ANZAC silence: why we don’t talk about inter-generational trauma

red-poppies-anzac-day

On the 25th of April every year, Australians and New Zealanders gather to remember those lost in the world wars. It is a solemn commemoration. Red poppies adorn lapels, heads are bowed, wreaths are ceremonially placed, trumpets sound and shots are fired. Tribute is paid to those who died and those who survived. Some of these ancestors had no choice; they were conscripted. Duty was compulsory, and it is far easier to tell stories about just wars than to consider the political power-struggles over territory and resources that are always involved. Realities are always more complicated.

Some criticise the glorification of war and the narrative of historic bravery, courage and justice, but what we don’t tend to talk about is that our fathers, grandfathers and great-grandfathers (as well as the women who are hardly ever mentioned) often returned from war traumatised, with PTSD, unable to function emotionally. We don’t talk about how many of them became violent alcoholics and raised generations of boys (and girls) to be tough, rather than to feel.

With no tools for processing difficult emotions and healing from trauma, what else can we expect but a society where violence is normalised? We sweep our vulnerability and emotional scars under the rug. Our shared cultural legacy lurks in the dark, painfully silent. We loved these people who hurt us. They didn’t know any different – any other way. We internalise their trauma and take to our own children with that same painful tension. The trauma is obvious, despite the silence.

Sure, not everyone who went to war came back traumatised, but this is more than just a private issue. Almost everyone countries who fought these wars has is a descendant of someone who was badly affected. These personal wounds are political. Violence is not a private matter, it is a deeply social concern… So why don’t we talk about it? Perhaps it is more respectful, or just easier, to glorify these heroes – just as we omit many speckled realities from funeral eulogies. But when will we get the chance to actually deal with it? When we’re drunk and prone to outbursts? Maybe this is just humanity. Maybe we have always had wars and resulting traumas to deal with, but isn’t it time to start to talk about it?

It is hard to talk about sensitive things. It is easier to create perfect fictions of heroes than see their failings, weakness, vulnerability and the suffering they caused. But maybe if we stop just seeing the dark stuff as personal, we can really start to deal with it – and begin to heal this inter-generational trauma. We are living in a society where everyone has felt the after-shocks of this trauma, and what we do know about violence is that it tends to create vicious cycles – unless we can break out of them. Awareness is the first step.

The invisible closet: The hidden politics of bisexuality

The invisible closet: The hidden politics of bisexuality

“Bisexuals are greedy,” a friend once told me back in highschool, “They should just make up their minds.” Her statement didn’t make any sense to me at the time, I was just on the verge of identifying as bisexual, but nobody knew that just then, and now most people still don’t, but there doesn’t seem to be any point in coming out when no body I care about would really care… or is there? Apart from female bisexuality being the focus of gratuitous heterosexual fetish, bisexuality is largely invisible and invisible things are easy to ignore and difficult to talk about, which is probably why there are thousands of bisexual women seeking out internet forums, confessing to the ether of cyberspace their similar stories.

Many of these women are living what appear to be heterosexual lives but something is missing, they fall in love with their best friends but are unable to tell anyone. Telling friends could ruin a friendship, telling their husbands could ruin a marriage. Being public could mean being exposed to judgement. Many of these women are socially isolated, and have no connection to queer community, so the internet is the only safe space to express their hidden sexual identities, desires and the overwhelming longing that many of them share.

Often bisexuality isn’t taken seriously. Mainstream society doesn’t know quite where to place it, other than in heterosexual fantasy or some quirky marginal category. Bisexuals often experience discrimination from within the queer community, sometimes resulting from the ease at which they can ‘fit in’ to heterosexual society. Male bisexuality, not often being the subject of heterosexual fantasy and is more subjected to homophobia. Bisexual men are often regarded as a myth, and are seen to be in some transitional period between thinking they’re straight and realising they’re gay. The New York Times recently ran an article about the scientific quest to prove bisexuality, which demonstrates how marginalised bisexuality is, even compared to homosexuality.

For a lot of bisexual people, both men and women, it’s easier to ‘play straight’ and take on a heterosexual identity, at least publicly. Many still identify with dominant romance narratives about how life and partnership should go: find someone of the opposite sex, get married, have kids, and so on, as one friend of mine expressed: “I’m bi, but I still see myself setting down with a man in the long term because that makes sense for having kids and stuff.” Another friend, a bisexual feminist activist, expressed internal conflict over her identity when she found herself in a long-term committed heterosexual relationship: “I’ve always identified as bisexual, but now it just seems like I’m straight because I’m in this relationship.” She felt alienated from the queer community she had been part of.

Some people resent all identity labels, other people feel more closely connected to other communities and their sexual identity is submerged beneath labels like ‘mother’, ‘artist’, ‘lawyer’ or ethnicity and class related identity. Some people identify as ‘pansexual’ to include all the variances of gender rather than just two. ‘Bisexual’ is just one word to describe sexuality, which can be an intricate, fluid and complex thing. Since Kinsey, scales have been a common tool. People can be positioned or position themselves as a number or location on the scale, somewhere between heterosexual and homosexual. It’s quite simplistic, but it may be impossible to accurately map sexuality that differs from person to person and culture to culture.

‘Coming out’ as bi seems like nothing to shout about. The hesitation comes from questioning whether my sexual identity is private or public. I know some gay men who feel their sexuality is private and everyone assumes they are straight and other gay people who feel like it’s an important political statement – making a marginal group more visible. In recent years a few celebrities like Anna Paquin, Lady Gaga and Angelina Jolie have come out as bi in order to make such a statement. I don’t know whether these statements make much of a difference or whether they are just absorbed into the hetero fantasy or marginalised. Many of my historical heroines were bi including Frida kahlo, Virginia Woolf, Margaret Mead and Simone de Beauvoir, they were largely inside the invisible closet.

As a bisexual woman, ‘coming out’ is almost a non-event, hence the ‘invisible closet’. I haven’t been trying to hide anything, but no one can tell. Apart from the brief period of my life where I wasn’t attracted to men at all and was in a relationship with a woman, it has been easier for me, like the forum women, to perform a fairly ‘normal’ heterosexual identity, not particularly by choice, but because it is more difficult to swim against the current and because exposing the marginalised ‘personal’ makes us vulnerable. Either way, I will continue to live-out dual sexualities in whatever way makes the most sense to me at the time.

Why the market won’t save us

There are lots of things that are said so often that people take them for granted: if you work hard, you’ll succeed, people are lazy and selfish, and so on.  We are usually so absorbed in our own culture that we don’t really see it, and therefore, can’t challenge the things that aren’t healthy/functional/true/ideal. After all, our culture is the water in which we swim.  There are some serious problems with out dominant social discourses.  Neoliberal ideas surrounding work and ‘the market’ tend to come under this bracket, so while I’m in a deconstructive mood I’m going to rant about a few of the false premises that people seem to take for granted:

1. People are essentially selfish and lazy 

This is only a lie because it’s a partial truth: people are sometimes lazy and selfish, but that is not our essential nature (if we have one at all). People are communal animals. We are hard-wired for community. We get satisfaction from work that is meaningful and helpful, we get good vibes from doing nice things and helping other people. Assuming that we are all just selfish and lazy is actually kind of yuck. It’s an excuse to devalue some people’s lives because they haven’t achieved as much as other people.

2. We all have equal opportunities to succeed

Now, even to an amateur goldfish, this would sound ridiculous. No one really believes this, do they? There is absolutely no evidence for this assumption. Perhaps it is part of the fairy-tale of the uber-privileged who have no vision outside of their limitless choices. Okay, so maybe we don’t have equal opportunity to succeed, but surely even socially disadvantaged people have options, right? They have choices, right? Let’s just pretend that this is good enough.

3. Poor people are just making bad choices

This has been bugging me since I read Linda Tirado’s essay: Why I make terrible decisions. We all know the price of rent, food and power has gone up heaps and the minimum wage and benefits haven’t followed suit, yet some people insist that people accessing food banks are just not budgeting properly, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg – you see that poor-looking person over there smoking cigarettes/gambling/drinking and you think it’s as simple as ‘bad choices’? Fuck man, you have no idea what it feels like to have massive social pressure and so few choices, that easing the pain just a little bit, and sacrificing other important things, seems like the best choice you have. I’m not even going to go into the implications of inter-generational trauma, but I will mention that my supervisor who did her PhD looking at food scarcity found that some of the people she talked to smoked cigarettes because they suppress hunger and a packet lasts longer than a meal.

4. Hard work can work for everyone

Even if you don’t really believe in premise 2, you might have a bit of faith that with a lot of hard work and a dash of determination success is possible for anyone. The ‘hard’ work discourse really grates because it assumes that the people who are at the top worked the hardest. News flash: the people who clean your toilets work fucking hard for relatively little reward. This also assumes there are enough jobs for everyone and that everyone has the ability to work.

5. There is this trickle-down effect…

So, the idea here is that people who make it to the top will invest in more business ventures and create more jobs, that this is all good for the economy, and that wealth trickles down. Now, anyone with a bit of critical awareness will tell you that the trickle-down effect is nothing more than the rich pissing on the poor, that for those people to get to the top they have to make tough choices – like paying people as little as possible and employing as few people as possible. That’s just good business sense, right?

6. What is good for the economy is good for us

People seem to have this idea that the economy is very important and must grow at all costs, without really knowing what ‘the economy’ is and who it is serving. We all need to think a bit more critically about what ‘the economy’ actually is, every time these words crop up in conversation. The way we measure ‘the economy’ is actually just a number based on all the transactions (GDP) and lots of transactions might just mean lots of crises – earthquakes are great for the economy, times of peace are not. While the economy is booming we still have poverty, crime and deprivation, in fact, we seem to be getting even more of the above as the gap between rich and poor widens. What is good for ‘the economy’ is not necessarily good for us.

7. The market is holy

‘The market’ is a similar concept, used in the religious discourse of neoliberal devotees: the market will save us. Just let it be free. There is absolutely no evidence to support this religious belief.  The main problem with this is that it leaves corporations free to exploit whomever they can, in whatever way they like. Corporations function much like cancer in the body – their job is to grow and grow and amass more and more resources. That is all. If you take all the power away from governments to regulate this kind of unhealthy social growth, you give all the power to the the tumors.

8. Paid work is morally good

This is based on the premise that people are inherently selfish and lazy. It’s much like the other puritan discourse in our social religion: we are all born sinners (selfish and lazy) and therefore to be morally good we must perform paid work – as much as possible – then we are able to feel self-righteous and superior to those who don’t work. If we are really really good we will even do unpaid work for charities or something, and if you work very hard for a long time you deserve your pension (not a Neoliberal idea) but any other dependence on the system is morally wrong and should be punished with verbal abuse and judgement, never mind that people who seek welfare are vulnerable and socially disadvantaged, never mind that they are human beings, never mind that the way they are treated by society and dysfunctional welfare systems is dehumanising and not really helping, never mind that poverty and social inequality is bad for everyone and that more equal societies are better off.

9. Taxing the rich is mean

Now, someone keeps telling me that extra taxes on high incomes are punitive, that is: punishing the rich. I fail to see how wealth distribution is a kind of punishment when more equality is better for everyone and quite frankly, I’m not overly sympathetic if Banker-Brad can’t afford a second yacht when there are far too many hungry children in this world. Now I’m not meaning to be mean and judgmental of wealthy people, there are lots of unhelpful stereotypes of rich people as well, I’m sorry about that, but it’s not top priority for me.

Negative stereotype of rich person

 

10. Taxing the rich is bad for productivity The argument goes like this: Banker-Brad works hard for his money (unlike those lazy toilet cleaners).  If Brad doesn’t get rewarded with extra money, or (heaven forbid) he gets extra money but it’s taxed at a higher rate (to subsidise the lavish lifestyles/healthcare/education/welfare of the undeserving poor) then Brad will start to lose motivation for his high-flying job, he won’t want to work as hard, and neither will all this other high-income-bracket friends. The economy will collapse and everyone will suffer. Bullshit. Research into human motivation shows that money motivation only has limited effects – for example, when people are given a task that requires creativity/challenge or ‘thinking outside the box’, money doesn’t help them achieve the task, but in a similar experiment where the creativity is taken out of the equation more money does work as a motivator. This suggests that people with more challenging/creative roles like Brad would actually benefit less from monetary motivation than the people cleaning his toilets.

For more information, watch this TED talk:

There are lots of other things that could be included here, but I hope this begins to point out how ridiculous some of the ideas we have around work and poverty are. Sometimes the ideas we take for granted are analogous to the shit floating around our social fish tank. We can either see it as part of the water or we can see it for what it really is: an unhealthy part of an unsustainable eco-system.

The feminism of submission: food, sex and blogging

A friend recently told me that she has been taking a submissive role in her relationship with a man, not just sexually, but in-general. Normally she would want to be in-charge of everything, but lately she has chosen to concentrate on certain things, which happen to be ‘traditionally’ feminine things – cooking etc. On a camping trip she was able to let go of a lot of the decision making. She let him decide where to put the tent and focused instead on what foods they were going to eat on the trip. She sometimes liked to kneel next to him as he sat in a chair and felt comfortable and safe.  She said she felt good but was worried that what she was doing was anti-feminist or that other people might think she was in some kind of abusive relationship. I wasn’t worried. I wouldn’t be phased if the gender roles were reversed in this situation either, although that might be far less common.  Cooking isn’t necessarily submissive, but there is a feeling among some women that we always have to be in control, that we have to do everything and that we have to be responsible: we must be dominant in order to accommodate for the oppression of our gender.  In my friend’s case, letting go was possible because she felt safe and empowered enough to do so.

Perhaps submission is the wrong word here, but I want to acknowledge the power of giving up responsibility in the same way that Hegel’s master-slave dialectic argues that the slave has power because without the slave the master would not be a master. Although, I’m also not talking about slavery, just the power-dynamic of dominance and submission. This Penny Red post is an interesting read, exploring gender sexuality and submission. She makes some good points:

At no point, however, has anyone implied that men who want to be sexually dominated by women also want to be dominated by them socially and economically. Quite the opposite, if the long history of powerful men paying poor women to beat them up in backrooms is anything to go by. Apparently, though, a few smutty books about naughty professors wielding handcuffs are meant to prove that modern ‘working women’ (sic.) aren’t really as into all this liberation schtick as we make out.

She is talking, of course, about the media frenzy around the popularity of Shades of Grey and Twilight – books that have dominant, controlling male characters and female characters who are insatiably, irrevocably in-love with them.  Penny scorns the notion that these books are a reflection of modern woman’s secret desire to surrender the burden of their responsibilities. I’m unconvinced. But then again, I would believe that men with sub kinks are also escaping into a fantasy land where they don’t need to be responsible all the time. Being responsible is hard work.  They don’t really want women to control their lives (and neither do psychologically-healthy women really want a Christian Grey or Edward Cullen to decide what they’re going to wear) but a fantasy is a fantasy. Escape is escape.

Another friend of mine who is into BDSM type stuff argued that kink is something that can and should be relegated to the bedroom. She is particularly freaked out by dom-sub relationships that extend past sex games and into day-to-day relationships, particularly by her ex boyfriend who is in his thirties and has an eighteen year old sub with a learning disability who has to ask permission to leave the house. Ick!

To me the difference seems obvious between healthy relationships with secure attachments where submission in particular areas (from either party) is an active choice, and push-pull manipulative relationships where one partner is clearly in control of the other one.  For the record, I’m not especially kinky (hence having to ask other people about it) but I think woman and men can both healthily express their submission and dominance in various areas of life, taking into account the feelings of the other people they’re affecting and communicating effectively. Maybe I’m naive. I think it’s possible, I believe in a feminism of submission as well as one of dominance because I need to let go sometimes.  Letting go is a luxury and maybe it’s a privilege reserved for those who are already empowered in their lives.

A couple of years ago I was doing my Masters looking at the Weston A. Price Foundation and food blogs. The research sparked interesting discussions on my research blog and Sandra’s blog Letters from Wetville surrounding the gendered politics of food blogging. Almost all food blogs are run by women and there are also countless other craft blogs etc focused on ‘traditionally’ feminine past-times. The question was raised: are we food-blogging because of some underlying socialisation or is it a coincidence that the things we happen to be interested in are girly-type things? It’s a question that we never really could answer but it did raise a whole lot of other questions around social pressures, femininity and blogging.

Despite the first friend I mentioned taking on the ‘traditional’ task of cooking, food isn’t exclusively a feminine domain.  In the higher echelons it’s almost entirely male-dominated. Watching NZ Masterchef last night (my yoga teacher’s husband is in the top two) I noticed that the ten top New Zealand Chefs invited to lunch were all men, as are the three judges of the show, although many contestants are women. There’s an example of vertical gender occupational segregation if ever I saw one – food bloggers are generally unpaid, although some manage to etch out a living through ads or score a cook book deal like our locally raised Emma Galloway of My Darling Lemon Thyme.  It is worse than unfortunate that the kinds of food-work that women do are largely unpaid and it is a clear demonstration of why we still need feminism.

I don’t mean to get Utopian but it would be nice to live in a world where healthy submission was always possible because everyone is equal enough and empowered enough to feel safe in letting go of responsibilities sometimes. It would be nice if we didn’t even have to talk about whether cooking and food-blogging is undermining feminism.  It would be nice to see female sexuality portrayed as belonging to women and not represented almost entirely in relation to men.  To quote Penny again (because she’s so quotable):

Female sexual autonomy itself is what’s really unorthodox today. Agency and self-determination, the right to own our own desire – those are the kind of forbidden fantasies women across the world still pant over in private, unable to pronounce for fear of being slut-shamed. As Rousseau might put it : “Whether the woman shares the man’s desires or not, whether or not she is willing to satisfy them…the appearance of correct behavior must be among women’s duties.”