Pro-life

Dear Princess ‘Ishka,

The debate on abortion is one of the most burning ethical disputes of our times. The contenders are, on the one side, the pro-life movement, opposing abortion in all its forms, and the pro-choice movement, open to the possibility of opting for abortion.

As far as I am concerned, I strongly advocate the pro-choice position for very specific reasons. Drawing from feminism, I do believe that the body of a woman should ideally be under her “unconditioned control”, and if she considers the possibility of aborting, her choice must be taken very seriously.

In the real world, however, the choice is constrained by many more conditions. Socio-economic factors as well as medical protocols play a crucial role, not to talk about culture, and patriarchy – which, as far as I can imagine, could have pretty much contaminated medicine as well.

This is for me a reason to stop inquiring further into the general topic of abortion and leave it to the experts. What I can do is to consider a specific example which might already challenge the pro-choice view I adopt.

Consider a dramatic case in which the medical doctors can only save either the life of the mother or the child in her womb. Saving a life means also that no complications or negative side-effects are expected to occur. Who is going to be saved, is going to enjoy perfect health.

Now, say that the woman who is having the baby is a hardcore pro-life, who would prefer to die rather than “murder” her creature. What can a defender of the pro-choice position say in this case? Shall we save the woman against her will or save the child, even if it means that the person who is supposed to make the choice dies?

From a merely utilitarian perspective, even if the one who is saved were to enjoy a perfect state of health and, say, good socio-economic and affective conditions, it is clear that the mother would still pay costs that the baby wouldn’t have to pay, if she survived. The loss of a child could be indeed psychologically debilitating and I just find implausible to add the condition to our example that the saved mother just “doesn’t mind about the death of her child”, especially if she is a pro-life. Saving the child would mean indeed avoiding the greatest pain overall.

However, I don’t think that a pro-choice can truly reason this way. The mother is the source of the final judgment about aborting and the possibility that she dies potentially jeopardizes her authority over the matter. What comes first? The words of the woman or the woman herself? Her choice or her being a choice-maker?

I take this to be a paradox, for respecting the choice means in this case, opting for the death of the choice-maker, hence we can go back and question the validity of the choice in the first place.

My present intuition might probably be wrong, but I think that in such a case the woman as a choice-maker shall be given priority as a full-blown person, capable of intersubjective and linguistic interactions.

If the death of her child is not annihilating her as a person afterwards, she can find a meaning to it with her subsequent pain, with her aversion to how things have gone and potentially by making out of her even a stronger defender of the pro-life movement.

If, on the other hand, she falls in irreversible depression or she kills herself afterwards, the decision to save her will have proven to be a failure.

An easy objection to the view I have just presented is to argue that the once-grown-up-child would just as well make sense of the death of his mother. Actually, he will give it a heroic meaning: his mother has sacrificed her life for him to exist. Isn’t that another very good reason to opt for the death of the mother?

I don’t have a convincing answer to this objection. I just think that meaning can’t be as arbitrary as that. I don’t believe that there is anything heroic in saving the life of something that is not yet capable of minimal intersubjective interactions – apart from vegetative ones, nor that giving birth is such a mystic event.

The mother would die for a huge question mark, not for anyone in particular. She doesn’t have any clue about what kind of human being she is going to give birth to. And love isn’t as easy as loving an unborn: you truly love someone only when you come to appreciate the independence of a person from your ideas and expectations about him.

The more I talk, the less I am convinced. Better leave these questions for further speculations…

Forever yours,

‘Miasha

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Correctness

Dear Princess ‘Ishka,

Potentially, every time we say something, there is a risk to hurt someone else’s feelings or to discriminate certain people. This is the trivial sense of “taking a risk to discriminate” and, of course, if we were to take it seriously, we couldn’t say a word anymore.

There is another sense, however, which is the one of consciously foreseeing the discriminatory effects of what we are saying and say it none the less. This is immoral. And immoral is also avoiding to excuse oneself, once one is shown the discriminatory effects of her utterances.

Political correctness has developed in western, modern, multicultural societies as a method of talking and thinking in such a way as to avoid, insofar as it is possible, immoral discrimination of disadvantaged members of a society. An excess of political correctness could mean being self-righteous and be unsustainable, because it might lead to improper censorship.

Since more than one person has accused me of unsustainable political correctness, I owe them an explanation. I need to address two related features of the problem: the first is political correctness taken as a form of “moral censorship” about certain everyday life, linguistic or artistic freedoms; the second is the risk of adopting the stance of a moral police officer.

Flat-out censorship is never the most efficacious method to contrast discriminatory ideologies. I do believe in the importance of dialogue about what is right and wrong, and in the possibility for fallible creatures like ourselves of making forgivable mistakes.

This said, my political correctness doesn’t yet allow me to appreciate a racist or a homophobic joke. Indeed, certain kinds of satire have an oppressive flavor: they attack the vulnerable and implicitly defend the powerful. And each time you laugh, you strengthen inequality and oppression.

We won’t stop laughing then, because something gets censored. We stop laughing when we start thinking, and our thoughts will help us next time to distinguish funny jokes from discriminatory ones, and to laugh accordingly. Moreover, in an evolving society, what was strange and “abnormal” in the past, can suddenly turn out to be common in the present, and related jokes will thus stop being funny “just for that”.

In a previous letter, I have already addressed the topic of misconduct of artists. In this case, all I shall underline is that nothing in the production of art provides artists with any “moral pass”. Art can’t be judged in moral terms, just as moral subjects can’t be judged in artistic terms. Art is judged with artistic criteria, whereas an artist’s moral conduct with moral criteria. In the case of discriminatory lyrics, for instance, we might adopt artistic criteria but, among them, we shall also consider the originality of the message and its meaning. Given my recent definition of art, we might even question whether those lyrics can’t be better defined as a discriminatory regurgitation, rather than art.

Now I skip to the second accusation, that of endorsing some sort of Orwellian moral police, if not being myself a moral police officer. Here I must distance myself from a common phenomenon of political correctness. What I really don’t like about this phenomenon is its Manicheism, its seeing everything as either black or white, its dividing the world in bad guys and good guys, in police officers and criminals.

We can’t a priori rule out the possibility of victims to be themselves oppressors and we can’t deem oppressors as monsters. That would be too easy: monsters don’t have the chance to be otherwise. Human beings are much more complicated creatures. They often act upon certain motives and they have reasons for acting. They have a history and they are culturally shaped. They deserve blame sometimes. Sometimes they perpetrate unforgivable evils. But always as human beings, never as monsters.

This means that we can never judge an individual life as if we could see through every relevant decision leading to an evil action. All we can do is just to try to analyze the action itself, its motivational background and attempt to construct a model for making the action morally intelligible. I really can’t see how this approach might count as “moral police”.

Talking about monsters in a politically correct fashion is a terrible mistake: we risk to ascribe very human vices to non-human entities. De-humanizing vices leads to extreme dangers: we tend to be too indulgent with ourselves and too fatalist with monsters. We tend to forget the evil in ourselves, because “at least we are not monsters”.

No one is. Not even the filthiest genocidal criminal. We all are fallible human beings, and we fail whenever we are given the chance to reconsider our conduct, and we laugh or appeal to specious artistic license or else instead of thinking.

Forever yours,

‘Miasha

Hijab

Dear Princess ‘Ishka,

The hijab is the veil typically worn by women belonging to the Islamic culture. There are many ways of understanding it: for some people it is just an item of clothing, for others it has a deep religious meaning. For certain women it is an obnoxious imposition, for others it represents the free vindication of Islamic identity in islamophobic contexts.

In this letter I would like to address the feminist interpretation of hijab. The position I am going to defend is that the hijab can’t be considered a feminist symbol with respect to the western conception of feminism. This doesn’t mean that feminism and hijab-culture are incompatible. I think indeed that quite the contrary is the case. Still, I believe that people interpreting the role of hijab as quintessentially feminist are mistaken, and I’ll try to show why.

Attending a course on cultural anthropology some years ago, I learned about the following phenomenon: certain women belonging to the Islamic culture intentionally wear hijab as a symbol of emancipation. The reason why they do so, is that they don’t want to be seen by men as sexual objects, but rather want to be valued for their intelligence, personality and willpower. In this sense, hijab assumes the meaning of “protection” against the lustful gazes of men.

Although I strongly appreciate the efforts of these women to tackle their chauvinist societies, and I believe that individual choices are best seen by individuals in their practical contexts rather than by outside observers, I think that this meaning, theoretically understood, can’t be straightforwardly called feminist.

The reason is that feminism attempts to become a general theory of society and not a code of advices about how women should best behave. Feminism tries to talk to and about everyone: from children to adults, from women to men. This means that, even if hijab can work as a practical help in certain circumstances, and a symbol of female emancipation, it is far from being straightforwardly feminist. Feminism would require men to stop objectifying women in the first place, so that women are free to wear hijab at their will, and not because otherwise they would be objectified. To put it differently, feminist theory can’t come to terms with chauvinist blackmailing.

Another reason not to accept this meaning of hijab as feminist is the central role of the human body in western feminism. Women have fought under the motto “my body, my choice”, which is a vindication of the woman to be the ultimate judge about how she administers her body. In the above mentioned case, women are covering their bodies not because of a positive conception of it, but as a response to the objectification of men. They strive to be considered as thinkers, but in this struggle they set aside that they are also sensitive beings, sexual beings and material beings. Again: their efforts might be even necessary, given their conditions, but their sensible practical decisions can’t be theoretically understood as straightforwardly feminist.

Another example of the attempt to link hijab to feminism is less demanding. Certain women defend the claim that wearing hijab symbolizes the feminist freedom of women to wear what they want – especially in western societies. But from this claim they usually go as far as concluding that hijab (and their conception of Islam) is feminist. In my opinion, this is a confusion about a priority of meanings: the fact that feminism allows you to wear what you want, doesn’t yet entail that what you want to wear has a feminist meaning. A hijab remains often related to the Islamic culture, and all that feminism does is letting women intentionally adhere to it. From a feminist perspective, feminism must be prior to the meanings of hijab, otherwise we risk to say that, for instance, religious codes of behavior are feminist, which would be utterly ridiculous.

Western, modern feminism is compatible with Islamic culture insofar as it stands for the emancipation and empowerment of women of every culture. On the other hand, it clashes with Islamic and other cultures, whenever they oppress women and force on them their symbols of oppression. These symbols can be reinterpreted and can even be helpful in constituting one’s personal identity at different levels and with different meanings. But to forget that feminism is the condition for this to happen rather than religion or something else, is to step away from feminism and to take a step closer to connivance with the status quo of a world still extensively ruled by men.

Forever yours,

‘Miasha

Rational-Nazi

Dear Princess ‘Ishka,

Sometimes I have the impression that it is easy to misunderstand the nature of what I call “principles”. Some friends have expressed the worry that the moral, rational and scientific principles I talk about might be too dogmatic. Months ago, after earning the infamous title of “rational-Nazi”, I realized that clarification was needed. Foremost, I was in the need of a little rehab from my “psychological rationalism”, which I have hopefully reduced to livable standards by now.

But the worry remains: how can we understand those principles, which I take to be so important to navigate the insecure waters of our relativistic era, where it seems that climate change can be legitimately held as a “Chinese hoax”, where liberal societies are confronted with the paradox of non-ironic Nazi talks at universities, and where science is held either religiously as a Bible or an opinion among that of the local priest, of tabloid journalists or of your neighbor Joe, who never misses a chance to warn you about the next alien invasion?

Unfortunately, I don’t have the space to explore extensively the implications of my intuitions, so let me just sketch the broad meaning of my “principles”. In few words, principles are parameters framing debates concerning morality, science and topics whose discussion generally requires rationality. Those parameters are constructed through continuous dialogue but, once established, they constrain further discussions in a normative way. In other words, they are always negotiable at a certain level of discussion, that of discussing the best method or the best framework to talk about a certain phenomenon. However, once they have been established, they stop being negotiable in further discussions, and deviance from them is fallacious. The conditions of agreement are given by mutual understanding, mutual recognition of rationality, mutual recognition of sincere intents and probably something else I have not yet figured out.

To put it simple: principles are an outcome of constant dialogue and, in turn, they constrain further dialogues. This does not mean that everyone can question principles at any time. For instance, principles of science are outcomes of dialogues within the scientific community, and can’t take into account, say, inconsistent monologues of bizarre White House’s tenants.

My idea of principles remains very sketchy, but I hope that, at least in this context, it will save me from the direct accusation of dogmatism, given the importance I concede to its dialogical component.

And here we come to today’s topic: Are there cases in which the possibility of dialogue is undermined by the very nature of the topic of the dialogue? Or are there topics which can’t be talked about for their very content? It might sound dogmatic (actually authoritarian), but I think the answer is yes.

Take for instance the following questions: “Are women less intelligent than men?”; “Is homosexuality based on a moral perversion?”; “Are Muslims worthy of respect?”; “Do white people constitute a superior race?”. Consider the first question concerning women. In a dialogue involving a woman, it seems that her ability to discuss at the same level as men is put at stake. Therefore, the validity of the dialogue itself is put at stake. Even if the answer were “no, there is no a priori difference in intelligence”, the dialogue would be based on the suspension of the recognition of the woman’s capacity to argue for a position or another (at least, not at a man’s level).

The same can be said with respect to the questions that follow. If a lesbian were to argue about the possibility of homosexuality being a perverted moral choice, her ability to judge might be deemed as unreliable for a “conflict of interests”. That is, it seems that she would have an interest in defending a position rather than another and her appeal to the evidence of her subjective experience would be unreliable. Even if she were taken as reliable-no-matter-what, given the possibility of a positive answer to the not-yet-settled question, there would still be a chance that she is morally perverted, hence that she is not as reliable as her non-homosexual interlocutors. I think it is clear why the questions about Muslims and white people present the same flaws, for similar reasons.

Should we establish taboos to go side by side with principles then? I don’t think so. Instead, I think we should focus on what level of discussion to adopt. There are certain questions, which require dialogues about the validity of the questions themselves. I think I have shown that some of those questions don’t stand scrutiny. We see how absurd they are and how absurd it would be to engage in debates concerning them.

I don’t know if this way of thinking can be still considered a sort of “rational-Nazism” (term that I abhor). But, if so, I would still by far prefer rational-Nazis to talk at universities, rather than actual Nazis.

Forever yours,

‘Miasha

Pain

Dear Princess ‘Ishka,

One day in springtime, as I was sitting in the urban train heading to Praterstern, I overheard a brief conversation between an Austrian mother and her child. She said something like “don’t do that, or you might get hurt” and he promptly replied “Männer haben keinen Schmerz, nur Frauen”, which means “men feel no pain, only women do”. The readiness of that answer caught my attention and I  wrote it down on my smartphone, right before getting out of the train.

We are not here to put on trial the innocent words of that child, are we? Right, but the message that child has given is the one he has been educated with, namely that men feel no pain, whereas women do. Taken literally, this statement is clearly wrong, independently of that child’s imaginary about men and women. But sometimes, messages aren’t to be taken as statements about the world. Sometimes, messages have an active part in shaping the world.

An education based on messages such as “men feel no pain”, will induce in children the idea that, in case they do feel pain, something is wrong with them. Afterwards, they either start doubting the truth of the statement, or they adapt to it, either hiding the pain, or repressing it. Children, however, usually lack the ability to critically question the teachings they receive, and many adults too. As a consequence, it is by far more probable that they will “stop feeling pain”.

Think about it. How many of such messages do children receive on a daily base? “Men do not cry”, “men do not complain”, “men do not show weakness”, “men do not talk much”, “men protect”, “men own”, “men are powerful”, “men ought to make the first move”, “men are easy going”, “men are uncomplicated”, “it is acceptable that men be slapped by their girlfriends”, “men have uncontrollable drives”, “men are rational”, “men are violent”, “men obtain what they want”, “men ought not to be feminine”, “men drink beer, not cocktails”, “men ought to pay for their partners”, etc.  Now, change the word “men” with “women”, negate every sentence, and you will obtain a whole set of “teachings” about women.

Many find such talks outdated, and not reflecting the contemporary reality. Still, the episode I reported took place few months ago. I still see wolfpacks of loud men, shouting at girls, hiding their lack of individual identity in the strength of the group. I see the effects of the hashtag-campaign “me too”, launched by Alyssa Milano after the Weinstein’s scandal, to spread awareness on the extension of the phenomenon of sexual abuses on women. Two simple words, no long feminist talks. But when I see them on the social profiles of friends of mine, my heart cracks.

I have heard people criticizing feminism for being the movement of prevarication of women over men. Those people call themselves “egalitarians”, for they do believe in equality of men and women. And forget about the actual status of the societies we live in.

When talking about racism in a previous letter (here), I said that it was impossible to claim that you are not racist, if you have been raised in a racist society. Racism shapes your mental asset to the point that even your perception of reality becomes racialized. You don’t see people “equally”, you very often see races. The only thing you can do is to be anti-racist.

From this point of view, “feminism” is similar to “anti-racism”. If you have been raised in a society where sexual harassment is often called “compliment”, where men don’t feel pain, where wolfpacks shout at girls and “men drink beer, not cocktails”, there is no way for you to be an egalitarian. That’s a lie. You MUST be feminist, and fight the oppressive system women AND men are still caged by. Otherwise you are an accessory of that system.

Many modern feminist campaigns invite men to take part in the endeavor of dismantling the oppressive gendered structures our lives are still constrained by. “HeForShe” is one of such campaigns that gained great visibility thanks to Emma Watson, among others. I praise the merits of these proposals, but I also think that a new wave of feminism should specifically focus on men. Target them. Help them. Make them find the strength they are constantly deprived by their gender role, which is at the same time their privilege and prison. We need a whole society “ForHim”, because “Männer haben Schmerz, genauso wie Frauen”. But who is stronger between those who hide their pain and inadequacy and those who have the courage to write „me too“?

Forever yours,

‘Miasha

Relativism

Dear Princess ‘Ishka,

In the last letter of mine, I talked about relativism. I gave it an overall negative connotation, but relativism needn’t be negative. Depending on certain perspectives, relativism can even turn out to be a medicine against prejudice. I hope now to shed more light on my ideas.20161031_112138

Consider the picture of the Tower Bridge I took in London some months ago. Despite my skills in handling cameras are those of a three years old dealing with a bazooka, I wanted to capture an interesting angle of the architecture, like most mainstream tourists pretend to do. The result is as meagre as expected, but luckily cameras are less dangerous than bazookas.

You might be asking: what on earth has this to do with “relativism”? Well, at first I didn’t notice it, because the tower was stealing the scene. But have a look down, at the couple who casually got photographed. They are women, non-white, without any man to accompany them. Look at their clothes. Nothing uncommon, would you say? Right! It is “normal”, something which was unthinkable – to say the least – less than a century ago and still is nowadays in some parts of this planet. This unsophisticated “normality” was acquired thanks to feminist fights and the strong belief in non-negotiable principles.

London is a very good example to talk about the two sides of relativism. On the one hand, a melting pot of cultures and subcultures in never ending evolution, where the mantra of diversity jeopardises any attempt of unitary definition. On the other hand, a city forged by great philosophical intuitions, and by battles for what is right, currently culminating in the election of a Muslim mayor. This is no blind praise for a city having one of the darkest histories ever and being the symbol of capitalism and savage globalisation. In this context, it just offers a good example.

There is cultural relativism, consisting in the value of dynamic cultures, and there is relativism of opinions on moral, scientific and other theoretical principles. The former is healthy, the latter is not. You may object that I put it too easily, that universal theoretical principles are chimeras, if we are to face the variety of mankind. You would have a point, but I still think that the possibility of intercultural understanding must be based on common grounds, however constrained by our human limits. As far as I can see, relativism on those grounds makes diversity unintelligible, therefore spreading ignorance, legitimating hate speech and building walls.

Forever yours,

‘Miasha