The Home of Steven Barnes
Author, Teacher, Screenwriter

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Cultural and Personal Damage

I have to admit that I have some sympathy for the "prolonged detention" thingie. I mean...if you capture an enemy combatant, it isn't unusual for him to be held for the duration of the war. Otherwise, you'll see him on the battlefield again, and he'll kill some of your men. Well, to the degree that we're in a bit of a war here, if there is no nation-state to return someone to that we can trust to hold onto them, and no one to really make armistice with, that does pose a bit of a problem.


I remember watching "Once Were Warriors" about the collapse of the Maori culture after colonization. What struck me was that the women were holding the families together, while the males were engaged in drunken, irresponsible, often violently self-destructive behavior. And I thought to myself: wow. These guys are acting just like blacks I've seen in the Inner Cities. And suddenly, I started thinking about stories of Chinese in British occupied Shanghai, Africans in British or German occupied Africa, Mexicans in Spanish occupied Mexico, Native Americans, Irish in Belfast.

What were the things I remembered hearing? Their women were sexually available to the conquerers. The men were criminal, alcoholic, violent, ignorant. Didn't take care of their families. Not all of these things were ascribed to all of these groups, but this was the general sweep. And if I come from a position that people are basically people, then a lot of the issues seem to be the result of natural cycles of social and interpersonal interaction interrupted by slavery, colonization, and conquest. The male destructive/creative impulse turns inward upon itself. Self-confidence and healthy aggression are replaced by self-loathing, fragile egos (propped up with meaningless sex, money at all costs, faceless violence) distort the reality map with alcohol and drugs, values scrambled. Trapped in a system in which the aggressor cannot be directly combated, and representatives of those aggressors can arrest and incarcerate you at will, watching your own children and women more attracted to the dominator than to you and your people...ghastly result.

Women? Begin to change their hair styles, makeup styles, dress styles to make themselves attractive to the dominator males. Plastic surgery requests for "round eye" operations skyrocketed in Japan after WW2. Hell, Jackie Chan's had the operation. He knows where the money is. They form fire-sale relationships with the dominator males, creating relationships in which skin color or national origin by themselves are important bargaining chips, seeking a better genetic/cultural future for their offspring.

Think of the spiral this creates. In every one of these cultures, females have less negative pressure than males (in certain contexts) because they are considered less of a threat. Incarcerated less, hired more, subjected to different levels of brainwashing--designed not to destroy them but make them pliable and available. An interesting wuestion on this: while "other" males die or are rendered neuter in the entertainments of the dominator group, females are either available (if casting choices are purely male) or obese/old and sexless. Would this change if the directors/producers/casting agents are female as opposed to male? One would suspect so. Women would tend to want to decrease the competitive advantages of "Other" females, as males would want to decrease the advantages of "Other" males.

This would take more research than I've currently done, but the question is tantalizing.


Culturally, I'm very clear on the way the stats on survival and sexuality run in film. And just as convinced that the Hollywood types who make these decisions are actually MORE racially open than the average white males of their education and income across the country. A scarey concept, but I stick to it based on 57 years of travel across the country, and 30 years of working in the industry. A terrible thought. Deal with it.

But what I'm actually interested in are two notes from students. Both are women, both dealing with deep-seated issues of self-love and self-deservement. One is new to me, but said that she "doesn't know what self-love looks like." The other was terribly abused in childhood by adults her mother trusted to protect her.

This is just ghastly. It is clear to me that cultures raised in relative isolation will develop in patterns that produce stable families and children who accept the values of their grandparents. When those cultures come into competition they change as the must to survive and thrive...usually slowly.

But when cultures encounter cultures that come from a thousand miles away, there are seriously disruptive differences. If the new culture is aggressive or violent, that adjustment must be rapid. If the aggressive culture was part of the Road of Silk, on the land-sea trade routes along which information spread like a virus, then it had a huge advantage over those moving more slowly. And the result enabled them to not merely dominate the less-developed (from a technological standpoint) culture, but also to play the standard "we rule, you drool" game primates love: we're better than you. Closer to God than you. Look how your men quake, and your women fall at our feet. We must be divine."

Variants of this can be found in every colonized culture I've seen or heard of. Human beings as individuals play variations on this. Children dominated physically or sexually go into submission postures (often sexual) or self-destructive behavior (trashing themselves, their families, "their" women (not in a possessive sense, except in the same sense women would talk about "their" men.) "Using every fang and claw in the awfullest way you ever saw." If you don't love yourself, if that precious connection within has been sundered, then it is harder to connect with love at all. Love for your children, your spouse, your neighbors and community.

Of course, as you love yourself you become harder for others to manipulate and control, because you don't need their approval. You may WANT their approval, but not need it. There is an enormous difference.

Because I see no essential difference between racial or gender groups (other than things to do with testosterone and estrogen, and the production and/or protection of children and families) I look very carefully at disruptions. Violence, lack of responsibility, improper imprinting of basic social/survival rules on offspring, the channeling of basic reproductive/aggressive behaviors into patterns that allow proper nurturance of future generations.

Any culture that does NOT do this will be out-competed by those that do. To me, much of this relates to the health of individuals, and the psychic health of individuals is connected to their self-love. Their commitment to their childhood dreams, and the sense that they matter in the universe. If we don't matter, why try? If we don't hold ourselves as precious, what does that say about the judgement of any who might love us?

I hold individual women who have been raped or abused as responsible for healing themselves. Responsible for their relationships, and what they expose their children to. I hold women who have been damaged or abused to be responsible for healing themselves. But they are also responsible for their relationships, sexuality, and the care of any children they make. And I have no respect for men or women who suggest that the health and care of their children are not their responsibility--unless they have almost literally worked themselves to death, and have nothing left at all. But that's not what I see.

Whether the damage is done by rape, incarceration, economic disaster, neglect, abuse, or colonization, the individual is still responsible. Why? Because there is no one else. If you don't pick yourself up, you will die in the desert. If you don't swim, you will drown. I didn't decide that life was like that: I'm just responding to what seems to be true.

The difficult thing is to understand that we are all programmed by our genetics, our families, our cultures. That every one of us is doing the best we can, given the resources we have. And that we have to have a balance of understanding how we were harmed...and understanding how we were blessed. Often by the exact same social forces. This is how I can love my country absolutely...and accept that it damaged me and my racial group horribly. How I can love my mother without deifying her. When I see someone sprawled in the gutter in the street, I try to think of the child they once were. Where did the hopes and dreams go? What mistakes (which all children make) were amplified by a damaged family or an unforgiving culture? If I don't take the position that where we end in life is determined primarily by our innate capacity, then what the hell programmed these people, and what kind of intervention might have made a difference?

Of course, I have respect for people who take the opposite view: that our status in life is the primary indicator of our innate capacity. I've merely noticed that most with that point of view are breaking their arms patting themselves on the back: they are in the upper 10%, and want desperately to believe that they are there because of their spiritual essence. They are doing well because God made them well, and loves them better.

I see the connection between social groups and individuals , in terms of health and manifestation. When Steve Muhammad joins a group that celebrates black people, and encourages more love and community within that group than between racial groups, this is a simple reaction to 400 years of history: makes perfect sense, even if I personally have chosen another way. I get it. Just like I "get" women who have been abused having negative attitudes about men. Or Americans who have been attacked on 9/11 having a negative attitude toward Arabs or Muslims.

I just think that all of that "Us-Themism" is useful in a raw survival context, and useless for emotional and spiritual growth. Of course, if you don't survive, you don't grow, so it's also obvious why these emotions are so powerful: survival trumps damned near everything.

But with enough love, you can flow through these things. I personally had no support for myself as black, as male, as an American, as almost a child. And was forced to go through all of those ego-shields to find some bedrock. Mine was in my sense of existing. From there it was simply being a living thing. Then a spiritual being. Then a human being. And then an intellectual being. Then (probably) a Male human being. Nationality and race follow up. But I don't deceive myself that others share my priorities, and I won't let myself get seduced into "Us-Themism" without a fight.

And I can't help but hold onto my belief that love is the answer for all of this. Especially the kind of self-love that is as fiercely protective of your heart and dreams as you would be for the life of your own most beloved child. No compromise on the safety of our children, but an understanding that long-term safety means being at peace with those around us.

And that while we think our children are the most beautiful and precious in the world...everyone else thinks that as well. We have to get the joke, or the joke's on us. We are just as worthy of love and joy as anyone else. As perfect as anything else in the universe, as sacred as the stars.

And yet, to make our way in the world, we also have to play games of "this versus that." "A" is higher in the hierarchy than "B." We have to, or insecticide is as good as mother's milk.


Christian M. Howell said...

All of that is perhaps true, especially the part about PERSONAL RESPONSIBILITY. You are not the only abused, tortured, incriminated person and as long as people refuse to grow as the DOMINANT SPECIES this will continue.

I spend my whole life not apologizing to or apologizing for anyone. We all have the responsibility because we all live together. That means you don't turn away from a whole "culture" and abandon it to degradation and under-achievement.

I personally am only concerned about women's issues though because they are the "weaker" sex physically for the most part. Women are turned into objects, not men.

If you won't fight for them you don't deserve to live. That means supporting them to be President if they want. But not just one, but raising them with the gift of equality.

I've found that my devout nature (read: wouldn't tell my grandmother I did that) has served me well as I have been able to move pretty well through society. More people should be worried about what their grandmother would say.

Pagan Topologist said...

Christian, it seems to me that styles of dress change and that there are no absolute values here. An ancient Roman transported to NYC would likely be distressed that no one is wearing a toga, and would suspect therefore draw conclusions similar to the ones you draw about people's dress, vis-a-vis their not wearing jacket and tie and well-pressed shirt. For myself, when I see someone in a suit, I get my guard up; they are probably trying to sell me something I do not want or need, or trying to get me to adopt an over-priced textbook for a class I teach.

I often disagree with you, but I generally find your insights thought provoking, challenging, and even useful.

Anonymous said...

While “Sag and Bag” denotes failure in mainstream society, and often breed such among its devotees, I don't think those who sport this style purposely do so TO FAIL. Practically nobody consciously aspires to failure. To my understanding, sagging pants originated in prison, where belts and other clothing straps are banned since they're readily subverted into weapons or suicide aids. Their adoption and glamorization by "mainstream" ghetto and barrio culture presumably owes itself to three things.
1. The "prestige" enjoyed in the Hood by the originators of Sag and Bag, ex-cons, i.e. fathers, brothers, elders and other male authority figures. Already admired as masculine role models, their status is elevated by having confronted violence and temporarily triumphed over violence on the streets and behind bars. And the Sag and Bag of the pen is elevated to badges of manhood and warrior status alongside the toga virilis (Roman manhood garb), war paint or circumcised penises (the Mandika of Kunka Kinte fame). Conversely, perversely, and drearily predictably, the clothes assist in enshrining incarceration and lawlessness as coveted Rites of Manhood.
2. Adopting Sag and Bag is often a conscious act of defiance and retaliation, nee WAR, against a racist culture often seemingly bent on the annihilation of People of Color. What’s more natural than to glorify and personify the antithesis of the Oppressor? The “Man’s” uniform’s the-piece tailored suit and other comely garb, so the “Brothas” and “Hombres” wear ripped jeans.
3. In all cultures and subcultures, a sizable percentage of nonreflecting individuals mindlessly follow the Herd, aping its dress, speech, mannerisms and values, whatever their content, equating status with conformity. The dynamic’s no different in the Hood. Reflective “Hood-Rats” may strut their tatters to defy “the System”; the vast majority simply dress “Hip”.


Shady_Grady said...

I can't agree with preventive or prolonged detention. I do not hold with that. I don't think that's what the country or the constitution is about. Arresting people but not charging them and holding them forever but not giving them a chance at trial? No way.

Danielle said...

Thanks for this article, pretty helpful piece of writing.