Credibility

Dear Princess ‘Ishka,

2017 has been a year of revelations. One of the things that has struck me the most has been my reticence to believe victims. Why was I so suspicious when the words of the witnesses of the Chechnya gay purge started being reported in April by Novaya Gazeta and later confirmed by The Guardian? Why was it so hard to acknowledge the ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya minority in Myanmar, as there was evidence it started at least in February, under the eyes of Nobel peace prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi? Why couldn’t I believe at first the allegations of actresses against Harvey Weinstein in October, which led to an unprecedented upheaval of allegations against sexual abusers in the heart of the liberal and politically correct Hollywood?

These three apparently disconnected happenings, have something in common: they concern victims talking and an audience listening. In one word, they are about the credibility of testimony.

Many philosophers have wondered how can we ascribe credibility to testimony. This is not the question of my current concern. I will rather focus on a psychological question. We don’t want to believe everything that the news report but, at the same time, we ought to believe things that, other things being equal for us, are based on sufficient evidence from our point of view. The question is then the following: how, despite enough evidence obtains, we remain sometimes skeptical about the truthfulness of testimony? To put it differently: why, in the face of evidence, we still find it hard to believe actresses denouncing their harassers, to trust reports on the Rohingya diaspora, or to concede credibility to victims of systematic deportation, detention, torture and assassination of male homosexuals in Chechnya?

Here it seems that my three examples diverge significantly. Indeed, it seems that what was hard to believe in one case was different in another. In the case of the Muslim minority of the Rohingya, for instance, it was the silence of a (not-anymore-?) champion of human rights such as Aung San Suu Kyi to hold me from accepting the accusation of ethnic cleansing. Actresses reporting Weinstein were easier for me to believe, but the delicate enterprise of understanding harassment and the worry of focusing too much on mediatic scapegoats prevented me from taking a strong position on the matter, whereas I didn’t treat with the same circumspection friends of mine taking part in the mass-campaign against sexual harassers.

I found the horror of Chechnya particularly unbelievable. How was it possible, in 2017, that concentration camps were still a reality? How could anyone possibly forget the horrors of Nazi-Germany? At first, I took it as an exaggeration. “Perhaps they are ‘just’ oppressed” I said to myself “like it is common practice in many homophobic countries, but the allegations are way too dramatic for my understanding”.

Chechnya is defined an “ultra-conservative” country of the Russian Federation, with a  certain degree of independence, which means that the federal law goes hand in hand with the local Islamic beliefs. It was when the political and religious head of state, Ramzan Kadyrov, declared that there were no homosexuals in his country that I started looking deeper in the related articles. And my trust in the victims’ reports is now beyond my personal ability to doubt.

So what was the nourishment of my skepticism? The strength of my former beliefs? The complexity of a scandal? The extraordinary nature of a terrible event? All of them, for sure, but there is something more.

What links the three kinds of skepticism is, in my opinion, the fact that we tell ourselves stories about reality to make it more easily intelligible. These narratives we construct attempt to be as rational as possible. We ascribe motivations and plans to the characters populating our world, and causal chains to events that shape our reality.

Sometimes, this way of “rationalizing reality” is improper. Sometimes we fail because we have been blindly worshipping a hero, who was after all a human being – we forgot that all heroes are. We have confused a simple ideal with a much more complicated individual life. Sometimes we prefer to focus on the conspiracy, rather than on the burden of accusing someone of sexual abuse, as if the abuse itself wasn’t enough of a burden already. Sometimes, our world must be just more rational, more secular, less oblivious than what it is. And when we discover its filth, we are overwhelmed by anxiety and we unconsciously stick with all our mental strength to our clear and rational (and wrong) depictions.

2017 has been a year of revelations. I am especially grateful for those which took place within myself.

Forever yours,

‘Miasha

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Misconduct

Dear Princess ‘Ishka,

There are at least two reasons why I don’t talk often about art. The first is that I have never had a true interest in the discipline of aesthetics, and that makes me even less of an expert than what I am on an average with respect to other topics. The second is that I love to contemplate art with my poor knowledge of art history, rather than necessarily try to find a meaning to it. Still, as you have probably by now noticed, I like to explore the paradoxical nature of certain phenomena and, in this sense, “art” offers me the perfect field for today’s little inquiry.

In particular, I will focus on the following question: Should we enjoy the work of an artist, even if we know she is a horrible person?

Few months ago, after the Weinstein’s scandal, the wildfire of allegations for sexual harassment and violence has been spreading and has reached many men in powerful positions. Probably, the most rumored of the “targets” of such allegations has been the actor Kevin Spacey. Many people consider him an extraordinary good actor, and his exclusion from House of Cards’ last season – the tv series of which he has played the leading character so far, has caused outrage.

According to the allegations, Spacey has been involved in several cases of moral misconduct. If this picture is correct, we might conclude that Spacey has been an extraordinary good actor over a considerable amount of time, while being a sexual harasser. Our dilemma is ready: are we justified in enjoining his movies, if we believe that he has been a sexual harasser?

Apart from watching a couple of episodes of House of Cards almost a year ago – without understanding much of what was going on, I really don’t have any knowledge of the actor’s ability – I can’t judge actors in general, for the record. To put myself in Spacey’s fans shoes, I will refer to an example, which has been more familiar to me, but still presents the same dilemma.

In 2009, the singer Chris Brown was taken to trial with the accusation of domestic violence against his girlfriend at the time Rihanna. When the photos of Rihanna’s bruises were released, my repulsion for Chris Brown mounted to the point that I couldn’t hear or read his name anymore. Every time I could recognize even the least of his background vocals at the radio, I automatically changed station. Chris Brown was to me a dead man.

Was I justified not to listen to a singer, who is considered by who-knows-how-many-people a music genius, just because he beat up to death another human being, insofar as she is a woman?

There are two perspectives, which we should consider when confronted with such cases. The first is the historical one. According to the historical perspective, the events in a person’s life are a sequence of interlocked facts. A person is the direct and indirect cause of her doings and can be directly or indirectly influenced by external happenings in being what she is.

This perspective is just descriptive of a person’s psychology and history, but it doesn’t allow to ascribe justification. It is impossible to say that “because she is aggressive-genial-depressed-…, she is justified in doing immoral/artistic things”. The historical perspective simply links events: person X is depressed and depression is linked to her doing immoral and/or artistic things, for instance. This doesn’t mean X is justified in doing those things.

The second perspective is the evaluative one. From this point of view, we have the faculty to “stop time” and judge. We stop time at the moment when Chris Brown is singing and we judge his performance as an extraordinary one. We stop time at the moment where he raises his hands over his girlfriend and we judge his action as loathsome.

For this time, I must surrender to skepticism. Chris Brown, Kevin Spacey, Caravaggio, Woody Allen, etc. are unified human beings, hence we can’t detach the two perspectives or separate our feelings for them insofar as they are artists rather than immoral individuals. We shouldn’t endorse the activity of a horrible person but, at the same time, we can’t deny that that horrible person has done very valuable things.

However, there is something that differentiates Caravaggio from the other men I’ve mentioned. Caravaggio died a murderer in 1610. And he belongs without doubt to the most restricted club of the greatest painters ever. It is the time that has passed that allows us to adopt the historical perspective and detach the evaluative ones from one another. That is, if ever there is a value to the other above mentioned men, only future history will tell. And future history will do justice to their triumphs as well as their baseness. Or will just forget.

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