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Patriarchy, feminism and principled insubordination

“Sometimes progress happens by happy accident, but more often a courageous person defies social norms…. More often than not, dissent yields progress. Outlaw dissent and you slow the speed of cultural evolution….”  Todd B. Kashdan

“Women’s rights are a part of human rights.” Pauli Murray

“… human rights are women’s rights and women’s rights are human rights once and for all.”  Hillary Clinton

“I hid by revealing, since that was the only way one could be saved through art” (Helen, or a Nobody / Rea Galanaki)

“I, too, deciding that morning in a foreign city to sit an exam as a man, possibly to live like this for a few years, gave birth to myself as a Nobody…” (Ελένη, ή ο Κανένας / Ρέα Γαλανάκη)

Part one

I have recently been re-engaging with a variety of material on how patriarchy has since antiquity, and is also, currently traumatizing and shaping women’s, children’s, and ultimately everyone’s reality, not to mention the natural environment across the globe. I have mostly been reading things, but by chance I came across a recent series on national television, with the title Dangerous (women) / Επικίνδυνες – ΕΡΤ2 (  I have put women in brackets because in Greek we have male, female and neutral articles and endings for nouns and adjectives; so we don’t necessarily need to add the noun after an adjective to know if it is referring to women or men, for instance. This is actually, as one of the interviewees mentioned, something we could take advantage of when speaking and writing in order to address patriarchy and sexism in our discourse. The show talks about gender inequalities and the position of women in Greece today. It gives the floor to different women of different ages and experiences from multiple paths and visibility to “invisible” women, and it also, gives space for difficult and unspeakable issues to be articulated. The thirteen episodes are an exploration of feminist issues across a wide range of human experience.

The show touches upon multiple aspects, raises many important questions and is informed by an intersectionality approach, all of which are necessary to raise awareness and awaken everyone to underlying inner and systemic realities and dynamics, and especially, to enable women and LBGTQ people to protect themselves and others and bring about changes in their own lives, their families’ and the world at large. It provides a good overview of issues to do with gender inequalities and oppression in all the basic areas of life. I began with the last episode on women and art, which addresses questions like: Why do not so many women artists come to mind? Is the resounding absence due to the multiple oppressions that women have suffered in history, or were there important artists, but they did not receive much publicity? In this final episode they talk about the centuries of invisibility of women artists, but also about how we can increase the visibility today, not only of contemporary artists, but also of those who have passed and deserve to be remembered.

In this episode there is reference to the Greek female artist Eleni Bakoura Altamoura (1821-1900), who supported by her father, disguised herself in men’s clothes in order to be able to sit exams and study art in Italy. Rea Galanaki, a Greek writer, has written a novel based on the artist’s life with the title, Helen or a Nobody / Ελένη ή ο Κανένας.

Extract from the cover of the book:

“In her youth, Eleni Boukoura from the island of Spetses dressed as a man so that she could study painting in Italy, married the painter Francesco Saverio Altamura, gave birth to her (three) children (her son is the seascape painter Ioannis Altamoura), returned to Athens abandoned by her husband, where she worked as a painter. In her old age she lived for two decades alone and confined to the seaside house of Spetses, a decommissioned painter and a mourning mother, surrounded by whispers for magic and madness. The life of the first Greek painter, for which we do not yet have all the keys, was dramatic, provocative, with many upheavals and contradictions. The novel “Eleni or the Nobody” tries to approach the life and the myth of this existing, and always relevant Eleni, with its own keys.” (FROM THE PRESENTATION  ON THE BACK COVER OF THE BOOK)

Excerpt from Rea Galanaki’s book: The Masquerade

And as I am working on this post I am making my way through the rest of the episodes that touch upon defining patriarchy and the ways that it has intersected horizontally with every economic system from feudalism to capitalism; issues of how education should be more inclusive; inequity, sexism, language and discourse; mansplaining; the myths and realities of women’s friendships and the need for a culture of solidarity; the current political space and women, and the feminist movement; definition of gender and visibility for all genders and identities; taboos and misinformation around women’s sexuality; how the media can change the way violence against women is presented and victim blaming; the societal pressures that women experience in general, and more specifically, in their work environment in relation to motherhood; the higher rates of unemployment for women; women and poverty; sexism in the workplace and inequity in work pay and opportunities; the glass ceiling; every day harassment and sexism and how this shapes gender stereotypes and how to neutralize this; sexual harassment, abuse, control and domestic violence; the need to adopt an intersectionality approach; the need for women to awaken to the structures and theories that keep them disenfranchised and marginalised, and much more.

In parallel I’ve also been reading Todd B. Kashdan’s book: The Art of Insubordination, which I mentioned in the previous post, which in many ways is connected to the material above in relation to the current urgent need to create cracks in the status quo and bring about social changes. As Kashdan puts it, the book will interest people who understand the value of non-conformity and recognize that we desperately need free thinkers willing to disrupt unhelpful norms for the sake of progress, who believe that at least some elements of conventional wisdom and practice require improvement and who yearn to see more justice, freedom, humanity, community and financial stability in the world.

He urges people who might have an exceptional idea or who occupy an outsider position of any kind, to speak up without asking for permission from the powers that be. He encourages people to help change the world, but to be smart about it and do what Darwin did, for instance, who managed to remain safe while promoting and publishing his work and ideas through deploying specific strategies for selling his theories to mainstream audiences.  He ends his first chapter with three basic steps to achieve this. He suggests a) we be deliberate and disciplined and look for support and strategies that can get us where we need, b) we become aware of the difference between reckless and principled insubordination, which involves taking action from a place of authenticity with the aim to contribute to society, and c) not to take rebels for granted because principled rebellion has always been vital for improving society, and is part of what makes our life and the lives of those around us richer and more fulfilling.

Throughout history questioning orthodox beliefs can make you an outsider, a threat, or a heretic deserving of assault, torture and even death. Women, for instance, have the right to vote today, so we may forget that something that we take for granted and consider natural today had serious consequences for suffragettes, who were often sent to prison where they continued their protests by engaging in hunger strikes. Imagine what our life would be like if earlier scientists, astronomers, politicians, women activists, revolutionaries, artists, education reformers and others had never taken the risk to bring their work and ideas to light. Kashdan uses Charles Darwin to show how others before him with similar theories paid a steep price for their ideas and boldness, and how he was able to be more successful due to a variety of factors. Darwin’s predecessors paid the price that many, if not most, dissenters, deviants, revolutionaries and outliers pay for the sake of progress. For example, a thousand years before Darwin, in the year 860 Al-Jahiz was arrested and banished from his native land, while his patron was executed inside an iron maiden. Overall, it is hard to be different, to dissent, to deviate from traditional thinking. On the other hand, fitting in, offers a short-term respite from the turmoil of being the target of animosity and rejection. Kashdan says that if we’re suffering in an unjust system, sometimes all we want is a break from thinking about it, but ultimately sticking by the problematic system compromises our own and others’ well-being over the long term.

The book includes research findings and more recent work from social psychologists and others that have chronicled how powerful our tendency to conform is and why we struggle to muster the courage to buck convention. Kashdan writes: the aim is to disobey effectively, which requires we know one of our enemies, which is the human motivation to fit in, stick to the herd, accept conventional ideas and beliefs and as he says “go along to get along.” Various studies have found several reasons why we do this. One reason being that people blindly assume that the prevailing system or practice is better; especially, if it’s been around for a long time. Also, we tend to support the systems in which we function, even if those systems harm us. He refers to the theory of system justification, which suggests that people feel internally conflicted when the systems of which they’re a part treat them indifferently or oppressively, and they will rationalize and protect a social system that harms them. Disadvantaged people will often do just as much (or more) to affirm a system’s validity than those who occupy privileged positions within the same system. Kashdan writes: “Dr. Chuma Owuamalam at the University of Nottingham explained, rejecting an entire system is a big deal, a step that often goes too far even for the most disadvantaged people existing within it.” Doing so can invoke much greater uncertainty and threat, and so, people who are invested in their group identities and interests may choose to explore all options before considering the revolutionary role of system rejection. There seems to be a large body of research supporting system justification theory, which sheds light on our tendency to conform and uphold and support systems that oppress us because we feel reassured by the status quo familiarity. Kashdan writes: “Defending oppressive social arrangements makes sense if, as a member of a disadvantaged group, you feel psychologically vulnerable. It’s difficult to embrace an aspirational vision of the future when you’re coping with imminent dangers, when you find it impractical to escape a group…..”

Researchers have found that conformity doesn’t only intensify as we become more dependent on a system, but also, when we feel hopeful, we not only tolerate the existing system, but accept, defend, justify, and protect it. However, Kashdan claims that hoping for better days and persevering through hardships, buckling down, working harder, and hoping that the future will reward us, which is particularly pronounced in people from disadvantaged backgrounds, takes a physiological and psychological toll on people. In addition, when the group on which we depend on faces threat, there is the tendency to motivate our defensive reaction. Kashdan writes: “Our initial impulse is to protect what we care about, especially if the perpetrator of the attack is an outsider. Few elements are more effective at bringing people together than a common nemesis. We become upset at the outsider.” Leaders, for instance, know that people swept by patriotic fervor will easily forget that sometimes the system they are justifying might be the same as the one that has been harming them. Also, fitting in gives us a sense of belonging and safety, but sooner or later we realise that it is neither true nor safe belonging. Brene Brown suggests “Fitting in is about assessing a situation and becoming who you need to be to be accepted. Belonging, on the other hand, doesn’t require us to change who we are; it requires us to be who we are.”

A great part of the book focuses on how to go about dissenting and fighting for change in more effective ways, while becoming aware of the emotional dynamics that cause us to conform, even when we are oppressed and on the receiving end of injustices. It also focuses on why it’s an uphill battle to convince others to question outdated, undesirable norms and practices. I might return to the how to go about dissenting more effectively in the next post, but for the time being I would like to end this piece by making a brief reference to the chapter on how to raise children that feel inclined and empowered to dissent and take a stand on behalf of progress. Kashdan writes that science has revealed principles that parents and teachers can use to train youth to disagree, defy, and deviate from problematic norms and standards. In brief, we should lead or teach by example; foster a sense of empowerment and agency in our children and help them believe that they can make a difference in their own lives and in the lives of others. As parents and teachers we need to be responsive when children share explorations or future plans, help them regulate their emotions, and let them know that anxious thoughts and feelings are natural when trying new things and taking on challenges.

It is also important to help build their critical thinking skills. This is somewhat not encouraged in most mainstream educational systems, but I think it is now more important than ever considering that we are bombarded by information and disinformation. Kashdan writes: “Principled insubordination hinges on a person’s ability to sift through information at their disposal, filter out useful stuff from the bullshit, and convince others to accept the useful stuff as well. Youth must become comfortable asking questions and distinguishing between high and low quality data. They must make a habit of suspending judgment, slowing down their analytical process and letting critical analysis run its course.” Finally, we need to expose our children to various forms of courage and give them the language to describe their own bravery.

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