mercy full

I see my eye

reflected in the surface

cloudy

of warm coffee

eyes distorted but

gaze unwavering

your knuckles are

dry and cracked

as they cup smooth

porcelain;

victims of your uncertainty

its too sweet. But

you don’t know

me like that yet so

i forgive you

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Capitalism Series #2: Sex and gender

One of the most pressing and publicized ‘difference’-related injustices – we’ll get to that in a minute – is clearly that of sex and the ways in which male and female identities function in modern day consumer capitalism. It should be noted here, however, that the topic is so vast that of course, I must make generalizations based on patterns rather than specific instances to the contrary which are likely to be the minority of cases. As mentioned earlier, my frame of reference will be that of “‘difference’-related injustices” by which I mean not that women, people of colour, LGBTQ people, disabled people are inherently ‘different’ but rather to refer to groups who are outside the capitalist supremacy, namely that of white cis-bodied straight able males.

So, let’s dive in with one of the most widely publicized issues on the matter, that of the gender pay gap. Interestingly, in Western countries like the UK and the US, there remains a wide disparity in the overall earnings of men and women, despite their salaries, on the whole, being an equal rate of pay. Generally speaking, men and women are paid the same base rate for the same position at the same company. So if men and women are paid the same, surely there’s no problem? I wish, but it’s not quite that straightforward. Though salary is crucial in ensuring that males and females achieve financial parity, social factors play a huge role in determining one’s life earnings.

The infographic above picks out and highlights key social factors what lead to women being paid less on the whole than their male counterparts.

To really get to the bottom of the issue, we must examine how and what a woman is conceived as and how this might affect her behaviour. As Simone de Beauvoir famously put it in The Second Sex: “One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman”. To this day, women conform to traditionally ‘female’ roles which often have a nurturing or passive aspect to them, perhaps accounting for why woman are overrepresented in ‘caring’ professions. Though of course women are not subject to the same kind of pressure as of the past where childbearing was an inevitability, there remains an unspoken assumption that this is the past that most women will take. Typically, men advance within their careers not because they are generally more capable, but because women take more time out from work to balance a home life and a career. More part-time jobs are taken up by women as well as time off for maternity leave and childcare. What initially seemed like a simple problem is evidently more complex than it first appears.

So, who or what is to blame? Is it rich, sexist business executives who’d rather not have to work alongside anyone not wearing a tailored suit and tie? Is it the government’s fault for not putting in place adequate measures to support working women? Annoyingly, there is no simple answer. Rather than looking for a specific party to blame, someone or something with a face, it might be worth taking aim of the structure of society itself. Capitalism engenders competition, creating and maintaining antagonistic relationships. In this particular scenario, women (with notable exceptions) are the losers in this game.

Much has been said recently too about the media’s role in the construction of gender and the implications for sexual and gender identity. As cliched as the example is, I will be bringing in the example of gender-oriented marketing targeted at young children, usually through thematic advertising or colour coding. Pink is for girls and blue is for boys. A National Geographic article references the work of sociologist Elizabeth Sweet from the university of California, who has written about how the marketing of toys – previously heavily gendered – became more neutral with the rise of second-wave feminism. The tides were turned, however, with the 1980s where marketers saw an opportunity with ultrasound technology whereby parents were able to tell the sex of their child before birth. With the turn of the 21st century, this trend has only become more pronounced.

Crucially mentioned is the effect on the psychology of the child as they grow to adulthood. Toys that encourage “spatial thinking”, according to a 2012 report by Susan Levine, are both those that are generally marketed to boys and those that are important for “executive function” or “higher level thinking”, Levine using this evidence to explain for the “underrepresentation of women in science and tech”. This, however, is only on example of how capitalism manipulates the concept of gender to achieve the greatest prophet at the cost of its consumers. Boys fare no better than girls in this matter, for when young men feel as though they must rigidly conform of one definition of what it means to be a man, they inevitably suffer. The traits that corporations deem ‘masculine’, such as independence, strength, competitiveness and being emotionally distant are clearly not conducive to happiness when their implications are taken at face value. Neither are those deemed to be ‘feminine’, such as obedience, passivity and being overly-emotional.

Image result for perfume for him and her ad
Guilty: two perfumes, two people, two very different associations

 

Admittedly, the issue of gender identity and the myriad biological and cultural factors that contribute to it is vast and I wholeheartedly accept that I am making sweeping statements that will not apply in many cases. To be sure, I am out of my depth. For many of us, however, this is an important way of analyzing how we’ve processed the social and cultural signals sent our way over our lifetimes and of how we’ve understood and internalized them. On the whole, being gendered in this way does not make us happy. Capitalism is one factor contributing to these gender norms. Capitalism does not and will not make us happy.

Capitalism Series #1 – Introduction

Sitting at the bottom of my closet now are 6 pairs of near-identical white trainers, albeit second-hand. Every time I open the door and happen to see them, I’m transported back to Paris this August just passed, to a street right in the centre overlooking the famous Seine where the picturesque and elegantly decaying buildings housed the likes of Prada. Gucci and Chanel, some of the most well-known and sought-after fashion brands. Even at 9am there was a lot of foot traffic – primarily tourists – who would glance and stare at the windows as they passed. There were few people actually in the shops. I reached a corner and was about to turn when the shoe display of one such store caught my eye (surprise, surprise) and what I saw caught me right off guard. There, behind the glass, were four pairs of designer white trainers lined up in a row with three digit price tags, pristine white except for the strategically placed artificial scuff and dirt marks on their surface. Really. The people who could afford such shoes i.e. the rich were willing to pay several hundred euros for shoes that looked already worn. God forbid they actually just go on eBay and buy a pre-loved pair for €5. No, instead people are willing to pay to get the clout that comes with designer brands but also the appearance of being relaxed, a person not overly preoccupied by fashion or their appearance. Ha.

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Capitalism itself is based on an ideology, namely that the more work one puts in, the more benefits they reap. It’s been a while since Adam Smith wrote of the “invisible hand” that guides the market and we’re still recovering from that post-WWII slap in the face.We say that so-and-so is ‘self-made’, that anyone from any walk of life can change their circumstances and go from rags to riches provided that they’re willing to work and sacrifice for it. In short, the capitalist system is founded on the illusion that we live in a meritocratic society, an illusion that actually favours those born into privilege and hurts those who aren’t. In truth, we do not live in a world where one’s hard work pays off; the individual must first overcome any number of social and psychological barriers that make such a transformation near impossible.

Benjamin is born at St Mary’s Hospital in London at 03:06 to parents Lucy and Richard. Manawa is born on the same ward 27 minutes later to parents Maia and Ari. Though they live in the same borough they go to different schools, Benjamin attending a private academy while Manawa goes to the good local state school. Benjamin receives extra tuition and is taught by academics who are famous in their field. Manawa achieves top grades in school thanks to her natural intellect and drive to succeed, even though she misses lesson time when she is on her period or if her teachers go on strike, which happens three times in her schooling career. Benjamin achieves todes at A-level and Lucy and Richard are both proud and relieved that their time and means allowed their child to achieve academic success. Manawa also achieves top grades for which she is grateful to her parents and school for the support they were able to give her through a difficult though formative time. Benjamin applies and is accepted to a Russel Group university where he studies comfortably throughout his degree. He goes out with his friends a couple of nights a week and though his grades aren’t perfect he likes that he’s been able to juggle school and a social life. He mainly relies on his maintenance loan to live day-to-day, though his parents pay is annual rent and occasionally pay for his shopping. Manawa also receives a place at a Russel Group university. With her parents unable to subsidize her living costs, Manawa must work a part-time job on the side to compensate for the living costs her loan doesn’t cover. She rarely socializes and sometimes struggles to study as she fairly regularly experiences burn-out. While Benjamin identifies with many of his fellow classmates and the major names studied on his course, Manawa –  though she has friends – feels a distinct sense of isolation. She studies few women on her course, let alone women who are not white. In later life, Manawa finds it more difficult to get a job as employers are put off by the name on her CV. Benjamin is easily and warmly accepted into the fold. Both Benjamin and Manawa marry and have children, however childcare is so expensive that Manawa must take time off work and subsequently is not put up for the promotion she was hoping for while Benjamin’s earning potential continues to grow.

I could go on, but it’s easy to see how we do not live in a society that rewards merit above all else, that in fact circumstance, sex, gender, race, sexual orientation, religion and class are all key determinant factors in how our lives play out. That’s why I’ve decided to begin a short series on capitalism and its intersections. I want to explore the differing ways in which our social model responds to or neglects the needs of the people as the social, economical and political are all intricately woven into the fabric of modern society.

The Records of a Travel Worn Satchel: on the road to Japan

In a few days time, I will be in Japan. For as long as I can remember, I have always wanted to go to this country imbued with thousands of years of rich cultural history, my curiosity fed by Japanese authors such as Yusunari Kawabata, Haruki Murakami, Kenzaburo Oe and Yukio Mishima. The artist to really capture my heart, however, was Matsuo Basho, the 17th century Zen poet known for his beautifully simple and poignant haiku poems.

In his youth, Matsuo Basho was a servant to the wealthy Tōdō Yoshitada a participant in haikai no renga, where a group of poets would alternately compose short verses which made up part of a larger, collaborative composition. Having been exposed to poetry from a young age, Basho continued the art even after his master’s death,gradually gaining recognition in intellectual circles for his technical skill and poetic talent. For a time he lived an urban life in Ueno (modern-day Tokyo) but despite his popularity, Basho favored a reclusive one spent in nature rather than the bustle and chaos of city life, settling himself in Fukagawa. Throughout his lifetime, he amassed many zealous disciples who he taught and instructed, some of whom even built a house for him and planted a banana tree outside. So taken with the new tree, the poet took its name (芭蕉 bashō) to be his new haigo or pen name.

basho

Basho travelled extensively and often used what he saw as inspiration for his artistic work, best exemplified in his famous The Narrow Road to the Deep North and Travel Sketches. In it, he traces the journey where he walked all around rural Japan, covering around 1,500 miles over 156 days. In my 15 year old mind, Basho was the 17th century ascetic equivalent of Jack Kerouac. At one point on his travels, Basho stays overnight in the Ryushakuji temple of Yamagata famous for “the absolute tranquility of its holy compound”. During his stay, he is taken by its beauty, writing of how

The stony ground itself bore the colour of eternity, paved with velvety moss. The doors of the shrines built on the rocks were firmly barred and there was not a sound to be heard. As I moved on all fours from rock to rock, bowing reverently at each shrine, I felt the purifying power of this holy environment pervading my whole being.

In the utter silence
Of a temple,
A cicada’s voice alone
Penetrates the rocks.

In his other Travel Sketches including The Records of a Weather-Exposed Skeleton and The Records of a Travel-Worn Satchel, he similarly captures the beauty and simplicity of his environment and immersion in it. He is able to witness the passing of the seasons as well as the everyday lives of ordinary Japanese people around the country, clear in his observation of the people of Ueno, Tokyo.

At sunrise I saw
Tanned faces of fisherman
Among the flowers
Of white poppy.

The author and academic Nobuyuki Yuasa asserts that through his travels,

“Basho had been casting away his earthly attachments, one by one, in the years preceding the journey, and now he had nothing else to cast away but his own self which was in him as well as around him. He had to cast this self away, for otherwise he would not be able to restore his true identity (what he calls ‘the everlasting self which is poetry’)…) He saw a tenuous chance of achieving his final goal in travelling, and he left his house ‘caring naught for his provisions in the state of sheer ecstasy’.

Haiku are traditionally structured around two scenes that are then juxtaposed or brought together, allowing for a degree of ambiguity and an irresistible lightness, so included is a miscellaneous selection of some of my favorite of Basho’s poems as their sheer beauty and simplicity speaks for itself:

Spring’s exodus –
birds shriek,
fish eyes blink tears

Draining the sake
cask – behold,
a gallon flower-vase

Wake, butterfly –
it’s late, we’ve miles
to go together

Come, let’s go
snow-viewing
till we’re buried

Girl cat, so
thin on love
and barley

 

The Importance Of…battling burnout

Today, we live in a burnout culture. I have mentioned this phenomenon before in previous posts and no wonder, because it is has such a pervasive, damaging effect on how we work and live our lives in the 21st century. This ‘burnout’ may manifest itself in different ways i.e. stress, fatigue or anxiety, though what is clear is that the primary offender is often one’s work life.

When trying to juggle and manage a demanding schedule and unrelenting work commitments, the first sacrifice to be made is almost always sleep. The clinical psychologist Vicki Culpin writes in The Business of Sleep that we are currently suffering from a “sleep epidemic”; Denis Campbell draws attention to the findings of The National Sleep Foundation in an article for The Guardian, which indicates that 16% of adults in the UK sleep for less that 6 hours a night. Inevitably, people often turn to artificial stimulants to compensate for the consequences of a lack of sleep with energy drinks, strong coffee and even caffeine tablets presenting themselves as a way to continue to function throughout the working day. Never mind leisure time, any spare moment throughout the week or even the weekend is precious and to be used to catch up on all things that pile up outside of work, such as doctors appointments, laundry, shopping or cleaning. When one has an unhealthy work/life balance, all other areas of life become marginalized so that life has little purpose outside an office cubicle.

It is abundantly clear that this emphasis on overwork and the idea that salary and career should come first has a hugely detrimental impact on the psyche of workers and society as a whole. A recent study shows that when people feel a degree of power after, say, after a promotion or a salary increase, they are less likely to be empathetic towards others – in indication that the philosophy our work culture is based on favors an unhealthy breed of individualism over collective social well being. Christopher Harvey’s article for GQ calls attention to the urgency and gravity of the issue, hilighting that

Half of all employees do not feel their workplace is an emotionally healthy environment, with 55 per cent of organisations having no formal strategy for handling employee wellbeing. Absenteeism increased 25 per cent over the course of the past year in the UK, highlighting that burnout is set to get worse, not better.

Overwork and burnout have become badges of honor that employees wear with pride, many people familiar with the routine smug moaning bragging of their colleagues over how little sleep they’ve had or how many hours overtime they just had to put in the night before. How much one works has morphed into a way to judge others on their work ethic, with colleagues routinely battling it out to be the most assiduous worker, a phenomenon known as “busy bragging”.

Stress_at_Work

Though this might appear to work in the favour of employers, however, it is becoming increasingly clear that work-related stress and sleep deprivation, however dedicated employees may be, leads to a less productive and efficient work force. When companies exert too much pressure on their employees, it becomes harder and harder to retain staff, leading to a high staff turnover. A Forbes article calls attention to the fact that

As many as one million people per day miss work because of stress. Studies suggest that all of this translates into a loss of anywhere from $150 billion to $300 billion annually for U.S. employers. The effects of burnout take a toll not only on individuals, but also on businesses and the economy.

Paradoxically, overwork does not equate to higher levels of productivity but instead only to those of work-related mental and physical health issues such as depression, anxiety and high blood pressure.

Perhaps, to curb the effects of this dangerous trend, we should re-envision what it means to be a working man or woman in 2018. Though it may sound naive and idealistic, this should be the year that we change our workplace culture so that the well being and mental health of employees comes before profit at all costs. In his Nichomachean Ethics, Aristotle sets out how he believes the ideal state should be constituted, happiness the central idea behind a functioning, flourishing society. For Aristotle, all actions have ends though some are subordinate to others, the ultimate end being that of ‘eudaimonia’ or human flourishing, essentially “doing and living well”. Moreover, while individual happiness is of value, it again is subordinate to the happiness and flourishing of a community, a philosophy we would do well to incorporate into our profit-driven modern society. Work is a means to an end – that being the happiness or flourishing of ourselves and our community – rather than an end in itself.

More and more, we are seeing corporate wellness programmes enter the workplace which give staff the opportunity to engage in activities such as mindfulness, yoga and exercise to improve their mental and physical health, though admittedly these are the companies that can afford such expenditure on their staff – often not the case for the majority of businesses. Instead, then, perhaps employers could be encouraged to try to engage with staff more on a personal basis, give them more credit for the work they put in and cease to encourage employees to work until breaking point by removing the individual pressure placed on them. It is becoming abundantly clear that businesses need to start putting people before profit not only because it is the right thing to do but also because a happy, healthy workforce is crucial to a well-functioning economy.