Tuesday, June 8, 2021

You Can’t Take It With You

Photo credit: Sandya Salgado

I recently had a conversation with a friend, in which she said that while she and her family are ok for food supplies during current travel restrictions, she feels anxious about those who are more vulnerable, and less prepared: the daily wage workers who cannot go to work, the people who spend every rupee of their salary on rent and rates and cannot save money, or cannot afford to buy in bulk to stock up their store cupboards.

My friend said:

‘I can’t focus on anything else when people are suffering. I’m too much of an empath and it affects me through and through.’

She shared a video on WhatsApp which was taken in a large local hospital, which showed Covid patients sleeping on mats on the ground, and the verandah of the hospital building, due to lack of beds.

I asked her how sharing videos like this could help matters. Wasn’t she merely depressing and upsetting people, because they couldn’t do anything to help? Her reply?

‘FYI by sharing like this I was able to galvanize people all over to donate and help building houses and also donate household effects and clothes etc for families badly affected by floods a few years ago. People in England and in Australia and several here gave generously when they saw the horrors those poor people were experiencing. I will make things happen. I will not hide my head in the sand and pretend everything is fine outside my high walls where I have everything. Someone has to draw attention to what these poor helpless people are suffering !!!!’

It’s not an easy thing to ask people during a crisis like this pandemic to be generous, and empathic, and to think and act beyond their own survival and that of their own immediate family, to the needs of the wider community.

I think we need to think like the virus behaves, in order to combat it. We need to think of impacting exponential numbers. We know that this illness spreads like wildfire through community transmission. So to meet this challenge we need to think in terms of community support. Especially during national lockdown and periods of enforced travel restrictions.

It makes absolute sense in this situation to support the people closest to us: our family, our neighbors, our local community and our local business owners. But above all, as this is a public health crisis, we should see how we can all support our local hospitals and the medical personnel and administrative staff who work in these facilities.

They need not only our respect, and our thoughts and prayers. The facilities they work in, need donations: not only financial donations, but donations of medical equipment, and beds, and personal protective equipment (PPE).

Hospitals throughout the country are calling for donations to purchase ICU Beds, Oxygen Concentrators both large and small, High Flow Oxygen Therapies, Oxygen Cylinders, Pulse Oximeters, and K95 masks and PPE for medical and nursing staff. Rotary Groups are raising money from their members through crowdfunding to provide the expensive equipment required to specified hospitals.

They don’t say so, but it’s clear that the medical personnel who are on duty are working double shifts, away from their families and homes, and they could do with some supplies of food, snacks, coffee and Milo, or Sustagen, or Nestomalt, and some blankets and sheets and pillows and towels for the times when they can get a couple of hours’ sleep between shifts.

It makes sense for us to support the communities in which we live. By supporting and stocking up the medical supplies in our local hospitals, we increase our own chances of survival if we have to enter these health facilities. By rounding off every payment we make to a local business which is maximizing our safety through arranging contactless delivery to our home, to the nearest 500 or 1000 LKR, we can directly support their drivers and their staff.

By thanking the staff at our local Food City and Keells, and small convenience stores, who wear masks and shields and provide us with exemplary service, adding up and bagging our purchased items, we encourage them as they support us, through personally recognizing their dedication. By giving a bit extra to everyone, we can help everyone stock up as much as possible on their essential needs.

If every person who was capable of giving 2-5,000 LKR to their own local hospital would do so, the shortfall would be rapidly reduced. There are enough citizens who could donate in such a way that the support could be continuous until it is no longer required.

This would supplement the current capabilities of the public health care system, in a targeted and effective way. All it would need to be effective would be for a designated person in each hospital to handle and account for incoming goods and monies, so that the donations would directly benefit those they are intended for.

This targeted support, if implemented now would operate in an incremental way, to match the concurrent increase in vaccination implementation, and the increasing public awareness of the need for self care and personal and household hygiene and cleanliness, to reduce the severity of symptoms and support high levels of immunity in every individual.

Another friend of mine, commenting on the scenario we currently face, said: ‘I think countries which claim to be socialist often create a feeling in the citizens that the state is responsible, not you. In this pandemic, those with the contacts and connections to request special treatment will inevitably try to jump the queue, leaving the vulnerable destitute of support. Under those circumstances, it would be best for all in a position to do so to show charity to those known to you, who are directly connected to you or your own extended family. By all means cast that net wide, but be clear who is giving what to whom.’

This pandemic has shown all of us what our personal priorities are: who cares, and who does not. It’s showing us what is under the surface of everything, from the efficiency and equitability of our public systems, to the faces of our friends.

Tuesday, May 11, 2021

Sensational News

Many years ago, in the early 2000s, I read an article in a magazine called The Diplomat. The cover story was about a woman calling herself ‘Souad’ who had written a best-selling memoir called ‘Burned Alive’. In fact, the story was not just ‘about’ this woman, but an exposure of the inconsistencies in her sensational story. The writer, an Australian academic and historian called Therese Taylor, did a brilliant job of applying logic and scepticism to the story told by Souad. Objective, factual and determined in her approach, Taylor wrote a brilliant piece of hard-hitting analysis.

I used this article as a teaching resource material for a groundbreaking course which was part of the A-Level English Literature syllabus in New South Wales, and part of a learning module called Representation and Text. The course taught critical thinking skills - deconstructing texts to remove the distorting impacts of exaggeration, understatement, selective omission, sensationalisation and other forms of misrepresentation of truth.

Taylor’s article was perfect for the topic. Her deconstruction of the narrative of Souad noted patterns of contradiction and assertions which directly conflicted with each other.

She applied scientific method, starting by identifying the emotive nature of the reviews of the book, and the way they ignored the inconsistencies in Souad’s narrative. This raised an alarm bell for her. The overview presented Souad as a victim, and Taylor identified the factors which made this representation so credible, including the historical context of the story.

Taylor summed up the story in a succinct but pointed overview: ‘Burned Alive, published pseudonymously under the name Souad, tells the story of a Palestinian girl who survived an attempted honor killing, fled her homeland in 1979, and now lives under a false name in Europe.’

Souad told a story of horrific and sustained suffering, from extreme poverty in childhood to chronic misogynistic treatment, the terrible normalization of barbaric cultural practices perpetrated on her because she was a woman, and finally her survival of attempted murder through an honor killing.

Step by step, Taylor countered in her subsequent analysis the claims made by Souad with investigative questions and contextual facts. Inevitably and sequentially, she formulated a theory which explained the inconsistencies she observed. Only then did she reach a conclusion.

Taylor noted several discrepancies in the harrowing tale of suffering detailed by Souad in her origin story. The two most significant are her description of seeing a sister of hers strangled with a telephone cord, and the actual degree to which she had suffered burns to her body by having kerosene poured on her head and set alight.

Taylor points out that at the date Souad said the strangling incident occurred, ‘None of the villages in the West Bank were connected to the telephone line as early as 1977... In fact, the vast majority of smaller communes still have no phone lines.’ In the article I read, Taylor notes without drama that ‘the means to commit this murder did not exist’.

As for the burns? The visible sign of her victimization? Taylor says, ‘Initially Souad claimed she had

burns to 90 % of her body, and the British translation stated that her son was born three months premature.’ When Taylor checked these assertions, and sent queries reproaching the publishers for such impossible claims, the London publishers explained that these points ‘had been made in error’ and would later be revised. The sensationalized story was a best seller in 2003.

The estimated degree of severity of the burns was reduced from 90% to 60%. If the reporting of a medical fact like this can be so wildly divergent, the whole story looks less than credible.

Taylor places this fantastic story told by Souad in the historical context of the immediate aftermath of 9/11. A tale in which a woman who has been victimized by her own countrymen and whose narrative supports the demonization of the Arab world got great traction in that vengeful, anti-terrorist world, in which bearded men in robes were otherised and maligned, and believed capable of every atrocity against innocent women.

Taylor’s publication of her article in The Diplomat, the Australian magazine where I saw it, resulted in Burned Alive coming under critique, as it ‘showed that the entire story was filled with errors of fact, and that Souad’s central claim to have survived for six weeks without any medical care, despite having petrol burns to most of her body, was physically impossible’.

The truth is hard to reach when it is veiled and layered with multiple falsehoods and serviceable subterfuges.
Taylor’s articles on Souad, ‘Truth, History and Honour Killing’ and ‘Fabricated: A Tale Of Two Memoirs’ are available online.

Taylor’s conclusion after her detailed investigation into the incident was that Souad had spun the story to specifically appeal to the biases of the Western audience. ‘Our society is strongly marked by the culture of victim hood,’ says Taylor. ‘This longing for victim voices causes sensationalist accounts to be favoured, and the more delicate testimonies of real people are drowned out in an irrational clamour.’

In ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’, that famous story of justice, bias and prejudice by Harper Lee, the young girl who narrates the story tells us ‘Atticus (her father, a lawyer) told me to delete the adjectives, and I’d have the facts’.

That’s an excellent rule of conduct, when dealing with people who have vested interests in exaggerating and distorting facts in order to present themselves as worthy of our investment in them and their suffering.

Therese Taylor’s work on this matter can also be read in ‘Truth, History, and Honor Killing’ on Antiwar.com and in ‘Fabricated: A Tale Of Two Memoirs’.

Positive Thinking

My colleague and friend Kumudini David recently had a PCR test done and tested positive for COVID-19. She was given the choice of staying in a hotel or a resort but could not afford that, as the cost is about LKR 250,000 for the period of supervised quarantine. Kumu opted for the local quarantine centre alternative, monitored and controlled by the Sri Lankan Government, which is provided free of charge to all citizens who are in mandatory quarantine, and supervised by the SL Army.

Kumu has kept a detailed journal of her experience at this facility, from the bus trip to the allocated regionally located quarantine centre, through the days that followed, updating her friends and followers on Facebook.

The updates were fascinating to read, and I am not the only one who included the reading of these bulletins as part of my daily routine. What interested me particularly was the radical change in Kumudini’s approach as she confronted the challenges she faced, both personally and in the situations of the women she was quarantined with, at Rambukkana Quarantine Centre.

The period of quarantine took place in a large building belonging to the Brandix Company, and this facility is run in partnership by the Sri Lankan Army and the Kegalle Hospital, which had been offered for the purpose of providing space for those who had tested Covid positive to quarantine during this period of the pandemic crisis.

Kumu’s initial photographs showed metal beds and understandably unadorned premises. This was a basic facility. Because it was free of cost to those quarantining. They had been given half an hour to get the essential items they needed for a 10-14 day stay away from their homes, and many were not prepared.

Those in quarantine were divided by gender and initially also by ethnic community. The women in Kumu’s quarantine centre were faced with toilets which were in a bad state, and those who were menstruating or pregnant or had just given birth were concerned about their sanitation and hygiene needs. Sanitary napkins and towels and nappies for infants were urgently needed. Hygienic disposal of these was also needed, as these processes were not initially foremost in the minds of most of the male personnel in charge.

Many were traumatized: not only by worries for themselves, and how they individually would respond to the onset of the illness, but by being separated from their children and families for an extended period of time. They were worried about not being able to be in contact with husbands and kids, and elderly parents who they were caring for. Their phones needed to be reloaded, to ensure that this contact was sustained.

That first day, as we can see in her report, Kumu was stressed, and anxious, and also angry. But it only took a few hours before she realized that she was not powerless and did not have to be resigned and passive in this situation.

She did not waste time in self pity, or extended bouts of anxiety, or in complaining about the authorities or the shortcomings in the system, or the state of the world. Kumu is a practical and optimistic person, and in the years I have known her I have seen how she faces down oncoming challenges with energy and intelligence.

She has both high IQ and EQ, and this dynamic fusion of leadership qualities was strongly illustrated by what she did next.

She heard the complaints and worries of the women around her, and she started on Day 2 to set in place certain unofficial processes by which these concerns were heard and addressed. She asked them all to list all the things they individually needed, and worked out how much this would cost.

She then turned to her extensive network of friends and colleagues on Facebook and presented us with the reality of the situation, and asked us to raise funds by donating whatever we could, not only in terms of finances, transferred electronically or via direct deposit, but in the form of actual goods. These included Astra margarine, staples like milk powder, rice and lentils, and also tinned and dry food packets, cleaning liquids and soap powder to wash their clothes. The children were able to be given drawing books and coloured pencils.

Kumu’s circle met her request with generosity and promptness. She was able to raise almost a million rupees in a few days, an extraordinary result. This amount was in excess of what was required for this particular group of women, so some of the funds will be allocated to store goods for future inmates, and also for other quarantine facilities which are in need of this community-funded support.

It is her hope that others will be inspired and encouraged to do the same in the weeks and months ahead, as the community increasingly gets tested and the extent of the virus’s transmission is traced. Many people have been reluctant to be tested, as they were anxious about the very situation faced by Kumu and her fellow inmates - of abrupt loss of freedom and confinement in circumstances over which they had no control.

That first day, the women gave Kumu a nickname in Sinhala which she immediately embraced, and wears with pride. Despite experiencing some of the symptoms of the coronavirus, including fatigue, mild fever and headaches, she lifted and moved the metal beds in the facility into better arrangements and positions in the facility, according to the other women’s needs. They named her their ‘Sister who moves beds’.

Kumudini is a fellow graduate of SEALA (South East Asia Leadership Academy), and during our programme in 2018 her nickname was ‘The Warrior’. She is a born leader. She laughs and says she is bossy and outspoken. But she embodied great leadership, in this situation. What we all learned in concept and theory at the Academy was put into direct practice here, by her, and we all see how effective it is.

Kumu acted in the Rambukkana Quarantine Centre as an unofficial hall monitor, making sure that when the goods came, brought in boxes via vehicles packed and driven by her friends from Colombo, that the ladies lined up and received equitable amounts of everything as per their real requirements. No pushing, no shoving, no arguing, no meanness.

Kumu’s story is an inspiring example of how one person’s positive approach to the biggest crisis of our time can benefit hundreds of others with whom she is in contact. Previously unknown to each other, and with many differences in social class, level of education and personal upbringing, they formed a community under her leadership and as a result of her initiative.

We hope that this story will go viral, and prompt others to realize that with co-operation and determination and a good attitude, through our collaborative efforts we can turn even this challenge which confronts us into an opportunity for growth, learning and even blessing.

The crucial point is that it is the attitude of positive determination and empathy that enabled Kumudini to do this. She did not judge anyone or trivialize anyone’s situation. She didn’t feel paralyzed or helpless for long. She took action, with understanding of the real needs (both spoken and unspoken) of those she was acting for. She acted to represent them to act positively in a situation where they initially must have felt helpless and despairing. And she represented all of them.

Kumu says: ‘The segregation didn't last. We are all working together now. I will continue to work on helping this Quarantine Centre and others.’

Note: This image of Kumudini David was created by the artist Randy Chriz Perera.

Tuesday, April 13, 2021

Crowning Glories

Image credit: Amazon.com

I recently interviewed four public figures, familiar with receiving attention from the Sri Lankan community, both local and international, for their beauty. I was interested to know - What did it feel like to inhabit this publicly praised face and enviable body? Did they enjoy being lovely to look at, and did they succeed in achieving the happiness they wanted, as well as all the prizes and trophies and career opportunities that have accompanied their progress through life? 

Physical beauty makes those who possess it feel ‘like a million dollars’, but it is an asset that does not hold its value - giving the owner diminishing returns as it fades over time, but prompting their character to grow. 

All four ladies commented on the benefits of the international experience and perspective their success has brought them. But it’s what you do with the recognition and the privileges that beauty brings you that shows the person you are.

Natasha comments that: ‘I love that most perceive me as a role model. It gives me a sense of purpose to use my platform to do good and educate the present and future generations to see beauty in a different light.’

The drawbacks, according to Shirlene, include: ‘Being misunderstood. In this country of ours, being a beauty queen has a little stigma added to it.’ Beauty is seen as a short cut to success and recognition. 

Shivani directly addressed the unwanted attention which beauty evokes from the opposite sex, to the point of constant harassment: ‘The advances from the opposite sex... have no limitations, along with the fear of walking into a place unaccompanied.’ It has also impacted her professional life: ‘As an entrepreneur, I co-founded a company called WEB Syndicate, Sri Lanka’s first web development company, in 1996... an era in which we never saw women in the IT industry, which was dominated by men. So ...wherever I went for board meetings or to meet clients, it was challenging, since it was tough to handle the many stares from men. As good as it is receiving attention to get your point through, or beating your competition, it’s a NO when attention is given for the wrong attributes. The worst of all is that your talent and knowledge get overshadowed when physical beauty overpowers them’. 

The same society that praises you can also be very vicious in its judgment, as Shirlene says: ‘We are all judged for the wrong reasons. We live in a back stabbing, throw away society.’

Angela points out that: ‘Envy, jealousy, the venom of people’s malice, are all a part of the hurt one has to bear. In Sri Lanka, where there is intense belief in sorcery, there is the additional fear of “evil eye”’. 

All concur that it is important to develop inner character, so that, as Shirlene says, ‘I don’t depend on my looks to see me through: it is the love, helping others, compassion and empathy that I have for everyone that will live in me till I die. So even if my looks fade or any calamity befalls me, I hope I will be loved and remembered for those virtues more than for my looks.‘

It’s important to realize that beauty is constructed, as Angela notes: ‘Over the years, beauty has moved from natural to manmade: botoxed, carved, shaped, tinted, tanned, bleached, sutured, lifted, tucked, and reshaped, re-molded and recast. The artificial addition of false hair, lenses, nails, bosoms, and buttocks, all take physical beauty to another level, but an impermanent one. With ageing, the effects of all those would be almost grotesque... I do urge everyone to accept the process of ageing as gracefully as one can, as whatever we  do, we cannot defy the natural changes that nature bestows upon us with time.’

Being beautiful in our youth, we can become distracted and desensitized to the fragility of human life. Perhaps even more so in the disrupted and uncertain times we live in, we need to be aware that health and well-being are more important than surface appearances. Our ethics, our moral character and our integrity and high personal standards of behaviour are what create the beauty in our lives, and those we are connected with. 

Shivani says ‘Accepting your losses, and moving away from the tragedy of losing your looks as a result of illness or accident is painful, but the key is to keep your mental equilibrium in check... Setting an example for the next generation is important. Therefore, panicking and putting too much emphasis on the physical attributes alone will only bring unhappiness when you lose it all’. 

Natasha succinctly states: ‘If we base our validity on superficial things, it would have a catastrophic effect on us.’

Focusing instead on core character values is what has shaped their lives. 

Angela points out the crude pressure that comes with competitiveness and a focus on externals: ‘In the present day, there is a whole new race to keep up to expectations that life, society, community and the generation throw in our paths: one is almost buried under an avalanche of pretense and hypocrisy, largely projected onto us with the easy access to social media, and misused more often than not. The core of it all, sadly, is to show off!!’

Natasha highlights that the publicity that beauty and success brings with it also makes beautiful women a target of unwanted negativity: ‘Having been subjected to sexism, sexual harassment, cyber bullying and constantly having to prove my worth - showing that I’m way more than what meets the eye. I speak for every woman who experiences misogyny. 

The superficial judgments we make of ourselves and others stem from the limitations of our conditioning and the way we perpetuate stereotyping of people. As if there was one box that fits all?! Those who don’t conform ... [find that] these societies end up deciding they would be their judge, jury and executioner, and ridicule them in social circuits or on social media.’

Beauty pageants in the contemporary world are criticized for playing to the male gaze and drawing attention only to women’s appearance. But elegance, gracefulness and glamour encompass social behaviour and self presentation as well. 

Shivani comments that the role of beauty Queen must be performed with finesse:  ‘Since stardom and fame propel you to become a public figure, it’s important to have pageants of this nature for women to propel change in the status quo. You are heard because of the status you hold as a well known personality in the country and in society...  To be a role model for other women, and... to celebrate accomplished women who embody ‘’beauty with brains’’ in the modern world.’

There’s plenty of competitiveness and injustice behind the scenes in the beauty sphere, and the enforcing of ideals of beauty which are body shaming, sizeist, and colour shaming, but these industry challenges call participants to have the courage to look beyond their own good fortune, to what is being endorsed - and often to challenge it. 

Recent events have shown us that women who are crowned as queens of beauty in modern Sri Lanka are expected by the public to also behave with dignity and social sensitivity, as role models of etiquette, elegance and finesse. The title is one that should be carried with honour, and those called queens are inevitably held to higher standards.

Loss Of Face

Image credit: dreamstime

The whole scenario at the crowning of Mrs. World last week is a good opportunity to evaluate the criteria by which we judge those whom we regard as admirable in our society. 

What do we revere them for? How have they elevated or illuminated our community? 

Three days before the events at the Mrs. World ceremony, one of the ladies whose conduct on that day has been most severely criticised shared a post on her public Face book page, to commemorate Easter. It was a quote from the Book of Isaiah, 52:13 

‘Father, into your hands I commend my spirit. 

In you, O LORD, I take refuge; 

let me never be put to shame. 

In your justice rescue me.

Into your hands I commend my spirit; 

You will redeem me, O LORD, O faithful God.’

Under this scripture text was a picture of the crucified Christ, raised up on the cross, surrounded by mockers and mourners. 

Three days later, this self-described ‘super model’ participated in the public uncrowning of the woman who was declared the winner of the Mrs. World contest, and now herself faces a storm of criticism for her aggressive and unseemly conduct, including a police summons. 

The criticism from all quarters, of both the supermodel and the outgoing Mrs. World, has focused on their conduct and what a crude and stark contrast it was to the elegance and social gracefulness the title holder is meant to embody. 

Social media has crucified the two beauty queens, and the lady they uncrowned has been reinstated. Sri Lankans are mortified that the incident makes us seem like a joke to the rest of the world. All the great achievements of Sri Lankan scientists, writers, artists, academics, legal and medical professionals, architects and engineers are temporarily overshadowed. 

I was told by a friend who was herself part of the fashion and beauty industry in Sri Lanka that it is a ‘very worrying situation... As many are not aware.. See all those international pageants that are organized are really to showcase our country. Yes it provides many opportunities for the winner too, but when the winner bags the main event and brings the crown home, it is a Winning Moment for the country. The name and image of the country is right on top (just like our cricket matches). The crown and title then become the property of the country until the next time. 

So the Mrs. World International crown and title for 2019 belong to Sri Lanka. In 1984, the inaugural Mrs. World pageant was held, and the winner was Rosy Senanayake. She was the first-ever Mrs. World, and hence she is highly regarded internationally.’ 

The crude and aggressive way the crown was placed on the head of the winner, then removed and casually transferred to the first runner up resulted, we are told, in head injuries. I could not help thinking of the crown of thorns which had been mockingly placed on the head of Jesus, in the crucifixion event commemorated just a few days before. 

Observing the tirades directed at the outgoing Mrs. Sri Lanka, we can see that many are shocked at the contrast between her beautiful and elegant physical appearance and her damaging and disturbing personal conduct at this event. There are high expectations of good conduct by those we call queens. 

Misogynists were in their glory, commenting on the pancake makeup and artificial and homogenic appearance of the finalists, saying they look like female impersonators rather than women, and mocking the incident as a ‘brawl’ and a ‘cat fight’ between women competing for the attention of society, ironically participating in their own reduction to the level of objects. 

Within minutes, the two women who uncrowned the declared winner became memes, the object of mockery throughout the country. 

Sri Lanka has an opportunity at this excruciating moment to re-evaluate the way we build people up and then tear them down, whether it is international athletes, opera singers, supermodels or elected leaders. The world as a whole has the chance to consider what beauty contests mean, and what relevance values of competitiveness sourced in physical attributes have in the modern, post feminist world. 

Several past winners of national and international honors for beauty have spoken out about the importance of the dignity, elegance and finesse the beauty Queen is supposed to represent. The current national conversation could restrain itself from compulsively trashing the demonised duo - and seek to reconstruct the foundations of the next pageant before the upcoming annual event, at which the incoming Mrs. World will have to preside, with her first runner up, Queen for a day, ready to stand by if needed. 

Beauty of face and figure should be in harmony with integrity of moral and ethical conduct. And this is an alignment requirement that we should apply to all those in the public eye, men and women, whose conduct should be irreproachable. We should require the highest standard of behaviour from those who are privileged to embody these virtues for us, and who preside over our social rituals in a place of honor we have given them. 

Our public role models - politicians, officials, senior administrators,  CEOs, chairpersons - public figures of all kinds - should behave in ways that we as a community can admire, with accountability, courtesy and dignity and respect for others being consistently evident in their conduct. We don’t want to see stories of scandals, questionable actions and unbecoming behaviour when we Google the names of our national dignitaries and title holders. It’s not a joke. It’s a tragedy. 

I created a hashtag last year for #srilankanexcellence. Every story about every person whose words and actions show they are contributing in real terms to the positive progress of the country will be tagged on social media. I hope there will be many and diverse entries in that category. 

We need to restore our good name, and it won’t be done by augmentation and the mere putting on of a show. It’s time for much more than a makeover.

Touch And Go

Image credit: Oprah.com

Think of the hundreds and thousands of people we encounter during the course of our lives. If we have a transactional view of life, we probably only register the  people who have exchanged significant material things and experiences with us. 

The people who we have married, or dated for several years, or had children with; the people who taught us, and employed us, and mentored us are in a special category of value. Every person has these valued categories in their life experience. 

But when we look at the incidents that form the basis of legal cases for harassment, assault and other kinds of violation, we see that sometimes people have misjudged the behavior that is appropriate towards people they did not consider significant. They treated these people carelessly, negligently and without respect. And people they arrogantly classified as ‘background’ or ‘temporary’ or ‘a perk of the job’ became more significant than was comfortable, because they were mishandled.

Human beings often show patterns and iterations in their behavior. As young people, we act on impulse, and make mistakes in the way we relate to the society around us and the people we meet. Over time, we develop routines which work for us, whether they are related to food or emotional fulfillment or sexual gratification or power acquisition or health maintenance or wealth creation. 

As individuals, each of us has a certain style of doing the things we do to get the things we need: power dressing, driving, ordering a meal at a cafe or restaurant, how we interview a client or deal with an incoming telephone call. 

That is why we are unsurprised to note that a movie production mogul now jailed on a number of charges of sexual assault and rape shows a discernible pattern in all the accusations made against him. The young women he summoned to meet him to discuss their career advancement were almost without exception 22 or 23 years old. The way he approached them, and leveraged his power against them, was very much a routine. Nothing could really have shown more clearly how normalised this objectification had become to him than the unvarying details recounted by each person who had survived an encounter with him. His methods were akin to the primal courtship rituals of the silverback gorilla. 

At a less global level than Mr. Weinstein, we become aware of politicians and corporate executives in highly placed positions in private and public organisations, armed with stellar professional profiles, whose power abuses are not on public record, but whose unofficial behavior also shows a pattern in the way they treat young women in their organizations, who are not in a position to hold them accountable. 

Mr. Weinstein brought discredit to his own company, which was responsible for producing some marvellous films in Hollywood over the past two decades. The politicians and executives have ego walls and highlight reels of their achievements which can be Googled. 

What all these people have in common is intense ego and entitlement, which has enabled them to demand service and compliance from those they perceive to be lower than they are in a hierarchy. The system in which their habits have been formed has fed this sense of self. They are frequently retained in their positions, despite the complaints made about their unprofessional conduct to HR Departments or investigating authorities, because their professional work brings in so much money to their company or institution. 

Blind eyes are turned towards them, and candid scrutiny of their behaviour is scrupulously avoided. 

Now many young women have smart phones at hand, however, this conduct can be recorded on video and audio. Reading transcripts of recorded encounters people have had with these types of men is a revelatory documentary of these predatory routines they have developed over time. 

In a patriarchal society, misogyny underlies most of the prevalent belief systems about women, both within private institutions and in the public sector. The young women who are forced, for their self protection, to keep detailed records of every inappropriate form of conduct against them, are seen as targets of attention in their workplace by their superior, and isolated. They are often believed by their colleagues to be encouraging this attention, to further their careers. The predators routinely target the prettiest women - the ones they obviously see as ‘trophy’ conquests, regardless of the personal circumstances or marital status of these women. Because appearances are all important to their egos, and the way they themselves are perceived by their male colleagues. 

These days, people in charge of Human Resources and Personnel departments in large companies are sometimes women. This is because women supposedly specialize in ‘soft skills’, and - in the era of trending fempowerment - it looks good to have an ‘empowered’ female at the helm of the all-male retinue of deployment. Especially women who know how to endorse the company line and enhance its image. Particularly on International Women’s Day, when the in house promotional movies for the company are made. These individuals given power in male-dominated organisations are presumed to be empathic, particularly if they are wives and mothers. ‘Multitasking superwomen’. But are they likely to question those that have supported their own rise to power? What limits are placed on them? What disincentives to challenge the majority? When cultural conformism and obedience to hierarchies enforce a bystander mentality? 

What decisions have been made by these people, whose job it is to cover up and conceal, and minimize the wrong conduct they observe, to micromamanage moral disaster, behind the sheen of the public facade, and whose actions affect the career paths and self worth of their fellow human beings? Over time, do these questionable decisions start to change the alignment of their features? Does the distortion that is taking place in their values eventually, inevitably, show in their faces? Do they start to emanate an unpleasant aura, which no amount of scented air freshener can diminish? Even in the rarefied realms of the air conditioned offices on the highest floors of the towers of shining concrete and metal in which they are ensconced? 

Human courtship at its best requires finesse, elegance and moral sincerity - not cookie cutter crudity and an attitude more fitted to  the operator of a conveyor belt in a factory committed to mass production. If ever there was an area and an era where the glorious specificity of romantic attention was required, surely that time is now. 

But not in the workplace. Despite the fact that these high powered people dress up and assume their best selves for 15 to 17 hours of every day. Despite the close proximity they have to the best selves of others, under the aegis of their institution, working together for a joint purpose - although at markedly different pay levels. Despite the fact that walking into a realm where they are so highly regarded must be like immersing themselves daily in a hot tub of low key, sudsy admiration and respect, which stimulates their self esteem to the point where they regularly override the boundaries of respect for the dignity of others. 

Like an addict, the perpetrators over time need more and more intense levels of intake of their chosen drug to replicate the high. 

It’s high level, not eye level. 

Tuesday, March 30, 2021

Formative Influences

Looking at the concurrent furores about racism and betrayal of family values and civic virtues in the so-called First World, I’ve been recently seeking solace in a favourite book series in this intensely Women-Empowerment focused week. 

What better title could be possible for my need for some Fempowered escapism than ‘A Woman Of Substance’, I thought? And so I dusted off this classic bestselling 80s paperback by Barbara Taylor Bradford, tracing the epic rise to power of Emma Harte, a female prince of industry, and set in gorgeous country homes and chic apartments and boardrooms in Yorkshire, London, New York, Texas, Paris, The French Riviera, and Sydney. And of course I read its 5 sequels, appreciating the storyline of empowerment which was able to be felt despite the leaden writing style and the colourless and cliched characterization. 

The dedicated focus on appearances in the narrative was strangely hypnotizing: the descriptions of long willowy figures, and beautiful faces, delicate features and lustrous hair. The intense glamour of the men. The business acumen of the women. The obsession with bloodlines, generational perpetuation and the acquisition of property. Location. Location. Location. 

The detailed descriptions of the interior design and the furniture and the colour schemes and the original artwork on the walls. The constant name dropping of the wines, food and favourite dishes favoured by the 1%, and the references to European artists, and musicians were like a 1980s Conduct Book. An exclusively Eurocentric one. 

‘Stepping further along, she stared at a number of art books stacked on a shelf, which featured the work of Renoir, Picasso, Manet, Monet, Degas, Gauguin, Turner, Constable, Gainsborough, .. Rodin. Resting on another shelf were books on the music of Massenet, Bizet, Ravel, Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, Puccini, and the operas of Wagner.’ 

Nothing exceeds like excess. The litany of the greatest hits of Western Civilisation hummed and buzzed me into a state of semi-consciousness. 

I found the designated villain of the saga, a shady and decadent individual who felt unfavoured by his multi-faceted grandmother, crudely drawn and monotonously malevolent because his arc was drawn out too long. This malcontent went to Hong Kong, and became a real estate broker. Probably because in the author’s Anglocentric view the mystic East was the most appropriate place for a blond Englishman with a dark purpose. 

What I noticed while reading this time was not the monochrome of the writing but the total absence of any person of colour in any capacity other than as support staff in the story. No charismatic Indian business tycoons. No brilliant Sri Lankan legal or medical experts. No South Korean billionaires. The staff in the well-located homes in Australia were from the Philippines, the staff in the luxury Hong Kong apartment were Chinese. This writer from Yorkshire actually had the brazenness to describe such people as speaking with ‘accented English’. 

When Tessa, Emma’s granddaughter, visits her French lover for the first time in his home in Paris, she is greeted by his butler, ‘a smiling middle-aged man in a white butler’s jacket. From his olive skin and dark hair she thought that he was probably North African.’ Interestingly, when this lady cooks up a gourmet meal for her cousins, she cooks couscous and veal, a veritable Moroccan feast - full of Eastern spices - turmeric, ginger, saffron, cumin - an exotic and refreshing change, no doubt, from the thinly-sliced smoked salmon, egg mayonnaise nursery tea sandwiches and Morecombe Bay potted shrimps. 

The only ‘black’ person in the 6 novels was the ‘Black Irish’ Shane Desmond Patrick O’Neill, known as ‘Blackie’, because of his dark eyes and hair. To be sure. 

Emma Harte was the most interesting character in the story, and when she departed the series, in a blizzard of build-yourself-up-from-humble-beginnings truisms and empowering slogans, it was clear that her grandchildren and great grandchildren just did not have what it took to hold my interest. I’d outgrown the narrative. Like the human body fails to absorb lactose after a certain age, I no longer unquestioningly absorb racist tropes, even if they are wrapped in quasi feminist packaging. 

I was trying to work out why I now find the storyline so flaccid, when I had overlooked the defects of this series so many years before. And I found the key in a chance, cliched phrase that was a thought ascribed to one of Emma’s great grand-daughters, who, in the book titled ‘Unexpected Blessings’, had recently discovered she was related to Emma and had been accepted by the rest of the family. In a moment of self-revelation, she realizes she is ‘free, white and twenty one’. 

Since when had this become a saying? Why had I never heard it, growing up in Australia? It turns out it is an archaic American expression, popular in the 1930s and 40s, meaning ‘independent and beholden to no one’. And exclusively used by and with reference to white people, usually white women. There was even a film with this phrase as a title, in 1963. Well, don’t it make my brown eyes blue. 

This character’s father, a man who was supposedly knowledgeable about history, explains to this vapid young woman the reason one of their cousins was named ‘India’ - According to him, the name ‘came into popularity because of England’s involvement in India, and its influence over the country, for hundreds of years. During those years, the English loved so many things which were of Indian origin, and of course there were a lot of British troops stationed there, ... all part of the Indian army. Anyway, I suppose one day someone had the bright idea of calling a child after the country, and India became a favourite name for girls in the eighteen hundreds, when Queen Victoria was on the throne and Empress of India as well. And it’s still used today.’ 

The repellant selectivity of this airbrushed, whitewashed version of British colonisation presented as fact is augmented by a description of India’s grandmother, Edwina, the Countess of Dunvale, who ‘sounds like a British general at the head of an army about to quell the natives’ when she calls her granddaughter up on the telephone. Edwina is described as ‘determined, feisty and, in a funny way, rather nice’. What is also crystal clear is that she is oblivious that she is (in an unfunny way) rather racist, and that her estate in Ireland has been resourced by the forced labour of ‘natives’. The quelled variety, no doubt. Kept in their unrightful place by the systemic white supremacist beliefs which fuelled the growth of the British Empire. 

When I was young, I had truly loved the description of Emma Harte’s growing collection of jewellery, and admired the establishment of her business dynasty and the fulfillment of her materialistic and romantic dreams. She revelled in her success, as a self made woman, but had stopped short of buying the Kohinoor Diamond, which Queen Victoria had looted from the so-called subcontinent in 1849. 

As I lined up to buy these books as a girl, I had no idea that years later I would find that they were so profoundly lacking in actual substance. My colourful dreams and the vibrant spectrum of my own life and lineage could not be contained or defined in the pages of its narrow story. This realization is an unexpected blessing. 

Thank you, BTB.