The Right View in Myanmar

(PHOTO CREDIT: AP Photo / Heng Senith) Peaceful Buddhist monks engaging in “Metta With a Fist” , a sacred practice of Cambodian monks, apparently.

As a practicing Buddhist, it is horrifying to witness the legions of Buddhists in Myanmar targeting the predominantly Muslim Rohingya people for persecution. As the unspeakable events have intensified in recent months, several writers have rightly decried the atrocities, but have also shone a bright light on the fact the persecution is unleashed by Buddhists, calling into question its status as the putative “religion of peace.” On this point, several others have posited the situation in Myanmar, and in other predominantly Buddhist countries, as proof that Buddhism’s role as the unifying identity in these collective acts of zealotry, makes it no less a demagogic sham than Christianity, Islam, or Judaism.

It is hard to swallow, but well-taken. In public interviews with Western media, the Buddhist, Nobel Laureate Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi has taken a page from Donald Trump’s handbook of moral duplicity to frame unspeakable events committed by her fellow Buddhist brethren. When cornered by media about why she has not, in her role as State Counsellor, condemned the violence, she has said “there’s violence on all sides, believe me.” Her tepid, equivocal words, in light of the persecution committed by swaths of Buddhist nationalists, is a disgrace on several levels – ethically, politically, morally, and spiritually. 

The very existence of Buddhist nationalist groups such as MaBaTha in Myanmar or Bodu Bala Sena in Sri Lanka is peculiar to any right-thinking, practicing Buddhist. It is obvious the good intentions that may have brought these organizations into existence have fallen into the wrong hands. Insofar as they lend an air of legitimacy to ideas that systematize fear, hatred, and violence toward those of other creeds, they are organizations of ill-repute. In Sri Lanka, this strain of nationalism has led to the mistreatment of Hindu Tamils and Muslims for decades, while in Myanmar it has lead to sectarian violence and systemic persecution of Muslims of all ethnic persuasions, especially the Rohingya in the northern Rakhine State.

I have to confess, a small part of me would like to believe adherents of what I consider to be an extraordinary spiritual practice are incapable of such inexcusable bigotry. A part of me would love to lord evidence of Buddhism’s moral superiority over theistic religions, which have had throngs of their flock justifying sectarian crimes throughout their regrettable histories. The practicing Buddhist in me is well aware this idea is flawed on so many fundamental levels, not the least of which is the richness of magical thinking that must necessarily give it sustenance.

The very idea of such a thing as sectarian superiority flies in the face of Buddhist precepts, which are practice based and decidedly humanistic. There is no sacred text or deity that, irrespective of the community of teachers and adherents, represents a metaphysical form of perfection beyond the grasp of human beings. This is what makes it so appealing as a spiritual philosophy to people such as myself, an ardent atheist far too attached to reality and facts to trade self-delusion for inner peace. 

Not unlike any other religion, the degree the ethical ideals extolled in Buddhist teachings are manifest in the Buddhist community are only as good as the wisdom, ethics, and discipline of the teachers and practitioners who comprise it. If Buddhist teachers distort the teachings the communities will likely reflect and manifest a perverted version of the Buddhist ethic. If the practitioners are lazy and undisciplined, the wholesome potential in Buddhist wisdom will go unrealized in the community; the degree Buddhist precepts moderate the excesses of the ego and cultivate humanity’s wholesome potential instead, will be curtailed.

This cuts to the heart of the Western idea that Buddhism is inherently “a religion of peace.” It was always an idealized Western projection – that of disillusioned exiles from the Abrahamic flock mesmerized by the blissful glow of the Dalai Lama and enthralled by the promise of calm in Jon Kabat-Zinn books. For the most part, it is propagated by many who have not delved very far into Buddhism’s dense, and often un-blissful marrow. Too many Western Buddhists adorn themselves with this shallow, superficial label, and sub-consciously perpetuate it in the effort to build a virtuous identity as a “peaceful one.”

As I’ve written elsewhere, one’s experiences with Buddhism’s intense meditation practices are often anything but blissful. The first forays into a meditation retreat will conjure up mental storms that are the antithesis of peaceful. One’s attempts to live according to the ethics are more often humbling for their repeated, abject failure in implementation, particularly when practice is lax. The whole experience can be downright disheartening and many quit trying because the effort involved can be formidable and apparently less satisfying than habitual methods. The effects on one’s emotional well-being, if one persists through the gauntlet, are profound. 

This is why it is mystifying to me that Buddhist tenets could become tropes to reinforce an ego-identity. It smacks of corruption in the doctrine, though I cannot assert as much from a position of authority on Buddhist doctrine. Based on my own practice, it seems obvious the greater truths of spiritual practice are an acutely internal experience that cannot be “shown” or forced upon others; its manifestation does not lend itself to the shallow demarcations of an “identity.” The experiences point to something universal, infinite, but defy concrete explications that appeal to another’s rational faculties. In other words, there is little point in proseltyzing since the thrust of Buddhism is practical, not intellectual.

It is obvious those who tout such a thing as a “Buddhist nation” have perverted a central tenet of Buddhist philosophy: identity is a formless concept, a figment of the ego. Without being glib, we are all Buddhas, deep down. The idea a line can be drawn around a particular community such that those on the inside are parts of a “Buddhist thing” while those on the outside are separate, distinct “others” is absurd in this context. Despite this, it does not stop adherents from doing just that, and it is up to dharma teachers to discourage such ego-projects as wrong-headed. 

In Buddhist philosophy, ego-identity is the sine qua non of suffering. The spiritual crux of Buddhism is to rid oneself of the trappings of the self-oriented ego that gives rise to feelings of dissatisfaction, hatred, and so forth that are its lifeblood. Given this, it runs counter to the very fundaments of Buddhism to create such a thing as a “Buddhist nationalist” identity as has been done in certain South-East Asian countries where it dominates.

Certainly, the actions of the Buddhist nationalists in Myanmar chasing the Rohingya into Bangladesh demonstrate that a person who claims to be a Buddhist is not guaranteed to act peacefully. I would argue their actions say less about Buddhism and more about their own understanding and practice (or lack thereof) of Buddhist techniques.  They are betraying in stupendous fashion, not only their immensely flawed humanity in the face of historic, acrimonious sectarian cleavages, but also revealing extraordinary distortions in the Buddhism they practice. The fact there is such a thing at all as “Buddhist Nationalism” strikes me as impossible to fathom given the identity-dissipating central tenets of Buddhist philosophy. It clamours for a wholesale revision of the teachings prevalent in the country.

What is going on in Rakhine state is not representative of the Buddhism I know. None of the teachings support the deeds many Myanmar Buddhists are committing, or supporting, against human beings of a different creed. The fact there are a handful of Muslims who commit acts of terrorism under the banner of ARSA in Myanmar, or ISIS or Al Qaeda elsewhere, does not change this.

I cannot claim the mantle of a lama, but my strong sense is the Buddhist way to view Islamic radicalism isn’t to pre-emptively persecute or kill the radicals or their religious affiliates. Nor is it to forcefully banish the religion from which the seeds of radicalism hail. Were that an idea with merit, there would be good grounds to ban Myanmar Buddhist nationalists, at least in my country, for the hateful doctrine many of their leaders have advanced. Rather, the wholesome way to address radicalism is to extend compassion for the flawed humanity that draws suffering beings into the clutches of violent demagoguery and show by way of example a more wholesome way to behave. 

Reactionary identity politics and discursive rhetoric will never stand as the skillful means to instill the wholesome intentions of Buddhism in any community. Actual Buddhist practice will. I would suggest this is true for all religions. It is a shame we have returned to a point in human history where individuals with corrupt aims have so readily touted religious doctrine to divide humanity for personal, political gain. It infuriates me that leaders in many religious communities have had an active hand in furthering this insidious marriage; that they have allowed their spiritual practice to be drawn into this unwholesome arena and irrevocably sullied by it. The utility of religious doctrine in dressing up destructive political intentions in self-righteousness is utterly predictable, which is why wisdom dictates it always be avoided.

The atrocities in Myanmar beckons sensible Buddhists to get off their meditation cushions and counter the hateful narratives that propel these misdeeds with words that affirm the humanity of the Rohingya people and deeds that are consistent with Buddhist precepts of non-harm. It is obvious in Myanmar the lines between religion and politics have been blurred so badly the clarity of Buddhist ethics in this regard have been confounded. It is understood that Suu Kyi is afraid to speak too firmly against the persecution; that she fears angering the Buddhist leaders who rallied to seal victory for she and her NLD Party, and does not wish to risk a confrontation with the country’s powerful military for a despised minority. Perhaps she fears her countrymen will punish her for the audacity to suggest that it is wrong, either for a democrat or a Buddhist, to despise minorities of any sort.

I would suggest the solution is relatively straightforward: Aung San Suu Kyi must speak as the nation’s political leader and stand up for the secular rule of law, social order, and democratic pluralism. She must show “Buddhist nationalists” what democracy in action looks like and unbind Myanmar politics from the perverse brand of political Buddhism that has evolved in the country. She must also begin the process of getting the military under the control of civilian institutions, a lack which has blossomed countless armed insurgent groups undermining the development of civil forms of political dissent since the country’s inception. It is time to cease the tack of meeting political dissent with armed force. If there is criminal violence associated with the political process, the police and a functioning judicial system are the legitimate ways to address that in a democracy.

None of this requires a confrontational approach be taken; that any group be shamed or concede defeat. Rather, they are principles that simply need to be articulated as consistent with democacry in a country that has no experience in this regard. Myanmar citizens need a civics lesson and Suu Kyi is just the person who could have claimed the political and moral authority to have imparted the first lesson. I grant, it requires intestinal fortitude given the political, religious, and ethnic cleavages that have plagued Myanmar society for decades. However, having spent years in confinement to win democracy for her countrymen gives Suu Kyi the legitimacy and the right to tell them what democracy actually looks like. They may not like what they hear, but they didn’t spend decades in confinement to win the privilege. 

It is a profound disappointment Aung San Suu Kyi is pandering to throngs of chauvinists in her country, none of whom made the same sacrifices as she to get Myanmar on the right political path. She has done nothing to follow through on her reputation as a champion of democracy, which flounders by the day. My hope and wish for the Rohingya people, and for the democratic future of Myanmar, is that she soon comes to her senses. My fear is that her shocking inaction is evidence that all along she was possessed of the same ethnic chauvinism and deference to the militarism of her countrymen; that her reputation was a self-serving falsehood, an idealistic projection of the Western world, much the same as our projection of Buddhism as an inherently “peaceful religion.” I hope Suu Kyi’s next actions prove me wrong in this. Not only is the world watching, but so too are her fellow Buddhists. 

Keep Telling Their Stories, Joseph Boyden

Joseph Boyden, author

The public assault on Joseph Boyden earlier this year was as mystifying as it was senseless and infuriating. Out of nowhere, Canadians were witness to a relentless campaign to tarnish a man’s reputation and douse a career that had focused on telling the stories of Canada’s indigenous people. Boyden is a highly acclaimed Canadian writer of books whose protagonists are indigenous. His books, such as Three Day Road and The Orenda, have won national awards and garnered him widespread acclaim, a spotlight he has used to advocate for indigenous rights in Canada. 

At the beginning of this year some prominent advocates from the indigenous community took issue with that profile. The problem in their minds is that Boyden isn’t one hundred percent indigenous and, as such, he shouldn’t be so vocal in his advocacy. They seemed to suggest the urgency by which he has articulated indigenous grievances was meant to fuel the presumption he had personally experienced the disenfranchisement he railed against, which is absurd. Ostensibly, it would be better if Boyden were more reserved in calling out Canada’s wrong-doing; that he leave the more strident criticism for fully indigenous people. 

On the same logic I can imagine the recriminations directed at Gord Downie of iconic Canadian rock band The Tragically Hip. He is as blue-blooded a white guy as it gets, and has also become a vocal champion of indigenous rights. It is perhaps unfortunate that indigenous people who have personally suffered the ill-effects of Canada’s cultural genocide are not household names like Downie or Boyden who advocate for them. At the same time, and I say this reluctantly as a black man who lived in a white family in a white man’s world, white folks are more apt to take heart when a prominent member of their own community castigates their collective moral turpitude. 

Certainly, experiential voices are more authentic in depicting the horrible psychic toll of systemic racism, but when you are fighting to shift the culturally ingrained view of the majority, the most persuasive voices are those who speak the language of the oppressor. White folks are no different than any other folk: they are not easily swayed by the wagging fingers of a different creed. It is a sad but true facet of human nature to dismiss the remonstrations of “others” with an axe to grind, to discount the legitimacy of the grievances as a ploy of identity politics.

Among those not driven by professional jealousy, it is obvious Boyden uses his profile to speak truth as it has been conveyed to him about the plight of indigenous people and to transmit those experiences to his own folk. He is not plotting to steal a spotlight away from indigenous voices engaged in the fight, nor claim their persecution as his own. While it is true, a full-fledged indigenous person would offer a more compelling testament to the perils of indigenous identity, it is also true that the audiences of white folk assembled to hear them would be much smaller than that which Boyden or Downie would command. That is why they lend their voices to the fight – they have a bigger stage.   

Boyden always maintained he was of mostly Celtic blood with indigenous ancestry somewhere in his family tree. In Canada, the English tried to exterminate this country’s indigenous people and for most of our history, folks who could pass for white were not waving flags to show their pride at having mixed ancestry. Boyden’s story of a lost, mixed heritage is a common story in Canada. My heritage is the same (though the lost ancestry in my case is black American). At an early age, when Boyden discovered his own indigenous ancestry, instead of hiding it he embraced it. He’s made a career and become a public figure thanks to that early act of embracing his indigenous heritage. Other than Boyden’s notoriety, this is a fairly pedestrian reality in Canada. I have a fair-skinned, auburn haired friend I’ve know for thirty years who just found out she has Metis in her ancestry. 

It seems for a small faction of resentful figures Boyden’s success and notoriety was a pill too bitter to swallow given their work for the cause. So, they called him a fraud, a poser, accused him of shape-shifting in a head-dress for publicity and cash. The insinuation, although not stated, was that his success came at the cost of a real indigenous person’s success, which is completely absurd. It was this country’s version of the “birther issue.” Except the figure under attack wasn’t a would-be political oppressor vying for the most powerful political office in the land. Boyden is an artist and vocal champion of indigenous rights. Those responsible for stirring this pot seem like a petty lot, more angry that Boyden gets to go to all the good parties than anything else. It was a sad, pointless row; one clearly rooted in professional resentment. 

I am glad Boyden has decided to respond in his own words, and I hope it puts an end to the shenanigans to sandbag him. I also hope the sordid affair has done nothing to discourage Boyden from avidly pursuing his next project, and the other projects delving into the lives of the indigenous subjects he has in store for us down the road. I and countless others anxiously await these for years to come. On that point, I do wish Boyden would stop being such a do-gooder for indigenous causes and stick exclusively to writing his extraordinary books so we wouldn’t have to wait as long between each project. 

Boyden’s books have been responsible, in my own case, for helping to identify with indigenous voices because I just don’t have any other way of doing so. I have no indigenous blood, nor do I have close friends or family who are indigenous. It is difficult for me to obtain more than a superficial glimpse of life through their eyes. Paying attention to the news or media does not allow us to connect in more than a shallow way to an identity we do not share. There is always an agenda and the view is too easily tainted by our own intellectual filter. 

Stories are always a better way to subtly shift the view than is canvassing the news with an eye to empathy. Stories more succinctly hold up a mirror to ourselves; the identification with a marginalized protagonist makes it far more difficult to deny the humanity of those disenfranchised in our real lives, which perpetuates systemic barriers to their progress. 

As a mode of throwing the moral depravity of the oppressors in their face, a story humanises the oppressed and makes it more difficult for the reader to walk away from that encounter and still repudiate their existence. You read a story about a homeless man and it becomes difficult to simply breeze past them as you take a break at work the next day. It is a far more effective way of getting people to recognize the many wrongs we are abetting by our quiet indifference than is the tack of using public admonishments or finger wagging to stir our moral compass into proper alignment. Accusations and blame, even if deserved, rarely provoke the intended effect of opening consciousness among the dominant group because the mode of discourse, that of polemic, is too hard for most egos to bear. The guilt or animosity triggered by the condemnation hardens a mind, puts it on the defensive, and for that reason is a less effective way to change the view about certain pernicious social realities.  

This is the real power of fiction and other narrative accounts, especially where the subject is the marginalized, forgotten, or disenfranchised in a society. Having readers living the lives of a well-crafted, disenfranchised protagonist allows them to experience the pain and suffering of another human being whose tragic experiences are difficult to imagine. That their marginalized existence is a by-product of structures in our society becomes evident, and is undeniable, as we see them come crashing down upon a novel’s protagonist. 

If done well, and done right, stories are the truest way to identify with those who do not share our own identity. Stories come to us, straight into our hearts, bypassing our intellect, and because of that, the tragedies or injustices in the lives they depict are less apt to be so easily dismissed. They will resonate. Boyden’s stories and characters centre on the issues and lives of this country’s indigenous people, and they have resonated. 

As a colonizer there is no better way for me to know what the indigenous fight is about than to read their stories so I can truly understand on a deep level that it isn’t just a political issue, it is a real battle for a way of life. I have a better sense of what that way of life is because of Boyden’s stories. Yes, there are other voices, other stories, and other storytellers – Boyden never claimed to be the lone voice for the community. Those eager to attack his character made that claim on his behalf; perhaps those among the colonizers appointed him as a spokesperson. That is what we do. We love our caricatures, our reductions. 

The blame for that does not lie with Boyden. If there was concern that Boyden’s profile was monopolizing the dialogue the effort should have instead been aimed at pointing us to other stories and left at that. I would have greatly accepted the gift. When they attacked Boyden, a fierce advocate for indigenous issues, I stopped listening and lost plenty of respect for those who otherwise advocate for a just cause. They need to focus on what they legitimately seek and leave ego-centric personal grievances out of the public domain because it has not served they or the community for whom they advocate well at all. 

A Natural Escape


It had been a while since the ravages of
life exiled you to a cabin in the woods.
Unyielding swells of memory rolled in the
dark solitude that first night, drowning
you in apparitions of failure and regret.

At dawn you slip the grasp of languid ghosts,
step outside to bathe your senses in undaunted
air. Each care-free breath uproots the mind’s
revolt, which blossoms shadows as hours
unfold, and feeds your hunger for escape.

A chorus of loons echoes across the lake, the
sweetness in the song draws you out. Sitting idle
on the dock, your penchant for activity left behind,
the stirring creatures and wind through trees, dispels
the haze of torments that drive you to the brink.

Day after day, you witness the sun dance on water –
it’s how the stillness became your friend. You crave
the darkness to glimpse the stars, and bask in the
onslaught of beauty in the simplest things. Ghosts
are powerless against the peace that nature brings.

Listen For The Helpful Voices

Another popular artist, this time Chester Bennington of Linkin Park has been lost to death by suicide. Whenever there is news of a death by suicide of a highly successful celebrity a voice in my head impulsively says, “How can someone so rich, successful, and creative, do this? What do they have to be so unhappy about?”

I am aware how this minimizes the tragic loss of human life their story tells; how the comparison of my life to that of the celebrity stirs resentment and fear instead of compassion. I see a lot of this in the social media frenzy that tends to follow these stories. The focus is more on the celebrity than the illness that caused their death; the one linked to the other in absurd ways. These aren’t stories about celebrities, not necessarily, but of human beings who suffered a terrible illness that claimed their lives. We make more out of the celebrity status than is helpful in discussions about the mental illness their untimely death provokes. 

I myself have suffered immense sadness, have endured bouts of spirit-crushing depression. It is frightening to think that death by suicide is where it may one day lead. This is why, in the face of such tragic news, there’s an impulse to harbour ideas that attempt to explain and rationalize away these senseless deaths. On self-reflection, it strikes me as a way to distance myself from the fear, and the reality of just how harrowing the human condition can become, especially when its ebbs-and-flows are intensified by mental illness. 

None of us is immune, despite our collective efforts to posit and reinforce ideas about how success equals happiness, which we seem to need as a shield to the possibility of psychological defeat in the face of countless threats in the human experience. I don’t think any of us is any more or less vulnerable to this illness given the right circumstances. When a celebrity dies by suicide, it is an affront to our childish ideas about happiness, and shines a revealing light on how stridently we deny and repress the realities of mental illness. It also shines a bright light on the true harshness of the human experience. 

In this respect the tragic death by suicide of Robin Williams is illustrative. Many fans and admirers were genuinely saddened at his death. Many more could not help but betray a profound fear at what it said about “happiness”, their comments expressing the sentiment “if he is vulnerable, what does that say about me?” That is it exactly. 

This is why I stop that voice of resentment in its tracks, why I don’t express “shock” that another human being has succumbed to the West’s silent killer, just because they were a celebrity. Celebrities are human just like you and I, no matter how hard we try to put them on a pedestal to satiate our psychological need for a panacea to human woe. Denial is unhealthy in the face of tragedies that warrant compassion, not just for those who have died, but for ourselves and others in our life who are struggling right now. 

It is dangerous to plaster ill-conceived ideas about why celebrities shouldn’t be mentally ill, or why suicide is “selfish”, either on social media feeds or comment walls wherever news of these deaths is published. Why? Because people who are surviving with mental illness are reading those threads. To deny the humanity of the celebrity who succumbed is to deny the humanity of the anonymous who struggle day by day to survive, but may yet still die by suicide. For anyone who has mental illness despite outward appearances of success, however shallow and feckless our society measures it, this is the last thing they need to hear. It is a refrain that surely risks causing more guilt or shame for their illness. 

Our society already does a stellar job of shaming and stigmatizing those with mental illness, without also having the occasion of another death increasing their burden. When mental illness claims another life, the last thing a person with the same illness needs to hear is assertions about how their illness is a figment of their imagination that doesn’t – or shouldn’t – exist, just because they are successful or have an ostensibly charmed life. 

As a person with ADD, I know how hurtful it is to hear how every arm-chair, ignoramus shrink with a PhD from Twitter-Internet College believes the condition that has nearly ruined my life, that is at times the bane of my existence, is “a conspiracy invented by drug companies.” No, it is bloody well not and I know because I live my life despite it. It is a condition that afflicts my brain, and is manifest by dysregulating the balance and flow of certain neurotransmitters needed to propel functional thoughts and behaviours. In that way, my ADD shares a biological antecedent similar to depression, anxiety, schizophrenia or other neuro-psychological conditions. Just because science does not yet know how or why, does not make it any less true. 

To those who knew and loved Chester Bennington of Linkin Park, I am truly sorry for your loss. My heart aches and my spirit weeps for those who have lost someone they cherish to suicide. It is sad, on a profound, metaphysical level, that these lives ended in one of the most tragic ways imaginable for a human being. I am sorry for the legions who suffer this wicked mental illness and for the pain they have to live with every day. I am sorry the illness made it too difficult for those who ultimately succumbed to have seen another way; one that would have kept them alive. 

For others out there struggling, no matter how society may tell you your illness is “all in your head” or makes you feel it is cured by an “attitude adjustment”, know that these notions are false and you should not heed those voices.  Mental illness is real, it is biologically-rooted, and it doesn’t care if you’re rich or poor, famous or living in ignominy. It does not care what ignorant falsehoods our mindless society clings to about mental illness. There are professionals and other helpers who know better and are trained and eager to help. Turn your focus to them and, at the very least, listen to those whose knowledge about mental illness is real. Cover your eyes and ears to the foolish voices who say things to appease their own fear and shock; who are well intentioned but extremely unhelpful in their clumsiness. 

Nobody who suffers an illness – be it cancer, ALS, or Parkinson’s – is to blame for their affliction. Mental illness is not the fault of those afflicted, and it does not have to be a lonely struggle. If you are living with mental illness, seek out the experts to provide the help and supports you need to continue living a fruitful life; to help you cope despite the illness; to ensure you are a survivor. 

Peace and love to you. You are not alone. 

The Struggle is Real, The Effort Worthwhile

It’s summertime up here in the Northern Hemisphere. Despite the countless joys that arrive with the season, for many of my female friends it is a mixed blessing. Their eagerness to bring out those light, cute, and comfortable outfits ready-made for the warm weather, or to sun bathe in a swimsuit at the beach is tempered by the frequency they are subjected to creepy, unwanted advances from sexually aroused males. The worst of these are the drive-by catcalls from men who can’t help but enthusiastically let a woman know she is the apple of their eye, telling her as much by imploring her to sit on their face or shake her tits.   

This sort of male misbehaviour is rooted in the belief that women are always signalling the degree of sexual attention they want from men. By outwardly, enthusiastically showing their arousal, so it goes, these men are fulfilling their role, which is to flatter the woman for a job well-done. In the not-too-distant past, this “taunt and react” dynamic was touted as a normal, functional way of mediating sexual relations. In reality, it led to legions of women being sexually assaulted and raped by men socialized to believe their entitlement to sex was affirmed by the clothes a woman wore. 

In the eighties, when I came of age, there were cultural memes predicated on packs of guys “cruising” in cars with the top down on a Saturday night howling and jeering as they drove past a throng of gals. For their part, the women would bat their lashes in response to the ape-like affections of the men, which were sought after and desired. Thanks to popular culture, which depicted every encounter between men and women as a spar with a sexual sub-text, there are generations of men conditioned to believe the only reason women wear clothes, or do anything for that matter, is to attract the sexual attentions of a man. At the heart of these outmoded ideas is an obsession with what women wear. The old assumption is that women who wear provocative clothing are revealing something meaningful about their sexual inclinations. It is a sad, lingering relic of a bygone era.

I won’t deny it. Because I am a flesh and blood heterosexual man with a functioning set of eyes, when an attractive woman wearing clothing that flatters her impressive features passes my gaze, there is an instant, biologically-predetermined reaction. It hails from a relatively primitive part of our evolutionary brain – the limbic system. There’s an instinctive part of me that instantly craves to ogle, to leer, or to fuck, urges which I am aware conflict with the ardent feminist I aspire to be. 

That insight arises in the blink of an eye, rousing my pre-frontal cortex, which kicks in and subsumes the urge to beat my chest – or beat something else – beneath the thought, “Ahem, your leering and your thoughts are verging on the ungentlemanly. Cut it out.” Most days this tack works. When it doesn’t instantly kick in, and I catch myself leering maybe a little longer than I consider to be civilized, I say a metaphysical “Sorry ladies,” and implore myself to keep my head in the game. 

Thankfully, the pre-frontal cortex (PFC) is synthesizing these ethical intentions into a set of guidelines to help me conduct myself in a civilized way. The PFC is the part of our brains that distinguishes humans as the most intelligent beings on the planet, despite certain striking instances to the contrary. In the throes of a carnal response to the physical presence of an attractive woman, the PFC stirs me to behave as if I really believed a woman ought to be treated like a human being, rather than as a living, breathing wank machine. When my limbic system protests against the PFC’s civilizing dictates, the PFC overrules it. 

The important thing to note is the emotional interplay between the two parts of the brain arising from the same sexual impulse. This reality refutes those who posit that men’s sexual behaviour is pre-determined as residing in one part of the brain versus the other. That is false. There is a dynamic between the parts of the brain which males must gain mastery of if they intend to behave in sexually appropriate ways. The lynchpin here is to have the intention to behave appropriately in the first place. 

Assuming the good intention exists, the key to the PFC gaining primacy in this inner conflict is to ensure a conscious effort to impart the lessons about appropriate standards of behaviour towards women routinely occurs. The curriculum to which males appeal to shape their values in these matters is significantly influenced by the culture. Unfortunately, if the culture harbours unhealthy sexual norms, then society teaches, reinforces, and perpetuates sexually unhealthy behaviours among its men. Depending on the culture, the curriculum by which boys are taught to become men may be dreadfully flawed. If a culture lacks the ethical intention to treat women as equals, the motivation to evolve commensurate behaviours is not instilled in individual males.  

We may say we live in an “individualistic” society, but in truth, how men behave towards women is greatly influenced by the culture in which they live. Through sexist media and social structures our culture is constantly modelling for boys and young men a particularly sexist way of relating to girls and women. On the other hand, there is an expectation that men become individuals who behave differently than the culture that reared them in their private sexual interactions with women. It’s a sociological fact that the transmission of feminist cultural ideals must actually be observed in the culture if the aim is to ensure they are adopted and exemplified by a society’s males. A sexist culture creates sexist individuals. It’s an axiom we cannot ignore if we want men to do the right thing in their private encounters with women.  

In some cultures, awareness of the intense inner struggle between primal urges and moral conduct acts as a cautionary tale. A society’s males, seeking to conduct themselves with moral rectitude, become wary of the mere existence of these internal battles, which they sense can go either way. That fear fuels notions about how the struggle itself is the fault of women; it feeds the idea women must take ownership of the sexual animus they trigger in men. These ideas sustain cultural practices – usually in the form of religious codes – that dictate women dress and behave modestly. It’s a cultural sleight-of-hand that shifts the burden away from a society’s men so that women ultimately become responsible for moderating the degree of male sexual arousal in a society. 

This is a puerile resolution to the inner struggle of a society’s males, because it discourages each individual man from learning at an early age how to process and regulate their sexually-charged emotions. Our culture’s mixed signals about what constitutes sexually appropriate behaviour is a serious psycho-social issue that needs to be acknowledged and properly addressed. This will ensure there are fewer victims of sexual crimes by inculcating a culture of men with emotional intelligence, who are capable of exerting a degree self-control that discourages their sexual misconduct. 

In this respect, what does it say to young men that, despite the fact Americans were well aware that candidate Trump grabbed women’s pussies, he was elected US President? For all the young men grappling to control their sexual urges, are they learning from this that it’s as important to behave in sexually appropriate ways as it is to be rich and ambitious? To what ends are young men motivated to channel their cognitive energies: to that of learning how to respect women, or to that of amassing the wealth and power required to treat women however their carnal urges desire?  If we want to see appropriate sexual behaviours in men, we have to exemplify, reward, and teach the lessons consistent with that aim. 

As a man desperately trying to get beneath years of cultural conditioning where women were touted as objects of male gratification, I am aware the struggle to overcome sexual urges is very, very real. I engage in a lot of self reflection about this, certainly not because the predominant norms in my culture have compelled me to do so, but because I am aware that my responsibility to foster healthy sexual behaviours comes in the face of intense, biologically-determined cravings. Men have to acknowledge the presence of these primitive cravings, which exist in the same measure as they would have among our evolutionary forebears, despite how intellectually advanced our societies have otherwise become. It’s a strange paradox, and it requires we expend greater conscious efforts to the task of moderating these impulses so our behaviour is consistent with evolving norms about what it means to be civilized sexual beings. 

As men, we must decide which part of our brain we want to heed: the advanced part that sets us apart as human beings, or the a-moral, pre-evolutionary part we share with reptiles and other less intelligent animals. I choose to be a civilized human being. I have to make a conscious effort to establish in my PFC a benchmark of what it means to be respectful to a woman and act accordingly, despite the primitive urges that arise in her presence; despite the culture which continues to normalize a decidedly misogynist benchmark. The responsibility for regulating these urges when it matters is mine alone, and I wouldn’t put that on a woman. 

It would help if our culture didn’t keep telling young boys and men that women are sex objects and reinforcing unhealthy ideas about women that impede their learning of functional sexual behaviours. We are subjected to an unceasing barrage of images and ideas from mainstream culture that piques and reinforces our consumerist desires by sexualizing and objectifying women. This conflicts with, and undermines, efforts to instil norms of self-control in men. Regulating sexually-charged emotions is a cognitive process that must be learned like any other higher-order human function, because the desired behaviours hail from the pre-frontal cortex. When we expect these behaviours to kick in they are fending off the strong, anti-social impulses of the limbic system. Unfortunately, this part of our brain is constantly being titillated by a sexualized, stimulus-addicted culture, which makes it a formidable force to reckon with. 

That isn’t to make excuses for men, it is to say that it takes effort on our part to do what is right in respect of women. It is also to say that culture has a role to play in normalizing healthy attitudes and behaviours about how men relate to women at the office, at home, and in our bedrooms. The biggest first step however, is for men to recognize the struggle to control impulses within ourselves is real, it is natural, and women are not to blame for its existence. The responsibility for doing what it takes to resolve conflicting feelings and emotions is on us as individuals. 

It means that we cannot sit and wait for the mainstream culture to reflect modern values about gender, because we are ourselves arbiters and transmitters of those values. Young men look to how I and my peers conduct ourselves for their signals about what is and isn’t acceptable. I take that role very seriously and I urge my mid-life male peers to do the same. Our role as cultural agents compels us to pro-actively stir a cognitive shift when we recognize some of our attitudes and behaviours are rooted in sexist dogmas of our upbringing. We are key influencers in the culture to which the next generations of men will appeal for norms about how to behave with respect to women. I will cringe if, in thirty years’ time, a figure like Donald Trump is emblematic of my generation of men and is still winning society’s greatest rewards despite his retrograde, morally decrepit views about women. 

A concerted effort to avoid the ill-effects of misogyny from poisoning the behaviour of men will always be necessary. Nature has seen to that. The reasons to expend those energies – to secure a future where women are treated as equals instead of as objects or as victims – have never been more compelling, and makes the effort absolutely worthwhile. 

A Toast For The Times

Bacchus - Peter Paul Reubens

Abject ignorance – an illness afflicting the masses 
sets in as innocence sleeps, with blinkers on eyes,
having succumbed to old swill in modern glasses,
regaled by fables rich in hatred, delusion, and lies.

Buzz-words belie the blood dripping from hands;
smooth out cracks in the logic to polish the floors,
venerate execrable deeds, which garnish the walls,
extol crooked frames, lining windows and doors.

Charlatan name-drops Jesus, suspends disbelief;
praising craven ambition, the gospel of our times,
he raises a cup, “Nostalgia and bromides for God!”
A fraudulent toast, to cruel spirits defiling a mind.

The Long-Awaited Goodbye

Letting Go - Simone Held Deviant Art

Photo Credit: Simone Held – Letting Go, on Deviant Art

Subtle are the cracks they excavate in
consciousness – to sabotage a mind;
the breach widens with every daunting 
twist in life’s unyielding plot we find.

They unleash such vengeful captives,
disturb the peace as they take flight.
A heart feels for the wrongly accused,
foolishly indulges in their plight.

In pursuit, repression and denial
apply cruel logic to dry the eyes.
Fugitives ardently deny their guilt –
flimsy grounds sustain fresh alibis.

Wisdom wades into murky waters,
offers up an emotional defence,
“They meant no harm in picking up
the sordid pieces after these events!”

The inmates’ revolt, it seems, was just;
each suppression wrought more shame.
We embraced before I let them go;
as they dispersed my freedom came.