Thursday, 29 December 2011

Buy Nothing Sunday

I'm currently nearly half way through reading "Colossians Remixed" by Brian Walsh and Sylvia Keesmat.

The book centres around the first century letter from the Apostle Paul to the church in Colossae, which now appears as the book, "Colossians", in the New Testament part of the Christian Bible. Walsh and Keesmat's central premise is that Paul's letter - and the Christian ideology - was deeply subversive to the Roman Empire at the time when it was written, and in the same way it also subverts the Empires of our own time - in particular the "Empire" of consumerist economics.

I often find when I read books like this that it's little throwaway comments that catch me unawares and really make me stop and think. Like this one from Colossians Remixed, which contrasts the life of the nation of Israel in the Old Testament part of the Bible, with that of the empires around it (and of Empire in general):
While the empire is frantically caught up in the management of production and consumption, Israel is called to a sabbath keeping that acknowledges the gift character of its life in the land.
Production and consumption are the mantras of the Free Market - the "Empire" which currently dominates the western world and is fast expanding to take over the rest of it. Walsh and Keesmat have carefully chosen these words in order to emphasise this comparison, but I have to say that I think they have a very important point!

When I was a teenager, most shops didn't open on Sundays and I have vague memories of the "Keep Sunday Special" campaign, which fought tooth and nail to keep it that way. Personally, at the time, I couldn't really see the point and when Sunday trading finally did become "fully" legal (there are still some restrictions) I was as happy to take advantage of it as most other people. Now though, looking back, I wonder if some of those campaigners did actually have a very good point...

I've recently come across "Buy Nothing Day", which is a campaign to persuade everyone, on one day of each year, to buy absolutely nothing. The promoters define this as a "global stand off from consumerism" which is intended to "make people stop and think about what and how much they buy effects the environment and developing countries" (that sentence doesn't quite make sense, but I think you get the idea!). Participants are promised that they will, "feel detoxed from shopping and realise how much it uses up [their] free time" and that "For 24 hours [they] will get [their] life back".

This is a great idea if it really does make people stop and think about what they are buying, why they are buying it and what effect that has on the rest of the world, and in the interests of subverting our global consumerist ideology I have to say that I approve, but it also made me think:  this is only one day a year, but we used to have one of these days every week and it was called "Sunday"!

Nowadays, to not shop or be able to shop for 1 day in every 7 seems unthinkable! What about the inconvenience and - even more importantly perhaps - what would this do to our economic output!? But Sunday was there precisely to remind us that there are more important things in life than this. We don't exist simply as cogs in an economic machine. Life is there for living and not just for producing stuff! The original Sabbath - as celebrated by the Jews - reminded them of this, and of their ultimate dependence on God, rather than their own enterprise and ingenuity, to provide them with what they needed. The Christian celebration of Sunday as "Lord's Day" should remind us of the same things. As a nation which no longer has a "Lord" to celebrate though, we have instead caved in to the "lordship" of the Free Market, which would rather not allow us any rest in our endeavours in its service...

Friday, 23 December 2011

Faith and Fairy Stories

Christmas is a time for fairy tales.

There's that one about the jolly old fat man in a red suit, who travels around the world at the dead of night in a flying reindeer-pulled sleigh and climbs down chimneys undetected to leave us with free stuff.

Then there's that other one ... the one about a very unusual baby, born 2,000 years ago in Bethlehem, to a couple who had never slept together and yet - so the story goes - had not been unfaithful either. This birth was accompanied by strange signs in the heavens and the baby had strange visitors who would otherwise not even have known he was there. The God of the Universe had decided to visit His creation, and this was how He chose to make His entrance...

Nowadays, both stories are generally treated with considerable scepticism. Most people over the age of about 3 or 4 know the fat man story is just a fantasy - told by parents, purely for the purpose of injecting some extra magic into the festive season. As far as Jesus is concerned though, no serious historian would doubt that he existed, but whether some of the stories we have about the details of his life should be trusted or taken at all seriously, seems a lot more debatable.

The Bible contains 4 different accounts, by 4 different authors, which tell the story of a man who was more than just a man. This man performed incredible miracles - he healed lepers and blind people, he walked on water, he even raised people from the dead. And then - the greatest miracle of all - after being tortured and killed by the Roman oppressors, he rose from the grave on the third day and appeared to more than 500 of his disciples, before ascending bodily into heaven!

For a good chunk of the last 2,000 years, the truth of this story has been more-or-less taken for granted by the majority of people in the western world, but nowadays we are more sceptical. Miracles like that don't really happen. People don't walk on water and they certainly don't come back from the dead, so how can any account like that be taken seriously? The alternative? - his followers must have fabricated, or at least significantly exaggerated these stories after his death.

But if this is the case, his followers must have known that the stories they were spreading were a lie. They saw Jesus crucified (this event is recorded elsewhere, not just in the Bible), and knew that he was dead and buried. At the time at least, their hopes and dreams must have died with him on that cross. They really had believed - as had many other people - that Jesus was the Messiah - the prophesied deliverer that most Jews had been pinning their hopes on for hundreds of years. To see him naked and dead on a Roman cross must have shattered everything they had lived for. Where did they get the energy and resolve to carry on? And not just to carry on, but to found a worldwide movement that spread and flourished in the face of intense persecution, including severe torture and loss of life for those who had started the story in the first place.

Did the disciples really make it all up? The driving force which enabled the new movement to survive in the face of such incredible opposition was its adherents' belief that one day they too would rise from the dead, just as Jesus had done. Either that happened or it didn't - either the disciples' hopes died with Jesus, or something incredible happened to turn everything around - you can't just "exaggerate" a story like that!

I wonder which "fairy story" you believe...?

Saturday, 10 December 2011

Sexploitation - A Male Perspective

I recently came across this story on the BBC News website about the picture on the right of Pakistani media star, Veena Malik, which has been shown on the cover of FHM magazine in India. The picture shows her naked, but with her arms and legs strategically positioned to cover as much as possible. As may be expected, the picture is generating some controversy in India and Pakistan which are still much more conservative than here in the west. It does seem to be part of a trend though, in which social norms are being continually challenged, just as they have been over here for the past few decades.

Malik herself is very unhappy about the photo and is claiming that she wasn't naked when it was taken and that FHM have subsequently doctored it, although she does admit to having posed topless.

For Malik - as for many other people - the primary issue seems to be one of control. In the BBC interview linked above, she says that, "If ever in my life I decide to go nude, I will stand up and say that yes, I have done it, but I will not allow anyone out there to take advantage of my body".

For many people today, the most important question about the commercialisation of sex - particularly with regard to women - is not whether women should be selling their bodies, or images thereof, for male sexual gratification, but whether or not they are being co-erced into doing so. The primary issue then, is one of exploitation. There are a lot of women now involved in this industry though, particularly in the west, who are happy to talk about their willing participation, and seem to feel liberated or empowered by this experience.

For myself, I have to agree that no woman should be co-erced into doing anything - particularly of a sexual nature - that she doesn't want to. I have to question though, whether our understanding of exploitation has become a little one-sided in this context. The primary concern always seems to be about male exploitation of female sexuality, but no-one seems to be asking whether this might actually be working in both directions.

I like naked women! - there you are, I've said it! As a young(ish) heterosexual bloke, it would of course be rather surprising if I didn't. Most people in this category - a rather hefty percentage of the population - feel the same way, and most would probably never stop to consider whether in some way, they might actually be among those who are being exploited... 

The other day, on my iGoogle home page (it doesn't matter whether you know what that is!), I was presented with a link to a story about secret key-logging software that has been discovered on millions of android phones. I have an android phone, was keen to learn more, clicked on the link, and read the article. At the end of the article were links to what appeared to be a number of video clips, including:

  • "Web cam hacker uses hot steam ploy to get nude pics"
  • "British firm advertises for naked female web coders"

I admit, my initial instinct was to click on the links, but I didn't. However - as the reader has probably surmised - these particular examples do not appear to involve willing female participation (although the second one might at some point) and are in fact another example of male exploitation of women. My point though, is that I am bombarded by this sort of stuff all the time - on the internet, on magazine racks and news stands, in papers and magazines, on the TV as I am flicking through channels. If my moral stance is that women shouldn't be treated as sex objects, and yet I click that link, or sit and watch that channel for a few minutes, or even - if I am feeling particularly lonely and vulnerable - buy and take home that magazine, am I a willing participant in the male exploitation of women, or am I perhaps - to some small extent at least - the one who is being exploited?

The further I go down that path, the more it will affect my attitude towards women, particularly with regard to sex. I will perhaps start to judge women primarily on how they look - as if their main purpose in life is to provide me with "eye candy". I will begin to think that sexual stimulation is my right, that it should be available on demand, and that women are there to satisfy my needs and desires. I will start to see women primarily as agents of sexual gratification. In other words, to some extent they will become in my eyes, a little less human. The commercialisation of sex spreads and promotes this message. Surely therefore, any woman who participates in this - willingly and without pressure - becomes an equal if not primary accomplice in crime?

I remember many years ago talking to a friend at work who had recently started dating a stripper. At the time, this was a difficult thing for me to get my head round (actually it still is), and I asked him how he felt - and how his girlfriend felt - about her providing sexual entertainment to strangers. He answered that it didn't bother her, because as far as she was concerned - and based on how they responded to her - the men she danced for were no more than animals, she didn't even really see them as human. This also seemed to be enough to satisfy him and to allay any jealousy he might otherwise have felt. On one level of course, she was right - those men were behaving like animals - but the question that ought to have been asked was, who was encouraging them to behave that way?

We are creatures of base desires and these desires can be exploited. They can arouse powerful feelings of attachment, resulting in deep intimacy with the women we love, or they can provide cheap thrills that distort our characters and our relationships with the opposite sex. Many men feel happy to be exploited in this way, not realising the damage that is being done, but those women who encourage it are doing a huge disservice to us all and it is all of us - men and women - who suffer.