There is no universal interpretation of this

There is no universal interpretation of this

Coming off of a mildly catastrophic discussion of Trump and racism at Crooked Timber, I thought I’d use some of my holiday time to make a first pass at organizing some opinions I have been forming about sexism, misogyny and the pernicious influence of Christianity on western discrimination. I’ll try not to make it too long but I have today off and a long, complex write-up of the weekend’s adventure to procrastinate about, so we’ll see …

First I should say this post is aimed at left wing philosophy. If you’re a right-wing philosopher you might find it entertaining but I doubt there is much to benefit you here, so you might want to save yourself an hour of bad prose and move along …

There is a common debate in western leftism between people who think that various forms of discrimination (most especially sexism and racism) arise out of economic relations, and those who think that economic relations arise out of the inherent structures of some underlying fundamental inequality. For example, some feminists might argue that human development goes through a universal stage of domination of women, and from this arises the various heirarchical structures that give us racism, classism etc. Others might argue that the economic relations always come first, and that for example the economic forces unleashed by the development of agriculture favor the development of specific social forces (e.g forcing women to have more children in order to support population growth made possible by agriculture, or slavery to enable use of more land). Obviously most people see these things as interlinked or happening contemporaneously, and no one is ever silly enough to think that this stuff was all purposive (a group of farming men getting together and deciding to lock up their women, or whatever).

These origin stories don’t have much importance in day-to-day struggle, but they do and have been influential in major political movements in the past. For example, most of the streams of communist or anarchist radicalism believe that the economic forces of capitalism necessitate class and gender divisions and we can’t eliminate gender discrimination without destroying capitalism; but in contrast radical feminists often believe that you can’t reformulate the social organization of any system without first tackling the underlying gender discrimination that sustains all heirarchies. Obviously on a day-to-day basis we fight battles on the basis of the nature of the battles, so if an issue of equal pay is best won by union activism we organize that way, while if it requires a fundamental rethink of the way women and men interact at work we may fight it through education and awareness raising. But sometimes something big comes up in the ordinary day-to-day political hurdy-gurdy, and in order to deal with it we have to think about the underlying structures of society and what really drives our mainstream political ideas. Brexit and Trump are examples of this, and in many ways I think the radical left has failed to understand them by casting them as simple economic responses rather than manifestations of a deep underlying racism in these societies. In the case of Brexit there is a yearning for lost empire underlying the dreams of the little Englanders, and in the case of Trump I think we are seeing the final fight against the civil rights movement and, assuming the left wins, the burial of slavery apologia and confederate dead-ender ideology.

I used to think about the social order primarily in terms of the economic forces argument: that is, I used to think that when racist and sexist undercurrents reared their head in mainstream politics or pushed a surge of hatred through society, that they reflected some kneejerk, incoherent response to underlying economic forces. In this worldview we don’t have to tackle the deeper undercurrents of society’s problems, we just look for the economic pressures and fix them. Fixing economic pressures is easy, whereas tackling things like the social undercurrents of the alt-right’s hideous misogyny is hard. But then I came to Japan, and discovered that actually a functioning capitalist society with all the same economic pressures can have radically different approaches to the interaction between the sexes, and I started to understand that actually in many cases culture trumps economics, and understanding the cultural forces driving our social development is really important to being able to finally end many of the problems we face. I don’t know how a right-wing interpretation of these things would work, but the classical hard left really needs to adapt its analytical strategies to consider the deep undercurrents of social life. Similarly, when I came to Japan I realized that origin stories or analytical frameworks that posit universal underlying structures based on universally observable basic facts are useless, because actually there are huge differences in the way societies practice the same forms of discrimination, and these differences are relevant. In particular, radical feminist ideas about the origins of sexism and how sexism functions and is maintained fail dismally in the face of cultural differences that I think radical feminism, with its primarily American and British origins, doesn’t understand.

In this post I aim to discuss how I changed my mind about this in the light of Japanese gender relations, and how I came to realize the overwhelming importance of christianity’s sexual morals in generating western gender relations. As a result of coming to Japan I realized that if we want to change gender relations for the better in the west we need to – absolutely have to – crush the influence of Christianity on our culture. So first I want to explain the difference between the west and Japan on this issue, and then explain why I think it’s important.

Before I go onto the next section I want to stress that it is not my task here to present Japan as an ideal society or to say it is not sexist or women don’t have a hard time or there is no rape or anything like that. I just want to show how things are different.

How are Japanese gender relations different?

I think the very first thing that foreigners realize when they come to Japan is that it is safe. It’s safe for men, and every day I am so happy about the fact that physical confrontations don’t happen here, but the absolutely overriding difference in safety is noticed by women. There is no street harrassment and no public fear of rape. I live in an area surrounded by parks that are dark at night and it is absolutely normal to see women walking alone through those parks at midnight, with earphones in, alone, with no concern in the world. I know in the country that there are places where women don’t travel alone at night because of flashers and gropers, but in the city at least this absence of the threat of sexual violence is noteworthy. It’s not just a statistical anomaly brought about by underreporting or something, and everyone who lives here seems to feel it very quickly. And when come from a western country with a lot of interpersonal aggression and a lot of violence against women (like Australia) you really – I cannot stress this enough – you really don’t understand what a difference this makes until you experience it. Once you have experienced a world without this kind of behavior you just lose all tolerance for western approaches to it. When I look at the lockout laws being introduced in Australia to stop violence between drunk men in pubs I am just astounded that we ever as a society tolerated this kind of thing, or that we have to use such a ridiculously heavy-handed approach to stopping it – and I notice exactly the kind of problem I alluded to above. The lockout laws are an attempt to use economic and legal tools to stop an underlying socio-cultural problem. Tackling adult male violence is hard, but stopping them from getting drunk in public is easy. But these solutions don’t stop the problem, they just stop it manifesting.

Some other easily-grasped ways in which gender relations are different in Japan include:

  • There isn’t really any Japanese word for “cunt” that you can use as an insult, and in fact there are no insults based on sexual activity or sexuality. In Japan you don’t tell someone to fuck off, you don’t say they’re a fag, you don’t say that was a dick move – sex is just not a degrading or insulting thing here, and you can’t use it as such, and if you tried people just literally wouldn’t understand what you were saying (though they would think you were being very coarse)
  • As a result of this difference, two chapters of Dworkin’s famous book Intercourse – Dirt and Death – don’t really seem to apply in Japan. A whole section of the radical feminist understanding of the universality of women’s oppression is built on an explicitly christian framework that 120 million people don’t get
  • Japanese women seem to have a much greater ability to negotiate safer sex than western women. Obviously I don’t know what every Japanese woman is saying or doing in the bedroom but the statistics make it clear: the vast majority of Japanese women are not using the pill, but rates of teenage pregnancy are very very low, as are rates of pregnancy generally. The only way this is possible if Japanese women – even teenage girls – are able to negotiate the parameters of sexual activity more effectively than western women
  • Japanese attitudes towards casual sex are completely different to the west. The love hotel is a ubiquitous part of Japanese life and while westerners usually think this concept is disgusting and weird Japanese people in general have no real problem with it at all.
  • Japanese women often work in industries where western women can never be seen. In particular farming, transport, and even construction seem to have a higher prevalence of women workers. It’s not common, but not especially rare, to see female truck drivers, and female farmers are normal.
  • Japanese women’s sporting participation seems to be much higher than western women’s and much more widely respected, across a wider range of fields. In particular Japanese women’s participation in fighting sports – and non-participant women’s deep appreciation of fighting sports – is completely normal, while it remains a very modern phenomenon in the west
  • Attitudes towards sex work and all forms of the sex industry here are much more practical and non-judgmental
  • Small businesses almost universally don’t have men’s toilets. They have a women’s toilet and a shared toilet
  • Opposition to homosexuality appears to be minimal and based primarily on concerns about responsibility to family and society, not on fear and disgust

I think these differences in attitude are strong and they derive from an obvious source: Japan is a pagan society. It has no long-standing or deep-seated religious just-so stories about how everything is women’s fault and women are dirty and bad, and sex is a punishment from God. Attitudes towards sex in Japan are constructed around privacy and shame, whereas in the west they’re structured around guilt and sin. Indeed, if you dig into some of the attitudes towards sex that are similar between Japan and the west – the lack of mixed bathing, for example, or the weird video censorship – you will often find they’re a result of Japan reacting to western values either post-Meiji or after world war 2.

Another result of this difference in attitudes that I have noticed but which I can’t formulate easily into words is the difference in attitudes towards femininity. In the west femininity seems to be seen as this kind of act that women put on in their early 20s, and it is seen as a deceptive and manipulative cloak. To be taken seriously at work or as an adult a woman needs to divest herself of this feminine cloak (or, as it is generally described, these “wiles”) and behave seriously – it is seen as a kind of childlike deceit. In Japan it seems to be viewed as just a natural aspect of being a woman, not a deceptive trick, and women remaining feminine into their 50s and 60s is completely normal. I think this also means that women are not taken less seriously because they dress and act feminine, although this femininity may disadvantage them by drawing attention to their gender (which, as everyone knows, is discriminated against at work and home in Japan as everywhere). I think this difference in attitudes towards femininity explains why Japanese women have maintained a high level of style and attention to personal appearance separate to men even as women in the west have begun to favour jeans and t-shirts – Japanese women don’t need to hide or be ashamed of their femininity, because they don’t have to dress in men’s uniform to be taken seriously. This is also evident in sport, where Japanese athletes who are taken really seriously by the public (the Nadeshiko football team, for example, or the wrestling team) still dress and act feminine because they don’t have to hide this stuff in order to be taken seriously. It’s hard to draw these links because it’s all nebulous cultural stuff, not hard science, but I think the simple reason for this difference is the Genesis story. In Genesis a woman tricked a man into a sin, and as a result women can’t be trusted. Christianity tells us that performative femininity is a deception that leads men into trouble and danger – it’s literally wily. After 2000 years of that story (and all the stupid badly-done renaissance paintings of a wily girl tricking a dude) we get young men who know nothing about Christianity or feminism or indeed women saying that they can’t trust a girl who wears make up, they don’t like make up because it’s deceptive, etc. There’s a 2000 year long history of distrusting women’s wiles and tricks at work there, and I think it has a profound effect on the way women in the west present themselves at work and in politics.

I suspect also that in reaction to this notion of femininity as performative and deceptive, and out of deep-seated fears of homsexuality that are also grounded in biblical hatred, men overperform their masculinity. The result is street violence. I think in fact Japanese men are much more comfortable about their masculinity and feel no special need to display it, not because women have been held back and men thus don’t feel threatened, but because they haven’t been raised in a society where men have to constantly prove themselves as not feminine and not gay.

What does this mean for western views on sexism and racism?

Obviously I’m no cultural theorist and I’m definitely not an expert on Japanese culture and history; this is just my impression of the differences between the west and Japan from 10 years of living here. Obviously also these lines between ancient books and modern practice are mediated by thousands of years of cultural baggage, and there are other cultures at play in western countries that may still have a lingering influence on how sexism and racism develop. But I think the connections are there, and that even though we in the west like to fancy ourselves as enlightened and developed, we’re actually still wallowing in a swamp of barely-understood cultural norms that derive from what is, in essence, a very very bad place. When you step outside the christian world and spend some time looking in, you start to notice that actually a lot of our bad points are not universal, and I think they probably stem from our religious origins. Here I have given the example of gender relations but I think the same thing applies to race relations and probably the way we approach class, economic inequality and other -isms. But I think that the differences in gender relations are clearest because they are most noticable in day-to-day life, and perhaps also reflective of the most poisonous aspect of Christianity.

I have said before on this blog that I think western radical feminism is itself misogynist and conservative. This is because it’s really hard to escape the origins of your own culture, and the reality is that our culture has its origins in a deeply misogynist, poisonous text that is hateful and judgmental – the old testament of the bible. And while modern Christians try to pretend that they built their ideology on the new testament’s story of love, this new testament story is an evil story of child murder, with a side of nasty misogyny from some of the apostles, and it doesn’t do anything to leaven the nasty hatred of the old testament. Furthermore, while our modern Christian movement tries to pretend that it is all about love and light (and murdering your own son so you can be famous, then fetishizing his dead body), the actual origins of our cultural approach to sex and sexuality are all in the old testament, in the disgusting, judgmental and hateful texts of Genesis and Leviticus. Our fundamental origin story is designed around hating women, and making sex sinful and dirty. Much as we like to pretend that we’re free of religion, we’re not free of its cultural influences, but we need to be if we truly want to liberate women and men from the shackles it has imposed on our relations. But my experience in Japan shows that these ideas are not universal, they’re not fundamental parts of who we are as human beings or who we will become if we try – we can shake off these ancient rusty chains, and become better people. But in order to do that we need to confront the causes of some of our deepest, most secret problems, and for the left that means not assuming we can fix all our problems by fixing economic relations – we need to keep taking the fight to the bible, and to the deep-seated insecurities and social tics it has created in us.

And sometimes that means we need to recognize where our society is failing itself, and fight cultural battles on purely cultural grounds, because when we assume there is some economic force that created Trump or the modern Republican hate machine, we are guaranteed to fail. Sometimes hate is just hate, and sometimes we need to fight it on its own grounds.

About the picture: This is a picture a friend of mine took at a recent festival. It’s Seiko Omori, about whom I know nothing, and I think it’s a good example of the kind of Japanese cultural imagery that is a) really hard for westerners to understand at all and b) almost certain to be misunderstood and misinterpreted if we try to analyze all the imagery in terms of western notions of sex, sexism, women’s roles, pornography, or power.