what are you looking at

the blue-tinged bags under

my eyes stare back at me cruelly as

i look in the mirror

they are not romantic

i am not a troubled artist

i am not a sensitive soul

i am just tired

 

and i drink too much coffee

Advertisements

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.

blog cap

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 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.

get up, stand up: how social media is changing the way we campaign

What with the access to audiences of thousands, even millions, of users, social media is in theory the perfect tool for social activists. Anyone can get involved in a campaign with the touch of a button, the only prerequisite being the possession of a smartphone. Where once protest movements were, to a degree, limited in their outreach by distance and means, protest movements can now reach almost anyone, anywhere and at any time. In the past, campaigners relied on public pickets, posting flyers, radio or television interviews – anything that would get them noticed – though they can now take to platforms such as Twitter or Facebook, where a revolution is born in the palm of a hand.

Information can be passed extremely quickly, not only making it much easier to get a movement off the ground but also to then organize and manage it. Sociologists have identified the 4 stages in the life cycle of a protest movement, those being emergence, coalescence, bureaucratization and decline. It is not difficult to make the connection between social media and the first two; thanks to the diversity and scope of such platforms, it is easier than ever to find people with similar views and political motivations with whom one can show solidarity on the streets or online.

A crucial advantage of social media platforms over more traditional campaigning methods is the wide range of different medias they carry. One of the reasons for the success of the American civil rights movement in the 1950s is the rise in popularity of television, allowing many in the North to see footage of the violence of the white authorities as they tried to quell demonstrations in Selma, Alabama and elsewhere. The ability to utilize film or audio carries huge advantages in that it makes a movement more personal and emotionally engaging on a deeper level than mere hearsay. Video or audio recordings act as a kind or proof, much like the civil rights footage; it becomes impossible to dismiss news stories as overblown sensationalism when there was concrete evidence that the police were using water cannons and beating peaceful protesters to the ground. As Martin Luther King Jr. said in a speech, “We will no longer let them use their clubs on us in the dark corners. We’re going to make them do it in the glaring light of television.”

selma
Spider Martin’s Two Minute Warning

If this was the case in the 50s with television, then, it isn’t difficult to imagine the scope we have now in an age where almost everyone carries a smartphone with them and can capture and upload to social media any footage that might aid a protest movement. The video of a Black Lives Matter campaigner who was arrested seemingly without cause while talking police went viral across the Internet. In recent weeks, the debate about gun control laws in the US has been ongoing, the principal young campaigners using their social media accounts as ways to mobilize and engage their support network as well as counter the opposition.

It is worth taking these successes with a pinch of salt, however, as while social media can be an excellent tool, it also has the potential to be a movement’s downfall. Though a cause might initially gain a lot of support, it is so easily lost, many fading into obscurity after a movement has had its ‘moment’. The #Kony2012 campaign that took social media by storm – while in some ways greatly successful – was heavily criticized on a number of counts but notably for fueling, as Kate Dailey for the BBC puts it, “the idea, however misguided, that the social media generation has the opportunity to change the world with the click of a mouse”. It becomes very easy to sink into complacency as the abundance of hashtags and online pledges of support may make it seem like more is being done then it actually is. With social media being such a free, open space, it carries the potential to also hurt a campaign; followers can post whatever they want, potentially to the detriment of the campaign’s reputation. Online bullying and mindless Twitter rants, for example, can hardly be said to cast a movement in a favorable light. As we saw earlier with the 4 stages of a protest movement, poor use of social media could contribute to a decline, social media movements particularly prone to factionalism and internal conflict.

When a movement relies solely on likes, shares, or hashtags it is ultimately at the mercy of social media users and however long their attention span is, making it essential that it goes hand-in-hand with additional action. Matt Collins puts it well in an article for The Guardian, asserting that:

“Selfies and hashtags are unlikely to lead to social change on their own – only real governmental pressure and action can do that. But world governments listen, and act, when enough people speak. Social media is the most shareable, durable and global collection of voices the world has ever seen, one which is increasingly difficult to ignore.”

Social media being a phenomenon that is constantly evolving, it is almost impossible to make predictions with any degree of certainty as to their impact on current events, however they appear to have profoundly affected the stage on which world events play out. Social media can be an incredible tool with the power to make or break the success of any social movement with the caveat, though, that they are used intelligently.

International Women’s Day

The end of 2017 and the beginning of 2018 have undeniably heralded a pivotal moment for the international women’s movement. What with the recent sexual harassment scandals involving key figures such as the American film producer Harvey Weinstein and sports coach to the stars Larry Nassar, the world is gradually waking up to the everyday injustices faced by women. What these high-profile cases demonstrate is that even women in positions where we might consider them to be, to a certain degree, untouchable are affected by the suffocating embrace of a society based on patriarchal values.

In recent months, the world has borne witness to the emergence of popular social media hashtags such as #TimesUp and #MeToo that aim to promote female solidarity in the face of aggressive misogyny, particularly in the workplace where men in positions of power are able to take advantage of their more vulnerable female colleagues. In 2017, hundreds of accusations of sexual harassment and assault were leveled against the film production giant Harvey Weinstein, sending shock waves throughout the Hollywood industry. In sport, Larry Nassar has been accused of sexually assaulting hundreds of female athletes, many of them underage, with more than 265 women testifying to that effect. Even the U.S. president Donald Trump has been branded a misogynist due to his consistently offensive and inflammatory comments about women dating back to the 1980s. Some have compiled them to exhibit them in a way that demonstrates just how alarming his attitude towards the Second Sex actually is and how his hostility towards women goes far beyond his “grab ’em by the pussy” interview, most commonly undermining a woman’s political or professional capability and giving his unsolicited opinions on her appearance.

weinstein.jpg
The alleged victims of film producer Harvey Weinstein

Despite these scandals, however, the women’s movement has undeniably made significant progress, noticeably in the UK and the US among other countries that should not be overlooked. We have reached a key turning point where women’s voices are increasingly being made to matter as the Weinstein case only serves to demonstrate. Where these same victimized women would previously advised to remain silent, they are encouraged to speak up, slowly challenging and dismantling the crippling attitude of the past. Nowadays, there is more of a zero-tolerance policy to unacceptable behavior, crucially manifesting itself in the way that women are able to identify and challenge discriminatory behavior. What once might have been dismissed as par for the course, in line with the philosophy of ‘boys will be boys’, is being treated with the urgency and severity it truly merits, which indicates a profound cultural shift in our perception of what is means to be female. We, as women, have intrinsic value and agency which should be reflected in all areas of our personal and professional lives, many now prepared to publicly name and shame those who seem not to have got the memo. Since then, we have seen what has been termed the ‘Weinstein Effect’, with many more cases of similar misconduct coming to light after the landmark case opened the jar to a giant can of worms.

While this loosening of tongues is clearly a step in the right direction, it has some unpleasant side-effects, the principal one being that it shatters the comfortable illusion that feminism is becoming unnecessary, even obsolete in a society that pays lip-service to equality. All of these horrific and disturbing cases shine the spotlight on what we’d rather not see or acknowledge, that being the unsolved problem of gender inequality. In January, it emerged that a men-only event took place in London hosted at the President’s Club, dubbed “the most un-PC night of the year”. Hostesses were required to wear tight-fitting black dresses and heels to cater to powerful male businessmen, many of whom were accused of inappropriate behavior towards the women present. The flurry of news stories that came afterwards were shocking, many incredulous that this type of behavior and culture are still around in 2018, though should we really be so surprised? To look on the bright side, however, while the event itself shows how long the journey ahead still is, the public outcry that succeeded it shows just how far we have come.

Now, the conversation needs to translate into the lives of everyday women. So far, the debate has arguably been dominated by a select group, namely wealthy white Western women who, while they may be doing great work, are not representative in any way of all women and the huge variety of difficulties that they face. It will take much more than a privileged few who have little to lose donning expensive and glamorous black gowns and tweeting a few hashtags to really change things. We need to recognize the vital importance of intersectional feminism as it is the only way to truly support and further the interests of all women, particularly across racial and gender divides. The actress Rose McGowan, for example, has recently been criticized for failing to acknowledge this diversity of experience, a classic case of denying the problem exists if it doesn’t exist for her, though it most certainly does. White women, for instance, have benefited most from affirmative action, the playing field far from level for women of color. Liv Little, the founder and editor in chief of gal-dem magazine puts it well in a Guardian article, asserting that:

“We need to start by trying to empower the women with the biggest number of intersections, rather than white, middle-class women, who probably have the fewest gaps when it comes to their opportunities versus those of white men. We need to do better when it comes to the inclusion of trans women’s experiences and those of women who are not cis and able-bodied.”

 So far, the spotlight has been on a select number taking to social media and other campaigning platforms, though this is only the tip of the iceberg. The Guardian shines light on standout cases around the world, with Spanish women going on strike for the day to mark International Women’s Day. Hundreds of South Korean women are taking to the streets wearing black to support the #MeToo movement in Seoul. Thousands of female aid workers across the world have composed an open letter to push for reform in the sector.

So, this International Women’s day, while we should recognize and be proud of the progress that has and is being made, we must also acknowledge that there is still a long way to go. It would be utterly premature to pat ourselves on the back as there are still still formidable obstacles for ordinary women to overcome across intersections such as race, class, sexual orientation and gender identity. While things might have improved for a portion of the population, there are still many for whom this apparent progress is still not being felt. Today should be a celebration of all women and of how far we’ve come, but also a reminder that there is still a hell of a lot to push on with.