unsuspecting public of just about anything, the wrong words can generate mass outrage and mob opposition to rather benign concepts. Enter ‘Genetically Modified Organisms’. I’m an evolutionary biologist by trade, and would wager my training in genetics is more appreciable than the average person. Even I however, will admit that it sounds like something out of a horror film. ‘Genetic Modification’ conjures up images of mad scientists messing around with radioactive waste, giant spiders with wings, or even some kind of zombie apocalypse. The steadfast resistance to an idea without having the slightest notion of what that idea entails is lamentable. We mustn’t let imagined fears brought on by a revulsion to scary words jeopardize the progress of civilization. We risk losing one of the best chances of feeding the planet due to a knee-jerk reaction from people who lack even a basic understanding of agriculture, let alone molecular biology.

Unless scientists pay closer attention to the psychology of language, future technological and scientific advances will continue to fall by the wayside under the weight of public disapproval. If politicians are manipulating language to satisfy their own self-interests, and preying on people who lack the time to investigate spurious claims, we must do the same. We were on the right path when we talked about ‘golden rice’, but we dropped the ball sometime in the 1990’s. GMO’s may sadly be a lost cause, but I implore scientists to learn from the witless tricksters in power, and fight fire with fire.

Okay, that seems like enough words, hopefully they are the right ones.

 

*It seems unlikely that nature would devise an organism that could not reproduce on its own now doesn’t it? And of course, when I say unlikely, I mean ridiculous.

**perhaps favorite isn’t the right word…