On Branding Others
When we isolate the problems of sexual assault (or other apparent moral deficiency) to particular men, we risk missing the forest for the trees. Things would be different if our social systems and daily lives were based on consent, compassion and cooperation. In other words, if we were living natural human lives where we recognise that everyone is equally worthy of love, including ourselves. We know humans are capable of this from numerous historical and contemporary examples of vibrant egalitarian cultures. And if you’re not familiar with these, you might simply ask yourself – ‘Do I believe in love?’
The lack of consent (or, to use Edward Herman & Noam Chomksy’s term, ‘the manufacture of consent’) in our current systems is a serious problem, not just for women. It’s damaging to all life. This inhibition of real love in our society is damaging our whole planet.
This isn’t to suggest that individual men are incapable of taking response-ability for their actions. It’s simply to note that it’s perhaps not surprising that so many people find it hard to be clear about consent and to honour it. Consent is perhaps not an art which we practice as much as we could.
In Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel, The Scarlet Letter, American puritans forced a young woman who was said to have committed adultery to wear a scarlet letter ‘A’ on her dress and stand before the community, branded as a fallen woman. Now, if women weren’t put on a pedestal of expectation, we wouldn’t be imagining that they could fall. The same, of course, goes for men and people of other genders.
When we put someone on a pedestal, we’re putting ourselves down in a way. We might imagine, consciously or unconsciously, that there really is a class of people who are ‘the great and good’ and that we must somehow be outside that (and potentially resent it). This isn’t to say there aren’t some people who might inspire us in some ways. It’s great to admire and appreciate the inspiring qualities of others. And it’s good to remember that they are human, too, and that we also all have wonderful qualities. We might just find it hard to see them sometimes.
It seems to me the habit of putting others above or below ourselves, or our putting ourselves above or below others, is intimately connected with the lack of consent (i.e. the lack of love) in so many of our institutions and daily encounters. When we create an imagined hierarchy – some people are more or less valued than others – then we are treating others (and ourselves) as objects. Whether we make them (or ourselves) into objects of admiration, objects of abjection or derision, or objects to use for our profit and pleasure, it’s the same process.
Perhaps this is why Yeshua (the indigenous Aramaic name of Jesus) mentioned that judging others is inseparable from being judged. Not because the Divine is some judgemental old git in the sky, but because when we are judging others, we are judging ourselves at the same time. When we are judging, we are not loving. And loving is the key, he and others tell us, to experiencing heaven on earth.
What if we all stood with our feet firmly on the ground, seeing everyone as fundamentally equal, including ourselves? What if we loved ourselves fully, just as we are, with all our imperfections?
If we do wish to relate freely as equals with others, in a deeply consensual and mutually respectful manner, then we might want to practice that in all our relationships – including our relationships with ourselves and the whole of the natural world (including all humans) and even with objects. What kind of communities would we experience if we honoured everyone we met? What kind of world might we have if we see how much work goes into creating every item we rely on for daily life? What kind of economy would we have if we respected everyone who helped that item come to us as well as the object itself?
Real respect, it seems to me, includes compassion for those who are suffering the effects of inequality and objectification. That compassion might even run so deeply that it no longer divides the world into victims and perpetrators. As studies in prison tell us, a very large proportion of those who are incarcerated experienced severe childhood trauma. And the class of people whose criminal activities are largely unpunished are often sent to boarding school which is another source of childhood trauma. Furthermore, we know that those who harm others (physically, emotionally or morally) are also traumatised themselves by the experience. Trauma response inhibits our capacity to either give or receive consent.
Shifting from a non-consensual culture to one of consent, compassion and cooperation depends on transformation at all levels – psychological, economic, political, ecological and spiritual. The question is, are we willing to begin (or continue) making changes in our own lives, our own relationships? Are we open to receiving the benefits of healing?
We don’t have to wait for a ‘them’ to sort things out. There is a ‘we’ already here, just waiting to come together in deeper cooperation. Cooperation is always here, ‘like seeds beneath the snow’ to borrow Colin Ward’s phrase. The warmth of our hearts can melt that snow, letting flowers bloom for the benefit of all, including ourselves.
Vishwam is part of the teaching team for an online course exploring these issues further entitled ‘Heart of the Matter.’ It starts this Sunday afternoon if you would like to connect with others who care about the world and want to really get to the heart of what our society needs to change. Proceeds from the course support projects including: ecological restoration work and an indigenous school in the Amazon, empowering a village in Sri Lanka recovering from the trauma of religious civil war, providing free educational support to the disenfranchised children in Rishikesh and many more. Vishwam also works 1:1 with people who want to heal.