A few days ago, Anna of Madison in June (link on the left) passed on a link to this post, entitled "Of Minds and Bodies...the Final Frontier from the blog "The John Brown Party." It was the first time I had heard of the blog, and despite the slightly apocalyptabastic title that for some reason reminds me of a screamo song*, the post/essay really resonated with me.
The post contrasts First Worlders' near-unanimous opposition to the practice of "clitoridectomy (knicking or cutting of the clitoris) and infibulation (surgical closure of the labia majora)" with our apparent acceptance of 400,000 breast augmentation procedures, 350,000 liposuctions, 150,000 nose jobs, and 2.5 million Botox injections in 2008 in the USA alone, and also mentions the increase in other varieties of "vaginal rejuvenation surgeries." It's easy to argue that the two are completely different - after all, the Kenyan women we see on the news are likely to be being dragged kicking and screaming into a ramshackle tent, whereas our neighbor drove her- or himself to the clinic in her/his own car and is paying with his/her own (well, maybe borrowed) money. Since we generally believe that one has the right to decorate or mutilate one's own body as he or she sees fit, but not to cause harm to another, we clearly have some grounds to criticize what's going on in those dark and distant lands.
But, as the post points out and as I agree, this requires a less-than-nuanced understanding of what it means to "see fit," or, in better words, to want something in our (or perhaps any) culture. (Is it wrong of me to invoke Schopenhauer here? "Man can indeed do what he wants, but he cannot control what it is that he wants.") Of course, in the case of cosmetic procedures, the patient chooses the surgery. But does the patient freely choose the emotions, or perhaps the complexes, that make him feel the procedure is necessary? Who would freely choose be dissatisfied with her own body? Would you choose to feel that the best way to spend your hard-earned money would be to drop several hundred or thousand dollars shifting fat from one part of your body to another, shaving off a few millimeters here and there, having some plastic buried under your skin, or having bones broken and reset, in an effort to get others to think of you differently? Or to help you think of yourself differently?
We need to acknowledge the massive amount of psychic pain and secret self-loathing that make such actions as above seem desirable. And what can be the source of this pain except those that benefit from it - celebrities and athletes and shoe companies and movie studios and fashion magazines and, in some cases, physicians themselves?** If we are committed to a sort of liberal utilitarianism - which seems to me to be the philosophy underlying the "do everything you can to please yourself, but stop short of harming others" attitude that deems clitoridectomy evil and vaginoplasty reasonable - shouldn't we be as, if not more, angry at those who instill in boys and girls and adults and children these deep senses of shame, of ugliness, and of imperfection, as we are at the barbaric tribesmen (and women) we condemn for perpetuating a vile tradition?
In case you don't believe that such psychic pain exists, the post provides a few numbers, including the following: "Perhaps most striking is how early in life these values are formed, as 51 percent of girls aged nine and ten (that’s fourth grade, people!) reported liking themselves more when they were on a diet, and perhaps most striking, 42 percent of first-third grade girls reported wanting to be thinner." I don't know the source for this data, but it meshes with my daily experience: I hardly know any unmarried women who don't either profess to be on a diet or feel guilty for not being on one. Nor do I know many men (though of course the pressure on men is nowhere near as strong as the pressure on women) who don't wish they worked out more, who are proud of being a little flabby, or who honestly lift weights in order to improve their health. Nor am I exempting myself - I can't remember the last time I went a day without flexing my abs and trying to find a six-pack in the mirror.*** I'm too ashamed - whether of my body or of my vanity I can't quite tell - to tell you what's there.
The point of this is not at all to demonize people who elect to have cosmetic surgery, who are most likely, whether they acknowledge it or not, already suffering from self-esteem issues. Nor is it to pardon those who force painful and debilitating procedures on unwilling women. The point is that everything that we complain about when we complain about forced clitoridectomy is present right here, right now, in front of our own faces, in every skinny blonde on a box of Special K, in every commercial where a soccer star walks around showing off his body, in every diet book, in every fashion magazine, on every episode of Jersey Shore (which I haven't ever seen, but yes, I'm comfortable making the assertion), in every bottle of Coke Zero, Taylor Swift song, and perhaps most insidious of all, the way we speak to and interact with one another. In fact, I can hardly think of a place where it isn't.
What keeps us from seeing the situation for what it is? If I were anything other than a little pipsqueak wannabe psychologist who thinks he knows what's going on because he once read a lot of Nietzsche, I might venture a guess: It's easier to get angry at things that are far away, because we are not responsible for changing them, because it's not possible for us to change them, except by maybe sending a check to someone who makes a promise. It's easier to get angry at people far away, who can't explain themselves to us, who can't ask us what makes us so blameless, who can't point out that we've been duped. It's easier to be incensed by something that can fit into a TV screen or a photograph, like a distressed girl and a rusty blade, than by something whose violence is hidden beneath lipstick and lab coats and locked doors. And it's easier to condemn specific violations of individual rights than systematic ones, because how the hell do you stop a system, particularly without stopping the parts of it that (you believe) serve you, that provide you with what (you think) you need?
Of course, what we think we need is the problem. Who benefits when we think we need to spend hours in gyms to look good, to buy vitamins and supplements to be healthy, to buy cosmetics or clothes to be desired? Certainly not us, who get stuck in the cycle of work-buy-sleep-work-buy-sleep, who have to bear the burden of not being wanted, of not living up to some distant model. Rather, it's those who earn a profit by making the products, manufacturing desire for them, hiding the truths about them, and shipping them all around the world.
What I'm suggesting is that, rather than get angry at a bunch of people who will never see us or care what we think, we can take a look at the products we buy, the procedures we undergo, the corporations and institutions we thereby support, and the way we interact with other adults and children. Nearly everything we do, if followed honestly, will probably lead us back towards some truth we'd rather not have known. Of course, it probably doesn't hurt to send a few bucks to a charity if you're so inclined, though, as the John Brown post says, it's more sensible to spend money on mosquito nets. But sending money is the easiest part, and that's why it's most appealing. It's possible to send 10, 100, or 1000 dollars and then stay the course. It's not possible, I don't think, to take an objective look at the meanings and effects of what we do without deciding that we ought to be doing something different.
I haven't made the "confluence" in the post's title clear yet. I think all this stuff about African clitoridectomies illustrates the point that we are often on the look-out for acts violence that we can't do anything about while at the same time ignoring the acts of violence that we can. Recently I've run into more evidence of this. A few weeks ago, one of my coworkers found a kitten while walking to work. It was bleeding, having apparently fallen off of a building or been nicked by a car. He brought it in to the office, kept it there through his class, then took it to a vet afterwards. My other coworkers were visibly, understandably, justifiably**** upset about the the kitten. What crazy asshole driver would be so terrible as to run over the sweet little thing? And who would just leave it on the street to die?
All very noble sentiments, but - how many people chose to forego the pork come lunchtime?
I'm not trying to call my friends (or readers) hypocrites; I'm trying to show that we often have a tendency to latch on to the outliers rather than the mainstream, the random rather than the predictable, the senseless rather than matter-of-course. The Matter-of-Course, in fact, requires this tendency if it is to continue. If we weren't able to trick ourselves, or let ourselves be tricked, into dividing animals into those who deserve our sympathy and those who don't, we would have to face up to the cognitive dissonance entailed by the great amount of unpleasantness in our daily habits. What would happen to the profits of the those who raise and process and advertise and distribute pork, who deal in the daily slaughter of living, feeling beings? And if it weren't so easy for us to find pretexts for differentiating between the physical and emotional trauma of forced clitoridectomy and the profound psychological discomfort and insecurity that make elective surgery possible, where would all the magazines and models go?
Which brings me around to what (I thought) I really wanted to talk about: North Korea's recent artillery attack on the island of Yeonpyeongdo in North Korea. 4 people dead, 16 injured, 200 or more evacuated, many more with ruined businesses or damaged property, and lots of scared schoolchildren and 18 year old boys in the military who were supposed to be on vacation this week, but wound up on red alert instead. Yes, Kim Jong-Il is an evil, crazy bastard. He's unpredictable, and savage, and dangerous. He and the government/army he leads are responsible for the murders and slow deaths of uncountable innocents, most of them probably citizens of the country whose interests he purports to be acting in. These pieces of knowledge are not new; they have been confirmed day-in and day-out for decades (see this 36-page list of all of North Korea's aggressive actions since the 1950). Everyone is right to be angry.
So we think, reasonably,"someone's got to stop this guy." Of course, we can't. We as individuals can't do anything to effect a change of his heart, to alter his capabilities, to empower his citizens, or anything like that. So we feel hopeless and enraged and stifled and maybe a little useless. But then, I realize, by stating it the way we have, by putting a name and a face on the problem (which I think is all tied up with the tendencies I talked about above), we've in a certain sense already taken a step away from solving it. The important thing is not stopping him, per se, but stopping the evil and suffering he's responsible for. And once you are thinking in terms of stopping evil and suffering, well, even if you can't have any influence on Dear Leader, you can have a fair amount closer to home. There may not be an individual that you can shake a stick at and call an evil bastard, but there's plenty of suffering around, which means plenty of opportunities to cause a little less (if you can stare down the cognitive dissonance) or even to remedy some.
I don't think I need to elaborate here on which kinds of suffering I think it's easiest to stop. Nor do I want to presume that what's easy for me is easy for anyone else, or that other should be contributing in the same ways I try to. But there are enough problems that almost anyone can channel one of their proclivities into something useful and beneficial and kind. In all likelihood, many of you probably already are, and even more than me.
I'm not exactly sure what I'm hoping everyone will take away from this behemoth of a post. I hope it hasn't come across as preachy or judgemental or anything like that. It just frustrates me that people so often display the best intentions, but are kept from fully realizing them. I suppose it has been one of my goals for a while now to actually work towards that, to try to replace armchair outrage with useful acts.
You are all excellent people.
*Ah, it's Thrice - Of Dust and Nations, which is pretty much like Ecclisiastes turned into a rock opera.
** Part of Premise 4 of Derrick Jensen's Endgame: Civilization is based on a clearly defined and widely accepted yet often unarticulated hierarchy. Violence done by those higher on the hierarchy to those lower is nearly always invisible, that is, unnoticed. When it is noticed, it is fully rationalized.
***With all likelihood, it was my probably my last day in Sadhana, since there were very only three mirrors there, none of them body-length. I was not alone in feeling a great sense of relief after realizing I had spent 3 or 4 days without thinking about or caring what I looked like.
****Did you know that justifiedly is not a word?